Mount Marathon



Words & Photos / Cait Buxbaum


It's about 2:40 p.m. on Tuesday, the Fourth of July, and hundreds are poised at the base of a well-traveled mountain. Held back by maybe 30 yards of blue mesh fencing, the crowd murmurs in anticipation, watching cottonseed swirl past the rocky opening in a part of the trail known as The Cliffs. Seconds later, the mass of people know, a new victor will emerge and claim the title of champion in the 2017 Mount Marathon Race. But who will it be?


Aubrey Smith, left, known for her denim get-ups, leads a pack of ladies up Mount Marathon for the annual Fourth-of-July race this year.


Suddenly, a roar erupts in the back of the pack, where those positioned against the chain link by Lowell Creek are the first to see a runner leaping down the mountain. As he skips and shimmies down the rock, the sound of the crowd mounts, recognizing this year's king of the mountain: U.S. Ski team member and Olympic hopeful Scott Patterson. He'll be in downtown Seward crossing the finish line in less than five minutes, rocketing to glory with the knowledge that he can now be counted an equal among the revered winners of Alaska's most famous mountain race.


But it's hardly the trophy and the bragging rights that make the event most enjoyable and memorable, Patterson said.


"It's fun coming off the cliffs and having everyone scream at you," he says, hours after the race. "The roar of the crowd is just, you can't even think."


Anchorage mountain runner Brian Stoecker, known to many as ‘Birdman’, poses for the crowd in his characteristic loincloth and feather headpiece during the 2017 Mount Marathon Race.


Patterson experienced the race as a participant for the first time last year, when he and Alaska Pacific University teammate David Norris were invited to compete after going 1-2 in the Bob Spur Memorial Hill Climb, also known as the Bird Ridge race. Norris made his debut by breaking the all-time Mount Marathon record—set by the race's first international champion, Kilian Jornet, in 2015—while Patterson held his own at fourth place. This year, Norris was out with a sore knee, Jornet was recovering from speed-climbing Everest and racing in the Alps, 2016 runner-up Nick Elson was getting over an illness, and frequent top-5 finisher Rickey Gates was participating in another running event, according to reporting by Alaska Dispatch News. Three-time champion Eric Strabel (who, additionally, won the junior race in 1999) also was taking it easy this year, cruising into the finish in 17th place, with a smile on his face.


"I didn't have much competition [this year]," Patterson says.


Again, though, the competition isn't always the point.


Anchorage finisher Brian McMahon, 72, didn't start running the race until he was 59. Since then, he has run it every year, carrying the torch [in backward fashion] from his son, whom he said took second in the junior [halfway] race one year, but stopped racing Mount Marathon after he left for college.


McMahon said the race, for him, can be both "terrifying and addicting," a sentiment shared by many who participate. Most Alaskans will recall the 2012 race, during which one man went missing and another sustained a traumatic brain injury. Matt Kenney recovered enough to come back and run the race again in 2014, but Michael LeMaitre was never found.


Many more have suffered broken bones, twisted ankles, scrapes and bruises on the tricky and varied terrain of Mount Marathon. What starts on a paved road transitions to dirt and gravel, to steep rocks and sneaky roots, to a bushy trail, to a vast expanse of alpine tundra followed by slippery shale, sometimes partially covered in snow. On the way down, racers pass through "The Chute" to "The Gut," in which a sometimes-treacherous waterfall trips people up. McMahon said he himself took a tumble there one year, making him "the bloodiest guy that came off the mountain."


Tadhg Nakada leaps from ‘glory rock’ during the 2017 Mount Marathon Race on July 4. Nakada finished 38th in the men’s division, and was among the many participants who mug for the camera as they come off the mountain every year.


But maybe it was worth it?


"The more blood you have, the more cheers you get, so then I thought, well maybe I should bloody myself every year," McMahon says with a chuckle.


More than the risk factor, though—five-time finisher Ava Harren, also of Anchorage, said her goal is just to "finish alive" every year—participants often cite the atmosphere of the event and the closeness of the athletic community as reasons to run the race. Others, especially those from Seward, feel a sense of duty.


"It's kind of like an obligation," says junior racer Ruby Lindquist, who will be a senior at Seward High School this fall.


Lindquist has taken second or third for the past four years, and plans to continue in the adult race next year.


"I think it's important for me to keep doing it," she says.


Fourteen-time finisher Bonnie Moore said she's in the same boat. Though she lives in Anchorage now, her father is the Alaska-famous Fred Moore, one of the oldest Mount Marathon finisher who has the age group record for 70-79, recognized by his trademark pink running shorts.


But she also appreciates the opportunity to race more after taking time off to have children.


"It was really emotional for me," she says. "You give everything to bring new life in the world, but then you have to ask, what about me? What about my needs?"


Moore was quick to add that she strives to be "a good role model for my kids" by continuing to get out in the mountains and exercise safely, so Mount Marathon is as much for her as it is for them.


Siberian sky runner Varvara Shikanova emerges from the Mount Marathon trail on July 4 during her first Alaska race, in which she took 13th place, scaling and descending the 3,000-foot mountain in just over an hour. Shikanova was sponsored by U.S. Paralympic skier Andrew Kurka, a graduate of Colony High School, who petitioned the Mount Marathon race committee to allow his Russian friend to participate this year.


The place, the race and the day of the year mean so much and so many different things to so many people, but everyone who finishes gets the same t-shirt. Sure, the winner gets a trophy and no longer has to pay the entry fee in future races, but all participants will attest to the overwhelming sense of accomplishment and community that comes with Mount Marathon. It's an event where one can hang out with the winner at a shrimp boil between the race finish and the awards ceremony; where runners as young as six compete with 17-year-olds and high school graduates tackle the same mountain as octogenarians, and a 20-year-old woman is scaling and descending that mountain faster than 95 percent of the male competitors. It's an event where a former Alaska Aces player, an Iditarod champion and a Siberian sky runner can petition for a one-time spot in the race, and where lay runners spend hundreds to thousands of dollars in an auction the night before for the same opportunity. It's an event where you'll probably see Gumby and, in the case of this year, Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, as well as self-proclaimed mountain princess Denali Foldager-Strabel, who not only took fourth in this year's race but also kicked off the Independence Day festivities by singing the national anthem. It's an event where more than one person will honor a fellow runner by writing his name on their bodies before the race. It is the great equalizer of Alaskan athletics, and a unique expression of American Independence.


A junior Mount Marathon racer pays homage to Patrick ‘Jack’ Cooper, the 16-year-old runner who was killed by a black bear during the annual race up Bird Ridge last month, by wearing the boy’s name on his back. More than one Mount Marathon racer was seen with the same name written on their body, exemplifying the close-knit community found in Alaska mountain running.