It’s been a week since the Mount Marathon race and it seems the dust – like the muscle soreness – is just settling enough to take a moment for reflection. It is hard to describe the Mount Marathon Race as just another race. Quite simply, it is not. I’m not familiar with any other race that infects its subjects with so much anticipation, hope, emotion, energy, and pain, that is so addictive. It is so extreme, that it makes the most prepared world class athletes feel like they’re a novice runner in their first painful race – but falling in love with it. And so here I am humbled again, just finding the words.
To get a good idea of the course and how the race played out, Anchorage television news station did a fantastic job with this great video stream. The men’s race begins at 30 minutes in the video.
My race plan, which I kept just between my fiance Denali and I, was based off of several factors. First, I knew I had built my best climbing fitness ever. Second, my last race (uphill-only) did not go well due to some aggressive training that would pay off later. And third, I’ve never really climbed the upper half of Mount Marathon particularly well; and that bothered me. So my plan was to hang back behind the other top 5 competitors in the lower half of the mountain and hopefully let them believe I was having less fitness. Then, at the junior race turnaround (half way up) I would let the reins go and never look back. I could break the record again.
Then the sun came out. Temperatures in the 70’s wouldn’t normally be so challenging except for a 3pm start time, the course lined perpendicular to the sun, and that our climbing speed is less than 2 mph up the 65-70% grade causing virtually no wind chilling effect for at least the bottom half of the mountain in the trees. Last year’s temps were that warm, both the women’s and men’s leaders passed out on the final stretch and took a detour to the emergency room. Luckily, the temps this year would prove a little more forgiving, low to mid 70’s and with a decent wind.
Denali and I like to start our race days off with an early short jog/hike to wake things up, and we were excited to cheer on the junior racers, the first race of the day at 9:30am, a little ways up the mountain. The young racers were super competitive and watching and cheering them on is probably the best way to get fired up to race. Of particular interest was Allie Ostrander’s standing amongst the boys (the girls and boys are combined in the junior race). The leading boy asked us 6 minutes into the race, “Where’s Allie at?” Allie was in the top 10 at that point, but at the junior turnaround half way up the mountain, she had passed all except that boy. The 1st and 3rd boys traded positions on the descent but it was Allie, with the steady speed of a 10 minute 2-miler like she proved this spring, that grabbed the lead and overall win on the road to the finish. It was an unusual event and one that some people didn’t know how to feel about it until it was those same boys that reminded us that we shouldn’t be surprised. Allie is an exceptionally rare type of phenom. Not just one of the best high school female runners in the country, but one that carries that same track swiftness and grace up a mountain that is anything but smooth. It’ll be very exciting to watch her develop even further!
The women’s race kicked off at 11:15 AM and the temperature kept rising. Olympic cross country skier and 2012 champ Holly Brooks de-emphasized mountain running last summer to focus on her Olympic preparation and took her time re-entering the mountain running races this summer so she came in as a dark horse. Meanwhile, 2013 champ Christy Marvin had come with an unbeaten streak dating back over a year. But as impressive as Holly’s and Christy’s resume’s were, there was a strong field of hungry ladies right behind and ready to jump ahead if they brought anything but their best. As the climb unfolded and the fitness cards were being shown, Holly’s climbing prowess proved to not miss a beat. She built up over a minute lead on Najeeby Quinn, and about two minutes on Christy in 3rd. It was appearing that Holly would regain her women’s crown going away . . . until Christy’s determination and downhill skill started to turn heads. The leaders at the top of the mountain often get beaten along the downhill, but let’s be real, Holly had two minutes on Christy, and was still looking smooth and making great progress to the finish. Christy was doing the impossible and taking huge chunks out of Holly’s lead. As they came closer to the finish line, the possibility was sky rocketing. Knuckles were white, nails bitten through, then Holly was collapsed into a volunteers arms on the other side of the finish line just as Christie was blazing across. Christie whittled a 2 minute deficit into 2 seconds on her 12:04 trip from the 3,022 turnaround to the finish by the ocean. Only six guys would run it faster later that day. But the victory belonged to Holly and her courageous ascent and mental strength to hold her body together. To read her awesome account of it, check her blog.
I made sure to be at the finish for Denali and congratulate others. What I didn’t realize though was how witnessing that scene would affect me. Something else was happening besides the typical post finish exhaustion. It was like a scene after a horrible traffic accident. Blood running down bodies collapsed on the ground, volunteers giving first aid, hollow eyes and pale skin of heat stroke, moans and limp movements. It was disturbing. Probably the worst thing I should have witnessed before taking my turn on the mountain.
But it was inevitable. I had to refocus and remember that my best performances in this race have been when I mentally prepared myself to tear my body apart. I had to not just accept whatever damage would result, but I could embrace it, and use it as an advantage — my greatest ally. I could use that mental battle to separate myself from the others if I could win it.
