It was promised to be the most competitive field of runners ever assembled for Mount Marathon. The 3.1 mile race has always been the largest of the mountain running grand prix, but with the addition of Kilian Jornet and other notable international athletes, Alaskans were ready to put up their fight against the best in 2015. I’ve never been the strongest climber, but due to an early season injury I had a 4 week block of training that was dedicated to biking, which assisted my climbing in more ways than I had suspected. It didn’t prepare as well as true mountain training, but it certainly helped add some muscle mass to my quads that I otherwise would not have had.
Training for Mount Marathon (MMR) is typically a two fold system. In addition to you climbing intervals and tempos, you also need to adequately scout the mountain to not only determine your up route (the two most popular being the cliffs and the roots) but also your down route (the waterfall or the more popular cliffs). I elected to train the cliffs as it was beneficial to runners like myself because it had a bit of a longer lead in. The down route I practiced was only the cliffs. In past years the cliffs have been the most dangerous of any obstacle in the race, especially in 2012 when a wet course resulted in two runners nearly being killed from slipping in the water fall.
As a rookie in MMR you are required to attend a safety meeting where they attempt to convince you should take the jeep trail down, which is significantly slower than either of the other down routes mentioned, but far safer. The most important thing to take away from the safety meeting is that you could fall and die, so don’t race if you might. After the safety meeting runners are allowed to pick up their bibs and head off to relax and possibly watch the late night fireworks celebrating the birth of our nation.
The race kicks off at 9 am for the Juniors, which turns around at the halfway point. This is a mixed race where the boys and girls race alongside one another, unlike the adult race where they are divided. In 2014 there was a bit of a surprise when a female, Allie Ostrander, won the Junior Race outright, a feet that had previously never been done by any other female. For 2015 it was an up and coming kid from the local ski racing team, Luke Yager, who had been injured the previous year, who broke the tape first.
After the Junior race the women’s race takes off at 11 am, 4 hours prior to the Men’s race. It was a bit before the start of the Women’s race while I was chatting with Erik Johnson of Seward that I first got to chat with Kilian. He was just coming down from volunteering for the Junior race and had run with Erik a bit earlier in the week. We all discussed various elements of the race and kicked around ideas for the descent. Interestingly enough Kilian had timed the cliffs and waterfall and determined that the cliffs were substantially faster.
The women’s race was an interesting affair. It was a toss up between former champion Christy Marvin, the Junior champion Allie Ostrander, and the World Champion Emilie Forsberg. The race was anything but that, Emilie out climbed and out descended both of the Alaskan girls and managed to run 3 minutes under the previous record. Allie managed a strong second just a few seconds under the previous women’s record and Christy, coming off a torn plantar fascia, managed a strong 3rd place.
Finally after waiting all day (or at least most of it) it was time for the men’s race at 4 pm. After a short 2 mile warm up jog and some easy up hill pickups I tossed my extra clothes at a buddy’s sister’s place just around the corner and made my way to the start line.
Excitement was definitely in the air as everyone prepared for what would be the deepest field of Alaskan athletes ever assembled. When the gun finally went off the race went out at full speed. The first half mile of the race is on the road and climbs a scant 200 feet, but when the race goes out at a 5:00 min/mile pace that 6% grade equates the pace to around a 4:45. At the split nearly everyone from the lead pack broke off to the roots leaving Jim Shine, Ben Marvin, Matias Saari, Eric Stabel and myself headed towards the cliffs at full speed. This actually played out better than I had anticipated as apparently the roots were so packed a few of the guys who went that route had to stand and wait to climb up. I popped out just behind the lead pack while Jim, Ben, Matias and Eric came out right next to Kilian, Rickey and Nick Elson. From there on up it was everything I could do to keep moving. About 1//3rd into the climb I began to suspect that I had spent too much time walking around during the other races as my quads were considerably tighter than I would have liked them to be. By mid mountain I had slipped back to around 30th, with no end in sight I felt as if I was in survival mode. Somewhere just after halfway Harlow and David caught me, we would end up working together for the rest of the way up to summit. Towards the top those two dropped me, which didn’t really bother me as I was confident that my downhill would be very strong.
At the top of the climb (3022 feet above sea level) you pop up on a sort of plateau that you then must run 40 feet or to round the infamous rock. Once you make the turn its another 40 feet back to the edge of the mountain and down onto the scree/shale. I took a small cup of water and brushed sweat out of my eyes to prepare for the long descent down to the finish. Getting into the scree can be a bit daunting when you’re legs feel like they can barely support you, but once I got some momentum on the downhill and the lactic flushed out, I started to really cruise.
I managed to pass 2 or 3 guys before the mid way crossover. Two on the upper scree and another as we were approaching the crossover point, which would have been harder had I not scouted out a higher cut over to the mid way point. After the midway you hit some really loose, fast scree that takes you down into what is referred to as The Gut. This is the entrance to the creek and is the slowest part of the descent, primarily because there are downed trees, loose/wet rock and 4 to 10 foot drops. I slipped by two guys as we were descending into the Gut, one at the top(who happened to be David) and one at the bottom who fell in the loose scree.
I had scouted the creek the day before and choreographed my route through this section of the race, which basically went out the door as soon as I got in there, as all plans typically do. I had planned to take it easy through this section and the cliff as the opportunity for injury was highest through these two. I managed to pass one guy just as we exited the creek onto the down trail and made our way to the cliff. At the I ended up on cliff right behind Harlow, sliding down to lower part then running out the bottom. At the bottom of the cliff area Harlow and I both went over Glory rock, except for some reason he went around some trees to the left. When he made that move I hammered the down hill to make the pass as we made our way onto the last half mile of road into the finish.
On hot years a number of people have melted on the road, or even have been reduced to a near crawl. Because of the ideal temperatures race day many people were cruising into the finish. I hit the road and managed to hold right around a 5 min/mile pace. I passed two more guys on the road, one of which was a training partner by the name of Craig Thomas, who I slipped by with just a hundred or so yards to the finish(He was a little sore about it after the race).
My finishing time was 50 min 50 seconds, about what I had expected, even though my climb was significantly slower than it should have been. In previous years my time would have easily dropped me in the top 15, but on this day it was only good enough for 23rd overall. My down time actually ranked 7th overall, and just 15 or so seconds behind Eric Strabels, which I felt quite good about considering I had never run a full top to finish line on the mountain. I’d say I could easily shave 2 to 3, maybe even 4 minutes off my time come next year, assuming I don’t have another early summer injury that limits my training. As Kilian mentioned in a recent blog post, the ambience at MMR is like no other race you have experienced in the United States. The whole town, as well as a large part of the state, turns up to watch the Juniors, Women and Men drag their bodies up 3000’, then plummet to the finish line at break neck (if you fall of the waterfall) speeds. You can watch the video here, http://www.ktva.com/watch-2015-mount-marathon-mens-race-269/ to get an idea of what its like!