Mt. Marathon Calls

By Troy Henkels

If someone would have told me 10 years ago how I would be spending the 4th of July, I would have laughed and not believed it. Every Independence Day of my youth was spent in very traditional ways. Hot Iowa summer days of picnics and baseball in the park with family and friends, ice cream socials at Eagle Point Park, and fireworks exploding in the sky above the Mississippi. In those days I didn’t ever dream of doing anything else on July 4th, those things were the best things. Since that time, I’ve been around the world, and spent July 4th in some very unimaginable ways. In McMurdo Sound on the 4th, there is a celebration of sorts and I had the priveledge to play in the southern most rock band in the deep, cold darkness of an Antarctic winter. In Denali Park, Alaska, the locals throw a festival complete with dunk tank, dog cycle races, and a dog pull. In Iowa, there are tractor pulls, in Alaska, on this day, the dogs do the pulling and often pull in excess of 3000 pounds. If that weren’t enough, dogteams race, pulling a motorless motorcycle and driver on a bone chilling mile long course. I was fortunate to be the driver in several such races and always marveled at how differently people celebrate a day that everyone has some certain memories of. I came to realize July 4th traditions of my boyhood days in Dubuque had slowly been replaced by unusual Alaska traditions, since I moved North10 years ago.

I thought I had seen it all, until I moved to Seward, Alaska, several years ago. Seward is a small community (pop.3000) that is home to Kenai Fjords National Park. I’d spent several years in and around Seward exploring the mountains and ocean. A stunningly beautiful place where the mountains rise up thousands of feet from the sea. Seward is home to Mt. Marathon, a deeply held tradition that is ran on July 4th, and has been since 1915. It is the second oldest footrace in the country, next to the Boston Marathon. But, don’t let the name deceive you, this race is not a marathon, but a foot race up a towering mountain CALLED Mt. Marathon!!!! This mountain rises 3022 feet from the ocean and runners are pitted against its slopes of forests, roots, waterfalls, snow, and scree. This is no ordinary race. It began as a bar bet and argument between two sourdoughs in the early 1900s, about whether the mountain could be climbed in less than an hour. To settle the argument a race was staged with the loser furnishing drinks for the crowd. Local merchants got into the spirit of things by putting up a suit of clothes and other prizes for the winner. The race was staged for July 4th. The optimistic sourdough lost the bet with the winning racer finishing in an hour and 2 minutes. Since that time, Mt. Marathon has been a long standing tradition in Alaska that takes place on July 4th. Next to the Iditarod, this is the world series of sporting events in the far North. Anchorage TV stations have live coverage on race day and 10,000 people stream into town to watch runners battle the mountain. Not only does weather play a large factor in the race, but also the amount of snowfall still left on the mountain from the previous winter can be a factor as well. Some years the mountain is wet, slippery, and muddy, while other years, temperatures soar in the 80s dehydrating and overheating runners. The record to date for the fastest finish up and down, is 43 minutes and 23 seconds. An amazing time considering the race begins and ends with a half mile road run through the streets of Seward.

Little did I ever guess that I would participate in such a seemingly insane event, but on July 4th I found myself at the starting line with the other 300 entrants. This race has grown so popular that they now limit each division (mens and womens) to 300 entrants, and to even get signed up, potential entrants camp out in the middle of winter at the Chamber of Commerce to vie for the few “open” spots that aren’t filled by the previous year’s entrants. Fortunately for me I had a friend willing to brave the snow and cold to get me signed up, otherwise I would have merely been a spectator. I was no stranger to this mountain. I had hiked it uncountable times over the years, from numerous routes. And I had more than once paraglided off the top, once in the dead of winter on Christmas Eve. The views of Resurrection Bay and the National Park are second to none from the top.

Most serious runners train for months, even years for this race. I had not trained at all and felt if I HAD to train I had no business being there. I keep in good shape as it is and had hoped I would fare in the top 100 and be able to get up and down the mountain in at least an hour and 20 minutes.

The race began with a mad sprint to the base of the hill. My lungs felt like they would burst before I even started climbing the hill. The entire trail up the mountain is steep and difficult and takes about 45 minutes of heavy cardiovascular and muscle use. Often I found myself on all fours, winded and climbing vertically up tree roots, dirt inclines, as well as rocky faces. With 300 runners on the mountain, the trail is single file and you can only go as fast or slow, as the person in front of you. It is very difficult to pass and keep to a steady pace. I marched on and on and on, sweating and swearing the entire time that I would never run this race again, I didn’t understand the point. As I neared the top, I heard the firehouse siren sounding, announcing the arrival of the winner nearing the finish. I was amazed. I was not even to the top of Marathon and the winner was ALREADY up and down!! I’m not in all that bad of shape, but I was astounded that someone could climb that quickly. In the end, the winner finished in an amazing 45 minutes!

As I crested the summit and ran around the customary rock, I began the descent and passed about 8 runners contemplating what to do with the 300 yard snow chute that confronted them. I jumped right onto the steeply angled snow and began sliding, just barely in control. Having been a mountaineer for years, I was at home on steep snow. The snow took me about a quarter of the way down the mountain and the rest of the way was navigating steep scree, cliffs, waterfalls, and severe dropoffs. Quick, nimble feet are critical, as one mishap, could easily mean hospital time. The most difficult part of the descent comes at the bottom of the hill, where you drop into a rocky chute complete with a cliff and waterfall. This area poses some problems, but I was able to navigate my way down in good order. However, the runner just in front of me kept stumbling out of control and falling, and generally scaring himself. He toppled down the cliff and continued on, bloodied, but not hurt bad enough to slow him down. I’ve learned in my years in the mountains, that uncontrolled descents are typically not safe descents.

I finished off the last quarter mile of road running to hoots and hollers from the crowd, the welcome back to level ground that all runners receive. I crossed the finish line relieved that this race was finally over. I was happy just to have finished and was amazed that I was up and down in an hour and two minutes and finished in 53rd place out of 300. It was by far better than I ever imagined I could do, and with no training, I was happy with my performance.

In the end, I’m not sure I learned any lessons from this race. It just gave me an entirely new perspective on the 4th of July, an unexpected one. With some training and a little fortitude, I suspect I’ll be standing at the starting line again, next year on July 4th. And the Independence Day traditions of my youth keep changing with the years.

Troy Henkels is a native of Dubuque and is the son of Pete and Mary Henkels. He lives in Alaska and writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Originally published in the Telegraph Herald July 22, 2002. Copyright 2001 Troy Henkels