Feeling the burn

Posted: Sunday, July 06, 2003

How hot was it for Mount Marathon Friday? Before leaving my house at noon for the death march up and death-defying drop down the 3,022-foot mountain, I weighed in at 155 pounds.

After sipping down about 24 ounces of water on the drive over to Seward, finishing the 3.5-mile course in an hour and 10 minutes, drinking 32 more ounces of liquid and driving back to Soldotna, I weighed myself again. I was down to 145 pounds.

Cynics might say only people who've lost their minds would do Mount Marathon. That, they guffaw, accounts for my weight loss.

But a smarter cynic, especially one who has seen me futilely try to change a windshield wiper blade, would say such a cerebral shortage would not even come close to accounting for 10 pounds.

Nope, chalk most of the loss up to sweat, which started dripping off me in Seward when I stepped out of my air-conditioned car to tie my shoe. The sweat drip became a surging leak once the race started and I had ascended the cliff at the base of the mountain.

At this point, one of my fellow competitors, who was either being sarcastic or had already been overcome by the heat, remarked, "You know, I think Demi and Ashton are going to make it."

Just kidding. His comment was even worse. He said, "Yes! We're in the shade."

It was the stupidest thing I'd heard since LeBron James' tailor, who at the time was making NBA draft outfits for LeBron and his mom out of the same special fabric (the Shroud of Turin, I believe), gave credit to the maternal Hummer buyer and gifter for keeping her son "grounded."

The dense foliage on the first half of the mountain, shade or no shade, completely seals off the area from fresh air, allowing a wicked, stifling heat to descend on the dusty course like a dense fog.

Telling is the dirt path which climbers lurch and stagger up, cracking the calm with desperate gasps for oxygen. That dirt path looks as it would in the initial stages of rainfall from absorbing pounds of sweat from the 300 competitors laboring in temperatures in the 70s.

Science tells us that this sweat evaporates, providing a cooling effect on the body. Like most science (corked bats don't make baseballs travel further, Columbia doesn't have to worry about getting hit by that chunk of foam after liftoff) that science doesn't work.

If it did, as I was moving through that accursed brush, I wouldn't have had to listen to more references to "hot" than one normally hears at a PGA Tour press conference featuring Tiger (they all cheat with their) Woods.

Midway up the mountain, the course finally cracks timberline and allows competitors a cooling breeze. It would have been a nice, cheery moment except for one thing you're only halfway up the mountain.

It was at this point that I saw the heat claim its first victim. The guy ahead of me was greeted by somebody I took to be his wife, giddily offering him water.

"It's no use," he said. "I'm doing terrible. I don't even think I'm gonna finish."

The wife would not be swayed. She told her man to keep pushing. That he could do it.

To most, this would have seemed a sweet moment of marital support. But as someone with a unique insight into the human psyche (I knew Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was lying all along), I could hear what this woman was really saying.

"Remember when I was having little Timmy, and little Susie, and I screamed and yelped in pain, pleading to quit, and you sat there, calmly, happily, telling me to keep pushing, that I could do it? Welcome to my world."

The dead giveaway came when the lady and her friends promptly left the poor guy sitting there while prancing down the mountain, laughing haughtily, backslapping and smoking cigars.

In a flurry of similar delusional thoughts, including something about the war in Iraq being over, I eventually reached the top.

The heat wasn't much of a factor on the descent, except for the dust. It made the trip down, to borrow a phrase from Hunter S. Thompson, "like trying to keep track of a swimming meet in an Olympic-sized pool filled with talcum power, instead of water."

At the finish line, a man was dousing my fellow competitors and I with frigid water. Needless to say, it's one dousing that won't result in any court cases. I then went to pick up my race T-shirt, with the kind lady telling me, "Now we're starting to see the people who really look like they're suffering," and meaning it as a compliment.

And why not? This is Mount Marathon. I'd just lost 10 pounds to the heat. Suffering, and life, is good.

So how hot was Mount Marathon? It was hot enough to dry out the course so that I didn't have to worry about sliding backward on the uphill and careening out of control on the downhill. And it wasn't as hot as 1999's race.

Wait until next year, when it rains, or the snow chute at the top is long, hard and dangerous, or some other calamity. Then I'll really have something to complain about.

This column is the opinion of Jeff Helminiak, the sports editor of the Peninsula Clarion.

Comments and criticisms can be directed to clarion@alaska.net.

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