By Joe Yelverton
Matt Novakovich looks over his shoulder, listening for foot strikes behind him, the sounds of his pursuer. But what he hears is his own heart, pounding, and the labored rhythm of his own breathing, forcing as much oxygen into his lungs as fast as possible. Up in the rarified air of the mountains he pushes himself to limits most humans will never know. Sea level far beneath his feet, sweat pours off his body as his legs lift with each stride, matching the steep angle of the terrain in front of him. But his nemesis is not the mountain, nor a competitor. Something more formidable hunts him — a horror that has laid in wait, hiding in the confines of his own psyche.
Novakovich is running from insanity.
The Alaskan athlete was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and psychosis when he was in his late teens. His psychotic episodes were so severe he was twice hospitalized in a psychiatric institute, housed among other patients with serious mental disorders, many unable to function in society, everyone separated from the public by a 12-foot high, barbed-wire fence.
Matt knew he was losing his mind, all the while powerless to control his behaviors that led to him being admitted involuntarily. He travelled a rough road, full of embarrassment and scary circumstances. His compulsiveness led to 911 calls by concerned family members. As Matt observed himself going through a serious mental crisis he sank into depression, helplessness, a feeling that he had no control—except the control to end it all, something he seriously contemplated. Suicide seemed like the only viable option. He began to meticulously plan his own death.
More than twenty years later, Matt and I sit inside a darkly lit tavern in downtown Anchorage. We discuss Mt. Marathon, an endurance event that measures physical fitness as much as intestinal fortitude, the attribute of seasoned Alaskans.
Matt is one of these — a tenacious type more suited for suffering through hard workouts than sitting on bar stools, but we both share an affinity for a good cocktail and the stories that follow.
Matt’s a quintessential picture of health and vigor, with a chiseled physique and the demeanor of a church boy, the vestiges of his Mormon upbringing.
Tonight he’s sporting a button dress shirt, close shave, and neatly styled hair, a formal appearance that belies a powerful undercurrent in Matt’s life, flowing from his past experiences. The dark times few people know about.
Our night begins with a couple of Old Fashioned cocktails. Later we switch to straight bourbon, or “truth serum,” as Matt calls it, the “cerebral marinade” that helps move the conversation into tricky places.
We both share a dislike for small talk. And we also share a mutual respect. Long before I became a photojournalist I was a competitive athlete. He set his sights on a bike racing record of mine that had lasted 16 years and when he finally broke it I reached out to congratulate him. A friendship ensued. For some time now I’ve known about the intimate details of his mental illness, but only recently did he agreed to let me write about it.
During his second psychiatric hospitalization, his father, a Vietnam veteran and former Air Force Captain, made a surprise visit after his 20-year old son had just finished a group therapy session.
“It’s time to knock this stuff off,” his father said. “You’re not like these other people. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
Despite his father’s ill-chosen words Matt stayed the course. A new doctor treated his disorder. The crazy thoughts and behaviors began to subside. He found hope.
Matt took psychiatric medications for nearly two decades, eventually weaning himself off by living a disciplined life dedicated to intense physical workouts that not only sharpened his body, but kept him away from the sharp edge of a knife. His training kept him sane. And alive.
As a young man Matt grew accustomed to a lack of sympathy. “Tough love,” is how he describes his father, a role model among others who motivated him to seek out alternative mentors, deep-thinkers more focused on the journey.
In Matt’s final year in high-school he led his cross country running team to the state championship title. In light of this he hoped to join a prestigious college running team. A devout Mormon, he aspired towards a running scholarship at Brigham Young University. So he asked his Anchorage running coach for a recommendation.
“I can’t do that Matt,” his coach insisted. “My reputation is too important to put it on the line for you, and besides you have no future in running.”
Those words seared into Matt’s subconscious, inspiring him to work harder. Disappointment turned to anger, and anger turned to fuel. The irony is Matt evolved while his coach’s career fizzled out, a man with a reputation, well known but for all the wrong reasons.
