Despite missing a powerful trio of high-profile former champions, this year's Mount Marathon women's race won't be short on star power.
In fact, if you ask the women who won't be there, the race could be one for the ages.
"I think this could be a record year," said Holly Brooks, the 2014 champion who is sitting out after completing a grueling international cross-country ski marathon season in Europe.
Along with Brooks (who also won in 2012), four-time Olympian and 2011 Mount Marathon champion Kikkan Randall is skipping this year's event. Randall, who hasn't entered since 2011, said she's sitting out the race again to focus on training for the World Cup nordic skiing season.
"Ski training is going really well, and I don't want to risk injury or losing training time," Randall wrote in an email.
Also out is race record holder and six-time champ Nancy Pease. Although Pease hasn't raced since 1995, the 53-year-old has been in peak condition this season, finishing second at the Government Peak Hill Climb and fifth in the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb on Bird Ridge. Like Randall, Pease said the treacherous descent off the mountain overlooking Resurrection Bay simply isn't worth the risk.
"The downhill is not very enjoyable for me," she said.
Pease didn't quite shut the door on a return to the mountain that helped make her an Alaska mountain running legend.
"Never say never," she said. "Maybe for my 70th birthday or something."
While those three won't be in attendance, the women who do plan to race in Seward are more than capable of setting the rocky course ablaze.
Among the top contenders will be 2013 winner and 2014 runner-up Christy Marvin of Palmer, and Najeeby Quinn of Anchorage, last year's third-place finisher. Quinn and Marvin have been the top Alaska mountain runners this season, with Quinn setting new course records at Government Peak and the Knoya Ridge race, and Marvin topping the field at Bird Ridge.
"I think we're both really excited about Mount Marathon," said Quinn, who said she often trains with Marvin.
Marvin agreed. She said this year's race could be one of the most exciting in Mount Marathon history.
"I think we have some of the top competition this year," she said.
Then there are the wild cards – Kenai's Allie Ostrander and Sweden's Emelie Forsberg – a pair of rapid rookies who are expected to present very real threats both to the established runners as well as Pease's 1990 race record of 50 minutes, 30 seconds. Even Pease said she thinks that mark could be in jeopardy.
"Records are made to be broken," she said.
Ostrander, 18, is a rising star in the cross-country running world who exploded onto the national stage this year as a senior at Kenai Central High, where she set state records in the 3,200- and 1,600-meter races and posted the nation's fastest 3,200-meter time among high school girls. Bound for Boise State in the fall, she's a six-time junior girls' champion who made history in 2014 by setting a new race record and becoming the first female to win the overall junior title.
"I don't think people outside the running circles understand how huge it is," said the 34-year-old Marvin, who was a prep phemon at Glennallen High in the late 1990s and won a pair of titles in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meters. "Allie Ostrander, everybody knows that she's an Alaskan phenomenon, but they don't know that she's also a national- and world-class phenomenon."
Although the junior race only goes halfway up the mountain, Ostrander's time to that point last year was nothing short of spectacular. She clocked 20:17 to the midway point, a time that would have put her 72 seconds ahead of Brooks' pace.
"I think she's going to be lethal after seeing her in the junior race last year," Brooks said. "She's a huge threat."
And Ostrander was no slouch coming down either, getting to the finish in 8:37 – an identical time to boys' race winner Michael Marshall.
Ostrander said her goal isn't to set any records, but to simply get a feel for what the next level of competition is all about.
"My first year I kinda just want to go and get a feel for it and see what I can do," she said.
Pease said she thinks her heir apparent will do just fine in her first senior race.
"Her talent level is very elite and obviously her concentration and her focus and competitive spirit are also elite," she said. "When she puts it all together she'll astound us."
Ostrander skipped a couple of prestigious track meets Outside this spring due to what she said was a minor hip injury. Rather than running, she said most of her training has consisted of cycling and cross-training.
