The first time I sacrificed blood to a race was in 2008. Trying to keep a good spot, I stayed in the thick of the middle pack of my last 3200m race in high school. I was a really angry teenager. So, when the metal spike of the shoes on the girl in front of me dug into my shin, I was 100 percent certain it was an act of war, and I switched from running to racing my fastest 3200 ever.
Although neither of us was particularly talented, she kept pulling away from me lap after lap, until I had closed to 50 meters behind sometime on the 6th or 7th lap. She was clearly dying; her head was flopped to the side and her arms were swishing back and forth a little slower. She started dipping to the left to cross outside of the track border (there wasn’t a metal barrier). I found this unforgivable, now she was a bully and a lazy cheat. In a fit of rage I passed her, and held what felt like a dead sprint until the end of 8 laps. I still have no idea what overall place either of us finished.
The second time I sacrificed blood to a race was four weeks ago: 4th of July, 2016. I managed to lengthen my race distance to 5k in eight years, running the 89th Mt. Marathon race in Seward, Alaska.
Three years ago, I watched a Youtube video of the 2013 men’s Mt. Marathon race when Eric Strabel outkicked Rickey Gates, and both of them broke a 32-year-old course record. In the last pitch of the downhill, Gates had to reduce his own shoulder after falling to continue the race. Since I got some money after getting hit by a drunk driver in 2015 and replaced my totaled car for something cheaper, I finally had enough funds to get myself to Alaska. I signed up for the 2016 lottery, and in an unprecedented stroke of fortune, I was accepted.
My #1 fan (Mom) wanted to come on vacation with me, so we booked our flights, a rental car, and a few nights at a hunting lodge.
Mist and clouds covered the sky for most of the time we were there, but not enough to completely block the scenery; from Anchorage to Seward, three hours south, mountains rise steep and tower over the sea level road. Even though we drove in the middle of the night, it was light enough to see the landscape.
On July 3, we woke up, ate some eggs and reindeer sausage and drove into town. When I picked up my bib that night, I would have to sign a waiver that said I’ve done the whole course, and since I’m a terrible liar, I set off to run it around 11 a.m. It was around 55 degrees, so I had on tights and a rain shell, and carried a pack with emergency food and a liter of water.
Going up the first incline, runners have three choices: roots to the right, cliffs in the middle, and a switchback trail to the left. The cliffs and roots are equally direct, while the switchbacks are longer, but more runnable. A racer in the chamber of commerce building suggested I take the switch backs for safety, so I ran that way.
The switchbacks weren’t bad, and the section was short. The use trail topped out right over the waterfall, which is a lesser-used method because it is both dangerous and slow. The cliffs and roots sections also end here, and the race routes converge to go up a narrow dirt path through tightly packed trees. Halfway up this section is Squirrels Inn. There was neither a squirrel nor an Inn. About 400m later is the uphill midpoint, where the terrain opens up to a giant field of shale steeper than the first half. I could see a woman climbing in front of me, and ran faster to catch up to her.
I love scrambling, so instead of wasting energy on keeping my balance, I went up hands and feet and caught her a little bit before the peak. She told me she wasn’t running the race this year after giving birth a few weeks ago, so I felt a little less fast and badass. She was great company and gave me all kinds of tips, all exactly opposite of the beta I got earlier. My new friend Mandy said to take the cliffs because there’s more space from the other runners, and to take the snow to save a few minutes, the same advice I got from Conner Curley earlier in the year. After chatting about sisters getting married (both of ours, coincidently) and forest fires, I watched her slide effortlessly down the snow before I ran down the flatter trail on the spine.
The downhill was the loosest thing I’ve ever run. It feels a lot like running down a sand dune. The fastest way I could do it was by pushing down on my heels into the shale, like walking on a stairmaster backwards. After hitting Squirrels Inn, the downhill course deviates from the uphill section through the trees and goes down a slick gully with running water. I managed to stay upright the whole time, and took Mandy/Connor’s advice and headed down the cliffs. That section was full of racers practicing for the next day, trying to map out their exact route. The bottom of the cliffs slopes to flatter terrain and I opened up my stride for fun. I performed my signature move of tripping and bailing down as soon as the hard technical part is over.
When people say that Mt. Marathon is a huge event for Alaska, I always thought that might be blown out of proportion because runners can be egotistic. In this case, the hype is real. Anywhere we went, all I would have to say is that I was running the next day, and all the locals quickly responded with equal parts congratulatory excitement and devious laughter. I am not used to doing anything that culturally relevant.
Mom and I headed to the high school where the bib pick up and safety meeting was staged, and she started her volunteer shift with Rickey Gates and a few others, handing out returning runner bibs. I shook his hand and told him that I found out about it from watching his ’13 race, and he smiled, shrugged, and said, “oh, I’m sorry.”
A few hours later, the real party started. Racers, spectators, and officials packed into the gym, filling both walls of bleachers and most of the basketball court. A fast-talking cowboy started auctioning off 10 race spots for women and 10 for the men, a small percentage of the 800 runners signed up. The women’s bibs went for several hundred dollars at the most, which is a lot to pay for a 5k, but about the same as a lot of ultras. The men followed and bid a lot more aggressively; the most expensive spot went for $4500! I felt proud and nauseous to be high-stakes racing.
