ASHLAND — The 36th annual Mt. Ashland Hill Climb on Saturday was almost the race that wasn't.
"Looking at the air quality index, if it was like most of the days in the last two weeks, there's a good chance we might not have held the event," race director Torsten Heycke said.
In the end, Heycke gave the "go" call at noon on Friday, trusting in the National Weather Service forecast for possible rain and favorable winds. Friday's air was cleaner than forecast. Heycke hoped that the trend would continue on Saturday.
Ashland's David Laney, 24, and Jacksonville's Becka Kem, 32, were the dominant winners.
The 228 runners who finished the 13.3 mile mountain race from Lithia Park to the summit of Mt. Ashland were greeted with the most smoke-free day in two weeks and cool temperatures to boot.
For both Laney and Kem, the combination of factors helped them lay down some of the fastest times in the history of the race.
The course includes more than a vertical mile of climbing (5,600 feet) and a finish up a steep, boulder-strewn slope that in the winter serves as the black diamond-level Upper Tempest ski slope.
"It's kind of different to be running a race and not actually be running," said Laney of the race's final pitch.
Laney, a former Southern Oregon University standout, is having a breakout year with victories that include Medford's Pear Blossom 10-miler, the Eugene Marathon and Ashland's Fourth of July Run.
His finishing time of 1 hour, 44 minutes and 39 seconds put him at No. 3 on the all-time fastest finishers list, trailing only course record holder Max King and the late Ric Sayre.
"I knew it was going to be a perfect cold day, so I went out pretty hard," Laney said.
He led from wire to wire.
Trail racing — and mountain running in particular — are new to Laney, whose running resume is weighted heavily with track races.
"Mountain races are basically hard from ten seconds in to the finish and they stay hard," he said. "Track races don't get really hard until a couple laps to go. It's definitely a different feel."
Laney finished 6 minutes and 30 seconds ahead of David Sherman, another Ashland runner. Both Sherman and Laney work at Rogue Valley Runners, Ashland's running store.
Kem put up a stellar performance with a time of 2:09:46. That time placed her second on the all-time fastest list, trailing only course record holder Evelyn Dong.
Kem, like Laney, is also having a standout year. Her most recent victory was in the Siskiyou Outback race, an ultramarathon at Mt. Ashland two weeks ago.
Women's runner-up Melanie Cleland finished 18:53 behind Kem, so the Jacksonville resident never saw any other women. She didn't see many men either, as she placed 10th overall.
A male friend was trash talking Kem before the race, saying she was not a real mountain runner and that he'd leave her in the dust. He's eating his words now.
"That was a lot of motivation," Kem said. "I might not be the best hill climber, but I can suffer pretty well, and that's what you need to get up this hill."
Being brand new to mountain races, Kem threw aside the conventional wisdom of consulting her watch at the four aid station checkpoints.
"I don't run with a watch, so it's pretty much all how I'm feeling," Kem said. "So I went at a pace I could sustain, even if it wasn't comfortable, because I didn't know the course. I went a little bit conservatively because I had heard about the end."
The difficult part was finding that sweet spot.
"You have to find your edge, but still be comfortable at the same time," she said.
The masters division winners were Neil Olsen, 46, of Central Point, and Melanie Cleland, 42, of Fair Oaks, Calif.
With the decision to proceed with the race occurring less than 24 hours before the start time, many of the 400 registered runners coming from long distances chose to stay home, Heycke said. It's a situation he hopes never to face again.
"I felt like a gambler, going for the inside straight," Heycke said. "This time I hit it."
MEN'S TOP TEN
1. David Laney, 24, Ashland 1:44.39
2. David Sherman, 25, Ashland 1:51.09
3. John Merrill, 31, Ashland 1:57.32
4. Cary Dunagan, 21, Reno 2:01.48
5. Neil Seibert,19, Portland 2:03.00
6. Nathan Einbinder, 34, Ashland 2:03.00
7. Josh Zielinski, 31, Salem 2:05.08
8. Jace Ives, 29, Ashland 2:05.40
9. Korey Konga, 26, Ashland 2:09.12
10. Neil Olsen, 46, Central Point 2:10.51
WOMEN'S TOP TEN
1. Becka Kem, 32, Jacksonville 2:09.46
2. Melanie Cleland, 42, Fair Oaks, Calif. 2:28.39
3. Sarah Vaile, 35, Ashland 2:29.49
4. Natalie Sahnow, 24, Ashland 2:32.33
5. Susan Barth, 32, Portland 2:33.39
6. Nikki Dinger, 37, Phoenix, Ore. 2:36.25
7. Melissa Boyd, 22, Ashland 2:36.58
8. Luanne Park, 52, Redding 2:37.45
9. Jessica Lamanna, 27, Ashland 2:39.27
10. Tara Krempley, 26, Ashland 2:44.42
For full results, visit www.mtashlandrun.com.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at email@example.com.