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Story Last modified at 3:26 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mt. Marathon Race – The long view
Mountain Echos

Frank E. Baker


Resurrection Bay can be seen far below in this photo taken from the top of Mount Marathon.

'If we never look up, we will never see an eagle soar''

I've been watching this spectacle up close since the 1950s, many of those times from the top. On the summit I've seen a wedding, a bicycle rider, a parasailer, a runner dressed like Elvis, a guy we call "Buffalo head man," women in tutus, and on a couple of occasions I've assisted with first aid.

I was on the top in 1981 when Bill Spencer set the race record of 43 minutes, 23 seconds, which still stands today. That year he reached the summit rock in about 32 minutes and made the descent in just under 12 minutes. The women's record of 50 minutes, 30 seconds was set by Nancy Pease in 1990.

There have been years with a lot of snow, which has been said to make the race faster. An interesting factoid: the top adult men's and women's times have been narrowing over the years, with the women now averaging about 6-7 minutes behind the men.

But over the years I've begun to view the annual race from afar—with a wider perspective. Mount Marathon is much more than competition and statistics. It's about unflagging spirit and heart. Mount Marathon takes something away from everyone who claws up its ever-shifting slopes. The mountain gives something back too — something bigger than a race, a trophy, a place in record books or a memento in a photo album.

Runners turn over a thousand pieces of shale and greywacke in that punishing scramble each year high above Seward. But under at least one of those rocks they inevitably find something they least expect – a new, unexplored part of themselves. That, the camaraderie of fellow runners, friends and the cheering crowds, make them want to come back again and again. And they do.

This year on July 3 — a gloriously sunny day — I hiked up upon Mt. Marathon proper, at 4,600 feet, to take in the view of Race Point and Resurrection Bay, far below. A single goat grazed in the grassy bowl below me and an eagle took advantage of a southerly breeze for a spiraling uplift over the ridge into Lowell Canyon. For 60 years I wanted to get to this location and look down on the spot where hundreds of competitors, some from other parts of the state and the world, breathlessly round the summit rock at the race's half-way point.

That night I camped in the bowl behind Mt. Marathon Race Point. At midnight fireworks explosions echoed off the mountains after a two-second delay. Shifting position in my sleeping bag, I thought that perhaps the echoes were a metaphor for my deep love of the mountains and how I have come to view the annual Mt. Marathon Race. Today I am somewhat detached, no longer a part of the event, not even as a reporter or photographer. But for some reason I return here, year after year, as an echo, a reflection of those many decades that I have witnessed hundreds upon thousands of intrepid souls clamor up and down those 60-degree slopes. In my mind, they are all heroes.

I peeked out of the tent one last time before calling it a night. I caught a glimpse of an eagle soaring along the ridge above Mt. Marathon. Another thought emerged: If we never look up, we will never see an eagle soar. It's quite simple, but that's why I'm here, I mused.

Frank E. Baker, a lifetime Alaskan, lived in Seward from 1946 to 1959. A freelance writer, he currently resides in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.