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Big changes to Mount Marathon this summer will emphasize safety

Craig Medred
Courtesy Carol Griswold

Six months after a tragic Seward Mount Marathon competition left one mountain runner dead and two others seriously injured, entries for the July Fourth Alaska classic have reopened with a significant change in race rules and a warning to race competitors.

The rule change relates directly to the disappearance and presumed death of 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre. The Anchorage fitness buff was last seen just below Race Point, the turnaround for an event that starts near the waters of Resurrection Bay in downtown Seward, climbs up the flanks of 3,022-foot Mount Marathon, before circling back.

A Mount Marathon first-timer chasing a "bucket list'' adventure, LeMaitre took an unusually long three hours to reach the turnaround, less than 2 miles from the start. On the streets of Seward below, the last of the other racers were finishing. Race officials on the mountain had already dismantled the halfway point and were starting down when they met LeMaitre. He said he was fine, planned to go the short distance to the turn and follow them back. He instead disappeared.

Exhaustive searches followed. His body still has not been found.

Race officials are trying to ensure that what happened to LeMaitre never happens again by significantly shortening the time racers will be allowed on the mountain. Starting this year, the new rule says, "All racers must reach the Turnaround Checkpoint on the mountain before the cut-off times...AND complete the race before the cut-off times... or they will be disqualified."

Now senior racers must reach the halfway turnaround in 60 minutes. They will be required to complete the course in two and a half hours. There are shorter times for juniors who race on an abbreviated course. Last year, four of the 327 men who finished the race took longer than two and a half hours. None of the 217 women finishers needed that long.

Along with the time cutoff, the race is now also recommending competitors don "protective gear such as helmets, gloves, goggles, knee and elbow pads.'' How many will do that remains to be seen. Especially in warm weather, racers have traditionally stripped down to almost nothing in an effort to stay cool on the uphill climb.

It isn't clear if protective gear would have helped the two runners most seriously injured in what turned out to be an ill-fated 2012 race. Thirty-four-year-old Penny Assman from Utah suffered a lacerated liver and several broken ribs after falling of a cliff and landing on her back.

Forty-one-year-old Matt Kenney from Anchorage ragdolled down the same cliff, breaking his leg and suffering a traumatic brain injury. Assman has since recovered. Kenney, the father of two, has undergone extensive treatment and remains on the mend.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com