Editor’s note: The following was written by U.S. Ski Team member and 2010 Olympian Holly Brooks of Anchorage, Alaska. In her blog post, Hard Decisions, Obvious Decisions, the 31-year-old Washington native talks about the race she won last year — one which is widely considered the Olympics of Alaska. Despite all of Mount Marathon’s epic qualities, there are still some memories she’s forced to reckon with, which is why she decided to sit out the hill climb before an Olympic year.
This upcoming July 4th will be spent entirely different than my last couple. For the past four years I’ve raced Mt. Marathon in Seward, Alaska. Mount Marathon – they claim, is the Nation’s second oldest foot race behind the Boston Marathon and this year will be the 86th running.
It’s a tradition for Alaskans on Independence Day and the small town of Seward swells from 3,000 people to 30,000 thousand overnight. While only 500 or so people actually compete in the race, the rest crowd main street eating ice cream, socializing, and watching the race unfold. For those unfamiliar with the format, the race starts on main street, runs 3,022 feet directly up a mountain, rounds a rock at the top and descends 3,022 feet.
To put it in perspective top female racers take approximately 38 minutes to get to the top and last year Eric Strabel (Friend and APU coach) set a new downhill record by getting from the top of the mountain to the finish line on main street in a stunning ten minutes and eight seconds!
Last year’s race had a tragic twist in that one man, Michael LeMaitre, disappeared entirely while another well-known Alaskan Mountain Runner fell down a cliff and suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. (Recent front-page article on Matt Kenney in the Anchorage Daily News can be read HERE.)
Runner’s World took notice of the horrendous events and freelance journalist Christopher Salomon wrote an amazing piece titled, “The Last Man Up” which can be read HERE. If you have time I highly recommend taking the time to read this.
I don’t have a sparkling history with this race either. In 2009 I was leading at the top of the mountain and midway down what Alaskan’s call “the gut” when I slowed, everything became foggy, and I passed out in the arms of Erik Flora’s mom directly in front of the Seward Emergency Room (ironically located on the race course). My eventual diagnosis was that I suffered from a rare form of exertional rhabdomyolsis. In layman’s terms, severe muscle damage & potential kidney/renal failure.
2009 saw near record temperatures and on the trip up the mountain I literally sweat out all the liquid in my body. The trip down features extreme eccentric loading on your body as parts of the course literally run down a waterfall…… some might describe it as a controlled fall and it’s all racers can do to descend as fast as possible without falling. Once the water from my body was dried up, the decent literally tore my muscles apart.
Once in the Seward ER it took the medical staff literally an HOUR to start an IV in my arm. Funny enough, after the IV was started and my body soaked up a couple liters of fluid I checked myself out of the ER against the doctor’s orders to walk across the finish line and come back. (Because – if you don’t finish, you don’t have an automatic start the following year!)
After reading this you might wonder, why in the heck would I even consider racing this race at all, let alone in an Olympic year? Well, the short of it is that Mount Marathon has signified some monumental moments in my life. Two days before my Mount Marathon debut in 2008 Rob and I got engaged – and then shared our happy news at the race with family and friends.
In 2009 I suffered my accident and then proceeded to get married seven days later. A blood blister covered the diameter of my entire heel and my opposite big toe was enlarged with pussy fluid that I couldn’t fit into my high heels. Ultimately I burned a hole in my toenail with a red-hot safety pin and relieved the pressure, fitting into my bridal shoes just in the nick of time! (Sorry, that was graphic, I know.)
My 2009 accident also had another side effect – an epiphany that struck me while I was laying in the Seward Emergency Room. I’ve honestly never had an idea hit me so hard… it was like something that you read about it books….. but the clarity of the idea was something that I’ll always remember. Hopped up on adrenaline and a bit loopy from the overall experience I decided then and there that I would try and make the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, literally seven months away. I temporarily kept this thought to myself until late August (2009) when I was finally healed from my “rhabdo” (as I affectionately called it) and decided to share the news with my coach (then boss), family & friends.
This episode was almost four years ago to the day and if you’re reading my blog, you probably know how much the decision to go after skiing full tilt has affected my life.
Since my 2009 Mt. Marathon Injury I’ve raced in the Olympics, quit my job as a full time coach, and this year will be my second on the US Ski Team. While the Sochi Olympic team hasn’t been named yet (and won’t officially until Jan/2014) I’m putting all my energy towards racing there, peaking in February, and attempting to help make US Women’s Cross Country Skiing history. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m not in a position to take any chances….
So, come July 4th 2013 you won’t find me in Seward. As much as it seems like racing Mt. Marathon would feel like completing a circle – and my Olympic cycle, it’s just too risky. I’ve worked too hard, made too many sacrifices, and dedicated too much of my time and energy to get injured on the Mountain and put my Sochi Olympic bid in jeopardy. This is the year for the Olympics and fortunately, every year is a year for Mount Marathon.
Despite it’s risks, I love the race dearly and while I won’t have a bib on the fourth I’ll be thinking about everyone who is participating and wishing, hoping, for a safe trip up AND down the mountain for each and every participant. (First AND Last!) I will most likely be off in the mountains somewhere else – only in a different direction, enjoying the raw beauty that makes Alaska home.
Good luck to all the participants! Be safe and I’ll see you next year – Mark my words!
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.