Safety meeting warns new racers of mountain dangers
Auction sees diminishing bids
Heidi Zemach | For the LOG
New racers attend the mandatory safety meeting at Seward Middle School on July 3. New racers attend the mandatory safety meeting at Seward Middle School on July 3.
Seward Middle School gymnasium filled with hundreds of eager people of all ages on July 3, the eve of the Mount Marathon Race, to attend the mandatory safety meeting, raffle and auction, most of them sitting on the gym floor like students. They didn’t seem much perturbed by the fact that it was raining outside, and that the downpour was expected to continue the next day, making conditions for the race potentially ugly and dangerous. Perhaps that’s because they were first-time racers or had never been up the mountain. Or maybe because hundreds of people do the race every year, and never in its 85 year history had there been a death in the race.
Among those present, presumably was Michael LeMaitre, 66 of Anchorage, who had never gone up the mountain, and who would take three hours climbing slowly to the top, before disappearing altogether the next day, resulting in an intense search that had yielded no results as press time on Tuesday.
Following the raffle and auction for bib placements, the newcomers were ceremonially locked inside the gym to view the safety PowerPoint talk and short video. The safety meeting, led by veteran runner Tim Leibling, detailed many of the risks that the mountain would present under the latest weather conditions including piercing Devil’s Club, loose shale, sharp falling rocks and boulders, jagged creek beds, slippery tree root systems, steep cliffs with sharp drop-offs and bears. There are also snowfield chutes that tend to propel people downward, ever faster, and that end in steep gravel surface that can scrape off the skin or cause people to somersault downward if they don’t slow down enough, he said.
He strongly emphasized that all runners planning to race should have gone up the mountain at least once or preferably twice before to learn its features, and work out a strategy. Especially for this race, as conditions were extremely slick and muddy, he said. But by 8 p.m. the night before the race, if they hadn’t already done so, it was probably too late.
For those that hadn’t done so, or those who weren’t experienced, Liebling advised that they take the easier trails, especially the switchback trail created a few years ago as a safer trail for beginners, children, or those afraid of running close to cliffs. He advised new racers to follow those in front of them, and to take guidance from the spotters stationed along the way.
Longtime race veterans Flip Foldager and Fred Moore would be stationed near the cliff face guiding junior racers from the more treacherous areas, along with members of the Seward and Bear Creek volunteer fire departments, he said. Liebling urged the racers to be extremely cautious about pulling loose rocks or boulders on the uphill climb, and to make sure to call down a warning to those below them if they should accidentally do so.
His tone was light, but the slides and video he showed of the sheer face of the cliff drop-off, the slick tree root systems runners would encounter on their way up, and film and photos of runners falling, and getting injured in various ways, was all too real a warning.
If they survived the challenges of the race to the top of Jefferson Street, their legs may be protesting, rubbery and unwilling to carry them, but the best part of the race will be arriving on the last stretch to the cheering crowds, Liebling said. Chances are slim that anyone in the room would win, Leibling continued, but if they got to run down Jefferson, they should be proud of their accomplishment. “This is a fantastic opportunity, and it’s going to become an addiction,” he predicted.
Following the protracted search for runner Michael LeMaitre, the race committee is likely to reexamine its safety protocol, particularly concerning the inexperienced, slower racers, and may implement changes before next year’s race, according to Cindy Clock, the Seward Chamber of Commerce’s executive director.
Auction: a classic example of supply and demand
Auctioneer Blaine Bardarson encouraged would-be participants to be generous, and explained that all of the proceeds would go back into making the Mount Marathon Race happen, but relatively few people actually bid to get into the races, and for those who did, the thrust of the competition was toward who could get into the race for less.
“It was a perfect case of supply and demand,” Bardarson said. The total raised was substantially less”than the previous year’s auction which brought in about $30,000 to the race committee.
Only about seven women stepped forward to bid on the 10 women’s race slots, although three more decided to jump in later, when they saw how low the bids had become.
Some bids sold for as low as $150 although the minimum had been set at $250. Not too many more men bid on the 10 men’s slots. This year the minimum bid for the men’s race was set at $500, and four men got bibs for that price. The remainder were in the $700-$850 range. Last year, the minimum successful bid for that race was $2,000, with the highest two bids at $2,400.
The interest in the auction was probably minimal due to low demand because of the rule changes that race committee implemented that allowed 25 more people to get into each race, Bardarson said. Some 375 runners were allowed to participate in each of the adult races, whereas the normal limit has been 350. The Seward Chamber of Commerce, or race committee shouldn’t suffer too much, as it can help make up the difference in revenues with more participants, and higher entry fees, which went from $45-$65 this year, Clock said.
Under the new rules only the top 225 finishers of each race this year will be afforded priority status next year, allowing them to automatically enter the race. The only exception are those runners who will have achieved veteran status (finishing the race for 10 years), former race winners, or the top 10 finishers in each age category. Also, priority runners will in the future be allowed to skip, or opt out without cause for a year, without losing his or her priority status.