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Mount Marathon's terrible toll: Are race planners to blame?

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

One Mount Marathon Race runner is missing and presumed dead. Another competitor in the Seward Fourth of July classic remains in a coma in an Anchorage hospital. A third is beginning a journey down a long road back to health after five days in an Alaska hospital.

And some seem to think this is OK.

Friends and family of Matt Kenney, the Anchorage runner in a coma, cling to the rationalization that he was injured "doing what he loved." Not exactly.

Kenney wasn't hurt while out on an everyday mountain run. Kenney was maimed while participating in a race organized by the Seward Chamber of Commerce to lure business to that city. Anchorage runner Michael LeMaitre disappeared July Fourth on the slopes of the mountain beside the city at the head of Resurrection Bay, and Salt Lake City's Penny Assman had to be flown to the Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage on July 5 for specialized treatment.

Why? All because they decided to enter a 5-kilometer run 3,022-feet up to Race Point on Mount Marathon and then back down. What happened to LeMaitre is unclear. He was last seen 200 feet shy of the turnaround and never seen again. What happened to Kenney and Assman is vividly clear in some photographs taken as they fell off the cliff at the end of Lowell Canyon Road.

Falls aren't unusual 

Kenney and Assman are not the first to tumble there. There is a reason the Seward Fire Department stages emergency medical technicians and rescue litters at this location. This is where people fall and break bones. None before have been injured as seriously as Kenney, but there have been other accidents not unlike that involving Assman. And everyone familiar with the 85-year-old race knew it was only a matter of time before someone ended up in a coma or dead.

The short and predictable patch of danger at the end of the road is what has led an Anchorage newspaper to repeatedly refer to the Seward race as a "treacherous contest." It is now a deadly contest -- surpassing the danger of the fabled Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Iron Dog snowmachine race, the Iditarod Invitational foot and bike race, and a host of bigger, tougher, seemingly more dangerous events. But then, they all make some attempt at protecting competitors from themselves. Iron Dog racers, for instance, are required to wear helmets and body armor, travel in teams of two, and carry survival gear.

Mount Marathon runners need only show up in a pair of shorts. LeMaitre was wearing shorts and a T-shirt when he disappeared. It didn't bode well for his chances of survival overnight in 40-degree rain. But LeMaitre's disappearance was a fluke. No racer has ever been lost on Mount Marathon before. Plenty, however, have been busted up like Assman.

It is clear where the blame for this rests: Squarely on the shoulders of race organizers.

Warning from former race director

Former Mount Marathon race director Chuck Echard tried to warn organizers they were venturing into dangerous terrain when this year they decided to increase to 375 the number of entries allowed in two of the three races -- the men's and women's -- that are part of the city-wide Independence Day celebration that draws people from around the country to Seward. There is also a race for juniors capped at 250 entrants.

In a May 3 letter to the editor of the Seward Phoenix Log, Echard wrote:

I remember in the early 1980s when I was the Mount Marathon Race director. We started to limit the number of runners in the race to 200. This was done for safety reasons as letting in too many runners could cause more injuries. As the race progressed, a separate women’s race was added to help alleviate stress of more runners. I still believe that the number of runners should be decreased. It was never meant to be a fund-raiser for the (Seward) chamber (of Commerce).

Echard admitted in a subsequent interview that even with the field capped at 200, he had reservations.

"I was always worried about safety," he said. "That was number one. We had quite a few injuries. We had people taken to the hospital and recovered. (But) no one has ever died from running the race."

No, there were merely close calls.

"I look at that (cliff) every year and go, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Seward Fire Chief Dave Squires confessed in an interview with Dispatch this week. "I like it better when the snow is in the chute. It's a lot softer landing than those damn big rocks."

Even then, Squires said he's seen runners come flying off the cliff above, land in the snow and break a leg. Still, a broken leg is a pretty easily repaired injury compared to what happened to Kenney. He suffered a broken leg, a cracked skull and a traumatic brain injury. Assman's fate might have been the same if not for the heroics of Bear Creek volunteer EMT Autumn Ludwig, who got under the Salt Lake woman as she was dropping out of the sky and broke her fall. As it was, Assman was merely beaten into a bloody pulp.

'It comes in spurts'

How often does this happen?

"I have no idea," Squires said. "We'd have to do some research on that. It comes in spurts. Some years there's none at all."

