There must be something about Mount Marathon that inspires bet-making. Just as the race itself was born out of a bar-room bet, so too was longtime Mount Marathon race volunteer Ronn Hemstock’s first running of the race.
“It started a couple of years ago, with a couple of us old duffers sitting around the fire,” said Hemstock, 54, a longtime teacher and wrestling coach at Seward High School. “It was, ‘I’ll do it if you do it,’ so it was kind of a challenge. So I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’ll do it if you do it.’ I thought that was the end of the conversation.”
Instead, it was just the beginning. Hemstock, who has lived in Seward for 20 years and has a plane, said he was perfectly satisfied viewing the town’s famed backdrop from the comfort of the cockpit.
“I never felt the need to go up it because I can be there by plane in one minute,” he said. “Now I look back on that, and it’s an embarrassment to think that I’d never wanted to climb it,” much less race it.
So, when January rolled around, Hemstock’s friend, Mark Kromrey, called him again – You still on for that bet, he asked?
“Well, I had to do it then,” Hemstock said, laughing.
When Hemstock began teaching at Seward High School, he said volunteering for Mount Marathon was simply part of the expectations of anyone on the coaching staff there. As the wrestling coach, he was one of the crew.
“I didn’t know any better. They told me to do it, so I did,” he said. Mostly, he spent his time at the finish line, calling out bib numbers, catching exhausted racers as they stumbled across the finish line and hosing off the blood, sweat, dirt – and sometimes vomit – that the racers tend to get covered in after scaling the mountain at break-neck speed.
But last year was different. Spurred on by Kromrey’s challenge – and motivated to see what all the fuss is about – he received an honorary entry into the race due to his volunteer status. And because he is also friends with Dan Marshall, the longtime running coach at Seward High, he had help from his friends.
“Aside from my coaching duties and teaching, I put myself through college as a bus driver,” Hemstock added. “So I’ve become the go-to guy for the cross-country team and track team as the bus driver, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of the runners.
“They’ve accepted me; they’ve really been good to me and they’ve treated me well,” he added.
Kromrey and Hemstock spent the spring and early summer of 2014 training on the mountain. They’d go up together and time how long it took them, hoping to meet the cutoff to stay in the top echelon of runners who can be invited back each year. With each ascent, Hemstock said he grew to understand the appeal to the race each time. The view from the top is breathtaking on a clear day, offering him a perspective on his town that can only be gained through physical effort.
“I love being up there, writing my name in rocks, seeing the view from the top,” he said. “There’s really nothing like it.”
When race day came, the day didn’t go as planned. Hemstock and Kromrey climbed together but weren’t close to their goal time of an hour and a half, or less. No matter how much one volunteers, racing Mount Marathon is a whole new deal, Hemstock said, and on this, his rookie race, he learned a lot.
That’s why he’s back again this year, making what he calls an “honest run at it.”
“I’ve been training and Dan (Marshall) took me up the course and showed me the best route,” he said. “I try to run it a couple days a week, at least three days a week.”
After this year’s race, which Hemstock says he feels much more prepared for, he will need to put his name in the lottery like everyone else – but if he attains that magic finish in the top 225, he feels like he will have a good chance of spending his future Fourth of July’s atop the mountain rather than at the finish line, hosing off other racers.
“I really want to do it every year,” he said. “I’d like to get in and stay in. There’s just something about it and now I understand.”