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Mount Marathon racer goes indoors to build mountain toughness

Mike Campbell
Loren Holmes photo

 Mount Marathon -- July 4 in Seward

• Opening Ceremony on Fourth Avenue, 9:15 am.

• Junior race, 9:30 a.m.

• Women’s race, 11:15 a.m.

• Men’s race, 3 p.m.

• Awards ceremony at AVTEC gymnasium, 6 p.m.

When the 85th running of Seward’s Mount Marathon race gets started Wednesday, Anchorage roofing contractor Matt Novakovich will be happy to feel the grime of mountain trails on his body and smell Resurrection Bay salt water wafting through his nostrils.

Novakovich is among the favorites to win the 3,022-foot climb up and down the famous mountain on Independence Day, and the man emerging as Alaska’s top athletic chameleon will be thrilled to finally be sweating outdoors.  Other than victories earlier this summer in two uphill-only races that serve as run-ups to Mount Marathon -- Bird Ridge and Government Peak -- more than 85 percent of Novakovich’s training has taken place indoors.

No negotiating muddy trails.  No dodging wildlife.  No dealing with weather, loose rocks, hidden roots.

Instead, Novakovich, 38, the fifth-place Mount Marathon finisher last year, heads to the garage of his Anchorage home and fires up his trainer. Typically, the incline button on treadmills at athletic clubs lets users add uphill to any workout.  Most machines top out at a 15-percent incline, sufficient to slow mere mortals to a gut-busting crawl.  That’s child’s play for Novakovich, who needed something that better duplicates the conditions he’ll encounter on Mount Marathon July 4.

“I used to put phone books under the trainer (to boost the incline),” Novakovich said, “but I’ve been working with the manufacturer (which he declines to name) to develop a trainer that allows me to up it to 40 percent.”

That resembles the painful climb up Mount Marathon, which averages 38 percent as it winds to the summit – reaching more than 50 percent on the steepest sections.

“I’ve shared the idea with some people lately,” Novakovich said.  “A lot of them think it’s funny.  ‘Why would you want to bother doing that,’ they say.  ‘Let’s go out on the mountain.’ ”

Novakovich loves running the trails as much as anyone. There’s a freedom and beauty to mountain running he seldom tasted in one of his previous athletic fixations as perhaps Alaska’s top road cyclist and a former Tour of Anchorage champion.  But there’s a price to uphill running.

“Every time you go up 12,000 vertical feet (a brutal Saturday workout for Novakovich) you have to go down, and you never recover from that pounding,” he said. 

Last year his fourth Mount Marathon race, the pounding resulted in a torn meniscus cartilage in Novakovich’s knee. But more important, perhaps, the treadmill in his garage meant he could train without stealing precious time from his family – four children and his wife, Tiffanie, who’s is expected to be a top finisher in Wednesday’s women’s race. Son Josh, 12, and daughter Liz, 9, are entered in the juniors race.

“I spent the whole winter on the trainer in my garage.  There’s no BS; it’s completely training.”

Wednesday’s race will be the test of Novokovich’s training, and plenty of challengers with championship pedigree await.  Among them are Matias Saari, the 2009 winner who finished fourth last year; Trond Flagstad, 42, a two-time champion, and defending champion Eric Strabel, a manic downhiller who won in 44 minutes, 40 seconds last year and covered the descent in under 11 minutes.  

In practice sessions this year, Novokovich said he’s clocked sub-11-minute downhills, too. But practice isn’t race day.

“I want to go out pretty hard,” he said.  “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. How are you going to feel?” 

Then there’s the downhill -- barreling, bouncing, blasting down at breakneck speed on the knife’s edge of careening out of control. This year, a large snowfield at the top of the mountain will turn some racers into sliders for a while.

“I used to be afraid of it,” said Novokovich, a former collegiate steeplechase runner in yet another athletic life. “Then I was not afraid but not so good at it.  I just hope my legs feel as good on Wednesday as I think my talent level is.”

Survive the downhill -- or, better yet, win the race -- and one of the supreme rewards in Alaska athletics awaits at the bottom of the hill, where thousands of spectators gather to cheer the first runners off the mountain.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal,” Novokovich said of the scene he encountered last year.  “They make it feel like it’s the world championships, like it’s the biggest event going on on the planet. Last year, I heard the crowd as I came down the last part, and it was loud. Coming down the cliff (a steep section shortly before reaching the roadway in town), I really heard it.  Then I put my fist in the air, and the noise like tripled.

“You know, 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. I love it.”

For the next 12 months, the victor will be Alaska’s King or Queen of the Hills.

“I’m ready to go,” Novokovich said, noting that after all his indoor training, “I feel like a trapped animal.”

Contact Mike Campbell at mike(at)alaskadispatch.com