The safety meeting was short, mostly some gory pictures of caution, and a lot of “If this is your first time running, go around the snow.”
The event order switched for the first time this year, so Mom and I watched the men’s’ race in the morning, where David Norris of Anchorage broke Kilian’s 2015 course record in 41:26, wearing board shorts. I’m more used to starting races with a headlamp than at 2:30 p.m., so it was pretty nerve-wracking to watch their race and wait around for our start.
I ended up stuffing all safety layers in my pack the day before, so I decided to race in a sports bra and split shorts. I figured that wearing the splits would keep me from going down the snow, and getting hurt.
The start line felt more like a football game than a race. The streets on either side were completely rowdy and full—the race posts volunteers for crowd control, and there’s even a poorly enforced no-dogs policy after a runner tripped over one near the finish in a previous year. I was in the second wave, starting 5 minutes after the first. I figured I would be near the back, unable to compete with local talent.
When the gun went off these girls sprinted up the road. The race goes out of downtown and makes a left to go uphill to the base of the mountain. I’m pretty sure some of the racers ran the 0.5-mile road section faster than I’ve ever run an 800m. In ultra fashion, I jogged to the base, and started climbing the cliffs. Most of the women near me were out of breath, and I started passing a lot of people. My hands got hit by a few rocks, and started to swell, but nothing bad. Once the section through the trees started, I hiked fast with my hands on my quads, which almost no one was doing. There wasn’t the space to pass there.
When the trail opened up at Squirrels Inn, I surged to overtake several more racers before climbing up the rocks. I expected this to incite anger, even though I was passing off to the side giving room, but every single racer I passed cheered for me. Like, none of us have breath to spare, but you’re still spending yours on being excited that I’m passing? I started to feel pretty amped by that and getting really competitive, but in a new and truly foreign way. Running track, I was used to letting some hate stoke the fire every time I wanted to catch a b****. This time I wanted to go faster to rise up to the high praise of being cheered by my own competition. I can also say this worked a lot better for motivation than fickle anger.
Besides everyone clawing up the hill on either side of me, the course was FULL of spectators. The only way to get there is by going up the tough course early. There was a guy in a tuxedo holding out a silver platter of water-filled Dixie cups. Most of the audience hiked up dozens of water bottles to pass out, since there’s no official aid.
I was off the beaten route climbing up a steeper section to pass when runner behind me lost her balance and put her hand out, which caught my back and almost had us both off the edge. I saw her out of the corner of my eye right before, so I was able to brace and throw my weight into her hand, keeping us both upright. Even though she was obviously pretty dizzy she still choked out an apology, but I know that 2008 Julia would still have started plotting this girl’s early demise. When you’re working that hard, your reactions usually come spewing out faster than you can control them, and I shouted back, “No! It’s ok, use me!” sincerely with joy.
By the time I got to the summit, I was in the middle of the first heat of girls and completely obsessed with how much I was beating my expectations. All of the faster racers I was now with were heading straight for the snow. I was not about to be shown up, so I ran after them. All I felt was cold and silly for thinking it was too risky. I stuck the landing and started skiing down the rocks.
Three girls passed me on the downhill, the only time I have ever been passed on a technical downhill by another girl in a trail race, ever. I would have been bitter, but it was actually insanely fun to watch runners be so fearless and so responsive to the mountain that most of them knew really well. I followed suit and cheered on everyone who flew by.
Once I hit the road downhill, I ran for the finish and outkicked a few of the girls who had passed me, and finished around 1:14, annihilating my highest hopes for 1:30. The crowd was somehow even larger/more boisterous/drunk than at the start, definitely the biggest a race finish has ever felt. Mom made a sign for me and jumped out in the middle of the road to cheer. Usually really calm, I haven’t seen her that loudly excited about something probably ever. Maybe next year they will have to have a no-moms rule incase they step on the course and trip a runner.
Back at the rental car I went to sit down, and noticed searing pain all over my backside. Since the snow was a little icy and mixed with shale, I skinned off most of both butt cheeks, and the whole thing was bloody and raw. We went back to the finish to see the medics, who power washed it with a hose and put on some bandages. I screamed really loud, and Mom had to hold me up. I’ve been through some shit, but that was real pain.
In life, I fall a lot. People around me fall a lot; we’re always running into each other and complicating things. I used to see that like I saw the girl who spiked me and shorted the course; someone’s out to make my life shittier, I have to watch out for myself and push back harder. Being angry when rules are broken is arbitrary, since rules are arbitrary, and usually just give us an artificial reason to be superior. (Calm down Chaz/Pete—not a Gary Johnson endorsement). Mt Marathon has two rules only: know what you’re doing, and get up and down the mountain.
That girl from Yuba City probably has no idea she spiked me, likely a total accident. Leaning into someone who falls to support them makes us both stronger, and doesn’t waste any force. The energy aligns and pushes both forward and up.
I could have learned this a long time ago if I knew where to look. Mom, who drove my injured suffering body around Alaska to see Denali for an entire day after the race, has been leaning in to support me as long as I’ve been hurting myself in the name of running, and it seems to make her mostly happy.
There was too much cloud cover to see the peak, but we did see a moose cross the road. It’s easy to appreciate things close-up; you can see them even in bad weather.