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 runners pick their own way up—and down—the average 38-degree slope.
Mount Marathon, Seward, Alaska.
While injuries aren't uncommon at Mount Marathon, three unusually serious accidents marred this year's event. 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.
This year, it had rained the night before, so it made the race really slick and muddy for the juniors. Next was the women’s race, and it was a pleasant temperature, in the low 60s, with a little bit of fog blowing in and out in strips. The men’s race was also foggy, but the trail had dried some.
LeMaitre: I was told it was overcast. Clouds were moving in and out, but you could still see Seward at times. It was rainy, but it didn’t sound like it was raining all the time.
Bibs have typically been limited to 350 men, 350 women, and 200 juniors, but this year the race was expanded to accommodate 400 in each of the men’s and women’s races. Entrants are almost all Alaskans. This year, the weather was good enough to fly in aid station water by helicopter, but you can’t always bank on it.
Fink: You start in downtown Seward, 4th avenue, and the street is all lined with spectators. The road takes a few minutes before you hit what we call the mountain. For the first few minutes, it’s a very steep grade up a rock face—quite technical. You’re using hands and feet. Then there’s a dirt trail with a 60 percent grade.
For the next 24 minutes or so, it’s just steep. You’re going on this trail in the trees and the brush. Once you get to halfway, there’s no more brush: it’s just exposed rock and loose shale. There’s no designated trail—you just pick the best line. When you get to the top, there’s a grassy area with a big rock in the middle that you go around.
LeMaitre: The parts that were most dangerous, he had already gone up them. The key point here is that during the race, they typically have race officials at the top of the mountain and all along the course. My dad was in last place. The race officials had already packed up by around 6 p.m., when my dad was still headed up. At about 200 feet from the summit, one of the race officials heading down says he saw my dad, and he was still headed up. There was still quite a bit of daylight left, and my dad asked if he could still continue up to finish the race.
From the picture that I saw of him at halfway, he didn’t have water in his hand. They did have pit stops, but by the time he got to the top, it was all packed up. When you get to the top, most racers go around. But there’s also a trail that continues, and it would have been very easy for him to keep going on that trail. There was no one there to give him any direction.
At that point, you have an entire mountain, and you have no limiting factor. Going off in the wrong direction, falling off, landslides, bear activity—there are so many things that could have happened and just nothing to go on.
The fastest of the field is able to descend the mountain in under five or six minutes. But most accidents happen on the way down. Matthew Kenney and Penny Assman both fell over the same section of trail, known as “the waterfall.”
Fink: After you’ve summited and rounded the rock, you drop into the snow, and you either sit on your feet or slide down on your butt. It’s not the opposite side of the mountain, but it’s a different face. Then you drop into a creek bed.
We had a little more snow than usual. Since all the snow hadn’t melted out from the creek bed, there were some snow bridges that you had to cross that were really creepy.
LeMaitre: The biggest factor was the record snow—the trail conditions were unlike anything they had seen before—ice underneath. The chutes had snow bridges on them that have been collapsing all summer. If my dad had fallen in one of those chutes and a snow bridge had collapsed over him, the infrared helicopters wouldn’t have been able to find him.
Fink: A few minutes down, there’s Denali Falls; it has a 10-foot drop. Then you pop out back out and have to decide whether to take the junior trail, the cliffs, or the waterfall, which is 20 feet out, 70 feet down. Usually by the time of race day, the water hasn’t dried up, so you have to know what you’re doing because it’s very steep and you can fall off. That’s where [Assman and Kenney] fell. It’s a bad idea to come down that way, but people do it.
The junior trail is probably the safest of the three—but it’s dangerous as well, just cut into the side of the mountain, very steep and narrow—trees, roots to negotiate, and it gets very slick. I chose to come down the cliffs in a crabwalk it’s so steep—hand, hand, foot, foot.
AFTER THE RACE
On July 5th, MaryAnne LeMaitre boarded a plane in Salt Lake City and went to Seward to look for her dad. After the official searches were called off, she spent over a month walking the mountain and looking for signs.
LeMaitre: Any time that I’ve experienced anything like this—friends who have gotten into car accidents and died, losing my grandmother to illness—there was closure for that. For this, I knew that I needed to do everything I could. Finally, I came to my realization that I needed to figure out what had happened to my dad.
I wanted to go up and see what decisions my dad would have made.
One thought I had was, what if a glove had gotten washed down a stream? We walked the streams. We looked at eagle activity, bear activity. Ravens. It does get a bit grim. After a while, it’s like, maybe we should poke around in the bear scat. That’s the reality of it.
The community of Seward was hit hard. There have been promises of changes to the race, but the danger is an undeniable feature of a century-old tradition that had never seen this kind of trauma.
LeMaitre: People in Seward took care of me. I never went up the mountain on my own, except for the last trip. Whenever I asked for help, someone always said yes.
I have a friend from Seward. He said that he’s thought a lot about what’s happened. It’s just on the minds of everybody. The community is pretty heartbroken about it, and so many have reminded me that people are going to keep looking.
Fink: We expect changes after this year, but you need to strike a balance. There hasn’t been any wish to change things unless it’s a safety concern. People choose their own route on the mountain, and you can’t babysit everyone. We’ve never had anything this severe. We have a safety meeting ahead of time that you have to attend. People have to promise they’ve been up the mountain before.
And the race is so risky and dangerous the whole time. It’s not like climbing—there is no rating system for this. Do we advocate for complete personal responsibility, or do race organizers have authority to begin dictating the course? I have spent a lot of time on the mountain; I know my route very clearly. I would say you should run this a dozen times before you’re ready to compete in it.
LeMaitre: I just don’t know if there’s a chance of finding him. I hope with the foliage being gone—it had been super thick when I was there—that we can start looking again. But anything could have happened. He could have been buried under the snow.
Fink: Had you asked me whether someone could go missing during Mount Marathon, I would have said, impossible. The mountain is so close to town—you can hear the announcer all the way up. When you’re in Seward, on 6th avenue, 7th avenue—at almost every point, no matter what you’re doing, you can see Mount Marathon. You see people coming down off the mountain. The mountain is always there. It’s in your mind every single day.
LeMaitre: I had a tough time thinking about when to leave. You know, a lot of people kept saying, you need some sort of closure. And finally, I decided that I needed to go on the mountain by myself, because that’s how he did the race. I wanted to do something at the top of the mountain, so I brought a Dremel tool and left a message: “I love you dad.” I engraved that on a rock.
I had to go down, but before I did I looked over the slide area and saw a black bear. I’m still very curious to have someone go out there and check—his body could be there. That’s one of my fears, that if I’m not looking, no one’s looking. All we need is just one little thing to go on.