Around Thanksgiving last year, defending Mount Marathon men's champion Matt Novakovich was having the motor of his incline treadmill repaired when the mechanic dropped an off-hand comment that seized Novakovich's attention.
"I just installed a motor in Strabel's,'' the mechanic said.
"Strabel? Eric Strabel?'' Novakovich asked, referring to the 2011 Mount Marathon champion.
"Yeah,'' the mechanic answered.
So it has come to this: One year after Novakovich cited extensive, disciplined training on his extreme treadmill, which can duplicate the average 38-degree grade of Mount Marathon, for his victory in Alaska's biggest, most-hyped mountain race, one of his chief rivals has followed suit.
Strabel said he has owned his treadmill for a few years but never used it much until his frustrating finish last year in Mount Marathon, where he placed eighth. Strabel posted the fastest downhill time in the race up and down the 3,022-foot peak in Seward, but managed just the 13th-fastest climb in the annual Fourth of July race. Hence, his transition to the treadmill.
"I've never had a whole lot of motivation to use it until last winter,'' Strabel said, citing his disappointment on Mount Marathon last year. "It really lit a fire underneath me. Pretty quickly, probably July 5, I started spending the next 364 days thinking about it.''
Novakovich and Strabel, the last two men's race winners and both from Anchorage, figure to be principal contenders when the 86th edition of Mount Marathon unfolds Thursday.
"Strabel and Novakovich have obviously had the (pre-Mount Marathon) results, and frankly are the guys who have focused on Mount Marathon and trained through the winter and spring for this race,'' said 2009 champion Matias Saari, who should be in the mix again.
The top 10 finishers from 2012 are all registered in the men's field, which will also include Mount Marathon rookie Wylie Mangelsdorf of Palmer, 21, who last month topped Strabel and Novakovich in the uphill-only Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb on Bird Ridge. Another rookie entered is Rickey Gates, a multiple-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team.
At stake is victory in Alaska's oldest and most prestigious mountain race, which attracts spectators by the thousands to the shores of Resurrection Bay.
"Mount Marathon is generally considered the pinnacle of the mountain-running season, and everything else is just other races,'' said Brent Knight, who finished sixth last year.
Novakovich, 39, triumphed last year with a dominating uphill -- he reached the summit in 32 minutes, 54 seconds, 59 seconds faster than runner-up and two-time champion Trond Flagstad -- and a much-improved downhill. He finished in 44:07, the fourth-fastest time in race history.
Novakovich said he has trained diligently, and harder, in defense of his title. Like many past champions, he does not plan to surrender his title easily and figures anyone who beats him will have do so when he is fully fit and prepared.
"I definitely think there's a lot of honor and pride that goes into it,'' Novakovich said. "I think it's a disservice for any athlete if they don't push themselves to the highest level they can.''
Novakovich said he intends to attack the climb again. Strabel, 31, isn't showing his tactical cards -- "I'm not revealing,'' he said.
Besides winning, of course, always looming is the 1981 race record (43:21) of Bill Spencer, who owns four of the 10 fastest times in history. Only three other runners have even come within a minute of Spencer's standard -- winners Tobias Schwoerer (43:39 in 2004), Flagstad (44:03 in 2008) and Novakovich (44:07 last year).
Race-day conditions could temper any thought of a record run. A snowfield occasionally gives runners a break shortly after beginning their descent, but there is no snowfield this year to provide a precious, albeit short, respite. Also, The Gut, a long section of the downhill, is strewn with various debris -- trees, limbs, rocks -- and will likely prove slower than last year.
"I don't really care as much if I beat Strabel or he beats me -- we've been down that road,'' Novakovich said. "Can that mountain be beaten? That record has stood for (32) years. It's got to be considered almost unbeatable, Olympian.''
Flagstad, 43, has not raced leading up to Mount Marathon. Still, in the last nine years he has racked two wins, four runner-up finishes and eight top-five finishes and has never finished lower than seventh. Saari, 42, has been in the top four in each of the last five years. Knight, 29, has been sixth or better in his six finishes at Mount Marathon.
Gates, 32, remains something of an unknown. Ditto for Mangelsdorf, if only because he has never raced Mount Marathon.
"Obviously, the kid can climb,'' Knight said. "We don't know if he can downhill, and we can't assume he can't.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY