Up and Running

From Popsicle sticks to transponder chips, the world of competitive distance running has been transformed by new technologies that allow for electronic registration, real-time results and the ability to chart runners on a course from miles away.

Southern Oregon has long had a reputation as an active running community with quality distance races. On top of the list is the Pear Blossom Run — billed as "The Rogue Valley's No. 1 athletic event."

The region also hosts other premier long-distance races, such as the Crater Lake Rim Runs, the Siskiyou Out Back Trail Run and the Lithia Loop Trail Marathon.

The Pear, as it is affectionately known, will be 33 years old when the starter's gun goes off in front of City Hall on April 11.

Running guru Jerry Swartsley, 68, and his wife, Zellah, have nurtured the Pear from its inception.

During their tenure, the Swartsleys have seen three distance changes — from the original half-marathon (13.1 miles) to a 20K in 1981 to the current 10-miler, which started in 1990.

But more dramatic have been the changes in technology, Jerry Swartsley says.

"The Internet is awesome," says Swartsley, a retired high school administrator, "and how we utilize it is great. We're a great advocate of the Internet."

Electronic registration for the Pear began in 2007 at www.pearblossomrun.com. Swartsley estimates more than 50 percent of the participants now enter online. In comparison, the New York City Marathon registers about 97 percent electronically, he says.

Web sites have become the nerve center for disseminating information for these athletic events.

"Our Web site has everything on it," says Swartsley. "It tells when it is, what it costs, what time of day. It answers a lot of questions immediately. You don't need to call to find out things. It cut down on phone calls immensely. We get a lot of people who called from out of town. Now we don't have to field those calls."

Organizers use an e-mail blast to everyone who entered online the previous year as a convenient tool for disseminating news about the run.

The Swartsleys began using computers in the 1970s for results, but it entailed an arduous process of collecting the data, then manually entering it into the system.

Last year the Pear began using lightweight chips that are attached to runners' shoelaces. Information is logged when the runner starts, then as the competitor crosses the finish-line mat, a signal from a transponder in the chip is sent to a computer and the place and time are recorded.

This is in stark contrast to the beginning, when Popsicle sticks were handed out at the end of the race to record the order of finish.

The Crater Lake Rim Runs, which consist of a marathon, 13-mile run and a 6.7-mile run/walk, are held the second Saturday in August around the rim of the caldera at Crater Lake National Park. The runs were established in 1976 with 37 runners.

Retired Klamath Falls school teacher and track coach Bob Freirich, 74, has been race director since the founder, the Rev. Frank Shields of Chiloquin, handed over the reins in the third year.

The Crater Lake Rim Runs have used the Web site craterlakerimruns.com for five years. Printing a brochure is just about obsolete, according the Freirich.

"To date, the Web site has really worked well," says Freirich. "We have a lot of pictures and that sells it with the spectacular views. If someone has a question, we can e-mail them right back."

The runs are limited to 500 runners in all three races. Last year they drew almost 200 runners from 28 other states — including Maine and Florida — and Canada. They usually fill by the final week in July.

Last year, organizers used the chip for two of the races and plan to add the marathon in 2009.

"It was wonderful," says Freirich about the chip. "When the race was over, everything was done and printed. It was awesome.

"Technology has made it faster and smoother," adds Freirich. "But I'm an old-timer. When all is said and done it's just a race. It comes down to, do you beat him or her or not?"

The 50K and 15K Siskiyou Out Back Trail Run is in its 11th year. The SOB starts and ends at the Mount Ashland ski lodge. Some of the course is along the Pacific Crest Trail with views of Mount Shasta and Mount McLoughlin. It is the fourth race in the Oregon Trail Ultra Marathon Series.

Longtime Rogue Valley race organizer Dana Bandy founded the event. Bandy, 54, praises the use of the Web site siskiyououtback.com.

"From a race director point of view, the Internet has been amazingly wonderful," says Bandy. "People can view the results online afterward. It's instantaneous."

Bandy points out there are no longer paper entry forms, it's all done online.

In addition to general information and a registration procedure, the Web site provides a mileage log on which runners can record training statistics and other information that can be accessed from a computer anywhere.

Bandy says some larger runs use technology that allows runners to chart courses ahead of time and posts live results as the race progresses.

"There are computers at various stages along the course that link up," says Bandy, explaining how the process works. "As runners come through that station, a course time and when they came through is recorded and people anywhere can log on and see where their runner is.

"Also you can plan an entire course and run through Google Earth before you go out and do it."

In only its second year, the Lithia Loop Trail Marathon was selected as USA Track and Field Trail Marathon championship for 2009 and 2010. The race, which takes place Nov. 7, is expected to attract some 300 competitors from all over the United States.

Elite runner Hal Koerner, 33, founded the event in 2008. Koerner moved to the region in spring 2006 to open a running specialty store in Ashland. Koerner is the 2007 winner of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run, the oldest and most prestigious race of its kind in the United States.

Koerner was motivated to originate the trail run because there was no other marathon in the Rogue Valley and the Ashland Loop Road provides the basis for an excellent course.

His Web site, roguevalleyrunners.com, has a wealth of information. Koerner writes a blog on the site that is filled with announcements, updates and personal insights.

"We get hits on my Web site from Japan to Hungary and South Africa," says Koerner. "The idea is to build a forum where people can comment on other races. It certainly has built a community without any boundaries. It's amazing."

Reach reporter Frank Silow at 776-4480, or e-mail fsilow@mailtribune.com.


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