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The Mount Marathon Race

Have you ever heard of the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska? I had not until early this year when I was planning my trip to Seward.

The first organized race started in 1915, always on July 4th. Tradition had it that two sourdoughs argued about the possibility of climbing up and down the mountain in less than an hour. The ascent is 0.9 miles up to an elevation of 3022 feet, and an average grade of 35 degrees. The race is touted to be one of the toughest 5Ks on the planet.

It piqued my interest and I threw my hat in the ring by putting my name in a lottery for a bib number. In April, I was notified that I got in with a bib number of 507 to run the 94th Mount Marathon Race. I was lucky to get in for the first try, it seems it has taken some people several years. A bib number can also be auctioned off for a potential runner, and the highest offer was $3500!

First-time runners need to show that they have at least run the course once. So, on July 1, the day after I arrived at Seward, on a drizzly morning, I started my quest to hike Mt. Marathon. Despite my avid reading and going over video of the course, I took the steep cliff rather than the root route at the outset but soon this trail joined the root route.

I stopped many times to take pictures of the spectacular views. When I emerged from the wooded area, that was supposed to be halfway up the mountain. The terrain became rocky and some areas were covered by shales. It was then a long steep slog to the boulder that marked the peak of the race. To my left were mountains with patches of snow and to my right, steep slopes of loose shales. Heavy fog obscured the view of the harbor. Since the boulder is not really the highest point, I took a few more minutes to hike up there. At the summit, I lingered and savored my hike up to that point.

Apparently, a runner could take several routes to descend. The first route looked so steep that I ended up taking a ridge route which wound down to a very loose shale trail with no grip at all, I was just slipping and sliding. The descent was hazardous and there were a few isolated runners running upright at breakneck speed, careening downhill while I was on my butt, finding it difficult even to stand up. There was a pile of snow to my right. Halfway down, there was still a very steep trail of shales. I met a father standing on the slope of a boulder waiting for his son. He told me at the end of the trail of shales was the gut, and after that, I had three choices, “Never take the fall which was the cliff, the left trail would take you through the roots and right the switch-back, take the switch-back.”

The gut was actually a waterfall trail through slick shales. It was a relief to reach the switch-back which then led me to Jefferson Street and then to Fourth Avenue and Washington--- home at last. It took 4 hours, including time to stray and take pictures.

In the evening I went ocean kayaking in Resurrection Bay, a change of pace. The water was not exactly calm but I enjoyed spotting a few bald eagles.

The next day, July 2nd, Scott and I took a leisure day boat ride in Resurrection Bay, taking us to the Aialik Glacier and watching pods of orcas, otters, seals, and perhaps far-away some puffins.

The Aialik Glacier

On July 3rd, the day before the race, I hiked the 9-mile Harding Icefield Trail. It was probably not the smartest thing to do, tiring my legs but I wanted very much to see the Icefield. The Exit Glacier was enticingly close. It took me less than 2 hours to get to Marmot Meadows, had lunch, and then onwards up the cliff. Beyond that was a snow and gravel trail marked by tiny orange flags. Then finally the shelter and more hiking to the end of the trail, with the vast expanse of the icefield, and nanooks peeking.

Exit Glacier

The Harding Icefield, end of the trail

My quads were tired and I worried about race day. The women’s race started at 2 pm, I was already tired. I watched the youth and the men’s race earlier, they all looked so fit and ready.

At the start of Mount Marathon Race

When the race started a few of us lagged behind with the sweepers breathing down on us, giving words of encouragement. I made it to the halfway cut-off point with minutes to spare. Then came the steep rocky terrain all the way to the boulder, an unrelenting climb. It took me a little over 2 hours to reach the boulder, the fast runner would have reached here between 30 to 40 minutes. All I could think of was to have a safe descent while the runners ran headlong and the fastest made it in 10 to 11 minutes! In the end, I finished the race in 3 hours and 20 minutes, unofficial time, while yes, the fastest runner finished in less than an hour.

I was covered with mud, dust, and a few scratches on my legs, but I did it. It is said, “If you aren’t bleeding at the finish, you didn’t try hard enough.”


The next day, I joined a group hiking up to Marmot Meadows and then hiked part of the Exit Glacier, my reward. The blueness of the glacier and its mysterious and meditative silence seeped into my very being.

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