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Rule changes likely for Seward's grueling Mount Marathon race

Kyle Hopkins

With one runner missing and another suffering potential brain injury after this year's Mount Marathon footrace, rule changes are in store for the famously treacherous contest.

"We'd be silly to say, 'No, it's fine the way it is,' " said Cindy Clock, director for the Seward Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the event.

A panel of volunteer directors has not yet met to discuss the future of the popular Independence Day race, she said. Many racers and organizers are consumed with the ongoing search for missing 66-year-old participant Michael LeMaitre of Anchorage.

Before he vanished, LeMaitre was last seen about 200 feet from the top of Mount Marathon. He was spotted by timekeeping volunteers ending their day on their way down the mountain, according to the chamber. Alaska State Troopers, mountaineers and dozens of volunteers found no sign of LaMaitre, a civil service employee who many now presume is dead.

Troopers ended their search over the weekend. The Seward Volunteer Fire Department has continued the hunt, with at least 11 volunteers combing the mountain or surrounding area Monday, a deputy fire chief said.

In the meantime, elite Mount Marathon veteran Matthew Kenney, 41, is in Alaska Regional Hospital, in Anchorage, where doctors are working to reduce swelling in his brain, a friend and family spokesman said. Kenney suffered a broken skull, broke his right leg and sustained other injuries in a fall along the cliffs at the mountain's base, said Alaska Mountain Runners president Brad Precosky.

"He's had a head injury with indication toward brain trauma," Precosky said.

Much of the debate over race policy has revolved around LeMaitre's late-in-the-race disappearance. According to his family, the longtime Alaskan was making his rookie attempt at the race and his first climb up Mount Marathon.

The Seward Chamber was saying little about the search last week. Race directors did not return phone calls. On Monday, however, the chamber issued a written statement detailing an encounter between LeMaitre and race volunteers high on the mountain and describing a search effort that expanded to hundreds of volunteers.

"Our sympathy goes out to (LeMaitre's) family and friends, along with our continued hope that he will be found. We would also like to assure the community that every effort has been made to find Mr. LeMaitre," the statement said.

LAST ONE ON THE MOUNTAIN

No racer has finished more consecutive Mount Marathons than Fred Moore, 72, who has completed the three-mile race 43 times. In an interview Friday, Moore suggested two potential rule changes in the wake of LeMaitre's disappearance:

• Instituting a mid-race checkpoint, similar to the 24-mile Crow Pass Crossing wilderness race. Participants would be required to reach a milestone along the course within a given time limit or be disqualified.

• Assigning a trail sweeper or team of sweepers to follow back-of-the-pack participants, watching to make sure they safely scale the mountain and arrive back at the downtown Seward finish line.

Clock said there were no formal trail sweepers for the men's competition this year.

"Apparently there have been in the past. But again, most of the people are participating in the race who have those kinds of capabilities," she said.

LeMaitre was in last place and moving slowly on the mountain Wednesday before his disappearance, one witness said.

Dick Sheasley, 59, of Anchorage, has participated in Mount Marathon more than 10 times. Usually at the back of the pack. He thought he was in last place during this year's Mount Marathon too. But about halfway down the mountain, he looked up and saw a man he now believes was LeMaitre.

"He's got a long way to go," Sheasley recalled thinking.

In 2002, Sheasley, recovering from an illness, was in last place when a race volunteer caught up with him on his way up the mountain. The man gave him a sandwich and hiked with him to the finish, he said.

"Back in those days, you know, if they sent you out on the mountain, they made sure you got back," Sheasley said.

This year, the last people to see LeMaitre were a crew of volunteers. At about 6 p.m., a small group that had been timing runners at the top of the mountain was on its way down the trail when they saw LeMaitre approaching the turn-around point. LeMaitre told the lead timer he wanted to keep going, according to the Chamber of Commerce statement. The volunteer -- who Clock would not identify -- reported that LeMaitre looked to be in good condition and the timing crew continued down the mountain.

WAIVERS AND WARNINGS

Mount Marathon participants are required to sign liability waivers absolving the chamber and the city of Seward of any responsibility for race injuries, according to the chamber website.

"Safety of the runners is the number one priority for the organizers of the Mount Marathon Race," the chamber statement said. "The required safety meeting the night prior to the race provides information integral to runners' success. During that meeting, as well as within the text of the rookie letter sent during the application process, runners are told that if they have never been up Mount Marathon, they should not make the race their first trip."

Mount Marathon costs the chamber about $80,000 to $90,000 to host, Clock said. Entry fees, along with sponsor donations, pay the bills.

"How it makes money is as an event for the spectators. So people will come and stay, and they'll spend money while they're in Seward," she said.

The race began in 1915. This year is the first time a participant has disappeared.

"They're going to have to really talk about this," Clock said of the seven-member race committee. She said she suspects the group may ask volunteers from other wilderness races for suggestions on ways to improve Mount Marathon guidelines.

The race course's branching paths could make it difficult for a trail sweeper to keep track of every straggler, racers say. Usually, recreational hikers populate the trail after the races end, increasing the chance someone might have seen LeMaitre again. But cool, wet weather seemed to discourage the usual post-race foot traffic this year, Clock said. "It's just a tragic accident, but there's all these different things that have come into play."

REWARDS COME WITH RISK

Minor injuries are common on Mount Marathon, but Wednesday's race marked a second tragedy when Kenney tumbled on his descent.

Kenney remained unconscious Monday, said Precosky, an elite downhill racer who is posting updates on his friend's condition at www.facebook.com/matt.kenney.16906.

"We are in a holding pattern, and as much as we would like to make things happen, it is really up to Matt right now to continue to heal and reduce the swelling," he wrote Monday.

Kenney is a father of two children, ages 12 and 10, he said. "They know that daddy's in a coma and they want him to wake up. But they don't know what that means really."

Precosky described the injured runner as a capable and accomplished mountain racer who took one bad step at the bottom of the mountain.

To bound downhill, just on the edge of out-of-control, is what elite racers shoot for, he said. "We make these decisions, to run as fast as we can. To chose that mountain race. To go fast on the downhill. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we're rewarded for it."

A six-time Mount Marathon champion, Precosky said runners would likely resist any attempt at a mandatory helmet rule for the limited-entry race. As for LeMaitre's disappearance, Precosky said he doesn't hold the organizers responsible.

"You have a safety plan and protocols in place. They've done a good job. They've warned the people who are first-timers of a lot of things. That it's a mountain race. You need to bring your own water, you need to bring clothing in case it's cold," he said.

While the trooper search has ended, the Seward Fire Department plans to organize volunteers this week to scour the knots of alders, trees and devil's club along the race route.

"Although those areas have been covered, the vegetation is such that you could be within five feet of each other and not see one another," said deputy fire chief Eddie Athey.

The department asks anyone who wants to volunteer or plans on using the trails this week to call 1-907-224-3445.

Volunteers should have mountain-climbing experience or be familiar with Mount Marathon, Athey said. "We don't want to have to rescue the rescuer."

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
Contact Kyle Hopkins at or on