Saturday, July 22, 2017

An Ode to the Burden of Journalism

90th annual Mount Marathon Race
Racers work their way up Mount Marathon with Seward
and Resurrection Bay in the background
Every Fourth of July, thousands of people converge on a tiny Alaska town to participate in one of the world's oldest and most challenging mountain races. As the Land of the Midnight Sun is bathed in perpetual light, a bevy of athletes queues across the main drag of Seward, Alaska awaiting the pop of a starting gun to send them up the broken face of Mount Marathon.

The history of this race has become a thing of legend among both Alaskans and the international mountain running community. There may be many imitators but there is still none quite like the Mount Marathon Race. The hype alone has reached feverish proportions, complete with helicopters, drones, television crews and throngs of writers crowding around the course for a whiff of the action.

As it turned out, for this year's event, I was one such writer.

The Setting

Our helicopter rocketed upward off a rocky Alaska beach. Somewhere 3,022 feet above the top of Mount Marathon and the turnaround point for the up-and-down race was hidden in the fog.

I pressed my iphone against the glass, trying to film the immense setting. The aquamarine waters of Resurrection Bay arched towards the Gulf of Alaska in an elongated hook, and the tiny motes of ships motoring in and out of the harbor gradually shrunk as we ascended.

The helicopter cut back and forth across the sky. With each change in heading a new vantage was unveiled: a wilderness of mountains, a choppy northern ocean. 

It was a breezy morning, and our four-seater helicopter tossed and lurched in the orographic currents.

The mountain swelled in our window, and I spotted our landing: a minuscule platform on the peak's shoulder some two-hundred vertical feet from the top.

The skids plopped down lightly.

"Always walk towards the front," the pilot reminded us as we shrugged on our backpacks.

"Why?" I almost asked. Oh yeah, the tail rotor would eviscerate me like a butcher knife through butter.

Moments later our feet were on terra firma and the helicopter was carving skyward. When the thunder had faded, all seemed terribly quiet. The only sounds were the hiss of the wind between boulders and the crunch of our feet in the alpine gravel.

But just up the slope, a crowd of cameramen and journalists were preparing to spectate the famous race.

Drowning in History

What responsibility does a journalist owe to history when asked to document such an event? I was a newcomer, a Johnny-come-lately, stepping into the middle of a conversation that had been going on for nearly a century. They expected me to have something important to say. All eyes would be on me, all ears tuned to my every word. I couldn't shoulder such responsibility lightly.

My solution was to plunge into the deep waters of Mount Marathon Race history wholeheartedly. I delved into news clippings from years past, watched scores of documentary films, and interviewed a half-dozen well-known racers. For several weeks I was enveloped in the spectacle. To do the history justice I had to sink beneath the surface, relax and breathe it in.

Over the years the Mount Marathon Race has spawned a thousand storylines. Heroes who set records that stood for decades. Villains who swooped in from across the ocean and broke them. Legends who returned to the mountain for almost five decades without ever missing an event. There were even mysteries and tragedies, like the racer in 2012 who vanished somewhere near the summit never to be seen again.

In 700 words I was supposed to capture this immensity and somehow pen a new chapter. As I set up my camera, re-checked the battery life and remaining gigabytes on my memory card, I was already building the narrative in my mind.

The Race

Seward, Alaska's 2017 Mount Marathon race
Racers plunge down the downhill in
the Mount Marathon Race
When the leaders of the women's event first came into view, it was 20-year-old Alaskan hero Allison Ostrander of nearby Soldotna who was far ahead, showering the pursuit in a proverbial and literal cloud of dust. 

As a junior, Ostrander won the MMR (Mount Marathon Race) a record six years in a row, and would have won the adult division her first year as an 18-year-old were it not for the appearance of international mountain-running legend Emelie Forsberg of Norway. That year Forsberg and her even more famous boyfriend, Kilian Jornet, broke both the men's and women's records, a feat that upset some longtime locals. Ostrander would also have broke the record that year were her time not eclipsed by almost two minutes by the European phenom. 

As Ostrander burst onto the summit, rounded the turnaround boulder and blasted onto the descent route at a full sprint, it seemed inevitable she would claim her first MMR title. Fifteen minutes later and far below in town, the PA confirmed she had done it. 

The men's event was an even bigger blowout. The winner, a Nordic ski racer from Anchorage with Olympic hopes in 2018, stunned the competition with a nearly three-minute lead at the summit. When he crossed the finish line in first place, the Alaskan sweep of the podium was complete.

The Story

Some hours later, at a bar in downtown Seward, we clanked ale-filled mugs in toast and swapped stories at the end of a long day. Four-hours on the summit and one treacherous slog down the steep ridge had led to aching knees, burning calves and an icing of Mount Marathon mud up to my calves. 

But ahead was an even more daunting task than the mountain itself: the story

How could I write such a piece? The new kid in town summarizing an event older than his grandparents? But as alcohol corroded my fear and inhibitions, I began to feel something different: excitement. 

I am a wordsmith. Telling stories is what I do.

To read my recap story, visit the following link. Here is also a lead-up story that profiled some of the important participants in this year's event.

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  1. That scenery is just stunning! I hope you enjoyed your walk as well. :)

    1. Thank you! I feel lucky to live in such a beautiful place. The descent was quite intense actually. Steep, muddy. It even has a little climbing in it. I cant imagine sprinting down it like the racers do. Thanks for reading and commenting!