SEWARD -- Runners approaching the Mount Marathon race trail Thursday have the usual onslaught of challenges to overcome, like 3,022 feet of elevation gain toward a screaming descent downhill.
But this year’s excellent summer weather has put a few more obstacles between racers and a successful finish in the iconic mountain run.
Without the usual Seward rain, Mount Marathon has been dry for weeks and the forecast is for more of the same from now until race day, with sunshine and temperatures in the 70s.
That means Mount Marathon is dusty.
Add smoke from the Swan Lake wildfire on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula, and the 92nd running of the race is shaping up to be a tough one
Race officials have stated they will decide whether the smoke poses a hazard sometime Wednesday, the day before the race. They could potentially allow participants to opt out of running without losing their coveted bib.
Racers have about half a mile of running on pavement to come to terms with conditions before hitting the base of the mountain. Once there, they will find a dusty climb and an equally dry descent.
Those opting for the roots can expect loose dirt underfoot while they grab for roots to get themselves closer to the race trail.
The entrance leading to the cliffs will have a surprise for racers who haven’t been on the trail since last year’s race. This winter, a large tree fell directly across the center of the entrance to the cliffs, forcing racers to readjust their approach to the mountain.
Once they pass the tree and get onto the cliffs they might hear a lot of shouted warnings -- arid, crumbling rocks throughout the cliffs are ready to tumble.
On the bottom half of the mountain, racers don’t need to worry about any slick sections. Some spots that usually hold onto mud have been dry for weeks and are starting to show defined paths.
And with all the extra sunshine, mountainside vegetation growth is booming. There is plenty of green along the lower trail, with some less-traveled routes seeming overgrown. The vegetation plus high temperatures could make for a hot climb to the tree line.
Once runners are out of the tree line, they reach the pole that marks the turnaround point for the junior race and start the second half of the climb for senior racers. The haul up to race point is a push up and over rocks and past false summits on one of the many defined paths to the summit. The large rock at the top signals the turnaround for the adult race and the start of the challenging downhill.
As of Saturday, some snow was left at the top of the mountain but racers shouldn’t plan on glissading down it. Warm temperatures have caused it to shrink quickly and it doesn’t seem to be holding well.
The fast-melting snow has left portions of hard bedrock dispersed within the soft scree. The way down won’t be all floating -- runners will have to navigate and react to a few firm foot strikes.
Each step down into the scree creates its own miniature dust cloud, especially once racers fly past the junior pole. They are tossed from the open chute to the gut of the mountain, where Mount Marathon will throw a curveball. The gut is home to a flowing stream, and although the water levels aren’t high, runners will still need to get their feet wet and navigate some slippery rocks.
After racing through the gut and gully, runners can descend down the cliff, switchbacks or roots to reach the street. Those opting for the cliffs should remember the fallen tree and plan their final moments on the mountain accordingly.
From there, after passing a few hundred cheering spectators, racers transition from mountain to pavement as they run the final stretch to the finish line on Fourth Avenue.
Kat Sorensen is a writer who lives in Seward and is racing in this year’s Mount Marathon.