Organizers consider issuing emergency alert to Mt. Marathon racers

 Swan Lake Fire smoke fills Resurrection Bay (Photo courtesy William Burton)
Swan Lake Fire smoke fills Resurrection Bay (Photo courtesy William Burton) (KTUU)
Published: Jun. 28, 2019 at 8:47 PM AKDT
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The smokey weather in Southcentral Alaska has forced Mount Marathon race organizers to consider issuing an unprecedented emergency alert to racers on July 3rd, the day before the race.

“I don't think an emergency advisory has ever been issued before,” said Jen Leahy, race coordinator and spokesperson for Mt. Marathon, “but if that's the case, the race would still go on and what we'd probably see is just a very diminished field.”

She said that instating the emergency alert would allow registered racers who have guaranteed start spots in the notoriously hard-to-enter Fourth of July mountain race to keep their spots into next year’s race.

Some of the top contenders -- who also happen to struggle with lung issues -- have signaled that they don’t want to risk their lungs for a race.

David Norris, last year’s winner and men’s record holder, said that he also was doubtful if he would race with smoke conditions as bad as they are.

“I guess I wouldn't want to promote or make younger kids feel like they should race because I'm planning to,” he said, “I don't wanna be a driving people to feel like they should race.”

Rosie Frankowski, who has set the record on several mountain races this year and struggles with asthma, said that she too will exercise caution.

“I honestly will probably not decide until the day of the race,” she said. “The test will literally be: can I smell smoke? can I taste smoke? Then this is not worth it.”

Leahy encouraged racers to make their own decisions, but said that an outright cancellation or modification is unlikely for several reasons.

First of all, winds could blow the smoke out of Resurrection Bay before Thursday. Secondly, organizers are explicit that racers are entering at their own risk. Providing too much guidance would be taking away decision making from the individual racers, many of whom are die hard endurance junkies. And finally there’s the tradition that’s on the line for what is billed as North America’s oldest mountain race:

“Mt. Marathon race is a really established tradition, and I don't think our racing community would be supportive of changing the event to a different day,” said Leahy.

Organizers have been in consultation with medical experts, including “one of the state’s top pulmonologists” in order to decide how best to proceed, but that there is still no medically or race-specific particulate threshold that would warrant a race cancellation.

“There's not a threshold, it's just something that we haven't had to navigate enough for there to be a specific policy set around smoke haze,” she said.

Leahy also emphasized that the race has always been full of risks.

“Each runner is that each runner is responsible for their own safety -- it's inherently an unsafe event,” she said. “We're very explicit that this is a decision that only racers can make for themselves.”

Organizers posted online links to medical information from the CDC about the health effects of smoke inhalation, particularly on the youth, elderly, and those with lung problems. They are offering N95 dust masks to volunteers who may choose whether to use them.

But the heavy breathing and cardiovascular work that racing entails is different than moderate movement, as experienced racers well know. Frankowski and Norris both said that they have noticed weeks-long effects from racing in polluted or cold air in the past

“It seems like it creates a prolonged inflammation,” said Norris, “I think I've had post race cough that will wake me up in the middle of the night with irritation and sometimes that irritation and inflammation in a couple of weeks leads into a cold.”

Norris acknowledged that sitting out would be tough psychologically.

“It’s so much easier said than done to sit a race,” he said. “I think it is pretty challenging in the moment to not race, especially if you know all of the other competitors are going for it.”

Frankowski echoed that sentiment.

“If it’s at the levels we’ve seen in Anchorage the last couple of days, I would definitely not race,” said. “Some people would say its not strong or not in the spirit of Mount Marathon, but in the end, it’s just one race.”

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