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Scared to race 21 years ago, Mount Marathon becomes race of redemption

Clint J. Farr
After passing his bib to a friend right before the start of Mount Marathon 20 years ago, Clint J. Farr has finished 'the damn race.' He collapsed at the finish line in exhaustion but opened his eyes and found his two young daughters standing over him. Loren Holmes photo

Twenty-one years ago, I committed an act of cowardice. I stood at the start of Seward’s Mount Marathon race and handed my bib to a friend. I was too scared to do it.  

I’m 40 now, married with two young daughters, gainfully employed, living in beautiful Juneau, and having a great life. I’ve learned enough in 20 years to know fear keeps me from doing something stupid, but it shouldn’t keep me from doing everything.  

I look back on that day and cringe.

Cowardice was not unusual in my young adulthood, but it mostly involved an inability to speak complete sentences around attractive women. Looking through my senior yearbook can cause a paralysis of continual cringing. There’s no chance of atonement for most of those regrets.

But Mount Marathon is different.

I can atone for that act of cowardice. I can run the damn race.

It’s 10 p.m., have you broke a sweat yet?

Middle age is my last chance. With some vestige of youth, a decent income, and perhaps a little built-up vacation time, I can now do some of those crazy things I should’ve done 20 years ago. Wait too long and I am not going to do things like Mount Marathon. Wait too long and desires dwindle, fat marbles, and the sharpness of life takes on the haze of cataracts, whether you have them or not.

I blame my children.

Baby weight is bizarre. As my wife Denise lost her baby weight, it somehow magically transferred through the ether to my gut.  After both my baby girls arrived, I gained an unhealthy amount of weight.

When you’re 40 pounds overweight, in a dark basement at 2 a.m., watching TV and bottle feeding a restless baby perched on the globe of your belly, you can be very receptive to suggestion. Infomercials can be life changing in the dark.

I had to do something, and there they were -- fantastically fit people jumping and sweating. My rational brain was saying, “Come on man! Don’t do it! Just run! Eat less. Don’t give in to an infomercial man, you’re a scientist!” But my rational brain’s argument was weakened by an aging body and slowing metabolism that no longer responds to running. It was time for irrationality; it was time for “Insanity.”

After four months of killing myself for an hour or more six nights a week I looked nothing like the man on the DVD box cover. Though thickened in the neck and shoulders, I still had no definition. Looking at a picture from a Hawaii vacation, I looked like a barn-door halibut that had washed up on the beach. I don't know the Hawaiian word for that, probably something with a lot of vowels. I definitely didn’t look like an “After” photo. Unless by “after” you mean “after eating donuts and sleeping in a cave for months.”

I knew that I had to continue trying. My physicality has been glacially sliding downhill since my mid-20s. If I am going to have a prayer of finishing Mount Marathon with some smidge of dignity, I was going to have keep at it, looks be damned. So I shifted my training to running up hill.

But it wasn’t working. By the beginning of May I was running five times a week. So how could it be possible, two weeks from the race, I had become slower and fatter?

That was what my watch was saying. The scale was probably reflecting more than just water weight.  It was frustrating. How do responsible people train? If I can’t run in the morning, I have to wait until after the kids are asleep, the dishes washed, the laundry done.

The difficulties and frustrations of training, I would rationalize, was nothing compared to the pain of the race I was training for.

Gradations of Alaska athleticism

Alaska athleticism comes in many gradations. A person might be feeling pretty good about their fitness and ability to complete Mount Marathon without embarrassment. Heck, they might even be getting a tad cocky when they see an acquaintance, also a mountain runner.

“Hey there.” I flash a big smile, “You running Mount Marathon this year?”

The acquaintance demurs, “No. I’ve never run it,” and then casually mentions how she’s training for a 50K mountain race down in British Columbia. Then, even more casually, painfully casually, she comments on how she ran around Douglas Island in 14 hours. The trip around Douglas Island is 31 miles of rocky beach and cliffs and no trail.  “You know, it’s a way to get out in the woods without the big backpack.” She laughs.

And all of a sudden I’m feeling a little less badass.

Alaska is full of hidden athletes. Men and women who do their jobs, raise their families, then run a long race in the wilderness. Sometimes they break out, get into a magazine or something, particularly if they go down south to compete. Mostly though, these uncommonly tough folks are happy to stay home and pursue their passion without recognition.

Of course, I don’t have to do Mount Marathon on July 4.  I could do it any summer day. The accomplishment doesn’t have to be part of a spectacle. And for many Alaskans, this is their reality. They don’t trumpet their impressive athleticism in races, or write up their meager accomplishments in the Alaska Dispatch. They’re just out there doing it.

For many Alaskans, athleticism isn’t the point, but an artifact of chasing sheep, or fording rivers, or hiking tussocks. If goat hunting were an Olympic sport, only the world’s best athletes could compete. And it’s not only the pursuit of fur and fin. I know a guy who built his own house of large logs, by hand, using pulleys and levers and his own brute strength. He’s 60 and as solid as the bow of an icebreaker. You’re never going to read about how he trained up to build his home.

