UAA community takes on Mount Marathon

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

Hundreds of Alaskans will converge in Seward on the Fourth of July for the annual Mount Marathon Race. Described as the “toughest 5K on the planet” by Outside Magazine, it certainly takes a special breed to navigate the yearslong waitlist, train rigorously in the preceding months, and scale an actual mountain on a holiday typically reserved for barbecuing. In advance of this year’s race, we asked three UAA alumni and one student about their history with the race, how they train and stay motivated, and for any advice they have to offer anyone daring enough to show up at the starting line.

(Photo courtesy of Peter McEnaney)

Peter McEnaney

Sysco marketing associate Peter McEnaney, B.B.A. Management ’89, came to UAA from Minnesota to play hockey from 1984–89, perhaps giving him an edge on the mountain’s snow fields. If that isn’t enough, he can always rely on his two decades’ worth of experience tackling the race.

Hometown: Owatonna, Minnesota, currently residing in Eagle River

How many times have you run the race?

I’ve never missed a year. This is my 20th year coming up.

Where are your favorite trails to train?

It’s always tough to find the hours, but I train primarily in Eagle River. Back at the end of Highland Road is probably the closest thing to Mount Marathon and that’s called Harp Mountain. Then there’s the popular one which is Mount Baldy, but I try to avoid that one because it can be a madhouse.

What aspects of the race keep you coming back each year?

The competition. It gives you a good goal to stay disciplined and to stay in shape.

(Photo courtesy of Peter McEnaney)

What keeps you motivated during the race?

I don’t really feel like I’m racing against other racers if that makes sense. I know for me, it’s just kind of self-motivating to know a particular time that I’d like to hit. That’s what pushes me.

Do you have a favorite memory from the race?

My favorite memory is when I did the race in 55 minutes. That’s the best time I ever did. My goal is to always be right around an hour. I think that I’ve hit an hour or under five times in 20 years. The last couple of years I feel like I’ve come in a little slower, but of course you can tie that in with age. I should make the goal an hour and 10 — that’s quite realistic! I’ll be 55 this year and I usually am in the top 10 in my age group.

Do you have any advice to first-timers?

Just to know the mountain and respect it for how dangerous it is. Although some first-time Mount Marathoners can get pretty committed and practice on the mountain all the time. For me, I’ve never went down there more than two times in a year. And these last three years, the only time I’ve made it down there is race day.

(Photo courtesy of Ava Harren)

Ava Harren

Even though Ava Harren, B.A. Hospitality and Restaurant Management ’17, lives in Idaho where she runs her own meal prep company, Ava Flava’s, she still makes time every year to come back home for the race.

Hometown: Anchorage, currently residing in Boise, Idaho

How many times have you run the race?

2014 was my first year. It was when I was 17. I got in through the lottery, so I only had to go halfway up that year because it was the junior race. That grandfathered me in. Then you just have to do it every year to keep your spot. This will be my seventh year and then my goal is to at least do 10 years and then get a tattoo of it. I come back every year for the race. It’s just an annual thing. It’s my excuse to go see family.

Where are your favorite trails to train?

I would always train at Bird Ridge at least once a week. I probably hiked that trail at least 50 times. In Boise there’s a hike called Table Rock and it has a cross at the top and I love hiking that one here.

What aspects of the race keep you coming back each year?

One thing I love about it is it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever raced, like mentally and physically. And there’s so many parts to the race. Like technicalities in the waterfalls, is it raining, do you have good grips on your shoes, your uphill climb. So you could be a good athlete and still suck in Mount Marathon. So I love all the challenges it brings toward you and then you just feel so accomplished every time when you cross the finish line.

(Photo courtesy of Ava Harren)

What keeps you motivated during the race?

Every year after I come back down, I eat a whole pack of Double Stuff Oreos. Going up I’m thinking, “Oh, those are going to be so good.” You can hear the announcer going up and that pushes you. And just the energy at the bottom is unlike any crowd. I’ve done a lot of races, I’ve done a lot of half-marathons and 5Ks, but Seward has one of the best community crowds ever. No matter how tired you are, they make you want to make them proud.

Do you have a favorite memory from the race?

I remember one year, my good friend Willow and I, we were out of town, she had just gotten in the race, and it was the only night we were going to see each other. So we had drinks the night before the race and had probably the worst race ever. But we both finished holding hands together across the line and we finished in the last place you could get for priority racing the next year. We literally tied 225th. So we barely made it to the next year.

Do you have any advice to first-timers?

My advice would be to soak it all in, and don’t stress about your time for your first year, because you could always improve. As long as you get up and down safely, then you can focus on getting a faster time. But I would say just soak it all up and enjoy the experience and be proud of yourself for the first year.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I just love doing it every year and every single person who races should be proud of themselves.

(Photo courtesy of Verena Gill)

Verena Gill

Defying the odds, NOAA Fisheries marine biologist Verena Gill, B.A. English ’96, M.S. Biological Sciences ’99, got into Mount Marathon via the lottery on her first try. Her two kids now follow in her footsteps — her 12-year-old does the junior race halfway up the mountain, and her 4-year-old does the mini race around the block.