When Matt finally made the BYU team, the ‘Stormin’ Mormons’, as it’s still affectionately known, he formed what would be a lifelong friendship with his new coach, Sherald James, now 86 years old and still respected for his focus on building character in his athletes as much as helping them succeed on the race course. James is a man with dignity and compassion who cares more about mentoring his athletes than preserving his reputation. Those fortunate enough to be under his tutelage number in the thousands, including many former Olympians.
One of Matt’s earliest encounters with Coach James stands as an important life lesson.
“God gave you two ears and one mouth,” said his coach. “This serves as a reminder to listen twice as much as you speak.”
His coach’s advice wasn’t aimed at helping his athletes listen to him as much as to all the other people they’d encounter in life. Coach James wanted his athletes to be good human beings, to be receptive, and full of humility.
“Of all the successful athletes I coached,” Coach James recently told me, “their success didn’t really happen because of me so much as being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, with the right desires, and the right ambitions.”
“Matt Novakovich fits into that category,” he said, as if expressing admiration for his own son. “Matt was a young man that came to me at a low point in his life. He had some ups and downs, but also a great desire to succeed.”
“Every one of my athletes was, and still is, very important to me,” he said. “Sometimes the ones who were first became last, and sometimes those who were last became first.”
“It’s what they did with the rest of their lives that mattered most to me.”
Understanding the influence Matt’s coach had on him partly explains why his successes haven’t led to him resting on his laurels. Matt has everything most people want — a devoted partner, kids who adore him, a comfortable home, a lucrative business that he worked hard to build, and on top of all that he’s enjoyed the benefits of being a part-time professional athlete. But he’ll still tell you he’s not the best he can be. And there’s also something Matt doesn’t possess that most other people do—a feeling of being “normal,” not having to worry about going crazy.
Matt lives his life walking a tightrope, and his physical training is his therapy.
For the last ten years he’s competed in Mt. Marathon, arguably one of the most difficult, and most dangerous endurance events in the world. It’s so perilous that the Spaniard phenom, Killian Jornet, after winning the event in 2015, claimed that race organizers in Europe would never allow such a course because of the grave risk of injury to racers.
But Alaskans are different. What Mt. Marathon requires of racers epitomizes a brand of toughness unique to the northern latitudes, where grit earns survival rather than accolades.
Mt. Marathon is allegedly the oldest mountain race in North America, held every year on the 4th of July, at the mouth of Resurrection Bay, a deep water fjord surrounded by steep mountains. Among these, the infamous race course ascends 3,000 feet in only one and half miles, creating a relentless angle of 34 degrees, even pitching in some places to 60 degrees. In total the race course is a little over three miles, a deceptively short distance that amounts to a sucker punch to anyone who doesn’t take the race seriously.
Runners climb the mountain to a turn-around point and then descend at sadistic speeds down a different route through steep shale and cliff bands, eventually ending up in the throat of an alder-lined gulley with a history of being unkind to racers. Broken bones, contusions, and lacerations are not uncommon. Nearly every racer who arrives at the bottom of the mountain is covered in some amount of blood. This is where ambulances and paramedics wait to deal with victims of serious injuries. First responders are surrounded by thousands of race fans, the beginning of a long corridor of people extending all the way to the finish line. Like Greek spectators lining the Stadium in Olympia, every racer is met with a cheering cacophony that eclipses all other sporting event in Alaska.
To simply race in Mt. Marathon is an achievement. To break an hour means being among the most fit Alaskans. Placing in the top ten is considered elite, sharing status with Olympic ski racers. But to actually win Mt. Marathon is nothing short of world class.
The first time Matt did the race it was because of a bet between him and his friend Jerry Ross, a well known Anchorage running coach and respected distance runner.
Matt asked Jerry, “How well do you think I could do in Mt. Marathon?”
“Well, top 30 for sure,” Jerry answered.
Matt shot back, “Why would I waste my time trying to place in the top 30?”
Many years of bike racing success translated to success on Mt. Marathon, at least according to Matt’s theory. After all, he was among Alaska’s top endurance athletes. But Jerry had a more conservative view, and was leery of Matt’s chances.
