I had the privilege to sit down with Rachel Dow last week to discuss and record some of her perspective on the Mount Marathon Race. Seward has always fielded a collection of homegrown athletes that consistently show up, keep up, and are often victorious over the ever increasing number of professional mountain runners and nordic skiers that compete on the mountain each 4th of July. Think seven time consecutive winner Cedar Bourgeois, or two time winner Patti Foldager.
Dow continues in this tradition and her story is unique in that she first ran the race in 2009 and, at the age of thirty, the personal trainer and mother of two placed fifth.
This year’s women’s race is shaping up to be a real contest. Dow said simply that this year’s women’s race will be “insane.” “There are so many amazing women running this year”. She added that there are many women that can finish in under an hour, and a handful that can come in in under 55 minutes.
And now an overview of Dow’s competitors. First off, the Olympic class Nordic skiers Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks will be competing. Both did not race last year due to the risk of injury, which might have jeopardized their participation in the Olympic Games held in Sochi. Dow said that the amount of muscle both women have is impressive. “I just look at them and they are amazing”, “I just think it’s pretty cool that I’m racing with them.”
Dow said that once they all get to the actual base of the mountain, she takes the roots and the skiers head right up the cliff.
“I see them at the half way and then they just pull away from everyone. I”m not really that many minutes behind them going up but once they get to the top they are way faster,” said Dow. “Its amazing how fast they come down.”
But climatic and surface conditions on the mountain can wreak havoc on any racer, regardless of fitness level. For example, back in ’09 Brooks was bird dogging Bourgeois on the ascent by a full minute. But the hot temperatures and steep descent caused Brooks to falter, and enabled Bourgeois to finish first, solidifying her sixth consecutive victory. Brooks then walked down to the finish after being treated for heat exhaustion at Providence.
Then there is Christie Marvin of Palmer. Marvin, 33, was a rookie last year and also just happened to take first place. So far this season, the mother of three has dominated the state’s mountain running scene, winning Kal’s Knoya Ridge Run, Gov’t Peak and The Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb (Bird Ridge.) Seward native Allison Barnwell will be at the starting line on Friday as well. Barnwell finished second last year behind Marvin and is also a former girls junior champion.
Najeeby Quinn is also another contender this year’s contest. The thirty-four -year old won the Turnagain Arm Trail Run in mid May, setting a new record. Her new record replaced the one she set on the course eight years ago, shaving a full minute off her old time. In the woman’s 30-39 category, Quinn has placed second behind Marvin in Kal’s as well as Gov’t Peak and at Bird Ridge this season.
Denali Foldager has a shot as well. The Seward native is a three time junior champion on the mountain and is a former NCAA Division II all-conference runner for Cal State-Stanislaus.
Ann Spencer, who took third last year, also has a shot at the top spot.
In light of the heavy competition, Dow said she is focused on coming in under 58 and finishing in the top ten. Dow said that she spends an awful lot of time training on the mountain scoping routes. “To do good on that mountain I felt I had to know the mountain as well,” said Dow.
Dow said that her recon of the mountain is especially important this year due to the fact that there is no snow at the top of the false peak. Sliding down the top section in a seated position is Dow’s preferred mode of descent. But she said she ‘s been forced to switch tactics, as she has not encountered snow up there since the beginning of May. Instead, she said the surface is mainly sharp, steep fields of shale pocked with slightly jutting, static concentrations of bedrock. She contends that it is key to identify and stay off these concentrations, as to not slow her descent, which would be akin to standing on an air brake. Lost balance equals lost time, and one can only imagine the serious abrasions that would result from an uncontrolled fall across those outcrops.
Dow said that she trains year round for the race and is always working out. “I kind of hit it harder in the spring, like in March, upping my runs,” said Dow. She said she cross trains year round, lift weights, does interval runs on the treadmill and frequently runs the lost lake trail up to Clemens Cabin. She said it takes roughly 31 minutes to reach the cabin, depending on conditions.
Dow admits that, in her youth, she didn’t have much of an interest in competing on the mountain, but the event has always meant something special to her. She said that she has yet to miss race day, either as a participant or observer. “It’s just an amazing race to watch,” said Dow. “There is simply nothing like it.”
Dow ran cross country at Seward High and continued running on into her thirties. Her brother and sister competed in the past, and her cousin, Kristen Sieminski, has been competing in the race for over a decade. When asked what motivated her to begin competing in Mount Marathon, Dow said that she thought “I’m thirty, why not try it and see how I would do.” She admits that she has always been a good hiker, and she noticed while training on the mountain for the ’09 race that she was outpacing most of her fellow racers. Dow said she trained hard for that first race, power hiking the mountain three days a week as well as running and lifting weights.
“Every time I would go up I would time myself and kind of just see what my time was and then I looked back at the year before to see what a good time was. I was looking at my times going ‘oh my gosh I could do this in an hour.’ I just had no idea maybe a week or two before the race I started panicking with the realization that place in the top ten my first time.”
She fondly recalled her first race day as a competitor on that hot day back in ’09. “I made it up to the base fast I was sixth or seventh a quarter of the way up and there was no one else around me and it was so hot,” said Dow. “It was just tripping me out, this was just like any other training day.” Dow said people were freaking out as she ran back through town and down to the finish. People were giving her high fives and friends, family and acquaintances were crying for joy. “I think people do get emotional about Mount Marathon,” said Dow.
Dow admits that it is impossible to know how a race day will go. “I mean it is an intimidating race,” she said. “There are all those spectators. It is a grueling race. As a kid it was a huge deal and if anyone ever got in the top ten it was amazing”.
“Every year that I race I learn something about myself and training in general,” said Dow. “I am trying to figure out how to have a good race day.” She said that the week before the race plays a huge role in the outcome. For example, Dow said that in 2012, she went into race week in possibly her best shape up to that date. She continued to train hard right up to race, rather than tapering back her activity. People around her were vocal about her prospects of victory. She admits that the pressure, coupled with the over training led to unsatisfactory performance in the race. Still, Dow placed seventh.
Dow said that when she ran the race last year, she was still recovering from a bout of pneumonia that really knocked her down back in March of that year. She said that she simply did not have her usual lung capacity when racing. “Takes so long to heal from that,” said Dow. “I was hyperventilating all last year (during the race.). I was like, ‘get me off this mountain’. It felt so horrible, I wanted to get off the mountain.” Still, Dow placed sixth.
Dow said that she is optimistic heading into this year’s competition. “I’m really pretty relaxed about it this year. I’m hoping it carries on until race day. I’ve been training hard on the mountain since April. We got that extra month of training because the snow melted so early,” said Dow. “I feel great.”
“You never know what race day will be like. Based on my training and how I feel right now I can easily have my best race. We’ll just see what happens,” said Dow.