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Great and gracious, Kilian Jornet conquers Mount Marathon in record fashion

  • Author: Doyle Woody
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 4, 2015

SEWARD -- The race was on Saturday afternoon when the top three men summited Mount Marathon in a conga line of sorts -- a "little pain train,'' Alaskan Jim Shine called it -- and began the harrowing, high-speed descent of the steeply-pitched, 3,022-foot peak overlooking Resurrection Bay.

Rickey Gates first rounded the rock that marks the turnaround, with Kilian Jornet on his heels and Shine marking Jornet's heels.

And then Jornet, the Spaniard considered the world's best all-around mountain runner, was gone.

"Poof -- just disappeared, like a Bug's Bunny cartoon,'' Shine said.

So did the race record.

Jornet delivered a rocketing downhill in his race debut, seized victory in the 88th edition of Alaska's oldest and most prestigious footrace in 41 minutes, 48 seconds. That performance lopped 67 seconds off three-time champion Eric Strabel's 2013 standard of 42:55.

As a smiling Jornet covered the finishing stretch down Fourth Avenue, cheering fans were stacked four-deep on each side. He repeatedly acknowledged them by alternately waving his left arm and right. And just before he crossed the finish line, with no threat looming, he spun counter-clockwise, touched his fingertips to his lips and blew kisses to the masses.

"That's crazy,'' Jornet said of the thousands of fans that crowd this seaside town for the Independence Day race. "Some races in Europe are like that. Here in the U.S., it's unique.

"I could enjoy the finish line.''

Jornet's victory completed a sweep of Mount Marathon and a rewrite of the record book for an impressive twosome. Earlier, his girlfriend, Emelie Forsberg of Sweden, likewise a world-class runner, won the women's race and devoured Nancy Pease's 1990 standard by 2:42.

Gates, a 34-year-old Coloradoan who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, finished runner-up for the second time in his three Mount Marathons -- he also took second when Strabel set his 2013 record. By clocking 42:56, he grabbed the third-fastest time in race history. Shine, 38, of Anchorage, finished in 43:11, the fifth-fastest time in race history and a staggering improvement of 4:01 over his fifth-place debut last year.

Strabel, 33, of Anchorage, took fourth in 43:26, and Nick Elson, 31, of Squamish, British Columbia, debuted with a fifth-place finish in 43:46.

Entering the 2013 race, Bill Spencer's 43:21 in 1981 stood as the race record for 32 years. Strabel in 2013 carved 26 seconds off that. Now, in the span of just two years, Spencer's long-held record has slipped to the sixth-fastest mark.

On an overcast afternoon when only the lightest of sprinkles dropped and conditions proved ideal for a punishing race, 21 men ran faster than 50 minutes. That was just shy of the record 22 men who went sub-50 in 2012.

"It was fun, so beautiful,'' Jornet said. "It's amazing. It's technical. It's fun. It's difficult.''

Alaska's elite racers entered the race curious whether Jornet, who travels the world racing, skiing and enjoying mountain adventures, would set a new standard in his debut in a race where course knowledge is considered a premium. Jornet grew up in the Pyrenees, lives in the Alps, and arrived in Seward on Monday. That afforded plenty of time to scout Mount Marathon during training throughout the week. He is adept at processing mountain information and figuring out what it required to cover territory fast.

"I knew Kilian Jornet was capable of something like that, maybe even better,'' Strabel said in the finish area. "Maybe today wasn't his best day.''

Jornet said his legs felt tired on the climb. Makes sense -- the climb was the fastest-known ascent in race history. Gates' unofficial split of 31:26 to the top was 58 seconds faster than his 2013 ascent, considered the previous standard. Gates is Jornet's teammate on the international running team sponsored by Salomon (www.salomon.com/us), which sells outdoors gear, and he knew he needed to forge a considerable gap on Jornet to mitigate the Spaniard's superior downhilling.

"I know what kind of descender Kilian is and I knew I needed at least two minutes on him at the top,'' Gates said. "And I also knew that's completely unrealistic.''

Strabel, whose descent of 10 minutes flat in 2013 is the fastest-known downhill, was just more than a minute behind Gates, Jornet and Shine on the climb.

"Two-thirds or three-quarters up, I was still only about 20 seconds back,'' Strabel said. "They smelled the downhill, and when they did, they loosened the reins a little in the last part of the climb.

"I did what I could.''

Jornet said he pushed his 5-foot-7, 128-pound frame hard in the first 40 seconds of so of the descent to try to break the race open and generate a comfortable cushion.

"The strategy was to go strong on the uphill, but to save a bit of energy for the downhill,'' he said.

That Jornet did, and he gained an insurmountable lead that allowed him to acknowledge the crowd that showered him with encouragement and applause.

In Alaska's most storied race, the world's best mountain runner reaffirmed his greatness, and his graciousness.

Reach Doyle Woody at dwoody@alaskadispatch.com and follow him on Twitter at @JaromirBlagr

Top 20 – 1) Kilian Jornet, 41 minutes, 48 seconds (new record; old record 42:55 by Eric Strabel in 2013); 2) Rickey Gates, 42:56; 3) Jim Shine, 43:11; 4) Eric Strabel, 43:26; 5) Nick Elson, 43:46; 6) Matt Shryock, 44:44; 7) Adam Jensen, 45:21; 8) Eric Johnson, 45:23; 9) Matias Saari, 45:40; 10) Wylie Mangelsdorf, 45:46; 11) Kenneth Brewer, 46:13; 12) Lyon Kopsack, 46:29; 13) Ben Marvin, 46:38; 14) Matt Novakovich, 47:16; 15) Allan Spangler, 47:16; 16) Miles Knotek, 48:51; 17) Tor Christopherson, 49:01; 18) William Ross, 49:08; 19) Peter Mamrol, 49:22; 20) Patrick Conway, 49:22.

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