Mount Marathon addresses safety issues with new rules

dwoody@adn.comJune 29, 2013 

Racers negotiate a waterfall on the course. Women climbed to the 3,022-foot high point and back to the streets of Seward in the 2011 Mount Marathon race on July 4, 2011.

MARC LESTER — Anchorage Daily News

— Thursday will mark Flip Foldager's 34th race on steep, perilous Mount Marathon in his hometown of Seward, and he has made hundreds of training runs on those unforgiving slopes, so he is literally the voice of experience.

Even though the volunteer race committee this year is introducing a series of safety measures in response to a death and at least two serious injuries in last year's event, Foldager warns that the race -- run on an incline that averages 38 degrees and features difficult terrain -- will always include some risk.

"I think all the changes are pretty positive,'' he said. "I think it's going to make a huge difference. We've always tweaked and adjusted -- you always have to.

"But you cannot eliminate the danger -- you just can't. People ask me, 'What's the safe route?' I tell them, 'There is no safe route.' That's the mountain. You are never going to change it.''

Bumps, bruises, blood and the occasional broken bone have long been part of Mount Marathon, the storied Fourth of July race up and down the 3,022-foot beast.

Even so, 2012 proved a somber turning point in the history of a race that will be run for the 86th time and attract thousands of spectators to the small town on the shores of Resurrection Bay.

Rookie racer Michael LeMaitre of Anchorage disappeared during last year's race and, despite extensive searches, was never found. His death marked the first in a race that dates back to 1915.

Veteran runner Matt Kenney of Anchorage took a wicked fall descending an area variously called The Cliffs or The Waterfall near the mountain's base, suffered a broken skull and broken leg, and still is rehabilitating those injuries. And Penny Assman of Salt Lake City, who fell near where Kenney plummeted, suffered a lacerated liver and broken ribs, and has reportedly healed.

"It was devastating -- devastating for the committee, devastating for the community and devastating for the families,'' said Karol Fink, a veteran racer and member of the race committee.

The race committee annually conducts a retreat roughly a week after the race to review events and consider changes. Last year's events prompted organizers to institute a series of measures to promote safety in this year's race.

Among the changes:

• Senior racers (18 and older) must reach the halfway point on the ascent in less than 60 minutes or they will be disqualified. Junior racers, who race halfway up the mountain and back down, much reach a designated point on the ascent in less than 30 minutes. Those time limits have been imposed to ensure racers possess the necessary fitness to race.

• Rookies of all ages must sign a pledge that they have completed the entire course before they will be given their race bib.

• Fencing, signs and a race volunteer at the top of The Cliffs will direct descending runners to the four available trails off the lowest section of the mountain. The race committee reserves the right, if conditions are particularly treacherous, to close The Cliffs to racers.

• Volunteers will "sweep'' the mountain after each race -- Mount Marathon features a junior race, women's race and men's race, in that order -- to make sure all racers are accounted for.

• Any racer who pulls out during the race must report to the finish line and notify organizers, or be banned from future races.

Race committee members say the changes were necessary to further promote safety and fitness among runners and are not negotiable. The aim, they say, is to make the race as safe as possible while maintaining its integrity as a wild Alaska spectacle.

"We're done screwing around,'' Foldager said. "If you don't like it, don't participate. We have to make changes to have this race survive.''

The race has long held a safety meeting, mandatory for rookies, the night before the race. Foldager was always direct and graphic about the dangers of the race in the years when he conducted that meeting. The website of the sponsoring Seward Chamber of Commerce has also regularly published information on the hazards of Mount Marathon.

Race veterans like Fink, who Thursday will be racing for the 17th time and estimates she has trained on the complete senior course more than 200 times, constantly encourage racers to spend time on the mountain in the weeks and months prior to the race. Many veterans, whether elite or mid-pack racers, improve their chances of finishing safely by knowing every step of their route.

"The race isn't for everybody, and we let people know that,'' Fink said. "It's not 'safe' or 'easy,' just because 1,000 people do it on the Fourth. There's an inherent risk on that mountain, especially if the weather (turns).

"As much time as you can spend on that mountain, the better.''

The Alaska Mountain Runners, in cooperation with the race committee, conducted safety clinics on Mount Marathon the last two Saturdays. Guiding a couple of dozen runners through the perils on the lower one-third of the mountain were race veterans like Foldager, his wife and two-time race champion Patti, 2009 men's champion Matias Saari, three-time men's champion Sam Young, Clint McCool, Fred Moore and Erik Mundahl.

"It was great,'' said Patti Foldager, who for about two decades regularly guided kids on Mount Marathon to give them pointers for race day. "I was impressed with the people who showed up. They were attentive and eager to learn.''

Patti Foldager said she has long encouraged racers to make frequent scouting missions to get accustomed to the terrain and to build confidence and fitness.

"You have to do your homework,'' she said. "The top people, the reason they do well and usually don't get hurt is they've done their homework.

"People should not underestimate that this is a mountain race. There's things that can hurt you.''

Saari said he emphasized to runners at the clinic that getting advice from veteran racers is just one part of their race preparation.

"We made it clear to people that this was just a start, and made it clear to people who are doing the race that they have to do more, and they need to do the whole mountain,'' he said.

Arguably the most dangerous section of the course comes when racers descend the lower reaches of the mountain. By then, they have made the thigh-thumping, lung-busting ascent and most of a rocketing descent -- Brent Knight, a top men's racer, called the speedy downhill a "controlled fall'' -- and they are fatigued.

The combination of sketchy terrain and nearly depleted runners prompted the fencing and signs recently installed in part by Flip Foldager, six-time men's champion Brad Precosky and men's age-group record-holder Barney Griffith. The fencing and signs direct runners to four trails leading off the mountain -- The Cliffs are the most perilous, and a path known as The Jeep Trail is considered the safest.

Fink advised runners to show up on race day with a game plan. If they intend to descend The Cliffs, they need to make sure they know their route, she said.

"You need to know your hand-holds, you need to know exactly where you are going -- do not make any 'game-day' decisions,'' Fink said. "And you need to kind of reset before you reach The Cliffs. You don't want to come to that point and be ragged. You need to be thinking straight, because we've seen what the consequences can be.''

Veteran racer Matt Kenney, who last year suffered a broken skull and broken leg, among other injuries, in a harrowing fall down The Cliffs, said he applauds everything that is being done to maximize safety.

"I know they've gone out and put a lot of effort into people being careful,'' Kenney said. "Hopefully, we have a safe race this year.''

Flip Foldager said Mount Marathon will always carry some risks, but knowing the mountain and being fit can mitigate the chances of injury.

"There's no perfect solution -- we know that,'' he said. "We're just trying to make the odds better. Last year was a difficult thing, and we all never want to experience that again.''

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

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