By Heidi Zemach for SCN
As we head into the final days leading up to the 86th Mount Marathon Independence Day Race in Seward, local organizers say that the race committee and others in the Alaska racing community have taken numerous measures to make the race as safe as possible, without ruining the fun, or diminishing the challenges of the extreme mountain race.
“We feel like we have done everything in our power to make the race safer while balancing the integrity of keeping the historic race course and the spirit of the race intact,” said race committee member Lori Draper.
One of the main rule changes is that racers who don’t reach the halfway point by a certain time will be turned around and disqualified. The rule would prevent anyone not clearly physically fit enough, from completing the race. The Senior racers, those 18 and above, must make it to the halfway point on the ascent in under an hour. The Junior racers, who race halfway up the mountain, must get to the “Squirrel’s Inn” in under 30 minutes in order to be allowed to finish the race.
“Down on the up trail, that’s a place we haven’t had volunteers before to tell people ‘sorry you’re out,’” said volunteer coordinator Amy Haddow. Most on the race committee feel that the times they selected as the cutoff time were conservative, and probably won’t disqualify most runners, she said. Then again; “You can’t have people on there forever, not knowing when they’ll finish, Haddow added. “It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.”
Rookie Michael LeMaitre, of Anchorage, disappeared during the race, and his body was never found. He was last seen near the top of the mountain, three hours after the race had begun, the tragedy prompting several of the safety changes. His was the first racer death since it began in 1915.
Before they receive their bib, all Rookie racers must now sign a pledge promising that they have completed the entire race course, otherwise they won’t be allowed to participate. This is a step beyond previous years in which racers were sternly warned at the mandatory safety meeting the evening before the race that they should not be running it if they had not already gone up the mountain. Quite a few new racers SCN talked to last year had never been up the mountain prior to the race.
This year the Alaska Mountain Runners in Anchorage advertised to all racers that there would be veteran racers available to show them the ropes on each of the two weekends prior to race day. Approximately 21-22 people took advantage of the offer two Saturdays ago, and 29 more showed up this past Saturday and learned tips and techniques from some of the top Mount Marathon racers, said runner Flip Foldager. Flip and his wife Patti, also a previous Women’s race winner, were there to provide guidance along with former Men’s champion Matias Saari, Sam Young, Clint McCool, Fred Moore and Erik Mundahl.
“We were all very happy. The people that showed up were generally glad they did it, said they learned a lot and thanked us immensely. I thought it went rather well,” said Foldager. For almost 20 years Patti had invited the Junior racers to do the same sort of thing, with help from other local runners like Jackie Marshall. “Of the hundreds of kids they helped out, not one had a serious injury. Hopefully it will work out same way with the adult racers,” Foldager said.
The Mountain Runners also created and placed signs on top of the mountain clearly delineating each of the four trails leading down, and their level of difficulty. They will put fencing at the top of the Cliffs trail. If a runner wants to take that route down, they will have to tell a volunteer, who will let them do so, but the volunteers may also recommend the less treacherous routes, Draper said. The race committee also reserves the right to close off the Cliffs to all racers.
The Cliffs, also known as The Waterfall, is located above the main chute leading off the mountain, and is where two racers, Rookie Penny Assman and experienced racer Matt Kenney fell and badly injured themselves last year.
Volunteers will systematically “sweep” the mountains after each race for people who may still be up there, lost, or in trouble. They will simultaneously descend each of the down trails and call out or radio to one another as they look for potential stragglers.
A new volunteer position was also created to try to keep better track of who is actually racing and assure that they are accounted for, Draper said. Volunteers will be calling the emergency contact numbers of those who did not pick up their bibs by the start of the race, and also of those who did not turn in their bibs by the end of their race, she said. Each Senior racer’s chip number will be captured at the top of the mountain, and relayed to those at the finish line, and a report will be made, giving organizers a better idea of who is still on the mountain.
While there are still about the same number of volunteers—some 300—they will be positioned more strategically for safety, and with the Mountain Runners help, there will be more to help with things like sweeps and turnarounds on the mountaintop itself, Draper said.
“We’re so grateful to them not only for ideas, but with manpower to help out,” Draper said. With a community of this size, it is easy to get tapped out on volunteers, so it’s been nice to have them reach out to get additional volunteers, and to help with making and erecting signs and conducting trainings she added.
This year the race committee also hired some members of Securitas Inc., a private security firm to help monitor busy race crosswalks, and keep crowds from interfering with oncoming racers. Local volunteers have always done a great job, but they felt onlookers might be more willing to obey these paid, uniformed professionals.
“We’re hoping for a good positive outcome here,” said Foldager. “Hopefully everyone is being honest about signing their wavers, and we’re trusting that people will be honest. It’s one more way to try to get people to do their homework. Because basically if you haven’t been on the mountain, you don’t belong there.” After all, no one wants to see a repeat of the injuries and the tragedy that occurred last year. “We feel pretty positive that the changes will help,” Foldager said.