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

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Slow and steady wins the race

 

Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

Mary Hensel, 75, Millie Spezialy, 75, and Sandy Johnson, 69, stand in front of Mount Marathon following a training run last week.

Many of us would never attempt to climb Mount Marathon, let alone run up it. It’s just not in some of us to work our bodies that hard, or take that risk. But as we see the runners, especially the oldest ones, arrive at the finish line tired and muddy, but smiling and proud, we are inspired.

Three such Anchorage women in their late 60s and mid-70s who call themselves the Alaska Mountain Turtles, were in Seward last week to train.

Mary Hensel, 75, mother of Seward physician Michelle Hensel, started racing up Mount Marathon at age 60, joining her grown daughters who were running it. This year will be her 15th year participating. It’s her friend Millie Spezialy’s 16th race and Sandy Johnson’s 12th. Johnson has a turtle tattoo on her ankle, while her two friends wear temporary turtle tattoos on race day with their Mountain Turtle T-shirts.

In “The Tortoise and the Hare” fable by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop, the two unequal challengers race one another. While the cocky hare falls asleep while waiting for the slow tortoise to catch up to him, the tortoise overtakes him and wins the race.

But these women aren’t trying to win the race. Their goal is to make it to the finish line without getting muddy or bloody, and with as much speed as they can muster.

“I don’t put pressure on myself,” said Spezialy, 75, “I go as fast on the training as I do on the race. I only have one speed, and that’s turtle speed.”

So why do it?

“Because it feels so good. I love the mountains and I find really spiritual renewal in the mountains, and that’s the way to stay fit and to be with my friends. I’m getting slower though, sort of gradually getting slower. With my running I used to count on a 10-minute mile, but now it’s taking 10 and a half to do the same thing. But I don’t mind. That’s the way it is. I can still do it, I don’t hurt anywhere. I feel good.”

Johnson, 69, watched her husband race Mount Marathon for a decade before she decided to join him 12 races ago. One try and she was hooked. Their two sons are flying in to participate so they can all experience it together.

“Part of the reason I keep going – the challenge for me – is staying healthy,” Johnson said. “I’m having a little problem with some arthritis going on, so staying healthy so I can continue to do these things is my challenge right now. And feeling like I’ve accomplished something.”

“It’s just getting to the point where it’s so hard that the only reason I’m doing it is that my friends have signed up,” said Hensel. “And also, when I sign up for a race I train harder, more regularly. I stay in better shape. Otherwise I wouldn’t do near as much training.”

Last year’s tragedies made Hensel think about quitting however. They followed the search for rookie racer Michael LeMaitre; and were here for the traumatic injuries of Anchorage racer Matt Kenney and rookie Penny Assman, both of whom slipped and fell running from the cliffs near the base of the mountain.

“Last year was terrible. After that I was so discouraged that I really did not want to sign up again, but somehow I did,” Hensel said. And we all knew Matt. He was part of the Alaska Mountain Runners, we saw him at a lot of the mountain races. We always chatted and he told us about his family. It’s so sad. And then the missing man! You think, all this is possible? You know, why are we endangering ourselves? Why? It’s something to think about. We really should hang it up.”

But extreme runners don’t give up easily. Assman will be back in the race and hoping to finish it this year. Kenney and his wife will be here too, cheering fellow runners on from the sidelines. It’s for personal reasons, but they may soon realize that they are inspiring to others.

“I come back from getting my shirt and I go back to find my family. Everyone says ‘good job, good job, you are such an inspiration,’” said Hensel. “They see the white hair, and they think, ‘My gosh! That old lady came down that mountain?’ I’m real proud of that.”

“Do you know what the other beautiful thing is?” Johnson adds. “The last woman down, the crowd erupts like she’s the winner – it’s unreal. Women that are coming in how many hours after (the first racers) and the crowd just roars. What a community!”

Not all of us are physically able to undertake a grueling 3.1 mile race up a sheer 3,022-foot mountain, but many older people can probably do more than they think, said Spelzialy. “I guess I see some people as they get older they pull their circles in and they stop doing things. Now sometimes they have a reason, but a lot of times it’s in the mind. The mind says I’m too old for this and so then they don’t do it. And I think that’s the biggest danger of any of us as we age no matter what the challenge is. Don’t let your mind tell you you’re too old for this. If you want to give it a try, and your body allows it, you can do that.”

 

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