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Mount Marathon veteran stresses importance of knowing the terrain

By Emily Carlson Photojournalist: John Thain - 7:29 PM July 3, 2014

It started as a bet between two sailors. Race 3,022 feet to the top of Mount Marathon and back down in an hour. The first attempt in 1908 was a failure. Today, hundreds do whatever it takes to survive the challenge.

“We say if you get to the bottom and you’re not bleeding then you didn’t try hard enough,” says 17-time race finisher Clint McCool.

He isn’t joking. Despite his experience, McCool still makes at least 30 trips each year from Anchorage to practice.

“There’s so many variations to the race, so many different trails and so many different approaches to it. Knowing the mountain is so important, even more important than your fitness,” McCool said.

He breaks it up into chunks. It makes it easier to digest, he says. Right away at the bottom, runners are faced with a choice.

“We have a decision to make. We have two routes. One is called the roots and one is called the cliffs,” McCool said.

The roots is a tangled, jungle-like ascent up narrow pathways. While roots make convenient grippers, the congestion on race day could hold you up. That’s why most people choose the cliffs. It’s a wider path, with plenty of room to pass.

“This is very steep, but at least it is rock and people tend to trust the rock a little bit more,” McCool said.

The roots and cliffs open up into what runners call the climb. Here, speed hiking is the name of the game. This is where training trumps athleticism. McCool calls his practice climbs choreography sessions. He can picture each step of the climb in his head.

“The story of this upper mountain is that it’s incredibly braided and there’s no rule,” he said. “You can take any route that you like. This is where experience can give someone an advantage.”

The climb takes you all the way to the top, but don’t relax just yet. Here comes the dangerous part: the scree. Small, loose rocks litter this part of this mountain. If you don’t watch your step the result can spell disaster.

“It’s very easy to take a trip and these rocks are very sharp,” he said. “If you take a fall up here you’re gonna feel it, trust me.”

If you don’t fall here, don’t let your guard down. The next part of the mountain, called the gut, is the most daunting part of the rock to some racers.

“This is actually where most of the injuries take place and the reason is that your legs are just exhausted.”

Once you survive the gut, you’re faced with three tough choices. Most people choose the cliffs, the safety trail is for juniors, and then there’s the route that’s not for the faint of heart.

“You do not want to go straight, which is the waterfall. Unless you are an expert you do not want to go down that way,” he said.

Even elite athletes mess up the waterfall. McCool goes down with reservation.

It’s a combination skid and slide. He uses his hands, feet, and even his bottom. The more points of contact the runner has, the better. If you make it past this challenge, you’re nearly home free.

The mountain is a delicate dance of control, courage and perhaps a little bit of crazy.

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