As I huffed and puffed and struggled up the lichen covered incline, I looked up at the happily chatting group above me and realized they are in an entirely different league.
I consider myself to be pretty fit, but this group of mountain runners brings a whole new definition to endurance. They meet every Monday night to squeeze in an epic run on local trails, usually with a healthy dose of elevation change, into lives already filled with jobs, families and other responsibilities. The individuals in attendance ebb and flow each week, but every run that I have attended has had respectable participation.
This particular Monday took us to the South Fork Trailhead up Hiland Road. Sticking to the trail for about two miles, our route went off-piste as the elevation started to climb. Another mile and a half and 1500 feet of climbing took us to the top of an unnamed peak with 360-degree views and chilly, blasting winds. The trail down took significantly less time to cover, but left my quads begging for mercy.
This group of dedicated runners most certainly fits the image one would create when considering the type of person who would sign up for the rigors of the Mt. Marathon Run. Most Alaskans are familiar with the annual run: every Independence Day sees hundreds of runners clambering up the face of Mt. Marathon in Seward, clearly visible from the town center, only to turn at the top and careen back down through snow, scree and creek beds.
While 2017 will be my third running of Mt. Marathon, some of the Monday night runners are approaching their 10th running and beyond, and have accumulated some impressive finisher times over the years.
Christine Bennett is a co-organizer of the Monday night runs and has raced others to the turn-around rock atop Mt. Marathon thirteen previous times. Her best year was a quick one – less than a minute away from breaking the elusive one-hour mark. Though she says life got in the way this year, and her training is not quite where she would have liked it to be, she will race anyway.
Finishing with a disappointing time is better than the alternative – losing your spot on the race roster. Racers are guaranteed an entry as long as they finished in the top 225 places the previous year. Otherwise, your name goes back in the lottery, which for the most unlucky can take years to get pulled.
Another longtime racer and Monday night runner is Jane Baldwin, a dog-lover who lives in a yurt in Chugiak. Her first experience with Mt. Marathon was as a spectator 10 years ago. She said she was shocked at the blood and injuries she saw.
“I’ll never do this,” she thought.
Now in 2017, she is training for her eighth running of the mountain race. She reports the most effective training strategy is to get down to Seward and actually practice on the race course. Her fastest year saw her practicing multiple times on the mountain.
“It makes a huge difference on the terror level if you go down and practice.”
As for myself, I am in a similar category as Bennett. This year’s race is not the best timing in consideration of other commitments, but I would rather stick it out than go back into the lottery. Monday’s trail run showed me there is still some work to be done to get ready for the quickly approaching race date, but a few more brutal – but beautiful – Monday night runs, and I’m sure I will be vying for a podium finish.
Sara Kennedy is a special education teacher in the Anchorage School District and a certified Nutritional Therapy Consultant. She likes to swim, bike and run around Alaska, and camp and fish with her family.