Win a national-caliber race, and the next year you're the one to beat. Win it two times in a row, and you practically have a bulls-eye painted on your back.
Hal Koerner III of Ashland hopes that three times will be the charm Saturday when he attempts to win his third straight Western States 100-mile Endurance Run.
Nick Lewis, 24, Ashland, first Western States. Lewis moved to Ashland from Memphis, Tenn., last year to work with Koerner at Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland. A relative newcomer to ultrarunning, he's improving fast: he placed second at last year's Leadville 100-mile race.
Western States is the country's oldest and most prestigious 100-mile foot race. It begins at 5 a.m. in Squaw Valley, Calif., and ends in Auburn, Calif. In between lie 18,000 feet of hamstring-howling climbs, 23,000 feet of quad-crushing descents, canyon bottoms with heat over 100 degrees and, for all but the leaders, night running by flashlight.
The course tops out at 8,713 feet, and this year add to the mix a snowpack that's well above normal.
"The hardest thing is finding the course "… you're looking down, you're trying to find foot placement, and yet markings are in trees, then you get in these wide-open expanses," Koerner explains.
Koerner finds the heat more problematic. To acclimate, he sits in saunas for hours at a time drinking fluids. It's just one ingredient to his winning strategy. He leaves nothing to chance.
"He's a tough kid, determined, very cerebral about the whole process," says Koerner's father, also named Hal.
The elder Koerner was a source of both inspiration and guidance for his ultramarathoning son. As a teenager, young Hal watched his father run marathons and complete century bicycle rides.
They went on 50-mile Boy Scout hikes together — Hal's an Eagle Scout.
"The idea of those endurance things never left my mind," Koerner recalls.
He got sidetracked in high school by skiing, and in college by having fun. Not long after college, however, he watched his father train to pace a friend for the famous Leadville 100-mile race, not far from their home in Denver.
The year was 1999. Then 23, Koerner also entered the race after cutting his ultrarunning teeth on a 61-mile race on the Snake River. His Leadville attempt ended in disappointment. He rolled his ankle at the 60-mile mark and had to drop out.
A month later, his ankle barely healed and unwilling to let his training go to waste, he tried another 100-miler. He re-injured his ankle and walked the last 18 miles. He still won the race.
"He's not a natural," says father Koerner. "But he works hard. He gets faster every year. Experience makes a difference, especially with Western States."
Experience is now Koerner's strong suit.
He has finished 20 100-mile races, including five at Western States. He knows better than most competitors that the mental aspect of a 100-miler is what wins or loses a race among the elites.
Everyone hurts for a long time in a century race. You need to take your mind off the places that hurt.
Easier said than done.
"Usually I put my mind onto the course: this section will take 15 minutes, that climb will take another 15. Sometimes I'll just relate it to other memories "… a rolling picture in my mind of what the trail looks like next," says Koerner.
He also listens to his iPod for the seven or so hours after the pack thins out and he's running alone, and before he meets his pacer at the 62-mile mark. These days, he gets a lot of mileage from the groups Trampled by Turtles and Kings of Leon.
Another side of Koerner's running career, known to many locals, is as a successful store owner on Main Street in Ashland.
Koerner moved to Ashland and opened the specialty shoe store, Rogue Valley Runners, in 2006 following a two-year stint learning the business at the Seattle Running Company.
"He went into the business because he likes the sport," says Koerner's friend Ian Torrence, a former RVR employee. "He's good with publicity, advertising. He supports local runners and sponsors races. He gets the name of RVR out there. His enthusiasm filters into the store."
Torrence was the first of several elite ultramarathoner friends Koerner invited to work at the store. Creating a culture that supports and draws the top ultrarunners has put Ashland on the map nationally, creating an endurance Mecca for elite and middle-of-the-pack runners alike.
For the second year in a row, Ashland has more entrants in the Western States race than any other city in the country.
"It's like a parade, people want to get on board. That's what makes RVR so successful," Torrence says.
But is working at a running store in between two daily training runs too much of a good thing? Not really, according to Carly Varner, Koerner's fiancée.
Varner was a casual runner when she met Koerner in Seattle. Saturday she will be one of eight local runners toeing the line at Western States. It'll be her second 100-miler.
"I thought I'd try ultras because he did it. I found that it's a sleeper sport: you don't know you can do it until you try it. Hal opened that door for me," Varner says.
Varner feels fortunate they've both been able to make a career out of something they love. And they've made many close friendships en route. What Varner still has trouble reconciling, however, is how Koerner combines competition and friendship.
"He can be competitive with his best friends. They'll run side by side and raz each other. For some people, it's hard to be competitive and friendly at the same time. Not Hal," Varner says.
Come Saturday at 5 a.m., the competition will be waiting.
This year is perhaps the most competitive Western States race ever, with as many as 10 runners capable of winning. In addition to Koerner, the favorites are Geoff Roes of Douglas, Alaska — last year's Ultrarunner of the year as ranked by Ultrarunning magazine — and Anton Krupicka of Boulder, Colo. Krupicka is a former RVR employee and a two-time winner of the Leadville 100-mile race.
Koerner's pit-stop crew at the aid stations will be his parents, who have fulfilled this role at all his Western States attempts.
"This race is truly about toughness. A lot of tough guys are out there, but Hal's proven he's the fastest, toughest guy," says Koerner's father.
In two days, he'll try to prove it for the third straight time.
Follow the Western States Endurance Run live online, beginning at 5 a.m., Saturday, June 26, at http://ws100.ultralive.net/webcast.php. Runners' splits will be posted as they arrive at each aid station.
Daniel Newberry is a runner and freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at email@example.com.