There will be no Mount Marathon Race in 2020.
Friday, the eight-member race committee voted unanimously to not hold the event on Sept. 6, and scheduled the 93rd running of the race up and down the 3,022-foot mountain overlooking Seward for July 4, 2021.
In mid-April, with concerns about the new coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world, the committee voted to postpone the July 4 event, keeping the Sept. 6 date as a possibility if the threat of the new coronavirus had receded enough.
The race will not be held for the first time since 1942, when it was called off as an indirect result of World War II. The oldest mountain race in North America also was not held between 1920 and 1924, and 1932 and 1938.
The news follows a string of high-profile sports cancellations on the Kenai Peninsula due to the new coronavirus. The state basketball tournament, all spring prep sports, the conclusion of the 2019-20 campaign for the Kenai River Brown Bears and the 2020 Alaska Baseball League season have all been canceled due to the new coronavirus.
“The entire committee is really passionate about Mount Marathon,” Matias Saari, race director, said. “It was emotional and tough when it became official we couldn’t go ahead this year.
“We knew we weren’t going to please everyone — that wouldn’t be possible — but we felt strongly we were doing the right thing and we look forward to a great celebration next year.”
Saari said the race’s plight was crystallized by Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for Alaska.
“On a conference call with Dr. Zink late last week, she asked, ‘Can you keep the heart of your event while mitigating the risk?’” Saari said. “We weren’t super confident we could mitigate the risk as it needed to be mitigated and we would lose the heart of the event by having all these measures.”
Mount Marathon annually draws thousands of spectators to Seward on July 4 to watch a total of about 1,000 racers compete in junior, women’s and men’s races. The race also takes about 250 volunteers to stage.
Karol Fink lived in Seward from 1995 to 2002 and worked at Providence Seward Medical Center as the community health coordinator. Fink has 21 MMR finishes, including seven in the top 10. She also is on the race committee and is the state contact for clarification on guidelines for large gatherings and events during the new coronavirus threat.
Fink told the Clarion via email that the volunteers and the spectators at the race were a big concern. Fink wrote that the 250 volunteers are primarily older, a risk factor for COVID-19.
“Mitigating the risk of exposure for our vulnerable volunteers wasn’t possible and we didn’t have the capacity to recruit new volunteers,” Fink wrote. “Think about the finish line and exhausted racers falling into the arms of volunteers and practically needing to be carried to the finish line buckets to sit down.”
Fink also wrote the medical tent fills up with racers at the finish line.
Saari and Fink also said the spectators would provide a big challenge to the guidelines.
“We felt we wouldn’t have been able to manage the risk caused by thousands of spectators,” Saari said.
Part of the state guidelines for large gatherings includes communicating to those who will attend messages about how the new coronavirus spreads, face masks, staying 6 feet from nonhousehold members, sanitizing often and staying home if exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms.
Fink wrote the race would have had a way to communicate those messages to racers and volunteers, but there would not have been a way to communicate to spectators.
“We’ve had a ‘no dog on the race course’ policy for years and we tried to get that message out to spectators; but if you look there (are) a lot of dogs downtown, along the race course, and on the mountain,” Fink wrote. “Obviously our message doesn’t reach spectators very well.”
Saari said in the process of reopening, the state has changed from mandates to guidelines, but morally the race committee could not bring thousands to Seward on race day.
“Just envision a crowd at the Yukon Bar, elbow to elbow,” Saari said. “Technically, that’s not our responsibility, but we brought all those people to town. There were all types of issues and we just felt it wasn’t responsible.”
The committee went through all kinds of scenarios, even considering breaking the races up into a day each for juniors, women and men, then using wave starts to keep the racers apart. Spectators would have been asked to stay away.
“The committee felt that a diluted event simply would not do the Mount Marathon Race justice,” Saari said in a press release. “The heart of Mount Marathon has always included a mass start and thousands of cheering fans on the 4th of July.”
With one week until decision time, the committee sent out a survey to close to 900 racers. In a measure of just how passionate racers are, 300 responses came in the first day. Out of 560 responses, 38% said they wouldn’t race on Sept. 6, 43% said they would and 19% were not sure.
The race roster for 2020 had already been released and will be rolled over to 2021. There will be no refunds. Even though racers are paid up, they must reconfirm their registration in March 2021.
Racers who used their Skip-A-Year option for 2020 will be put on the 2021 roster, but keep their Skip-A-Year option.
A registration lottery will be held for junior racers because 44 spots will open up due to 17-year-olds aging into the adult races. Saari said that once the March confirmation period is over, the status of the lottery for the women’s and men’s races will be decided.
Saari, also the race director for Crow Pass Crossing and Kesugi Ridge Traverse, did offer Alaska’s mountain runners some hope.
“I think that small events held primarily in the backcountry can go forward responsibly,” he said. “Those are night and day from an event like Mount Marathon, assuming permitting agencies get onboard and you get your insurance.”
Saari said sending 100 into the wilderness is different than sending thousands to a town.
“After experiencing MMR for a quarter century of my life, it is a somber feeling to think about Seward on the 4th of July without MMR,” Fink wrote.
Editor’s note: The quote attributed to Saari in the original story was not correct and has been corrected to: ““We weren’t super confident we could mitigate the risk as it needed to be mitigated and we would lose the heart of the event by having all these measures.”