Mount Marathon runners feel the heat

July 4, 2009 

SEWARD -- Mount Marathon men's race leader Brent Knight was within sight of the finish line and the glory that comes with seizing the nation's third-oldest footrace when he collapsed and was carried off the course Saturday.

Holly Brooks led much of the women's race before heat exhaustion and a wicked blister on her entire left heel forced a detour to the emergency room, where she received intravenous fluids before she checked out and finished.

Ten years after runners endured the most scorching temperatures recorded in Mount Marathon history, the athletes again suffered through another blistering Independence Day on the 3 1/2-mile course up and down the unforgiving 3,022-foot peak overlooking Resurrection Bay.

Blue skies, 70-degree temperatures that felt more searing and only the slightest whisper of a wind slowed times and felled runners in Alaska's most prestigious footrace.

"It was how you might imagine hell to be,'' said Harlow Robinson of Anchorage, who finished seventh in the men's race.

He spoke while seated in a chair near the finish line. Both of Robinson's heels were wrapped in gauze -- the heat and friction generated by the harrowing, high-speed descent on a mountain with slopes as severe as 60 degrees combined to rub skin off his heels.

Knight, 26, of Anchorage, was just one long city block from the finish line downtown when he collapsed on the street. He crawled, then rolled down the incline of spectator-lined Fourth Avenue before coming to a stop and receiving aid from medical personnel. His race was over.

"His face was green; he couldn't even talk or crawl,'' said women's winner Cedar Bourgeois of Seward, who was watching the race when Knight collapsed in front of her. "I've never seen anything so horrifying in this race.''

It was unclear if Knight mistook the blue carpeting near where he collapsed, within feet of the starting line, as the finish line. The blue carpet includes sensors that record runners' time from the electronic chip they wear in their shoelaces.

Knight, a nordic skier with Olympic designs, is well-liked in the mountain-running community for his easy humor, good spirit and competitive zeal. Friends said he was recovering at Providence Seward Medical & Care Center on Saturday night. A message left on his cell phone was not immediately returned.

Matias Saari, 38, of Fairbanks, won the race in an unofficial time of 48 minutes flat to claim his first Mount Marathon crown.

But he struggled, too. When Saari came upon Knight, he stopped because he thought Knight had collapsed just past the finish line, relegating Saari to second place.

When spectators yelled at Saari to continue, he ran a short stretch and stopped again. This time, he said, he thought he was across the finish line. Actually, he was at the start line. The finish line was just more than 200 yards away.

"It's sort of a haze,'' Saari said of the finish. "It was just bizarre.''

Saari said that when spectators gave him water along the course, he poured it over his head in an attempt to cool himself.

Brooks led Bourgeois to the top of the mountain and led for much of the descent until her legs began buckling. Her fiance, Rob Whitney, a firefighter, later said Brooks suffered from mild heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Brooks was taken to Providence, which is adjacent to the course. She received intravenous fluids, left the facility and walked to the finish line.

"My legs were just like jelly,'' Brooks said of the trouble she encountered on the downhill section of the race.

She said she finished to retain her spot in the limited-entry field and complete what she started, adding that she was "psyched'' to race again next year.

Brooks watched the men's race from a wheelchair along the road outside the hospital, an IV in her arm.

Seward's Flip Foldager, who completed his 30th Mount Marathon, said runners can usually count on a comforting, cooling breeze on the top half of the mountain, above the tree line. No such luck in the 82nd edition of a race that began unofficially as a bar bet in 1909, was contested for the first time officially in 1915 and lures thousands of spectators to this town every Fourth of July.

"That was probably the hottest I've ever felt it in the open,'' Foldager said.

And that's from a guy who raced in 1999, when the temperature hit 87 degrees for the 3 p.m. start of the men's race.

Foldager said he asked his wife, Patti, a two-time champion, if there was a breeze above the halfway point in the women's race, which began at 11:15 a.m.

"Patti said there was barely a breeze, and it was a hot one,'' Flip Foldager said. "She said, 'Imagine somebody holding a hair dryer on you.' "

Flip Foldager said the heat reflecting off the rocks and shale on the upper half of the mountain was wicked.

Runners journey up a dusty, dirt trail on the lower half of the mountain, terrain that is shrouded in trees and vegetation. The environment can be suffocating and sauna-like.

"In the trees, it had to be at least 80 degrees,'' said men's third-place finisher Clint McCool of Anchorage. "It was an oven in there.''

Women's runner-up Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, the Olympic skier, said the heat took a cumulative toll.

"It felt like you were slowly being cooked,'' she said.

Conditions prompted men's runner-up Eric Strabel of Anchorage to take an unusual precaution just before the start of his race. Strabel said he warmed up, then went to a nearby river and submerged himself four times for about 15 seconds each to lower his body temperature.

"That was probably the difference between second place and 12th,'' Strabel said.

McCool said conditions even quieted the usual chatter between runners. He said he and his buddies usually give each other a pat on the butt and words of encouragement when one passes the other.

"Today all I got was, 'Ugh,' " McCool said. "It was too hot to speak.''


Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

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