SEWARD — The race announcer called David Norris “the pride of Alaska” Wednesday as the Anchorage man headed to the Fourth Avenue finish line behind the police car that traditionally escorts the Mount Marathon leader partway down the street with flashing lights and a blaring siren.
That phrase has followed Norris since his 2016 record-breaking run here, when he reclaimed the race record for Alaska by topping the 2015 record set by Kilian Jornet, a professional skyrunner from Spain -- the first and only non-Alaska man to hold the record in Alaska’s most famous footrace.
But after Wednesday, Norris might have to share the “pride of Alaska” title with the race itself.
He claimed his third victory with a time of 43 minutes, 27 seconds, a dominating performance that put him more than two minutes ahead of a pair of Lower 48 runners who finished second and third. Sam Hendry, an NCAA skier for the University of Utah, was second in 46:00 and Darren Thomas, a Salomon-sponsored runner from Nevada, was third in 46:09.
Believe it when we say the two visitors will be sharing the Mount Marathon gospel when they go home.
“Dude, it’s so awesome,” Thomas said. “This is the most pure mountain race I can think of. It’s straight up and straight down -- no messing around.
“I’m used to more ‘American’ races -- races that don’t have (such big) crowds and also aren’t as steep. Alaska doesn’t mess around.”
Thomas was one of five professional runners representing Salomon, the outdoor gear company that became a race sponsor this year. Hendry came up on his own after hearing about the race from Anchorage’s Luke Jager, one of Alaska’s top mountain runners who is teammates with Hendry at Utah.
Turns out Jager didn’t oversell a race often described as the toughest 5K on the planet. Mount Marathon is about 3 miles long, and most of it is spent making a 2,974-foot ascent and descent of the peak.
“It’s absolutely the funnest race I’ve ever done,” Hendry said. “All of the changes -- every part of it is so different. There’s the road, the rock climb, the aerobic hike to the top, and then you break into the alpine and you’re way above the clouds and the town.
“And then it’s crazy coming down the mountain.”
Norris, a 30-year-old World Cup cross-country skier, crushed the uphill climb to build a big lead and was never threatened the rest of the way to win. It was his third victory in three races.
After the two Outsiders came Eagle River’s Mikey Connelly, 19, who made his senior debut by placing fourth in 46:27, giving the race three rookies in the top four. Four seconds later was fifth-place Lyon Kopsack of Palmer in 46:31.
Norris’ time this year was his slowest so far, trailing the course-record 41:26 he ran in his rookie race in 2016 and the 42:13 that earned him a second win in 2018.
While the descent yielded fast times for some runners, the ascent didn’t. Lots of rain fell overnight and prior to the 3 p.m. start of the men’s race, which happened after 232 women ran the whole mountain and 226 juniors went to the halfway point and back. The men’s race had another 254 runners.
“It was so slimy there were some places I actually slipped back a little,” Norris said. “I was running in the bushes to find sturdy footing and grabbing at trees and stuff.”
Norris was a little muddy but otherwise unscathed at the finish line, where dozens of runners had blood oozing from scrapes and cuts. Hendry’s right hand was heavily bandaged because of a laceration, and there were bright, bloody scrapes on one of his legs.
The injuries happened when he overtook Thomas during the downhill.
“He beat me to the top and I said, ‘OK, I’m just going to go as fast as I can.’ I put my head down and was flying as fast as I can, and when I looked up I had cut the gap in half,” Hendry said. “I caught him and as I went to pass, I hit some harder rocks and fell into the gut. I couldn’t stand up, so I fell over again.
“I’ve never been this beat up after a race. I love it up here. I know this is a small year, but the crowd to me was insane.”
The race is usually held on the Fourth of July, but because of COVID-19 mitigation, it was moved three days back to avoid the usual crush of people who come to Seward for both the race and the holiday. There was still a throng of spectators watching from the base of the mountain and there were still people lined up on both sides of Fourth Avenue, but it wasn’t as huge a crowd as usual.
They were treated to a 1-2 finish by Seward runners in the women’s race and another great effort by Norris in the men’s race.
Norris came into the race with two of three fastest times in history -- 41:26 in 2016 and 42:13 in 2018 (Jornet clocked 41:48 in 2015). Wednesday’s time of 43:27 just missed making the top-10 list of the race’s fastest times since 1915.
“Sam stuck with me more than anyone in the other two races did,” Norris said. “But when we got out of the woods (on the way up), I pulled away.”