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Deadly dangers of Alaska's Mount Marathon in sharp focus before July 4 race

Craig Medred
Seward volunteer firefighter Autumn Ludwig helped break the fall of 34-year-old National Guard helicopter pilot Penny Assman, who still broke several ribs and lacerated her liver during last year's Mount Marathon race. Photo by Carol Griswold

SEWARD -- Mountains nearly a mile high rise from tidewater here to tower over the small, ice-free port at the head of Resurrection Bay, so it should come as no surprise that when some of the local boys went looking for a sporting challenge in 1908, they settled on a mountain run up a trail on a greywacke peak rising 4,600 feet into the sky behind the city.

Seven years later, their competition took on a name -- Mount Marathon Race -- though the mountain which hosts the course wouldn't be officially so named until 1981. By then, the Mount Marathon Race had already grown into something more, and today owns the title of the second-oldest footrace in North America.

It has become the focus for a Fourth of July wingding at the head of the bay where the Seward Highway dead ends 125 miles south of Anchorage. Hundreds began showing up to race, and for every racer, it seemed, there were a dozen or more who showed up to watch or party down.

A normally quiet, small town of 3,000 swelled to twice its size and got a little rowdy. But nobody ever died in the race, at least until last year.

Race turns disastrous 

Until then, despite some broken bones and a lot of blood and bruising, it was all good, at least by Alaska standards. Then disaster struck. Mount Marathon race rookie Michael LeMaitre, 66, disappeared just below the race turnaround -- a stone marker at the 3,022-foot level -- on July 4, 2012. He was on a quest to mark the marathon off his bucket list. He has now been declared dead

But he was far from the only casualty of last year's race. 

Forty-one-year-old Anchorage runner Matt Kenney suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him clinging to life for weeks. A long and difficult recovery was to follow. He spent most of the past year at recovery centers in the Lower 48.

Finally back home in Anchorage now, his recovery continues a year later. He is hiking with friends, but he is still not back at work and not allowed to drive. He does plan to be in Seward with his family to at least watch the Mount Marathon race this year.

Back to race again

Penny Assman, a 34-year-old National Guard helicopter pilot from Salt Lake City, was a wreck after a fall in last year’s race. She is back to race again. She had vowed to come back and finish the marathon that ended last year when she fell off a cliff, lacerated her liver, broke several ribs and was medevaced to an Anchorage hospital.

Her survival was later credited to Seward volunteer firefighter Autumn Ludwig, who put herself between Assman and the ground as the latter was free-falling from the cliff at the end of Jefferson Street on the outskirts of town at the base of the climb up the mountain.

Seward photographer Carol Griswold captured a dramatic photo of Assman suspended midair above the heads of race volunteers reaching out to try to grab her. The photo makes it seem almost a miracle that Assman spent only six days in the hospital in Anchorage after the fall and fully recovered within a few months.

In the wake of the Assman, Kenney and LeMaitre tragedies, the race-sponsoring Seward Chamber of Commerce changed the rules for Mount Marathon to impose a time cut-off at the top, send the racers off in waves to minimize congestion on the route, establish safety training, and mark out the safest route down the mountain.

No one is expecting a replay of last year, if for no other reason than human nature. The carnage of 2012 alerted everyone to the true danger of this race.

"People definitely seem to be taking it more seriously," said 2009 race winner Matias Saari of Anchorage. Saari in June led two free safety tours along the most dangerous parts of the race route.

"The first tour, I think we had 23. The second tour we had 28," he said. "Mostly newbies."

But the rookies don't seem to be the only ones who took notice of what happened in 2012.

"It seems like there's been a lot more people training out on the mountain," Saari said, "figuring out a plan for how they'd get on and off.”

'Really easy to get hurt'

He confessed to having been rattled by what happened to Kenney, an experienced mountain runner. Saari has been tracing and retracing his route down the cliff and through the gut above that leads to it.

"We choreograph some of those moves, so muscle memory just sort of takes over when you're tired," he said. "It's really easy to get hurt in this race."

Saari believes the course has now been made as safe as possible without eliminating the character of what has always been a mountain race with all the dangers of the mountains.

"There's some fencing to direct people," he said. "It's going to be impossible to stumble into the water fall," an often-slick and dangerous section at the bottom of the mountain.

There are signs to point runners to the switchback trail or the junior trail, both of which provide safer routes down the mountain than the cliffs.

"They're labeled with black diamonds (to denote difficulty) like a ski run," Saari said.

Like everyone else, Saari is hoping the race can avoid disaster and tragedy this year. But the memories of 2012 will always linger, especially the disappearance of LeMaitre without a trace.

"Man, that's so perplexing," Saari said.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com