Missoula running titan and race organizer Tony Banovich passed away this week, sending shock waves and ripples of pain across the Montana running community he had been a fixture of for more than three decades.
“It is with an extremely heavy heart that we announce Tony Banovich passed away in his sleep last night,” a message from Run Wild Missoula to its more than 1,600 members read Wednesday.
Banovich became the local running nonprofit’s executive director in 2014, but had been involved in distance running in Montana for more than 30 years, working as a race director, coach, club administrator and event volunteer. He was part of the original Road and Track Club in Missoula, which evolved into Run Wild Missoula. Run Wild organized the city’s first marathon in 2007, and in 2009, that race was named the best in the U.S. by Runner’s World magazine.
“Today there’s a loss, there’s a hole in our running community, the local community, the whole of Montana,” said Anders Brooker, owner of Runners Edge in Missoula.
Banovich grew up in Butte and worked for 25 years as an engineer and project manager for the City of Billings, while at the same time running competitively and fostering a community around the sport he loved.
“Wherever Tony went, he built community,” said Brooker, who met Banovich after finishing ahead of him at an open track meet in Bozeman in the early 2000s.
“He always reminded me that was the first day we raced together, and he was 20 years older than me and still almost beat me,” Brooker chuckled.
For a time, Banovich was considered the “fastest guy in Montana,” Brooker said.
Missoula got lucky when he and his family decided to move to Plains, where his wife Erin is originally from. He became the Plains High School cross country and track coach, and around the same time, the executive director position at Run Wild Missoula opened up.
Banovich, who had been a start and finish line announcer for the race for years, applied, and Brooker said it was an easy decision to put him in charge.
“He was recognized as a race director nationwide,” Brooker said. “The energy he had every day, that’s what kind of inspired me and how he was always there for the people that were close to him.”
While the marathon, like most other large events this year, fell victim to the widespread cancellations of the pandemic, Banovich was able to stay enthusiastic, implementing a virtual race format instead.
“Tony was always so positive. Even when things didn’t work or didn’t happen, he would always see the silver lining,” said Catherine Redfern, president of Run Wild Missoula’s board of directors. “It’s astounding how much he loved the sport and how much he loved the sport in the Missoula community, and how he was really excited to get people excited about being active.”
This past weekend, Banovich had sent a message to Run Wild Missoula members giving them an update on his growing health issues related to a 2010 viral cardiomyopathy diagnosis. In the letter, he indicated he had been undergoing tests and procedures at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix since the previous week and had been told he needed a heart transplant.
“The short and simple story from the physician team here is that even though I present physically as a very healthy person, the hemodynamics of my heart are ‘terrible’. They indicate that they were very surprised that I was able to work and run to the level that I had been,” his message Saturday read.
Brooker said even as late as Tuesday, Banovich was asking how he could help with a high school cross country meet from the hospital in Phoenix.
“He was bummed he wasn’t going to be here, asking how he could help from afar. That was literally our conversation yesterday, was how could he have an impact on a high school meet that was going to happen two days later,” Brooker said Wednesday.
While Banovich’s day-to-day work was impressive, Brooker said what was more impressive was his commitment to the community and his commitment to his friends and family.
“For me, we lost a friend, and I don’t tend to use that word lightly. Tony was one of those guys that he would do anything for you … I knew I could count on him,” Brooker said. “He was a great family man, a great father and husband and someone I looked up to personally.”
Redfern said Banovich’s impact on Missoula and Montana has been “huge,” adding his legacy will live on through the local runners and walkers who traverse the Treasure State.
“It was just so big and I hope stoked the excitement in lots and lots of people and encouraged people to incorporate running and walking as a healthy part of their lifestyle.”
Even in his final message Saturday to Run Wild Missoula members, he had a steadfast commitment to returning to work and the running community he loved so much.
“I do want you all to know that I love what I do and that I am fully committed to Run Wild Missoula and the Missoula Marathon. I have all intentions of hoping to be able to return to work full-time post-transplant and to continue the great work that we do here. We have an amazing and vibrant running and walking community that I want to continue to be part of for years to come.”