When you arrive in Seward, there is no mistaking Mt. Marathon looming over the town, with the trail to the top clearly visible in good weather. It actually does not look all that steep from this vantage, but believe me, it is.
Legend has it that the Mt. Marathon Race has its roots in a barroom wager thrown down about 100 years ago. The challenge was to get to what is now Race Point and return to the barstool in under an hour. I believe the initial attempts were not successful. The race is basically a 5k with all 3,000’ of climbing in just over a mile, then you descend that mile. The remaining distance is on the streets. This hill is a vert junkie’s dream. My plan was to just hike the course. Even so, I soon realized that gloves were going to be an essential piece of equipment even just to hike it. Not because of the temperature, but because you will need to drag your hands on the scree to control your descent. As it was August, I did not bring gloves. I watched some race videos in advance of my attempt to get some sense of the trail. Absolutely everyone (except Kilian Jornet; see video) wore gloves. Luckily a pair of $5 work gloves from the local hardware store would do the trick. This was actually preferable to ripping up a more expensive pair of running gloves. I still use those gloves for gardening today.
Here are the signs that greet you at the base of the mountain. They actually discourage people from attempting it, with good reason.
I opted to go up what is traditionally the down route, and I used the slower but safer switchbacks on the lowest portion. It was quickly clear you could do yourself serious damage trying to throw your body down this thing at speed. The official race recommends knee pads and a helmet. I imagine during the race many people on the trail would be kicking rocks down. I could see why you might want a helmet.
However, on this fine day in August, I encountered just one couple hiking the trail. They happened to be from Germany and had done it in the past, some years ago. I ascended to a couple of hundred feet above the junior turnaround point and in the interest of safety and time decided to call it a day at around 2,400’. The trail got so steep above this point that it was difficult to even stand in one place. The surface was made up of rocks ranging from marble to baseball size forming a very unstable layer over hard rock. The risk and time commitment required to continue were not justified in my mind. I enjoyed the views and made my way down the way I came, frequently making use of those gloves as I used my hands to slow and control my descent.
These photos give a good sense of what you are dealing with, but as always, the photo never seems as steep as reality.
If you are lucky enough to get into this race, my advice would be to get to Seward at least a few days early and do the course at least 3 or 4 times. Course knowledge is an advantage in any race, but here I’d say it’s crucial. Familiarity and confidence in the terrain will make you safer and improve your time significantly. Give yourself enough time to condition your quads and recover! Traditionally the race is held on the 4th of July. Unfortunately, the race will not be held in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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