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Yukon man tackles ‘toughest’ 5-km race on Earth

The Mount Marathon Race is known for tough terrain, bloody injuries and a mysterious disappearance
Whitehorse resident Ben Yu Schott is a passionate trail and ultra runner who completed the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska, on July 4. Here, he is pictured halfway through his descent of the marathon. (Bikru Photography)

Whitehorse resident Ben Yu Schott completed the gruelling Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska earlier this month, finishing in 273rd place in the men’s division with a time of 1:55:52.

It was Yu Schott’s first time running the race, often called “the toughest five kilometres on the planet.” It sees runners ascend and then rapidly descend the contest’s namesake mountain, with successful participants tackling an elevation gain of more than 900 meters.

The Mount Marathon Race, held annually on July 4, American Independence Day, is reputedly the oldest mountain race in the U.S. and among the oldest footraces in the country.

And while races are, by their very nature, competitive, the Mount Marathon Race is a contest even before runners take their marks. The difficulty of being selected as a participant for the footrace is a well-documented phenomenon, with the men’s and women’s categories only allowing 375 entrants each in 2023.

Race hopefuls who do not have priority registration status due to a strong performance in a previous year or for meeting other criteria must enter a lottery.

Those not selected in the draw have two options: try again next year or attempt to win or buy entry through the raffle or auction. Perhaps surprisingly, bidding in the auction can go into the thousands of dollars. In 2017, according to an Outside Magazine article, bidding reached US$3,500.

For the 2023 edition of the Mount Marathon Race, Yu Schott managed to secure a coveted place as a participant. It was his first time entering the lottery.

“This was my first time putting in for the lottery this year. I was not expecting to get in because it’s pretty hard — your odds are low, especially as a first-time applicant,” he says, adding, “I think there was like a 20 per cent chance or something to get in this year, and it just so happened that I got in on my first try.”

Yu Schott has considerable experience in impressive feats of physical prowess. He started as a road runner before moving into trail running and “ultra-territory” roughly a decade ago.

“I’ve done up to about 60 kilometres in a day over some mountainous terrain, so that’s been about the extent of the distance I’ve gone,” he tells the News.

The start of the junior Mount Marathon Race on July 4 in Seward, Alaska. (Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
The start of the junior Mount Marathon Race on July 4 in Seward, Alaska. (Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Over his running career, Yu Schott has participated in numerous races in the Yukon and Outside, including the Yukon River Trail Marathon and the Golden Ultra in British Columbia. He says he has participated in at least a dozen ultra-distance races and more than 50 trail races in the five- to 25-kilometre range.

“The Golden Ultra is one that I’ve done a number of times […], and that’s a multi-day event. I’ve done portions of the Reckless Raven locally and the [Yukon River] Trail Marathon. So, I kind of love trail and ultra-running,” Yu Schott says.

But the Mount Marathon Race is different.

For one, the distances of the aforementioned races dwarf the numerically measly five kilometres of the Seward race. Despite this, the annual scramble up Mount Marathon has a reputation as a perilous race due to its steep grade, technical terrain and the jagged shale rocks that runners must traverse.

“The Golden, B.C. race has something called a vertical kilometre. So, over five kilometres, you’re going up about 1,000-plus metres of elevation gain over some technical terrain. I would say [the Mount Marathon Race] was kind of an order of magnitude stronger, different, more challenging — especially with the varied terrain and the technicality of it,” Yu Schott says.

A Wikipedia entry for the race notes, “It is not uncommon for the racers who finish to cross the finish line injured or bleeding and covered in mud.”

In addition to dealing out injuries like a blackjack dealer dishes out cards, the Mount Marathon Race is associated with a disappearance and presumed death. In 2012, 66-year-old Anchorage businessman Michael LeMaitre disappeared roughly three hours into the race and has never been seen or heard from again. He was declared legally dead in October 2012.

READ MORE: Cyclists tackle 170 km race in the Yukon’s Southern Lakes

As a result of the race’s extreme reputation, race hopefuls must have completed the route at least once prior to registering.

“You have to certify that you’ve actually done the route before. So probably about three or four years ago, I made a little motorcycle trip down to the area and actually ran on the route because I wanted to see it,” Yu Schott says.

To prepare for the event, Yu Schott did his best to replicate the terrain he’d face on Mount Marathon, running up the Money Shot trail on Grey Mountain, which offers steep, rough terrain.

“That’s one of the most technical trails close to me that I can replicate what the experience is like. And I look for steep, technical terrain, where I really have to work hard on the climb,” he says.

“Then for the descent portion, that’s the most important portion. In hindsight, what was most important for this race is practising hard, fast technical, downhill running, because it puts a really different load on the body.”

On race day, according to Yu Schott, conditions were less than ideal. In the month leading up to the running event, Seward was hit with precipitation on more than 20 days. On July 4, the port city was hit with showers.

“Because it had rained so much in the previous three weeks, [the route] was so slick and so muddy,” he says, adding that to achieve forward progress on the bottom portion of the mountain, he was sometimes reduced to using both his hands in addition to his feet.

Mount Marathon, seen July 4, 2022, in Seward, Alaska. (Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Mount Marathon, seen July 4, 2022, in Seward, Alaska. (Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

The shale at the upper reaches of Mount Marathon proved treacherous, according to Yu Schott, particularly on the way back down, when the peak’s steep grade sometimes results in nearly uncontrollable momentum.

“I call it shale surfing when you’re coming down […] Literally, your momentum is so fast that you can’t really stop or change direction quickly,” Yu Schott says. “There were a couple of moments on the descent where I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is pretty crazy.’”

During his descent, he says he passed one injured person receiving help from medical personnel.

“First aid folks were providing support to an individual on the other side of the trail. He clearly had a fall and wasn’t continuing. He was conscious, and I couldn’t actually see what the injuries were, but the person was definitely done for the day.”

Despite being a race with a winner who gets a trophy, bragging rights and free entry to future Mount Marathon Races, Yu Schott took a laid-back approach to the competition, aspiring simply to finish the route, have fun and get down safely to see his 12-year-old son, who was volunteering along the course. Thankfully, according to Yu Schott, he achieved all three objectives.

“My philosophy going into [the race] was just to complete it — have fun and finish in one piece. And that was good advice to myself because I heard from veteran racers that it was some of the most challenging conditions for the race in its history,” he says.

Reflecting on the race weeks later back in Whitehorse, Yu Schott tells the News, “It lives up to its name as the toughest five kilometres on the planet.” He’d love to go back in the future and “really race it” to get his best possible time on the course.

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