Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the Seward Providence Medical and Care Center.
To outsiders of Seward’s annual Mount Marathon Race, hundreds of adrenaline junkies trudging straight up and careening back down a wild mountainside may not seem like the definition of safe. Thanks to a more concentrated effort by volunteers from around the state, though, runners can take more comfort in their own protection.
Joseph Fong is the administrator at Seward Providence Medical and Care Center and has coordinated the teams of first aid volunteers stationed along the race trail of Mount Marathon and at its base for four years. The volunteers are there to provide medical care and watch over the runners as they hurtle up and down cliffs, loose rock, shale, water and roots. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Fong said that to his knowledge, there hadn’t been an official first aid presence as part of the Mount Marathon race committee before the suggestion was made five years ago.
“In the past, Seward Fire has helped out … Seward Volunteer Ambulance Corps has helped,” he said. “There’s never been a team that’s part of the race committee.”
It was suggested that teams be put together from various ski patrol groups, and Fong was tapped to coordinate the effort, he said. Other organizations like the Seward Volunteer Fire Department, are generally busy each July Fourth watching over the city and don’t have the resources to expand to the mountain, he said.
The first aid teams who watch over the mountain are made up of volunteers from the Alyeska, Denali and Anchorage Nordic Ski Patrols. The group also has a member of the search and rescue group from the Mat-Su, Fong said.
“Each year we learn a little bit more, and so each year goes a little bit more smoothly,” he said. “… It’s nice also having people that are returning from previous years so they kind … of get an idea of what’s going on.”
Having 16-18 volunteers annually is ideal for covering all the bases, Fong said. That way people stationed in different locations can switch and relieve each other throughout the day.
In addition to the base, first aid volunteers are positioned at the senior race summit, the halfway point where junior racers turn around and at the top of the gut, a narrow section on the downhill route of the course with water and loose rock.
No section is necessarily the toughest or most dangerous to racers, Fong said, as each area presents unique challenges.
“One of the interesting parts about this race is that every section has its own difficulties,” he said. “So when they’re coming down from the very top, it’s pretty steep, you know, and there’s a lot of shale and so you can always … slip and fall and hurt yourself there. In the gut, it’s pretty narrow. There’s a lot of loose rock, there’s water. And then even going up, you can always get caught up on roots and twist an ankle or something.”
Anchorage resident Eric Geisler, one of the volunteers who works with Anchorage Nordic and Alyeska Ski Patrol, was stationed this year at the cliff area in front of a waterfall just above the mountain’s base.
“There’s a potential in there for both cuts and head injuries,” he said before the women’s race Tuesday. “Flying rocks, people sliding. It’s a pretty slippery course this morning. … I’m surprised at the number of kids that came without gloves this morning.”
Geisler doesn’t normally get to do much treating stationed near the cliffs, he said.
On average, the first aid tent at the base of Mount Marathon doesn’t get a lot of traffic. Runners are often more concerned with making it to the finish line, Geisler said.
“We just had a kid launch … off of the center of the cliff from the waterfall there, and landed on all fours,” he said. “He twisted a knee and we might have had to treat that, but he was good enough there … he kept going. A lot of them do.”
Volunteers at the base tend ended up treating two people this year, Fong said in an email Wednesday, one racer and one spectator for relatively minor issues.
The Seward Volunteer Ambulance Corps is stationed at the race’s finish line to look after racers there.
Michael Moore, president of the Seward Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said the volunteers there also help the runners cool off. He and Fong said the majority of injuries sustained during the race are scrapes and cuts.
There were slightly fewer racers who needed medical attention at the finish line this year than usual, Moore said, most likely because of the overcast weather. On hot, sunny days, more runners have issues with overheating, he said.
On years with more snow, the first aid tents will see more runners with burns from where it scrapes them while running through it, Moore said. The corps usually needs 8-10 volunteers to man the finish line, he said.
For the teams on the mountain, getting in place and set up to help racers is a big part of the job, Geisler said.
“The big problem here is logistics,” he said. “Getting people to stations in the morning to where they need to be and getting equipment and things. With this race, the difference is that if we have an injury that needs to be extracted, the extraction is the responsibility of the fire department, not the medical team.”
If a runner can’t continue down the mountain and needs an extraction, that falls to the Seward Volunteer Fire Department. In that case, first aid volunteers would wait with the patient and provide what help they could until an extraction team arrives at their location.
“We’re here for first aid and to assess the patient,” Fong said. “So if they can’t go down on their own power, then we call Seward Fire.”
The first aid volunteers didn’t need to call for any extractions this year, but have a few times in the past, he said.
While most runners will push on through the race rather than tap into the volunteer resources throughout the mountain, they can keep running assured they’re being taken care of.
“We’re always watching,” Geisler said. “We relay between the teams. We relay, you know ‘watch for this number, watch for that number.’”
“It’s interesting, I think the racers have this mentality where they want to finish and they’re going to do anything they can,” Fong said. “… People, in general, won’t ask for help unless they can’t move.”