Novakovich answers his own challenge, claims victory

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 4, 2012 

SEWARD - In the weeks leading up to Wednesday's men's Mount Marathon race, Matt Novakovich did not lurk off the radar, or poor-mouth his championship chances, or even remotely downplay his expectations.

Instead, he called himself out.

And then he answered his own challenge with the fourth-fastest time in a celebrated race that draws thousands of spectators to the shores of Resurrection Bay.

Novakovich, who so badly wanted to win the 85th edition of the race up and down the 3,022-foot slab of misery and publicly stated his goal when asked, captured the coveted title when he blitzed the course of three-plus miles in 44 minutes, 7 seconds.

That delivered a personal record (PR) by a head-shaking 2:37 and a time that has only been surpassed by race record-holder and eight-time champion Bill Spencer (43:21 in 1981); 2004 champion Toby Schwoerer (43:39); and two-time champion and Wednesday runner-up Trond Flagstad (44:03 in 2008).

For a 38-year-old from Anchorage who was a track runner at Brigham Young University and then an elite cyclist before turning to mountain-running, his victory was a testament to single-minded focus and punishing training.

"My college coach used to say after a big race, 'Gentleman, I'm pleased but not satisfied,' " Novakovich said. "Not to sound cliched or over the top, but I'm finally satisfied.''

After finishing 10th in both 2009 and 2010, and fifth last year, Novakovich redoubled his efforts. He charged into race-specific training, much of it conducted on a treadmill he owns that can furnish an incline as severe as 40 degrees - that's dead-on because Mount Marathon averages a 38-degree pitch.

Yet there is no avoiding the toll the race takes on even the masters of the mountain. The uphill makes legs scream and lungs nearly bust. After that brutal effort, the wicked downhill leaves legs rubbery and makes the final run on the descending road into the downtown finish an ordeal.

In Novakovich's dream scenario, coming down Fourth Avenue in the lead would feel fantastic. Turns out reality bites.

"I dreamt about it so much in practice; it was exhilarating,'' Novakovich said. "(Today) I just had tunnel vision. It was pure pain.

"Coming down that final stretch, people said, 'You got it,' and I thought, 'I don't have anything.' ''

He had plenty enough, though, to hold off Flagstad, who lowered his 40-49 age-group record, and a slew of contenders, many of whom generated PRs.

Flagstad, 42, of Anchorage, who won in 2008 and 2010, finished second in 44:26 to knock 14 seconds off his age-group record. Matias Saari, 41, of Anchorage, the 2009 champ, took third in 45:13, an improvement of 51 seconds over his previous best.

Fourth-place finisher Ben Ward, 37, of Anchorage, clocked 45:56 to top his previous PR by 33 seconds. And fifth-place finisher Tor Christopherson, 30, of Anchorage, threw down a 46:11 that shredded his PR by 3:00.

Defending champion Eric Strabel, 30, of Anchorage, finished eighth in 46:52. Unofficially, he again turned in the fastest downhill time, racing from the summit to the finish line in just 10:08.

And ageless Barney Griffith - OK, he's 54 - finished 10th in 48:09, which trimmed 14 seconds off the 50-59 age-group record he set as a 50-year-old in 2008.

Those dynamic performances came on an afternoon that greeted the men with light rain on an already slick dirt trail on the lower half of the mountain. By accounts of racers, though, the downhill trail - it veers away from that slippery lower trail - proved blistering fast.

All the contenders predicted Novakovich's superior uphill strength - he won the uphill-only races on Government Peak and Bird Ridge in preparation for Mount Marathon - would be too much for them Wednesday. Indeed, Novakovich's unofficial time of 32:54 to the rock runners circle at the summit before descending put him about a minute ahead of Flagstad, who felt as spunky as he did in his last victory.

"Going up, I thought, 'Huh, this feels like 2010,' '' Flagstad said.

Saari, meanwhile, was about 90 seconds or more behind Novakovich at the summit but thought that might be a small enough gap to close.

"It looked manageable,'' Saari said. "At the top, it seemed like we had a chance. Matt, obviously, improved on the downhill.''

Novakovich's downhill until Wednesday was his weakness. But he worked deliberately at becoming faster, and more fearless, on the descent. His unofficial downhill time of 11:12 on Wednesday, despite momentary cramps in his calves, was an improvement of 1:38 over his downhill time last year.

Flagstad (10:33) and Saari (10:45) managed the downhill significantly faster, but Novakovich on the uphill had built an insurmountable lead.

That proved a fabulous finish for him, and for his family. Novakovich;s victory came after his wife, Tiffanie, finished 15th in the women's race; their 9-year-old daughter Liz finished 25th in the junior girls race halfway up the mountain and back; and their 11-year-old son Josh finished 32nd in the boys race.

As for dad, he cashed in on what he called his "in-my-face'' challenge, which he said holds him accountable for both training and performance.

And that left Novakovich both pleased and satisfied.

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

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