Death on Mount Marathon

The deadly appeal of a brutal Alaskan footrace, and the man who (apparently) died trying

How hard can a 3.5-mile race be? If that race is Seward, Alaska’s annual bone-cruncher on Mount Marathon the answer is this: the terrain is so wild, it can swallow you whole, and no one will find your body.

Runner’s World has a gripping feature in its March issue about one contestant in last year’s competition, Michael LeMaitre, who went up the mountain and never came back down during this town’s beloved Independence Day rite.

The writer, Christopher Solomon, takes us through the craggy, thorny, mud-slicked death trap of a course that’s so close to civilization, it begins and ends in the town itself; and yet the mountain is so thick with brush, steep drop-offs and bears that search teams failed to turn up any trace of “The Crazy Frenchman,” as the fearless LeMaitre was known, after combing the area for weeks.

At one point the man’s daughter poked through bear scat for clues.

Hundreds of masochistic contestants run the course every July 4, an event in which all of Alaska seems invested. Broken bones and lacerated livers are part of the appeal, reports Solomon, because the impossibility of making the race “safe” mirrors Alaskans’ everyday proximity to brutal, unpredictable nature.

There is, however, a kids race that ascends halfway up the mountain before doubling back.

(Registration for the 2013 race closes March 31, but be warned, you’re required to scout the route before competing.)

Solomon beautifully captures the experience of tackling Mount Marathon:

Soon I was 40 feet up a slick wall of mud, clinging to the bones of hemlock and spruce, wishing I had a belay. Gravity tugged patiently, waiting for its chance. ‘You slip here, your ass is grass,’ [my guide Sam] Young shouted. ‘Now imagine doing this while buzzing with fear, adrenaline, and oxygen debt.'

And then a little further along the trail:

We plunged into the Alaskan bush, which in summer is a rioting jungleland—five-foot pushki with its blistering burn, hypodermic devil’s club, alder as tight as prison bars. This 'Little Shop of Horrors' crowded the trail, grabbing, stinging, thickening the air with humidity. At one point Young took a step off the track and nearly vanished into the green.

By then end of the story, you end up sharing the sentiment of one past champion, who said she was surprised the race has taken only one life.

Read the entire story at Runner’s World.

Image credit Flickr / jseattle