Marci Klimek Gage served as an ambassador of sorts for the Pear Blossom Run, and it nearly jeopardized her winning streak.
Gage encouraged Lauren Johnson, who lives in Portland and is on the Bowerman Athletic Club team, to give it a go, and Johnson did just that Saturday, pressuring the defending champion throughout the 38th annual 10-mile road race.
RECAP: Marci Klimek Gage, a former Linfield College All-American, goes out on a blistering clip and still has enough at the end to hold off Portland's Lauren Johnson for her fourth straight crown. Her time is a personal-best 58 minutes flat.
1. Marci Klimek Gage
2. Lauren Johnson
3. Stacie Koehler
4. Maggie Donovan
5. Maya Nerenberg
6. Anne Hagy
7. Sarah Ziegler
8. Kat Smith, Talent
9. Victoria Haynes
10. Kristin Peterson
"She was always about the same distance behind me the whole time," said Gage. "She was right there. I was hoping the wheels didn't fall off too bad because I'm pretty sure she would have eaten me up."
Gage avoided being the main course, holding steady for her fourth straight victory. The former Phoenix High standout and Linfield College All-American lowered her personal best in the race three seconds, to 58 minutes flat.
Gage has won the race each time she's entered and is now second on the all-time victory list by herself. Saturday's win broke a tie of three wins with Rosa Gutierrez.
Gage, 26, is also second in consecutive victories to all-time leading winner Deanna Schiedler-O'Neil, who claimed nine titles, the last in 2003, and six in succession.
One record that continued to elude Gage is the course record of 57:07, set by Schiedler-O'Neil in 1995.
Gage is in the midst of training for big races this summer and didn't set her sights on peaking this weekend.
"I would still like to come back here and really be ready for it and get that record," she said.
Johnson's runner-up time was 58:29. She was followed by Stacie Koehler of Medford in 1:06:09, Maggie Donovan of Medford in 1:06:41 and Maya Nerenberg of Ashland in 1:08:07.
Gage and Johnson, 34, have competed several times against each other. Gage won their head-to-head in the 2013 half-marathon national championships, and Johnson returned the favor last May in the Bloomsday Run in Spokane, Wash.
It was during a race in Bend that Johnson asked Gage about the Pear, and the latter's response was, "It's an awesome thing."
Gage nursed a knee injury over the winter and had to skip the half-marathon nationals in January. She ran the New York City Half Marathon a month ago and was the 19th female and ninth American female to finish, indicating her knee is sufficiently healed.
She'll compete in the 25-kilometer national championships in a month and the Grandma's Marathon in June in Michigan.
Her goal for the year is to hit the Olympic Trials "A" qualifying standard of 2 hours, 37 minutes. She ran a time of 2:39 last fall in the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, Minn., that met the "B" standard.
The trials aren't until January 2016.
"I have time," said Gage, "but the sooner the better to get it off your shoulders so you can just race and not worry about that."
Her only worry in Saturday's Pear was Johnson.
Gage got off to a fast start in ideal weather conditions, perhaps with visions of the course record dancing in her head.
"I think I should have been a little bit more conservative in the front end," she said, "and come out a little stronger in the end. But I really wanted it, so I went out a little too hard, I think."
Johnson wasn't interested in keeping up with Gage's pace of what appeared to be a below a 51/2-minute mile.
"She's a tenacious competitor and delightful person and a pretty aggressive racer," said Johnson. "She went out hard and hung on."
Johnson likes hills and put in surges on Hanley Road that made up some ground on Gage, she said.
"I started to close down on her the latter part of the race," said Johnson, "but I needed another mile or two to catch her.
"She earned her win. She ran really well."
Gage had a few tricks up her sleeve, too.
On straight stretches, she said, depth perception while moving is hard to determine.
"So I tried to put some (surges) in there, maybe sneak them in a little bit," said Gage. "But I think she was doing the same thing trying to catch me."
Gage has no plans to curtail her pursuit of Schiedler-O'Neil's records.
"I guess I've got a couple more years," she said. "I always make time for this event and will always include it. I love being here. It's so nice this time of year, and it's so nice to come home and see all the familiar faces. It's great, I love it, I wouldn't miss it."
Johnson might follower her back and challenge again.
"It was fantastic," she said. "I absolutely loved it."
There were 1,100 runners to finish the race. Of them, 614 were females, 486 males.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email email@example.com