The Most Grueling Marathon Of All – Adventures in Alaska, Part 5

Amanda and I couldn’t get out of the trailer-hotel fast enough on Monday morning. Even though we had yet another long drive ahead of us, we were so used to those by this point that it couldn’t have mattered less. Originally, I was going to drive while Amanda contacted various bed and breakfasts and tried to book some new activities for us to do, but she quickly became stressed out by the prospect, so we switched, which I think both of us preferred. I was able to find a reasonably priced bed and breakfast in downtown Seward that had availability, and we decided that going mountain biking on Tuesday instead of kayaking satisfied our activity requirements. Even though we had a lengthy drive, I suggested that we try to hike Mt. Marathon when we get into Seward, since we were originally supposed to hike in Denali that day. Please take a moment to note that I have the worst ideas ever.

seward-aerial-25 Seward IS one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, though, so I can’t be that mad.

For those of you who don’t know, Mt. Marathon is a famous mountain in Seward, Alaska that is home to America’s second-oldest foot race. The only older race is the Boston Marathon, obviously. The 4-mile race is run each year on the 4th of July, and it attracts thousands of entrants each year and currently operates on a lottery system. It’s extremely popular and people come from all over the U.S. and even other countries to run the race. The story behind the race allegedly is that two fishermen were sitting in a bar somewhere around 1915 when one bet the other one that he couldn’t run up Mt. Marathon and back down in an hour. The guy took the bet and ended up running up and back in one hour and 2 minutes, thereby losing the bet but beginning an annual tradition. Since Amanda and I wouldn’t be in Seward on the 4th of July, we wanted to run up the mountain ourselves. After all, thousands of people do it, right? And besides, our coach, Justin Gillette, had 4-5 miles on the schedule for that day. Why not try a little trail run?

130613111257-mount-marathon-1-single-image-cut-25 Perhaps if I had done a google image search for the race, I would have realized what a HORRIBLE idea this was.

I should have gotten my first hint when I texted Jake, the news anchor who had interviewed me a few days before, and told him my plans. His response was “I don’t mean to sound like a dad, but please be careful. People get seriously busted up on that mountain constantly. Stay on the trail.” I brushed it off since hello, thousands of people run the race. Obviously, the only ones who get hurt are stupid. When we told the owner of our bed and breakfast the plan, she shook her head and sighed. “Make sure you take way more water than you think you’ll need. And wear neon shirts so I can see you. That way I can tell the rescue teams where you are on the mountain if you need them. A guy just got rescued off the mountain last week because of a severe head injury, you know.”

Rescue teams? Neon? Tons of water for a 4 mile hike? What is wrong with these people? We’re marathoners, ok? Totally in great shape. Nothing to fear except fear itself, or whatever.  Nonetheless, we smiled and nodded and headed up the road towards the mountain, figuring we would be back in a couple of hours in an absolutely apocalyptic scenario.

About 4 hours later, we returned. So, let me tell you about Mount Marathon.

For starters, the trailhead is covered with signs telling people not to go up the mountain. It says that the mountain is not recommended for public use. It notes that the trails are not marked and it is easy to get lost. The trail is not for beginners. There is a “map,” which is really just a picture of the mountain with lines drawn on it since the trails are not marked. Amanda and I decided that we wanted to do the same exact route that the runners do.  As we headed up the early portion of the trail, we were quickly out of breath. The grade was very steep and the surface had tons of roots with low-hanging trees that made it difficult to stand up right in places, let alone run. We laughed and decided early on that there might not be much running happening that day.

20130624_163715-768x1024-1-4 The top half of the map. We took pictures to make sure we didn’t get lost.

It wasn’t very long before we realized how spectacular the views were. Seward is a beautiful town on the southeast end of the Kenai peninsula, and the view from the second floor of the guest house we were staying in was breathtaking enough. The good part was that the views gave us a good chance to stop and salvage our dignity under the pretense that we were only stopping because of the views, of course, and not because of the fact that our hearts were about to explode.

20130624_170159-1024x768-1-4 Our first view has us thinking we might not be that dumb after all. 20130624_165644-1024x768-1-4 Oh good, a selfie.

The early portion of the trail was shaded, so we had some respite from the heat. As we trudged our way up the mountain, there were parts where we were very hunched over trying to keep our legs moving forward. The terrain was incredibly steep. How do people run up this? We asked ourselves that question about a thousand times over the course of the next few hours. I could tell that even the little time I’ve spent on the trails in the past few months has definitely made my legs stronger, because I wasn’t struggling as much as I probably should have been in terms of cardio. Each level portion we reached was an excuse to stop, take a picture, and grab some water. We would stop for several minutes each time to “enjoy the view” and/or feebly attempt to catch our breaths.

20130624_170201-1024x768-1-4 We came up this. On purpose. 20130624_170427-1024x768-1-4 And we got this as our reward, so it was pretty much ok.

