The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Strabel takes down record

Not one, but two racers break Spencer’s 32-year-old record


Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix Log

Former Mount Marathon Race record holder Bill Spencer and new champion Eric Strabel swap stories at the finish line after running the 2013 race. Strabel ran the course in 42 minutes 55 seconds, topping Spencer’s time of 43 minutes 21 seconds which had been the Mens division record for the past 32 years.

The race record considered to be almost unbeatable by many marathoners familiar with the annual Mount Marathon foot race fell not once, but twice last week. In 1981, Bill Spencer broke his former record to set a mark that would stand for 32 years and withstand thousands of racers. The time, 43 minutes and 21 seconds, was approached only once since – until this year’s race when Eric Strabel clocked a new 42 minute and 55 second race record.

“Is that clock right?” were Strabel’s first words as race veteran Denali Foldager greeted him at the finish line. Her response of ”Umm yeah. Why?” emphasized the unexpected fall of the long-standing record. Then, on the heels of Strabel, Rickey Gates passed under the clock with a time of 43 minutes and 4 seconds to break the record a second time. According to one onlooker it was like having two first place finishers in the same race.

Gates, an accomplished marathon runner but a rookie in the 2013 Mount Marathon Race, led Strabel in the downhill until Strabel passed him in a jaw-dropping 10 minute descent to the finish line. Gates tumbled at the base of the mountain and dislocated his shoulder which cut into his finish time. He quickly reset his shoulder while on the run and ended up back in sight of Strabel, but he couldn’t close the gap.

Matt Novakovich, last year’s champion, with his eye on Strabel had a sense that he was the competitor to beat. However, as Strabel said at the race awards presentation, Gates came out of left field and tested everyone, making the race that much more competitive. Novakovich suffered from cramping that put him off his pace and ended up in a respectable 11th place.

Two criteria appeared to be crucial to placing in the top tier in the race, training and familiarity with the mountain. Historically and in this race, skiers been strong competitors overwhelmingly taking top spots in the Womens, Mens and Junior divisions. Locally, the Barnwell family is know for their avid pursuit of the winter activity.

Allison Barnwell, 21, ran with her sister McKenzie, 18, in the adult race, while their other sister Isabel, 17, did the junior race. Allison, won the 2008 junior race among the girl finishers. This year she finished second in the Womens Race with a time of 55 minutes 11 seconds. Allison, who placed fourth last year, kept in shape running cross-country at Claremont McKenna College in southern California.

She later admitted that she doesn’t divulge much about the extreme mountain race at home in Seward to her running coaches in California because they might not understand or approve of her participating because of its risks. But she’s not the only Seward-based college athlete who can’t resist the lure of the mountain race.

At one point, Barnwell felt so cold from the wind and blowing rain, that she started feeling ill and considered borrowing somebody’s jacket. Touching her legs, she was surprised at how icy and clammy her hands felt. She had to talk herself out of the negative thinking that slowed her down, telling herself if she was cold, it must be because she was not working hard enough.

“Once I got out of the trees, you get that second wind,” Allison said. Hearing her name announced on the loudspeakers below, and cheers rising from her friends and spectators was an irresistible ego boost. About three-quarters of the way up the mountain, she heard her father Bob Barnwell’s voice shouting just the right words to help power her up to the top.

“Downhill was super fun. The scree was very soft. Just a fun time to basically fall down that mountain,” Barnwell said. “I describe it as just a controlled fall. I don’t feel it’s the same as running. You’re letting your legs do what they will to get you down. They’re doing their own thing.”

Barnwell was only outpaced by Christy Marvin, a veteran marathoner in her first attempt at the Mount Marathon Race. Marvin, a mother of three based in Palmer, placed first in the Womens division with a time of 53 minutes 20 seconds. The overall record for the Womens race is 50 minutes and 30 seconds set by Nancy Pease in 1990, a record that has only been approached by Pease in 1993 and Holly Brooks and Cedar Bourgeois in 2010.

Another local runner and skier, Junior Race champion Miles Knotek of Moose Pass, aged into the adult division this year. Knotek, 18, who is heading off to college at Montana State, raced to ninth place in his first Mens Mount Marathon Race. Sewardite and race veteran Erik Johnson, 36, placed sixth heading up the ranks of local Mens runners.

Heidi Zemach contributed to this article.


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