Blazing trails

Matias Saari during the 2011 Crow Pass Crossinga­—22.5 mile race. ( (Photo courtesy of Matt Hage)

Matias Saari during the 2011 Crow Pass Crossinga­—22.5 mile race. ( (Photo courtesy of Matt Hage)

by Eric Hammerstrom

Marquette native finds new home running mountain marathons in Alaska

Matias Saari didn’t really decide to write a book about the Equinox Marathon. It would be more accurate to say the Equinox Marathon made all the decisions. Because, since 1998 when Saari first ran Alaska’s most famous mountain marathon, the race has seemed to all but consume him.

Saari, a 1988 Marquette Senior High School grad, moved to Alaska to pursue a career in sports journalism in 1995. Writing became more than a job for Saari, who found himself living the sports he was writing about.

“I was a journalism major at MSU (Michigan State University), and it was sort of dumb luck that my first job out of college was in Alaska. It wasn’t an ‘Alaska Dream’; it was somewhat desperation. It was the job that came through, and it was sort of a lucky break,” Saari said.

Living first in Ketchikan—an island in Southern Alaska—then in Fairbanks for 11 years, Saari became an Alaska resident with his whole heart. He grew a beard, built his own cabin on a mountainside and took to hiking mountains that called him with a song as strong as any siren’s.

After working at the Ketchikan Daily News from 1995 to ’97, Saari returned to Marquette for nine months and took creative writing courses at NMU. Then, he returned to Alaska to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing at University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He stayed in Fairbanks from 1998 to 2010, working a variety of jobs, including fighting wildfires, before returning to journalism at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 2006.

In 2010, Saari explained, the “mountains called” and he moved to Anchorage, keeping the log cabin he built on five acres near Fairbanks.

“Alaska is definitely home,” he said. “I love it here. I have no plans to go anywhere else, but I love coming back to the Upper Peninsula and will continue to visit. But we love Alaska for it’s incredible outdoor recreation. It’s an amazing place.”

Saari and his girlfriend, Christie Haupert, now live in Bear Valley, near Anchorage, in a hillside neighborhood with their two sled dogs. But Saari returns to that cabin on a mountainside near Fairbanks in an annual pilgrimage for the autumnal equinox and one of America’s greatest marathons.

Saari did not run the Equinox Marathon until 1998, when he was 27, having not been much of a runner in his younger days.

“I did not run in high school or college,” he said. “I played soccer and basketball and baseball and tennis. Running didn’t really appeal to me growing up, but I was a skier, and an active and fit kid. I was center-midfielder, running up and down the field not getting tired.

“It wasn’t until 1998, when a friend brought me along on a pretty challenging 15-mile trail race. That summer I started doing some events, and that’s when I discovered the Equinox as well.”

Saari signed up to run the 1998 Equinox Marathon as part of a relay team, but when the other members of his team failed to show up on race day, he decided to run the whole race on his own, for the heck of it.

“I figured, I’ve run 16 miles, how hard can 26 be?” he laughed. “It was difficult, but it empowered me to get better at it. It took 3:49, which is a decent first marathon time, but it was pretty ugly.

“To become competitive was a seven-year process, but I became an hour faster,” he said. “I met some running partners, learned to pace myself, then shaved 10 to 15 minutes off each year, eventually becoming pretty fast.”

Pretty fast is an understatement.

Matias Saari is pictured here with the first copy of his book. (Photo by Christie Haupert)

In 2016, Saari claimed his third straight first-place finish at the Equinox, his sixth Equinox title overall, in 2:54. His fastest championship time was 2:49. All this in a race that includes an elevation change of 3,000 feet.

“It’s not getting any easier, that’s for sure,” he laughed.

Saari, who is now 46, explained that the average Equinox time is about 20 to 30 minutes slower than the average “flat road” marathon time.

While Saari sticks to trail marathons and ultra-marathons, one can’t help but wonder what would happen if he let loose on a flat road course. After all, the qualifying time for the men’s Olympic trials is 2:20. He has run several regular marathons, including Boston. However, Saari seems to have little desire to run on paved city streets for 26.2 miles nowadays.

While running and mountain hiking are his main recreational pursuits, Saari said he does not run much in the winter, preferring instead to cross country ski and backcountry Alpine ski.

“I’m a durable runner and I haven’t had many injuries,” he said. “Maybe that is due to starting to run later in life or to running on trails and mountains and not running on hard surfaces.”

But it’s mainly the landscape and mountains that keep him from the city streets. And the Equinox.

“It’s a race I’ll do every year no matter what,” he said. “It’s that important to me. It’s non-negotiable on my calendar, every third week of September. The race changed my life. It’s not an exaggeration to say that.”

All told, Saari has run over 50 races as long or longer than 26.2 miles. He’s run 30 races of marathon distance.