The higher we got up the mountain, the looser the footing became. Many times, we were trudging nearly straight uphill through nothing more than sand. It became a game a trying to grab onto whatever we could to keep our balance and move forward, so there’s a lot of mountain plants and trees that I have to thank for pulling me up the mountain. At this point, we had been moving for about 45 or 50 minutes (including breaks) and were passed by a guy who told us we were about 1/3 of the way up the mountain. Um, WHAT? We had thought we were over halfway and were now quite discouraged. That being said, we were already covered in dirt from repeatedly falling, so we figured we might as well keep going.

20130624_171715-1024x768-1-4 I’m a mountaineer, or something.

Somewhere around the middle of the mountain, as we were praying for God to strike us out of the sky so we didn’t have to keep climbing the stupid thing, Amanda and I came upon a guy who was hiking alone and seemed to be just kind of hanging out. We started talking to him, and it turns out that he was about our age and was from the area. He knew a ton about the mountain and kindly informed us that we were about halfway up, but the hardest part was yet to come. Amanda and I were constantly looking back at the picture of the map to make sure we were going the right way, but it was nearly impossible to tell at some points. The trail constantly split and crisscrossed over itself, making for a confusing trip, to say the least. Fortunately, it gave us more excuses to stop and rest, so at least there was that.

20130624_172317-1024x768-1-4 I love the little islands! I was dying.

Our new friend had told us to just stick close to the ridgeline as we got above the tree line. He warned us that the trail was about to get confusing. That sucked, since we already thought it was confusing. What he didn’t bother to mention was how hard it was about to be. Every time we looked up, it seemed to get worse. At one point, I decided to have Amanda take pictures of me “running” up the mountain, just so I could see if some type of running motion was actually possible. Also, I figured that if we were going to count those 4 miles as a workout, we were going to need to actually run at some point during it. My run was the hardest 3 steps of my life.

20130624_174438-768x1024-1-5 Ok, but I look badass, right? That’s Eric way down at the bottom, by the way.

At this point, the trees had disappeared and there was no longer much to grab on to. We were stopping every 10 yards or so to make sure that we had not lost sight of the trail, because it was extremely difficult to see as the soil faded into a rocky landscape that didn’t leave behind many footprints. It didn’t help that every time we looked up, the task we were facing seemed impossible. The problem? Amanda and I really don’t like to quit, especially on anything with the word “marathon” in the name. We were determined to climb that mountain if it killed us.

20130624_175735-768x1024-1-4 I mean, COME ON.

So, we figured out pretty quickly why everyone thought we were going to die on the mountain. The thing is like a death playground, in all seriousness. First of all, there’s about a 50% chance you’re going to go off the trail at some point because it’s unmarked. Second, there’s so many places to fall and hurt yourself, from the roots to the loose sand to the rock cliffs. Third, you could literally fall off the side of the mountain. There’s not many mountains where this is actually the case, but let me assure you – Mount Marathon is one of those mountains. This is not a journey for the faint of heart, and let me reiterate – I have no idea how anyone runs up this thing. I don’t think they really do. I think they climb up it and run really fast down, but still. Amanda and I were physically on our hands and knees crawling up the trail at several points.  The fourth way to die on the mountain is how Amanda and I almost did – turning around and looking at each other every 3 minutes and going “WORST IDEA EVER” and then laughing til we lost our balance.

20130624_175823-768x1024-1-4 I’m sure Amanda will appreciate this picture, but it’s necessary to demonstrate the seriousness of this situation.

Amanda makes me laugh because she is one of the busiest people I know, but yet she is always adding  new activities to the list of stuff she wants to try in her hypothetical spare time. She has been talking about wanting to try rock climbing when she gets to Houston, but it didn’t take too much distance up the mountain before she was yelling “rock climbing is OFF the list!” Despite the fact that Amanda is one of my best friends and we’ve been running together for a few years now, I learn new things about her constantly. For example, while on the mountain, I learned that she has a very specific fear of falling and hurting her knees. She’s not afraid of actual falling, just falling and hurting her knees in the process. Note to anyone with this fear: climbing a mountain with a near vertical slope and rock face is not a good idea for you. It is a hilarious idea for the person you are climbing with. She is very conservative and I’ve never heard her swear (I don’t know why she’s friends with me either), but she kept saying “Danielle, I might say the ‘s’ word, and if I do, I’m really sorry.” As you can imagine, I could not stop laughing, and I told her my life would literally be complete if I ever heard her swear.  I’m pretty sure I caught her one time when the ground slipped out beneath her, although she swears she said “shoot.” Likely story.

20130624_175753-1024x768-1-4 See how it just totally drops off on the left? That’s where we came from.

There are many false peaks on the mountain, so every time we thought we got closer to the top, we just found that we had further to go. Our friend from down the mountain would catch up to us sometimes on our breaks and we would stop and chat for a minute to learn about the area. He continued to assure us that yes, people really do die on the mountain and get hurt up here all the time, so that was nice. Meanwhile, I noticed some snow (really just dirty ice) off to the side of the trail and started shrieking with excitement because I love snow so much. I told Amanda that I was going to go over and touch the snow, so I wanted Amanda to take pictures of it. Just as I got to the ice, I remembered Jake’s dire warning about staying on the trail and started to panic just as I got there. Oh God, I’ve gone off trail! It was time to get back on the trail as quickly as possible.

