Mt. Marathon: America’s most extreme mountain race

Mt. Marathon

Hand over foot, the race up Mt. Marathon is not a glamorous one by any means. Photo courtesy of Todd List

When Max Romey showed up in Seward, Alaska, on July 4, 2013, he knew he was onto something. The runner and filmmaker had made the trek out to the Kenai Peninsula to watch the Mt. Marathon Race, a grueling run up and down 3,022-foot Mount Marathon, but didn't truly understand what he'd stumbled upon until he joined 40,000 other spectators at the base of America's second-oldest trail race. Equipped with a GoPro, he watched some of the world's best mountain racers go toe to toe on dangerous mountain descents replete with loose rock, slippery terrain, and high-consequence cliffs on their way to smashing a decades-long course record.

That first Mt. Marathon experience yielded a short film, but Romey walked away wanting more. He vowed to return to the epic alpine race prepared, and did so in 2014—the 100th running of the mountain challenge—with 20 cameras and a plan. After struggling to find any decent coverage of the event, Romey embarked on a two-year project to document the race—and its colorful collection of racers—in its entirety. Romey and college classmate Natalie Fedak are halfway through "3022 Ft.: A Mt. Marathon Story," a documentary sure to shake up the outdoor film festival circuit next fall.

GrindTV caught up with Romey to learn more about the documentary, their current Indiegogo campaign, and what it takes to finish the most dangerous race in mountain running.

How did you find out about this event?

I've lived in Alaska for a couple years, and it's been a thing that a lot of my friends have done—this crazy race that everybody talked about that I hadn't seen. Eventually I went to check it out in 2013. I climbed the mountain a few days before and was just like, 'Holy cow, people actually climb this thing?!' It's not super high, but hiking the thing is dangerous. I got really excited to see how it was run, got some footage during one of the more meaningful years, and put together something that got a lot of good response. From there I realized there hadn't really been any video like this done before and that I needed to make it happen.

Is that the motivation behind this documentary you're putting together?

After I filmed the race, I looked on YouTube for more and there was just nothing. Why hadn't this been filmed before? I guess you could really easily hurt yourself as a camera person moving up and down this thing. I came back the next year with more cameras and the goal to capture some of the stories behind it rather than just the race itself. Because that's the interesting part and the stories really were that amazing. The idea is to make a film that can share that and then share that film with as many people as possible.

Mt. Marathon

Dangerously technical race course aside, the views from Mt. Marathon aren’t too shabby. Photo courtesy of Todd List

What type of people show up for a race like this?

There are about 1,200 runners total—350 men, 350 women, and 400-something juniors (18 and under)—and as many as 40,000 people at the bottom. I've been to a lot of running events, and nobody has that kind of atmosphere.

Beyond the race, though, when you get down to the people who actually run it, I'd say the majority are local Alaskan runners, people who have made this mountain part of their life.

Can you give us a sneak peek at any of these racers?

This year was the closest women's finish in the race's 100-year history. At the starting line you had four women who were in the running to win, but we knew anything could happen, anyone could go down. We had Christy Marvin, full-time mother of three who had basically won every single race leading up to Mount Marathon; Holly Brooks, an Olympic cross-country skier who had won before in 2012 and was making her return after the Sochi Games; Najeeby Quinn, an amazing road racer making her first attempt at the race after getting in on a guest bid; and Denali Foldager, Seward local and Mt. Marathon royalty. Her story is a big focus of this video because a year ago she wasn't even running; she was injured, got into the wrong crowd and some pretty heavy drugs, and has gotten over it all through mountain running. She's really coming back to her roots in this race, so it's big.

The race itself came down to about two seconds. At the top of the mountain Brooks was a minute-and-a-half ahead of everybody; at the bottom with 40 seconds to go she was 40 seconds ahead, and by the time she finished she was two seconds ahead, crossed the line and just passed out. Pretty dramatic.

You guys have unique camera work going on; how'd you make it happen?

Originally we were hoping to use a drone, but that idea got shot down by both the FAA and the town of Seward. They didn't want us to use one; to some extent I think that's because they didn't know what it was, but I also think it surrounded some of the events of 2012—one of the racers fell and suffered a severe brain injury and another racer went missing and they never found his body—so they really didn't want anything else to distract the racers, so that's fair. It made it a little more difficult for us, because suddenly we're capturing every angle of this race with stationary people. We had 20 rolling cameras for the race with the idea of capturing every single aspect. I was at the top with a Steadicam literally running down the mountain with a lot of these runners. It was pretty dangerous, and we got good footage, but cameras will never be able to fully capture the extent of this race. We tried to get as close to that experience as possible, going to extreme lengths to make it happen.

Mt. Marathon

A bird’s-eye view; photo courtesy of Cole Deal

You ran cross-country throughout college; how did your athletic background  factor into the success of the filming process?

It was definitely important. I had a Garmin on that day, and according to my watch I ran eight miles on the mountain. That basically means I ran up and down almost three times, so physical conditioning definitely helps.

Athletically, I was most helped with my connection to the sport. The reason I'm doing this is, as a runner, I am hungry for this kind of film. Everybody has seen the super cool ski film and mountain bike film, and a big reason they're amazing is because there are people doing really cool stuff, but they also have great camera work. I feel because mountain running and running in general don't have that intense draw of the other sports, a lot of camera people have ignored it. As a mountain runner myself, I know that there's something about it that's incredible, and that's what we're trying to capture. I want people to get a sense of the wonder of bagging a peak and pass that inspiration.

What other end goals do you have for this project?

A huge aspect of this documentary has been the power of women in running. I'll admit that I kind of ignored it to some extent while I was running—I wouldn't show up to a meet and get really excited about the women's race, but I think that's because I just couldn't relate to it. What's really evident in this race is that the media showed up for the men's race; it was broadcast on T.V., and the women's wasn't. So I got to ask these incredibly talented women racers what their thoughts were on this and it really changed my perspective. The women are running just as hard as the men. That's something I want to show. These women are incredible and so are there journeys—I hope this film shows that a bit.

To learn more about “3022 Ft.: A Mt. Marathon Story”, visit their Indiegogo page here.

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