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The author follows in his mother’s 1969 footsteps to run Alaska’s renowned Mount Marathon Race
Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaskadispatch.com
When telling a story about running up and down a mountain as fast as possible and the matters of both risk and passion are inherent and implied, the question isn’t where to start the story (the answer to where is, and always will be, the mountain). The question is when to start the story.
I could begin this story on Independence Day, 2013. Covered in mud and blood, my race number flapped as I sprinted past Adams on 4th Street through the small, coastal town of Seward, Alaska. The shock and pain of having just dislocated my shoulder was trumped by the shot of adrenaline pulsing through my veins. A white-noise roar emanated from the walls of spectators on either side of me and the Alaskans’ love for the underdog became ever more apparent with every step.
I could also begin this story at the same place over a century earlier when a man walked into a Seward watering hole and bet anybody that would accept the challenge that the, then-nameless, mountain looming 3,022 feet above the town couldn’t be scaled and descended in less than one hour. Al Taylor had been drinking when he accepted the bet. As legend has it, the local sourdough then upped the ante to include a round for the house if he came up short. His hour-and-two-minute trip gave way to a round of beers and six years later, in 1915, three men participated in the first offical Mountain Marathon Race.
Another place to start this story involves skipping over several generations of tough Alaskan legends to the Fourth of July in 1981, when Bill Spencer was coasting in to the finish line all alone. Spencer’s sixth win was also quick enough to break his own course record from seven years earlier. Little could he have known as he made his way to the finish line that it would be over three decades before anybody would match his feat … that the person who would do it would be born the same year he ran up and down Mount Marathon in 42 minutes and 21 seconds.
Though the above are all good places to start a story about risk and passion, the best time to start is on Independence Day, 1969, when a 22-year-old Patricia Schultz is passing Adams on 4th Street, only a block away from finishing the one and only race she would ever run.
Patricia Gates collection.
The next day, halfway down the front page of the Seward newspaper was a photo of Schultz caught at the nadir of her running stride, her eyes closed and her pigtails limp over her shoulders. Spectators lined the street, clapping, cheering. Over her black T-shirt, she was wearing a fabric race number to be returned to the Seward Chamber of Commerce after the race and used again the following year.
This is where I would like to begin because, for the first two decades of my life, that year’s Mount Marathon Race was the version that hung in the hallway: an ensemble of yellowed newspaper clippings, faded photographs and a silver medal with an embossed graphic of Mount Marathon perched above a small, gridded coastal town.
“Patricia Schultz hitchhiked to Alaska from New York,” the photo caption read. “‘Just for fun’ she ran the Senior Marathon race.”
At the bottom of the page, showtimes for Liberty Theater were encased:
“Jane Fonda’s new movie Barbarella. ‘See Barbarella do her Thing!’
Hayley Mills and Trevor Howard in A Matter of Innocence. ‘A Short Journey from Girl to Woman. She isn’t the girl you thought you knew.’ Mature Audiences.”
A recap of the race continued alongside the photo of Schultz said, “Ann Livingston of Seward came in first in the Women’s Division. Her time was 86:17. The only other woman to run the senior race was Patricia Schultz of New York with a time of 90:24.”
Patricia Schultz is my mother.
Patricia Schultz (later Gates) and trusty companion on her 1969 hitchhiking Alaska adventure. Photo courtesy of Patricia Gates.
“My story,” Mom was quick to point out when I asked about her race recently, “certainly isn’t a runner’s story. My story was all about getting fed.”
At the time, hitchhiking had become second nature to my mom. Her meandering brought her across the country 17 times before she stopped keeping track. She was Sissy Hankshaw a decade before Tom Robbins set her out on paper in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. To hitchhike all the way to Alaska was nothing and to prove it, she tested her thumb at an airport in the Yukon. She and her dog were given a lift in a single-engine Cesna from Whitehorse to Fairbanks.
Mom had planned on filling her threadbare pockets with some quick money packing salmon roe at a cannery in the town of Kenai, but, due to a slow start to the salmon run, she found herself with little money, no food and a week to kill.
She hitchhiked a hundred miles from the cannery to Seward, and, like a soldier preparing for battle, she got fed.
