Long before the concept of "extreme sports" was a gleam in a marketing executive's eye, this little town on the Gulf of Alaska began staging a mountain contest that tests muscles, hearts, and backsides.
Every July 4, Seward hosts the Mount Marathon Race, an Alaskan phenomenon that, after nearly a century, is starting to draw national attention. Touted as the nation's second-oldest running race (after the Boston Marathon), Seward's event is actually no marathon. It is a 3.5-mile scramble up and down 3,022-foot Mount Marathon, one of a sea of rugged, snowcapped peaks that surround the port town. After sprinting to the mountain's base, racers pull themselves up cliffs to ascend a seemingly vertical slope, then hurl themselves back to sea level over loose shale, jutting rocks, and icy waterfalls.
"It's, for me, 40 minutes of absolute pain and agony of going up," says perennial women's champion Nina Kemppel of Anchorage. Then the descent: "Your legs are shaky, your eyes are watery and you can barely focus on the next object."
In many ways, Seward is a postcard setting for a small-town Fourth of July: with clapboard houses, picket fences, and more flags and patriotic signs than usual this year. In the blocked-off downtown streets, where booths dispense halibut tacos, gun-safety locks, and environmentalist literature, a carnival atmosphere reigns. Festivities include a parade and a fireworks display, though viewers have to strain to see it against a sky that, at this latitude, is still light at midnight.
But it is Mount Marathon that makes Seward's Fourth unique and each year swells the population of 2,500 by a factor of 10.
As an organized event, the race has been held since 1915. It skipped a few years, so Thursday's race was the 75th. But according to legend, it originated with a 1909 barroom wager: One man bet another that he could get to the summit and back in an hour. He missed by two minutes.
Among Alaskans, the race is probably the most highly regarded sporting event, with the greatest number of spectators, after the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
So says Ms. Kemppel, a four-time Olympian who has just retired after a career as one of the most successful members of the US cross-country ski team. On the ski circuit, she was known as the top American woman, but at home she is more famous for her prowess in Seward.
"I would say that probably in Alaska, I'm better known for Mount Marathon. People come up to me and say, 'Aren't you that runner?' I'm not a runner who skis. I'm actually a skier who runs," she says.
Kemppel first ran Mount Marathon in 1993, in defiance of her coaches. She finished second that year, but has won every year since then. On Thursday she captured a record eighth consecutive title.
Because of course constraints, the race has been split since 1985 into separate events for men, women, and juniors. No more than 300 runners are allowed in each event. That means, for some, that entering the race is almost as much of an ordeal as competing in it.
Race veterans were able to register this year in February. Others had two options: take their chances on a lottery in which hundreds of applicants were turned away, or bid for one of the handful of spots auctioned off the night before the race, with proceeds earmarked for charity. Would-be runners jammed the local high school gym on Wednesday night, offering up to $920 for a position.
Coping with the crush of entrants including an increasing number from outside Alaska is an annual challenge, says Helen Marrs, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce, the race organizer. This year, the chamber ceased accepting walk-in entries. Too many Mount Marathon hopefuls had taken to camping outside the office in the March chill, waiting for the morning when the application period opened.
"It just turned into a mob scene out there," Ms. Marrs says.