Prepare to get up and down Mount Marathon

Focus on Fitness

Editor’s note: “Focus on Fitness” is a Clarion feature with healthy lifestyle advice from local and national health and fitness experts. Check here weekly great information and tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.


Mount Marathon is one of those races that you have to get in shape to train for. It provides unique challenges for training in that the race has three distinct phases requiring different preparation. There is the half-mile run on the roads to and from the mountain, the climb up, and the “controlled fall” that is the descent. In addition the cliffs at the bottom of the mountain offer a challenge of their own.

In 1975 team competition became a part of the Mount Marathon Race. A few of us Seward boys formed a team and were confident we would do well. We were only 14 years old but two of our team members had done very well in the junior race before and knew how to train. We placed four team members in the top 10 that year and were the second-place team. The team that beat us was a group of cross-country skiers. We figured age was the difference. The next year there were two teams of cross-county skiers. We placed third and came to the realization that cross-country skiing was a better way to train for the mountain than was basketball.

Years later I would watch Bill Spencer set the record in the senior race with a phenomenal time of 43:23. At the time he was an Olympic level skier, which convinced me even more that cross-country skiers made the best mountain runners. Cross-country skiing is one of the best ways to develop the aerobic energy system and enable an athlete to power up the mountain without running out of steam. A winter of cross-country skiing will give you the aerobic base you need to train for Mount Marathon.

One summer day in Seward I saw Bill Spencer biking around town on a one-speed bike. Ten-speed bikes were the norm at the time and I made a comment about his bike to my friend. My friend said Bill’s Dad made him use a one-speed bike because it was a better workout. Hard to argue with results! Biking is another excellent way to build aerobic conditioning. Even if you have a one-speed bike make sure to fit plenty of hills into your route. Doing mostly biking for the last two weeks before the race is also a great way to taper your training.

There is no substitute for spending time on the mountain so make as many trips to Seward for training runs as you can. Skyline and Slaughter Gulch trails near Cooper Landing offer a closer option. Try to fit in 2 or more workouts a week on a mountain trail.

The run to and from the mountain is about a half mile each way, slight uphill there and slight downhill back. Getting to the mountain toward the front of the pack will help you keep from getting in a traffic jam at the cliffs. Do some 400s (2) and 800s (1) on a track 2-3 days a week to prepare for the dash to the mountain. Rather than using a track you could find a stretch of road that has a gradual incline and mark off a half mile. Run the half mile up as fast as you can, recover and then run back down as fast as you can. Do this 2 to 3 days a week.  Also, incorporate a half-mile road run before your main aerobic workout and after.

The first time I watched the Mount Marathon Race Bill Spencer was running the junior race for the final time. It was a clear day and I was able to see the first runner turn at the halfway point and descend through the bowl. It looked as though the leader was falling and I figured this person would be pretty scraped up. As Bill Spencer ran into downtown Seward to the finish line not only was he not scraped up, his clothing was free of dirt. He had completed the race in 24:34, a record and a performance that seemed beyond human to me. No other junior racer has even broken 26 minutes. Certainly, his descent had to be the fastest ever from halfway, a “controlled fall”.

Leg speed is essential for the descent of the mountain. One of the best ways to increase speed is to do hill or stair sprints. Find a set of stairs or a hill that takes you 10-15 seconds to sprint up. Do five sets 2-3 days a week and add one set per week until you are doing 10 sets. You may slide down the snowfield from the top to cut time. Do not choose a slide path that is too deep to help avoid rocks that may poke through and cause an injury.

Plan long aerobic workouts three days a week (60-80 minutes). Plan shorter aerobic workouts three days a week (20-30 minutes) and do sprints and middle distance work on those days.

As mentioned above, the cliffs present their own challenge. Participants are required to attend a safety meeting before the race to help them avoid getting injured. It is highly advisable to make several training runs on Mount Marathon so you can become comfortable going up and down the cliffs.

The Mount Marathon race originated as a bet in a Seward bar in 1908. One patron bet another that he could run from town to the top of the mountain and back in less than an hour. He did it in 62 minutes. The race had a colorful start and it is still one of the most amazing races in the U.S. If you plan to run the race take the time to train. It will make your experience safer and more enjoyable.

Charlie Stephens is a retired P.E. Teacher and owns/operates Kenai Sport & Train, Inc. which specializes in P.E. consulting.  He can be reached at


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