Mount Marathon not for the sane, faint of heart

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2000

It was about 11 p.m. Friday when, along with cold, boredom and fatigue, an unfortunate bout with reason finally set in.

"It's kind of strange when you think about it," I said to the man standing next to me on a 25-degree evening on the Seward Chamber of Commerce's porch.

"We're out here waiting in line all night just so we can torture ourselves on July 4th by climbing up and down a mountain."

The man, a wiry, gray-bearded bed and breakfast operator and carpenter, had already participated in logic-proof Mount Marathon about 20 times.

The race, up a treacherous 3,022-foot mountain topped with flesh-thirsty and slick shale, is held every July 4 before crowds estimated at 20,000 people.

Reason has no place in the event, and the abrupt, reason-caused pause in my otherwise pleasant conversation with the gray-bearded man reminded me of something Sam Young, who won Mount Marathon in 1984 and 1985, said in 1998 after finishing the race in less than an hour as a 43-year-old.

"I felt a stitch coming on in my side in the road portion of the race," he said after finishing ninth. "Once I hit the mountain and got down on all fours, though, I felt invincible."

When it comes to Mount Marathon, Aristotle's definition of man as a rational animal only applies once the "rational" part is scrubbed out.

My first experience with the race came in the summer of 1998, when I reported on it for the Clarion.

Nina Kemppel, who that year won her fourth race in five years, told me at the finish line she couldn't see an event where competitors routinely cross the finish line with cuts, gashes and wretched -- but satisfied -- looks on their faces happening anywhere but Alaska.

That point was hammered home last summer when I went to hike the race route with my flat-lander friend from the Lower 48 -- a fitness buff in the process of training for the sissy kind of marathon where all you have to do is run 26 miles.

I'll always remember staring 15 feet straight down on him from the mountain's initial face and wondering what was taking him so long.

"Dude, this is crazy," he said. "I'm not going to kill myself. I'm turning back."

That cemented it in my mind. I had to do this race.

When registering for most races, the most difficult obstacle encountered is trying to figure out what to put down for T-shirt size. That's not the case with Mount Marathon.

In keeping with the race's allergy to reason, racers, at least some of the male ones, must spend the night on the Seward Chamber of Commerce's covered porch waiting in line to earn their spot.

Thus it was that I found myself plunking down my two sleeping bags at 4 p.m. Friday and holding down the place that would get me the 24th of 41 open male positions.

I later learned the first had set up camp at 4 a.m. Friday, and that last year showing up at 4 p.m. would not have gotten me a spot, even though last year's waiters had to brave below-zero wind chill.

Throughout my time in the line from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., I learned the racers were potentially irrational, but friendly without disposition to cruelty. My kind of people.

For instance, when I arrived I was immediately told to go see the pastor near the front of the line. As a man of higher order, he had taken it upon himself to make a list of those in line and check periodically to make sure that, in grade-school parlance, there had been no "cutters."

His presence was invaluable because the last thing anybody wanted to do was spend a night tossing and turning on a hard porch and have nothing but an aching back and seething bitterness to show for it. To feed the hungry, the pastor even organized a pizza delivery.

Everybody seemed to approach the wait a bit differently, but nobody approached it insanely.

Most passed the time immersed in conversation that would invariably and ironically turn to last year's race and how sufferingly "hot" it was in Seward on the 4th.

If only they could see us now.

A disappointing turn came when some retreated to their cars in the parking lot to catch a little shut eye. These were nice people. Friendly people with whom I had pleasant conversation.

But I found their actions a little too rational. If you're going to buy the ticket, you might as well take the ride.

A select few even spent the night just as they would any other night, at their own homes in their own beds, content knowing they had paid a middle-school girl $50 to wait in line and secure registration for them. I'm surprised they didn't offer a shiny nickel.

It's tempting to condemn this action, but I've found it's best not to mess with people that are obviously smarter than you are and have no problem using the unsuspecting as pawns.

Once everybody settled down to rest about midnight, the end came comfortably fast. Nestled in a North Face mummy bag, which was tucked inside a similarly comfy rectangular sack, I had a hard time believing my ears when somebody said it was 6:45.

Around 7:15, everybody had already broke camp, and by 7:45, people were chatting leisurely in a shoulder-to-shoulder line culminating at the front door.

One by one, the future racers dropped off their registration forms, along with $30, and walked toward the parking lot like college students walk out of their last final -- liberated yet proud of their completion and accomplishment.

I was feeling pretty good about surviving the Mount Marathon experience before the pastor, pausing momentarily before disappearing into a snowy and overcast Seward morning, had one last and fitting thing to say before breaking with the group.

His words?

"I'll see everybody on the 4th."

Jeff Helminiak is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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