57th Annual Equinox Marathon: runners battle rain, snow on Ester Dome

By Laura Stickells | September 22, 2019 | Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

After 35 years, the Equinox Marathon has a new time to beat: 2 hours, 38 minutes and 14 seconds.

“I knew I had a shot at it, weather willing, and I’m pleased to really get it,” Aaron Fletcher said, after breaking the record Stan Justice set in 1984.

But Saturday’s weather wasn’t exactly “willing” Fletcher to win. The temperature was in the low 30s, and the combination of snow, rain and wind provided additional obstacles for the competitors at the 57th annual running of the race.

“The last climb up Ester was tough just because of the wind, and it was raining and snowing and it was just miserable,” the new record-holder said. “I just could not wait for that to end.”

“I split under five-minute miles down the hill, and once I got to mile 22 and I saw I had to run a seven-minute pace to get the record, I was like, ‘Oh, I got this.’ I knew for sure then. I just had to get to the finish.”

When he emerged from the woods west of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Patty Center, 100 yards from the finish, spectators — including his wife and his young daughter, who was dressed head-to-toe in a puffy purple snowsuit — cheered him on.

He pumped his fists in the air, yelling, “That’s what I’m talking about!” as he crossed the finish line, logging a 6:02 pace over the 26.2 miles of trail and road west of Fairbanks, which includes over 1,800 feet of vertical climbs and descents.

“The community here is just really into the race and this is one of the most respected races and course records in Alaska, so it means something,” the Anchorage runner said.

The next finisher and 2017 and 2018 Equinox winner, Allan Spangler, crossed the finish line more than 17 minutes later with a time of 2:55:21. Third-place finisher Cody Priest finished with a time of 3:00:58.

The women’s race, despite lacking broken course records, was a tighter competition. The top three racers finished within two minutes of each other and the women battled it out for their positions on the podium until the last mile.

Christy Marvin came from behind, passing second-place finisher Hannah Lafleur (3:25:17) and third-place finisher Katie Krehlik (3:25:59) a mile from the finish to take her fourth consecutive and sixth overall victory with a time of 3:23:59.

Marvin is now tied with Justice, Matias Saari and Bob Murphy for the most race victories with six titles.

“I just had to keep praying during the race because I was hurting bad, and it’s hard when you are in the moment because you battle this ‘I don’t care’ monkey that gets on your back and it came to mind and I was like, ‘Okay, Jesus, make me brave,’” Marvin said after the finish.

“It was really good to remember you never regret digging after the fact. It only hurts at the time.”

Marvin led the race with Krehlik through the first section until the climb up Ester Dome, when Krehlik pulled ahead. Lafleur then caught and passed Marvin on the out-and-back section at the top of Ester Dome.

“It was all about just trying to keep my legs under me and keep wheeling the downhills as best as I could,” Marvin said.

She reeled in Lafleur about 5 miles from the finish, and the duo worked together to catch and pass Krehlik about 2 miles from the finish. Lafleur couldn’t hold Marvin’s pace for the last mile, finishing a minute and 18 seconds behind the winner.

“I look up to her so much as a runner,” Lafleur said about Marvin. “I just wanted to run with her, and she pushed me really hard, so I was grateful for that.”

Marvin was grateful for Lafleur as well.

“It keeps you more into the race, and it helps push you, and it helps carry you,” the winner said about the competition for podium positions. “It would have been a lot harder for me to run that hard without those other women there. In fact, I wouldn’t have.”

Like Fletcher, the six-time champ and Colony Middle School cross-country coach struggled with the weather conditions, but she took some of the advice she gave her middle school runners on Friday to help her get through it.

“We had a really muddy cross country meet just last night and some of the kids were excited about it and some of the kids were like, ‘Are you sure they aren’t going to cancel the meet?’ And I was like, ‘No! You don’t look at it as an obstacle; it’s an opportunity! Go have fun in it and go splash in the mud! It will be great!’ ... Then I was like, ‘Boy, am I eating my own words right now,’ as I was slopping through the mud.

“But it was good to remember: Those conditions can either knock you down or you can look at it as another opportunity to excel.”

Lafleur described the weather as, “The true Fairbanks experience ... wind and snow blowing in your face.”

Spangler resorted to running off to the side of the trail to stop slipping in the mud.

“I was just sliding all over the place. I had to keep running on the edge on like the grass and stuff, and then underneath the power line was ridiculous. I had to start running through the bushes,” the second-place men’s finisher said, laughing.

When asked if she planned to return to go for a seventh victory and break the all-time title record, Marvin said she wasn’t sure.

“We will just have to see how training is going and how my body is doing. I’m getting to be an old lady, so we will have to see,” the 39-year-old said.

As Marvin battled it out in a sprint to the finish next to 28-year-old Pyper Dixon for eighth place overall, Marvin looked like anything but an old lady. She came up just short, finishing ninth by 0.01 seconds.

Fletcher, on the other hand, is ready to tackle the course again.

“I’ll have to come and do it again on a better weather year and see if I can lower the record a little more,” he said.

But before he challenges his own record, Fletcher will travel to Atlanta in February for the Olympic Marathon Trials, where the top three runners from the United States will qualify to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. He would consider any finish in the top 20 a success.

“Once you finish college, running the Olympic Trials is kind of the target. It’s what you go to to really test yourself against the country’s best, which is kind of the basis of what we do,” the former Brigham Young University Division I distance runner said.

One person wishing Fletcher luck for February’s race was Justice. The former record holder wrote in a Facebook comment, “My run ended at 11 mile with a cramped hamstring which gave me just enough time to hitch a ride to the finish line and congratulate Aaron on an amazing run...

“Hope someone got a picture of his back — he was probably carrying a pound of mud kicked up by his flying feet ... Wish him the best at the February 29, 2020 US Olympic trials in Atlanta.”