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Mount Marathon men's field loaded with stars, past champs

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 2, 2015

All the usual suspects are lined up to grab glory in a stacked men's field for Saturday's 88th running of Mount Marathon in Seward.

Defending champion and race record-holder Eric Strabel of Anchorage reports he's in the best shape of his life.

Matias Saari of Anchorage, the 2009 champion and runner-up last year, has finished fourth or better seven straight years.

Rickey Gates, the Coloradoan who now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, owns the second-fastest time in race history.

Matt Novakovich of Anchorage, the 2012 champ and third last year, remains a threat.

And Jim Shine of Anchorage, fifth in his Mount Marathon debut last season in the run-up to this year's race has destroyed course records on Knoya Ridge, Government Peak and Bird Ridge.

Yet the biggest buzz generated for the slog up the 3,022-foot mountain overlooking Resurrection Bay and the frighteningly fast descent of its perilous slopes surrounds a race rookie -- Kilian Jornet of Spain is that formidable.

"It's going to be epic,'' said Saari.

And that's coming from a measured man who is not given to hyperbole.

Jornet, 27, is widely considered the world's best all-around mountain runner, having won many of the world's competitive races, all the way from vertical kilometer races lasting 35-40 minutes to 100-milers lasting hours and hours.

"I'm not saying it's his race to lose, but it would be naïve to think he wouldn't do excellent,'' said Erik Johnson of Seward, who is returning to the race after a sixth-place finish in 2013.

Jornet, who arrived in Anchorage a week ago and has scouted Mount Marathon this week, said he never enters a race taking anything for granted. Also, Gates has let him know the Alaskans can fiercely hold their own.

"Rickey told me the runners here are really strong, and they are used to the mountain,'' Jornet said. "They will be very strong.''

While the competition will have more course knowledge than Jornet, Gates said his Salomon teammate possesses an uncanny ability to scope out a mountain, process information and understand how best to attack it.

Strabel, whose time of 42 minutes, 55 seconds, in 2013 shattered eight-time winner Bill Spencer's 32-year-old record (43:21 in 1981), pronounced himself "really stoked'' to compete against Jornet. Like most of the elites in the field, the three-time champion is curious how Jornet will perform in his debut of the race alternately referred to as the Olympics or Super Bowl of Alaska mountain running.

"I know he can do very impressive things in the mountains,'' Strabel said. "The tricky part is how that translates on Mount Marathon. Your guess is as good as mine.

"Maybe he'll win by two minutes, and maybe he'll get beat by two minutes. More than likely, it's somewhere in between. He's a professional athlete and a different breed of athlete, with a great skill set. He eats, sleeps and breathes mountains.''

Strabel is renowned for his ability to peak for race day in Seward. He's not one to pump his own tires, but he said he's confident his training has him prepared to face Jornet and the rest of a deep field.

"It's like a dream come true to have competition like that when I'm in the best shape of my life,'' Strabel said. "I've done this race for so many years and tried to peak for this on race day for at least 10 years.

"I've got it down to a science, pretty much, to get myself to race my best on race day. It's a good feeling.''

Shine has stamped his name on the list of contenders with his record-breaking performances early in the season -- "putting on a clinic,'' Strabel said -- and surprised himself given he hasn't put in the large-volume training he did last year.

Still, Shine thinks he has a "very outside shot'' at winning.

"It would have to be the perfect storm of everything coming together,'' he said.

And Shine cautioned that his three record-breaking performances recently have all been in uphill-only events. Shine last year at Mount Marathon put up the fifth-fastest climb to the top, but was 14th-fastest among men on the descent.

"It's a completely different animal,'' he said of Mount Marathon. "You can take all those mountain-top finishes and throw them out the door because it doesn't mean anything at Mount Marathon.''

Like all the contenders, Shine said he's thrilled to race against a deep field that includes international stars like Jornet and Gates, a three-time champ like Strabel and former champs like Saari and Novakovich.

"These are some of the best trail and mountain runners around,'' Shine said. "I'm just really excited to lace up the shoes and race next to some of the best in the world and in Alaska.''

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

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