Cole Watson’s motivation for the Pear Blossom Run was simple: do better than last year.
Mission accomplished, and then some.
Watson checked off a bucket-list item when he pulled away from race legend Max King and won the 41st annual event in record fashion Saturday.
The former Rogue River and University of Oregon runner triumphed over the 10-mile out-and-back course in 49 minutes, 5 seconds, bettering the men’s record of 49:10 set by seven-time winner King in 2011.
“I mean, I’m stoked,” said an elated Watson, 25, who successfully defended the title he won last year in his Pear Blossom debut. “It’s something I’ve really wanted. The Pear Blossom isn’t the biggest race in the country and it doesn’t even have the richest history. But it’s rich to me; it’s a big deal to me and, I think, to the people who come back to run it like Marci (Klimek) and Max.”
Watson’s victory in 2016 came on a day he didn’t have his ‘A’ game. He hoped to challenge the record then but came up more than 2 minutes short.
Watson, of Ashland, said he wasn’t “super focused” on the record Saturday.
“I just wanted to get a good time and win and do better than last year,” he said, “because I was disappointed in blowing up last year.”
King, 37, a former Crater High runner who now lives in Bend, was in the race for the first time since 2012. His runner-up time was 50:31. He was followed by Craig Hopkins, of Vancouver, Washington, in 53:26; Neil Olsen, of Central Point, in 58:25; and Philip Reed, of Ashland, in 59:57.
Corey Hartgrave, of Grants Pass, won the wheelchair race in 34:28. It was his 10th victory.
In the men’s 5K race, Matthew Medina, of White City, was first ni 18:03. He was followed by two Medford runners, Peyton Shepard (18:23) and Jeffrey Fairbanks (18:37).
King had set a couple of course records in winning 50-kilometer races in recent months, including one in which he defeated runner-up Watson by more than 7 minutes.
But he was no match for Watson, the Rogue Community College cross country coach, once Watson made the turn on Hanley Road and started back for town.
“Cole killed it,” said King. “We ran together to about halfway. Back over the hill, that’s where he kind of picked it up and took off, and I couldn’t hang with him going back up the hill.”
King admitted he could have prepared better. In the days leading up to the race, he got in a long run, worked out and even went skiing.
He knew relatively early his legs were taxed and “it wasn’t going to be my day.”
It prevented a spirited race to the finish that some envisioned with the talented duo pitted against each other.
“Cole is a lot faster than he used to be,” said King. “What I’m happy to see is it takes a little bit more to win this race than it used to.”
After the two ran together for nearly 5 miles, Watson gradually pulled away. It wasn’t by design.
“I think maybe he (King) thought, ‘Oh, this is a rookie mistake,’” said Watson. “‘We’ve gone 4.9 miles and this guy’s already taking off?’”
“But it felt OK,” said Watson.
On the way in, he tried to glance over his shoulder and pick up King, but the combination of sweat in his eyes and lots of people going the other way prevented him from locating his rival.
Watson knew with King less than a minute behind, he couldn’t let off the gas.
When he got to the 9-mile mark, he realized he had a chance at the record.
“I knew if I was around 44:15, I’d have a shot,” said Watson.
He was at 44:12.
“I told the biker, it’s going to be close,” he said of the volunteer rider who shadows the leader.
Watson went into his kick around the last corner, a block from the finish line.
“If I would have let up for more than 5 seconds, I would have been kind of kicking myself afterwards,” he said. “I’m glad I did look at those splits.”
Watson has done little speed work in training, leaning on trail and elevation regimens.
He’s been doing 90 miles a week with 15,000 feet of elevation gain.
Running a 4:55 mile pace Saturday showed him speed developed through climbing mountains translates to the road.
“It was kind of a test to see if I’d be able to do this,” said Watson. “I’m very, very stoked.”
He has a 50K race in California later this month and will enter the U.S. Mountain Running Championships in June, attempting to qualify for the world championships.
Ultimately, he’s gearing up for a marathon in Sacramento, California, in December with an eye toward qualifying for the Olympic Trials.
King has a busy schedule as well, with a half-dozen international events planned.
Eventually, their paths may well lead back here for next year’s Pear Blossom.
“He’ll be back again and we’ll go at it again, I’m sure,” said Watson.
“I hope so, I’ve got to get that record back,” he said with a laugh.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org