He told Matt, “Just because you worked your ass off as a road racer doesn’t mean you’re all of a sudden going to finish in the top three at Mt. Marathon.”
Jerry’s pragmatism galvanized Matt’s resolve. He bet Jerry he could break the top-ten. Jerry bet against him. The loser would have to compete in a popular running race in Anchorage, wearing only a Speedo.
In 2009, in his first year of racing on Mt. Marathon, Matt barely squeaked into tenth place.
And later that summer, with thousands of other Anchorage runners watching, Jerry Ross raced only in a Speedo.
In 2010 Matt again ended up in tenth place. In 2011 he moved up to fifth place. And then in 2012, after four years of hard work, he finally won the most coveted race in Alaska with a time of 44 minutes and 7 seconds.
But there was a cruel twist of fate.
2012 was also the year that Anchorage resident Michael LeMaitre disappeared and presumably died during his first race up Mt. Marathon. His body was never found, a testament to the formidable terrain.
The mountain’s casualties sometimes eclipse the victories. For Matt, his win was bittersweet. In the following days, throngs of searchers and helicopters scoured the mountain for LeMaitre. It made national news, feeding a story that overpowered and outlasted Matt’s glory.
This is the unfinished business of Matt Novakovich.
In the years that followed, the race has attracted a deeper field of elite talent, not just from Alaska but from all over the world, and especially the lower 48. Every new contender arrives with confidence, eager to disrupt Alaskan dominance. Except for 2015, when Killian Jornet won, all other outsiders have come close but failed.
Alaskans love sharing their passion for racing on Mt. Marathon, but they’re less than willing to share a place on the podium.
Matt and I order another round of bourbon as he shares his thoughts on strategy for this year’s race. Inseparable from the conversation are his waning results in recent years, including an elusive second win. As the bourbon flows, so does the exchange about life itself, the existential meaning of it all, how athletic pursuits on their face reveal very little without a deeper exploration of an inner struggle. We talk about the idea of purpose and the roots of motivation, the motivation to win, and even the occurrence of hollow victories.
It occurs to me that our conversation could easily be reframed as an examination of manhood, a topic that’s inextricably connected to the influences in a man’s life, especially in his younger years, including having great mentors who help teach the value of process.
One of my earliest experiences with Matt was actually on Mt. Marathon when I joined him for one of his training sessions. Early on, we detoured to a stream that flows near the base of the mountain, adjacent to where the race course descends through a deep gulley. Standing resolute, he looked up at the mountain rising above us, and then he knelt down among the rocks and boulders, cupping his hands together in the form of a drinking vessel. He dipped them into the cold cascade and then raised his hands to his mouth, drinking water that originates from the snowfields above.
During this entire experience he said nothing, offering no insight, nor explanation.
What I came to recognize as a ritual left me profoundly curious. A gesture of conviction. In Matt’s case it was apparent that drinking water from the mountain was one of the many ways he pays his respects to the mountain itself — and to the race — but more so than anything to the process of pursuing excellence and perhaps even to recognize the omnipotence of his creator. All this is inextricably related to the way his nearly religious pursuit of excellence keeps his demons at bay.
Winning isn’t enough. Style means everything.
As we climbed higher up on the mountain I observed Matt doing intense intervals, repeats lasting as much as 8-10 minutes during which he pushes himself close to race pace.
There was no else anywhere on the mountain. We were completely alone.
I watched him ascending far above me, nearly up into the clouds. I began to imagine him among other racers, the most elite men capable of sustaining a pace that would leave an average human feeling like their lungs would explode. I pictured him where the mountain steepens considerably, where racers try to push each other into oxygen debt.
At that moment I looked up, and saw Matt looking down, but what I saw in his face wasn’t a picture of fear, more than an expression of equanimity. A sense of calm in the midst of battle, like the original Olympians. And I knew Matt was exactly where he was supposed to be, bravely navigating the powerful undercurrents of his life.