Like a lot of things in Alaska, the annual Mount Marathon Race in Seward is famously brutal, even dangerous. Which is precisely why Michael LeMaitre ran it–the last day he was seen alive.
For the past 16 years Tom Walsh has spent every Independence Day on a mountaintop above Seward, Alaska, tallying the agony.
Walsh is the lead midcourse timekeeper for the Mount Marathon Race, the second-oldest mountain footrace in the world and, after the Iditarod sled-dog race, the most famous race in the 49th State.
Contrary to its name, the Mount Marathon Race isn’t a legend for how far it stretches through the vastness of Alaska, but rather for how much unpleasantness it crams into so small a package. Starting in downtown Seward, racers run a half-mile to the foot of Mount Marathon, then scrabble about 2,900 vertical feet straight up cliffs and mud and shale before finally staggering to Race Point. There, Walsh and others note their time and bib number, hand them water, and send them hurtling back downhill in what more resembles free-fall than running—over snowfields and rock fields and waterfalls and crags—until they reach the finish line back on the streets of Seward.
All of this occurs in 3.1 to 3.5 miles, depending on your route, and on trails so close to town that spectators waiting at the finish line can follow nearly every tortured step high on the mountain. By yardstick the contest is briefer than a postwork jog around Central Park. By every other count—sheer adrenaline, lung-bleeding exhaustion, potential for disaster per mile—there may be no other run like it in the world. Blood flows freely. Bones break frequently—arms, shoulders, cheekbones, legs. Sometimes, worse happens. The race has been run 85 times, and it is wildly popular. As an isolated people who long ago learned to make their own fun, Alaskans will tell you without much hyperbole that Mount Marathon is their Olympics.
Independence Day under the undying Arctic sun can be warm and lingering and nectarine-sweet. Last July 4 wasn’t one of those days. By afternoon the weather was as bad as Walsh could ever recall—windy and rainy, high 40s. He and coworkers had been on the mountain since morning, first to work the women’s race, then the men’s race that began at three o’clock.
A bit after five o’clock a longtime racer straggled to Race Point, a false summit marked by a large rock. The racer said he was the last guy. Walsh and his shivering comrades waited about 45 more minutes, then headed down the empty peak.
The Mount Marathon course roughly describes a treble clef—runners don’t descend the same route they ascend—and as Walsh hiked down that afternoon, he saw another man slowly climbing, about 100 yards away, and dressed lightly as racers do, in black shorts, black T-shirt, black headband. It was more than two hours since the winner had broken the tape down in town. “How far am I from the top?” the racer called out.
“About 200 feet,” Walsh yelled back.