According To Folklore… “The tradition of the Mount Marathon Race began when two sourdoughs debated the possibility of climbing and descending the mountain in less than an hour. “Impossible” one said. To settle the argument – and the resulting wager – a race was held, with the loser to furnish drinks for the crowd. Enterprising merchants put up a suit of clothes and other prizes for the winner and proposed the race take place on a holiday – why not the Fourth of July? The optimistic sourdough lost his bet. The winning racer took one hour and two minutes.” —Mount Marathon race website
The 94th edition of Mount Marathon, Alaska’s trail running “Superbowl,” which takes place every Fourth of July in the small port town of Seward, –population 2,812 – was back in full swing in 2022 for the first time since the 2020 pandemic.
This historic mountain race draws thousands of runners and spectators each year to the quaint harbor town at the head of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai peninsula for the ultimate Fourth of July trail running celebration. Festival activities include vendor booths on the downtown streets of Seward, annual pie sale, boat parade, Kids’ Corner games and festivities for the whole whole family to enjoy, and the main attraction: the 5.5-kilometer Mount Marathon race from downtown Seward to the top of nearby summit, Mount Marathon, and back down.
The World’s Toughest 5K – “If you finish the race and you’re not bleeding in at least one spot, you just didn’t try hard enough.” –Flip Foldager, Mount Marathon race committee member.
Mount Marathon is not a typical 5-kilometer race. Although only 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) in distance, this race is often touted as “the hardest 5K in the world” and is certainly not for the average weekend warrior. The summit of Mount Marathon rises 3,022 feet above Seward and the race follows a unique “open course” format, which allows participants to choose their own route up and down the mountain. Athletes chasing competitive times typically choose steeper, more direct and potentially more dangerous routes to save time on course.
The course is an extreme mountain challenge on technical terrain including muddy forested trail, scree, shale, and rock ledges at an average grade of 34 degrees (runners climb 2,675 feet in .9 of a mile). Alaskan running superstar, 2017 Mount Marathon champion and 2015 World Junior Mountain Running Champion Allie Ostrander describes her experiences running the race, “It is a beast of a 5K. It is no joke and a mentally and physically challenging race. Being from Alaska, Mount Marathon is the pinnacle of mountain running. It’s hard for me to explain to people not from Alaska how big of a deal this race is.” Allie Ostrander
There is an annual safety meeting before the race to teach participants how to minimize risks in such a dangerous mountain environment. Flip Foldager, Seward local, race committee member and forty-time finisher of the event, says about the dangers on course, “The potential to get hurt is there, anything from a sprained ankle to death. You have to be aware, ready and trained. It can never be totally safe, but you can learn to do it safer.” Mount Marathon Safety Video
Alaskan Roots and International Recognition
The majority of Mount Marathon participants are Alaskan, though in recent years the race has earned an international reputation, attracting some of the best trail runners in the world. Mount Marathon race director Matias Saari describes the balance of growing the event and remaining true to the hardened small town Alaskan spirit that inspires athletes to travel from around the world to earn the bragging rights of completing Mount Marathon, “Our race is ninety-four years old now and tradition is very important. It’s a small town and people from Seward and all around Alaska are intensely proud of this race. We’re “old school” and we’re going to stay “old school.” That said, the race is growing in popularity throughout the US and internationally. Big names in our sport, including Kilian Jornet and Ricky Gates played a large role in helping this race gain international attention and put the race on the map in 2015 when they came here to race. We recognize that there is growing interest in the race internationally, but we also want to balance this with tradition.”
Watch a documentary by Salomon T.V. on Kilian Jornet and Ricky Gates 2015 Mount Marathon experience below:
Although the race attracts talented trail runners from around the world, top Alaskan runners own many of the course’s fastest times and repeatedly defend their home turf. In 2021, seven of the top ten men and nine of the top ten women finishers were Alaskan. The mens’ course record, 41:26 and the third fastest women’s’ time, 49:19, are held by Alaskans David Norris and Allie Ostrander respectively.
Saari, who is also on the board of the Alaska Mountain Runners organization describes the incredible Alaskan trail running talent and why Alaska is a great training environment, “We have incredible mountains and fit and active people coupled with historic mountain running events that have been going on for decades. Putting all these factors together, you end up with many phenomenal athletes. Many of these athletes are well known in the Alaskan trail running scene, but not known internationally. Our Olympic caliber nordic skiers and high level nordic ski programs such as Alaska Pacific University (APU) have also transitioned well into trail running. These athletes can jump into trail races, particularly uphill races or VKs that are essentially just a VO2 max test, and they often dominate the leaderboard.”
In addition to Ostrander and Norris, Alaska has produced many incredible trail runners include Goeff Roes (2009 and 2010 Ultrarunning Magazine ultrarunner of the year), Sophia Mayers (2022 Broken Arrow 26K Skyrace champion), Scott Patterson (2017 Mount Marathon Champion), and U.S. Olympic Nordic skier Bill Spencer (8-time Mount Marathon Champion).
