SEWARD, Alaska - A year after the last-place runner vanished without a trace during Alaska's most famous mountain race, presumably dying somewhere on the steep terrain, officials have made sweeping changes to prevent any repeat occurrences in the grueling Fourth of July tradition.
Last year's disappearance of a 65-year-old Anchorage man on Mount Marathon was the first fatality in the nearly century-old race, run in the coastal town of Seward.
That incident, along with severe injuries suffered by other racers in the 2012 event, is prompting this year's push for caution in what has long been celebrated as a daredevil contest.
Competitors must meet specified time milestones or they will be forced to drop out, a rule designed to avoid risks to stragglers. Rookies must attest to having scouted the mountain ahead of time. Signs posted on the lower mountain, site of the most dangerous cliffs, point out alternate descent routes and rate their difficulty. A team of hikers will "sweep" the mountain after the competition to look for potential laggards.
But, veteran runners say, it is impossible to entirely tame Mount Marathon, a race that takes competitors 3,022 feet up and down a mountain with pitches as steep as 60 degrees and into Seward streets lined with thousands of spectators.
"I think racers accept that if you don't want to do it, if you're really worried about getting down in one piece, then don't sign up for it," said 2009 champion Matias Saari, one of the safety tour leaders.
Runners scamper up rock faces grabbing tree roots, puff up and down on loose scree and descend through an icy creek bed and over rock cliffs of varying pitches. Injuries are common, ranging from skinned knees and backsides to heat exhaustion and broken bones.