"That's not necessarily to get me healed up for Mount Marathon, but to get healed up in general so I'm really fit going into my first college cross-country season," she said.
Forsberg, meanwhile, is a well-known commodity on the international mountain running and skiing circuits, with a number of prestigious international titles under her belt, including the 2013 and 2014 Skyrunning World Series ultra marathon titles. Despite that impressive pedigree, however, the 28-year-old doesn't consider herself a favorite since she's used to much longer races than the 3.5-mile "sprint" course up and down Mount Marathon.
"It's a really different race than I'm used to doing," Forsberg said last month via Skype from Chamonix, France, where she lives and trains with her boyfriend, mountain running superstar Kilian Jornet.
Still, Forsberg is no slouch on shorter races, and has placed in the top three at several top international vertical kilometer races (3,022 feet is approximately 914 meters), and Marvin said she's looking forward to seeing what the Swede can do in Seward.
"Emelie Forsberg is international quality so I have no idea how we will stack up against them but I am very excited to have that kind of competition here in Alaska," she said.
She said Forsberg's presence definitely lends a new element to the race.
"Even the big dogs want to come here and give it a try," she said.
Likewise, Quinn is looking forward to the challenge of having Forsberg and Ostrander join the lead pack.
"We're just trying to not get beat by the chick half our age and the professional," she said.
Forsberg said she's excited about Mount Marathon both for the competition as well as the festive atmosphere in Seward, one of the few places in the U.S. that draws a massive crowd for a mountain running event.
"It sounded so cool and like it was so amazing, the atmosphere there," she said. "I'm really excited for it because in U.S. it's not that common to have that many spectators."
Brooks said she expects Forsberg to be blown away by the welcome she receives in Seward.
"Emelie is walking into the Olympics of Alaska," she said.
Forsberg and Jornet arrived in Alaska on Sunday, and immediately headed for the hills. The couple hiked McHugh Peak on Monday with some local mountain runners before heading to Seward to check out Mount Marathon on Tuesday.
"I've always wanted to travel to Alaska, it just looks so amazing, all of it," she said.
Another factor to consider is this year's excellent training season in Alaska. A warm, dry spring has been a boon for runners, who have been able to get out on the trails since March.
"The combination of the conditions and those four girls could make for a very fast race," Brooks noted.
The two-time champion said she won't be in Seward for the race, instead opting for a pack rafting trip with her husband.
"I don't really want to be at a race I would love to be racing in and can't," she said.
But, she admitted, she might take a peek at the results online if she gets a chance.
"I'll be paying a ton of attention and if I can get updates and information I'm definitely hungry for that," she said.
Last year Brooks was the first to the top of the 3,022-foot peak, beating Quinn to the turnaround rock by 1:48, with Marvin another seven seconds behind. A monster downhiller, Marvin overtook Quinn on the return trip but couldn't quite catch Brooks, who edged the Palmer runner by two seconds to win in 52 minutes, 49 seconds. Quinn finished third in 56:17, Anchorage's Ann Spencer (57:14) was fourth and Seward's Allison Barnwell (57:50) finished fifth. In all, eight women broke the 1-hour mark in the 2014 race, with Taylor Ostrander (Allie's older sister) taking sixth in 58:17, followed by Eagle River's Lauren Fritz (59:17) and Seward's Aubrey Smith (59:41).
"It's going to be a star-studded field," Pease said.
Marvin clocked the fastest downhill time by more than a minute, descending the 3,022-foot mountain and completing the half-mile run to the finish line in 12:04 – a time bested by just six of the men's race competitors.
Brooks said she thinks the younger Ostrander, along with Marvin, Quinn and Forsberg, are the runners to beat.
"It's hard to even use the word favorite because there could be four favorites," she said.
With so much talent on the Alaska mountain running scene, Brooks said she expects the 2015 event to be a wide-open competition.
"It's a good thing I'm not a betting person because I think it's going to be really hard to look into a crystal ball this year," she said.
Reach Matt Tunseth at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.