Scared

Two weeks before I leave for my Lonely Planet research trip, I made my first trek — halfway — up Mt. Marathon. I’ll interrupt research briefly to return to Seward and run the race on July 4th and I’ve got between now and June 11 to get to know the mountain and try to steel my quads.

Although I’m in fairly decent shape and can run four miles without totally dying and hike somewhat often and just completed two triathlons, my body was not prepared for the mountain. I went with two friends who are also in training and try to get up there three times a week, and what surprised me the most was not just how steep the incline actually is, but also how slow we went. Our pace raised my spirits briefly, because winners complete the race in under an hour. Maybe this mountain wasn’t as big as I thought?

Late spring snow has resulted in only a thin slice of bare land and, I’m told, this bare land is the “up” trail and the one visible from town. The “down” trail is in a chute still covered with snow and isn’t much of a trail at all — it’s all shale, and racers have perfected the art of taking giant leaps downhill and thrusting their heels in the shale, allowing them to sort of glide down the moving rocks.

After 35 minutes of a painstainking fight against gravity, we reached a sort of pipe. “What’s this?” I asked Stacy. Above her, the summit seemed close. Maybe we were almost there. “It’s the halfway point!” she announced cheerfully. Any confidence I had plummeted as quickly as the trail. My thighs were burning, and the incline was so steep that I spent the bulk of the climb on my toes. Calf cramps already seemed imminent.

Stacy and Laura headed back down the “up” trail with me carefully following them. I tried to run, but felt I was going to lose control and tumble down the mountain. I worked out a sort of awkward gait that jammed my toes into the front of my shoe and left my butt near the ground. My feet kept slipping out in front of me on mud and snow, and by the end I was frustrated and near tears. Stacy and Laura had come across a black bear last week, and a brown bear sow and cub have been spotted up there recently, so they would stop and wait for me to make sure I hadn’t been devoured. There’s not much I hate more than making people wait for me like that.

As we walked back to our cars from the trailhead, they assured me that once the “down” trail was clear it’d be much easier going downhill. “It’s fast,” they promised. As it was, it took me just as long to go down as up.

Now the mountain taunts me. I leave the post office, and the “up” trail is visible, looking innocent and harmless, just like a basic, decent trail. I cross the alley from my classroom to the cafeteria, and the summit is right there above the building. Biking to town, I look directly at the ridge we climbed. I even have the north arm of the mountain rising out of my backyard, so there’s no escaping it.

Obviously, running — even trail running — is not going to be enough to get me into the kind of shape Mt. Marathon requires. Instead of the leisurely jogs through small Alaskan towns that I’ve been envisioning, I’m going to have to set aside time to seek out the grueling mountain trails while researching the area.

My original goal was to finish the race in under an hour an a half. With my new insight into my fear of running downhill in addition to the fact that the snow might not be gone before I leave, I’ve rethought that goal and just want to get up and down the mountain at all. That’s it.

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One Response to “Scared”

  1. Hey Catherine,

    The first time I hiked up it last year, I went by myself and ended up going the wrong way and free climbing some cliff, scaring the crap out of myself. This is the steepest mountain I have ever climbed, without a rope!

    Don’t worry, now you know you can get up and down the mountain. And your friends are right, once the snow clears, the down trail is almost like running on sand. On race day there will be hundreds of people all up and down the side of the mountain cheering you on. I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but it is fun!

    See you there!
    Julie

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