Matt Novakovich of Anchorage, who trained manically on a treadmill he could set to an gut-busting incline of 40 percent, captured Wednesday’s Mount Marathon, a 3.5-mile race up and down the imposing mountain that shadows Seward.
He finished in 44 minutes, 7 seconds, the fourth-fastest time in the 85-year-history of the July 4 race that began as a bar bet in Seward and morphed in one of Alaska’s top athletic events.
Two-time champion Trond Flagstad of Anchorage finished second in the men's race at 44:26 and Matias Saari, the 2009 winner who finished fourth last year, moved up one spot. He finished third in 45:13.
Earlier Wednesday, Anchorage’s Holly Brooks, the 30-year-old World Cup skier, won the women's race with a time of 51:53.
Novakovich, who looked spent but focused as he pumped his arms and raced the last two blocks on Seward’s streets, absorbed the crowd’s cheers. "That wasn't fun," he said after crossing the finish line.
Novakovich was the fifth-place finisher last year, his fourth Mount Marathon Race. That was an excellent finish by anyone’s standards, but he was determined to improve. And win.
“I spent the whole winter on the trainer in my garage,” Novakovich said before the race. “There’s no BS; it’s completely training.
“I want to go out pretty hard. I think I can put time on those guys early in the climb and maybe get a big lead. But I’ve never been where I’m pushing myself to my absolute limit in first place.”
He’s been there now. And a Mount Marathon victory may make many of his previous victories -- as a road biker, a mountain biker and a collegiate steeplechaser – pale by comparison. A Mount Marathon crown guarantees a year’s worth of glory.
“You can tell someone you won a big bike race and the reaction is, ‘Well, that’s cool.’ But everybody in Alaska knows Mount Marathon and knows what it means to win that race,” said Novakovich, an Anchorage roofing contractor, said before the race. “I love it.”
Bill Spencer’s race record of 43:23 was set 31 years ago, and in the three decades only one other man has finished in under 44 minutes. Toby Schwoerer finished just 16 seconds off of Spencer’s mark in the 2005 race, but Novakovich isn’t far back now.
Proving that old runners don’t completely fade away, Spencer, now 56 years old, finished in under an hour Wednesday, a respectable time for a man half his age.
Holly Brooks wins first Mt. Marathon
While Novakovich was the new king of the hill, Anchorage’s Holly Brooks was the new queen.
Brooks put two Mount Marathon runner-up finishes behind her with her fastest time, 51:53, putting her among the top-10 fastest women in the race’s eight-decade history.
Well behind Brooks was Lauren Fritz of Chugiak, who claimed second place with a time of 54:47.
This year's women’s race was sure to see a new victor. Defending champion Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, the reigning World Cup sprint ski champion, decided to skip this year’s Mount Marathon to avoid any risk of injury on the steep, treacherous course that averages a 38-percent pitch. And Seward’s mountain-running wizard, Cedar Bourgeois, has retired from the race she dominated with seven consecutive victories ending in 2010.
But Brooks may have been due for victory, no matter who else lined up among the 350 women that started at 11:15 a.m.
She quickly assumed the lead, scrambling up the fog-enshrouded Mount Marathon, reaching the turnaround minutes faster than any of her fellow competitors. She didn’t give it up.
In fact, had Brooks been a few seconds faster on the downhill portion of the race during the previous two Mount Marathons, she might have been gunning for a third-straight title.
Randall nipped her by just 19 seconds last year. The 2010 race was even closer -- she was just 10 seconds behind Bourgeois, a downhill running demon who made up a deficit of nearly two minutes at the Mount Marathon summit to claim her last championship.
In the junior boys and girls races earlier Wednesday, both defended champions repeated. Allie Ostrander, 15, of Soldotna, notched her fourth consecutive victory in 32 minutes, 50 seconds. Meanwhile Miles Knotek, 17, of nearby Moose Pass took the boys race in 27:18.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com.