“A mountain for me does not make sense without the villages that are around it.” – Jordi Tosas, mountaineering guide
Seward is famous for Mount Marathon. Mount Marathon grew famous because of the running culture on display at events like Wednesday’s 41-runner Dixon/Holden Memorial Tonsina Beach Trail Run.
Long before there were helicopters and drones in the air, international trail running stars zooming up and down the 3,022-foot mountain and clamoring TV cameras at the finish line each Fourth of July, there were kindred spirits collaboratively and competitively confronting the panoply of mountains and forests lining Seward.
“This town has always paid attention to the Fourth and Mount Marathon Race,” said Pyper Dixon, a 24-year-old, lifelong Seward resident who grew up with seven-time women’s champ Cedar Bourgeois as a neighbor. “Flip Foldager. Fred Moore. It’s always been a big deal for the locals to do well.
“It was like that before Kilian came, and it’ll be like that long after him.”
Kilian is Kilian Jornet, the Spanish mountain-running superstar who, along with girlfriend, Swede Emelie Forsberg, scissored the Mount Marathon course records in 2015 with a glee and seeming ease that baffled those who revere the city’s backdrop as a slab of pain.
But at an event like the Dixon/Holden run, one doesn’t get the sense people want to be famous in the town of 2,800 nestled by mountains and served by Resurrection Bay. One gets the sense people simply want to cherish all the trails around town and the community those trails create.
Popular means hard to get into
If the current trail- and mountain-running scene in Seward has a leader, it is 41-year-old Erik Johnson. After visiting the city and falling in love in 2008, he relocated in 2009, started racing Mount Marathon in 2011, and has placed in the top eight four times, with a high of second last year. A victory in Saturday’s Government Peak Climb in Palmer showed he is primed for another strong run on Mount Marathon this year.
After living in a Boston area steeped in running, Johnson knew he needed to seek a similar culture in his relocation and found just that in Seward.
So it’s somewhat surprising to hear Johnson profess something other than unadulterated love for the ultrapopular Mount Marathon and Lost Lake races.
Picture a lifelong Soldotna resident’s relationship with fishing kings on the Kenai River, or a dipnetter who lives blocks from the Kenai beach.
“I noticed this was a good running community, that this was a fun, friendly community, but I also noticed that Lost Lake and Mount Marathon were holding this community back,” Johnson said. “I wanted to have fun events that were all inclusive in the middle of the week.
“That way people who are always busy working hard could come out and have fun.”
Johnson’s mountain-man beard broadcasts his views on frivolity.
“I’ve been running over 20 years, but one aspect I don’t like about some running communities is pay to play,” he said. “One thing that’s cool about running is all you have to buy is a pair of shoes.”
Dixon and Chuck DiMarzio share Johnson’s view. Even with his deep ties to the community, Dixon said he has spent more than his fair share of time worrying a couple years of missed races on the Fourth will cost him his Mount Marathon slot, or nervously waiting at a computer trying to secure a Lost Lake bib.
DiMarzio, 38, who moved to Seward in 2002, made his passion for barely official events clear last summer, when he spent 30 hours on his mountain bike setting a course record and winning the Kenai 250, which includes Resurrection Pass Trail, Russian Lakes Trail, Lost Lake Trail and Johnson Pass.
Together, Johnson, Dixon and DiMarzio have created a flurry of events where runners meet up and tackle a different trail in as competitive of a manner as they choose.
There are no bibs, just as there are no sweaters at the local hockey pond. And, no, there is no entry fee, just like at the playground basketball court with its tattered chain netting. But yes, there is competition. There is camaraderie. There is humbling beauty. Just like the NHL. Just like the NBA. Just like Mount Marathon.
“It’s fun, it’s low-key and it’s a good group of people that all enjoy the trails, push each other and run fast,” said Mackenzie Barnwell, 24, who has lived in Seward most of her life and finished in the top 20 of Mount Marathon the past four years.
Dixon/Holden sets the template
Saying Seward has a great mountain- or trail-running culture is selling the place short. Seward has a culture of exploring its surrounding features in many ways. That spirit is summed up by Jerry Dixon and Seth Holden.
Jerry, Pyper’s father, died in 2010 at 62 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Jerry was a teacher in the gifted/talented program at Seward High School as well as an intense adventurer dabbling in wilderness ultramarathoning, climbing, kayaking and extreme skiing.
