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It’s gonna be a hot Mount Marathon, so racers be warned and spectators stand by — preferably with ice

Cramps and the effects of heat took down runner Karen Williams near the finish line of the 2009 Mount Marathon race. Another hot day is expected Wednesday. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

Weather heading into the holiday week promises to be fantastic, but there are approximately 1,000 Mount Marathon racers who might disagree.

While temperatures in the mid-70s are perfect for barbecues, boating, fishing and a host of other Alaska pastimes, Mount Marathon is one event where heat is a liability, not a pleasure.

I should know. In 2009 it was 70 degrees in Seward and I had completed 95 percent of the race before passing out in front of the hospital's emergency room, which, by the way, is conveniently located on the official race course.

I was so dehydrated that it took nearly an hour to start an IV in my arm. Following a battery of tests, my eventual diagnosis was exertional rhabdomyolysis, or severe muscle damage that often occurs in high-impact activities like car crashes or football tackles, not footraces. I lost so much fluid on the climb up Mount Marathon that my muscles lost their elasticity and simply tore during the downhill descent.

Just hours after my episode, Brent Knight, the men's race leader, collapsed near the finish line on Fourth Avenue in front of thousands of fans and joined me in the ER. It took both of us more than a month to recover.

To most, Wednesday's forecast high of 75 degrees may seem entirely hospitable. No big deal, right?

But for those of us planning on racing 3,022 feet up Mount Marathon and particularly for the women, who have a 2 p.m. start time, 70 degrees will turn the mountain into a formidable convection oven.

Heat took a toll on runners in the 2009 Mount Marathon race. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

Alaskans are not acclimated to heat in the first place, and our tolerance for high temperatures is low. This summer has been unseasonably cool and we can count on one hand the days we've hit 70 degrees.

Furthermore, "The Mountain," as many of us affectionately call it, has an amazing propensity to feel 20 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature while at race pace. My ideal race temperature is 50 degrees, and on those days it feels like it's 70. For spectators who wonder why racers wear almost nothing, this is why. We are actually that hot!

After 1,200 meters on pavement, the race takes to the mountain. The first half, to the junior point, is literally a tunnel of vegetation. There is little to no airflow. Racers are stacked, one sweaty body after another. The humidity and sweat are palpable. Last year there was a black fly hatch and runners reported choking on bugs during their lung-burning gasps for air.

At the halfway point, the race breaks out of the vegetation and onto black shale rock. The mountain holds and emanates heat the way blacktop does. Perhaps the good news is that this year's downhill features a big snow patch, so racers can opt to slide down and cool down in the process.

For those racing, I don't share any of this to scare you. My wish is simply for people to prepare themselves.

Luckily, there are a host of things you can do to make your race enjoyable and safe. And if you are spectating, there are a few things you can do to help racers battle the heat as we battle the mountain.

Tips for racers

— As tempting as it might be to sit out and soak up the sun for hours before your race, don't do it!

— After seeing what happened to me in 2009, Eric Strabel dunked his entire body in the river shortly before his race. If you're not up for a pre-race swim, dipping your singlet, headband or other articles of clothing in ice water should help.

— Hydrate. Many runners don't drink enough in an attempt to avoid a "sloshy stomach." Don't short yourself this year. Make sure you drink something with electrolytes, because flushing your system with too much water can be just as dangerous as not enough fluids.

— Plan to drink fluids along the way. Many people think that a race that can be won in less than 50 minutes is too short for feeds. Not true. If you're going for speed, organize friends and family along the course to offer drinks. It might be a good year to carry a small hydration belt, and definitely "opt in" to the water station at the turnaround point.

— Wear white or light colors. Black will soak up the heat. A headband will keep sweat out of your eyes and your vision clear, especially where it matters most on the downhill.

— Wear sunscreen.

Tips for spectators

— The only official feed station is at the summit, meaning any fluids elsewhere are offered by generous spectators. Haul water, Gatorade or ice cubes and offer them to racers as they pass by.

— There is usually a big group of folks at the midpoint, which is a fun spot to spectate from. For extra points, feed and cheer on the top half of the mountain. Racers will sincerely appreciate you.

Kudos to the person who carried the pony keg to the halfway point last year!

And to the racers: Have fun, good luck, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Holly Brooks is a two-time Olympic skier and two-time Mount Marathon winner who lives in Anchorage with her husband, Rob, and their twins. She owns and operates Holly Brooks LLC Counseling, Coaching & Consulting.

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