2022 Race Recap: McLaughlin Posts Record Breaking Performance and King Earns a Second Victory
There were many incredible athletes in both the mens’ and women’s’ races. On the mens’ side, defending champion and course record holder, David Norris, unfortunately had to withdraw in the last few weeks before the race due to bruised heels from a bike crash, leaving the 2022 title up for grabs for a new male champion. Max King (Bend, OR), with the fourth fastest time in course history came in as the race favorite. Other athletes to watch included local Alaskan 2021 top ten returners Michael Connelly, Lyon Kopsack, Lars Arneson, Ben Martin, Erik Johnson, and Pyper Dixon, as well as several non-Alaskan professional athletes including Johnny Luna-Lima (Nederland, CO) and Sam Hendry (Salt Lake City, UT).
The women’s field was one of the strongest in race history. Hannah Lafleur, hometown Seward hero and repeat champion in 2019 and 2021, was back to chase her third consecutive victory (the race was canceled in 2020). Another local and Nordic ski Olympian, Ruby Lindquist, was runner-up to Lafleur last year and returned to take a shot at her first win.
This year’s lineup also featured many strong ascenders including Allie McLaughlin (Colorado Springs, CO), two-time Pikes Peak Ascent champion and fastest woman on the Manitou Incline (a 2,000 foot climb in less than one mile up a former cog railway located in Manitou Springs, CO), Rosie Frankowski, Olympic Nordic skier who trains with Alaska Pacific University, as well as Novie McCabe (Winthrop, WA), Olympic nordic skier who trains with the University of Utah ski team. Tenth place finisher at last year’s’ race, Olivia Amber (San Francisco, CA), was also one to watch, coming off of a win at the Seven Sisters Skyrace in Ireland.
The first race of the day was the Juniors’ race (ages 7 to 17) which began at 9A.M. the morning of July 4. The Junior race followed the same route from the start-line in downtown Seward, but turned around halfway up the mountain before the technical scree fields. The Junior boys and girls started together and it was a competitive race on both sides. In the boys’ race, Coby Marvin and Ali Papillon set the second and third fastest times in course history. In the girls race, the top three finishers all finishers within 90 seconds of each other. Rose Conway of Anchorage took the win and sisters Tania and Janya Boonstra (daughters of former U.S. Ski Team member and Olympian Todd Boonstra) from Kenai, AK battled for the remaining podium spots. Full Junior race results are listed below:
- Coby Marvin (Palmer, AK) 25:27
- Ali Papillon (Boulder, CO) 25:43
- Robbie Annett (Anchorage, AK) 28:43
- Rose Conway (Anchorage, AK) 33:18
- Tania Boonstra (Kenai, AK) 33:41
- Janya Boonstra (Kenai, AK) 34:47
Next up was the mens’ race at 11AM. Max King took the charge from the beginning and was first to the top in a time of 32:18. Thomas O’Harra, local Alaskan, was hot on King’s heels to the top, followed by several other strong Alaskan natives such as Arneson and Roman Gross. In the end, King showed his downhill prowess to hold off his Alaskan chasers and took the win in a time of 43:37. Alaskan Taylor Turney had the fastest descent of the day in 10:05, nearly missing the downhill course record by five seconds. Other noteworthy performances included Fred Moore’s incredible 52-year Mount Marathon running streak and oldest finisher Chad Resari, finishing the race at 86 years old. Second place finisher, O’Harra, an accomplished Nordic skier for the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, had to say about his debut Mount Marathon race, “For a long time I thought I’d never do this race. I’m stoked to have placed second and already thinking about next year!”
- Max King (Bend, OR) 43:37
- Thomas O’Harra (Anchorage, AK) 44:57
- Lars Arneson (Anchorage, AK) 45:22
The women’s’ race was the final race of the day, which began at 2P.M. As the runners departed from the Seward downtown streets and onto the trails, Allie McLaughlin took the early lead gapping some of the best climbers in the field including McCabe, Frankowski and Linquist by over a minute by halfway up the mountain. McLaulghin was first to the top in a stunning 34:17, the fastest climb in course history (this time would have placed McLaughlin third to the top in the mens’ race). McLaughlin cruised solo into the finish (with the fourth fastest descent of the day), and broke the 47:48 course record set in 2015 by renowned Swedish skyrunner Emelie Forsberg with a new record time of 47:09. This was McLaughlin’s second course record of 2022 (she also set the Broken Arrow Skyrace VK record this past June).
LaFleur, two-time defending champion, came back from sixth place at the top, finishing second over five minutes behind McLaughlin. LaFleur ran the fastest descent of the day in 11:38. Alaskan mountain running legend Christy Marvin (who has finished on the podium in each of the nine times she has run this race), continued her streak and rounded out the podium in third only ten seconds behind LaFleur.
- Allie McLaughlin (Colorado Springs, CO – pictured top of page) 47:09
- Hannah Lafleur (Seward, AK) 52:35
- Christy Marvin (Palmer, AK) 52:45
The top man and woman received a chalice trophy and earned lifetime entry into the race. Podium and age group winners were awarded medals. In line with the race tradition, no prize money was given to any participants, valuing the challenge more than the money.
See even more images from Mount Marathon by the author on Google Photos.