The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Julie Rosier
For The LOG 

Junior lessons in hill, skill and will


File Photo | The Seward Phoenix Log

Women racers extend a collective high five to a junior runner as he approaches the Mount Marathon finish line.

The Danger

Social justice activist and writer Grace Lee Boggs believes that every crisis contains both danger and opportunity.

Considered a wise woman, Boggs was born the same year as the first Mount Marathon Race, the second oldest footrace in America. The long and spirited history of the race is spiked with moments of euphoria and peril. This Fourth of July, racers and spectators may have visions of tragedy and injury dancing in their heads from the unfortunate events of last year’s contest.

Some people feel that the risks involved in such high-stakes racing do not outweigh the benefits, especially for junior racers, age seven to 17. Others believe that pain is but a necessary price tag, hidden or otherwise, attached to the tremendous gains available to all who answer the call of the wild race.

In recent interviews, local authorities on junior mountain running, Miles Knotek, Cedar Bourgeois, and the Barnwell Sisters Three, added their perspectives to the community dialogue.

The Hill

After taking first place in the boys Junior Race for two years in a row, this year Miles Knotek, a waif-like 18 year old from Moose Pass, advances to the senior race. He takes with him lessons learned since his mother Erin encouraged him to run the Exit Glacier 5K race when he was 10.

He remembers in a moment of exhaustion during that race hearing his mother’s call, “C’mon Miles. You can do it!” He crossed that finish line in just under 40 minutes. “No,” he told the LOG. “I haven’t always been fast.”

It wasn’t until seventh grade when he started training with coach Aubrey Smith at Seward Middle School that Knotek started to enjoy running. “She made it fun,” he said. “It was basically just running through the woods with friends.” The more he ran, the more serious Knotek got, especially on race days. He, when he tries, is able to focus his energy to almost supernatural levels.

When in The Roots, the opening section of the racecourse, he repeats “There. There. There.” mentally creating a rhythm “almost like a metronome” while using his hands and feet as levers to propel him up the mountain. Before long the welcome faces of race volunteers and past coaches, Bob Barnwell and Marc Swanson, appear beside the pole that marks the Junior Race Point.

“Last year, I let loose this hideous cry,” he said describing the transition between uphill and down, before the mental drum shot him down The Chute. “Then down the waterfall. One. Two Three. Then, you’re done. Except for the cliffs,” he stated matter of factly.

This spring Miles graduated from Seward High and this fall begins college at Montana State University. He plans to study geology and hopes to work with mountains.

The Skill

It has been said that communities that play together stay together.

In the book “No Contest: The Case Against Competition,” Alfie Kohn explores how competitive play can also produce “an arrangement that requires some people to fail in order that others can succeed,” which he argues has the potential to poison relationships.

Bob and MaryLynn Barnwell are pillars of Seward’s outdoorsy community. During college, MaryLynn ran for the same coach that Miles will train with at Montana State and was later inducted into the hall of fame there. Their daughters, Allison, MacKenzie and Isabel Barnwell, familiarly known as Alli, Kenzie and Izzy, share their propensity towards both athletics and community bonding.

“Kenzie was the first one to run,” said Allison Barnwell, the eldest sister who was 16 when she took first place in the Junior Race of 2008. Alli remembers how at age 13 her mom recommended that she and Kenzie, the 11-year-old middle daughter, run 8 Tuff Miles, a road race in the Carribean where the family was living on a boat.

“We were going to run the race together,” Alli remembered. “But we lost each other at the beginning of the race.” Alli didn’t expect to beat her sister, but she did. “Something just takes over for me on race day. My coaches tell me that I tend to hide my fire,” said Allison who runs cross country and track at Claremont McKenna College. Last year, Alli “drove home on the downhill” when the 20 year old placed fourth in the Mount Marathon Women’s Race.

Amidst the glory of achievement, Alli cherishes her running relationship with her sister, Kenzie, who she considers among the strongest athletes on that mountain. “She’s a beast, pure muscle with a heart of steel. She’s also my best friend.”

MacKenzie Barnwell learned to trust mountains. She remembers how daunting the mountain felt the first time she and her family hiked it after returning from life on the houseboat. “It was dusty and hot. We only went halfway up but it was so difficult.” Eight years later, she laughs about the memory.

She described the first time she and Alli decided to run the Junior Race, “We were on a team called the Peninsula Princesses with the Foldager girls,” another pair of high-performing local running sisters, “We had a killer team with these really hideous bubble gum pink shirts. They were awesome. We were really fast.”