“I told the restaurants that I’m gonna run the race on the Fourth,” she explained, “and they would offer me whatever I wanted from the menu.”
Now, after 45 years of competing memories, the vignettes that have stuck with my mom tell more about her than about the race. I asked about the mountain and she told me about the people.
People are her mountains.
She recalled the U.S. Biathalon team that once lived and trained in Alaska and ran Mount Marathon as an unforgiving mid-summer workout. “I remember all these gorgeous guys had running shoes,” Mom said, “and I had my five-pound clod hoppers.”
I pressed her for details on the course.
“I only remember the end of the race—coming in to town and people were clapping for me. And how that made me feel.” She paused. “They were clapping for me and I remember that. That left an impression.”
Townfolk spectating. Photo by Loren Homes/Alaksadispatch.com
The no-holds barred descent. Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaskadispatch.com
In the 45 years that followed her only race, Patricia traded in Schultz for Gates after she met a slim, bearded man who would become my dad. She traded in her backpack for a baby carrier. And lastly she traded in the thrill of travel for the much bigger adventure of settling down and growing some roots.
In the summer of 1981, as Bill Spencer was absorbing the weight of his record-setting performance, several thousand miles away Patricia was nursing her third of five children —me—who would pass that yellowed photograph on the wall every day for the better part of two decades.
I grew up a proud son knowing that my mom had come in second in a running race once. It didn’t matter too much to me that she didn’t win or that there were only two women in the race. What mattered showed in the photograph—she had given it everything.
As my appreciation for running and racing grew from a dirt-track mile in middle school to golf-course cross-country in high school to trail and mountain races across the country and beyond, the race that had always existed as a black-and-white photograph began to take on more form.
In 2008 I had been racing my way around the Alps, chasing meager purses that would allow me to keep traveling. British fell runners, chasing the same purses, would inquire longingly about Mount Marathon. Anne Buckley, a top British fell runner, spent three weeks in Alaska back in 2003.
“With Brad, Barney and Birdman,” she said.
Brad Precosky, otherwise known as the Downhill Demon, had once run the three-thousand vertical feet from the top of the mountain to the finish line in 10 minutes to capture a win. He and Barney Griffith worked tirelessly, raising money and designing a course to bring the world’s best mountain runners to Alaska for the World Mountain Running Championships that year.
And then there was Birdman—the zany alter-ego of Brian Stoecker, best known for his race-day attire of a leather skirt, feather headdress and a race bib fastened securely to his nipple rings. Written in large, bold type across his chest was his mantra: “FOR THE INDOMITABLE.”
Birdman, a.k.a. Brian Stoecker, displays his novel bib-attachment method. Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaskadispatch.com
Anne talked of them like distant cousins, separated by an ocean.
I would come to realize that Alaskan mountain runners and British fell runners are more similar than different. Both tribes possess pockets of great talent. Both have agreed that their immediate surroundings provide them with ample inspiration. And both have agreed that the brewery/pub is a great place to stretch after a run.
When I returned from Europe that fall, my minor obsession with Mount Marathon began.
A quick Internet search provided me with static-y news reels of men, women and children scratching their way up the mountain, sliding down snowfields and jumping off cliffs. I strained to watch a woman tumbling like a rag doll over boulders and small cliffs before springing straight back up, hardly missing a stride. Then I’d watch it again.
The parameters of the race emerged through these videos. A downtown start, a crowd lining the half mile from starting line to the base of the mountain. The runners disappear beneath a blanket of evergreen, then ascend several hundred vertical feet up “The Roots,” a section of the course where fellow competitors are above and below more than in front or behind. The spectators below see them emerge from the trees and begin picking their way through a maze of high-alpine brush.
Finally the runners line out on the poorly pronounced limestone ridge up to the 3,022-foot summit. One hundred years of racing has provided a myriad of conditions near the top of the mountain. Sometimes, there is a snowfield that can carry a person 1,000 feet down the mountain in a matter of seconds. The loose scree beyond is usually soft enough to coast down quite rapidly before funneling into the final push down “The Gut,” where the entirety of the mountain’s southern face congregates to form a harrowing descent over cliffs, waterfalls and unsteady boulders.
