An Alaskan Mountain Runner Exposed: Matias Saari
[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by guest writer Evan Hone.]
Many people reading this have probably not heard of Matias Saari… until now.
I was personally well aware of Matias long before he ever knew I existed. This is the way it often goes when a greenie starts getting into running. I was new to the sport when I first started ‘racing’ against Matias back in 2006. I guess the term ‘racing’ is not really accurate. We were both wearing bibs but I was far from being his competition. At the time he lived up in Fairbanks, Alaska but he had a habit of driving down to Anchorage and showing us all the correct way to run our trails and mountains.
Matias is now 44 and at his age runners tend to start slowing down or disappear out of the sport altogether. Not Matias. This past July, I was again reminded of just how special of a runner Matias is as I desperately tried to keep up with him on a steep climb in the first few miles at the 2014 Crow Pass Crossing race. He had an “off day” at Crow Pass but still had no problem smoking me and pretty much the rest of the field. This summer he also took second place at the revered Mount Marathon Race (he won the race in 2009) and won the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks for his fourth time.
Matias often doesn’t wear a watch and upon moving to the Anchorage Hillside in 2010 lived in a dry cabin (no running water); now he shares a timber-frame house in the same Bear Valley neighborhood with girlfriend Christie Haupert and their three Alaskan huskies. He is a mountain runner that can fly down extreme steeps as well as anyone in our sport. In the following interview, I pick his brain about his life and his thoughts on the Alaskan running scene.
iRunFar: Matias Saari is an interesting name. What is your background?
Matias Saari: My mom is Austrian and my dad is American (with Finnish heritage: Saari means ‘island’ in Finnish). My parents married in Austria in 1964 and my mom came to the U.S. shortly thereafter. My folks settled in Marquette, Michigan (in the Upper Peninsula) and still live there.
I speak German and have been to Austria 25-plus times and spent four-plus years of my life there; I also lived there for a year in 1977 and 1978 and we’d go every summer to visit my grandmother and other relatives. (Dad was a history professor so [he] had summers off.) Our farmhouse in the foothills of the Alps still belongs to us (it used to be a dairy farm) and I consider it a second home. It’s an amazing playground that includes Austria’s Limestone Alps National Park. Most visits I find a race in Austria or elsewhere. ([I] had hoped to do Sierre-Zinal this year but it conflicted with my parents’ 50th anniversary party.) In the future I hope to be able to spend more time in Austria and participate in some of Europe’s classic mountain races.
iRunFar: How did you get to Alaska and were you always a runner?
Saari: At age 24 I took a job at a newspaper in Ketchikan, Alaska. Before moving to Alaska I was not a runner. Growing up I played tennis, soccer, and basketball. Soon after moving to Alaska I started hiking and spending time in the mountains. In 1998 I moved to Fairbanks and started running a bit more. I decided to sign up for the Equinox Marathon with two girls as a relay team but they bailed so I just ran the marathon solo. It was a miserable experience but I was hooked! I started running more and purchased a training book. In Fairbanks I did a variety of events on both trails and roads. I was not very competitive from the start. It took a good seven years before I started having solid times.
iRunFar: What was the reason you eventually left Fairbanks and decided to move south to Anchorage?
Saari: I needed a change. Fairbanks is a hard place to live. The winters are long and the mountains were calling to me. I came down to Anchorage a lot and the more time I spent in Chugach Mountains, the more I realized that this is where I was supposed to be. I love Fairbanks, though, and still have a cabin up there.
iRunFar: Were your parents athletes and/or runners?
Saari: My parents still hike and ski but have never been athletes. Maybe my athletic genes come from my Austrian grandfather, who was very active and had the same frame as me? (He died during World War II on the Russian Front in 1944.)
iRunFar: Tell me about your build. Tall guys like me get a bit jealous trying to chase you little guys up a mountain.
Saari: I am 5 foot, 9 inches and weigh 138 pounds. I like to tease bigger guys about all the extra weight they have to lug up the mountain, but they also have a strength/power advantage on me. Short steps/quick turnover and efficiently mixing hiking and running is what gets me up mountains competitively. (But I will never reach the top of Mount Marathon first.). However, technical downhills are my favorite terrain. There is no greater feeling than dancing down a mountain at breakneck speed.
iRunFar: What are your thoughts on the Alaska racing scene?
Saari: There are many supremely talented mountain and trail runners in Alaska but all but a few are obscure because they are unsponsored and don’t race regularly in the Lower 48. For most, it is hard to justify the time and expense of traveling to the Lower 48 when there are so many outstanding races in Alaska.
To give you an idea of how competitive Mount Marathon is, Salomon-sponsored Rickey Gates finished just seconds behind Kilian Jornet at September’s The Rut Vertical K but placed fourth at this year’s Mount Marathon. In 2013, Rickey broke the Mount Marathon course record but didn’t win the race as Eric Strabel was even faster.
