I’m not going to lie about Mount Marathon—it’s a beast. I spent a little time being angry while I hiked it. I gasped and stared longingly at the summit.
And then, if that makes it sound impossible, there’s this: behind me the entire hike was a seven-year old girl, outpacing me, grinning endlessly, and held back only by her slow parents. The tiny gal was powering straight up the mountain, challenging any thought I had of being a pretty fit human. I dug in and realized I had to make it to the top, especially if she could do it, and I couldn’t let her pass me.
“The hike isn’t that hard, right?”, she asked her gasping parents.
So basically, anyone can do it. Don’t be deterred by the vertical trail or the thick brush. Hiking Mount Marathon gets you up close with authentic Alaska. People will literally run by you as you’re hiking. Of course, they are training for the race.
The Mount Marathon Race is a community event in Seward, and it’s the best way to earn some street cred in the close-knit town. While visiting my aunt and uncle (who are longtime Seward residents) they would say, “Oh, that’s Katie—she’s won Mount Marathon three or four times,” as a qualifier when talking about locals. It’s an achievement you can’t do without in the town sitting at the base of the behemoth.
The race started, I’m sure, at the Yukon Bar in Seward, “where everything starts,” my aunt says. Legend has it that two fellows argued over (beers and) if either one could run up and down the mountain in less than an hour, with a bet to buy drinks for the whole crowd (read: town) on the table. They tried this on the 4th of July, a glorious American holiday, and they famously failed, finishing in one hour, two minutes.
While official records say the race started in 1915, that does not debunk legend, so we’re sticking with this story.
“Mount Marathon is the Toughest 5k on the Planet,” announces the website, a title given by Outside Magazine. Wait a second…it’s only a 5k? The name of the peak is misleading.
As a mortal, it took me just under two hours to get to the top (1.5 miles and 3,022 feet elevation gain), and I’m going to say here, I’m no slouch—I was three weeks out from an Ironman race. But my uncle was 10 minutes behind me and he’s 68. While we caught our breath at the summit, a guy trotted up in running shorts and announced he’d made it to the top in 36 minutes. The point is: Mount Marathon is its own kind of fitness. You don’t know if you’ve got it til you try it.
The challenge of the peak looms 24/7, but the race is only one day. Oh, but if you want to register, good luck—the race fills up immediately when it opens because you’re competing for just 450 slots. Time allotted to complete the race—up AND down, people!—is 2.5 hours, which makes me want to faint.
Can’t race this year (or ever) but want to hike the trail? Just pack a day pack with plenty of water and snacks, allot more than enough time (5+ hours), and be ready for some serious hill climbing.
“Is it worth it?” Is one of my all-time favorite hiking questions, and without a doubt, the views straight down at the Seward harbor, across the bay to equally daunting peaks, down the high alpine mountain slopes, and out to sea are some of my favorite memories of Seward. The tough hike is more than worth it.
About the author: Allison Linville is a writer living in Whitefish, Montana. She earned her MFA at the University of Montana where she also worked as the editor of CutBank Literary Magazine. Allison's work has been published in various literary magazines, High Country News and Montana Magazine. In the summer of 2019, she traveled through Alaska from Denali to Seward with her father. You can find her online at allisonlinville.com.