Hometown: Royal Tunbridge Wells, England, currently residing in Anchorage

How many times have you run the race?

My first time was 2010 and I’ve raced every year since, well, barring two pregnancies.

Where are your favorite trails to train?

Bird Ridge and the backside of Flat Top.

What aspects of the race keep you coming back each year?

There are a couple. The event is so much fun and the best part is probably the training because you get to have a party on the mountain. You see people that you know and you make new friends. It’s like a big social event that you look forward to every year and you try and go down on the weekends and maybe camp and hang out with friends. The other thing is my daughter, who is 12. She does the junior Mount Marathon. This will be her third year. We train together and that’s a fun bonding experience. And the fact that you’re running with elite runners. There’s a lot of races in Alaska where you can do that. But where else can you be an amateur runner and come down a mountain and be greeted by thousands of people cheering for you? You come off that mountain feeling like an Olympian. That’s pretty intoxicating.

(Photo courtesy of Verena Gill)

What keeps you motivated during the race?

Last year I got my best time, and I think my best place ever. I got 24th and 1:04. And last year my mom had died two days before. This will be my eighth race in 10 years and I’m 52 now so I’m getting older. So to get my best time and place that high, I truly believe there was inspiration from my mom. I ran it thinking about my mom the whole time, especially on the downhill. “Do this for mom.” Otherwise, the crowds pump you up. There are crowds are at every part of the race. You think there won’t be, but they’re all the way up the mountain. And then when you come off the mountain and they’re cheering, that is the ultimate pump up.

Do you have a favorite memory from the race?

Probably watching my kid win her age group. Just to see how proud she got and her confidence. She wasn’t scared of the race, but she didn’t think she’d do really well. We’re both really little and she’s a teeny tiny little thing. She got 24 overall in her age group last year and she was only 11. So she’s thundering down the mountain with these huge teenagers and that was just a proud memory for me just to watch this little bitty 11-year-old just rocking and get 24th, and the confidence she got from that. “I can do this, I can do anything.”

Do you have any advice to first-timers?

Definitely go up there at least once, but don’t stress about going there. When I first started doing it, I went there all the time. But over the years I realized the top of the mountain changes every week, sometimes every day. You can save a lot of gas and a lot of time by training around your hometown wherever that may be. And then the last couple weeks focus on going down there and learning how the mountain is because if you go a month before and don’t go again, that mountain will have changed incredibly. It’s going to be so different at the top, and you won’t know that until you get down there right before the race.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

People go, “Wow, I can’t believe you do that. I could never do that.” No, anybody can do that. That mountain is not as scary as you think. I’d say try it. You’d be surprised at what you can do and at the confidence you get when you realize you can do more than you realize. With enough perseverance, anybody can do that race. Even if you do it once, I think it’s the ultimate Alaska experience.

(Photo courtesy of Klaire Rhodes)

Klaire Rhodes

You could say that Environment and Society major Klaire Rhodes is already entrenched in Alaska’s running community. As an employee of Skinny Raven Sports, she helps customers who are looking to be fit for running shoes and assists at the many events and races hosted by the company. It was only a matter of time before she made her own way up the mountain.

Hometown: Anchorage

How many times have you run the race?

Last year, 2018, was my first year competing in Mount Marathon. I was one of the crazy people to actually auction in for a spot the night before the race.

Where are your favorite trails to train?

Mount Marathon can be tricky to train for, since the steepness and terrain is hard to replicate on other trails. If I’m not training on the mountain itself on the weekends leading up to the race, I love to train on Bird Ridge and Peak 2. In addition, I run lots of flatter trails like Powerline Pass and Turnagain Arm Trail to build that base level of fitness required for the race.

What aspects of the race keep you coming back each year?

My first year at Mount Marathon was an amazing experience. The race fosters a sense of community that I’ve yet to find in any other race. While there’s definitely the competitive side of me that wants to do well, I’m equally just grateful to be able to race alongside so many other amazing women. Every year the bar gets raised, the ladies get faster, and it is really motivating and empowering to be a part of that.

(Photo courtesy of Klaire Rhodes)

What keeps you motivated during the race?

I went into it with little experience on the mountain, but surprised myself with a 26th place finish. I felt like I was smiling the whole race, despite the burning in my legs, because that mountain was filled to the brim with people cheering me on and pouring water on me in the intense heat. Unlike during a training run where you let yourself stop or slow down when you’re feeling tired, I like to say there’s no other option on race day other than to keep pushing on. In reality, the race is short. Despite the challenge of the race, it only took two minutes after being done that I was getting excited about next year.

Do you have a favorite memory from the race?

My favorite memory from my first year at Mount Marathon was seeing friends around nearly every corner on the course. Having people there taking pictures, cheering me on, playing music, giving me ice cubes in the hot sun — it took my mind away from the challenge of the climb and kept me pushing harder.

Do you have any advice to first-timers?

My advice for any first-timer would be to not overthink the race. Go out to have fun — only so many people will ever get to have this experience. At the same time, physically prepare yourself for a climb that steep and understand the technical terrain so you can feel confident on race day.