David Norris and Jessica Yeaton won the men’s and the women’s races today at Seward’s 91st Mount Marathon Race. The course is touted as one of the most difficult races in the world. Runners brave heat, slippery slopes, falling rocks and a 3,022-foot elevation gain. And it’s not just adults in their prime. This year’s oldest runner was 78 years old. The youngest was just seven.
Those under 18, like twelve-year-old Tali Novakovich, run in the junior race
The night before the race, families fill the cafeteria of Seward High School for a pasta dinner. The fundraiser is a good chance for runners to fill up on carbs before they burn them all off going up the mountain. Novakovich steps away from the table where her family sat and into the evening heat.
She pulls out the number 26 from her Mount Marathon race bag. Race day is her birthday, and it’ll be her sixth time competing The first time she was just seven, the cut-off age.
“It was cool because when I was racing, on the podium someone said that I was the youngest person to ever do it,” she said.
Novakovich is mostly worried about the heat.
“So there’s like trees at the beginning of it and like halfway through,” she said. “And then after that, it’s like all out of the trees and so it’s gonna be really hot.”
Novakovich’s mom, Tiffanie Bird, nods.
“The bottom half it feels sort of like a steam room or a jungle ’cause you’re covered in trees,” she said.
Bird and her husband both run Mount Marathon and three of their four kids do the junior race every year. Even though those younger than 18 turn around at the halfway point, a lot of the dangerous stuff is at the beginning, when the kids scramble up cliffs of either rocks or roots.
“Other kids can kick rocks loose. And so, one year, she said that a big rock flew right past her shoulder and things like that are always on my mind,” Bird said. “So they race first in the morning, and I’m always really glad when they’re done.”
Novakovich said that one time, a rock actually hit her.
“I was eight and so I cried and then like took a break for a second and then I just kept going, but yeah,” she said. “It was not that bad.”
Bird said she and her husband always take the kids up the mountain several times ahead of the race each year. But it’s still nerve-wracking. The course can be different from year to year depending on the weather.
At eight in the morning, it’s already around 64 degrees when I start trekking up the mountain on race day. I’m taking an old jeep road to avoid the cliffs, and I’m still exhausted. It’s hard to believe a 7-year-old can make it up at all.
Above treeline, a metal post with an orange flag and a sign marks the turnaround point for juniors. At 9 am, the young runners lined up at the finish line look like ants down below. And then, an announcer counts down from five, the runners start and the crowd cheers.
It takes the first runners less than half the time it took me to get to the turnaround point. They round a bend out of the woods and run around the post. A woman calls the numbers as they come up to mark their times.
Kids gasp for air and gulp water. Novakovich shows up in the middle of the pack. She stops for a short breath then joins the others, who are stumbling back down a long slope of scree. Clouds of dust and rocks kick up behind them.
She said she always looks forward to finishing.
“You feel really good inside,” she said. “Well, you kind of feel like you’re gonna throw up, but you feel good inside because you did the whole entire race.”
The winner for the boy’s race, Michael Connelly, finished in just under 27 minutes this year. Kendall Kramer won the girl’s race with a time of 34:05. Novakovich cut five minutes off her best time. She looks forward to running the senior race someday.
But for now, it’s time to celebrate her birthday.