By: Ellen Nimmo
Legend says it started out as a bar bet between two sourdoughs (slang for old timer, especially used for Alaskan prospectors). With the mountain looming above the port town, beer on their breath, one miner bet the other it (the mountain) couldn’t be done in under an hour. The stake specifically was to run from downtown Seward, up to the summit and back down before an hour had passed. Unfortunately, for one gambler, the recorded time was an hour twenty.
Believed to be one of the oldest foot races in America there are various claims as to the year it began (1908, 1909, 1912), Mt. Marathon had its first organized race July 4th, 1915.
No official route.
No prize money.
No big award ceremony.
Just dirt and blood and grit; the challenge of finishing.
My dad has run the Mt. Marathon race every July 4th since 2005, until last year when Swan Lake forest fire smoke was so thick they gave people the option to defer their race registration. Many (like my dad) took the deferral, and many elected to run anyway, coming off the mountain with sooty mouths and noses along with the usual scrapes and mountain dust.
The total race distance (up and back) is only 3.1 miles, but folks say it feels like you’ve run a marathon, hence the mountain’s name. Leading racers can reach the turnaround point in around 33-40 minutes with the descent taking only 10-15 minutes for top racers. Around 1,000 runners go up the mountain each year on race day and coveted race slots are filled using a few methods:
- Special invitation, for elite and professional runners
- Prior year registrations, meaning: if you ran and finished the race the year before you have a spot (if you register)
- Veteran racers who have completed the prerequisite number, ten years, of consecutive races and now have a spot for life provided they continue to show up
The remaining slots are filled the night before the race in the local high school gym. Accompanied by a spaghetti dinner, race bibs are auctioned off to the highest bidder and a few are filled by a weighted lottery. There’s an energy in the gym that’s hard to describe. Veteran runners alongside race hopefuls. Young and old, men and women, Alaskan locals, people from all over the lower forty-eight, and some from other countries sit fidgeting in the bleachers and on the court floor excited to see where the bidding will begin. Muscles twitching with anticipation. One year I saw a men’s spot go at auction for a cool $4000! Just to run up and down a mountain that, on any other day, a person could do for free. Strange stuff. That was the same year my dad and I met a couple filmmakers on the mountain a few days before the race. They were making a documentary about the race called, 3022ft: We All Have a Mountain to Climb. If you pay close attention you’ll see the back of my head not-so-prominently-featured during a scene at the race auction.
After the auction and lottery are finished and spaghetti has been eaten, there’s a mandatory safety video all new racers must watch. If it doesn’t scare you out of participating you’ll be set to run the mountain the next day.
Back in 2015, I was lucky enough (or crazy enough) to win a bid for a spot after my mom completed a different run altogether to get me an auction paddle. “Use it” she said as she handed it to me. The women’s race spots were going for lower than typical prices and, after waiting a few rounds, I timidly did as my mother instructed. I nabbed a spot and immediately thought: What on earth have I done?
I ran the race back-to-back years, in 2015 and again in 2016. First time racers are given the hospitable advantage and are allowed to run in the first wave, with the faster racers. This was a huge benefit to my time. It turns out, if you run with the fast folks you tend to run faster. My time wasn’t great, but I was elated to finish. With Mt. Marathon, people may have goals, but the majority of climbers are happy simply to finish.
The starting line is in downtown Seward, at near sea level. Once the gun goes off racers move up the street, turning left and up towards the mountain base. Once you reach the base it’s each racer’s choice how to reach the top. There are a few different routes most people take, but anything goes. Many scale the cliff before moving into the brush of the trail. If I think back, I can almost hear the hum of climbers breathing heavy as we move tightly, together up the mountain. Once you break out of the tree line, you are greeted with a much welcomed change of air coupled with the knowledge you are halfway to the top; legs burning, begging: Stop.
That’s another thing about this race: most “runners” are really walking for most of the race, backs bent over, hands atop screaming thighs, pushing up, up, up. As you get nearer to the top, the dark grey shale rock underneath slow, scrambling feet and hands, your mind starts to wonder: Will I ever make it? Then, you do. And for a moment your eyes catch the sight of mountains beyond mountains, sea and shore and what feels like a new world, a breathless wonder.
Someone hands you a cup of water. You drink, gratefully and chose the first step of your return; down the mountain you go – fast! Some years there is still snow on the mountain and a chute will form, making the descent that much quicker. Just be sure you don’t get a snow burned butt (like I did) which blisters and oozes for days after your muscles have stopped aching. The downhill is the most treacherous part of the race. With loose shale and shifting rock, even a small stone can thump a runner with disastrous effect. The sheer steepness of the mountain hurl runners beyond top speeds with little control or hope of stopping. Once you come off the mountain, maybe pausing for a pose on “glory rock,” you run or stumble back through town with all kinds of onlookers cheering you, urging you to the finish. And then, you’re done. Bleary eyed, with pains you barely notice, drunk on mountain air and struggle, you cross the finish line, swollen with pride – the good kind.
Fourteen consecutive years of running this brutal, bizarre race, I asked my dad what the race has meant for him. It was hard to describe. I knew it would be. But, he obliged to try and told me, “For me, it (climbing the mountain) is a spiritual event.”
“What does that mean, what does that feel like?” I pressed.
He went on to try and explain about the view from the summit, the bay, the peaks, the relief, the look back at where you started, and the coming down again, the completion. “It makes me want to weep,” he said. “But, how do you put into words a spiritual experience?” he asked me in return.
As we talked a bit more about the race my dad described how it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s seeing an old guy cross the finish line. It’s watching a mother who doesn’t train year round for the race, with her look of determination and resolve, crossing the finish and only a few minutes later holding and feeding her child the orange slice that was meant for her. It’s the grit that flashes across tiny faces as they run miniature races towards their parents, who urge them from makeshift finish lines, between the food trucks and merch stands. It’s the knowledge of all the hands, feet, blood and sweat that have draped the mountain before you, alongside you. It’s finishing the race and having your only disappointment be that you didn’t do more training. It’s the awe. The way the mountain reminds you of your smallness and of feelings you can’t explain.
The Mt. Marathon race was cancelled this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and my dad wonders if the race will survive with all the coming change. I hope it does. Time will tell. But, regardless of whether the running of the Mt. Marathon Race survives, I think it has taught me something about freedom, something about perseverance and the splendors of completing something difficult.
This 4th of July we won’t be amongst the beautiful mountains of the Kenai Fjords National Park, not near the salmon-rich waters of Resurrection Bay, or keeping our eyes peeled for bears near Bear Creek, but it is my prayer that we will take the memory of Mt. Marathon and continue on – knowing we are surrounded still by a great cloud of witnesses, urging us on to the finish (Hebrews 12:1-3).