For the women, Christy Marvin dominates in Alaska but few people know about her. The one race she’s done ‘outside,’ she won the San Diego Trail Marathon outright!
iRunFar: Can you highlight some of the Alaska races that you enjoy and tell me about what makes them special?
Saari: The Equinox Marathon is the most meaningful and special race for me. It is the race that catapulted me into endurance sports. To do well at this marathon you have to have a wide range of skills, climbing, descending, speed, technical trail skill, and being durable enough to take advantage of the roads. I am currently writing a book about the history of the race.
Turnagain Arm Trail Run kicks off the trail running season in Alaska. This is a seven-mile point-to-point race that I do every year. It takes speed and the ability to run fast on technical trails.
Lost Lake Run is a 15-mile point-to-point trail run near Seward. It is another of my favorite Alaska races. Despite a hefty entry fee, it’s become so popular that it fills 700 spots in a matter of hours.
Crow Pass Crossing is a 24-mile race that starts in Girdwood and ends in Eagle River. There are no aid stations or course markings. I am a very consistent runner but this race gives me the most problems. I have run it seven or eight times but I am still trying to figure it out because when the wheels start coming off they come off fast! Cramping seems to be the main problem I have. You have to deal with extreme technical terrain, chest-high grass, crossing a glacier-fed river, and boulder fields. This is the kind of race you have to really focus on it to do well. Geoff Roes put this race on the map.
I like the Mount Marathon Race because of the extreme nature of it and I have done it seven years in a row. I won the race in 2009 and was second this year. Rickey Gates has really helped give exposure to this classic three-mile race.
The Matanuska Peak Challenge has 18,000 feet of [elevation] change over 14 miles! This is a unique Euro-style race with steep ups and steep downs. I came in second to local legend Harlow Robinson three years in a row at this race. I broke the [then-]course record and beat Harlow in 2010. It felt good to finally beat him. Eric Strabel has since set a new course record. I hope more interest will be generated in this race because it is still obscure outside of Alaska.
Last year I also founded the Pioneer Ridge Climb (with Ben Marvin) and hope it also grows into a local favorite; we wanted to put on an ‘old-school’ event so only charged $5.00 to cover our costs (no t-shirts!). The uphill-only course climbed 5,000 vertical feet in 4.5 miles. In 2008, I also founded the Northern Trails Running Series in Fairbanks which remains active.
iRunFar: What are some ‘outside’ races on your bucket list?
Saari: The single Dipsea, the Bridger Ridge Run (Montana), the Escarpment Trail Run (New York), and Pikes Peak Marathon (Colorado). I would also like to tour the Wonderland Trail (Washington), Presidential Range Traverse (New Hampshire) and Tetons Circumnavigation (Wyoming).
iRunFar: What does your training look like?
Saari: When I lived in Fairbanks it used to be flatter and faster. When I moved to Anchorage I became more unstructured and just spent a lot of time in the mountains. I don’t track mileage and run anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per week. I do maintenance running in the winter (only run one to two times a week). In the winter I mostly cross-country ski.
For example, the mountain tour I did this morning is how I like to approach training. I met two friends at the Falls Creek Trailhead, hiked/jogged an hour along the creek until it opened into a spectacular valley, then spontaneously bagged a peak, dropped down a steep chute, worked our way up a 1,000-foot climb to a pass that dropped us steeply 3,000 vertical feet down the Indianhouse Peak Trail, where we connected to a mile-long overgrown trail (filled with bear scat) that completed the loop. We were out three-plus hours and covered maybe nine miles and 4,500 [feet of] vert. I’m guessing on the stats because I didn’t wear a watch. My five-month-old sprint husky puppy, Hillie, came along and crushed it!
I came home, had lunch, will gather some firewood this afternoon (deadfall on Barney’s property), and then work on the book.
iRunFar: Do you envision running a 100 miler?
Saari: Doing 100 miles on foot is probably inevitable but so far the only 100 milers I’ve done have been on skis (which aren’t easy and can take 24 hours). The hardest race I’ve ever done was the 2014 Alaska Mountain Winter Wilderness Classic, where my girlfriend, Christie Haupert, and I skied nearly 190 remote miles, mostly in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, in six days and eight hours. Participants carry everything they need because there are no aid stations or trail markers.
So far I’ve only dabbled in ultras, with a few 50k’s and 50 milers, but once I start slowing down at the shorter distances I imagine I’ll race more ultras. Mountain ultras are what I’ll likely gravitate to. Right now I am just trying to ride my peak for as long as I can.
iRunFar: Last but not least, who are some of the runners that you look up to?
Saari: There are many people that I look up to. Brad Precosky (six-time Mount Marathon champ) and Barney Griffith are two incredible runners. Barney is 57 and still getting after it; he also welcomed me to the mountains by renting me a cabin. He and Brad are still neighbors of mine in Bear Valley. Some other runners are Mike Kramer, Harlow Robinson, Kevin Brinegar, Stan Justice, and Bob Murphy. All are amazing runners and have had a positive influence on me over the years.
iRunFar: Thanks Matias!