SEWARD — Oregon’s Max King came to Mount Marathon for redemption. He left as royalty — a King who became king.
King cruised to victory in the men’s race here Thursday, building a big gap on the climb up the mountain and padding it on the descent to win with the 13th-fastest time in race history.
He beat three-time champion Eric Strabel of Anchorage by a comfortable margin, finishing in 43 minutes, 39 seconds. Strabel held off Lars Arneson of Anchorage by 11 seconds to grab second place in 45:21.
King wasn’t as fast as he was a year ago in his Seward debut, when his duel with record-holder David Norris left him in second place with the fourth-fastest time in history (43:23).
The loss inspired King to return to Alaska this summer. This time he didn’t have Norris to chase — a world-class cross-country skier, Norris skipped the race rather than take any chances with his health given poor air quality here from wildfire smoke. But even without Norris, King had motivation. He wanted a Mount Marathon victory.
“If David was running it would’ve been a lot harder to win,” said King, a professional trail runner. “I was just trying to get in as good of shape as I could, because I wanted to win.”
King, 39, has plenty of triumphs on his race resume, but this one is special, he said.
“This one comes with a lot of bragging rights and pride," King said. “The history of the race, the tradition, the myth, the atmosphere — you don’t find that at many races.”
Thousands of spectators gathered — on the mountain, at the base of the mountain and on the streets leading from the mountain to the Fourth Avenue finish line. Despite concerns of smoke from the Swan Like wildfire on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula, a number of runners said it wasn’t a factor.
Plenty were happy to get hosed off in the finish chute, because it was hot and dusty on the mountain.
“I didn’t have any problems because of the smoke, but I took all the water I could,” said Arneson, who grew up in Soldotna.
King, who trains and does most of his races in Lower 48 heat, joked that he had no sympathy for longtime Alaskans suffering as temperatures hit the 70s.
“Absolutely not!” he said, laughing.
“I think it helped. The whole way up it’s hot, but they’re suffering more than I am,” he said of the Alaskans.
King hit the summit in 32:07, followed by Strabel (33:51) and Arneson (34:00). He extended his lead on the downhill and was able to coast across the finish line.
“Max was just gone,” Arneson said. “I didn’t see him at all.”
He saw plenty of Strabel, though. The two were separated by nine seconds at the top of the mountain and 10 seconds at the finish line.
“I tried to catch him on the road,” Arneson said. “It’s fun to, like, race.”
An even closer race was happening about 90 seconds behind Strabel and Arneson. Seward runners Pyper Dixon and Erik Johnson sprinted the final several meters nearly elbow to elbow, with Dixon seizing fourth place in 47:16 and Johnson taking fifth in 47:17.
It was the second straight year Johnson finished second in a two-man sprint to the finish. A year ago, Arneson placed seventh, two seconds ahead of Johnson.
For Strabel, Thursday’s race followed a couple of hectic hours.
The men’s race was held after the women’s race. Strabel’s wife, Denali Foldager-Strabel, and his mother-in-law, Patty Foldager, were injured while racing down the mountain and both wound up at the emergency room.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Strabel said. "I have yet to check in with (Patty). Denali sprained her ankle really bad and she’s getting X-rays right now. So in the final two hours before my race I was going back and forth from our base camp and the hospital.
“... It might have been the best distraction, actually. It was the perfect amount of warming up because I was constantly on the go. The adrenaline was up, (and) things stayed loose.”
Right about then, his wife showed up on crutches to give him a hug and let him know she had fractured a bone in her foot.
Patty’s status wasn’t immediately known, although she suspected ligament damage in her left knee.
She said she stubbed her toe soon after reaching the summit, and when she got to the soft shale on the downhill, her opposite leg buckled and she went down.
She kept going, aided by a race volunteer who did a quick wrap-job on the knee with some tape and gave Foldager a trekking pole to help her get down the mountain.
“I side-stepped,” Foldager said. “... And I scooted.”
The Foldager family is from Seward and is a big part of Mount Marathon’s past and presence. Fred Moore is another big part of the city’s mountain running scene, and Thursday marked his 50th straight Mount Marathon. No one has done more races, much less consecutively.
Moore, 79, finished 208th in 1:26:47. He’s known for wearing hot-pink shorts when he races so his wife can spot him in a crowd of runners, so on Thursday dozens of racers wore pink shorts as a tribute to Moore’s accomplishment.
He was still easy to pick out in a crowd. This time, Moore showed up in neon green.
Also wearing green was Ben Schultz, the Anchorage firefighter who nearly died when he fell more than 75 feet off a fire truck ladder in 2017. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and numerous other injuries and had to learn to walk again.
Mount Marathon was the pinnacle, so far, of his recovery. He did the race with Mount Marathon veteran Rob Whitney, a fellow firefighter who made sure Schultz drank enough water and ate some food during their long, hot journey.
“I was totally the annoying mom,” Whitney said.
Like Foldager, Schultz isn’t an official finisher, because it took him about 3 hours and 45 minutes to reach the finish line. About a dozen friends greeted him, and volunteers hosed him off with cold water.
“I was at the halfway point going up, at the junior pole, and (a friend) was running down already," a dripping wet Schultz said, "and I thought, man, am I going to make it?”