Racers preparing for scorching heat on Mt. Marathon

Published: Jul. 3, 2019 at 9:35 PM AKDT
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While many racers thought smoke would be the big story of this year’s Mt. Marathon race, it could end up being the heat.

Temperatures are expected to be in the

which means the mountain itself will at least be in the 90s as heat absorbs in the dark shale that covers the 3,022-foot mountain.

“I don’t think the smoke is really gonna be an issue, it’s gonna be the heat,” said Erik Johnson, a 2nd-place finisher from 2017 and Seward local.

High heat has been shown to slow down speeds in endurance competitions, though it’s unclear how much it will affect racers on Thursday, particularly when combined with wildfire smoke that is expected to be in the area.

Johnson said he thinks that times will be at least a minute slower than normal due to the heat.

Aside from physiological effects, the scorching temperatures have also melted much of the snow field near the summit, which might also shave off a few more seconds from racers’ times. On a good year, racers can use the snow as a sort of slide, but snow has given way to hard granite that has yet to crumble off into the small pieces of shale that usually characterize the descent.

Johnson says he’s trying a strategy he saw put to use last year -- one that has some drawbacks.

“I’m attempting to try what people were successful with last year which is getting cold right before the start in a really cold creek or something,” he said, “I may not be able to be as loose as others, but hopefully cooling down my core temperature by a few degrees will pay off.”

While his chances of setting a personal best might shrink, he says that he is in good shape and excited for the race.

Jen Leahy, a spokesperson for the race, said that organizers will have extra water at the top of the mountain, plus 200 pounds of ice. But she warned racers not to count on it.

“We can run out of water at the top of the mountain,” said Leahy, “We’re telling racers that we’re not obligated to provide water at the top, we do it as a courtesy.”

Another 500 pounds of ice will await racers at the finish line.

Organizers have also been encouraging racers to hydrate early, something that racer Erik Johnson has also focused on in the lead up to this race.

“I’ve been hydrating like crazy the last few days,” he said, “I’ve been drinking twice as much as I usually drink.”

The last time the heat was close to this year’s prediction was back in 2009, and Brent Knight remembers it well.

“On the mountain where there's just a bunch of dark black shale rock,” he said, “It becomes an oven.”

Knight led much of the race, but collapsed coming into the finish stretch, succumbing to a heat-induced illness called rhabdomyolysis, in which muscles die from the heat and dehydration and leach into the bloodstream.

Knight said that because he was coming off such high fitness he had gotten accustomed to the discomfort and pushed his body too hard.

He said that the heat also discouraged spectators from coming up and carrying water on the mountain -- something that could certainly be a factor in this year’s race. He said that he hopes that spectators turn out to offer extra water to racers.

But Knight and officials agree that it is ultimately the responsibility of the racers to be hydrated before the race.

“Everyone has the ability to carry water if they need to,” says Knight, “but most of us have friends and family down here.”

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