All of the guys were soaking with freshly poured water on the starting line. Ricky Gates offered me a drink and if I thought my hair, skin, and stomach could handle any more, I would have graciously taken it. But really, it was probably my poker faced “No thanks, I’m all right” response. I immediately went into business mode at the sound of the gun. My plan was to shadow Ricky and any others wanting to set the pace early in the climb and I was executing that fairly well even though I was having to redline just a tad more than I would have liked. But finally, after about 10 minutes of climbing, the pace eased. Last year, I let myself get excited in this same scenario, took the lead, burned too long in the red zone and couldn’t follow Ricky’s strong second half ascent. But this year I made myself use this scenario as a chance to regroup and regain some level of comfort. At the junior turnaround I couldn’t help but float up into the lead. That was it, I couldn’t hold back any more. I broke into a run on a stretch that traversed across the mountain just enough to take the edge off the usual 65-70% grade and set my mind up for long solo effort all the way to the top.
The vision I held onto and reach for while shouldering the mounting fatigue was of Denali dancing in the living room when she shows off her years of ballet. Light, graceful, my body working in harmony floating uphill. It was working. I was able to spread out the lead pack and get a gap on Rickey. I was still most concerned about him since it was so difficult to get him on the decent last year. One fellow who wouldn’t go away though was Matt Novakovich. Matt has focused very hard on this race in the last several years and on a good day, is the man to beat to the top. And sure enough, as the toll of my strong effort from mid mountain was beginning to catch up with me, so was he. He made a move by me on one of the many short splits in the route a few minutes before the summit. I knew it was a significant goal for him to be the first to the top and I had to remind myself of my most significant goal . . . being first to the finish line so I looked at the bright side of having him ahead as again, being able to follow someone’s rhythm was a huge help to regroup and find the tiniest bit of comfort before the dive down the mountain.
At the turnaround, there’s a completely new deal of the cards. Sometimes people’s climbing and descending abilities are polar opposite, and can often be opposite of predicted. A speculator may have put smart money on me at that point, but it would have been reckless to assume that I could keep the lead with anything less than my best downhill. There was only one thing that pulled back my speed, and that was surety of getting to the finish line relatively uninjured. Many people assume that it requires taking huge risks and being out of control on the downhill to be the fastest down the mountain, but I disagree. Rather, I am sure that where I make the most time is where the terrain is safest . . . down the scree that makes up most of the mountain’s descent. I’ve made the decision to sacrifice some ascending speed for downhill ankle security with plastic ankle braces made for volleyball and basketball players. With the added strength holding my foot from rolling, the worst likely to happen is summersaulting down the loose scree and superficial wounds. The real danger is closer to the bottom in the gully and cliffs where many serious injuries have occurred. Trying to get every second down those waterfalls and cliffs with so many ankle and knee high fixed rocks to trip over and going head over heels down 15-40 foot drop offs is the last battle I want to fight. Every trip through, I am thankful for the traction on the bottom of the inov-8 X-Talon 190s. Many racers, myself included, have taken a moment for a celebratory pose or fist pump once through this section at the base of the mountain. I theorize the main reason for this bravado is actually overflowing relief of successfully avoiding serious injury. All that is left is a short little downhill road run to the finish that feels like anything but short and downhill.
The last year that the race had temperatures in the 70’s, the race leaders collapsed in the final minutes of the race on the road from severe dehydration and were later diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis – a condition where muscle cells are so dehydrated they become brittle and tear exceptionally easily. Consider that state of the muscles with the task of breaking our fall down three thousand feet with adrenaline pumping and we start to understand why the 2/3 mile of gradual downhill road is the most difficult and humbling experience of the entire race.
The transition from steep descent to this gradual downhill also taught me a G-force lesson. My body wanted to keep going downward steeply when the base of the mountain arrived. I caught my toe on nothing, just like Rickey caught his exactly one year ago in exactly the same place. Luckily, my body still had enough coordination to tuck and roll and I never came to a stop.
Onto the road. There was only so much more my brain could ask of my body. I had to focus on what it took and what it felt like to run 5 min/mile pace on a road. In reality though, I knew I was moving much slower. It’s one thing to give a best effort and be rewarded by immediate positive progress. But there was no encouraging feedback from the body. Even of the coveted view of the lead police car that only the leader can follow through town, or the cheers of loving family and friends along the street have a hard time evening the scales. We have no other choice but to continue with our best effort out of shear love of the sport and pursuit of what lies beyond our physical limits. That may be the essence of Mount Marathon. Eventually, everyone is driven to reaching beyond their limitations in a personal fight for survival to get to the finish line.