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At Alaska's Mount Marathon race, mood switches from somber to rejuvenated

Craig Medred
A runner makes her way down the scree fields during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Bonnie Moore makes her way down a waterfall during The 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Eric Strabel jumps down the cliffs at the base of the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. Strabel won the men's race, and broke Bill Spencer's 32-year-old record. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Defending champion Matt Novakovich, in white hat, takes off from the starting line with this year's champion Eric Strabel to the right of him. Strabel broke Bill Spencer's 32-year-old race record during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A runner hams it up for the crowd during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
The first wave of men take off during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A runner makes his way past cheering fans during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
With days of rain soaking the mountain, the junior racers had a slippery, muddy trail up the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Joshua Eavis collapses after finishing the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Rookie Christy Marvin makes her way to the top of the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. Marvin ended up winning the race. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Eric Strabel, right, is congratulated by Bill Spencer after Strabel broke Spencer's 32-year-old Mt Marathon record. Strabel finished in 42:55. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Women make their way to the top of the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Brian Stoecker, better known as the Birdman, double-fists gatorade and beer after finishing the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Ellyn Brown, 60, rounds the flag atop the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Junior racers run down the scree field during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Women make their way down the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. Downtown is behind them. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Earl and Sandy McElroy, visiting from Arkansas, spot runners high above town during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Women make their way up the steep slopes near the top of the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Women run down slippery scree during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Autumn Sperry runs down the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Brynn O'Hara runs through alpine flowers on her way down the mountain during the 86th running of Mt Marathon in Seward, Alaska. July 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

SEWARD -- On a day when records were set, the Seward Mount Marathon race ended with a 20-year veteran finishing his last race by jogging Fourth Avenue to the end with his family.

It was a marked contrast to a year earlier when the Fourth of July celebration surrounding this storied race quickly turned somber with news that Matt Kenney had been air-evacuated to Anchorage, suffering from multiple broken bones and a traumatic brain injury.

Things only got worse with the revelation that 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre had not returned from where he was last seen high on the mountain. A massive search followed, but LeMaitre was never found.

Race organizers took significant steps this year to ensure that wouldn't happen again. As Anchorage ski coach Eric Strabel was closing on a new Mount Marathon record of 42 minutes and 55 seconds Thursday afternoon, trail sweeps were shadowing the back-of-the-pack runners still only halfway to turn-around rock 3,022-feet high on the east face of the 4,600-foot peak.

Strabel was being congratulated by past record-holder Bill Spencer in front of a roaring downtown crowd before Kurt Ulatwoski, a 48-year-old from Anchorage and the eventual red-lantern winner, reached the midpoint on the mountain where race officials had this year established a one-hour cut off time.

The real stars

Spencer, who set the course record as a young man 32 years ago, is an Alaska mountain running and nordic ski legend. Strabel has never known Spencer's ski success, but he is writing himself a reputation as one hell of a mountain man. The runner Strabel beat was world-traveling professional mountain runner Rickey Gates, who also squeaked under Spencer's record. 

Gates and Strabel were the stars of the race, but the event really belonged to people like Ulatwoski and 59-year-old Dennis Long and Kenney. Kenney did not race this year, but he dragged his battered, scarred and inactivity-swollen body up the so-called Jeep Trail to above the cliffs, where disaster struck last year.

"It's good to be back,'' he said, standing there in the spruce-hemlock forest that towers over the lower trail. There was mist in the air, the forest smelled green, and Kenney was with friends offering support and encouragement.

A year after his Mount Marathon nightmare, Kenney remains on the road to recovery, but he is slowly but steadily gaining ground. Though he sometimes forgets things, he can now carry on a conversation.

Modern medicine can do wonderful things, as Long can attest. He was run over by a motorcycle on the Seward Highway in July of 2011. Seriously injured, he spent a long time in the hospital and more time in rehab.

As of the summer of 2012, he said, he still couldn't use his arm and hand well enough to thread a belt through the loops on his pants. A year later there he was scrambling up the gnarly, greywacke face of this mountain. He breathed a sign of relief when he reached the halfway point, where there was this year a one-hour cutoff for racers.

