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A new face at the finish line

A combined six straight championships will be absent Saturday for the 31st annual Pear Blossom Run.

The men's side will be minus four-time champion and Central Point native Max King, who is currently training for next year's Olympic Trials steeplechase.

The women's run also will be without its defending champion, Sopagna Eap.

But stepping in to fill that void is two-time national high school cross country champion and nationally renowned distance runner Melody Fairchild.

The 33-year-old Fairchild still holds two national prep records, with a time of 9 minutes, 17.7 seconds in the 3,000-meter run and a 9:55.92 in the 2-mile. She later starred for the University of Oregon, where she earned All-American status and won an NCAA title in the 3,000.

Fairchild will use the Pear Blossom 10-mile run as a stepping stone for a race — Grandma's Marathon held in Duluth, Minn. — she'll compete in on June 16.

"It's a race I've heard about (the Pear Blossom) for years since I was at Oregon," says Fairchild, a Boulder, Colo., native, who is in her first year coaching track at Churchill High in Eugene. "I've heard a lot about it and am happy to be a part of it."

The 10-mile Pear Blossom Run journeys out Jacksonville Highway and Hanley Hill, then ventures back on the same route to the starting point at Medford City Hall. The 5-kilometer run starts at 7 a.m., while the featured 10-mile race begins at 8:30 a.m.

A record 1,143 entrants will participate in the 10-mile run — up from just under 1,000 competitors last year. The 5-kilometer event boasts 700 runners compared to 493 from a year ago.

Fairchild, who was recruited by nearly 80 colleges coming out of Boulder High School in 1991, followed up her successful career with the Ducks by qualifying for the World Championships in the 5,000 in 1997.

She hopes to compete in the Olympic Trials next April.

"I'd love to go back and do the trials," says Fairchild. "I did it in 2000. It's a wonderful event to aim for."

Fairchild's path to a Pear Blossom win could cross with nine-time champion Deanna O'Neil, who also holds the top time in the event with a 57.07 set in 1995.

"I'm hoping to run about a 5:50 pace," Fairchild says. "I think that's about a 571/2 minute effort. If I were able to do that on Saturday, I would be really pleased."

O'Neil, a Canby resident, has been absent from the winners' circle since 2003.

"I think I can run an hour, two (minutes)," O'Neil says. "I'm not sure that's good enough to win — I'm old."

O'Neil, 42, took fourth last year with a 1:05.07.53.

"I didn't have a great race last year," says O'Neil. "I hope to have a better one this year."

The men's side will be much more up in the air without its previous champion.

King and his four consecutive wins — an all-time Pear Blossom high for men — and record time of 49:29.38 will be at home in Eugene where the former Crater High and Cornell University standout continues to train for next June's Olympic Trials steeplechase.

"I just talked to my coach and he thought it wouldn't be a good idea," says King, 27. "It just didn't fit in with my workout schedule."

But don't count out King for long.

"Oh yeah, I'll be back," he says. "As soon as this Olympic Trials thing dies down."

Damian Baldovino, a runner-up to King in two of the last four Pear Blossoms, will attempt to get back his championship stride for the first time since '02.

"This year I'm going to go over and have fun and see what happens," says Baldovino, 40. "I really haven't had a lot of time to put into training. I'm fairly fit but I haven't been able to focus on or get really ready to run in the Pear Blossom."

Baldovino almost didn't compete in this year's event because of commitments to the Lakeview track and field team, where his freshman daughter, Ashley, competes.

"That's taken up a lot of time," Baldovino says. "But it's been pretty fun. Lakeview has a good group of kids and I've had a great time with them."

The veteran Pear Blossom runner has missed only one event over the last six years.

"I'll toe the line, go out nice and easy and see what happens," Baldovino says. "It'll be a good race no matter what happens."

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail kgoff@mailtribune.com

Deanna O'Neil of Canby is a nine-time Pear Blossom Run winner. - File Photo