Nyholm completes a marathon on Mount Marathon

June 6, 2019

Climbing and descending the steep slopes of Seward’s Mount Marathon one time is an accomplishment.

For Joe Nyholm, a single trip is merely a warmup. On June 1, Nyholm completed a marathon on Mount Marathon by running and hiking 26.5 miles in 18.5 hours while climbing 35,902 vertical feet.

“I didn’t feel worn down until midway,” said Nyholm, 28, a Seward native and dietitian with Chugachmiut Inc. “My legs got kind of numb to the pain (while climbing). As it wore on, I definitely slowed down on the downhill but I never felt pain (descending).”

Nyholm, an ultrarunner who has completed the HURT 100-miler in Hawaii (34 hours) and the Chugach Front Range 12 Peaks linkup (23 hours), did a test run on Mount Marathon two years ago by completing 20,000 vertical feet. He called that “Denali in a day” and in 2018 also summitted Denali as a mountaineer.

Knowing that the unofficial American record for 24 hours was climbing 45,000 vertical feet, Nyholm chose Mount Marathon — with its precipitous climb and forgiving scree descent — for a record attempt.

“It was definitely doable. I was on pace,” Nyholm said, adding that chasing numbers became less appealing as his body and mind fatigued.

The mountain also didn’t fully cooperate, as a hard rain from Friday night made the first few laps muddy and slippery. Clouds also socked in the upper mountain and a stiff wind chilled him at times.

“I’d go up in that cloud and I wouldn’t be able to see anything. I was in a ping pong ball — just me and thoughts of never-ending climbing,” he said.

However, the rain did soften the mountain for the descent, which included a section of snow off the top and deep scree below that. “The down was the best I’ve seen in 10 years,” he said.

Nyholm set up a “base camp” at the feature known as Squirrels’ Den a quarter of the way up the mountain. He started at 6 a.m. and finally pulled the plug after midnight following 16 laps. He spent most of the day solo.

Nyholm’s marathon is arguably not even the craziest thing he’s done on Mount Marathon. For the past nine years, he’s worn a Gumby costume and become a fan favorite among thousands who watch the Mount Marathon Race.

“The first two years I wore a full body suit all the way up and all the way down,” said Nyholm, who for safety reasons cut the legs off and now runs in a half suit.

Nyholm plans to continue racing as Gumby but isn’t sure he’s up for another record climbing attempt on Mount Marathon.

“I’d probably take a couple years to think about it,” Nyholm said. “Maybe someone (else) will try it. My time could go down three or four hours easily.”

-By Matias Saari, Alaska Sports Blog Contributor