Two-time defending Equinox Marathon champion Allan Spangler will be returning to Fairbanks to defend his title for Saturday’s 57th annual running of the race, but despite being in even better shape this year than he has been in years past, he doesn’t think he has a chance at another repeat win.

“I’d like to give it another shot but there is another guy here, Aaron Fletcher, who’s running, who is a much better runner than I am and I don’t think there’s much of a chance I could beat him,” the Juneau resident and former University of Alaska Fairbanks cross-country runner said over the phone Thursday.

“‘I’d love to say, ‘Oh, yeah, we are going to duke it out, and it’s going to be great,’ but he is like seriously a much, much, much better runner than anyone else in the field,” Spangler said laughing.

Fletcher, who grew up in Anchorage before competing in NCAA Division I cross-country and track and field at Brigham Young University from 2009-16, is running the 26.2 miles of trail and road around Fairbanks for the first time.

In November 2018 he qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with a 2 hour, 17 minute and 23 second time at the Indianapolis Marathon. A sub 2:19:00 is required for qualification. He also set the course record for the St. George Marathon in Utah with a time of 2:14:44 in 2017.

“The timing of it was perfect, and I also just really like trail running,” Fletcher said of this year's Equinox race.

“I feel like running a trail marathon at this stage is a really good springboard for getting fit and strong and then I’ll hopefully be able to convert that over the winter into fast road training.”

In addition to building his fitness base for the February Olympic Trials, which is a road marathon in Atlanta, Fletcher also has his eye on the Equinox course record, a time of 2:41:30 set in 1984 by Stan Justice. 

Although Spangler admits that Fletcher’s addition to the field will likely keep him from a three-peat victory, it helped motivate him in his training.

“One good thing about having Aaron jump into it is I feel like it kind of pulled me out of my training slump of the last few years, and I put on a pretty good month of training so I should be in better shape than I have been for the last two years.

“I’d like to get under 2:50. There’s not a lot of people who have run it in under 2:50 and it’s just surprisingly hard to get.”

Spangler just missed the mark last year when he finished with a 2:50:06. In 2017 he recorded 2:52:31.

Also filling out the field for the men is Cody Priest, an Anchorage resident who has broken the three-hour marker for the past five years, and Matias Saari, a six-time Equinox champion and former News-Miner sports writer. 

This will be Saari’s first year running the full marathon since 2016. In 2017, he hiked the course, and in 2018, he competed as part of a relay team. This year he’s excited to be running the full 26.2 miles again and is hoping to break three hours for the 13th time.

“The combination of roads and trails is pretty unique. It’s a true hybrid marathon and it seems like nowadays you have either road or trail marathon, but not a combination.”

The hybrid course starts at the Patty Center at UAF and runs on a combination of roads and trails toward Goldstream Sports before beginning up Ester Dome, which includes 1,500 feet of vertical climbing over 3.4 miles. Runners travel for another 5 miles on the section known as “The Out-and-Back” before beginning a 4 mile, 1,710-foot vertical descent. 

“It’s just sort of a nasty rutted trail and it’s the steepest part of the whole race. You drop 600 vertical feet in a third of a mile, so it’s just really jarring, and you know people are just falling and getting injured so I think that is why a lot of people don’t like it,” Saari said about the descent. 

“But there is a pretty big reward when you get to the bottom of the chute. … There’s a couple miles of beautiful birch and aspen forest after that so that’s my favorite”

After reaching the bottom of the descent the runners have about 4 miles remaining before reaching the finish line at the Patty Center.

“Fall in Fairbanks is a beautiful time of year, and really what I love about it is just the history of the race and the community support,” Saari added. “It’s just a special Saturday in September every year.”

Lee Wakeman, who is running the third leg for a relay team, had similar sentiments.

But unlike Saari, Spangler or Fletcher, Wakeman’s relay team isn’t looking to clock a time under three hours or break any records. For Wakeman and many others, the Equinox is just about having fun.

“We are not going to be competitive, I’ll tell you that right now,” Wakeman said, laughing after picking up his bib on Thursday evening at the Patty Ice Arena.

“It’s just a great community-building event. People have fun there, it’s high energy, and there’s just a lot of encouragement and just getting to know people.”

Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.