Kenzie, runs cross country for Macalester College, finished fourth in the Junior Race in 2008 and will run the Women’s Race for the second time this year. She credits the Mount Marathon Race with instilling a deep love of running within her. “Alli’s my training partner. There’s no one that I like to run with more. I’m super close with both of my sisters. And the story of Mount Marathon for me is hugely connected to Alli. And to Izzy.”

Isabel Barnwell, the youngest daughter, is the swimmer of the family. But that hasn’t stopped her from also racing up and down the mountain each year since she was 12. This year she will run her last Junior Race before she ages out and she looks forward to running the Women’s Race.

Izzy has not always enjoyed mountains, let alone running races. “I used to hate Mount Marathon. I was really scared of heights,” she said recalling the family’s first mountain hike, upon returning to Seward. “It was a sunny day. I was so afraid.”

Her parents continued to gently push their youngest daughter out of her comfort zone, but it wasn’t until running moms Patty Foldager and Jackie Marshall invited her to join a training group that she began to feel more comfortable and safe. “Runner’s high,” she said, as if suddenly capturing a forgotten memory. “That is one thing I love about running Mount Marathon.”

All three sisters are grateful for the support they receive from the community, and especially from their parents MaryLynn and Bob. These young women model how to skillfully play and stay together through difficulty and difference.

The Will

Cedar Bourgeois won the Mount Marathon Women’s Race seven times in a row. She never ran the Junior Race because she didn’t start running until she was older. At 19, she took third place in the senior division. The local amateur raced against professional athletes in her “first frickin’ race” and almost won.

The enthusiasm Bourgeois feels towards the race and the mountain, as she reflects on her past achievements, is visceral and contagious. “It was like I had won it. I was never a star athlete. I didn’t have all those pedigrees. My parents were not athletes.”

Mother to son Zen, 13, and daughter Coral, 12, Bourgeois knows a little something about the sacrificial love parenting requires. In 2010, after a dramatic seventh win, Seward’s home team sweetheart announced her retirement from the race.

Bourgeois describes how people in town regularly approach her about her racing status. “It’s so sweet that people care and want to see me (come back). But you know, I’m running for joy again. And that’s bliss. That’s where it all started, running for the love.”

Though her winters since retirement been challenging without the presence of the race goal, the owner-operator of Natures Nectars and mother of two, has plenty of ways to focus her drive. And she now relishes the ordinary experience of celebrating Independence Day with her children by her side.

“That’s my church. The Mountain,” the tough-as-nails runner pronounced as she launched into one final cautionary tale.

“I wish the Junior Race didn’t exist,” she said. “This is serious business. There’s a reason why there’s a drinking age. I don’t see how a seven year old is mature enough to handle that mountain. Parents focus too much on glory. Respect mountains. Respect danger. We’ve just been so lucky that nothing bad happens to these children. We’ve been so lucky all these races that nothing bad has happened. Until last year.”

The Opportunity

Seward is full of wise locals whose opinions on the Mount Marathon Race differ.

Allison Barnwell for one applauds Seward Chamber of Commerce, for recognizing runners at various categories of achievement, not just top three finishers. She also admires Joeseph Nyholm who playfully runs the race in a Gumby costume each year.

If the Junior Race didn’t exist, 10-year-old racer Sam Koster, whose mother Mary Beth also runs the Women’s Race, would probably be disappointed. In a recent interview, Koster (who also goes by his self-donned superhero name Kosterman) described his typical descent on race day. “Every time you jump you go really far, then get your control back, and then you jump really far again. It’s like there’s no gravity, so you don’t have to worry about falling.”

But as we know from the tragedies that befell the race last year, gravity is real. The mountain can be the most peaceful place in the world at times, but it will always be unforgiving and wild. And as Bourgeois and MacKenzie Barnwell have learned, humans must always trust and respect the nature of mountains.

Maybe if that mountain could talk for Herself she would say, “Whether you run like fire in the Junior or Senior Race, or you reflect and support like water in the community at large, may you always find integration and harmony.”

Maybe Seward’s own Mount Marathon provides an opportunity to remain as balanced as nature as we seek to make a way out of no way.


Reader Comments

Runnermom4 writes:

Great article! I really enjoyed reading this well-written article. I'm left wanting to visit Seward and hike Mt Marathon!!


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