The wrong turn came just five minutes from the finish line as Penny Assman dashed down Mount Marathon toward a bank of slippery cliffs on July 4.
"The road forks. I should have went right, and I went left," said Assman, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot for the Utah National Guard running her rookie race.
The 34-year-old had "reconned" the trail the day before, she said, gunning for a top-third finish and dreaming of an oatmeal stout to celebrate. Suddenly she was sliding slowly, helplessly toward a rock wall that ranks among the most dangerous sections of the course.
The three-mile Mount Marathon footrace scales a 3,022-foot peak overlooking Seward. First comes a heart-pounding climb followed by a wild, downhill scramble that has long been a proving ground for elite mountain racers.
The race has always been risky. This year it was revealed to be deadly as well.
Another rookie, 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre, disappeared during the men's contest. As of Tuesday he had been missing six days and is presumed to be the first race fatality since the contest began in 1915. Another runner suffered potential brain injury when he tumbled at the same cliffs where Assman began sliding out of control.
Assman, who was hospitalized for five days after the race, told her story in a phone interview Tuesday in Anchorage. Her boyfriend estimates she slid 30 to 40 feet before reaching the cliff.
"I'm on my butt and I have my hands down and I keep trying to kind of inch myself back. But as I do that, I keep sliding a little bit more. A little bit more," Assman said. She skittered from one slick rock formation to another.
Assman spotted a knot of tree roots and lunged for them, she said. "The last thing that I could think of that could possibly save me from falling."
It didn't work.
Seward photographer Carol Griswold captured what happened next in a rapid sequence of photos.
"I just arrived at the base and looked up to see a runner falling mid-air off the cliff. I started shooting," she said in an email.
In one instant, Assman can be seen in mid-air, about 10 to 15 feet above the rocks below. In the next photograph, Assman is falling with her back to the cliff as Autumn Ludwig, a volunteer EMT for the Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Department, rushes toward her. Ludwig's arms are outstretched as she tries to break the runner's fall.
In the third frame, Assman slams to the ground.
"She kind of turns and just hits her head really hard," Griswold said.
Rescuers quickly stabilized her. She said the last thing she recalls is grabbing at the tree roots.
"The next thing I honestly remember is sort of coming to and Autumn telling me she needed me to spit my gum out," she said.
Photos of the men's race, later in the day, show 41-year-old Mount Marathon veteran Matthew Kenney being treated for a fall in roughly the same area. Kenney suffered a broken skull, broken leg and other injuries.
Kenney was unconscious Monday at an Anchorage hospital where doctors have labored to reduce swelling in his brain, a friend and family spokesman has said.
Amid the hunt for the missing racer and news of Kenney's serious head injury, Assman's wounds went largely unnoticed. She suffered broken ribs on her right side and, most seriously, a lacerated liver, Assman said.
On Monday, Griswold, the photographer, posted pictures of the runner on the community news site Seward City News under the headline "Injured Woman Racer." Did anyone know the runner's condition, she asked.
The racer's boyfriend, Rory McCarthy, soon replied.
"She spent the majority of her first three days sleeping; she was heavily medicated and on an ice-chip-only diet. By day four, she was allowed to eat a clear fluid diet, and she walked for the first time on Saturday, 7 July," McCarthy wrote.
Assman is a captain in the Guard and commander of her medevac helicopter unit. She has served two tours in Iraq, most recently in 2009 and 2010, she said. For now, however, she will have to take it easy.
She must avoid lifting more than five pounds for the next six weeks. No working out, the doctor said.
"It kills me to think about," Assman said.
On Tuesday, she was eating oatmeal at Snow City Cafe in downtown Anchorage when Autumn Ludwig, the medic volunteer who lunged to stop her fall, called her cell phone. Hours later, Assman still struggled to describe the emotion-charged conversation.
"It could have been so much worse. So all I could do really was thank her for sacrificing herself," she said after a long pause.
"I could have shown up at the E.R. in Matt Kenney's condition. Versus my injuries are relatively simply compared to what his family is going through," Assman said. She planned to visit Kenney's family Tuesday night.
Assman and McCarthy --who is also a Blackhawk pilot; they met at flight school -- said they were surprised no one from the Seward Chamber of Commerce had followed up to check on her condition. She didn't officially finish the race and was worried she might not be able to compete again in 2013, given the limited number of bibs available each year. Then there was the matter of a race T-shirt.
A woman whose son was injured in this year's race gave Assman a Mount Marathon shirt at the hospital, the couple said, but it was a little too small.
The chamber director called on Tuesday. Assman would get a properly sized T-shirt. She would be able to compete next year too, they said.
For now, the race is unfinished business.
"As odd as it is to say, I think now I have a chip on my shoulder," Assman said. "Mount Marathon 1, Penny 0. And next year it's going to be Mount Marathon 1, Penny 1."
"I just want to even the score," she said.
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News