The question looms over the Mount Marathon women's race the way the mountain itself looms over Seward.
Allie O, or Allie no?
It's uncertain whether defending champion Allie Ostrander, a 21-year-old running marvel known to fans as "Allie O," will compete in Wednesday's race in Seward.
If she does, she's the clear favorite. In two appearances, Ostrander has registered two of the three fastest women's times in the history of the 104-year-old race.
If she doesn't, several women could wage a fierce battle for victory in one of Alaska's most famous and most extreme sports competitions.
"If Allie is there, obviously she has a huge advantage," two-time champion Christy Marvin said. "She has proved to us time and time again she can not only conquer the mountain, she can do it with ease. She has the leg speed to match anyone anywhere on the course.
"… Once you take Allie out of the picture, the race gets pretty open and pretty competitive. There's a lot of us. A lot of us will be climbing together and racing the downhill together."
Ostrander is a Boise State track and cross-country star coming off her second straight NCAA steeplechase championship. After making a spectacular debut in the 2015 senior race — she and winner Emilie Forsberg both broke Nancy Pease's long-standing record — she skipped the 2016 race to prepare for the Olympic track trials.
She may skip this year's 4th of July race too. The Kenai Central graduate told the Peninsula Clarion on Friday that she's on the fence and may not decide until race day.
"It's not necessarily about me getting injured," Ostrander told her hometown newspaper. "It's just such a high-impact race and it's so much stress on the body.
"I'm not sure if it's worth it."
As familiar as Ostrander is with the mountain – she won six straight junior titles, and in her final junior race in 2014 she beat all of the boys – Mount Marathon can be risky for anyone.
The race is roughly 5 kilometers long, and most of it is spent going up and down Mount Marathon, a rugged peak that rises 3,022 feet from its base near sea level.
Even elite racers sometimes power-hike rather than run as they encounter cliffs, rocks, waterfalls, gravel, loose shale and, this year, snow fields. There is no established course other than the half-mile stretch on city streets that connects the start/finish to the base of the mountain.
If Ostrander decides not to race, Marvin would lead a big pack of contenders. She's coming off a huge win in the 30-mile Kesugi Ridge Traverse, where she finished second overall and chopped 26 minutes off the previous women's record.
Among the known quantities are Denali Foldager-Strabel and Najeeby Quinn. Both are top-five regulars at Mount Marathon and both have registered multiple top-five finishes in other mountain races this summer.
Among the newcomers are Jessica Yeaton and Rosie Frankowski, Olympic skiers from Alaska Pacific University who are bound to be strong on the climb. Both have picked up impressive victories this summer — Yeaton turned heads with her Bird Ridge victory, and Frankowski dominated at Government Peak.
Two-time champion Holly Brooks discounts her chances as she prepares for her first Mount Marathon since her 2014 victory. She gave birth to twins less than a year ago and said she isn't sure what to expect from herself.
"I still try to get out and do something every day, I just can't be picky what it is," she said. "I really haven't had much time in the mountains — I have probably spent more time pushing a stroller on the pavement."
Others with top-10 talent include Lauren Fritz, Allison Barnwell, Heather Edic, Anna Dalton and Sheryl Loan — and that's just the short list.
Yeaton and Frankowski are drawing considerable pre-race attention, and justifiably so.
"I'm so excited to see the rookie skier girls," Brooks said. "Jessie had an amazing Bird Ridge and Rosie had an amazing Government Peak.
"Jessie is insanely fit. She'll be great on the uphill. They both will."
First-hand experience tells Foldager-Strabel that Yeaton and Frankowski will make their presence known, especially on the climb.
"They're grinders," she said. "They look amazing when they pass me going uphill. They have that can-go-all-day skier body.
"I hope Rosie does it – I know she's on the fence because of the downhill. It'll make it a faster race to the rock (if she races)."
The rock at the Mount Marathon turnaround point marks the end of a grueling climb and the start of a harrowing descent. It's also where Foldager-Strabel typically makes her move.
Dating back to 1989 when statistics started being kept, only three women have done the downhill in less than 12 minutes, and Foldager-Strabel is one of them.
Forsberg did the downhill in 11 minutes, 31 seconds in 2015 when she set the women's record of 47:48; seven-time champion Cedar Bourgeois clocked 11:48 in 2010; and Foldager-Strabel did it in 11:51 in 2016.
"I want that record," Foldager-Strabel said. "I think I'm capable. I've been holding myself back.
"I don't care what (place) I come in at the rock, first place or eighth place. I'm gonna go for that downhill PR."
Marvin, who boasts the fourth-fastest downhill (12:04 in 2014), is looking fast and fit coming into the race. This summer she is focusing on long races like the Kesugi Ridge Traverse, which she completed in a little less than 5.5 hours. Mount Marathon, where the top women finish in less than an hour, is a sprint by comparison.
"I haven't done a lot of training at that high-threshold aerobic level," she said.
Temperatures in the 70s are expected Wednesday, which could turn the mountain into an oven. While Ostrander's participation is the big question mark heading into the race, the heat could be the X factor. How people handle it could decide the outcome, Marvin said.
"If it wasn't going to be so hot, I would say we would all be pushing each other for PRs, but typically when it's that hot, nobody seems to be able to pull off their best race," she said. "It's not always the fittest and fastest (who wins), but the person who handles the conditions of Mount Marathon better than their competition."