SEWARD, Alaska — The whole city of Seward seemed to have Matt Kenney’s back on Friday.
Escorted by 40 or 50 people who gathered behind him for the final kilometer of the 87th edition of Mount Marathon, Kenney made a triumphant, emotional return to the mountain that nearly stole his life two years ago.
Kenney, 43, successfully completed the perilous journey up and down the 3,022-foot peak that is home to Alaska’s oldest and most famous footrace. Wearing a helmet that bore a “Love your brain” sticker — a nod to the traumatic brain injury he suffered when he careened 30 feet down the mountain during his descent in the 2012 race — Kenney beat the time limit by more than eight minutes. He finished in 2 hours, 21 minutes, 26 seconds.
Waiting at the finish line was Kenney’s tearful wife, Gretchen, and the couple’s two children, 13-year-old Justin and 11-year-old Savannah, who helped hold up a 10-foot-long banner that said “WE (HEART SYMBOL) MATT KENNEY.”
“I’m so proud of you,” Gretchen said as she shared a long hug with her husband.
Friends and strangers alike shed tears as they stood near the finish line cheering. Besides the mini-mob that Kenney collected once he came off the mountain and hit pavement, a parade of fellow runners, whose races had ended more than an hour earlier, came to the finish chute to offer handshakes, hugs and atta-boys. “Awesome, buddy, awesome,” said one.
“I’m on top of the world,” Kenney said.
The last time Gretchen waited two hours for Kenney at the finish line was the day Kenney didn’t make it to the finish line.
“She kept looking at her watch,” he said. “She knew something was wrong: ‘He should be here.’ She called Brad, and Brad asked her, ‘What was Matt’s bib number?’ ‘Forty-seven.’ And he told her, ‘You’ve gotta go to the hospital.’”
Kenney was a well-established mountain runner before his accident, having completed Mount Marathon in less than one hour. He spent eight months in hospitals recovering from horrific injuries that included a broken skull and a broken tibia. His fall happened the same year a Seward runner disappeared on the mountain and was later declared dead, incidents that prompted numerous changes to improve safety in the race, one of the riskiest footraces in the country.
To mitigate the risk, Kenney wore a helmet and was accompanied every step of the way by six-time champion Brad Precosky.
“He told me when to pick it up, when to take a break, when to take a drink,” Kenney said.
Precosky was one of several people who assisted Kenney’s comeback by taking him on hikes and climbs around Anchorage. Another was Rebecca McKee, the Peak Center Alaska owner whose training plan helped Kenney lose 70 pounds, weight he gained during the long days when he was unable to walk.
“He’s got determination,” McKee said. “There’s no stopping him.”
Certainly there was no keeping Kenney away from Mount Marathon. He began chasing this goal more than a year ago after surprising doctors with the speed and extent of his recovery. He did a couple of mountain races leading up to Friday, and about two weeks ago he hiked the entire mountain with Precosky to make sure the 2 hour, 30 minute time limit was within reach.
Returning to Mount Marathon wasn’t about seeking redemption, taking care of unfinished business or reaching a goal set in order to aid his recovery -- although all of those things may have spurred Kenney along.
No, returning was about resuming a lifestyle that he loves, one that puts him back on the trails he loves and in the company of others who love running in Alaska’s mountains as much as he does.
“It’s part of you (that) you don’t throw away,” Kenney said. “The men and women who did what they did today, it’s burned into you. You don’t turn it on and off.”