What drew me to those videos was undeniable—the race, by extension of the mountain and its people, provided real danger, a danger that can be seen in every runner’s eyes as they descend the mountain. In their eyes you can see that risk and passion possess a symbiotic relationship with each other.
3,022 feet up, 3,022 feet down. Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaskadispatch.com
On July 2nd, 2013, Mom and I stood at the base of Mount Marathon looking up at the summit before us.
“I just can’t believe I ran up and down that thing,” she said.
Several weeks in the saddle of my motorcycle had brought me up the west coast along the same route Mom had traveled 45 years earlier. Mom used her air miles and flew in to Anchorage to meet me.
I’m not sure what I had hoped to gain by undertaking my Mom’s journey … perhaps just a shared experience.
On my trip north, the miles had passed beneath the wheels of my motorcycle by the hundreds and then the thousands. As I crossed higher and higher latitudes the trees began to dwarf, mosquitoes got bigger and the sun stayed up later every night.
Every few hundred miles, a moment of déjà vu would surface. I’d pull out a small collection of Mom’s photographs and drawings to find that she had indeed been there nearly a half-century earlier. Though I still wasn’t quite sure what there was to gain from a shared experience, I could sense a weakening in the barrier separating two generations.
Hardcores at the 2013 race start (Rickey Gates is pictured in white singlet.) Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaskadispatch.com.
July Fourth, 2013. A light drizzle that fell during the morning’s junior race had broken by the women’s race at noon, and, by mid-afternoon as the start of the men’s race approached, downtown Seward approached capacity. On the corner of 4th and Adams I waited anxiously with 349 other men for the gun to sound. What few smiles appeared revealed clenched jaws and gritted teeth.
I thought it smart to position myself near one of the many previous winners that were peppered about the starting line. My choices included a very confident Matt Novakovich, 38, who had his treadmill outfitted with an aftermarket motor that would allow him to train in his basement at a 38-degree pitch. There was Trond Flagstad, 43, who had garnered a couple of wins in recent years, running times that had encroched on Bill Spencer’s legendary mark. I picked Eric Strabel—a man made up of art-deco angles and lines. His cross-country-skier build, closely cropped blond hair and a pre-race military seriousness lent him a sci-fi, soldier-of-fortune presence. At 31, Strabel was toeing the starting line for his 20th year in a row. I looked down to find braces protecting his ankles for the descent, and immediately wished I had a pair.
To his side stood a young Wylie Mangelsdorf, 21, of Palmer, Alaska still in college and dominating that year’s Alaskan mountain-running scene.
The blast of the gun cut the tension and set us in motion. We chased a police car up 4th Street then left up Jefferson to where the field dispersed abruptly into the base of the mountain. I scaled The Roots, barely avoiding getting my fingers crushed beneath the feet of the racers above me.
Past The Roots, I wove through a network of trails crisscrossing the sub-alpine Alaskan bush. I looked up to see just Strabel and Mangelsdorf ahead, and quickly thought that if I were to have any chance against the savvy Alaskan descenders, it would be as a result of the distance that I put on them by the top of the mountain.
Eric Strabel bombs the descent. Photo by Loren Holmes / AlaskaDispatch.com.
The announcer’s voice on a speaker system wafted up from 1,500 feet below.
“Bill Spencer …”
“No snow on the course this year …”
“The first runners will be approaching the summit …”
With my hands pushing on my knees and my feet pushing off the ground, I eased past Strabel and Mangelsdorf and concentrated on opening the buffer zone as much as possible
As I reached the summit in first place and glanced back down, the pressure in my veins softened and a rush of pins and needles covered me from head to toe.
The announcer’s voice below sounded like a distant radio: “The first runner has reached the summit.”
Over the mountain’s ridge line, I glanced up to see Seward laid out before me like a map. I thought of those ankle braces and imagined running this mountain for 20 years. I flew down the slope wondering not if Strabel would catch me but when.
