A Lunatic's Dream: Mount Marathon

October 13, 2014

You would have to be living under a rock to not know that endurance obstacle races are de rigueur these days. It’s not sheer luck that these races have become a multi-million dollar business. People are more than willing to test how far their bodies can go — whether it’s through lakes of mud, crawling under barbed wire, or hurdling electric fences. Instead of throwing yourself through these man-made obstacles, wouldn’t it be more interesting to just be challenged by the land itself? Nature brings some of the toughest challenges to the table in Seward, Alaska, where the Mount Marathon Race takes place — a lunatic’s dream.

The race itself is about 3.1-3.5 miles—usually clocking in at just over a 5k. That’s just about the only normal detail about this race. Starting in front of the First National Bank Alaska, up to 1000 racers take off every Fourth of July and run up Mount Marathon. The halfway point is a simple stone marker at the summit, 3022 feet above sea level. The average running speed uphill to this point is 2 mph, with the first half of the race taking most runners anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes. Once the runners turn back for the second half of the race, the true mayhem begins.

Running down 38-degree slopes of crumbling shale and rivers of mud, the average running speed quickly jumps to 12 mph. The average time it takes runners to reach the finish is a much faster 10-15 minutes, but that speed comes at a severe cost. It’s not uncommon for runners to routinely fall down the side of the mountain, hitting every bump on their way down. Most people cross the finish line severely bleeding or covered in mud. Severe injuries are fairly common; runners return with broken arms, legs, shoulders… even cheekbones.

The mountain is so close to town that spectators can clearly watch runners struggle all the way to the top. Temperatures may be blazing hot at the bottom, but the peak of Mount Marathon is often covered in snow — only adding to the danger. The fact that there’s a juniors division full of kids throwing themselves at the mountain every year is enough to make the average fit adult bow their head in shame.

With the first “official” event dating back to 1915, the race originated on a simple challenge to run from a spot in Seward up to the top of the mountain and back in an hour or less. As a port town, arriving ships meant new challengers who wanted to take on the intimidating slopes appeared daily. Aside from broken bones and bruises, the Mount Marathon Race has also reportedly claimed a life. In 2012, an Anchorage man disappeared after last being seen approaching the summit. To this day, race officials have never found a trace of him.

To think that such a dangerous challenge essentially started as a bar bet is astounding. The legend goes that a dog musher named Al Taylor accepted a bet on July 4th, 1909, setting off in wool pants, leather boots, and his best shirt. Returning a little over an hour later, he supposedly bought a round for everyone at the bar. Just serves to prove that with a little liquid courage and the gumption to match, there's no shortage of daring adventure right out your front door.


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Images ©: Dave Hodge — Summit Post