The Brutal Race That Asks Runners To Go Up A Mountain And Back Down

Melissa Block speaks with Christy Marvin, the 2013 women's winner of the Mount Marathon race in Seward, Alaska. One of the oldest races in North America, it traces an arduous course.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Stand at the bottom of Mount Marathon which looms over Seward, Alaska, and if you're like me, you wonder, why? Why would anyone in their right mind want to race up that thing and down? But run it they do every year on the Fourth of July. It's a race of just over three miles and 3,000 excruciating vertical feet of steep cliffs, boulders, slippery scree, snowfields, walls of mud and sometimes disaster. Two years ago, a runner plunged off a cliff and was badly hurt. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. Another rookie runner disappeared during that race and has never been found. Among the 700 men and women registered to take on Mount Marathon this Friday is last year's women's champion, 33-year-old Christy Marvin of Palmer, Alaska. She finished the three plus miles in 53 minutes 20 seconds. I asked her to describe the mountain and the ascent.

CHRISTY MARVIN: The first time I saw the mountain, I have to admit, I was intimidated as well. There's the technical aspect of the bottom of the mountain climbing up through the cliffs or up through the roots, and in a large portion, the bottom of the mountain, it's just hard-packed clay that turns into a slippery mud slide when it rains. You know, you're essentially scrambling up the side of the mountain trying to grab a foothold on any little bush or tree or bit of shrubbery, and then it's all about finding that aerobic threshold that you have and essentially pushing your body to the limit just to where you're on the brink of exploding and going anaerobic but just holding it there for the whole climb. And for me, that's about 39 minutes.

BLOCK: And coming down? What's that like?

MARVIN: It's a quad-pounding descent through the scree at the top of the mountain. It's all about having your feet keep up with your body and using that momentum then to carry you down the mountain with as little effort as possible.

BLOCK: This does not sound fun to me, Christy. I have to say.

MARVIN: Well, I have to be honest myself. Last year in the race, I remember thinking that this really hurt but, you know, in training for it and in reflecting upon the race, it really is a lot of fun. The downhill portion of mountain-running is really where - you know, it's where the thrill of mountain running comes in if you look at someone like Eric Strabel.

BLOCK: This is last years men's champion?

MARVIN: Yes. He was down the mountain in less than seven minutes. He dropped 3,000 feet. For myself I think, you know - was nine or 10 minutes down the mountain. I mean, it's nearly a freefall at that point that you're coming down that many vertical feet.

BLOCK: Christy, you ran the race last year. Were you seeing people bleeding? I've heard about, you know, runners keeping running on broken bones and dislocated shoulders.

MARVIN: There are risks associated with mountain-running and accidents do happen. But honestly, my husband and I both feel that we're at a higher risk driving to the mountain than we are racing the mountain itself. And you need to be prepared to race the mountain. I talked to one guy that practices the mountain at least 30 times every year. So those are the kind of people that they literally have their dissent choreographed. And accidents are unlikely in a situation where you have spent that length of time preparing.

BLOCK: Christy, I'm anticipating that you're going to answer this question by saying, because it's there. But I do have to ask you, why you do this?

MARVIN: If you've ever looked at a topographical map of Alaska, the adventure to be had in Alaska is not found in the cities. It is in the mountains. And for my family and I, in the mountains is where we feel closest to God. And it's a lot about my faith, and that's what drives my running.

BLOCK: You're the mother of three pretty young kids. Are they expressing any interest in running the Mount Marathon as well?

MARVIN: My boys are, actually. My oldest, Coby, is 7 years old. He's going to be running Mount Marathon for the first time.

BLOCK: Really?

MARVIN: He - they have a junior race for the children. And all three of them aspire to be mountain runners as well. And I'll take the boys out with me when I go do hill repeats, and they can run the hills if they want to or they can sit and watch. You know, my 2-year-old sat at the top of the hill in one of my sessions this year, and he was clapping his little hands. And I was tired, and I didn't really want to be doing this workout anymore. I was ready to be done. And he just out of the blue says, go, mama. Dig, mama, dig. You know, by golly, I can't let that little kid down. If he wants mama to dig than I'm going to dig. And, you know, I went for it at that point.

BLOCK: You feeling pretty good about Friday?

MARVIN: I am. I am very excited to have some great competition in the race this year. And I am ready to go run a fast time.

BLOCK: That's Christy Marvin the women's defending champion of the Mount Marathon race run every year on the Fourth of July in Seward, Alaska. Christy, best of luck on Friday.

MARVIN: Thank you very much, Melissa. Have a wonderful day.

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