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Mere mortals find hiking Alaska's Mount Marathon a real challenge

Ben Anderson

For a runner, surely the most anticlimactic moment is the one right after a race begins. You arrived two hours early, you’ve warmed up, stretched, and put on the proper racing attire. You stand in a crowd of people, nervously hopping up and down. The start time approaches. The gun sounds.

You stand there. And then you begin walking. Several minutes later, the crowd has dispersed and you start running. Those first few minutes are like being a sled dog in the chute, pulling against the harness.

The annual Mount Marathon Race on July 4 in Seward doesn’t have that problem. With a limited field of 350 men and 350 women who start separately, the start is brisk, everyone taking off quickly down Fourth Avenue. It isn’t until they reach the base of the race’s namesake that progress halts, where a near-vertical scramble over bedrock and tree roots arrests momentum. The average uphill speed of the race is 2 mph.

I was in good shape when I hiked 4,600-foot-high Mount Marathon on a dreary August day, and I and two friends started out strong, clambering over the early part with ease, slowing only when bedrock turned into slick mud among moderate vegetation. Soon, though, we were huffing air as we passed the treeline. You’re a lucky individual if you catch Seward on a sunny day, and we weren’t so lucky. A light rain fell as we entered a field of loose rocks called scree, common on any steep, rocky slope.

The clouds hang low in Seward, so we soon found ourselves looking up into a curtain of white, not sure how far up the mountain we were or how far we had left to go. Looking down during brief breaks in the cloud cover, we could occasionally see the city below, growing increasingly smaller. The hike turns into a slog near the top, steps slipping six inches downward for every two feet upward.

We eventually reached the top -- or what we thought was the top -- and turned back around. That’s when the real fun begins, as the scree slipping underfoot almost pulls you down, and you find yourself on a knee-cracking, ankle-shattering roll down the slope. The trip up took an hour and a half. The trip down took one-third that time, and followed a different route, along a rocky groove cut by a trickling stream. The winner of the 2010 Mount Marathon men’s race winner, Trond Flagstad, finished in 44 minutes, 40 seconds.

It’s a good hike, but not one to be taken lightly, so exercise caution if you decide to make a go of it. And if you decide to run the race, sight unseen, and happen to be one of the lucky few who get in by way of the annual lottery for the open slots, well, I’ll pray for you.

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in Alaska Dispatch July 3, 2011.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com