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Mount Marathon lottery: Elation, and agony

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 30, 2015

The bad news, by Matt Waliszek's best guestimate, arrived each April for seven straight years.

The 38-year-old from Anchorage faithfully scoured the Mount Marathon race website each year to see if he was among runners who won a lottery to compete among a limited field in the grinding, Fourth of July race up and down the 3,022 peak overlooking Seward. Each year, Waliszek's name did not appear. Each year, he swallowed more disappointment, and endured.

Turned out the eighth time was the charm.

Waliszek laughs about the day three months ago when he learned he finally hit the lottery. It was, he half-joked, both good news and bad.

"There's this awkward anticipation on April 1, when they put out the list,'' Waliszek said. "On the one hand, 'I really want to run this race.'

"On the other hand, 'Oh, my God, I have to run this death-defying race.' It's this horrible paradox -- 'I get to run this great race; I just signed up for this awful pain.' ''

So, come Saturday, Waliszek will be running in the 88th edition of Mount Marathon instead of hiking partway up the mountain and handing out water to friends competing. Finally seeing his name on the list of lottery winners seemed like a dream: " 'Is it really true?' I could hardly believe it,'' he said. "It was kind of surreal.''

For the better part of two decades now, there's been a maxim about Mount Marathon, which draws thousands of spectators and which lottery winner Erik Johnson of Seward called "part of Alaska tradition and lore:'' The only thing harder than the punishing race is actually getting into it as a rookie.

The race committee aims to cap the separate men's and women's field at 350 runners each and the coed junior field at 250, 125 boys and 125 girls. Those limits are imposed because the mountain cannot safely handle any more traffic.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was still possible to gain entry into Mount Marathon for several days after registration opened in the spring. But as the race gained more hype, the fields began filling so quickly that many runners from Anchorage, for instance, began driving to Seward to deliver their applications on the first day of registration.

The race's exponential popularity – the 1997 men's field, then capped at 300, filled within 48 hours, for instance – has prompted the race committee to occasionally alter entry qualifications.

The lottery began in 2002. Dating back farther is the auction for 10 men's spots and 10 women's spots, bidding for which happens on the eve of the race.

Since 2013, the top 225 men's and women's finishers automatically qualified for the next year's race. Also qualifying automatically were 10-year race veterans, top-10 age-group finishers and juniors who aged up into the senior race. Winners of Alaska Mountain Runners Grand Prix races can apply for a special invitation.

Other caveats in place too, like a medical waiver that allows a veteran runner to skip a year without losing his spot. Also, the lottery that generates participants by computer program is weighted, based on the number of times a runner has applied.

Still, the "225 Rule'' has opened up spots for newcomers. This year, the lottery furnished 75 men's entrants, 77 women's entrants and 68 junior entrants. Nearly 1,000 runners entered the lottery.

"It's a balance of keeping the traditional people who do the race year after year, and letting in people who have never done it, or are new to the state, or are new to mountain running,'' explained Karol Fink, a member of the race committee and longtime racer.

Johnson, a former Mayor's Marathon and Big Wild Life Marathon winner, raced Mount Marathon in 2011, 2012 and 2013, courtesy of a special invitation elite runners can receive. He also entered the lottery each year.

But the special invite is limited to three years, so Johnson entered the lottery again in 2014 -- but no dice. He said he was bummed about missing the race for the first time in four years but understands there's only so much organizers can do.

"I think for all of its hang-ups, and the disappointment people feel and the unhappiness they have, in the end (the lottery) makes it special when you get in,'' he said. "It's the old marketing thing -- keep the demand high, supply low, and people will stay interested.''

Andrew Stavich of Anchorage competed in Mount Marathon for kicks in 1993, 1994 and 1995 -- "I didn't even train back then, I think my training was one trip up Flattop without stopping'' -- but since has become hooked on mountain running and trail racing. He estimates he entered the lottery the last seven years, to no avail.

"It was disappointing,'' Stavich said. "But when you step back, it's about the fairest way they could do it, and I looked at it like, 'Well, I'm just not lucky.' ''

Stavich in April got word he finally won the lottery, and he's psyched for the race. Stavich said he's been training on Mount Marathon and received some tutelage from longtime race contender Clint McCool – that's known as going to McCool School.

No such luck for Jim McDonough, a 2:51 marathoner from Anchorage. He figures he has entered the lottery seven times for a race he badly wants to run but has come up empty each year.

"People Outside hear you're a runner and they ask, 'Have you done Mount Marathon?' '' McDonough said. "I've probably been asked that question 50, 60, a 100 times, and I have to say, 'No.' ''

Not every lottery entrant, of course, has to endure years of disappointment. Adam Jensen is a dentist and former professional triathlete who moved to Anchorage about 18 months ago and raves about the accessible peaks for hiking in the Chugach range. He said he had never heard of Mount Marathon before arriving here but soon discovered "everyone here talks about it.''

Jensen entered the lottery last year but was not selected and figured from stories he heard he might be in for a long wait. In April, though, he got the news that he won the lottery in just his second attempt.

"I was just really lucky,'' Jensen said.

Reach Doyle Woody at dwoody@alaskadispatch.com, check out his blog at adn.com/hockey-blog and follow him on Twitter at @JaromirBlagr

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