Halfway down the mountain, pebbles flew past me, the rumble of a landslide lapped at my heels. A nebulous cloud of scree and dirt with Strabel at its center slid past me. I chased him over boulders and cliffs mimicking foot placements to the best of my ability. I dropped over boulders, slipped down slick mud slopes, grabbed at branches and brush to direct my descent with minimal control. As I navigated the final band of cliffs, an image of a woman tumbling off them flashed in my mind. I emerged in front of an excited crowd of thousands.
And it was then, after all the rocks, all the roots, after the the brutality of Mount Marathon was behind me, that I caught my toe. On nothing.
As my arms instinctively tried lessen my impact, I plunged into the ground and the crowd collectively gasped and then went silent. I put my arms beneath me to push myself up only to find that my left arm had been rendered useless. I looked down to see the lump of my shoulder resting on the front of my torso rather than to the side where it should have been.
My shoulder is a delicate flower, and, unfortunately, I was quite familiar with the routine of setting it back into place—even on the run, as the case may be.
With my good arm I pushed myself up and torqued my arm off to the side to reset it with a thump back into the socket. As I looked up, Strabel disappeared down the corridor of spectators with a machine-like stride. With only 20 seconds between him and me, I figured there was still enough race left to chase him down.
And then, as situations like that call for, the world went silent. No more scree. No more cliffs. No more roots. Just a primal desire to get to the finish line first.
Please don’t look back, I thought.
Please don’t look back.
I was gaining on him so quickly that I knew that if I could just sneak up on him, that I might just be able to out kick him.
As Strabel rounded Jefferson and turned down 4th Street he glanced over his shoulder. We saw the to-the-death warrior in each other’s eyes. His pace quickened ever so slightly. I chased him down the final few blocks getting closer and closer. The announcer gambled a proclamation that echoed across the sea of people surrounding me:
“Eric Strabel will win the 2013 Mount Marathon.”
Not yet! I gritted my teeth and poured everything out. Not yet!
But he was right. I needed another quarter mile.
I looked up at the large ticking clock above the finish line and watched Strabel charge through, 27 seconds below a time that is as old as either one of us.
Eric Strabel breaks Bill Spencer’s longstanding course record, with Gates in the background. Photo courtesy of Rickey Gates.
Resigned to second place, I shut it down and took in the eyes of the thousands of people around me. The white noise became the sound of clapping again. And I realized that this was the moment my Mom’s memory chose to hold onto for 45 years. “They were clapping for me and I remember that.
Eight seconds later I crossed the line.
Mom and I followed the flow of the crowd into the Yukon Bar, where your race bib got you a free beer. I looked around to find that I wasn’t the only one covered in mud and blood. Alaskans are a people accustomed to creating their own entertainment and Mount Marathon exists as a type of feast—one that provides nourishment, camaraderie and celebration in a land where nature still swallows people up, physically and mentally. Mount Marathon gives Alaska a chance, if only for a day, to be intimate and small.
What my motorcycle trip had hinted at became real before my eyes. Alaska is the land of the modern gladiator and Mount Marathon is one of their few rare public arenas. The spectators strain their necks below looking up at the inverted arena. Runners ascend the mountain to battle Zeus, only to realize that Zeus is the mountain.
A toll taken. Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaskadispatch.com
Several days later, as the post-race emptiness had set in and my shoulder began to let go of its state of shock, I began to contemplate what my mom had said about her story not being a “runner’s story.”
I wondered for the first time what exactly a runner’s story might be.
Rickey and his mom with their Mount Marathon medals. Photo courtesy of Rickey Gates.
When distilled down to its most basic elements, isn’t a runner’s story merely a collection of experiences defined by both risk and passion? We can define risk as a willingness to embrace the unexpected, unpleasant or downright awful in exchange for a chance to feel something strong, pure and barely controllable.
And if we can define a “runner’s story” as such, I wondered, then how many races would my mom have had to run in order to make her’s a running story?
And isn’t it also the story of Alaska and the Last Frontier? Of travelers? And isn’t running really just a form of travel on the smallest scale?
I seem to have come back with more questions than I left with.
Rickey Gates is planning his next adventure. So is his Mom.
This article originally appeared in our April 2014/DIRT issue.