Newcomers Schmidt and Severson win Mat Peak Challenge

August 7, 2019

In just a few hours, Patrick Schmidt and Shauna Severson went from virtual unknowns to King and Queen of the Mountain.

The unheralded runners each came from behind to win the Matanuska Peak Challenge, an event widely regarded as the toughest mountain race in Alaska.

The race near Palmer climbs from the base of Lazy Mountain to the top of 6,119-foot Matanuska Peak — and then back. Organizers boast it climbs 10,000 vertical feet (and descends the same) in just 12 miles. There are no aid stations and participants must be self-sufficient and carry mandatory gear.

Schmidt, 24, of Anchorage passed four-time champion Matias Saari, 48, in the final mile to win in 3 hours, 13 minutes, 36 seconds. Saari crossed in 3:15:39.

The race was a phenomenal improvement from the 2018 Mat Peak, when Schmidt placed seventh in 3:32. Schmidt, originally from Bozeman, Mont., rarely races but has gotten fit in part by training in the mountains with girlfriend Ann Penelope Spencer.

Allan Spangler, just a week removed from winning the Juneau Marathon in 2:37, set the initial pace with Saari on the two-mile,  3,000-foot climb up Lazy Mountain. Then Saari forged into the lead with Seward’s Pyper Dixon his nearest pursuer.

Schmidt, meanwhile, made up ground on the bouldered descent of Matanuska Peak and caught Saari on the lower backside of Lazy Mountain. The pair then traveled in near proximity until Saari gained another lead by charging off Lazy’s summit.

But about two-thirds of the way down, Schmidt again caught Saari, made a strong pass a minute later and ran unchallenged to the finish.

Meanwhile, in her Mat Peak debut Severson, of Chugiak, was the only woman to break four hours, winning in 3:58:25.

The race was just her second of the season in the Alaska Mountain Runners Grand Prix. On June 16, Severson placed 12th at the Bird Ridge Hill Climb about 10 minutes behind winner Rosie Frankowski.

Severson’s biggest previous running success was winning the women’s division and placing 2nd overall at the 2016 Resurrection Pass 100-miler in 22 hours, 16 minutes.

“I actually just decided I wanted to start getting into the mountain racing scene, after needing to take a break from the ultra running game for awhile,” said Severson, 32.

Crystal Berwick, who rode her bike from Anchorage to the start the day before the race, took runner-up in 4:11:57. Following in a close third was Gail Taylor of Palmer in 4:12:16.

“I was hoping for anything under 5 hours,” Taylor said on Facebook. “Maybe secretly hoping for close to 4 ½ (hours).”

Taylor, age 54 and racing Mat Peak for the first time in eight years, is a two-time champ whose 2009 record of 3:36 lasted four years. Taylor arrived at the top of Matanuska Peak as the first woman but Severson was just seconds behind and took control almost immediately after dropping off the summit.

For winning Mat Peak, both Schmidt and Severson earned bibs for the 2020 Mount Marathon Race and plan to redeem them.

The Alaska Mountain Runners 2019 Awards Ceremony will be Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Peanut Farm. Lars Arneson claimed the overall title for the men while Rosie Frankowski topped the women.

Complete 2019 Mat Peak results here:

Final 2019 AMR Grand Prix standings here: