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Summer Travel
Courtesy Seward Chamber of Commerce
Have an extreme Fourth of July in Alaska
Seward is home to one of the most grueling footraces in the world; get in on the action this Independence Day
Three-time Mount Marathon race winner Sam Young races down the snow-covered slope
By Erik Olson
Updated: 4:47 p.m. ET June 16, 2004

Chances are, when you think of the Fourth of July you think of family, fireworks and juicy fillets on the BBQ. In Seward, Alaska the fourth means something else entirely: a grueling footrace to the top of the town’s highest mountain.

Since 1915, the people of Seward and extreme race fanatics from all over the world have converged on this small Alaskan town on the fourth to watch the Mt. Marathon foot race. The race is just 1 ½ miles long, which may not seem like much until it is explained that the race goes up the sheer face of a 3000 foot mountain, sections of which are so treacherous that every year several runners snap an ankle, and hard falls and painful abrasions are more common than stomach cramps.

My wife and I were in Seward last year for the fourth of July, and found both the race and the town’s festivities well worth the visit. The population of Seward nearly quintuples during the week, as people from all over the world come to see the race and to experience summer in our 49th state. What’s more, there is so much to do in Seward that you can easily spend more than a week there having a great time completely unrelated to the race itself.

Coming from New York City where mountains are scarce, the thought of world-class athletes sprinting to the top of a peak and back had an odd allure for us. So on race day, we stood with scores of other onlookers as a motorized escort led a pack of intense-looking men (and one dressed as Elvis) to the base of an extremely steep rocky slope. Those first up the hill tackled it with astonishing speed. Then hundreds of others followed, including several graying, skeletal men in their 70s. Through binoculars we watched the racers reach the summit and then turn around, trailing clouds of dust. By the time the leaders blew past us to the hoots and cheers of the audience, their faces were masks of pain and dirt. It was impossible not to be impressed, and my wife and I exchanged guilty looks over the fact that we’d just consumed a huge fish and chips lunch. It was our vacation, after all.

Over 800 runners are competing in the Mt. Marathon race this year, with juniors (under 18), women and men spread out over different starting times. It is too late to register for this year’s race, but registration for next year’s race will take place between January and March. Race organizers say they get more applications than there are spots to run, and the selection process favors those who have run the race in previous years, but there is always a chance of getting in if you apply on time.

Many runners train all year to run the race, some of them with the lofty goal of breaking the race record, a record that has stood for 23 years. It was local Alaskan Bill Spencer who in 1981 ran the race in 43:23, an effort considered legendary by race aficionados.

“He is the best there ever was,” says Flip Foldager, a Seward native who has run the race 25 times, and has placed third two times. “The man is just an animal.”

Last year’s victor, Todd Boonstra, a former member of the US Olympic Nordic ski team, finished the race in forty seven and a half minutes, fully four minutes behind Spencer. No matter who wins this year, the race is a major attraction as the town’s population goes from 4,000 to as many as 20,000.

“The town explodes,” says Judy Martin, event coordinator at the Seward Chamber of Commerce. “It’s amazing. Total excitement.”

According to Rich Houghton, the race director, the Mt. Marathon was first run as an organized race in 1915 making it one of the oldest footraces in the U.S. And in terms of concentrated strain per minute, it may be one of the hardest.

“It’s horrendously difficult,” says Houghton. “For most of the race you are running up a forty-five degree angle. It’s definitely not your typical foot race.”

Seeing it yourself

Interested in watching the race this year? Well, getting to Seward is half the fun. Whether you go by car or train, the scenery is spectacular. I recommend the train from Anchorage, however, because for a reasonable price ($98 roundtrip per person) the Alaska Railroad’s Coastal Classic takes you through terrain as lovely as any in the world. (The Coastal Classic from Anchorage to Seward departs Anchorage daily at 6:45 am from May 15 to Sept. 13, 2004). The train’s glass-domed viewing cars provide passengers with 360-degree panoramic views of massive glaciers, shimmering lakes, abundant wildlife, and the magnificent grey expanse of the Turnagain Arm.

Once in Seward, find a room in one of the town’s numerous hotels or guest rooms. Or pitch a tent at one of several spacious Seward campgrounds. Tents are allowed in any Seward Parks & Recreation Department campground (There is an $8 per tent, $12 per RV fee to use the city campgrounds, check for details). The town offers excellent restaurants and, given that fishing is one of Seward’s main industries, the seafood is some of the freshest you’ll find anywhere.

Seward sits on Southeast Alaska’s beautiful Resurrection Bay, where sea-battered fishing trawlers mingle with hulking, tourist-laden cruise ships, and orca pods occasionally glide through the frigid waters in search of salmon. A distinct laid-back vibe pervades the town, which has long been popular among backpackers who use Seward as a launching point to venture into Kenai Fjords National Park or to plunge into the Alaskan wilderness. The town is also home to several Alaskan "celebrities", including Mitch Seavey, the winner of the 2004 Iditarod.

Seward is named for William H. Seward, who orchestrated Alaska's purchase from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, or little more than two cents an acre. The town lies just 120 miles from Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and the point of arrival for many tourists coming to Alaska.

To watch the race this year, which is on a Sunday, try to arrive early in the week. Don’t worry about finding things to do in Seward leading up to or after the race. Seward is a haven for budget-minded outdoor enthusiasts. Not only can you walk up the Mt. Marathon trail, but there are many miles of hiking trails within easy reach of the city. You can also go fishing, kayaking and explore the nearby Exit glacier. It is truly a vacationer’s paradise.

Also, the town schedules numerous events around the race, including a parade, fireworks show and a street fair, where you can browse for locally-made crafts.

The Mt. Marathon Race takes place this year on Sunday, July 4. There are three separate start times for juniors under 18 (9:30 a.m.), women (11:15 a.m.), and men (3:00 p.m.)

Copyright © 2004 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.

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