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Fears grow as exhaustive Mount Marathon search comes up empty

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

A search for Anchorage runner Michael LeMaitre ended its third day Friday with many baffled as to what could have happened to the man last seen only 200 feet below the turnaround for the Seward Mount Marathon race up and down that 3,022-foot peak. It was there around 6 p.m. on the Fourth of July the 66-year-old LeMaitre passed an unidentified race timer heading down the mountain toward the Resurrection Bay community of about 3,000 where post-race partying was well underway.

Hours earlier, fellow Anchorage runner Matt Novakovich had won the 3.5-mile race in a time of less than 45 minutes. It had taken LeMaitre four times as long just to draw near the top of the course, but his family has said he was determined to finish the most famous footrace in the 49th state.

By the time LeMaitre neared the summit of the Kenai Mountain peak about 125 miles south of Anchorage, the race timer on the mountain course had been standing around in the rain and 50-degree cold for more than three hours, Seward Chamber of Commerce director Cindy Clock said Friday. With the last runner in sight, the volunteer decided to head down and warm up.

He paused on the descent to talk to LeMaitre, she said. Clock was not sure of what was said. "All I know is they spoke,'' she said, and LeMaitre apparently reported he hoped to continue to the turnaround and be back down the mountain "in possibly an hour and half.'' The conversation ended, and the two parted ways.

The timer head down the mountain. LeMaitre, wearing a black T-shirt and shorts, headed up toward the now-deserted turnaround. He has not been seen since.

Fears grow

Family members notified race officials LeMaitre, a financial advisor to soldiers at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on the edge of Anchorage, was missing just before 8 p.m. that evening, Clock said, and they notified the Seward Fire Department of a missing racer minutes later. The Fire Department began organizing a search. An Alaska State Trooper who'd earlier run the race went back up the mountain and retraced the course, but found no sign of LeMaitre.

Fears as to what might have happened to him were growing by then, and the search quickly began to broaden. A trooper helicopter was called in that evening. By the next morning, the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, search dogs and members of the Alaska Air National Guard's crack 210th Rescue Squadron were on the scene. The Guard brought a Pavehawk helicopter equipped with FLIR, a heat-sensing device so good it can identify a polar bear sleeping in its snowy den along Alaska's arctic coast.

A day-long search found no sign of the missing runner.

"They haven't seen any sign at all,'' Clock said Friday. "Some people said they should look in the snow tunnels. They've done that. Some people said they should look around the Jesse Lee Home. They've done that.''

The snow tunnels are openings under mountainside snows carved by melt water. The Jesse Lee Home is an old boarding school near where a trail off the mountain ends. Clock said neither turned up any clue as to LeMaitre's disappearance.

No trail sweep

Searchers are now fanning out on the slopes of the mountain. The lower part of the mountain is covered by dense forest. The middle part is buried in thick alder. Spotting anything from the air in that terrain is all but impossible.

Nobody has any real idea of what could have happened to LeMaitre. The Seward race, unlike some others, has no trail sweep to follow the last racer down.

"I wouldn't think you'd need a sweep in Mount Marathon,'' said Lance Kopsack, one of the organizers of the Matanuska Peak Challenge. "You've usually got so many people up there.''

Or at least there are many people on the course for most of the race. Three hours into it is a different matter. The race is basically over by then. The last-place finisher in this year's event -- 59-year-old Dick Sheasley from Anchorage -- was crossing the finish line in Seward about when the timer passed LeMaitre high on the mountain.

Kopsack's race does employ a sweep to keep track of runners, but he admitted, "I can see why they wouldn’t down there (in Seward) because you can pretty much see everything.''

The top half of Mount Marathon is bare. If someone had been watching from town with a spotting scope, they would have been able to see where LeMaitre went after passing the timer. But it doesn't appear anyone was watching.

Hypothermia danger

Kopsack, a veteran mountain runner, wonders if LeMaitre wasn't suffering from hypothermia by the time he reached the turnaround. Hypothermia, the lowering of the body's core temperature, can muddle one's thinking, and a lightly dressed man moving as slowly as LeMaitre was would be a prime candidate.

"After three hours, he had to already be so cold,'' Kopsack said. "I finished the race, and we were standing around in the chute ... I was starting to get hypothermic.''

The 47-year-old Kopsack was on the course less than 58 minutes. He was back in a Seward hotel room enjoying a hot shower long before LeMaitre neared the summit.

Clock confessed the Seward Chamber of Commerce, which now organizes the race, had never thought about putting a trail sweep on the course. There is a timer at the top, she said, and people to hand out water. But no one sweeps the trail down.

"This was, what? Our 85th year,'' she said. "No one's ever been lost during the race....This is, of course, going to be a game changer. It's easy to be the Monday morning quarterback and say, 'Oh, we shouldn't have done this. We shouldn't have done that.’ But you cannot plan for every single thing.''

Expanded field

Still, you have to try, said former race director Chuck Echard, now a resident of Flagstaff, Ariz. This summer, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Seward Phoenix Log to argue against plans to expand the number of entrants in the race.

Echard imposed a limit of 200 in the 1980s. There were 329 racers this year.

"I still believe that the number of runners should be decreased,'' he wrote. "It was never meant to be a fundraiser for the chamber. Take care of the runners and the mountain. Not everyone can run the race.''

Reached by telephone at work on Friday, he said there had always been a fear someone could die doing the race. His main worry, and the reason to argue for a limited field, was the danger of one runner kicking loose rock down on another runner.

"We've had quite a bit of injuries,'' he said. "We had 50 injuries one year, mainly because of the heat. We've had people taken to the hospital, but they recovered. No one has ever died from running the race.''

One runner injured in this year's event -- Matthew Kenney – remains hospitalized in Anchorage with a broken leg and head injuries. He fell off a cliff that has injured many in the past and killed a Minnesota man hiking the Mount Marathon trail in August 2009.

Echard knows the mountain's history well. While race director, he put together the history of the event dating back to a bar bet in 1908, and the organization of an annual competition seven years later. Mount Marathon was, for most of its history, a small, local affair, he noted. Not until the 1980s did it really become popular. And as its reputation grew, it attracted ever more attention. Echard capped the number of racers at 200 because he thought that more than enough people to put on the mountain.

"I was worried about safety,'' he said. "That was always number one.

When I limited it to 200, it wasn't any other reason than safety. I thought 200 was a safe limit. I'm not sure of their reasoning now.''

The field was expanded to 375 this year for both the men's and women's races, and the entry fee was upped to $65. There is also one entry available for the each race -- men's and women's -- by raffle the day before the race, and 10 slots are sold at an auction.

Of the auction, the Chamber says, "competition is fierce, yet fun, with auction bids beginning at $100 and going as high as $2,500 for a single race slot." The chamber says the money raised at the auction from entry fees is used to support future races.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com