“I’m scheming my first 100-mile foot race,” he said. “I’ve skied 100 miles, but I’m looking at the Superior 100-Mile race in Northern Minnesota in 2017, the week before the Equinox. So I won’t be ‘racing’ the Equinox; instead, I will hike the Equinox. I think I can spend 10 hours walking the course. I wouldn’t miss it, so that’s got to be the strategy.”

Saari became so enamored with the race and its history that he spent much of the last six years writing a book about it. He self-published 1,000 copies of The Equinox: Alaska’s Trailblazing Marathon this year, and 600 have already sold. He hopes to run a second printing of 1,000 before next year’s Equinox.

“The book was a labor of love,” he explained. “The idea came about 12 or 13 years ago. The actual writing was done after I moved to Anchorage. I’ve chipped away on it for five years. Before that I did a lot of research, dug up articles on microfiche, interviewed people … but as a sports writer it was hard to motivate myself to write about sports in my spare time.

“It’s such a special event, I didn’t want to do a half-assed book about it.” he added. “It’s really two books in one. The first two-thirds are a chronological history of the race. The last third recaps every race from 1963 to 2015, in a more newspaper-style with third-person narrative.”

The Equinox Marathon certainly has a storied past. It was first run near Fairbanks in 1963. The entry list included 24 men, 8 women, 21 boys and 64 girls, some taking nearly 10 hours to finish the course.

At the time, there were just 15 marathons in the nation. None included women, nonetheless girls.

The Boston Marathon, which was first run in 1897, did not allow women to participate until 1972. Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb is the first woman acknowledged to have finished the entire Boston Marathon course, running unofficially in 1966. Gibb had to hide in the bushes near the start and avoid race officials as she ran. In 1967, Katherine Switzer battled to run Boston, with officials attempting to physically remove her from the course at several points.

But nothing was further from the mind of Equinox organizers than discriminating against women. In fact, they couldn’t imagine discriminating against anyone, and they encouraged whole classrooms of students to attempt the race together. They were welcomed to hike, rather than run, if need be.

Matias Saari nears the halfway point of the Matanuska Peak Challenge in 2015. The race climbs 9,000 feet in 14 miles. (Photo courtesy of Holly Brooks)

“Unlike other events, they encouraged everyone. Women entered 10 years before women were allowed to run the Boston Marathon,” Saari said. “Whole families and whole classrooms of kids ran together. And I just found that so remarkable.”

Twenty-nine women finished that first race, the largest number of women to complete any marathon in the world in 1963.

Several chapters in Saari’s book chronicle discovery of his own running talent through those painful first marathons. With his permission, we have re-printed the short opening chapter “Sufferfest” as a sidebar to this piece.

Given the level of pain he experienced, it’s remarkable Saari went back for more.

“Part of it is the challenge. I appreciate that it’s such a difficult course,” he said. “I’m not a rhythm/pavement runner. I need varying terrain. No two miles of the Equinox Marathon are the same. It’s a wonderful mix of technical trails, climbing, fun descents and some roads. It requires a wide skill range and I appreciate that kind of running.”

Another big draw for Saari was the history of the race, something he heavily focuses on in his book. Within five years of its inception, the Equinox Marathon was the largest marathon in the world, and it took place in a remote part of small-town Alaska.

“The word ‘Trailblazing’ is in the title for a reason,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing that makes the Equinox unique—the women, children and hikers who did the race in massive numbers. That didn’t happen at other races.

“This race is special because of the course. The camaraderie. The community aspect. The history. The challenge. My personal history. It was the first marathon I ever did. It got me into running. It enhanced my sports writing career, and I have become an author.

“I’m lucky to have moved to a place with such a race,” Saari added.

With a course that includes 3,500 feet of climbing, Saari said it was considered the second hardest marathon in the country at the time it started.

“There is no ranking system, and I know there are several marathons out there that are harder, but it’s still extremely challenging,” he added. “You really have to earn the patch they give you for finishing, and I’ve got 17 of them.”

Saari is no longer a sports journalist, but still freelances on the side. He now works for a nonprofit organization called Healthy Futures, which empowers youth to build the daily habit of physical activity. Saari is their event coordinator, supporting about 100 events around Alaska with bibs and medals and advice on how to put on events that are targeted to kids.

Healthy Futures is part of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame’s programming. Saari also writes for the hall of fame’s blog and awards ceremonies.

Saari will visit Marquette this holiday season, and will hold a slideshow on the Equinox Marathon, along with a book sale and signing, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 28, at the Blackrocks Brewery in Marquette.

The book, The Equinox: Alaska’s Trailblazing Marathon can be purchased online at www.equinoxmarathonbook.com.

­— Eric Hammerstrom

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