Local athlete Novakovich wows pro-level obstacle racers
At the top of Mount Alyeska, Matt Novakovich and his wife, Tiffanie, take a break with their son, Josh. It’s early in the Alyeska Climb-a-thon, a grueling lap-a-thon that challenges racers to climb the 2,000-foot North Face Trail as many times as possible in a 10-hour period.
Last year Novakovich was the only competitor to complete 12 laps – a number that was not beaten this year, either. But this year, Novakovich ambled up only three times– even his 10-year old daughter completed two more laps than him.
Novakovich had his eye on a bigger prize. In less than a week, the well-known Alaska adventure athlete – Novakovich has excelled at bicycle road racing, mountain biking, triathlons and most recently mountain running – was headed to the World Championship Spartan Races, an out-of-control racing phenomenon that – no surprise – has garnered nary a mention in Alaska. The Spartan races – highly competitive obstacle races that test not only physical and emotional strength, but also true grit, pits some of the fittest and most adventurous athletes in the country against each other. The Spartan Race phenomena is sweeping North America and spreading across the Atlantic Ocean, and according to a Forbes article published Sept. 3, 2013, Spartan chief executive officer and founder Joe De Sena estimated that some 650,000 people will compete in the 60 events hosted in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom this year alone.
And Novakovich is their new poster boy.
In late August, Novakovich went to a Super Spartan Race at Wintergreen Ski Resort in Virginia, urged on by a brother-in-law who thought he’d do well in competition. Guys with dude voices em-ceeing the event called it the toughest Spartan of its kind because of its 8,600 feet in elevation change and its ridiculous steepness in places. They spoke in awe of such well-known Spartan circuit racers like Hobie Call, the 36-year-old favorite who was expected to smash the competition.
And then 39-year-old Novakovich showed up and blew them all away.
By, like, 5 minutes.
Score 1, Alaska.
A NEW CHALLENGE
Novakovich had been coming off a disappointing mountain running season. As the 2012 champion of Alaska’s best-known mountain race, Mount Marathon, he entered the 2013 season determined to reach a new high – breaking the longstanding Mount Marathon record of 43 minutes, 21 seconds, set by Bill Spencer in 1981.
But that didn’t happen. Not only did he not set the record, but he fell to a distant 11th place, while two other racers – winner Eric Strabel and California professional mountain runner Rickey Gates – went on to set records.
“After Mount Marathon, I wasn’t in depression, but I really didn’t want to see my treadmill or see the mountains anytime soon,” said Novakovich. “So I started playing basketball, pack-rafting – started getting active again.”
During that period, Novakovich’s brother-in-law happened to mention a Spartan Race that was being held in his area of Virginia. He urged Novakovich to give it a try – why not, he said? If I can do it, so can you.
It was just the change of scenery Novakovich said he needed. He knew next to nothing about Spartan Races, so he started an Internet search and studied what he needed to do.
Jump a 4-foot wall? No problem. He began practicing by leaping over his vehicles at home.
Throw spears? Can do. He set up a target along the fence in his yard and spent hours aiming at the center.
He did burpees and pushups, and played lots and lots of basketball.
“I was just trying to have a good time, trying to run around and do stuff that would also make me fit,” he said. After three years dedicated to mountain running, his upper body was lean – too lean – for the demands of burpees, rope climbing and heavy lifting that would be required in Spartan. Novakovich had six weeks to get ready.
Apparently it worked. Two days after our interview he was to leave for the World Championships in Vermont – the trip being paid for by the Pro Spartan Team, which is wooing him to join their ranks. They even included wife, Tiffanie, in the event. A top female competitor herself, she’d be taking on the women of Spartan.
‘PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT HIM’
Pro Spartan team member David Magida, who finished third in the Virginia Spartan Race, said Novakovich has no idea just how strong he is, or exactly what it was he accomplished. Magida, 27, has raced competitively for the past three years, and said the Virginia Spartan was the toughest “Super” category race of its kind.
“The Virginia was a true endurance event,” he said. “He happened to pick a race that was perfect for his (mountain running) strengths. … There were Olympians there that day who got crushed by the mountain.”
When Novakovich crossed the finish line – a full 5 minutes ahead of Call – the press descended. They wanted to know who this dark horse guy from Alaska was, and how he’d managed to outrace, by such a strong margin, the frontrunner.
No surprise here, said Magida, who in his own blog posting (blog.spartanrace.com/tag/david-magida/) of the race described Novakovich as a “guy who looks like he lives off a diet of nails and caribou jerky.”
“Oh yeah, people are talking about him,” Magida said of the World Championships. “Everyone’s talking about, ‘who’s going to win this race?’ There are going to be a number of Olympic runners there, Olympic cross-country skiers, professional mountain runners.”
In the end, though, it not only will come down to the person with the ideal body type, but also the person with the perfect mentality to tackle the 15-plus miles of trails, fraught with such obstacles as barbed wire, fire, rope traverses and vertical walls. You could be a great runner, but have no strength for the endless burpees that are scattered throughout the course. You could be strong as a Spartan yourself, but without the endurance to handle the running, you’re toast.
“It tests you physically, emotionally and mentally,” Magida said. “You have to be fearless, you need to be gritty, and you have to tolerate the hard stuff.”
Determined not to outpsych himself or worry too much about his results – after all, it’s only his second Spartan race – Novakovich said he is working hard to stay relaxed even though he knows he’s now the guy to beat. If he learned anything from his disappointing Mount Marathon finish, it’s that he needs to be flexible.
“I think it would be ludicrous for me to go down there and say I’ve gotta win this,” he said. “I need to go down there and be relaxed.”
Meanwhile, two offers have come in to join the pro ranks. One team wants to send him to Korea to race – Spartan Races have spread to the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia, Slovakia and Germany. Spain is on the roster as well. Novakovich said he is drawn to the offers – not because of the modest salary, but for the opportunity to see new places, compete in different venues and meet top competitors the world over.
First though, he said, is surviving the World Championships and keeping that relaxed, no-pressure attitude. It’s a feat easier said than done, by a guy who is a self-confessed obsessive about whatever sport he pursues.
“I’m on or off, I’m all or nothing,” he said. “I’ve never been much of a dabbler, it’s kind of the way I’ve been with everything.” ◆
NBC taped the Spartan Race World Championship in Killington, Vt., which features a human-interest segment on Matt Novakovich and his wife, Tiffanie. The Sept. 21, 2013, championships included $250,000 in cash and prizes. It is the first-ever televised extreme obstacle/adventure race event on NBC. The 90-minute TV special will air Oct. 19 on the NBC Sports Network. See local listings for times.