Strabel defends Mount Marathon title - fall and all

Beth Bragg
Eric Strabel won the men's Mount Marathon race with a time of 44:46. July 4, 2014. Loren Holmes

SEWARD -- One way or another, Mount Marathon exacts a price from those who run the five-kilometer torture test held almost entirely on Seward's famous 3,022-foot peak.

For Jim Shine, who placed fifth in the men's race Friday, the price was $1,200. That's how much the Anchorage man paid for a race bib at a prerace auction that represents the last chance for runners to get into the race, which fills up almost as soon as entries open.

For Eric Strabel, the price was chunks of skin from his back and knee, sacrifices he made to the mountain before conquering it.

Ignoring suffocating heat and a mid-race somersault, Strabel defended his Mount Marathon title with a run that was nearly two minutes slower than his course-record run last year but fast enough to win by more than a minute.

Strabel, 32, finished in 44 minutes, 45 seconds to collect his third title in four years.

Matias Saari, the 2009 champion, finished a surprising second in 45:52, at age 43. Matt Novakovich, the 2012 champion, was third in 45:58, and San Francisco runner Rickey Gates, last year's runner-up, was fourth in 46:48.

Strabel made a trip to the first-aid tent next to the finish line to get a bloody knee bandaged. Left unbandaged was a bloody scrape on his back.

Both were souvenirs from a fall that happened during his descent.

"Coming off the mountain, you get so used to running on 60 to 70 percent grade that you forget what flat feels like," Strabel said. "I caught a toe and rolled out of it, but it took a nice chunk of skin."

Others suffered from the heat. Temperatures approached 70 degrees for the afternoon men's race, with hardly a hint of wind and mere wisps of clouds. When Strabel finished, he was greeted by fiancee Denali Foldager. "Water," he groaned, after giving her a sweaty hug.

"Considering the heat, I felt pretty good," he said after getting a drink.

About the only person not bothered by the heat was Saari, who said he was in eighth place midway up the mountain. He reeled in six of the guys ahead of him to vault into second place.

"I guess the heat agrees with me," Saari said. "For some reason I'm able to pull things together in the heat.

"I'm thrilled."

Novakovich was the first to reach the top of the mountain and was followed by Strabel, Saari and Gates, in that order.

Although Strabel has seen an improvement in his uphill times this summer, his strength is running downhill, so in a way his race was just starting.

He made up a gap of five to 10 seconds to catch Novakovich and claim the lead, but he said he never felt like the race was in hand. That's partly because of Gates, who nearly matched Strabel's downhill speed a year when both runners surpassed Bill Spencer's record of 43:21, set in 1981.

"I didn't know how far Rickey was behind," Strabel said. "I didn't count him out, so I had to keep doing the best I could on the way down. I heard some rocks or something moving behind me, but I wouldn't dare look behind me." To look behind would have been reckless, given his speed, the pitch of the mountain and the ruggedness of the terrain.

Last year, Strabel made the trip from the top of Mount Marathon to the finish line in 10 minutes flat -- the fastest descent since such times have been recorded. Split times weren't immediately available Friday, but his downhill was likely in the 10- to 11-minute range.

"It was my hardest downhill in terms of keeping focus," he said. "It was just a max effort. Last year I had so much adrenaline going it was almost like I was unconscious but this year I felt every step."

The other reason why Strabel never felt confident he would defend his title? He had watched the finish of the women's race earlier in the day, when a physically drained Holly Brooks barely held on to beat Christy Marvin, who made up two minutes on Brooks on the descent and was gaining on her rapidly in the final few hundred meters. Foldager finished 12th in that race.

"It meant a lot for me to be (at the finish line) for Denali's race, and I wish I had only looked at Denali," Strabel said. "I was looking at the way Holly finished, and I regretted watching that. For the next two hours, I was really dreading what it was going to be like."

Saari earned his runner-up finish by running conservatively halfway up the mountain -- he said he was in eighth place at the mountain's midpoint -- and picking it up from there.

"By the top I had found a rhythm and I had gotten up to third (place)," he said. He honed in on the frontrunners, catching Shine and Gates close to the top and Novakovich on the descent.

"It's really empowering when you're picking guys off," he said, although once he moved into second place, he knew catching Strabel would require a supreme effort.

"Eric's the best downhiller in Alaska, if not the best in the world. You try to keep hope, but mostly you try to keep positive."

Gates, who has an impressive resume that includes victories in mountain and trail runs all over the world, said he didn't get the result he wanted. "But it was a lot of fun," he said.

A pair of Mount Marathon's ageless wonders once again impressed. Barney Griffith placed 15th at age 56, easily breaking the one-hour barrier in 52:06. And Fred Moore, 74, ran his age, finishing in 1:14:19 in his 45th consecutive race.

Moore said his streak of consecutive finishes nearly ended several years ago when his back went out two days before the race, "but enough pills and enough brandy got me through it."