In the days leading up to the 35th Matanuska Peak Challenge, Meg Inokuma and Scott Patterson seriously questioned whether to do the toughest mountain running race in Alaska.
Patterson, a two-time Olympic Nordic skier, was plagued for months by a high ankle sprain that had recently forced his withdrawal from the Crow Pass Crossing. He also admitted being intimidated by the large boulder field leading to the top of 6,100-foot Matanuska Peak.
Meanwhile, Inokuma was still recovering from a hiking accident on Calliope Mountain where she was struck by a falling rock on her right hand, resulting in stitches and two open wounds.
Tackling Mat Peak is no small challenge even in good health, but a compromised hand is a complication that would force many to opt out, especially considering the technical terrain where hands are needed to scramble up and down large rocks and boulders.
“It was a bumpy ride to get to the start line this year,” said Inokuma, 43, of Palmer. “(My doctor) didn’t tell me not to do it. So thank you doctor!”
Patterson didn’t commit to racing Mat Peak for the first time — he hadn’t even been up that mountain in 8-10 years — until last Thursday. That’s when he switched a rollerskiing interval workout from Friday to Thursday, which freed up his weekend schedule just enough.
“Two weeks ago I felt I wasn’t in a place to do running races,” Patterson said.
Once they committed, the pair set lofty goals: Patterson was gunning for the men’s record (2 hours, 53 minutes set by Lars Arneson in 2022) while Inokuma aimed for Christy Marvin’s 2016 mark of 3:26:32 (which Inokuma agonizingly missed by just two seconds last year).
Once on the trail, Patterson and Inokuma left no doubt who the king and queen of Mat Peak were on Saturday.
On a hot and sunny day that afforded limitless views (when racers weren’t watching their every step), Patterson lowering the record to 2:48:24 for the 14-mile torture fest that gains and loses about 10,000 feet of elevation.
Inokuma, with her hand bandaged, ran 3:23:37, knocking nearly three minutes of the record to finish fifth overall.
Also posting incredible results were the runners-up, Klaire Rhodes of Anchorage and Garrett Corcoran of Salt Lake City, who each represented the United States this July in Austria at the World Trail Running Championships.
With Marvin absent — she was in Italy to watch her son Coby participate in the World Youth Skyrunning Championships — Rhodes stayed in striking distance of Inokuma most of the way and ran 3:27:31, the fourth fastest time in women’s history.
Corcoran, who’d never set foot on either Lazy Mountain or Matanuska peak, broke the 3-hour benchmark in 2:59:09, the seventh fastest time in men’s history. (Corcoran, 27, competed at Cal Berkeley in college and ran a mile in under 4 minutes before shifting his focus to mountains and trails, where he’s had great success).
But back to Inokuma and Patterson.
Inokuma, who spent most of the winter also managing a wrist injury, first had to overcome the mental and physical trauma of the accident on Calliope a week before Mat Peak. She was climbing in a gully with two friends when sheep likely kicked down rocks from high above. The first smashed her right hand when she instinctly covered her head. Then another hit her helmet, denting it but causing no further injury. After discovering the severity of the open wounds on her hand, Inokuma said she briefly passed out. She credited her friends for dressing her wounds and helping keep her calm.
Once safely home, she visited a doctor, had her hand stitched and received antibiotics, which she was grateful did not adversely affect her gut.
Then she turned her attention to Mat Peak.
“I really wanted to do this,” Inokuma said after driving 3 ½ hours from Palmer to Kasilof after the race. “If I don’t mess up anything I thought I could (get the record). … I was trying not to think about that part.”
Inokuma doesn’t wear a watch while racing so wasn’t sure she was on record pace. But she is intimately familiar with Lazy Mountain, which the course ascends twice — right from the start and a second time from the backside approaching the finish. Inokuma, a biometrician for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, calls Lazy Mountain her “lunch walk” as she takes a 90-minute break nearly every weekday to climb it.
Inokuma struggled with severe anemia for years and it wasn’t until 2018 that her health substantially improved. Since then, she’s been a contender at just about every race she competes in and her record at Mat Peak clinched her first overall Alaska Mountain Runners Grand Prix title (narrowly over Marvin).
“(I’m) so thankful for being healthy,” she texted on Monday.
Patterson can say the same after his injured ankle ordeal.
Once he got going on Saturday — Patterson reached the top of Lazy in 35-36 minutes — the ankle felt fine. He was further buoyed upon learning that he was 7-8 minutes ahead of Arneson’s record pace upon reaching the summit of Mat Peak in an astounding 1 hour, 39 minutes.
Patterson’s strategy was to push hard on the uphills and “make it through the downs” and while he ceded a few minutes on the return to Lazy Mountain trailhead his cushion was more than enough.
Eric Strabel, the first man to break 3 hours at Mat Peak in 2012, was not surprised by Patterson’s achievement. Strabel was on the course supporting and photographing runners and saw Patterson cruise by him twice.
“I am glad Scott finally did this race,” Strabel texted. “I’ve been trying to get him there for almost 10 years. I knew that he was capable of going under 2:50.”
Patterson may seem superhuman — he also holds the record for the Crow Pass Crossing and has placed 8th in a Nordic ski race at the Winter Olympics — but even he suffered a bit on Saturday.
The “second ascent of Lazy was just baking in the sun,” Patterson said.
And the final descent “definitely hurt. … It just kept going and going and going,” he added.
For complete results, click here.