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Mount Marathon adopts new entry rules to address growing popularity of the Seward mountain race

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: February 12
  • Published February 11

Runners in the first wave of the Mount Marathon men's race leave the starting line last year in Seward. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Most everyone who has tried to enter Mount Marathon knows how difficult it can be to get into the popular mountain run. Last year, more than 1,000 tried to gain entry through the lottery system, and only 79 were successful. Among men, the success rate was 3.2 percent, something the race director called “simply unacceptable.”

Now, the goal of adding more new runners and improving the odds for old and new runners to get in through the lottery, Mount Marathon is changing some of the rules that decide which runners get priority registration.

No longer will the first 225 finishers in the senior-division races be rewarded with priority registration for the next year’s race. Instead, priority registration will be given to those who finish in the top 50% of their age group, race director Matias Saari said Tuesday.

Additionally, beginning with this year’s race, new runners will no longer be able to obtain priority registration status by finishing 10 races. Those who have already gained veteran’s status will still get priority registration, Saari said, and those already on the path to veteran’s status will get priority registration once they finish their 10th race. So will runners who would have been rookies last year but deferred their entry to 2020 because of last summer’s wildfires.

Two other rules impacting participation were also changed, Saari said.

The cap of 350 men and 350 women will be raised to 375 for each race, and a third wave of starters will be added to both races. The additional wave should help reduce the bottleneck created at the bottom of the mountain once runners leave the road and begin their ascent of Seward’s iconic mountain peak.

“The motivation behind the rule changes are twofold — both to get new racers in as well as to improve the lottery odds,” Saari said.

All of the changes received unanimous approval from the race committee, Saari said. They will go into effect for the 2020 race.

Entries for the July 4 race open March 1.

Famous for the punishment it doles out to runners who race up and down the slope, Mount Marathon has a degree of difficulty that extends to the entry procedure. Because participation is capped to limit the impact on the 3,022-foot mountain, runners without priority status must enter a lottery.

Right now, the number of racers who get into Mount Marathon via the lottery is minimal. In 2019, 666 men applied for 21 available spots and 399 women applied for 58 available spots.

“So 3.2% of men’s lottery applicants got in,” Saari said, “and 15 percent of the women.”

Lotteries are a common path into many races with limited fields, but not at Mount Marathon. As the race has grown in popularity over the last decade or two, the bulk of the field has consisted of racers with veteran’s status or those who finished in the top 225 the previous year. That leaves fewer spots available for those trying to enter through the lottery.

Demand for race spots has never been higher, thanks to increased exposure at the national and international level. In 2015, a pair of internationally known mountain runners — Spain’s Kilian Jornet and Sweden’s Emelie Forsberg — shattered Mount Marathon course records, adding global luster to a race long embraced by Alaskans.

More and more people are trying to get into Mount Marathon through the lottery, and more and more people are left disappointed. While the 2019 lottery drew entries from 1,065 runners, the 2015 lottery — before the victories by Jornet and Forsberg — had 661. That year, 65 of 421 men (15%) and 73 of 240 women (30%) got in through the lottery, Saari said.

Saari said the rule change that could make the biggest impact is the one that ends the policy of giving the top 225 finishers in each men’s and women’s races automatic entry in the next year’s race. Now, in order to automatically qualify for the next year’s race, runners must be among the top 50% of the finishers in their age group. The change will benefit some older, slower runners, and it will mean some younger, faster runners will have to enter the next year’s lottery to get back in the race.

“We wanted it to be proportional by age group,” Saari said.

He said he knows not everyone will like the changes, but he believes the new rules are a fair way to meet the burgeoning demand of runners who want to enter Mount Marathon.

“We realize this is not going to please everyone, but this serves the general race community best," Saari said. “... Three percent of lottery entries getting in is simply unacceptable. It’s not fair to people trying to get in.”

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