A rookie’s disappearance during a popular extreme race on Alaska’s rugged Mount Marathon has led to significant new rules in the event.
Runners in the July Fourth race must make it halfway up the mountain in an hour or they will have to turn around, losing a chance to summit the 3,022-foot peak in Seward, about 110 miles south of Anchorage.
The 900 participants registered for this year’s race also must sign a statement saying they’ve already completed the treacherously steep race course, which is marked by loose rocks on hard bedrock, shale slopes and stretches that get muddy and slippery when wet. The Anchorage-based Alaska Mountain Runners nonprofit will hold two training runs on Mount Marathon June 22 and June 29.
The changes were prompted by the disappearance last year of 65-year-old Michael LeMaitre, who was lagging behind in his first time tackling the mountain.
It’s a big switch from previous years of the race, which is in its 86th running. Until now, race stragglers finished when they did.
“You didn’t get turned around,” said Cindy Clock with the Seward Chamber of Commerce, the organization that hosts the race. “But this will definitely _ if someone like Mr. LeMaitre, who was very, very slow _ this would solve that whole issue.”
Almost a year later, there is still no trace of LeMaitre, despite multiple searches by rescuers and the Anchorage man’s friends and family. A cadaver dog was flown up from Oregon to help search. A friend of the family paid for helicopter search time. Another friend took high-resolution photos of the mountain, studying them for hours. There are bears on the mountain, but nothing to indicate LeMaitre was mauled.
Bruises and cuts and even broken bones are fairly common in the scramble up and down Mount Marathon during the race, which began in 1915, with some races suspended during war times. In last year’s event, three people were hurt, including one man who sustained critical head injuries.
But never has anyone died or gone missing, and LeMaitre’s disappearance hit the town of about 2,700 hard. Many residents felt compelled to look for the missing man.
As race day approaches, his wife, Peggy LeMaitre is struggling with her grief for a man she was married to for 43 years.
LeMaitre wishes the new rules had been in place last year. Her husband would be alive today, she said. She also believes race organizers need to do a better job of keeping tabs of every single runner. As she waited for her husband late in the running last year, there were still stragglers finishing and organizers were already closing down the race, LeMaitre said.
“Everybody has to be accounted for,” she said. “Absolutely they failed that way.”
Race organizers are not to blame for LeMaitre’s disappearance, Clock said.
“Look at us as a society. When something goes wrong, we want to blame somebody,” she said. “It’s how we cope.”
Clock said another big change will improve accountability of runners. It’s not unusual for as many as 60 registered participants to skip the race each year for medical or other reasons. In past years, no one took note of race bibs not picked up. This year, the bibs of no-shows will be checked off from the running.
In response to LeMaitre’s disappearance, many extreme runners urged organizers not to change the grueling nature of the race or do things such as forbid them from certain parts of the trail. Clock said rumors were circulating that helmets and global positioning systems would now be mandatory, but that’s not true.
She believes the changes that were implemented retain the hardy spirit of the race.
“It’s always better to be safe,” she said. “Even though the race is 86 years old, you can’t take it for granted. When visitors come in here and say, `Oh, we want to hike Mount Marathon,’ we say, `No, it’s not a hiking trail.’ It’s a rugged mountain race trail. It’s dangerous.”
Nine-time race winner Nina Kemppel, a winter Olympian Nordic skier, called the changes reasonable and positive. The new rules don’t hurt the essence of a race that places huge physical and mental demands on competitors. It’s important to keep the actual event the way it is, said Kemppel, who last competed at Mount Marathon in 2002.
“That is the true core of the race,” she said “It’s why people enjoy the race so much and why it’s such a great accomplishment to complete the race.”