Suffice to say the automatic reaction to a call-out to the pararescuemen of the Alaska Air National Guard's fabled 210th Rescue Squadron standing watch on any given Fourth of July is this: "Is it Mount Marathon or Flattop?"

Flattop, an aptly named and easily identified peak that rises to 3,510-feet on the edge of Alaska's largest city, is the most climbed mountain in Alaska. The well-traveled trail to its summit attracts hordes of people wholly unprepared for mountain travel. Accidents happen on its slopes, sometimes to out-of-shape people wearing flip-flops. That's inevitable.

Mount Marathon in Seward, 125 miles to the south, is a different story. Race participants are generally fit, or at least fit by current American standards, and they are all wearing decent footwear. Most have at least some experience in mountain travel. Some, like LeMaitre, have a fair bit of experience. But they're in a race, and racing changes everything.

Racing makes a hike into a competition, and competition affects the way people think.

Here's the thing about safety: It's usually more about judgment than equipment or skill. People who make good judgments -- no matter how they are equipped or how little they know -- avoid trouble. People who make bad judgments get hurt, and racing encourages bad judgment. Racing encourages racers tearing down Mount Marathon to take risks to go faster.

This was a danger in the old days when there were only 200 people on the mountain. It is more of a danger now with half again as many there. It is easier for people to bump into each other and tumble. There are a lot more feet to kick loose rock that can rain down on racers below. And there is more competition for the best line down the cliff, the line with the most secure handholds.

Top 225 qualify

Were these risk multipliers not enough, the Mount Marathon Race committee this year added a rule stating that only the top 225 finishers in each race -- the men's and the women's -- would automatically qualify for the 2013 competition. Without an automatic qualification, a runner is back to dealing with the lottery, which requires a $35, non-refundable payment to the Seward Chamber. According to Chamber figures, men who entered the lottery in 2010, the last year for which figures are readily available, had a 7 percent chance of getting into the race. In other words, 93 percent of the men who entered the lottery that year were simply making a contribution to the Seward Chamber.

Given those odds, it's pretty obvious that just about anyone who gets in and hopes to come back is going to try their damnedest to make the top 225, which means a bunch of people are going to be taking chances on the way down to try to get to the finish faster.

Assman herself told the Anchorage Daily News she was shooting for a finish in the top-third of the women's race. In her hurry to get down the mountain, she jogged left where she should have jogged right, went down on her butt, started sliding, grabbed for handholds that didn't exist and then went over the cliff.

"It could have been so much worse," she told the Daily News. "I could have shown up at the E.R. in Matt Kenney's condition."

Yes, she could have. And Assman, a medevac helicopter pilot for the Utah National Guard, is professionally trained to make good decisions. Racing alters this. Racing encourages people to bend judgment in order to compete. This is the exact reason why most competitive racing organizers -- from NASCAR to the Iditarod -- try to protect competitors from themselves as much as from anything else.

Racers push limits, and if the course has deadly dangers, racers will sometimes push those limits until they die.

'Cliffs are dangerous'

"We have told them (race officials) in different years that the cliffs are dangerous," Seward Fire Chief Squires said. The advice to avoid the cliffs has not always been followed. Some racers, Squires noted, have also lobbied hard against changes to the original race route.

"It's not my call," the chief said. "We're going to make suggestions to them again. I'm sure there will be changes in the race. Personally, I'd rather see a qualifying race. (But) they're not in favor of it."

Many are probably opposed to diverting around the cliffs, too. The cliffs have become sort of a macabre attraction for spectators. It's where newspaper photographers and TV cameramen hang out trying to get a picture of someone falling. "The crowd waits for racers ... and for crashes ...," as the trailer for the "Mount Marathon Experience" documentary, puts it.

Crashes are cool right up until the time people hear bones breaking. People who were at the end of Lowell Canyon Road this Fourth of July say the crowd was extremely somber after an unmoving Kenney was hauled away on a litter. And now? Well now, it's just another Mount Marathon. Someone died and a couple people got maimed? So what?

Think of the outcry if the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were run like this. Mount Marathon is, officially, a two and a half hour race. Anyone who doesn't reach the finish line in that time is out. Imagine the reaction if in the first two and half hours of the Iditarod one dog died; one dog was left unconscious and on life support with veterinarians trying to nurse him back to health; and a third was maimed. Imagine the reaction if things went on that way every three hours until the race was over 10 days later.

But then, those are dogs, and people care about the safety of dogs. When it comes to human competitors, maybe they don't care so much.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com