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Battered Mount Marathon racer up and rolling; savior firefighter honored

Craig Medred
Courtesy Carol Griswold

Three months after Seward’s Mount Marathon race, Anchorage's Matt Kenney is up and rolling at a rehabilitation center, and Seward volunteer firefighter Autumn Ludwig has been officially recognized for risking her own welfare to see that Salt Lake City's Penny Assman avoided the fate that befell Kenney.

Ludwig put herself between Assman and the ground when the latter fell off a cliff during the July 4 race some 3,000 feet up and down Mount Marathon near the head of Resurrection Bay. Assman -- a 34-year-old Utah National Guard pilot -- still suffered a lacerated liver, several broken ribs, and a lot of scrapes and bruises during her tumble, but she was comparatively lucky.

Kenney was less so. There was no one to break his fall when he rag-dolled down the cliff. He was knocked unconscious and remained so for weeks. He is now alert, but still trying to figure out what exactly happened back in July.

'Wonderful words together'

"He was able to understand a bit what happened to him and explain it and then was able to understand a bit why his speech is not coming out the way he wants it to," his wife, Gretchen, posted on Matt’s Facebook page Monday. "We shared some wonderful words together and ended on a great note. He is resting now and I am off to get some special ice packs for his knees that he likes. He has been pretty sore and his ankle has swollen a little but they have run tests and there is no worries there."

Matt has been at the Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., since the end of July. Efforts to raise funds to support Gretchen and the couple’s two children are ongoing. Though Matt is progressing, he is far from cured.

"I met with QLI people (the next transition facility in Omaha, Neb.) this a.m. as well and that meeting went great,'' Gretchen reported. "They are flying me up for the day sometime next week. I just need to let them know when. I really feel very positive about them and their program."

When Matt will be fully back to normal -- if ever -- is unknown. Doctors say recovery from traumatic brain injury is an iffy and long-term process, but there is hope. Jake Collins of Palmer survived an accident similar to Matt's six years ago. It was 20 days after Collins' fall before he opened his eyes, but today he is recovered. It took years.

Seward firefighter honored

Against that backdrop, the injuries suffered by Assman, a Mount Marathon rookie, seem a lot less serious than they did at the time. She spent six days in the hospital, but is now healthy. She and Ludwig were able to get reacquainted at a meeting in Utah last week, according to the Deseret News. The newspaper reported Utah National Guard commanding Gen. Brian Tarbet awarded Ludwig a certificate of appreciation for valor. Ludwig, he said, showed "just great courage on behalf of one of our fellow public servants, which in this case benefited one of our soldiers.”

For Ludwig, the National Guard honor comes after being the first woman named Firefighter of the Year in Alaska. The latter honor was bestowed by the Alaska Division of Fire and Life Safety.

"Firefighter Ludwig placed her own life in the path of a racer falling from the cliff of Mount Marathon on July 4, stopping the runner's fall,'' the commendation said. A trained emergency trauma technician and emergency medical technician, Ludwig has consistently downplayed the heroism in what she did.

"She had to be stopped," she told the Deseret News. "If she went down and continued to go down the mountain, she wouldn't be here today."

Assman appreciated her determination. "While other people were trying to get out of the way, Autumn committed to making sure that she helped me in that moment,” said Assman, who hopes to return to Seward next summer to complete the Mount Marathon race.

Meanwhile, 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre of Anchorage remains missing on the mountain. He disappeared on race day and has never been found. His daughter, MaryAnne, spent more than a month looking for her father's body -- often helped by others -- but found no sign of him. Many had hoped that his remains might be found in the fall after the tall grasses of summer began to die and the leaves fell, but there has been nothing, and soon snow will cover everything on the slopes of above Seward, a winter-quiet community of about 2,500 at the end of the road 126 miles south of Anchorage.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com