Hundreds of runners complete Mount Marathon every July 4. In a larger sense, perhaps Mount Marathon was becoming a bit banal. Something your run-of-the-hill Alaskan trail runner could complete, no problem. Until last year, Mount Marathon was considered something to get scraped up on, not lethal by any means, and mostly taken for granted. No more.

The nature of risk

It is risky to run Mount Marathon. It’s risky to train for Mount Marathon. Juneau trails are steep, wet, slippery, and often there are bears. Visibility is an issue. At 9 p.m., I’ll hit the tram trail with Sadie, my dog. Generally there’s enough light in May and June. On the rainy days, however, when a cloud hangs over the Gastineau Channel, it gets downright dark. So much rain pours, the entire forest seems to fold in on itself under the weight of all the water. Trails become tunnels. Colors fold into green, dark green, gray rock, and shadow. My glasses fog and are impossible to keep dry. If I stick them in my pocket, the world is less foggy, but my depth perception is shot.

I pick my way down the trail slower than going up.

But there’s a risk to not training and not running, too. For me, there is the very real risk of obesity and its concurrent long term, debilitating, and expensive health problems.  For me, to get fit and to stay fit means taking on the short-term risks of mountain running to avoid the long term risks of obesity. If the specter of debilitating injury on Mount Marathon provides the impetus to train, so be it.

Muscle needs resistance. The brain needs puzzles. The immune system needs bacteria. Our bodies need challenges to work properly. Perhaps our psyches need the occasional challenge as well, to keep it all in perspective. For most of us, comfortable in our homes and well fed, real fear and real discomfort is uncommon. Odds are, you will get old and die of a heart attack or cancer. So perhaps we have it too good. Perhaps we have to make up conflict to ground us. Perhaps running Mount Marathon is my creation of conflict. Perhaps Mount Marathon has less to do with athleticism, but a way to keep my psyche grounded. Something to center me so I don’t fly off the handle next time I’m delayed 15 minutes in road construction on the Seward highway.

Race day

Seward on July 4 is normally a zoo. The rain seemed to calm things down.  

Rain. As a Juneau resident, rain is my natural habitat. Maybe I’ll have an advantage over the fair weather racers and improve my finish by a place or two. Or maybe I’ll slip and grievously injure myself. Why did it have to rain?

Before a race I try to break a sweat. Getting warmed up helps my aging lungs get past the wheezy phase. Warmed up, I looked around. There’s the family and I waved. I adjusted my eyeglass leashes, took a deep breath, and – Bang! – we’re off.

Here I am, running Mount Marathon. There's nobody to give my bib to anymore.  

The first half-mile is through town and the wet throngs of Independence Day revelers. I wanted to run fast. The crowd is yelling and I'm pumped. I hold back a bit and get passed. I figured I'll reel them in. I ran the little hill to the proper trailhead and was already feeling winded. I had not even started the uphill. Road trips, late nights, family and work have taken their toll. I fell in behind somebody with green shorts. I'd get to know those shorts well over the next mile. I’ve got to tell you, the view going up Mt. Marathon isn't that great.

I was tired but getting up. Past the tree line we all fell into a single file line. Occasionally someone stepped out to take a breather, but it seemed hard to step back in. I reached the half-way point with plenty of time to spare. Trying to pass on the uphill was nearly impossible. Men tried to pass me but found the extra energy to get around not worth it.

With about 50 feet to the summit, gasping and in great pain, I shakily tried to turn on my borrowed Go-Pro camera. “For posterity” I muttered like a mantra and finally got the thing on my head. So if you were there, I was the one wearing the goofy head camera.

The descent is insane, but the view is much better. The first top half of the mountain is a controlled free-fall over scree.  For those that don't know what scree is, think of the looseness and give of a sand dune, except it's not sand but sharp, flat, dime-sized gravel that gets in your shoes. The gravel pops with each footfall. Each step carries you 10 feet down the mountain. In no time, I crossed the half-way point, entered the chute, and tried to remember the way into the trees to pick my way safely down.

They put up direction signs this year, whomever they are. Stay in the chute and you end at the cliff that hurt a number of people last year and is the one thing I'm trying to avoid. Go left and take an easier route down several small cliffs. I’m 40. I have two young daughters. I went left.

Exhilarated with the knowledge of being home free I rounded the corner toward town and picked up speed. Now I had plenty in the tank, blessings of a fat layer. I hit the finish line and fell down. My eyes opened to two beautiful girls looking down on their daddy. That's a good way to end a race.

Cowardice and passion

That friend who ran in my place, he finished in the top 20 that year. (It was my name called over the loud speaker as he finished – I’m cringing about that even now.) The friend later finished in the top 10 and has put together a respectable mountain running career. I recently told him about my regret of that day. He didn’t see it that way. He figured I wasn’t trained up. That it was smart, on that day, to not take the risk. For him, that day was his introduction to mountain running and races – something that’s been a passion ever since. To him, my act of cowardice was like introducing him to his first great love. That was nice thing to say, but I still think I chickened out.

On July 4, 2013, however, I ran the damn race.

Clint J. Farr is Juneau freelance writer who works for the state of Alaska.