A very different summer for Seward, and the Kenai Peninsula in general, just got a little more real Tuesday with the announcement that there won’t be a Mount Marathon Race on July 4 in Seward for the first time since 1942, when the race was not held due to World War II.
The Mount Marathon Race Committee postponed the 93rd running of the iconic race up and down the 3,022-foot mountain overlooking Seward to a date yet to be determined due to the threat of the new coronavirus.
June 1, the committee will announce whether the race will be held Sept. 6 — the Sunday of Labor Day weekend — or moved all the way to July 4, 2021.
Matias Saari, race director, said the committee is a group passionate about the race, but there was no debate in an April 6 Zoom meeting about whether the race should still be held on July 4.
“It became pretty clear early in the discussions it would not be feasible to have 1,000 racers and 10,000 spectators and visitors to Seward in a couple months time,” Saari said. “As Alaska opens up, which is not the case yet, events of our nature are probably going to be the last to occur or be approved by the state of Alaska or the city of Seward.”
The race was first held in 1919 and was held more sporadically in its early years, getting canceled 12 times before 1942. Saari said the city of Seward and the Seward Chamber of Commerce support the decision, despite the financial consequences, due to concern about the health of the racers, spectators, volunteers and sponsors.
The decision follows other high profile sports cancellations and postponements in Alaska, the United States and the world.
Of note to peninsula residents, the state basketball tournament, all spring sports and the rest of the Kenai River Brown Bears season have been canceled. The Peninsula Oilers have pulled out of the Alaska Baseball League for 2020. Monday, the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage, which was to be held June 20, also was canceled.
Hannah Lafleur, who won the 2019 women’s race to become the first local Mount Marathon champion since Cedar Bourgeois in 2010, already had an idea the summer in Seward would be quite different before the announcement of Tuesday’s postponement.
Lafleur arrived in Seward in 2016 and runs Kayak Adventures Worldwide with her partner. This summer, the duo also is launching Seward Wilderness Collective, which gives private hiking tours.
Like many in Seward, the two businesses rely on tourism and employees from the Lower 48.
According to the website of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, Seward has a year-round population of about 2,800.
In 2016, Seward had 191,469 cruise ship passenger arrivals and a summer visitation estimate of 441,000, compared to 166,000 for Homer-Seldovia and 127,000 for Kenai-Soldotna.
With the Port of Seattle announcing March 24 it is suspending cruise travel indefinitely, reduced flights coming to Alaska and other travel restrictions due to the new coronavirus, Lafleur said this will be a different summer for the two businesses.
There are 16 staff members. Four of those are already in Seward. Lafleur is not sure if the other 12 will be brought up.
“Our role and responsibility is to take care of the community,” she said. “Bringing in all these people from out of state is not the best thing for our neighbors and health care workers. Even if we could do the perfect quarantine, we’d like to set an example of the safest and best practices.”
It’s that same concern for the community that informs Lafleur’s feeling on the race committee’s decision to postpone the race.
“A big part of the Mount Marathon Race is the community,” she said. “The race wouldn’t be the same without the community.
“Putting the town, and the well-being, health and safety of the community, first is the only option.”
Just as the decision was challenging for the race committee, Lafleur said this summer will be challenging for many businesses. She looks at those challenges as an opportunity.
“It’s hard to speak for the whole town, but speaking for our company, as small business owners we’re trying to adapt the ways we look at the typical visitor,” she said. “Once we can open things up, we’re looking at how we can welcome more people from around Alaska.
“We’re looking at how we can change the services and products we offer to provide a better fit for the people coming here.”
Lafleur also will continue to run the trails and mountains in Seward, just not the way she did before. Normally, she’d already start homing in on the Mount Marathon race course, but with no race July 4, she’s exploring the area a little more.
Tuesday, she ran the Primrose Campground side of Lost Lake Trail.
“I’m just exploring things I might not normally explore,” she said. “I’m bummed about Mount Marathon, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be running in the mountains all summer.”
Saari said a number of factors went into announcing the postponement at this time.
As Lafleur alluded to, racers would begin coming to Seward soon to get in some training runs on the tricky mountain. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has limited travel between communities to critical infrastructure or personal needs, but Dunleavy also has said travel for outdoor recreation, with certain stipulations, is OK.
Saari discouraged people from coming to Seward to run the mountain.
“We’re currently supposed to recreate close to home, and I wouldn’t call Seward close to home, at least to the Anchorage area,” Saari said.
Until the travel restriction is lifted, Saari said most racers can find places to train closer than Seward.
Saari also said the postponement was done now so travelers could adjust plans and the city did not have to start prepping for all the visitors on July 4. The 4th of July Festival organized by the Seward Chamber of Commerce is still tentatively scheduled to proceed.
The race roster, including lottery winners and one-time petitioners, will be posted to the race website at mmr.seward.com on Wednesday. Lottery winners and approved petitioners will then have until April 30 to pay the remaining $65 of their race fees.
Until the new race date is announced June 1, the race will not be doing any refunds, wave changes or deferral requests.
Saari said the postponement is the latest adjustment in a rapidly changing world. March 8, Saari was race director at the Tour of Anchorage, during which the Nordic Ski Association Anchorage brought together 800 skiers and fat bikers. March 12, the NSAA Ski Train was canceled due to the new coronavirus.
“Everyone wanted to hold the race on July 4 like we normally do, but if we hold it in September, it will be better than no race at all and unique in its own right,” Saari said. “It’ll still be a big event to boost the Seward economy.”