Every runner has that one race that calls to them, that they keep coming back to year after year or aspire to race one day in the future.
It might be the Boston Marathon, one of the oldest marathons in the country that sees over 30,000 entrants every year and is a lifelong goal of many distance runners. It could be Bay to Breakers, a race that perfectly reflects San Francisco’s wildness – drinking and costumes are as important as making it to the finish line. It could be your local Turkey Trot that is as much of a family tradition as is the turkey and pie.
For me, this race is Mount Marathon, a 5K that takes place each year on the 4th of July in Seward, Alaska.
Most of the time, when I describe this race to someone who has never heard of it, the conversation plays out the same way.
“Wow, a marathon! Good for you!”
No, I say with a smile, it’s actually just a 5K. Three point one miles.
“Oh,” they say, with disappointment and maybe a bit of confusion on their face. I’m sure they’re wondering, why go all the way to Alaska to race a 5K?
“Well, it’s straight up and down a mountain. You go up 3,000 feet in a mile and a half, any way to the top you please, and come right back down to the finish line in the middle of town.”
This tends to spike some interest, although some continue to look skeptical and say, “So… it’s a hike?”
Here is how I would paint a picture of the race if I had the time to delve into it with anyone who has ever asked:
Anyone who has ever been to Alaska knows that while it’s part of the USA, it’s just…different than the lower 48. It’s wilder, the mountains there are bigger, living there is tougher, and Mount Marathon epitomizes this.
The Kenai Peninsula extends south of Anchorage and is marked by the Kenai Mountains, Kenai Fjords National Park, and countless lakes, rivers, glaciers and icefields. The ecosystem comprises both temperate rainforest and boreal forest, meaning you’ll see thick forests and wetlands next to lush, moss-covered trees and ferns along the coastline. Everywhere you look, there are enormous, stunning mountains, whose prominence feels even more dramatic as they’re so close to the ocean. I love this land so much I named my husky-heeler puppy after it, and I hope one day Kenai gets to see her namesake. Seward itself is a small, salty town right on the water whose streets get filled with thousands of people each year on the 4th of July.
Alaska is an absolute dream in July with almost 24 hours of complete sunlight. When I’m there, I spend a few days exploring some local trails, looking for moose, wolves, bald eagles, and bears, doing recon on the course (how much mud this year? How big is the snow field?), eating more fish and chips than I have since, well, last summer, and enjoying nearly 24 hours of sunshine. All of a sudden, it’s race day.
As the story goes, this race began one summer day in the early 20th century when two locals argued over whether the mountain could be climbed and descended in under an hour. A bet was made, and one man gave it his best shot, with a narrow loss resulting: he finished in one hour and two minutes. The first official race took place in 1915, with a women’s race introduced in 1985.
It’s been called Alaska’s Superbowl, and the local pride is tangible in Seward. Many families get to the starting line next to their parents or grandparents and have been participating in the Junior’s Race – a shorter version halfway up the mountain for kids – since they were in grade school.
Seward has to be the most festive town in the country on the 4th of July. Lawn chairs fill up every front yard in town, booths selling reindeer hot dogs and funnel cake line the streets, and everyone is out there to have a good time and watch the mayhem that is the Mount Marathon Race. As I jog a warm up, I see mud-covered preteens hobbling around, having finished the junior’s race not long ago, cotton candy in hand and grins covering their faces.
Ready to begin, I make my way to the starting area, close to but not quite on the very front of the pack. I look around and one thing is certain – I am surrounded by Alaskans. Tough, fearless, mountain-loving Alaskans. I’m not sure whether it’s simply access to the mountain to train on or the fortitude that living through Alaska’s brutal winters and unforgiving weather must breed, but these Alaskans are damn tough. I take one last breath, look at the crowd ahead of me and think there’s no place I’d rather be. Then the gun goes off.
The pack takes off in what feels like a sprint, the gradual uphill just noticeable enough to make the pace feel uncomfortable. We all are thinking the same thing: don’t get boxed in on the half-mile stretch through town before you get to the base of the mountain, where the trail funnels sharply.
At the base of the mountain, the group splits. Part of what makes Mount Marathon unlike any other is the lack of course markings or routes – runners just have to get to the top of the mountain and back to the finish line any way they can. Each year I head up “the roots,” which refers to the tree roots that are exposed and the sudden beginning of the mountain that is so steep the thick tree roots jut out from the ground and offer perfect sized rungs to climb, like a ladder. I feel a bit claustrophobic as I’m suddenly in a tight jungle of trees and roots, with women all around me. It’s only just begun.
Out of the roots and into the underbrush, a lush, wet, rainforest, where the ground is often a slick muddy slide. It’s getting steep and almost feels too steep to continue upwards with this mud. Every third step, my foot slips under me and I have to grab handfuls of foliage (sorry, plants) and dig my nails into the wet earth in front of me. (Some years, there might have been a lucky dry spell and the ground might be firmer, but the heat brings the bugs, so either way is tough.)
After one mile, we’ve climbed 1,300 feet. We’ve reached the turnaround point for the junior’s race and I remember the five- and six-year-old kids who made it this far. Did I mention Alaskans are tough? We continue climbing upwards.
Now, we’re totally exposed. Getting out of the thick forest feels like a relief. The mountain becomes rocky and jagged. Although it’s fair to get to the summit any way you’d like, there’s really only one main ridge to follow at this point, as steep, sheer cliffs drop off into treacherous gulleys on either side of you. My watch tells me we still have over 1,000 feet of climbing left. I put my hands on my quads, stare down at my feet, and keep my head down.
The climb feels endless with a 30-percent grade that doesn’t ever get flatter. A woman powers past me as the trail opens up. I try to go with her, finding my rhythm – shortening my strides, focusing on picking up my feet more quickly, evening my breath. I try to pass women when I see openings, remembering that I’m coming from altitude and that uphill is my strength. Pass, pass, pass. After another 20 minutes of steep, steady climbing, I see the summit now. I try to jog a few steps and my quads seem to laugh at me – it’s much too steep for that. I hike briskly, feeling a rush of adrenaline that comes with seeing the summit. Summit Fever!
At the top, a table and a handful of volunteers stand to greet me. I jog a few steps, my legs feeling heavy and full of lactic acid, and it dawns on me: that was the easy part. I make the U-turn, and the sight makes me gasp.
I see the mountains ahead of me, Mt. Alice a comforting, friendly giant; the ocean, looking bluer than I’ve ever seen it; and that is all. It seems like the aid station is perched on the edge of a cliff, with a 90-degree drop-off right ahead of me. Where is the trail?!
I spot the woman ahead of me taking brazen steps towards the edge and follow her. With a little leap, suddenly, she’s over the edge and out of sight. That must be the way. I wonder if this is what skydiving feels like – looking out over the edge of the plane knowing you’re dropping into pure, thin air. I follow her steps and take a tentative step ––and though I dropped several feet, I find solid ground. And I’m off.
Gravity pushes me faster than my legs can keep up with, and I often stumble and slide downwards. A patch of snow approaches and I clumsily fall down onto my butt and slide FAST. I scream, then let out a whoop for joy. The snow ends abruptly, and I’m dumped back onto the scree field. It’s too fast, too steep, but the scree is forgiving, almost like a sand dune, and I dig my heels down and let gravity carry me. I reach a short, flatter section of the trail that cuts a traverse across the mountain rocky section called the Chute.
The Chute, a rocky, narrow section of more rocky scree, feeds into the scariest part of the whole race: The Gut. To put it simply, you’re asked to run down a waterfall. A steep, rocky waterfall. My legs are so tired and clumsy, and I try to concentrate on my footing - jumping from rock to rock, using my hands to stay upright, inevitably slipping on these wet rocks. It’s so much slower and more awkward than the Chute, with gravity slamming me into the next rock or jamming my ankle between two boulders and I’m moving painfully slow. Thankfully, it’s over soon and I see dirt. I jump off one last rocky stretch of mountain and am on a pile of gravely rock – in front of hundreds of people. I’ve made it off the mountain.
Feeling swept up in pure excitement that I am out of the Gut, hearing the crowd cheering for me, I get swept up in the moment and raise my arms above my head. The crowd cheers even louder and I can’t help it, a huge smile spreads over my face.
Just a half a mile to the finish. This gentle, smooth downhill pavement should be so easy, but it feels miserable. My legs are jello and running on even ground feels strange and dizzying. I give it everything I have, opening up with a tired, loping gait, still smiling as spectators on their lawn chairs cheer. I turn the corner and see the finish line a few blocks away. The crowd is roaring and there is no better feeling than this. There’s no place I’d rather be. I hear my name being called and run across the finish line with pure exhaustion and joy sinking into my muddy, bloodied legs.
There is no race like Mount Marathon. It is the pride of every Alaskan runner and has to be one of the hardest, toughest mountain races in the world – albeit one of the shortest.
“Why Mount Marathon? I think it’s an easy question,” said Kilian Jornet, the world’s best mountain athlete and Mount Marathon record holder. “It’s the race.”
This year my goal is to run under 60 minutes, and I will be spending the next three months racking up as much vertical miles (both uphill and downhill) as I can to prepare. Mount Marathon is everything I love about Alaska: the state’s wilderness, its mountains, and its tougher than nails, maybe a little bit crazy, Mount Marathon-loving locals. It’s an honor to come back each year to be a part of this race that’s truly like nothing else in the world.
Photo Credits Image 1: A baby Orca jumping in the Kenai Peninsula below Mt. Alice / Image 2: Anchorage Daily News, photo of Alice Baker / Image 3: Photo by Anchorage Daily News / Image 4 and 5: Photos by Anchorage Daily News & Outside / Image 6: The summit, taken before race day / Image 7: Skimo Life