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It’s time for Mount Marathon, where the chatter this year is about smoke and streaks

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: July 3
  • Published July 3

Eric Strabel, visiting challenger Rickey Gates and Wylie Mangelsdorf ascend the mountain in their eventual order of finish in the men's Mount Marathon race Thursday, July 4, 2013 in Seward. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

Smoke and streaks are the theme for Thursday’s Mount Marathon.

Race officials say the annual Fourth of July race in Seward will go on despite smoke from the Swan Lake wildfire. They’ve taken the unprecedented step of allowing runners to opt out of this year’s race and defer their entry to next year — a big deal in a race where a lottery and an auction help determine who gets a coveted race bib.

Depending on air quality levels, the 9 a.m. junior race could be canceled, according to the Seward Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the race.

A decision will be made before 8 a.m. Thursday and will be announced via the public-address system in downtown Seward as well as on the race website and at race headquarters, according to race organizers.

If it is canceled, it would be the first cancellation since the junior race began in 1964.

The senior race, first held in 1915, hasn’t been cancelled since 1942, during World War II.

Some runners are waiting to see how the air quality is Thursday before they decide whether to race. Seward’s Fred Moore isn’t one of them.

Moore, 79, has finished 49 straight races and plans to race No. 50 no matter what, according to Kat Sorensen, one of his training partners.

“I asked him what he thought about the opt-out option,” Sorensen said by email, “and he said, ‘Even if they canceled the race, I know exactly where I’ll be at 2 p.m. on the Fourth, and I’m sure there would be a few people right next to me.’ ’’

Moore’s right. One year when the Crow Pass Crossing wilderness marathon race was canceled, a number of runners did the race anyway — unofficially, of course.

Moore is one of two people who have done Mount Marathon more than 40 times. Palmer’s Braun Kopsack is the other, and his streak is due to hit 42 this year. His streak isn’t consecutive though — he skipped the 1983 race. Lance Kopsack, Braun’s brother, has run 35 races, all of them consecutively.

No women have done the race 40 times, although Ellyn Brown of Anchorage and Patty Foldager of Seward will both hit 37 if they run this year. The only other women with 30 or more races is Anchorage’s Liz Butera, who ran her 30th in 2014, skipped the next three races and ran No. 31 last year.

Nine men have done the race 30 or more times, and five more are poised to join the list this year — three-time champion Marten Martensen, Barney Griffith, Darin Marin, Brian Stoecker and Bill Wamsganz.

Griffith is an age-group marvel. He set the 60-69 age-group record in his division debut last year, finishing in 53 minutes, 34 seconds to take nearly six minutes off Thomas Coolidge’s 2013 record of 59:14. In 2012, Griffith lowered his own record in the 50-59 age group, running to 48:09 to break the record of 48:23 he set in 2008.

One of the streaks heading into Thursday’s race is a different kind of streak.

With defending champion Jessica Yeaton of Anchorage expected to sit out because of injuries, the streak of no-repeat winners in the women’s race will stretch to nine years.

In the last eight years, six women have won titles, none of them consecutively.

That’s a big change from what had been the norm in the years when Anchorage’s Nina Kemppel and Seward’s Cedar Bourgeois owned Mount Marathon.

Kemppel, a four-time Olympic cross-country skier, claimed a record nine victories — the most by a man or a woman — including eight in a row from 1996-2003. As soon as Kemppel’s streak ended Bourgeois began hers, winning seven straight from 2004-10.

The men’s streak for consecutive wins belongs to Sven Johanson, a looming figure in Anchorage’s cross-country skiing scene back in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, and the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorages stages an annual race named after him.

From 1954 to 1959, he won six straight Mount Marathons, with his personal-best a 50:48 in 1959. Next on the list of most consecutive men’s victories is Seward’s Ralph Hatch, who won five straight from 1946-50.

Johnson, Hatch and Brad Precosky of Anchorage each won six races. Anchorage’s Bill Spencer has the most men’s victories with eight — and he still owns the junior boys record, a 24:30 registered in 1973.

Allie Ostrander of Soldotna owns Mount Marathon’s other streak of note with six straight junior girls victories. Boys and girls run together in the junior race, and in 2014, Ostrander became the first girl to win the race outright with a girls record-time of 28:54.

Ostrander was the women’s runner-up in her senior debut in 2015 and won Mount Marathon in 2017. Race officials said they don’t know if she’s running or not Thursday. On Sunday, Ostrander race the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Prefontaine Classic and then signed a contract to go pro, giving up her final year of college eligibility at Boise State.

Ostrander told the Peninsula Clarion that she probably won’t race Mount Marathon, “but you never know,” she said.

An earlier version of this story did not include Seward runner Ralph Hatch’s five straight victories, the second-longest winning streak in the men’s race.

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