Mount Marathon rookie far from a neophyte

Doyle Woody
Gil Talbot

Mount Marathon newcomer Rickey Gates has run races all over the world -- dude has won races in Antarctica and seized the awesomely named Canadian Death Race, an ultramarathon -- yet his recent scouting mission in Seward convinced him the Fourth of July race up and down that steep, unforgiving pitch is uniquely torturous.

Gates' body delivered the news the day after he cranked out a time trial on Mount Marathon.

"This one, I'm definitely glad I checked it out,'' Gates reported. "Muscles hurt on me that have never hurt before.''

Gates, 32, is sponsored by Solomon and is a multiple-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team. He has long harbored a desire to race Mount Marathon -- his mother ran the race in 1969, so Gates grew up hearing about it -- and he will make his debut Thursday in the 86th edition of the race.

This is a guy who is up for adventure. The native of Woody Creek, Colo., who now lives in San Francisco, rode his 2002 BMW F650 Dakar motorcycle from the Bay Area to Alaska in May and spent a month here on the road. He rode to Prudhoe Bay, he rode the Denali and Dalton Highways, he rode to the Peninsula, and to Valdez and McCarthy, among other places.

"I get around,'' Gates said. "It's something I can do right now. It's not something I can do 10 years from now.''

After flying home to Colorado to attend a wedding, he returned to Alaska last week with his mom, Trish Gates, and they drove to McCarthy to check it out. He hopes to hook up with Erik Johnson of Seward for some more Mount Marathon pointers a day or two before this year's race.

Already, Gates knows from his scouting mission that Mount Marathon is rugged stuff. That fact was further emphasized by a conversation with Anchorage's Brent Knight, a Solomon teammate and annual contender in the men's race.

Gates said Knight told him of the 2009 race, when Knight was leading and within sight of the finish line before he collapsed in the suffocating heat. Knight told Gates he required five liters of fluid at the hospital in Seward.

"That speaks more than any sort of warning,'' Gates said.

Gates' mom, who in the summers of 1968 and 1969 worked in a fish-packing plant in Kenai, has also filled in her son on her Mount Marathon experience. She finished second among women in 1969, she said, then quickly noted that their were only two women in the race. Ann Livingston beat Trish Gates (nee Schultz) by about four minutes.

"I have to say, in my defense, the woman who won was a P.E. teacher,'' she cracked.

Whether Gates can match his mother's placing is intriguing. Placing high in Mount Marathon not only requires supreme fitness, but intimate knowledge of the mountain is also a must.

"Rickey Gates is a huge wildcard,'' said 2009 men's champion Matias Saari, who knows Gates. "He's certainly capable of being on the podium, or near the podium.''

Gates said he did a time trial of the full course in 51 minutes -- the men's winner usually finishes in 44-46 minutes -- and knows to compete with the best he must trim time on race day.

"I'd like to do really well in it,'' Gates said. "But I also know not to underestimate the course and certainly not to underestimate the locals. I'd be really happy if I won, and I wouldn't be surprised if I finished 10th.''

Elite runners from Outside rarely appear at Mount Marathon -- it is difficult to gain entry into the limited fields and the race does not pay prize money. Gates gained his race-day bib courtesy of Wells Fargo, a principal sponsor of the race.

In 2000, a couple of Outside runners with impressive mountain-running resumes competed at Mount Marathon. Danelle Bellengee finished second in the women's race to eventual nine-time champion Nina Kemppel, and Jeremy Wright was relegated to 26th in the men's race won by eventual six-time champ Brad Precosky.

Not that Gates has any illusions about how punishing Mount Marathon will be, but he recently told Saari he was interested in running the 24-mile Crow Pass trail from near Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center the day after Mount Marathon.

"He looked at me and laughed,'' Gates said, "and said, 'You're not even going to be able to walk the next day.' ''


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