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Mount Marathon: Why I run this trail race year after year

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published July 1, 2010

Every Fourth of July, Seward draws elite athletes who perform amazing feats of strength and endurance on steep Mount Marathon. I am not one of them. My motivation to take on this insane race? If I didn't do it, I'd feel like a wimp for the other 364 days of the year.

Photo by jseattle on flickr
Competitors in the women's race.

Every Fourth of July, the small town of Seward draws elite athletes who perform amazing feats of strength and endurance on steep Mount Marathon.

I am not one of them.

Oh, I'll be there, all right, far, far behind Cedar, Kikkan, Holly, Ellyn and, in fact, most of the Mount Marathon pack. I've done the race almost every year since I arrived in Alaska in 1987, and have the T-shirts to prove it. This will be, I think, my 20th race. I like to tell people I am the slowest person who has done it the most times.

Slowpoke or not, I take Mount Marathon pretty seriously. Year-round, the mountain haunts me, at least in my anxiety dreams, in which I forget to bring my shoes to the race, or my shorts (this actually happened once), or I arrive at the start line 20 minutes late, or I forget the route, or I discover that -- whoops! -- I somehow forgot to train.

For non-Alaskans who don't know about Mount Marathon, here are the basics: It's not a marathon. That's just the name of the mountain. It's the nation's second-oldest trail race, now in its 83rd running. It has its genesis, according to legend, in a 1908 Seward barroom bet over whether someone could get to the top and bottom of the mountain in an hour.

The distance is about five kilometers, but that's irrelevant. What counts is the 3,022-foot vertical rise and run down. I'll skip details about the route, other than to say that it's incredibly steep and sometimes terrifying -- a sweat-pouring, heart-pounding, thigh-burning climb and descent. Those who have been on it know the worst parts, which pretty much comprise the entire bottom half.

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There are risks aplenty -- cliffs, falling rocks, slippery snow, cow parsnip and, in recent years, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. No one has died in the race, but last year Brent Knight, at the time the leader in the men's event, seemed to come pretty close when he collapsed, green-faced, within sight of the finish line.

There are much tougher running races in Alaska -- the 14-mile Matanuska Peak Challenge, with its 9,000-foot vertical climb, comes to mind -- but none create quite the spectacle of Mount Marathon. The town swells temporarily to 10 or more times its normal size of 2,500 people. There's an entire celebration built around the race, with a street fair, parade, mini-kids race and all the trappings. It's an only-in-Alaska ritual, inextricably linked for some people to the Fourth of July.

"It is so much fun, and I love it," says Karol Fink, a state dietician and health program manager in Anchorage and a former Seward resident who serves on the race committee and is a frequent top-10 finisher. There is great camaraderie in this on-the-mountain reunion of friends, she says. "If you live there, you have to do the race," she says.

My motivation? If I didn't do it, I'd feel like a wimp for the other 364 days of the year.

Some people say I'm lucky just to have the opportunity to compete, and some would argue that duffers like me don't even belong in the race. This wasn't an issue when I started running Mount Marathon and could simply drive down to Seward and sign up on race day. Many years prior to that, I'm told, race officials practically begged people to run, and refunded the $1 entry fee to everyone who crossed the finish line. Those days are long gone.

Entry now has evolved into a complicated system, with veterans of any skill level getting automatic slots if they want them but newbies forced to compete by lottery. This year about 300 men competed for what turned out to be 25 lottery spots. Past champions get automatic entry, and a few ultra-elite runners each year get special invitations, but anyone else trying to get in has to pony up big bucks the night before the race, where 10 spots in the women's division and 10 in the men's are auctioned off. Starting spots have fetched amounts in the $1,000 range at the auction.

The race committee, which meets year round, has the tough task of balancing needs of elite and citizen runners with the mountain's limited carrying capacity, plus promoting safety and order. With three separate races further divided into wave starts, the race is pretty much maxed out at 350 men, 350 women and 250 juniors.

Now I, along with probably 999 other people, am in full-blown pre-race jitters. Mount Marathon is just days away, and I am hoping that my past year of somewhat sporadic training will suffice, but I'm fearing it won't. Worse, for the first time ever I will be the mother of a junior racer. I have much to worry about, including the possibility that just writing this pre-race article will create some horrible Sports Illustrated-like jinx for my 10-year-old daughter and me.

We could always drop out, but only at the start. You can't go down the same way you came up, so once you're on the mountain you have no choice but to finish.

For spectators, the biggest challenge can be getting a prime viewing spot at the final chute, where runners drop to the street. It's especially thrilling viewing during the men's race, when mud-caked competitors are wild, aggressive and prone to taking crazy risks on the sheer rock face. This is where some of the really gutsy moves are made, where runners do the memorable things -- like pass each other, or pass out -- that people talk about for the rest of the year.

Or so people tell me. I wouldn't know. By that time of the afternoon, I'm usually gone -- eating, spending gobs of money on my kids, complaining about my lousy performance, sitting down, etcetera. Once I'm across the finish line, Mount Marathon is someone else's problem. Until the next year. And except for in my pesky anxiety dreams.

Yereth Rosen been reporting and running in Alaska for 23 years. She is a mother of two, and is considering switching to relaxing Fourth of July holidays starting next year.

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