As with other epic modern-day adventure race series, the fabled origin of Seward, Alaska’s annual Mount Marathon — held every July 4 — began with beer and a bet: who among us can run from the streets of downtown to the top of the 3,022-foot mountain crowding Seward’s skyline, then back to the bottom the fastest? What about within the hour?
While the footrace race has evolved massively since the port town’s pioneer miners took on the challenge, clambering up its craggy course in woolen pants and workman’s boots nearly 90 years ago, it holds no less prestige for the millennial athletes or spectators who partake nowadays. To many Last Frontier residents, it is their Olympics. An estimated 30,000 outsiders annually inundate the town’s (population 2,500) sidewalks just to watch the event.
“It’s Mount Marathon. It’s Alaska. It’s my Fourth of July,” Allie Ostrander, the 2017 women’s overall race winner and a Soldotna, Alask. native, told Alaska Dispatch News reporter (and former FasterSkier editor) Nat Herz after the competition. “Fourth of July feels empty without Mount Marathon.”
Despite the obvious risks associated with careening down a mountain at top speed, stories of close encounters with kidney failure, brain-damaging falls, and disappearance deterred a few from re-entering this year’s version of the event.
The upcoming 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was reason enough for the current Mt. Marathon course-record holder and last year’s overall male champion, David Norris, to watch from the sidelines. His Alaska Pacific University (APU) teammate, Scott Patterson, who also recently earned a U.S. Ski Team (USST) nomination, however, did not.
“It’s a big deal up here. I just figured why not go again?” Patterson, an Anchorage native, explained on the phone.
In his debut Mt. Marathon race, Patterson had twisted his ankle and ultimately finished fourth last year. This year, as he weighed out his risk in racing, he arrived at a far less insidious calculation.
“There’s definitely always a risk, that downhill is tricky,” Patterson said. “But I think looking at the competition beforehand, I knew that I could probably have a pretty good lead at the top and stake the downhill at my own speed; not really have to duke it out with someone down the hill.”
With that, Patterson entered the 2017 event aiming for the win, but not the record. Norris was not on the start list, nor Kilian Jornet, the 2015 record holder and a professional ski mountaineer and ultramarathon runner, not to mention Patterson had recently returned from the men’s USST training camp in Park City, Utah, which ran from June 26-July 5. Patterson departed the camp early to return for the race.
“Everyone was saying going into it that it was my race to lose,” the 25-year-old Patterson said. “The other guys who could really challenge me on the uphills this year skipped it, so it was kind of just me just out there on my own.”
Patterson completed the 5-kilometer race in a time of 44:30 for the win, just over three minutes off the course record. The closest male finishers behind Patterson were Erik Johnson in second place just under a minute back (+0:52), and Kenneth Brewer in third, a little over two minutes behind (+2:23). Patterson’s first-place finish at Mt. Marathon is nothing unheard of among cross-country skiers. A number of other nordic athletes have been crowned the overall champion, including current USST A-team member Kikkan Randall, former USST athlete and Olympian Holly Brooks, APU nordic coach Eric Strabel, and Norris.
The runner-up in this year’s women’s event, Morgan Arritola, was also a member of the 2010 Vancouver nordic Olympic squad and skied competitively for over six years before she made the switch to mountain running in 2012. In her debut Mt. Marathon race, Arritola, 31, finished second in a time of 51:09, a minute and fifty seconds behind the 20-year-old Ostrander, who won in 49:19.
While Arritola did preview the course once, she also indicated that she didn’t hold a whole lot over herself in terms of expectations and outcome going into race. Ultimately her goal coming into her first Mt. Marathon event was to “take it all in.” In discussions with her former teammates and champions, Randall and Brooks, the advice remained fairly simple: enjoy the atmosphere.
“I didn’t really pre-race research. That’s not really my style,” Arritola, of Ketchum, Idaho, wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Everyone has their own way of handling racing and I tend not to overthink.
“I would love to come back next year,” she continued. “If there was a race-specific goal it would be to know the route I’m taking better. I asked for directions a few times 🙂 and be more confident on the downhill. I haven’t raced that kind of downhill and I just never got into a good rhythm.”
While Arritola has three U.S. Mountain Running Championship titles to her name and a World Mountain Running bronze medal, mountain running is not where she is indelibly focused. She is currently going back to school for a degree in respiratory therapy and working various jobs to help fund her racing, such as The Rut 50 k in Big Sky, Mont., which she is registered to race in September.
“I’m not running full time like with skiing,” Arritola wrote. “I am in my last year of school and running just keeps me sane. I don’t overthink it, I do what I want with it, and I enjoy it.”
Finishing behind Arritola to round out the women’s top three was mother of three and three-time Mt. Marathon champion, Christy Marvin, in third place with a time of 52:22.
In the junior race division of the event — in which racers run approximately halfway up the mountain before turning around for the descent — APU’s Luke Jager won the boys’ race in a time of 29:09, marking Jager’s second junior title in a row. Jager was followed by Gavin Block in second in a time of 29:32 and Ali Papillon in third in a time of 30 flat. The junior girls title went to Molly Gellert (Alaska Winter Stars) in a time of 32:53, also for the second year in a row. Behind Gellert in second was Ruby Lindquist finishing in a time of 33:55. Kendall Kramer (FXC) came in third, finishing in a time of 35:06 for the girls race.
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Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.