Running with pride

After six weeks of training, Sofa to 5K members cross finish line
Cassie Washburn, 27, of Medford and Crystal Weaver, 27, of Medford take off for the start of the Pear Blossom 5K run Saturday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie LuschJamie Lusch

Scattered among a sea of runners intent on crossing the finish line of the Pear Blossom 5K early Saturday morning in downtown Medford were a dozen nonathletes who had trained together for six weeks in the Ashland YMCA's Sofa to 5K fitness class.

Under gray skies, the group members that had practiced, stretched and exchanged encouragements twice weekly since February, would test their newfound endurance and remember the reason they were there: to prove to themselves that they could do it.

Pear Blossom 5K runners

Top 10 overall: men

Blake Spencer, Medford

Shane Crofoot, Grants Pass

Joey Rincon, Medford

John X Beckstead, Grants Pass

Ryan Pfeil, Phoenix

Lance Westland, Medford

Jasper Aaron-Burden, Grants Pass

Jared Voice, Corvallis

John Lotts, Central Point

David Burgess, Medford

Top 10 overall: women

Mercy Ray, Jacksonville

Stephanie Croy, Medford

Molly Reimer, Medford

Melanie Neilitz, Jacksonville

Christie Hill, Grants Pass

Javonna Marroquin, Grants Pass

Jill Folkestad, Portland

Lori Carter, Eugene

Brooke Snelling, Jacksonville

Jane Podolski, Medford

See a complete list of race results at

Trainer Chip Layton coached them to arrive early and warm up for what was to be the first 5K for many of them.

A half-hour before the 7 a.m. start, Eleanor Ponomareff of Talent, who joined the class to get in better shape as she turned 50, was slowly jogging past the first-aid station, tables stacked with bananas and other 5Kers pushing strollers and wearing T-shirts that stated: "Everyone's a winner."

Ponomareff was confident and calm, thanks to pre-sunrise runs with the YMCA group and extra workouts on the treadmill. "The only real anxiety I had about the race," she said, smiling, "was finding a parking spot, and I did."

Kristel Olsen, 32, was searching for friends but said she was otherwise ready to go. "I had my coffee and banana," said the Ashland resident, wearing a turquoise jacket as she did during her training, her long brown hair pulled back into an efficient ponytail.

Charlotte McKernan, 71, said she awoke at 5 a.m. "I'm not nervous," said the Ashland resident who joined the group to expand her regular workouts. "I just want to follow the group and finish."

Days before, McKernan drove to Medford to assess the route and appreciated that it was a flat course. Her training had prepared her for hills.

About 2,000 people ran, jogged and walked the 5K route, which started outside Medford City Hall, at Eighth Street and South Oakdale Avenue. Participants headed east on Eighth, north onto Fir Street, west on Main Street then turned around.

Unlike the 10-mile race, which would start about an hour-and-a-half later in the same spot, there was no gun shot to launch the 5K runners. Instead, there was a countdown over the public address system: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1."

The front line shot through the start line led by Blake Spencer, a junior at North Medford High, who would finish the race in 16 minutes, 50 seconds.

Waves and waves of runners followed, some in serious sweat-wicking gear, others — such as a trio wearing rainbow tutus — clearly in the race for fun.

Layton, the Ashland YMCA Health and Wellness director who conceived the Sofa to 5K fitness class to encourage people to get in better shape for this race and beyond, suggested his group start near the back of the pack, jog at a comfortable pace, and if motivated and energized, pick up the pace to chase the leaders. (He will be giving the same advice to a new crop of participants who want to get ready for the Ashland 4th of July Run.)

Olsen sailed toward the front of the group soon after the launch. Halfway through, she loosened her ponytail, letting her hair fly and calculating with a runner's watch that she was clicking away at a 10.5-minute mile.

"The six weeks of training really helped me prepare for this morning," she said, keeping her graceful gait. Before the Sofa to 5K fitness program, she toggled between running a minute, then walking a minute.

Coming up behind her was Shay Champion, 39, who joined the YMCA group a week into the program after reading a story about the class in the Mail Tribune.

It was snowing the first morning she was going to practice with the group and that gave her pause. Champion, who completed the Siskiyou Challenge 5K but then took the winter off, confessed: "I am a fair-weather runner."

For most of the group's practices, through snow, cold, rain, fog and — a few times — clear skies, she stayed steadily in front of the pack, keeping pace with trainer Sloan Dorr.

On race day, Champion, who directs children safety programs for the Medford Fire and Rescue team, was spurred on by bystanders. "One guy yelled out to us, 'There are bears behind you,' " she recalled, laughing.

Near the finish line of the race organized by the Rogue Valley Family YMCA, men held bouquets of roses, a couple in lawn chairs in front of their house on Main Street waved a red "You Can Do It" sign, while other spectators offered gestures of encouragement from the sidelines.

Police standing in front of roadblocks waved the runners through red and yellow stoplights and motorcycle officers directed the back of the pack to move to the right side of the street to make room for the faster runners who were looping back.

The runners were quiet except for the pat, pat of their feet hitting the road and the occasional boisterous "Yahoo!" shout. One motivator in the race blurted out a few chords of the "Rocky" theme song as a bobbing group, wearing neon-yellow caps, their arms chugging side to side, turned a corner.

When Kelle Lovett, 35, of Ashland, crossed the finish line with the clock showing 38 minutes, 40 seconds, she hugged her friend. The Sofa to 5K participant then paused for a moment to realize that she had accomplished her goal to run the entire 3.1-mile route.

After weeks of early morning jogs, calf-burning sprints up and down Southern Oregon University stadium stairs, ab exercises and cool-down stretches, no one in the Sofa to 5K fitness class had a side ache, leg spasms or regrets.

After the run, the Ashland YMCA members left as they had arrived, with friends and family. They strutted down the street, obeying the red stoplight, and when it was green again, they walked.

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