Stagger up, skip down. (Mt. Marathon)

“This is crazy!” I said aloud too many times to count. “People seriously run a race on this trail?” More unbelievable is the record time of 43:21. I tried running, but that didn’t last long. It took this flatlander approximately three and a half hours, and I turned around about 50 meters below the summit. (Check out this cool video to get a sense of the trail and contestants in motion.)

The worst part was climbing up the long, steep stretches of loose gravel. Several times I resorted to scrambling on all fours. I made frequent stops to rest my burning calves. That’s when this hike officially went from interesting to grueling. The grade diminished briefly at the meadow above the tree line, but the hellish ascent quickly resumed and the “trail” eventually dissolved near the top.

Even the vegetation gave up at this part. I pondered the merits of summiting versus disappointment of turning back during several stops. Each time, I decided to press on a little farther until it got to the point where I felt unsure of my footing. (Maybe I chose a bad route?) Seward looked impossibly close, like I could jump off the mountainside and come crashing down on someone’s house. Instead, I tried bounding down the slope. I instantly appreciated why people like to run this race.

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The sensation must be a little bit like snow-skiing, something I’ve yet to try. (In Florida, we ski on water.) At each curve of the trail, I turned my body into alignment mid-leap. Upon contact, my feet skidded and dug in before I pushed off again. The loose shale absorbed much of the impact, spraying in all directions and making a gratifying crunch in the process. My thighs, hips and core took the rest of the force like a spring as I uncoiled into the next leap. The moment of transition from contraction to expansion was so fluid as to be imperceptible. It was really fun!

Mindful that my speedy descent could startle a bear, I hooted and hollered the whole way down. The stoke was similar to surfing, a rare feeling of pure bliss. I stopped when I spied a lump of greenish-brown in the monotonous grey rocks. Fresh bear shit. I’m certain it wasn’t there when I climbed up. How, in this terrain, did I fail to notice a bear making a campaign contribution on the middle of the slope?!

Just like backpacking in Denali, I greeted unseen creatures as I approached the scrub. “Ho, Bear… The Goat’s just passing through… No harm meant for you!” And so forth.

Recalling the grave injuries suffered this year by a veteran Mount Marathon runner, I was careful to slow down before reaching the waterfall section. After the first one, I stopped to rinse the mud from my shoes, pants, raincoat and hands. The water did not feel as cold I expected.

Beyond the waterfalls, the trail cut through the woods as a thin line of mud. I foolishly tried bounding here, too. I probably executed a dozen skips before my feet shot out from under me and I slid on my arse several meters down the trail. All I could do was laugh out loud. So much for washing off the mud!

Getting back on my feet, I noticed a trio of hikers that I’d passed on my way up. The woman was holding her shoes (a pair of clogs!) and slowly making her way down in socks. I waved hello and apologized for sounding like a crazy person, and continued on my way. After I stopped again to wash in the last waterfall, one of the guys caught up and said that a black bear crossed the path just after I passed them. I felt better about being so loud.

It was only later, when the two guys joined me for great beer and decent nachos at the Seward Brewing Company, that I got the full account of the strange, silent woman who was hiking with them. They had spotted her sitting alone far off the trail—indeed, she was the white speck I first figured for a sheep or goat—and went to see if she needed help. Apparently, she was almost incoherent.

At first, she declined and indicated that she planned to make the summit. (In clogs?!) Thankfully, they persisted and escorted her down to the street. I doubt she would have been seen again had these kindhearted Swiss tourists not intervened. The quiet woman would have been the second person who disappeared on Mount Marathon this summer. The previous one was a contestant in the July 4 race, near the summit, at about the point where I turned around.

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