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59th annual Equinox Marathon returns Saturday in all of its grueling glory

Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 7:18 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Members of the Fairbanks community revel in equinoxes and solstices because they simply mean more based on location. From the summer solstice events such as the Midnight Sun Run and the Midnight Sun Game, to lighting off fireworks during the winter solstice, to the fall equinox, which is synonymous with the historic Equinox Marathon.

That is why fall in Fairbanks in 2020 felt a little different, as the 58th edition of the race was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, just the second time the race has been called off (1992, heavy snow). Though through mitigation plans and proper preparation, what is known as one of the toughest marathons in the world is returning Saturday in all of its grueling glory, with the elevation gain of 3,285 feet included.

“Oh everyone is super excited,” said six-time Equinox Marathon champion Matias Saari, 51, who will be competing on Saturday. “It was such a disappointment to have to cancel, understandably, for the pandemic last year, so we are thrilled to be back. It is going to be a real festive time for the runners, spectators and organizers.”

Both the half and full 26.2-mile races will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday at the base of the Student Recreation Center on the UAF campus. As part of the mitigation plans, no relay race is being offered this year.

The Equinox Marathon is unique in many ways - and that began with its first race in 1963. As a UAF student and skier, Nat Goodhue co-founded the race with fellow skier Gail Bakken and their coach Jim Mahaffey. That summer, Goodhue organized and cleared the unforgiving 26.2-mile course that navigates UAF’s ski trail, summits over Ester Dome and winds back to the main campus.

At the time, there were fewer than 20 marathons in the United States and few - if any - allowed women participants. The inclusiveness and unparalleled course made the race an instant success.

“It really epitomizes Fairbanks,” Saari said. “It has always been really inclusive and that is what made the Equinox the largest marathon in the world, believe it or not, for three years in the 1960s. You had hundreds of hikers, which you wouldn’t see at other races, and there were women running here well before Boston [Marathon] and other races. Then, you just had a lot of really tough kids, entire classrooms would go out and go hike the equinox trail in their Chuck Taylors without having the training. Nobody told them they couldn’t or shouldn’t do it, so they went out in do it. It is really amazing and that attitude has sort of prevailed for the last 58 years.”

In Saari’s book, ‘The Equinox: Alaska’s Trailblazing Marathon’, Goodhue mentioned that he did not have high hopes for the longevity of the race, but the small-town race has erupted into a bucket list event for runners across the globe.

The last time the race was ran in 2019, a 35-year course record set by Equinox legend Stan Justice was snapped by over three minutes when Anchorage’s Aaron Fletcher completed the treacherous course in 2 hours, 38 minutes and 14 seconds in less than favorable weather.

“It took the right guy to do it; a guy with speed, trial skills and Olympic Marathon Trial experience,” Saari added. “All records are meant to be broken, but it says a lot that a record lasted from 1984-2019.”

Fletcher, nor six-time women’s champion Christy Marvin, will be competing in this year’s event.

Saari mentioned that this year’s field of women is one of the strongest in recent memory. Anna Dalton (Anchorage), Megan Youngren (Soldotna) and Susanna Rivard (Portland, OR) competed at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

“There are probably six women who are capable of breaking 3:30, which is a real benchmark, and a few that might even challenge Marvin’s record of 3:15,” Saari said. “I can’t wait to see how it plays out.”

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