As a lifelong Alaskan, I look forward each year to the Alaska State Fair, the Fur Rendezvous, the Iditarod Race and Eagle River’s unique Bear Paw Festival.
But having grown up in the seaport city of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, the 4th of July celebration in that community is close to my heart. It’s almost as if it’s somehow imprinted in my DNA.
For a wide-eyed boy on the 4th of July back in the 1940s and 1950s, it was all about fireworks, the parade, warm hot dogs with mustard, cotton candy, the kids’ races and excitement building in anticipation of the big event – the Mount Marathon Race.
The people who ran up that mountain and returned about an hour later–sweaty, scratched, bruised and battered–were my heroes. To me, runners like Olympic athlete Sven Johansson, who won the race six consecutive times from 1954 through 1959, were gods. By late afternoon when the race was over, our necks were stiff from craning our heads upward to watch the spectacle.
In a tradition that has lasted more than a century, the centerpiece of Seward’s 4th of July celebration is the Mount Marathon Race – the third longest running race in the U.S. after the Boston Marathon and northern California’s Dipsea Race. Rain or shine, on Independence Day, Seward’s 2,500 citizens awaken to thousands of visitors who come to partake in the music, food, parade, kids races, and other festivities. But for the most part, they come to watch hundreds of competitors from Alaska, the lower 48 and other countries scramble up and down 2,992-foot Mount Marathon—considered by top athletes as one of the most grueling races in the world.
The race’s origins:
More legend than historical fact, several sources say the race began as a barroom bet back in 1909, only a few years after Seward’s founding. It was said that a bar patron slapped a $100 bill on the counter and proclaimed he would award it to anyone who could run up and down the mountain in less than an hour. Some say a man named Al Taylor, a dog musher, took the challenge. He missed the goal by only minutes and instead of collecting the $100, bought drinks for the house.
The first official race was held in 1915 and the top finisher, James Walters, missed the one-hour mark by a couple of minutes. The following year, runner Alec Bolan clocked in with a time of 55 minutes, 12 seconds. Since then, about a century later, the field of runners has grown to more than 900 and the time has been whittled down to 41 minutes, 26 seconds, a record set in 2016 by Anchorage’s David Norris. And in the Women’s Division, a record 47 minutes, 48 seconds, was set in 2015 by Sweden’s Emilie Forsberg.
Getting to know the mountain:
As kids averaging about 10-14 years old, we were fortunate that our parents allowed us to climb Mount Marathon. On the top we proudly printed our names with small rocks, and then bounded back down the loose shale, emulating our race heroes. Going up that mountain became such a tradition that for about the past 50 years, I’ve been hiking up there to watch the races, which beginning in 1963, began to include women.
To stay out of the way of the earliest racers, the Juniors (ages 7 to 17), who run halfway up the mountain and back down, I hike the gradual waterfall trail, which begins with the jeep trail at mid-point on the mountain and angles north past the waterfall, then south along the ridge to Marathon’s summit.
You can read all day about the spirit and tenacity of people taking on a daunting challenge like Mount Marathon, with its three-mile distance comprised of slopes averaging 38 degrees, and some sections 60-degrees. But until you get close enough to hear them breathe, you don’t really feel their toil. You can get up close on the streets of Seward, and runners report crowd cheers definitely pump their adrenaline. The halfway point up the mountain is a great viewing spot. But I prefer being on top – partly because it’s stunningly beautiful up there, and hiking there is my own 4th of July challenge.
Some people reach the top of the mountain looking fresh, as if they just stepped out of a taxi cab. Some look dog-tired and drained, physically and mentally, and you wonder if they’ll ever get down safely. The ones I enjoy most are those who are perhaps running for the first time and amazed at themselves for making it to the top, some expressing their disbelief in humor:
“And now I have to go all the way back down?” Or, they might utter breathlessly: “Has anyone seen a helicopter up here?”
Records and Remembrances:
In 1981, I was on top and watched Bill Spencer set a race record of 43 minutes, 21 seconds, a landmark time that stood for 32 years until broken in 2014 by Eric Strabel, who ran it in 42 minutes, 55 seconds. Bill Spencer’s 1973 Junior Race Record of 24 minutes, 30 seconds, has never been broken.
On average, more than 100 runners from Eagle River-Chugiak take on the annual race, with men, women, and juniors clocking very respectable times.
Over the years atop Mount Marathon I’ve handed out water, assisted in a woman’s “clothing malfunction,” and helped administer first aid. I’ve seen a marriage, a guy made up like Elvis, another like Gumbi, a guy with a mountain bike, a runner with a buffalo head; parasailers, and I’ve cheered on 79-year-old Fred Moore of Seward, who has completed the race 50 consecutive times and holds the 70-79 age group’s best time of 1 hour, 7 minutes.
But among race elites, record setters, bizarrely outfitted challengers, or those who take more than two hours to finish, the thing that draws me back, again and again, is these folks’ sheer determination. It’s can-doism on a grand scale, and it’s deeply moving.
“Running up and down this mountain is a great thing,” I’ve often thought to myself. “But people with the motivation to do this clearly have the potential to go out and achieve even greater things.”
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.