Every Fourth of July for nine decades runners have cinched down their shoelaces and stared up at the steep, broken face of Seward’s Mount Marathon eager to partake in one of the oldest mountain races in America.
Tracing its roots back as early as 1915, the Mount Marathon race has captivated the imaginations of chiseled athletes, adventure hounds, and colorful characters with dreams of glory and adventure. This year, the famed event will celebrate its 90th running and, as always, a unique congregation is pouring into the town to prepare.
Though the previous two winners of the men’s event, Kilian Jornet and David Norris, have confirmed they will not be attending, the field of competitors remains packed with athletes poised to entertain and inspire.
Jornet, mountain running phenom and speed ascent record holder on many of the world’s greatest mountains, confirmed via his press team that he’ll be focusing his training on other events, particularly Colorado’s Hard Rock 100. He was quick to assert his interest in returning in future years.
Norris, who recaptured the course record from Jornet for American (and Alaskan) athletes last year, also confirmed he would not be racing. “I have struggled with some knee issues this summer and I want to mitigate the risk of an injury that could potentially keep me from training towards my cross country ski goals,” said Norris in an interview with the Seward City News. Norris hopes to compete in 2018 Olympics in the 50km classic ski race.
Norris, like Jornet, expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of returning in the future to defend his title. “Earning the course record last summer meant a lot to me once I realized how much the Alaskan community valued having an Alaskan reclaim the record,” Norris explained. “Now that I have it I would love to hang onto it. If that means another competitor gets it this summer, I will probably be quite motivated in the future to try my best at reclaiming it.”
Despite these absences, this year’s roster includes many familiar names, regional heroes, and other entertaining personalities.
Seward sisters Allison, Mackenzie and Isabel Barnwell will be racing again this year. The trio have been blazing up the slopes of Mt. Marathon since they were part of the Peninsula Princesses junior team.
“The first time I went up the mountain, my legs were shaking,” said Allison. Allison finished 2nd in the 2013 race and has multiple top 10 finishes. All three Barnwell sisters, in fact, finished in the top 20 out of 282 racers in last year’s women’s event, with Allison finishing 6th, Mackenzie finishing 13th and Isabel finishing 17th.
The three young women remarked how much the race has changed in recent years, going from being “tiny” to the spectacle it has become. However, it is clear from the excitement in their eyes as discussion turned to race history that the event is laden with poignancy for those that have been involved.
“Being a part of Mount Marathon is great because of all the talented humans and empowered women,” said Isabel. “Everyone is so supportive of each other.”
When asked about their prospects for the 2017 race, the sisters were modest about their goals. “I think it’s healthy not to have expectations,” said Mackenzie. Allison noted that she hoped to finish in the top 10 but was quick to minimize the importance of results and stress how the race has shaped the nature of Seward, engendering an atmosphere of community and instilling a drive towards physical health and environmental stewardship.
While the Mount Marathon race is packed with inspiring athletes who continue to push each other and the course into increasingly impressive dimensions, other figures help color the race in other ways.
One such competitor is Joe Nyholm. Since 2011 Nyholm has transformed into the myrtle-green, perpetually smiling Gumby for the race. “It started out as an inside joke with my cross country coach, Mr. (Dan) Marshall,” explained Nyholm. Each year Nyholm has donned the cumbersome gumby regalia for the race, delighting spectators while still posting some impressive times. In 2013 he finished in a respectable 54:45, landing him in 37th position out of 297 racers in the men’s division. In fact, almost every year Nyholm has clocked in near and occasionally below the one hour mark.
Nyholm is just one of many colorful characters that make the Mount Marathon Race the lively event it has become. When asked which other competitors he looks up to, Nyholm responded, “The Birdman.” The Birdman, whose real name is Brian Stoecker, is another racer who brings a theatrical flair to the mountain every July 4th with his signature plumed headdress, painted face and bib clipped to his nipple rings.
No doubt part of what makes the Mount Marathon Race so special is its colorful community and delightful spectrum of participants.
For full race details, history, records, and previous years’ results, visit the Mount Marathon official website.