SEWARD — Sixteen-year-old Ali Papillon heard the cheers behind him as he pursued his first Mount Marathon junior victory, and bad thoughts followed.
The last time he raced here, he led the pack off the mountain only to be caught on the pavement while running the final few hundred meters toward the Fourth Avenue finish line.
When he hit Fourth Avenue as the leader of Wednesday’s race, Papillon heard the the cheers behind him and he thought, not again.
“I was like, ‘Uh oh, someone’s behind me‚’ " he said.
After an arduous trip halfway up and down the mountain, some of it spent slipping in mud, Papillon found a reserve of energy to push his pace on the pavement and secure victory.
“Just will,” he said of how he did it. “Put your head forward.”
Papillon won in 28 minutes, 16 seconds. A veteran of six official races, he had won four straight age-group titles before Wednesday.
Claiming second place in 28:39 was 14-year-old Coby Marvin of Palmer, who broke Papillon’s age-group record for 14- and 15-year-old boys by one second.
Seventeen-year-old Lucy Young of Anchorage won the girls title in her race debut, using a speedy descent to stretch her lead over runner-up Jayna Boonstra of Kenai.
Young finished in 33:55, a time that included a 9:34 downhill. She beat Boonstra to the top by 46 seconds but was nearly two minutes faster on the downhill. Boonstra finished in 36:29.
“I was kind of hoping I could win,” Young said. “I ended up being in front from the mountain up.”
Young thought she had a chance to do well — she’s a recent South High graduate and she said she still feels fit after a track season during which she finished fourth in the 3,200 meters and sixth in both the 1,600 and 800.
She said she came to Seward on three straight weekends with some teammates and coach Jerry Ross so she could learn about the mountain before racing on it.
It rained hard on Tuesday night and she worried what conditions that would yield, “but it was more manageable than I thought it would be,” she said.
The conditions proved challenging for Papillon. He chose trail shoes not conducive to mud-running — “I should’ve taken the ones with bigger lugs” — and he paid for it as he neared the turnaround point.
“Higher up the mountain was slippery,” he said. “I’d take a long step forward and slip into a split.”
Papillon made it to the turnaround in 20:20, 10 seconds ahead of Marvin. He gained another 14 seconds on Marvin on the downhill, some of it on the street when he was running scared, or something close to it.
Papillon said he was surprised that it was Marvin chasing him.
“I never thought I’d be taken down by Coby, because he’s so small,” he said. “I didn’t think he’d be the one chasing me.”
Papillon used to be the small one, and would have disappeared among bigger runners had he not been running near the front of so many races. He’s 5-foot-7 now, a couple inches taller than Marvin.
It was the sixth junior race for Papillon, a former Alaskan who lives in Colorado but returns with his family every summer for Mount Marathon. He placed third in 2017, was second in 2018 when he set the 14-15 age-group record and second in 2019, when he lost his lead on the street.
The 2019 race was unofficial — it was canceled because of poor air quality due to a large fire burning on the Kenai Peninsula, but a bunch of kids staged a rogue race that year.
Papillon had his eye on victory this year, and on a faster time.
“I wanted to do better,” he said. He was well off Bill Spencer’s overall junior record of 24:30, which has been unthreatened since 1973.
Mount Marathon, which dates back to 1915, is a race rich with history, something on display when Marvin and Boonstra claimed second place in their respective races. Marvin is the son of two-time women’s winner Christy Marvin and Boonstra is the daughter of four-time winner Todd Boonstra.
Young contributed to race history as a newcomer on Wednesday, and her experience left her wanting more.
“I’ll be back next year,” she said.
Correction: An early version of this story had an incorrect finish time for Lucy Young.