MT. ASHLAND — On the hottest day of the year in the Rogue Valley so far, a record 236 runners finished the 35th annual Mt. Ashland Hill Climb Saturday, with Eric Blake setting the pace in the 13.3-mile mountain run from Lithia Park in downtown Ashland to the summit of Mt. Ashland, a net elevation gain of more than one vertical mile.
After passing the Mt. Ashland Lodge near the 121/2-mile mark, the course ultimately steepens to a point where runners must hold on to rocks for balance.
Stand up straight and you risk tumbling down the slope.
"I'll say this, that last quarter mile, you're not going to compare this to anything I've ever raced," said Blake, 33, from New Britain, Conn.
Although Blake is new to this hill climb, he's a seasoned mountain runner. This year marks his sixth time as a member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team. He's also a two-time winner of the Mt. Washington race in New Hampshire, the East Coast equivalent of the Mt. Ashland Hill Climb in terms of difficulty.
Blake, who works as a cross country and track coach at Central Connecticut State University, charged to the front at the start, along with Ruben Galbraith of Portland and Peter Fain of Truckee, Calif.
"The three of us were running together, then a half-hour in, after the first rest stop, I sort of pulled away," said Blake. "Then from there until the finish I was pretty much alone."
Blake finished in a time of 1 hour, 51 minutes and 42 seconds, his margin of victory was 7:27 over Bend's Santiago Ocariz, who finished ahead of Galbraith by a mere 18 seconds.
Next month, Blake will compete on the U.S. team in the World Mountain Running Championship race in Italy.
His run Saturday was one stop on his honeymoon. He and his wife met — fittingly — at the Mt. Washington road race.
The women's race was never in question.
Stephanie Howe, a national-caliber cross country ski racer from Bend, chalked up her fourth consecutive victory at the Hill Climb with a time of 2:13:39. In each of her victories, Howe has dominated this race, leading from wire to wire. She finished 7:39 ahead of runner-up Susan Barrows, also of Bend.
"It never gets easy, it's always hard," Howe said of the race. "Today my run was a little slower, I've had Achilles problems since S.O.B. (Siskiyou Out Back)."
Howe's victory Saturday came a mere three weeks after she won the inaugural 50-mile edition of the Siskiyou Out Back race, an ultramarathon that also finishes at Mt. Ashland.
Even with the difficulty of the steep final section of the race, Howe admits it's her favorite part of the race.
"With ski racers, it's what we do for training: hike up mountains," said Howe.
For many years, members of Howe's ski team — XC Oregon — have made the trek to Mt. Ashland in August for this race. Her teammates include men's runner-up Santiago Ocariz and fifth-place finisher Zach Violett. Howe and Violett will compete as a team later this month in Colorado's Trans-Rockies run, a six-day, 115-mile stage race.
To slip in extra training for their upcoming race, the pair ran back down to Ashland following the Hill Climb race.
Top times for both men and women were slower Saturday compared to recent years because of warmer temperatures at the 7,533 foot elevation finish line that reached the low 70s for the top runners and the 80s for those finishing near the back of the pack.
This 35th edition of the Mt. Ashland Hill Climb may have been one of the hottest on record and it had the highest number of finishers. The race has experienced many changes since that day in 1978 when seven runners lined up at the starting line.
"When we first decided we were going to do it we had no idea of how we were even going to get up there, no one had any routes or anything," said Chuck Taubner, 65.
Taubner was one of three runners Saturday who also ran that first race in 1978. As the race founder and first race director, Taubner faced logistical challenges not seen in today's large race.
"We had family members that did aid stations and moved the aid stations after the last one went through — they hopped to another aid station," Taubner recalled of the small turnout that day. "We would literally sign someone up that morning, 50 yards into the race we would have been willing to sign someone up. Here they have a cutoff point at 360 people and in two days it gets filled up. It's like night and day where it is now and how organized everything is."
For full results of the 2012 Mt. Ashland Hill Climb, visit http://mtashlandrun.com/
Mt. Ashland Hill Climb
Top 50 Finishers
1, Eric Blake, 33, New Britain, CT, 1:51:42; 2, Santiago Ocariz, 25, Bend, 1:59:09; 3, Ruben Galbraith, 28, Portland, 1:59:27; 4, Jonathan Marcus, 29, Portland, 2:00:11; 5, Zach Violett, 30, Bend, 2:01:25; 6, Peter Fain, 40, Truckee, CA, 2:01:43; 7, Hal Koerner, 36, Ashland, 2:02:04; 8, Ollie Burruss, 26, Bend, 2:06:07; 9, Nathan Einbinder, 33, Ashland, 2:08:28; 10, Justin Morejohn, 31, Davis, CA, 2:08:49; 11, Andy Redden, 30, Hood River, 2:09:58; 12, Colin Sanders, 26, Portland, 2:10:26; 13, Hayden Teachout, 21, Ashland, 2:10:59; 14, Damon Kluck, 35, Bend, 2:11:27; 15, Thomas Ferrell, 33, Lake Oswego, 2:12:12; 16, Chad Kilian, 31, Portland, 2:13:03; 17, Stephanie Howe, 28, Bend, 2:13:39; 18, Matt Briggs, 26, Bend, 2:14:17; 19, Mark Robins, 38, Salem, 2:14:47; 20, Don Gallogly, 44, Corvallis, 2:15:48; 21, Craig Kenworthy, 50, Seattle, WA, 2:16:07; 22, Javier Ocariz, 28, Bend, 2:16:16; 23, Robert Julian, 44, Medford, 2:16:38; 24, Michael Stadnisky, 29, Ashland, 2:17:30; 25, Kevin Crossman, 28, Snohomish, WA, 2:17:55.
26, Erik Schulte, 23, Chicago, IL, 2:18:43; 27, Justin Wade, 30, Seattle, WA, 2:20:58; 28, Susan Barrows, 37, Bend, 2:21:18; 29, J.D. Downing, 46, Bend, 2:22:12; 30, Alan Reynolds, 48, Sausalito, CA, 2:24:12; 31, Ron Little, 41, Montara, CA, 2:24:27; 32, Nathan Broom, 34, Jacksonville, 2:24:30; 33, Brett Zundel, 30, Ashland, 2:24:38; 34, Mike Ottenweller, 30, Medford, 2:24:42; 35, Ryan Gwaltney, 36, Central Point, 2:26:13; 36, Sam Whitridge, 32, Ashland, 2:27:12; 37, Scott Saulsbury, 44, Ashland, 2:28:31; 38, JC Callans, 45, Ashland, 2:28:56; 39, Michael Gullo, 32, Ashland, 2:29:00; 40, Jason Reed, 33, San Bruno, CA, 2:29:29; 41, Kevin Kocarek, 40, Ashland, 2:29:48; 42, Eric Poole, 44, Ashland, 2:31:23; 43, Robert Shannon, 34, Grants Pass, 2:33:09; 44, Paul Imperia, 55, Jacksonville, 2:33:13; 45, Camden Stemple, 17, Medford, 2:33:46; 46, Rob Schultz, 41, Portland, 2:34:32; 47, Sean Malee, 45, Mount Shasta, CA, 2:34:56; 48, Daniel Brasch, 27, Medford, 2:35:09; 49, Kevin Parks, 39, Medford, 2:35:36; 50, Miles Fletcher, 23, Ashland, 2:36:39
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org