Mount Marathon: Hiking in the Footsteps of Alaska’s Craziest Race

Like all good Alaskan stories, it started with a bet in a bar.

In 1909, in a gritty drinking establishment in the diminutive port of Seward, a wizened ‘sourdough’ called Gus Borgan wagered $100 that no one could make it up and down the town’s sentinel peak, Mount Lowell, in less than an hour. Unwittingly, a legend was born.

The first challenger was a plucky clerk from the town’s general store named Al Taylor who scrambled up and down the 921-metre mountain in a respectable one hour and twenty minutes. It was good, but not good enough. Tired and bruised, Taylor lost the bet and was forced to buy everyone in the amassed crowd a drink.

Other challengers quickly followed and in 1915, there were enough ‘runners’ for a full-blown race. James Walters won the first hard-fought scramble in a tantalizing 62 minutes. But it wasn’t until the following year that Alec Bolan finally scooped up the winnings when he summited Lowell and crashed back down to earth in a breathless 55 minutes. The race became an annual July 4th event, attracting 700 competitors. Mount Lowell was re-christened Mount Marathon.

Over a century later, I stood apprehensively at the base of Mount Marathon examining a pictorial signboard that ominously described the contemporary five-kilometre ‘Race Trail’ (course record, 41:26) as a ‘very strenuous, steep, and gruelling route with many life-threatening hazards.’

Even though I wasn’t here to race, it was clear that climbing Mount Marathon wasn’t a challenge to be taken lightly. The crippling ascent has an average gradient of 34 degrees, steepening to 60 degrees in the more extreme sections.

My first problem was locating the path. Mount Marathon has no single marked race route. At its base on Seward’s Lowell Canyon Road, there are two equally intimidating options: the ‘cliffs’ or the ‘roots.’ The former is an imposing wall of precipitous rock best left to the experts. The latter is a mess of braided sometimes-slippery paths half-hidden under thick foliage. Neither is easy to find. Opting for what I thought was the ‘roots’ (it wasn’t!), I got lost within minutes and ended up having to pull myself up a dangerously sheer slope using twisted alder bushes and spiky devil’s club.

In retrospect, I would strongly recommend bypassing these options altogether and starting a couple of streets away on the well-signposted Hiker’s Trail which delivers you via the Lower Crossover Trail to a point safely above ‘the cliffs’ on a discernible path.

After finally connecting with the Race Trail above the cliffs, I staggered, hands on bloodied knees, up an unrelenting switchback-free path through a succession of spruce, alder and low brush. As the brush cleared, the trail emerged onto a brutally steep scree slope overlain with unstable rocks and shale. It was like shinnying up a slippery double-black-diamond without skis.

Lungs overloaded and legs on fire, I stubbornly continued, arms flailing to steady myself on loose rock (hot tip: wear gloves!). It was only when I turned around at a boulder on a ridge known as the ‘race point’ that I was able to catch my breath and take in the eagle’s eye view of Seward below with the steep-sided fjord of Resurrection Bay stretching behind. Elated but exhausted, I was starting to get the gist of what this race was all about. The course might only be five kilometres, but it felt like a marathon.

Descending the mountain is often described by runners as a ‘controlled fall.’ Hardened racers who ascend in 35 minutes hurtle back down to the base in a tumultuous six on a slightly different route that incorporates sporadic snow fields, a dusty gulley and an ankle-battering streambed nicknamed the ‘gut.’

Chickening out after my earlier navigational gaffe, I decided to retrace my steps (minus the devil’s club section) descending with a mix of crab-walking, down-climbing and sliding on my butt. It was steep and tricky work enhanced by bright sunshine and wonderfully uplifting views.

On reaching the top of the cliffs marked by daunting ‘danger’ signs nailed to trees, I hung a left and jogged the last 500 metres down the safer hiker’s trail to an asphalt road, my legs scratched and shaky but still mercifully holding me upright.

It had been a demanding but life-affirming undertaking.

To others intent on tackling the Race Trail as a hike or run, I can only echo the strongly worded warnings on the pictorial signboard. This is a hike for the adventurous and brave. Watch the instructional videos on the race website first and proceed with caution. Every summer several tourists who bite off more than they can chew have to be rescued. If in doubt, opt for the Hiker’s trail (aka Jeep trail) that takes you to the top via a more gradual 7.2-kilometre path.

On account of getting lost, I definitely didn’t win any bets. Let’s say it took me 60 minutes… and a whole lot more.

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