The top two men's finishers in last year's Mount Marathon, record-setter David Norris of Anchorage and runner-up Nick Elson of British Columbia, both will skip Tuesday's 90th running of the storied race up and down the peak overlooking Seward.
Norris said he'll sit out the Independence Day race to focus on his nordic ski training and quest to make the 2018 U.S. Olympic team, and to avoid potential injury. Norris, 26, who competes on the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center's elite team, said he suffered some knee irritation earlier this month, but is feeling better and doesn't want to risk compromising his progress.
"I'm doing really well right now and I want to keep going in that direction," Norris said. "I have to be kind of careful. If I did hurt myself, or do something to hurt my ski career, I'd probably beat myself up."
Elson, 33, this week notified race officials he'll take a pass on racing Mount Marathon after two consecutive strong finishes — he took second place last year and fifth as a rookie in 2015. Elson said he suffered an illness that slowed his recovery following a third-place finish two weeks ago in the 52-kilometer (32.3-mile) Broken Arrow Skyrace in California. That race featured 10,500 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Three of the top five men's finishers from 2016 won't return. Rickey Gates, 37, of Madison, Wisconsin, who finished fifth last year and has twice been runner-up, is currently on his TransAmericana run across the U.S.
Norris, who grew up in Fairbanks, blistered Mount Marathon in his debut last summer, clocking 41 minutes, 26 seconds, to slash 22 seconds off the 2015 standard of Spaniard Kilian Jornet. Jornet, who twice speed-summited Mount Everest, last week won the Mount Blanc Marathon in the Alps and is considered the world's best mountain runner, will not race in Seward this year.
Norris, Jornet, Gates and Elson, respectively, own four of the five fastest times in Mount Marathon history.
Norris' record run continued a recent string of record-wrecking. Bill Spencer's iconic 43:21 in 1981 stood for 32 years before the eight-time champion's mark was lowered three times in four years, plunging nearly two minutes to Norris' 41:26.
Three-time race champion Eric Strabel of Anchorage took down Spencer's record by 26 seconds in 2013 with his 42:55. Jornet in 2015 lopped 67 seconds off Strabel's mark with his 41:48. And Norris cut another 22 seconds off that last year with his 41:26.
Elson has been no slouch either. He debuted at Mount Marathon in 2015 with a fifth-place finish in 43:46, then backed that up last year with his runner-up in 43:06, the fifth-fastest time in race history.
Norris said his heart told him to run Mount Marathon this year, but his head — "the non-emotional side of me," he said — said otherwise as he approaches the most important ski season of his career.
"That was a really difficult decision," Norris said. "Even now, I think it's going to kill me on July 4th to see what happens in the race, see the results."
Norris said he won't watch the race live — "too painful," he said — and will likely spend the holiday with family in Fairbanks.
There is precedent for Olympic ski hopefuls to skip Mount Marathon, primarily because the high-speed descent of a slope that averages 34 degrees can invite injury. Holly Brooks, a two-time women's champion, and former champion Kikkan Randall, both of Anchorage, sat out the 2013 race as they prepared for the 2014 Sochi Games.
Mount Marathon is a spectacle often called a combination of the Super Bowl and Olympics of Alaska. Thousands of fans pack the small town on the shores of Resurrection Bay to cheer the roughly 1,000 men, women and youth who run in three separate races. Spectators line the road racers take to and from the mountain, and cram four-deep on Fourth Avenue to shower racers with applause on the finishing stretch.
The men's and women's races, televised live by KTVA (Channel 11) and GCI (cable Channel 1) have become so popular most rookie racers can only gain a coveted race bib through a lottery. Also, a limited number of bibs are auctioned the night before the race and often cost thousands of dollars — a runner paid $4,500 for a bib last year.
Mount Marathon winners become instant legends.
Said veteran racer Barney Griffith after Norris won: "He's gonna be a rock star forever."