You’ve heard of Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race, but every Fourth of July, the town of Seward, Alaska, hosts a competition that rivals both. The Mount Marathon Race doesn’t look like much on paper: it’s short (just three miles long) and starts at sea level. But the race, which has been run as an organized event since 1915, is a beast, with a 3,022-foot vertical gain and loss over icy and treacherous mountain terrain, where racers pick their own way up—and down—the average 38-degree slope.
While injuries aren't uncommon at Mount Marathon, three unusually serious accidents marred this year's race. Iraq war veteran and Blackhawk pilot Penny Assman slid over a cliff, lacerating her liver and breaking several ribs; an Alaskan runner named Matthew Kenney fell at the same spot and suffered broken legs and brain damage. The most puzzling casualty, however, was 66-year-old Anchorage resident Michael LeMaitre, who vanished without a trace on his way up the mountain and is believed to be the first fatality in the race's history. The incidents left Seward struggling to understand how a runner could disappear on a course that's only a few miles long. We spoke separately to Karol Fink, a Mount Marathon organizer and 19-year race veteran who ran this year, and to MaryAnne LeMaitre, whose father has yet to be found.
The record time, set in 1981 by Bill Spencer, is 43:21. The average speed uphill is 2 mph. Downhill is 12 mph.
Karol Fink: It’s a bit mysterious—the feel of it. It’s dangerous, so you’re not only competing against other people on the mountain, but you’re competing to get across the finish line healthy and safe. I’m never going to be a professional runner, and I’m never going to be a racecar driver or a rodeo person, but this is my chance to push that edge.
What happened this year—it was quite devastating for the community. It was the talk of the town: Two people falling off the waterfall. A missing runner. People were out searching, helicopter going constantly. It consumed the energy of the town.
MaryAnne LeMaitre: My dad—he has always had an adventurous spirit: He did the Iditaski several times; he had a lot of exciting adventures on the water. He was definitely physically fit. But he hadn’t been on the mountain before. He won the lottery for getting into the race, and that was it.
Mount Marathon in the Kenai Mountain range in southern Alaska looms over town of Seward, an active fishing port, with a population of about 3,000.
Fink: Distance in this race isn’t as critical as vertical. When the competitive men come down from the top of the mountain to the bottom, they’re descending over 3,000 feet in about five minutes. They’re not running, they’re free-falling.