When Ashland runner John Merrill stepped up to the starting line Saturday at the 50-mile Siskiyou Out Back trail race, he had no idea he would ultimately win.
It was, after all, his first race at that distance.
"I didn't know what a 50-mile pace felt like, so I just headed out with the other guys," said Merrill, 30, who moved to Ashland from Whidbey Island, Wash., only 15 months ago.
The three Siskiyou Out Back (S.O.B.) trail races — 15 kilometer, 50 kilometer and 50 miles — begin and end at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area. They follow the Pacific Crest Trail and Forest Service Road 20 for most of the courses. Saturday marked the 15th annual event.
The lead pack 50-mile event — which also included Eugene's Dan Olmstead and Central Point's Neil Olsen — stuck together through the halfway point, with the trio trading leads.
Near the turnaround, Merrill found his lead cut by a factor that was, well, "udderly" unexpected.
"I was the first through the big (Donemore) meadow near an old cabin," said Merrill. "There were a ton of cattle on the trail, I had to shoo them off."
Soon after the turnaround, Merrill surged, but Olmstead soon caught him and it was a two-man race. The two exchanged leads for more than 10 miles before Merrill surged on a downhill, knowing of Olmstead's climbing skills.
Near the Siskiyou Gap aid station — the 41-mile mark — Merrill took the lead for good, and finished with a winning time of 7 hours, 7 minutes, and 9 seconds.
Merrill comes from a bicycling background and currently works at Bear Creek Bicycle. He's planning on sticking with trail racing, however.
"I'm going to do the Mt. Ashland Hill Climb in two weeks," said Merrill. "I'd like to get to the 100-mile distance at some point."
Meanwhile, Bend's Jeff Browning had been shadowing the lead pack and had passed Olsen. With two miles to go, the trail opened up into a meadow.
"I saw him (Olmstead) in a big curve," Browning said, "but I thought he had too much of a lead, but I had been gaining on him."
With a final surge, Browning passed Olmstead a half-mile from the finish, and crossed the line in 7:16:45. Olmstead in at 7:17:17.
The women's race was never in question, as Becky Kirschenmann, a 40 year-old Klamath Falls runner, led wire-to-wire.
Kirschenmann is no stranger to the S.O.B. Last year she placed third in the 50-mile race and has run the 50k S.O.B. race three times. Saturday's race was her third at the 50-mile distance. She won her first two outings at that distance, both at the Grand Teton Race.
"I still respect the marathon distance, but with 50 (miles) I kind of just broke it down into sections," said Kirschenmann. "I was familiar with the course."
At the turnaround, she first learned she was in the lead.
"There's still so much to go after that, I couldn't control what was happening (to other runners) so I just concentrated on keeping moving as best I could," Kirschenmann explained.
After the turnaround, outbound and inbound runners pass each other on the trail. It's an opportunity to see how you stand relative to the competition.
"I wasn't relishing being in the front at that point because I could see there were a few women close behind and then another pack right after them," said Kirschenmann. "The last 10 miles were a grind. They seemed to last forever. You can see the big golf ball (at the summit of Mt. Ashland), it seemed so far away and so much higher. I knew I still had a lot of climbing left."
This mountainous course has very few level sections. The secret to succeeding, said Kirschenmann, is that "You have to have a comfort level with being uncomfortable."
The winners in the 50-kilometer race crushed their competition.
Ashland's Ryan Ghelfi, winner of last year's S.O.B. 50-mile race, as well as its course record holder, broke the tape Saturday in 3:42:38. His time was the sixth fastest time recorded in the 50k event, and was 25:34 ahead of runner-up Aaron Ray of Portland.
"I was going hard the whole time," said Ghelfi. "I was alone from three minutes in. I didn't think I could get Max's (King) record but I went out with the intention of trying."
Training for this race proved a challenge for Ghelfi. He has spent much of his spring and summer leading two-and-three day trips up Mt. Shasta as an employee of Shasta Mountain Guides.
