Organizers of the annual Mount Marathon race up and down the steep, treacherous 3,022-foot peak in Seward this Fourth of July will employ several new safety rules, one year after a rookie disappeared and an experienced racer suffered severe injuries in the storied race.
Racers in the senior men's and women's fields who fail to reach the halfway point of the ascent within one hour will be disqualified. Junior racers, who climb halfway up the mountain before beginning their descent to the finish line downtown, must now reach a spot commonly known as the Squirrel's Inn within 30 minutes or they will be disqualified.
Also, rookies in both the senior and junior fields must sign a pledge that they have completed the entire race course before they will be given their race bib.
Race officials also plan to employ a gating system atop the perilous cliffs at the base of the mountain, and senior racers will have to request entry through the gate, according to Erin Lemas, events coordinator for the Seward Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the race. Junior racers will not be permitted to descend through the cliffs, where hand- and foot-holds are dicey and erosion has rendered the section more dangerous. If course conditions are deemed particularly hazardous -- if it rains heavily on race day, or just prior -- organizers will reserve the right to prohibit any racer from descending the cliffs.
Former men's champion Matias Saari, who has worked with the race committee on safety measures, said signs to be posted just before racers reach the cliffs will detail four options for the final section of the descent. Those options will range from the most difficult -- the cliffs -- to the most moderate -- a road commonly called the Jeep Trail.
And officials also plan to employ a "sweep'' system -- teams of volunteers -- to trail the senior and junior fields, and keep tabs on all racers competing on a mountain that consists of dirt trails, scree, shale and rocks and includes an average pitch of 38 degrees.
Lemas said all those measures are intended to promote safety and encourage runners to know the course, and to educate them about the perils of the annual Independence Day event and the fitness the race demands.
"We're serious,'' Lemas said. "It's an extremely dangerous race. This is our race, and we have to do everything to tell people it's not like running a 5-K in Anchorage.''
Visitors to the chamber office who inquire about hiking on Mount Marathon are discouraged from attempting that climb and steered to less imposing hikes, Lemas said. A hiker was flown off Mount Marathon with injuries on Wednesday night.
In last year's 85th edition of Mount Marathon, Michael LaMaitre, 65, of Anchorage, lagged well behind the men's field and disappeared. Multiple and extensive searches immediately after the race and in the following weeks did not turn up any sign of LaMaitre. His disappearance is believed to mark the first death in a race that dates back to a 1915 bet between two men about whether it was possible to climb to the top of Mount Marathon and descend it in less than one hour.
Veteran racer Matt Kenney of Anchorage last year suffered serious injuries, including a broken skull and broken leg, when he took a harrowing fall descending the cliff section.
The senior men's winner in the race of roughly 31/2 miles usually finishes in about 45 minutes. The women's winner usually finishes somewhere in the low- to mid-50 minute range. Between the junior, women's and men's races -- the three are run separately throughout the day, in that order -- nearly 1,000 runners compete annually.
The downhill on Mount Marathon is particularly daunting -- the fitness, strength, course knowledge and daring of the most elite runners combine with gravity to propel them at startling speeds. Six-time men's champion Brad Precosky said he has made the journey from the peak of the mountain to its base in six and a half minutes. Last year, former champion Eric Strabel completed the full downhill -- racers come off the mountain and run down city streets to the finish line near sea level -- in an astonishing 10:08.
Precosky said he had always counseled racers to spend extensive time on the mountain, both to gain knowledge of the course and respect for it, and also to build confidence and fitness.
"It's a dangerous race,'' Precosky said. "Last year (with LaMaitre) showed us it's important everyone has experience on the mountain.''
Toward that end, several veteran racers, in conjunction with the Mount Marathon race committee, have scheduled safety tours of the lower one-third of the mountain for 1-3 p.m. on two upcoming Saturdays, June 22 and 29. The tours are free, but participants must sign a waiver. The group will meet at the picnic table near the gate on Upper Lowell Canyon Road at 12:30 p.m. each day, and more information is available by calling Saari at 529-4178 or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Everyone wants a safe race,'' Saari said. "The purpose of the tour is to slowly walk through everything and show people techniques for dealing with obstacles.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY