On the third of July, Brian Stoecker stopped at Fred Moore’s place in Seward after driving down from Anchorage.
“Are you going up the mountain tomorrow?” he asked Moore.
“I’m going at 11,‘‘ Moore told him.
On the Fourth of July, Bill Spencer was walking down Fourth Street after watching his daughter, Nowelle, run halfway up Mount Marathon, the peak that overlooks Resurrection Bay. Usually downtown Seward is teeming with people who pour into the city to celebrate Independence Day and watch the famous Mount Marathon Race, but the race and the rest of the party were canceled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I saw Brian coming down the street, dressed in his full regalia,” Spencer said. “I said, ‘What are you doing here?' and he said, ‘I’m meeting Fred here at 11. He says he’s going up the mountain.‘ "
And with that, the race was on between three men who, if there was a Mount Rushmore of Mount Marathon runners, would be among the leading candidates for it.
Spencer, 64, is an eight-time champion who owned the men’s record for more than 30 years and still holds the junior record he set in 1973. Moore, 80, holds the record for longevity — he ran his 50th consecutive race last year.
And Stoecker, 56, is one of the biggest crowd favorites, aka the Birdman, and probably has appeared in more race photos than anyone else. He dresses in a leather loincloth, puts war paint on his face and pins his race bib to his nipples.
The three left the start line right around 11 a.m. They reached the finish line about 90 minutes later, holding hands, although Stoecker and Spencer said Moore beat them across the finish line by a stride.
“We each won our age group,” Stoecker joked.
For Moore, there was little question that he would celebrate the holiday the same way he always does.
“I had to go up the mountain on the Fourth,” he said.
Same for Stoecker, who said he called Mount Marathon race director Matias Saari in advance to make sure he wouldn’t get sideways with race organizers by running the race course on what would have been race day.
He said Saari asked him not to wear an official bib, and Stoecker complied — he made a bib with the Corona beer logo on it and wrote the number 19 underneath.
“I expected a horde,” said Stoecker, who has run in 30 consecutive official races, “but I was still going to get geared up and go to the start line and see what was happening. If it was crowded I was going to take a picture and drive to the Jeep trail and go up that way. I didn’t want to flaunt it in the face of the race organizers.”
He was shocked no one else was there.
The 93rd running of Mount Marathon was postponed until next year because of the novel coronavirus, but Alaskans have a history of showing up even when races are canceled. There was a rogue race one year when the Crow Pass Crossing was called off, and last year there was a rogue run at Mount Marathon — the junior race was canceled because of poor air quality from nearby wildfires, but about 80 kids raced anyway.
Nowelle Spencer was one of them, and she expected to see some of the others on the mountain Saturday. She didn’t. No rogue run materialized, and no crowd descended upon Seward.
“It was eerie and bizarre,” she said.
Stoecker called it weird and surreal.
“Three-quarters of the way up I looked around and there were seven people on the mountain, not 700,” he said. “The first picture I posted was me at the empty starting line, and it was just weird.”
Spencer, who has more Mount Marathon victories than any other man in history, had no intention of going up and down the mountain this year. He had a sore knee and he was content to watch his daughter run.
But when he saw Stoecker in his Birdman costume and heard that Moore was on his way, he couldn’t help himself.
“My knee was hurting bad, but shoot, if Fred’s going to do it and Brian’s going to do it, I’ll walk up there with them,” Spencer said. “I put on my pink shorts and Fred comes along in his green shorts, and we went and did it.”
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