ASHLAND — Ashland runners David Laney and Becka Kem successfully defended their titles Saturday at the 37th annual Mt. Ashland Hill Climb in perfect course conditions made possible by favorable winds.
For the past few years, forest fire smoke has been a wild-card for the nearly 400 runners who each year attempt the 13.3-mile foot race from Lithia Park in Ashland to the summit of Mt. Ashland, a climb with a vertical elevation gain of more than a mile.
Though the nearby Oregon Gulch fire was visible to the east from the Mt. Ashland summit, and several smaller fires in California were visible to the south, the course remained smoke-free.
Laney, the men's winner, almost didn’t race this year, as he was still feeling the effects of the Western States Endurance Run, his first 100-mile race, run six weeks earlier.
"I felt like I wasn't going to run the race," Laney said shortly after winning. "But I knew I'd regret it, and I thought a local should win."
Laney's victory was never in question, as he led from the gun, never seeing another runner. He finished 4 minutes, 36 seconds ahead of runner-up Josh Nelson.
This race is often described as being two separate races. The first is 13 miles, all runnable. The second is an oxygen-starved, heart-thumping scramble for one-third of a mile up the Upper Tempest ski slope, an anything-goes route where the difficulty is perhaps best measured on a rock climber's scale.
"This is the worst part," said Laney. "Usually I can take rocks and boulders and step on them, but it was more like scree this year. Usually you have solid steps. I think it was because there wasn't enough snow this year to pack it down."
Laney's winning effort of 1:47:44 was good for fifth on the all-time list. The next dates on his racing calendar call for flatter races. He hopes to run the Rogue Half Marathon next month and perhaps a road marathon in the fall.
Several minutes behind Laney, the chase pack battled it out until the final quarter mile.
For much of the race, Portland resident Jonathan Talik and former Crater High School standout runner Neil Seibert battled each other for second, with Klamath Falls runner Nelson trailing but within striking distance.
"Those guys led through most of the race — 20 to 30 seconds ahead — and I held back until the steep terrain, which is what I'm good at," Nelson said.
Nelson passed his two competitors near the bottom of the ski slope.
"I've spent a couple of good weeks in the Sierras, around Mt. Whitney, climbing and bouldering," said Nelson. "It's what I like. The steeper, the better."
Kem found herself trailing a woman she didn't recognize for the first three miles of the race. Because Kem has missed quite a bit of training recently, she decided to let the other woman go.
"My priorities have been mother, work, running," Kem said. "I haven't trained a lot because of my new business ... I'm still in startup mode."
Kem is a former school teacher who recently opened a children's art studio in Ashland, an endeavor that has proved to be a marathon in its own right.
"I wasn't planning on really competing, I was just going to run within myself today," said Kem. "But when I got to Four Corners (mile 6.5), I picked it up to see how I was feeling."
Knowing she was in the lead, she pushed harder. At the base of the ski slope she had a pleasant surprise.
"I felt better when I got to the scramble, so I was able to run some of it, where last year I had to walk all of it," she said.
Though Kem's time of 2:11:54 was more than two minutes behind her winning time from last year, it was still good for fourth on the all-time list and put her 19 minutes, 13 seconds ahead of runner-up Corinne Fletcher of Portland.
Kem was the runner-up at last month's Siskiyou Out Back 50 kilometer run in Ashland. The next date on her race calendar is another ultramarathon, the Flagline 50K in Bend in September.
The masters division winners were Francis O'Neill (2:09:14, Ashland) and Lorelei Phillips (2:47:12, Phoenix).
The Mt. Ashland Hill Climb is a fundraiser for the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association.
The race has a new logo this year, introduced by incoming race director, Joseph Chick. The change in management happened rather quickly. In June, Chick and Torsten Heycke, the race director for the past 11 years, were working at an aid station at the Western States Endurance Run near Auburn, Calif., when Heycke suggested he pass the baton to Chick.
"I was at the wrong place at the wrong time," Chick joked.
For full race results, visit http://ultraopinions.com/mtashlandrun/results/
MEN'S RESULTS (Top 10) — 1. David Laney, Ashland, 1:47:44; 2. Josh Nelson, Klamath Falls, 1:52:20; 3. Johnathan Talik, Portland, 1:53:00; 4. Neil Seibert, Portland, 1:55:15; 5. Ryan Kaiser, Bend, 1:58:42; 6. Jonathan Marcus, Portland, 2:01:11; 7. Lindon Powell, Ashland, 2:01:19; 8. Nathan Einbinder, Ashland, 2:02:49; 9. Cary Dunagan, Ashland, 2:03:34; 10. Francis O'Neill, Ashland, 2:09:14.
WOMEN'S RESULTS (Top 10) — 1. Becka Kem, Ashland, 2:11:54; 2. Corinne Fletcher, Portland, 2:31:07; 3. Nikki Dinger, Phoenix, 2:35:56; 4. Stacie Truitt, Roseburg, 2:45:44; 5. Lorelei Phillips, Phoenix, 2:47:12; 6. Mary Hough, Ashland, 2:47:36; 7. Kristen Bell, Roseburg, 2:50:01; 8. Sarah Strickler, Central Point, 2:51:58; 9. Lucy Whitridge, Ashland, 2:52:36; 10. Emily Halmon, Eugene, 2:52:44.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at email@example.com