Earlier this month, the unstoppable Kilian Jornet set a new course record at Alaska’s most revered footrace, a short but brutal mountain run known as Mount Marathon. While Jornet may have topped the headlines that day, the second place finisher on the women’s side, Allie Ostrander, is the one we should have been paying attention to. The 18-year-old Kenai Peninsula native is quickly becoming one of the best young runners in the country.
Last fall, Ostrander, who recently graduated as co-valedictorian from Kenai High, won the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon. Her final season of high school track included a 9:59.33 3200 meters, which at the time was the fastest two-mile by any high school girl this year. Despite such impressive performances, and unlike fellow prep running prodigies Mary Cain and Alexa Efraimson, Ostrander isn’t turning professional right out high school. She has committed to Boise State, where she intends to supplement her passion for cooking with a degree in kinesiology and nutrition.
Catching up with Allie for an interview wasn’t easy as she was busy putting on a running camp for 6- to 12-year-olds. When we finally got in touch, Ostrander shared some thoughts about her budding athletic career, the challenge of running up hills, and the versatility of pancakes.
Outside: It was tough getting ahold of you. Tell us about this summer running camp you’re involved in at the moment.
OSTRANDER: Last summer, my friend and I had to do a senior civics project, which is like a community service project, as part of our high school government class, so we decided to start a running camp for younger kids and teach them the basics about running and try to spread a little bit of the love that we have for it. It went really well, so we decided to do it again this summer, except we did two camps this time around.
How did you get into running?
Both of my parents were runners, and so is my older sister, Taylor. We would always do the community 5Ks when I was younger and I also did Hershey’s Track, starting in second grade, which was usually just the one meet a year. When my sister started racing for her middle school, I went to their practices and ran with them.
For the last few seasons, you’ve played on your high school basketball team, between cross-country and track seasons. As a multi-sport athlete, what do you think the special appeal of running is?
I think a lot of it has to do with the challenge of running–that it’s so difficult. It may not be the same type of fun as basketball, most people don't call running intervals fun, but it’s also way more rewarding than any other sport I’ve ever done.
Why do you think it’s more rewarding?
Because every thing you do is coming from within yourself. It’s not like having teammates that you’re working with, or a ball to chase after–it’s just you pushing yourself to be your best.
“Mount Marathon is a big deal in Alaska. It’s such a storied race and so mentally and physically challenging—it has a lot of the essence of being a ‘tough Alaskan.’ For me, it’s the only mountain race that I do.”
Last spring, you broke ten minutes in the 3,200 meters, which is a landmark achievement. Do you have any specific running goals going forward?
It’s hard for me to set goals for my college races, because I haven’t really run any of those distances before. I think I’ll have a better idea after my freshman year, when I can get a baseline for what I’m capable of. I know I want to move towards the distance end. In high school I raced the 800 and the 1,600, but I want to move more towards 5K and 10K.
Do you have a favorite workout?
I don’t know if you can call it a “favorite” workout, but probably one of my best workouts is a hill-repeat workout that’s just, well, very difficult. I’d actually never been able to finish the workout until my senior year. It’s hard to explain why it’s so hard, because you kind of have to be there to understand, to see this hill. But we did three sets of three hills, and each one is about 400 meters long and you’re trying to do them at 5K pace but, you know, you’re going up a steep hill. And then, in between the sets, you do a 400 at mile pace on a gravel loop. It’s something about the way the uphill completely drains you. After the first or second repeat, I’m already super tired.
Which brings us nicely to Mount Marathon, where you finished a remarkable second in your debut at the women’s senior race. Mount Marathon has the reputation of being the no. 2 most recognized race in Alaska after the Iditarod. Do you think that’s true and, if so, why are some many people so into this small, local race?
Yeah, I would say that’s true. All the people I’ve ever met who run know about the race. Of course there are exceptions, people who aren’t really that into sports might not know about it, but Mount Marathon is a big deal in Alaska. I think a large part of that is that it’s such a storied race and so mentally and physically challenging–it has a lot of the essence of being a “tough Alaskan.” In Alaska, it’s such a bucket list thing to do. For me, it’s the only mountain race that I do and I know it’s the same for a lot of other people here.
Do you plan to keeping running it every year, now that you’ll soon be running for a college team?
I’d like to keep running it. We’ll see with my college training if it will fit into that, but, yeah, it’s been a part of my July 4 for about nine years now.
Reading about Mount Marathon, it sounds so brutal. Have ever been injured while running? Were there any close calls for you personally?
Not really. I fell a couple times, but it was just in the shale so it wasn’t really dangerous. I told my coach about the race before I did it this year and he said, ‘Oh, that’s fine. I don’t want you to give up things you love to run. It should be something you want to do, and it shouldn’t limit you.’ So I really appreciated that. When I race Mount Marathon, I’m relatively careful. I’m not holding back on the downhill, but I’m also being smart and not taking unnecessary risks.
Do you have any secret, or perhaps not so secret, aspirations to break the course record?
Yeah. I feel like no win would be completely legitimate unless I beat that time.
What’s it like training during the winter in Alaska? Do you think that will be easier in Idaho?
I think training in Idaho in the winter will probably be easier in than in Alaska, although I’ve never done a whole lot of winter training in Alaska, because I’ve always been in basketball. I’m sure it’ll still be cold and dark in Idaho, but not to the same extremes as in Alaska. I would usually run about three days a week during basketball, but mainly just short runs to keep up my aerobic capacity and I only started doing that this year. Before that, I hadn’t done any running in the winter.
You’re reputed to be quite the cook. Do you have a pre-race ritual meal, or a favorite food?
I do have a pre-race ritual meal–Wheaties, of course. My favorite dish would probably have to be pancakes. Not because they’re hard to make or because they represent a particular culinary challenge, but because they’re so versatile and my sister and I always like to experiment with new pancakes flavors and combinations. Also, it’s not just about the pancakes, but the connotation of pancakes-which is spending time with my sister.
What kind of flavors of pancakes are we talking about? Anything unusual?
I’m sure we’ve done a number of rather unusual pancakes. We’ve done lemon poppyseed, almond poppyseed, pineapple coconut, orange cranberry, banana peanut butter, pumpkin, sweet potato . . . we’ve experimented quite a lot. Just yesterday I made zucchini pancakes. We put syrup on most of them, but sometimes we’re more in a peanut butter mood, and we also really enjoy topping them with apple sauce.
Wow. Have any of them turned out particularly good or, maybe, particularly bad?
Not sure about the best ones. I really like pineapple coconut, but I also really like the zucchini ones I made yesterday. None of them of have really turned out bad. My sister and I, we’re kind of the pancake masters.