Seth Holden, Pyper’s cousin, died at 29 in a plane crash less than a month before Jerry. Holden grew up in Soldotna and graduated from Skyview High School in 1999. He was known for extreme adventures climbing mountains.
“They were both two of the biggest influences in my life,” Pyper said. “My dad introduced me to skiing, hiking and camping.
“I didn’t spend as much time with Seth but I knew he had a reputation across the state as a bad-a— mountaineer.”
The Tonsina trail run is about four miles long, starting on a rocky trail loosely encircled by forest before releasing into bridges, beach and Resurrection Bay.
“(My dad) hiked, skied and climbed all the mountains around here, but when he wanted to do a short trail run, this was the trail he came to,” Pyper said.
Pyper started the race in 2013 with the help of Pyper’s mother, Deb, and brother, Kipp. There were no entry fees, only voluntary donations to the Jerry S. Dixon Award for Excellence in Environmental Education and the Seth Holden Alaska Remote Exploration grant.
Last year, the event evolved into a competitive meet-up run still seeking donations. The money from the SHARE grant, according to Pyper, is being pooled into funds to help the Mountaineering Club of Alaska build Seth Holden Hut on the Bomber Traverse in the Hatcher Pass area.
The Jerry S. Dixon Award still seeks donations, with donation information on alaskaconservation.org. The award gives out $500 each year for people in environmental education, and the educator does not have to be classroom-based.
Running club, more races follow
DiMarzio was next to add to the running culture, which is ironic because he is a cyclist.
“I got into trail running because of Seward,” DiMarzio said. “There isn’t the cycling culture in Seward, but I saw all these guys trail running.
“When I started, I thought, ‘I see it now.’”
DiMarzio moved to Seward in 2002 and did not start trail running until 2013. It didn’t take long before he brought his cyclist’s love of group rides and pelotons to the sport, first posting on Facebook about the Seward Trail Running Club on Aug. 20, 2014.
“I just wanted people to run with,” DiMarzio said. “It was selfish reasons.”
Each Wednesday night, the club meets and runs at one of the stunning array of trails on offer in Seward — Mount Alice, Ptarmigan Lake trail, Exit Glacier Road, Lost Lake winter and summer trails, Grayling Lake trail, Tonsina, Mount Marathon Jeep Trail, bowl and race course, Iditarod Trail, Harding Icefield trail, Resurrection River trail and the trails at Mile 12.
In 2016, Johnson added some more competitive runs that feature no fees and no bibs. Mount Alice, Bear Mountain and the Jeep Trail all the way to Mount Marathon race point were contested in 2016, with the Dixon/Holden and a Lost Lake winter-summer loop added the following year.
Still to come this year are the Jeep Trail race on June 13, Bear Mountain sprint on June 19 and Mount Alice on June 24. Each starts at 6 p.m. and is on a different day of the week to accommodate as many as possible.
“There’s a lot of great running trails here,” Johnson said. “These are nice if you don’t want to drive three hours to race on a weekend.”
Dixon said most runners in the area train as individuals, but both running club and the informal race series give a chance to gauge progress against others.
“It’s all fun, everybody is having a good time, and everybody is enjoying each other,” Dixon said. “At the same time, people are whispering about the Mount Marathon Race.
“I just think it’s on everybody’s mind all the time.”
Last year, members of Johnson’s race series hit it big on the Fourth. In addition to Johnson’s runner-up, Ruby Lindquist was second in the girls junior race, Ali Papillon was third in the boys junior race, Bodhi Gross was eighth in the boys junior race and Hannah Lefleur was seventh in the women’s race.
Do a race never once considered
The running culture in Seward is more expansive than a running club and bigger than competitive meet-ups. Just look at 23-year-old Morgan Siebka.
Siebka grew up in Pennsylvania and went to school at Florida Southern in Lakeland, running cross-country as a senior.
As a collegian, she did workouts that were very regimented and came off spreadsheets. She found something quite different when she interned at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
“I just got out and enjoyed myself on the trails around here,” Siebka said. “I got my workout just by running with friends in a beautiful place.”
That got her to do a race she never would have considered before — a 50-kilometer trail run in Pennsylvania that took her seven hours.
Even though she spent just a summer in Seward and is briefly visiting this summer, she’s well qualified to make sense of the village, and thus of its mountains.