Hard Core Meets Hard Heads at Mount Marathon

Train WreckJuly 10, 20092

Here Here Here.

There was a big mountain race named Mount Marathon last weekend on the fourth of July in Seward, AK. It was 81 degrees at mid mountain, and even hotter in the trees where there wasn’t a cooling breeze. The conditions were just right for racers to hammer to the top without realizing that they’d gone overboard, and then pass out at the bottom once they have to start running again. Two of my good friends really, really wanted that win, and both of them collapsed from heat exhaustion before the finish while running safely in first place.

The whole state of Alaska knows about Mount Marathon, and for good reason. A lot of us locals have seen this race enough times that it’s hard to remember how hard core it is. You run half a mile uphill to the boot of the mountain, then power hike 3000 feet to the top before turning at the top to bomb down a cliffy and rapidly eroding shale drainage to the finish line. It’s incredibly technical and specific, and a cocky and/or otherwise experienced first timer doesn’t have a bleeding chance. But, they have plenty of chances to bleed.

The fastest runners train for hiking year round but also learn every hand and foot hold on the fast decent through the gut. You have to be able to fly down the scree path and hit the cliff with fantastic agility and without fear of heights. If it was a big snow year you also have to master cruising blindly at top speed on your butt through the cloud cover before hitting the deep scree (thankfully loosened for the men by the women’s field). Racers that don’t where spandex shorts on that snow field end up unable to sit down for at least a week.

People come off this race bloody, covered in mud and rocks and basically all tore up. As a bonus, there’s 50,000 grilling and merry-making spectators lining the road like a summer sprint in Dusseldorf. Those lay spectators get totally psyched if they score a high five from and elite racer after holding out an eager hand. Every bar in town will fill the winner’s chalice with free beer all night, even after dawn at the Pit Bar just outside city limits.

Mount Marathon is the only chance for real glory in Alaska, unless your last name starts with “Pa” and ends in “lin.”

In this race I’ve seen an 18 year old Denali Foldager (who’s dad is a race organizer) take a head-over facial shale digger at the bottom of the cliff while the hundreds of spectators yell “Awwwwwww!” like blood thirsty cannibals.

I’ve carried a racer in shock from bleeding head injuries off the mountain after he hung too far right near the top and tumbled over the cliffs, while unannounced pieces of shale loosened by other racers fly by at 40mph. Late entrants can pay over $1000 for a bib at the official auction if they didn’t get in the tight annual entry lottery. This particular guy paid a little over $600.

I’ve seen UAA nordic coach Trond Flagstad overtake long time mountain stud Barney Griffith by literally tumbling head over heals on snow and scree before getting back on his feet and posting a top finish. ER nurses were still pulling rocks out of Trond’s body when they brought my head injury guy in, six hours after his fall.

This year it was so hot that almost everyone had giant blood blisters on their heels from the decent. Racers were totally passing out, and for hours race volunteers were hosing off finishers that lay spread eagle in the middle of fourth avenue.

APU and top national skier Brent Knight passed out for four hours in the ER and took eight liters of IV before walking down the street across the finish line. The footage on local station KTUU is incredible, and also nauseating.

Matias Saari took first place only after thinking he had finished three times before he crossed the finish line.

Braun Kopsack, one of the toughest guys out there, was so depleted that he had to stagger along side the spectator barrier just to know where the finish line was.

APU coach Holly Brooks lead the race of her life to the top, and then collapsed on the road near the finish. They had to drill a hole in her big toe nail to allow her swelling blood blisters to drain while she was kicking and screaming from the wheel chair to get up and finish the race before the cutoff. The rules are clear – if you don’t finish within the 3 hour deadline, you loose your spot next year.

This is the dramatization of a classic scene that athletes of any persuasion lay in bed and fantasize about as the ultimate push. It is intriguingly sick and truly brutal, and for our own unexplainable reasons it is also incredibly enticing. This year we saw a coincidental mixture of hard core racing and extreme conditions that create the perfect conditions for a massacre of endurance in a race that only lasts under an hour.

If you were one of those headstrong types that went over the edge, it is a wonderful chance to reflect on your limits, and also use those lessons to get ready for next year.

KTTU TV coverage:


Official Results:


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