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Mount Marathon racers, officials focus on safety

By Emily Carlson Photojournalist: John Thain - 8:08 AM July 3, 2014

Seward’s Mount Marathon competition is one of the oldest and most challenging foot races in the country.

Most years, racers come away with injuries like scrapes and bruises. But two years ago, one man disappeared, and another suffered a serious brain injury. Now, race officials and elite runners alike are working to make sure everyone makes it up and down the mountain safely.

It was a rainy weekend afternoon about two weeks before the Fourth of July race.

A few dozen racers gathered to tackle Mount Marathon.

Matias Saari won the race in 2009, but he knows if you don’t know the mountain, the mountain can be dangerous.

“It’s always a challenge and every time I get to pavement at the bottom I breathe a sigh of relief that I made it down safely,” Saari said.

On that rainy afternoon, Saari was teaching a group of first-time racers the right way to tackle the rock. He and a few other elite athletes led a run through of the mountain in hopes of escaping injury, or worse.

“You catch one toe and it’s not like stumbling on the street, you start cartwheeling and you go down 200 vertical feet banging into rocks the whole way down,” says race veteran Clint McCool.

Two years ago that happened to Matt Kenney. The elite athlete fell 30 feet down the slippery part of the mountain known as “the waterfall.”

He broke his skull, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. That same year, first-time racer Michael Lemaitre disappeared.

Some runners think his tragic death could have been avoided had Lemaitre known the mountain.

“You don’t want surprises so if you’ve been on the mountain before there’s going be fewer surprises on race day,” Saari said.

To limit those surprises, all runners are now required to sign a pledge that they’ve been up the mountain prior to race day. Saari says with each summit, the mountain becomes less daunting.

“Get comfortable with the route. Know your route and have confidence,” he said. “You don’t want to be thinking about the danger or be afraid running down the mountain.”

McCool climbs Mount Marathon at least 30 times each year before the race. He calls it his choreography sessions.

“You literally have to memorize every step. When I run I can play it in my head like a movie. I can see every step along the way,” McCool said.

While new signs point out the tricky spots, McCool said runners need to know the mountain like the back of their hand.

“Because when race day comes you don’t want to be thinking, you just want to be reacting,” he said.

While no amount of practice can take away all of the danger, runners say the true spirit of Mount Marathon is competition — no matter what place you complete the race.


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