On your mark, get set ...

Pear Blossom takes off under new direction, but familiar champion King returns in search of his seventh title
Runners prepare to start the 10-mile race at last year's Pear Blossom. This Saturday's event boasts nearly 3,700 competitors in the 5K and 10-mile races.MT file photo

There will be changes when the 36th annual Pear Blossom Run starts Saturday in downtown Medford.

Some significant — as in the absence of Jerry and Zellah Swartsley in their roles as race co-directors — and others not so major.

RED-LETTER DATE

Saturday has been proclaimed "Jerry and Zellah Swartsley" day by Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler. In a document signed April 5, the Swartsleys are hailed for their role in starting the Pear Blossom Run, their tireless work to keep it running since 1977 and the impact it's had on the community.

START TIMES

5-Kilometer

7 a.m., City Hall

Mayor's 1 Mile

7:50 a.m.,

Justice Bldg

Wheelchair

8:10 a.m., City Hall

10-Mile

8:20 a.m., City Hall

Mayor's Cup 2 Mile

8:30 a.m.,

Justice Bldg

But it figures to be more of the same in the men's division of the 10-mile race, the hallmark event on a slate that features five races.

That's because king Max, or Max King, will return. The former Crater High runner captured his record sixth title last year and did so in the fastest time in history.

The races begin at Eighth and Oakdale streets in front of City Hall. The first is the 5-kilometer run at 7 a.m., and it features a fourth course change in five years.

The 10-mile event starts at 8:20 a.m. There also are wheelchair and 1- and 2-mile Mayor's Cup runs.

The Swartsleys handed over the reins of their baby in December, deciding that it had become too big for them to operate out of their home.

The Rogue Valley Family YMCA, which had taken over the Mayor's Cup races five years earlier, swallowed up the rest of the operation with the blessing of the Swartsleys, who, along with Richard Hensley and Shirley Eads, started the race in 1977.

Back then, there were 546 who finished the race.

Last year, there were 3,700 entrants in the 10-mile and 5K races. The Mayor's Cup runs pushed the overall total to more than 5,000.

"We've seen this go up the last four years, and by a substantial amount," says Steve Buxton, a new race co-director, along with Rich Stanfield. "And it's still higher again."

Entries for the 10-mile race dipped a bit this year, with 1,654, or about 100 fewer than last year, as of Thursday. The 5K, however, has eclipsed 2,000 for the first time, with 2,019 registrants.

Buxton and Co. found out how difficult organizing a race of such magnitude can be. It doesn't quite run itself, despite the 31/2 decades the Swartsleys put into it.

"It was absolutely incredible," says Buxton. "We were buried. It's been harder than we initially thought it would be."

Much of the internal operation had to change — website, entry forms, online registration — says Buxton, and with the YMCA's structure, more people were involved in the process.

Ultimately, the changeover was made and the run-up to this weekend smoothed out.

"Outside on the street, when the runners line up, I don't think you'll see any difference at all," says Buxton, who will run the 10-mile race for the 29th time. "We'll set up exactly the same way, have the same bunch of people showing up out there who really know what they're doing, so we feel pretty confident the set-up and take-down will be the same. The runners will show up and run their race."

The 5K race literally ran into problems last year because the route intersected early in the race, funneling fast runners directly into the path of a host of later starters.

"This time I think we got it right," says Buxton. "It'll be a pretty good course, flat and fast. It's a real screamer."

A minor change is the moving of the finish line up a couple hundred feet to the start line. That'll mean the turnaround for the 10-mile race, which heads out Jacksonville Highway and turns right at Hanley Hill, will be pushed back slightly.

As is usually the case, King will be difficult to beat.

The 32-year-old Bend resident has distinguished himself as world champion several times over in trail running and placed 19th in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in January, setting a personal record of 2 hours, 14 minutes, 36 seconds.

The PR was nice, he says, but he wasn't thrilled with his placing.

"I had to go for it," he says. "I put it all out there in the first 20 miles and came home a little slow."

Since then, he's run a couple 50K ultra marathons and last week captured the Horse Butte 10-mile trail run in Bend.

"It was pretty good," says King, who set a two-minute PR on the course of 54:07. "I was trying to run a pretty hard workout for myself and ended up doing pretty well."

He's not ready to proclaim himself as fit as ever, however, because he hasn't done as much speed and road work as he has in other training stages.

"I'm in decent shape," he says. "How that translates into running Saturday on the roads, I just don't know."

King's victory last year and record time of 49:10 — bettering the 49:21 he set in 2009 — was spurred by a challenge from Corvallis runner Mike Renau, himself a national-level competitor.

King pulled ahead in the final two miles to best Renau, who is not entered this year.

It's conceivable the record could drop below 49 minutes, says King, but it would take two or more runners pushing the pace for the duration.

How Saturday's race evolves "depends on who shows up," he says.

King's half-dozen wins have come in the last nine years. None of the other-year winners are entered this time around.

A similar story line can be found on the women's side, where no former champions are entered.

Former Phoenix High runner Marci Klimek triumphed last year. None of the four who finished behind her are registered, either.

One woman who is entered is Liana Bernard of Medford. Like King, she qualified for the Olympic marathon trials and finished the race.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com


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