Sixteen-year-old Coby Marvin is half the age of Lars Arneson.
And Marvin, understandably, is not nearly as accomplished as Arneson, a three-time overall winner of the Alaska Mountain Runners Grand Prix who has been racking up wins on trails and mountains for years.
At the only other Grand Prix race so far this season, Marvin stayed reasonably close to Arneson on the ascent of Crazy Lazy before Arneson dominated the downhill en route to a convincing win while Marvin finished nearly five minutes back.
So when Marvin fell significantly behind in Saturday’s Government Peak Climb in Palmer, Arneson, 33, surely wasn’t looking over his shoulder for the kid who just finished his sophomore year at Colony High School.
Then the trail steepened and Marvin — who was 39 seconds behind Arneson at the first time check barely 12 minutes into the race — began his chase.
“I just took off after him because I was feeling I could go faster,” Marvin said.
Coming from sixth place, Marvin caught and passed Josh Taylor, who has represented the United States at international Skyraces. He caught and passed Galen Hecht, the runner-up at Crazy Lazy. He even caught and passed his father, Ben, a winner of the Matanuska Peak Challenge with six Top 10 finishes at Seward’s Mount Marathon Race to his credit.
When Coby caught Arneson, the co-leaders settled in together. Soon muddy, slippery conditions turned to a snowy staircase as a storm the previous two nights had dropped a load of heavy snow on an already substantial snowpack that has been slow to melt this spring.
“We’ve been half joking about how Coby would be winning races and beating his dad any year now so I wasn’t surprised when he was right there with me,” Arneson said.
Marvin broke free of Arneson about three-quarters of the way up the 3,500-foot climb and gained a 36-second advantage at the top.
A long descent back to the Government Peak Recreation Area trailhead via Blueberry Knoll awaited. Marvin was happy with his position but hardly confident he could stay up front.
“I thought Lars was going to get me on the downhill for sure,” Marvin said while relaxing at a picnic table after the race.
But 10 minutes later, Marvin — despite floundering in deep untracked snow and falling about every 100 feet — had increased his lead to 81 seconds. It was exhausting work as he sunk through anywhere from shin to hip deep.
“But it was also good because I knew Lars would be sinking in more than me,” said Marvin, who weighs 125 pounds.
The sturdy Arneson, who dwarfed Marvin in race photos, said he tried running in Marvin’s steps off the top but would plunge through to his thighs nearly every footfall. And try as he might, even after the snow turned to mud and then to dry forest and ski trails, Arneson didn’t dent his deficit.
“I just couldn’t catch him,” Arneson said.
Marvin reached the finish in 1 hour, 13 minutes, 39 seconds. Arneson followed 90 seconds later. No one else was close.
And it appears that no Grand Prix winner has been close to Marvin’s young age. Former Alaska Mountain Runners president Brad Precosky said the AMR Grand Prix was created in 2000 and a teenager winning a race in the series is “probably a first.”
Pre-Grand Prix, however, several teenagers were victorious at races that later joined the Grand Prix. Siblings Tory and Darcy Dugan were the youngest, with Tory winning the men’s division at the Alyeska Classic at age 15 and 16 in 1995-96 while Darcy won the same race from 1996-98 at ages 14 through 16.
Rob Whitney won the highly competitive Bird Ridge Hill Climb at age 18 in 1998 (and again in 1999); he also claimed the Alyeska Classic uphill races those two years. Darin Markwardt won the Alyeska Classic Roundtrip race at age 19 in 1999. Thereafter, however, teenagers had a drought of more than two decades before Marvin broke through.
Remarkably, until recently Marvin hasn’t been training much on trails or mountains because he was occupied with high school track and field.
“(But) I did a lot of backcountry skiing (this winter) which is good hiking training,” said Marvin, whose back door leads directly to Lazy Mountain.
Marvin has two big upcoming competitions to look forward to. On the Fourth of July, he’s eyeing Bill Spencer’s Mount Marathon junior record, a mark that has stood for half a century. Last year Marvin surprised many by running the second-fastest time in junior history. He figures he’ll be faster this year but has nearly a minute to make up to surpass Spencer.
Then in August he’s heading to Italy with family for the Youth Skyrunning World Championships, where he’ll represent the USA.
Coby wasn’t the only Marvin to win a race on Saturday. His mother, Christy, won the up-and-down women’s race (Meg Inokuma was first in the Uphill Only event) and finished sixth overall. Among her many accolades, she’s a Mount Marathon champion and Crow Pass Crossing record-holder. She says Coby benefits from an active and adventurous lifestyle that doesn’t revolve around running.
“I feel like Coby still has untapped potential in mountain running,” Christy said. “That said, we are trying not to change much, let him keep having fun and keep from racing him too much. We are very excited for MMR and Italy, though.”
Full Government Peak Climb results can be viewed here.