By Matias Saari
Alaska Sports Blog Contributor
With the strongest women’s field in the 58-year history of the Equinox Marathon, the iconic Fairbanks event is primed for a speedy race.
That because a trio of women who competed at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials — Anna Dalton of Anchorage, Megan Youngren of Soldotna and Susanna Rivard of Portland, Ore., — are racing this Saturday, along with Anchorage upstart Klaire Rhodes, race veteran Katie Krehlik and Meg Inokuma from Palmer. They could be aided by dry trails and moderate temperatures.
Though still on the roster, Christy Marvin of Palmer won’t go for a race-record seventh win (three men along with Marvin have six wins). Marvin, 41, set the course record of 3:15:06 in 2018 and has won six of the last seven Equinox races, but is dealing with knee pain after winning both the Crow Pass Crossing and Matanuska Peak Challenge this summer.
“Disappointed not to race, but I can’t afford to go through the whole surgery and recovery again,” Marvin said by text. “Very hard decision to make. (It’s) the first year I have ever felt this fit and had competition to race for Equinox.”
After being canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Equinox returns with a marathon and a first-ever half-marathon. This year’s 3-person relay, which requires bus transportation up Ester Dome, has been scratched as a mitigation measure.
On a hot day in Atlanta at the 2020 Olympic marathon trials in February 2020, Dalton led Alaska’s women in 2 hours, 49 minutes, followed a minute later by Youngren.
Dalton has dealt with injuries in recent years but comes to Fairbanks in good shape.
“Yep I am healthy!,” Dalton said by text.
Rivard, meanwhile, finished the trials race in 3:05. An account manager for the shoe company New Balance, she then left the Pacific Northwest and has been training regularly on the Equinox course for the past year.
“I arrived a year ago because my job gave me the opportunity to live remote, so I fulfilled my lifelong dream to live in Alaska, by moving to Fairbanks during a COVID winter, of course,” Rivard texted Wednesday.
Youngren, 30, became hooked on the marathon after running 4:48 at the 2017 Equinox in her first attempt at 26.2 miles. Her meteoric improvement thereafter includes a 2:43 at the California International Marathon barely two years later that qualified her for the Olympic trials. She also won this summer’s Anchorage Mayors Marathon in 3:07 despite being slowed by a moose blocking the trail.
According to Sports Illustrated, Youngren became the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the U.S. marathon trials in 2020.
Youngren is also seeking redemption after dropping out 10 miles into the 2019 Equinox with gastrointestinal issues.
On August 28, Youngren ran the full Equinox course in 3:18:43 as a training run to complete a 110-mile week.
Only Marvin and Susan Faulkner (2002) have run the course faster on race day, setting up an intriguing possibility for Youngren and others to challenge Marvin’s record set three years ago.
“I think the course record will fall. I don’t know by how much, and I don’t know if I’ll be the one,” Youngren texted Thursday. “This is a stacked women’s field.”
In addition to the three Trials runners, Krehlik enters her fourth Equinox with a personal best of 3:20:16 (sixth fastest in race history) and no result slower than 3:26.
Inokuma, 41, placed sixth in her only Equinox in 2019. Her improvement since then includes a win this August at the Lost Lake Run and a record-setting effort at the Resurrection Pass 50-miler.
The three fastest Equinox women’s races in history (2012, 2014 and 2019) have seen four runners break 3:30; that mark may fall, with this year’s field capable of producing five or more sub-3:30 performances.
Meanwhile, the men’s race could experience a difference extreme: its first champion slower than 3 hours since 1997.
The race appears up for grabs after the withdrawal of favorite Tracen Knopp from Wasilla. Knopp, 22, broke a long-standing record at the Resurrection Pass 50-miler in August but is now mending an injured Achilles tendon.
Who fills the gap is anyone’s guess.
Two-time champion Allan Spangler has the strongest credentials, but is not in peak form as he negotiates parenthood; his time at July’s Crow Pass Crossing was 25 minutes slower than his personal best.
Running his fifth Equinox, Franklin Dekker of Anchorage looks to improve on a personal-best 3:12.
Six-time winner Matias Saari, 51, is entered but does not expect to contend.
The top Fairbanks entrants, on paper at least, may be Devin McDowell (winner of the 2021 Angel Creek 50K); 24-year-old rookie Max Donaldson (a former standout skier at West Valley High School and UAF); and new father Tobias Albrigtsen (seventh in 2019 in 3:16).
A Lower 48 runner with unknown credentials or a late Alaskan entry could also emerge from the crowd.
Bob Baker, 63, plans to add another finish to the 40+ patches he has already accumulated. And Fred Moore of Seward, running four days shy of his 82nd birthday, seeks to become the oldest finisher in race history. Currenly 80-year-old Dale Feist holds that distinction.