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More than 20 years after a downer debut, Jerry Ross hopes to give Mount Marathon another try

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: July 2, 2016
  • Published July 2, 2016
 
A crowd gathers at the base of Mount Marathon to watch racers climb at the start of last year’s men’s race. (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2015)

Anchorage runner Jerry Ross vividly remembers his first, and so far only, Mount Marathon.

It was more than 20 years ago when Ross was one of Alaska's best high school track and cross-country runners, and it ruined him for mountain running.

"I got in the junior race when I was 16 or 17," he said. "Mainly I got in because that's what everybody does, and I remember being a total neophyte."

Ross wasn't familiar with the mountain and made a bad route-finding decision early before finding the main race trail on Seward's famous 3,022-foot peak.

"I got (stuck) behind a 9-year-old with a football helmet," he said. "I had an awful experience. I was thinking, 'I hate this race.'

"I'd be surprised if I was in the top 30. I was a really accomplished track and cross-country runner and a really unaccomplished mountain runner."

At age 40, Ross is trying to change that.

The road runner is turning into a mountain goat, a transformation highlighted last month with his ninth-place finish in the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb at Bird Ridge.

Ross beat his goal of a 42-minute finish by 45 seconds, the latest of several mountain-running performances that pushed him to give Mount Marathon another try.

Problem is, Ross isn't entered in the race.

His name didn't get drawn in the lottery that helps distribute the coveted 350 spots in the men's field, so his only avenue into the race is Sunday night's bib auction, where 10 slots in the race will be sold to the highest bidders.

Ross said he went to last year's auction, where the bibs sold for as much as $3,000.

And so Wednesday, his wife cooked a big batch of salmon chili and his mom baked a bunch of cornbread, and the Rosses entertained about 60 people for a rain-soaked fundraising barbecue.

Ross, who along with Todd List runs the Alaska Endurance Project training club, raised $4,000.

He hopes that's more than enough to buy a spot in Monday's punishing run up and down the mountain. Whatever he doesn't spend on a bib will be donated to the Running Free training program at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.

Ross has long gone to Seward on the Fourth of July to watch the action, content to be a spectator and save his body for road races. A three-time winner of the Heart Run 5K, Ross placed 40th in the 2011 Boston Marathon and came close to qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials marathon.

But in recent years his opinion of Mount Marathon has evolved.

"(Matt) Novakovich winning, (Eric) Strabel breaking the record, Kilian (Jornet) coming — the last five years have been so compelling, every time I'm on the mountain now I think 'I want to do this race,' '' Ross said.

"… I'm just kicking myself that at 40 years old I'm finally doing that full mountain after a downer of an experience at 17."

Still, Ross didn't decide to bid for a Mount Marathon bib until very recently..

"At the beginning of May I didn't think I'd do this race," he said. "The last four or five weeks I got onto this climbing kick. I had a goal to do 100,000 vertical feet in a 31-day span and I did it just by basically hiking every day.

"So I met my goal and part of the result of meeting that goal is I got really fit."

Ross said he's been to the top of Mount Marathon 12 to 15 times this summer, and he ranks 10th in the Alaska Mountain Running Grand Prix standings.

Unlike that junior race so many years ago, Ross feels prepared to take on the mountain — even with a heart condition that sometimes sends his heart rate soaring.
He has Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which can cause tachycardia.

Ross said he occasionally experiences arrhythmia in training, almost always when he transitions from going hard to not going hard. He said he doesn't race the Turnagain Arm Trail Run because the undulating terrain creates those transitions.

"In Mount Marathon you have this transition from climbing to a steep downhill. Will that affect my heart?" Ross said. "If it goes into arrhythmia I can stop anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes and it clicks back to normal.

"… It's something I live with and if I have to, I can stop."

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