'My biggest accomplishment this year'

There he promptly sat down near the race officials, shivering in the cold wind to tie his shoe.

"This is my biggest accomplishment this year,'' he said, and then corrected himself. "The second biggest,'' he said. "My thumb has come back. Now I can tie my shoes.''

Strabel finished first in the race, but Long, who came in about an hour later, was one of the bigger winners. A veteran of past Mount Marathons, he credited the training that kept him fit for allowing him to pull through after his accident.

He was not fast on the mountain this year, but he was steady and determined -- and looked better than some of those before him pushing visibly out-of-shape bodies hard up the mountain to make sure they'd make the time cutoff. 

There was some thought a few racers might have to be turned back because of that deadline imposed in the wake of what happened with LeMaitre, an elderly man who had Mount Marathon on his bucket list. It took LeMaitre nearly three hours to reach a point just below the turnaround. It was there he seen for the last time.

Race officials were already heading down. Everyone thought LeMaitre would be fine, but he wasn't. The general consensus now is that he was likely hypothermic, thinking poorly because of his low body temperature and kept going along the obvious trail past turnaround rock. Where he went after that might never be known.

There was a small swarm of race volunteers at the top of the mountain this year to make sure it didn't happen again. They shivered in the cold as the wind swept in across the Harding Icefield to the south and west, sometimes bringing rain, other times just cold.

'Coldest I've ever been' 

Many of the women racers, who took to the course in the morning before the men and this year got the worst of the weather, commented on the conditions at the top.

"That's the coldest I've ever been,'' said 69-year-old Sandy Johnson, as she emerged from a steep, narrow chute along the notorious cliffs near the end of Jefferson Street. Race officials this year closed the waterfall above the cliffs -- which seriously injured not only Kenny but Penny Assman in falls last year -- for the woman's race.

The closure ruined things for the hundreds of spectators who gathered below. Instead of watching waves of women struggling down the cliffs, they saw only women shooting out of the brush as they emerged from a chute that was gnarly enough in its own right.

The restriction did not seem to slow anyone much. Winner Christy Marvin, 32, was within two minutes of the time set by Olympic skier Holly Brooks last year, and the women faced an especially muddy, slip-slidey lower trail through the timber and into the alders and grass.

The restriction was lifted for the men's race, but most used the chute down rock and compacted shale to get down to the street. They benefitted somewhat from the traffic of both the women and hundreds of spectators on the mountain before their race.

Hundreds of feet helped to beat some of the water out of what had been a very muddy trial for the women earlier in the day. And everyone benefited from the wet-cement-like mixture of mud, sand and scree that remained in the downhill trail up high. It made the descent pretty forgiving -- once a racer got to the top and made the turn.

"You're almost there,'' Eli Stein from Anchorage yelled down at Long as he approached the summit.

"That's what they said at the halfway point,'' Long mumbled into the wind blowing cold and wet from off the glaciers and the Gulf of Alaska beyond. "I'm not there until I step on that timing mat.''

He did that a few minutes later, then sat down for a drink of water before heading down. Ulatwoski was still on his way up. This was something of a new thing for him. A couple decades back he'd finished the entire course in an hour and four minutes.

This time it took him longer, far longer, to merely reach the turnaround. He'd been injured, he said. He hadn't trained enough. He was older. Life had taken on other priorities. It is a song sung by a lot of middle-age men.

But Ulatwoski gutted it out to earn the distinction of being among a handful of runners to do 20 of these races. 

At the top, he offered a kind word to the trail sweeps.

"Thanks man,'' he said. "The trail sweeps were a good idea. You kept me entertained if nothing else.''

Then he started down, rubbery legged, falling a few times, but always getting up and charging on. As he emerged onto Jefferson Street, his significant other and a couple kids were there to greet him. They jogged to the finish as a family.

After last year disaster, races organizers couldn't have asked for anything better.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com