"When the clients go to bed, I'll just do an hour and a half straight up the mountain and back, on the snow and scree," said Ghelfi. "It's really not running, it's power hiking."
Like S.O.B. 50-mile winner Merrill, Ghelfi will be looking toward longer races. He will be running the 100k Ultra Race of Champions in Virginia this fall.
Jacksonville runner Becka Kem blazed through the course, leading from the start en route to winning the women's 50k race in 4:11:57, and finishing 25:35 ahead of runner-up Susan Barrows of Bend.
Kem moved back to the Rogue Valley last November after working as a teacher in the Salem area for six years. She is a 1999 graduate of Crater High School. Saturday's race was her third 50k race. She's taking a break from her career to raise her baby.
Kem had her doubts about winning during the latter stages of Saturday's race.
"The heat got to me," Kem said. "At Mile 20 I started cramping, so I backed off. You get tired, it feels like more than you really have left, and I had to walk some sections. You just go out and see what you can do."
Even with walking a few sections, her time was the third fastest women's time ever, and she finished ahead of all but the top two men.
The men's 15k race was won by Trevor Palmer, a former Crater High and SOU standout runner, in 57:30 — the third fastest time to date. The women's race was won by Trisha Kluge, a 53 year-old Eugene runner, in 1:19:07.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Saturday's race was the youngest runner in the race's 15-year history.
Teagan Redden, an 8-year-old from Arizona, finished the 50k event in just over seven hours. This was her fourth race at that distance.
"We're on a family trip going to a bunch of different states and in each one I do a training run," said Redden.
Even though the soon-to-be third grader looked happy and healthy after the race, Rob Cain, race co-director, is worried.
"Having a runner this young took us by surprise," he said.
The race software doesn't flag under-age ultrarunners. Next year Cain is planning on instituting an age minimum.
"I don't think it's healthy for kids that young to run this long," said Cain.
Southern Oregon Out Back
MEN — 1, Trevor Palmer, 29, Medford, 57:30; 2, Jared Parmer, 32, Eagle Point, 1:01:34; 3, Keegan Rankin, 17, Fairbanks, AK, 1:02:00; 4, Camden Stemple, 18, Medford, 1:05:02; 5, Benjamin Nelson, 28, Fairbanks, AK, 1:06:21.
WOMEN — 1, Trisha Kluge, 53, Eugene, 1:19:07; 2, Dolores Christensen, 26, Springfield Mass., 1:22:15; 3, Ali Lively, 40, Ashland, 1:22:46; 4, Brooke Lizotte, 17, Fairbanks, AK, 1:23:15; 5, Natasha Churchill, 37, Hornbrook, Calif., 1:23:17.
MEN — 1, Ryan Ghelfi, 24, Ashland, 3:42:38; 2, Aaron Ray, 31, Portland, 4:08:12; 3, Nathan Stroh, 41, Klamath Falls, 4:12:43; 4, Robert Julian, 45, Phoenix, 4:14:29; 5, Robert Hendrickson, 36, Bend, 4:14:44.
WOMEN — 1, Becka Kem, 32, Jacksonville, 4:11:57; 2, Susan Barrows, 38, Bend, 4:37:32; 3, Jessica Lamanna, 27, Ashland, 4:51:52; 4, Amber Bradley, 36, Klamath Falls, 5:03:08; 5, Janessa Taylor, 35, Klamath Falls, 5:04:42.
MEN — 1, John Merrill, 30, Ashland, 7:07:09; 2, Jeff Browning, 41, Bend, 7:16:45; 3, Dan Olmstead, 41, Eugene, 7:17:17; 4, Neil Olsen, 46, Central Point, 7:30:38; 5, Justin Walker, 33, Ashland, 7:51:43.
WOMEN — 1, Becky Kirschenmann, 40, Klamath Falls, 8:31:39.
*For full results from Saturday's Siskiyou Out Back Races, visit www.ultrasignup.com
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.