20130624_184241-768x1024-1-4 I’m touching ice! At the end of June!

As we got closer to the top, we started getting passed by very skinny man-children with shorts and no shirts on that were coming as close to running up the mountain as one can possibly get. It didn’t look much like running in the way I think of it, but at least they were mostly upright since I had just been crawling up the mountain in a desperate attempt not to fall off.  After what seemed like forever, we finally made it to the top. In reality, it was about 2 hours and 15 minutes. I’d say that’s shameful, but I’m honestly just happy we survived. Oh, and the view? It had gotten even better.

1048811_10101876419112908_1974074660_o-25 I left my heart in Seward, Alaska. 20130624_185302_11-1024x768-1-5 I’m going to go ahead and declare this our greatest jumping photo of all time.

We stopped at the top for a while and admired the view while talking to Eric, which turned out to be our new friend’s name. He told us all sorts of fascinating facts about the surrounding mountains and recounted the story of a guy who had gone missing on the mountain during the previous year’s race. They never found him or his body, and there’s lot of speculation about what actually happened. For his part, Eric thinks the guy faked his own death and is off in the Philippines somewhere.  He also told us that 2/3 of the people who get rescued on the mountain aren’t actually hurt, they just can’t figure out how to get back down. Amanda and I became determined not to be those people. We were going to make it down this mountain! Eric invited us to karaoke at a local bar that night, and Amanda, who is always full of surprises (and generally one of the most shy people I know), goes “OH YAY! I’ve always wanted to do karaoke! Danielle, will you do it with me?” Ughhhhh, Amanda. Between this and the cheese crowns, I feel like she is starting to owe me.

samsung-csc-190 This must have been before she suggested that we do karaoke, because I’m actually smiling.

So you might think that going back down was easier than coming back up, but it really wasn’t. Maybe it was easier in terms of cardio, but it definitely was not easier mentally. The mountain is just as ridiculously steep going down as it is coming back up, even though the trails are slightly different. The idea is to dig your heels into the softer soil on the way down and lean back to keep your balance. For the record, this process is not only exhausting, it’s mentally very stressful. Amanda was convinced she was going to fall and hurt her knees and I was convinced I was going to fall and die.

20130624_194535_1-768x1024-1-4 I only fell like 80 times. It’s fine.

I fell quite a few times, mostly landing on my hands. You’d think that would be a good idea, but with jagged rocks all over the place, I sustained quite the number of bruises and scrapes. Amanda was incredibly nervous about going down, so I promised to go in front and blaze the trail for her. She told me that if I stayed calm, she would stay calm, which we’ve found is the case in pretty much everything we do together, whether it’s a race or anything else. This system works well for me because I have a lot of anxiety too, but I’m able to put it aside somewhat when someone else needs my help.  I didn’t scream, but I did say the dreaded “s” word a couple of times. Sorry I’m not sorry!

As we reached the toughest part of the course, our friend Eric caught up to us. It turns out that the trail for the race literally requires you to descend through an active creek and waterfall. The surface at this point is just big, slippery boulders that are covered in running water. Amanda and I just looked at each other and laughed when we saw it. To get to the creek and waterfall, we first had to go down a patchy of rocky ice, which I promptly slipped and fell on hard. My hands were not having their best day. Eric was like a freaking mountain goat and just hopped down the rocks. Amanda and I proceeded much more cautiously, and he waited for us at some of the trickier parts to give us pointers on how to get down. I was really nervous at this point. I’m an adventurous person, but I invest a lot of money and time in my races, and I really didn’t want to break a leg going down this stupid mountain.  However, I tried to stay calm so that Amanda would.  Then, just like that, just when we needed him most, Eric was gone. One of the man-children/runners who had passed us earlier was now running up and down the waterfall to practice for the race. Yes – he was doing waterfall repeats after already going up and back down the mountain. If this is an average Monday afternoon workout in Seward, y’all can keep it, quite frankly.

Fortunately, the guy knew we were about to be in a very tough spot and graciously offered to help us down. Apparently, there was a spot where you need to literally wedge yourself into a crevice, then blindly put your left foot off the rock and slide your body down and hope that your left foot lands on the right rock and you don’t fall. How ridiculous is that? Again, I remind you, this is part of the trail for the race. How is possible that everyone does not die?

20130624_201756_1-768x1024-1-4 We literally came down this. I don’t know how.

Once we made it down through the waterfall, I’d like to tell you it was smooth sailing. It wasn’t, of course, but by comparison, I guess it was. Amanda and I had made it up and down Mount Marathon with no helicopters required in a time of about 4 hours. While I recognize that’s totally pathetic – the race record is 43 minutes, by the way – I’m proud to just be one of those people who can say they climbed the mountain without having to be rescued, no matter how long it took. It’s definitely one of our sweetest marathon victories so far, and it certainly resulted in the most bruises.

And then we went to karaoke, obviously, but that’s too much excitement for one post.