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Search intensifies for missing Marathon runner

Kyle Hopkins
Michael LeMaitre begins the Mount Marathon race, July 4, 2012.
Carol Griswold

Dozens of searchers spent a second full day scouring Mount Marathon and the surrounding woods Thursday, finding no sign of the 66-year-old man who disappeared during the July 4 Seward footrace. "No clues. No trace. No trail," said Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen.

As of Thursday night, Anchorage resident Michael LeMaitre had been missing more than 48 hours. He was last seen approaching the mountain top at about 6 p.m. Wednesday, when he was likely the last or one of the last race participants on the trail.

This year marked the 85th running of Mount Marathon, a contest notorious for grueling, lung-busting climbs on loose, slippery rocks and treacherous descents. Minor injuries are common. But never before has a racer vanished, said Erin Lemas, event coordinator for the Seward Chamber of Commerce.

Rescuers began searching for LeMaitre Wednesday night. A trooper helicopter and an Alaska Air National Guard Pave Hawk, sometimes flying just 20 feet above the ground, combed the mountain Thursday as searchers walked the area below.

On Friday the effort ballooned to include 55 people, a state Robinson R44 helicopter and three search-and-rescue dogs, Ipsen said. Confident that they had already thoroughly searched the mountainside, searchers on Friday focused on an area east of the Mount Marathon, from Lowell Canyon Road north, Ipsen said.

"(Searchers) have been battling rainy, muddy conditions. They've also been battling rock and mud slides," Ipsen said.

FIRST TIME ON MOUNTAIN

This year was LeMaitre's first attempt at the Mount Marathon race and his first time climbing the mountain, his son said. Troopers said LeMaitre is believed to have poor eyesight and was not wearing his glasses when last seen on the mountain.

The race has no upper age limit for competitors.

Fred Moore, 72, completed the course in 1 hour, 11 minutes and 34 seconds Wednesday. A semi-retired carpenter, Moore has finished the race a record 43 consecutive times. All without injury, he said.

The key to reaching the finish line unhurt is to know your limits, Moore said. "You have to be very familiar with the mountain, very familiar with your own abilities. Don't exceed what you can do."

The Seward Chamber of Commerce hosts the race and on its website urges competitors to climb the mountain several times before race day.

Chamber director Cindy Clock was unavailable for comment Friday. Lemas, the event coordinator, said she was instructed not to talk about the details of LeMaitre's disappearance.

For example, she would not say if the race uses "trail sweepers" to follow stragglers up the mountain and back.

Moore, the race veteran, said his wife served this year as an informal trail sweep on the junior race, which climbs to the mountain's halfway point. Keeping an eye on the back of the pack can be a difficult task on Mount Marathon, Moore said, because racers can unexpectedly fall behind you on the trail's branching paths.

Moore said there are no formal trail sweepers in the men's race. That should change, he said.

"They should have a no-excuses, the buck-stops-here person running sweep behind the last racer," he said. "And checking with officials at halfway to check their numbers to check to makes sure who actually is last."

Race officials also ought to create a rule saying adult competitors must make it halfway up the mountain within an hour or be disqualified from finishing, Moore suggested.

FAMILIAR WITH WILDERNESS

The race uses timing chips, attached to runners' shoes, to determine when each competitor finishes, according to the chamber. The chips cannot be used to determine someone's location, Lemas said.

Lemas said she could talk generally about the race but not about LeMaitre, and could not say if he was in last place when he was seen just shy of the mountaintop. Officials at the Seward police and fire departments also have declined to comment on the search, funneling all questions to a spokeswoman for the state troopers in Anchorage.

LeMaitre's son said the racer savored a challenge, lived most of his adult life in Alaska and regularly went hiking and camping. "It's not unusual for him to be out in the Alaska wilderness," Jon LeMaitre said.

The elder LeMaitre was focused on finishing the famously challenging course rather than racing for a fast time, his son said. "It was more going up and coming down, completing it."

Peggy LeMaitre, Michael's wife, became concerned around 6 or 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, three hours into the three-mile race, Jon said.

The fastest runners finish Mount Marathon in well under an hour. The average completion time for 328 official finishers in the men's race was about 1 hour, 16 minutes, according to standings posted on onlineraceresults.com.

Race officials assured Peggy someone had seen her husband near the top of the mountain, Jon said. It should only be an hour and a half or so before he finished the race, she was told.

But by 8 p.m., she was again talking to race officials, saying something was wrong, Jon LeMaitre said.

By 9 p.m., troopers had been called and search teams began retracing the race course, looking in vain for the missing racer, according to a trooper report.

LeMaitre is a civilian employee at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson where he helps people who are leaving the military build resumes and start new careers. He loves the job, his family said.

Heidi Nelson of Anchorage said LeMaitre helped her craft a resume and train for job interviews when she returned from an Afghanistan deployment in 2010. A former Air Force intelligence analyst, Nelson landed a job as a health, safety and environmental coordinator for an oil and gas company.

"(LeMaitre) really helped build my confidence level during the whole interview practice process. Just incredibly encouraging," she said.

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.


By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News