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Mount Marathon

Perils of Alaskan Challenge

Published September 7, 1998, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Mount Marathon in Seward, Alaska, is 3,022 feet high. Its base is half a mile from the town center. It is the location of one of the country's oldest annual running events. The first run was held in 1915 when a bar patron claimed he could run to the top of the mountain and back in an hour. One thing led to another, and soon there was money on the table.

The next day, the challenger finished in 62 minutes and lost his wager. The seed had been planted, and the event has been run every year on July 4th ever since. Even in 1964, when an earthquake created 30-foot high tsunami waves that destroyed the town of Seward, the Mount Marathon race was held as a sign of defiance and determination.

Every summer, the town of 4,000 residents hosts 35,000 visitors who watch the race and enjoy the festivities. The field is limited to 300 entries and fills up early in the spring. Some runners finish under an hour, while many others fail to reach the top of the mountain. In 1981, Bill Spencer set the course record of 43 minutes 23 seconds.

On a family vacation in Alaska, my mentor thought he should scout Mount Marathon, and see if he could run up and down in an hour. Accompanied by his unwilling son, he filed this report:

"We ran along a jeep track to the point where the trail started up the mountain. There was a steep part at the beginning so it was hard to run. We could not get our feet set because the ground was all glacial gravel that had roller down the hill. There was a runner ahead of us, and every time he kicked a big rock loose he would shout `ROCK' to warn us a big boulder was rocketing at us."

"The footing was bad so we had to grab on to rock outcroppings for help. The rock outcroppings were weak slate pieces that broke away and rocketed down as soon as touched. I noticed that the gravel under my feet had the same texture as catsup. I could step on it gently and it would move just a little. As soon as I needed support, the whole mound acted just like a brook, flowing down the lovely mountain and carrying me along like a leaf."

"After we climbed a few hundred feet, I decided this was not as much fun as I had thought. So, we turned back."

"By the next day we had a clue to an easier route. It seemed that the route we had taken required a lot of practice. There was an easier alternative to start the run. This time the jeep track carried us a bit higher. When we got to steep places, the footing was mostly dirt not gravel. Also, there were trees to clutch, and nobody was ahead of us shouting `ROCK'. We went much higher, perhaps 2,000 feet. The mountain was very steep. Looking down made me queasy. I was not really sure if the law of gravity applied on mountains. If gravity worked, the mountains would not be so big. I stopped climbing out of general nervousness. We sat a while and enjoyed the view."

"Descending Mount Marathon was faster than climbing, but more dangerous. I imagined runners on race day taking mad chances, scrambling, falling, grabbing trees and sliding. To keep gravel out of their shoes at all times, they would wind a continuous strip of duct tape starting at their shins and winding down, carefully closing off shoe sides and ending with a loop underneath. It would be worth watching them."

My mentor returned safely to Syracuse. He is scouting the area for the right-size mountain, while reciting this poem by Robert Service:

"There are strange things done in the midnight sun By the men who moil for gold. The Arctic trails have their secret tales That would make your blood run cold..."

It is not clear whether he plans to train for a return trip to Alaska, or to start a local race!

Kamal Jabbour carries many scars from his mentor's adventures, but was fortunate to have missed Alaska. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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