Novakovich gears for title run

Doyle Woody
MARC LESTER / Daily News archive 2011

The measure of Matt Novakovich's tunnel vision in pursuit of a Mount Marathon men's championship is through the roof -- literally.

As part of his training for Wednesday's 85th running of the storied race up and down the 3,022-foot beast overlooking Resurrection Bay in Seward, Novakovich has made abundant scouting and training trips to Mount Marathon this year.

What a remarkable coincidence then -- wink, wink -- that as a roofing contractor, two of the jobs Novakovich has particularly enjoyed this spring just happened to be within spitting distance of the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Adams Street in Seward. That intersection just happens to be the location of the finish line for Mount Marathon.

"I'd think, 'How low can I make this bid to get a job I'd probably do for free?' '' Novakovich said, only half-jokingly.

In a sense, Novakovich is mixing business with business -- traditional business with the business of trying to seize the most prestigious mountain-running crown in Alaska.

Thousands of spectators crowd the streets of Seward and line the trail on Mount Marathon every Fourth of July to savor the spectacle of men, women and junior racers grinding their way up the steep pitch and hurling their bodies dangerously down it on the way to the finish line downtown.

"It's such a contagious event,'' said Novakovich, who finished fifth last year. "It's not the World Series of anything, but they make it feel like it's the most important event in the world.''

And among mountain racers, Mount Marathon is the most coveted crown, which is why Eric Strabel screamed with satisfaction last year when he claimed the title he had chased for a dozen years.

Like most champions of this race, he does not intend to surrender the throne easily.

"Now, I have a sense of ownership, a pride of ownership, in that race, so I have to defend it, protect it, I guess,'' Strabel said. "I'll give it everything I have, and if that wasn't good enough, that other person deserved it more.''

This race of just more than three miles is a monument to unrelenting pain.

Contenders for the crown must race with purpose from downtown to the base of the mountain, lest they get bottle-necked on the narrow trail. Once on the ascent, they face an average pitch of 38 degrees with a sharpest pitch of 60 degrees, and that extreme incline is torture on legs and lungs. Once they reach the peak on exhausted legs, they face a perilous descent that the fastest racers confront with borderline recklessness.

"It's not the most appetizing thing,'' Strabel said. "It really gets worse and worse, more difficult the farther you go.''

Said Novakovich: "There is no comfort zone.''

So it is that Mount Marathon is a test of both fitness and fortitude.

And this is how 2009 champion Matias Saari handicaps the men's race: "Barring any major surprise, I think there's six guys with a chance.''

Saari, who finished fourth last year, breaks the six down into groups of three -- the guys known for their uphill power (Novakovich, 2011 runner-up Brent Knight and third-place finisher Mark Iverson) and those known for their downhill prowess (Strabel, Saari and two-time champion Trond Flagstad). All six are from Anchorage.

Novakovich, 38, has won both Government Peak and Bird Ridge, two uphill-only races, heading into Mount Marathon. Strabel, 30, last year was third to the summit and passed Iverson and Knight in the second half of the race after those two beat him to the summit by about a minute.

"The smart money is on (Novakovich) to be leading at the top,'' Strabel said. "But after that, all bets are off.''

On Strabel's way to a personal-record time of 44 minutes, 40 seconds last year -- that made him just one of eight men in race history to break the 45-minute barrier -- he uncorked the downhill in 10:25, the fastest in the field by nearly one minute and 2:25 faster than Novakovich.

Still, Novakovich, who ran a PR in 46:44 last year, said he is more confident in his downhill this year.

"What used to seem out of control seems exciting now,'' he said.

Novakovich has been direct about his aim -- "I have a goal in mind -- I want to win'' -- and said his ambition makes him hold himself accountable.

Strabel, meanwhile, feels fit too.

"I think I'm in fair shape, comparable to last year,'' he said. "All you can really do is set yourself up for the best day.''

Training partners Knight, 28, or Iverson, 30, could deliver a big performance. Knight last year joined the sub-45 crowd (44:58) and Iverson's 45:18 proved an electric Mount Marathon debut.

Knight and Iverson are fit -- they've been working hard with an eye on next nordic ski season. But they did not compete on Government Peak or Bird Ridge because between work, training and performing timing duties on Bird Ridge, the races didn't fit their schedules. Knight likes that their lack of racing doesn't furnish Novakovich a gauge of their mountain fitness.

"He has no idea what kind of shape we're in, and it's kinda fun not letting him know,'' Knight said.

Saari, 41, excels in difficult conditions -- his 2009 win came in withering heat. And Flagstad, 42, owns a pedigree as a two-time champ. If either man won, he would become the oldest champion in race history.

Knight said he recently did some mountain intervals with Flagstad and came away impressed.

"I was like, 'Holy cow, Trond's fit right now,' '' Knight said.

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