Seward’s famed Mount Marathon race will be postponed or canceled due to coronavirus

Mount Marathon, the historic mountain race at the heart of a Fourth of July celebration that draws thousands of people to Seward every year, will skip the party this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The race committee on Monday announced the 93rd edition of the race could be moved to Labor Day weekend, provided it’s safe to hold a large gathering by then.

The nine-member Mount Marathon committee decided with no debate that July 4 was too soon for such an event, race director Matias Saari said in an interview.

“We’re just not ready to have a thousand racers and 10,000 spectators and vendors in Seward all at the same time,” Saari said.

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The new tentative date for the race would be Sunday, Sept. 6.

“The mountain would be different and the vibe would be different, but it would be good to have a celebration then if we can,” Saari said.

A decision whether to cancel Mount Marathon altogether will be made by June 1, based on the latest assessment of the pandemic, he said.

If the race is canceled, the 2020 entry list will roll over to 2021. Spots in Mount Marathon are highly coveted and are limited to 375 men, 375 women and 300 juniors.

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The race is a treacherous scramble up and down 3,022-foot Mount Marathon, the looming and alluring peak that sits just a few blocks from downtown Seward. It’s one of Alaska’s most famous and extreme competitions, a magnet that draws thousands to the small city on Resurrection Bay.

“We weren’t ready to call it off at this point,” Saari said. “We’re holding out hope that it may be possible.”

One of the oldest footraces in America, Mount Marathon started as a bar bet: Could anyone make it up and down the mountain in less than an hour? The first race was held in 1915 and was won by James Walters in 62 minutes.

Mount Marathon has been canceled 13 times since then, most recently in 1942 because of World War II.

Last year’s race was threatened by thick smoke from the Swan Lake wildfire. The junior race was called off but the men’s and women’s races went on as scheduled.

Mount Marathon was put on hold for four years from 1920 to 1924 while the Alaska Railroad was under construction and again for seven years from 1932 to 1938.

The reason for the break in the 1930s is unclear. It followed a stretch when the race was dominated by young Alaska Natives who lived at Seward’s Jesse Lee Home for Children. Three-time champion Ephriam Kalmakoff was 14 when he set the record of 52:35 in 1928, a mark that lasted 29 years.

Mount Marathon has gotten bigger and bigger over the years and is part of a holiday celebration that is a huge economic boon for Seward. The city’s hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and bars overflow on July 3-4. On race day, thousands of spectators line both sides of Adams Street to cheer runners on their way to the finish line and thousands more gather at the base of the mountain or climb partway up for a closer look at the thrills and spills.

The race’s enormous popularity and rich history spurred the race committee to choose an alternate date, Saari said.

“It was pretty clear the 4th couldn’t happen, so the debate swung to can we reschedule it, or is it a sacred thing to have Mount Marathon on the 4th of July and should we just cancel it?” he said.

The committee’s decision to postpone came with the secondary decision to cancel by June 1 if assessments of the pandemic at that point are discouraging. Organizers don’t want volunteers working for months on an event that stands a good chance of getting called off, Saari said, and they want runners -- some who come from out of state -- to have time to adjust their plans.

Canceling the race earlier rather than later could potentially limit the spread of the coronavirus in Seward, where hundreds of runners typically come to town in the weeks leading up to the race so they can train on the mountain.


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Beth Bragg

Beth Bragg wrote about sports and other topics for the ADN for more than 35 years, much of it as sports editor. She retired in October 2021. She's contributing coverage of Alaskans involved in the 2022 Winter Olympics.