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MOUNT ASHLAND — "Many paths lead to the top of the mountain."

It's an ancient Buddhist saying that could just as well have referred to Saturday's 13.3-mile Mount Ashland Hill Climb race.

After running 13 miles from Lithia Park in Ashland to the Mount Ashland ski lodge — via Four Corners and Bull Gap — any route is fair game to reach the finish line at the summit. That final pitch is so steep that many runners use their hands on the boulder-strewn slope to avoid falling.

For the first time since 2007, less than a minute separated the top two finishers, and the third podium spot went to a runner only 90 seconds from victory.

"We went out a little too hard, as usual," said winner Erik Skaggs, a 29-year-old Ashland resident.

Skaggs also won this race, which is in its 34th year, in 2008 but was runner-up in the past two years.

The 2010 winner, Max King, and 2009 winner, Joseph Gray, have both been U.S. mountain running champions. Neither entered this year.

For a time, Skaggs thought he might have to settle for silver again this year.

"Will (Meade) was with me the whole way, right through Four Corners," Skaggs said. "I tried to run hard after that because it's a pretty good climb — he was running better than I was on the flats."

With a largely forested course, the line of sight is short. A runner never knows who is stalking him.

"Half a mile before the lodge, I looked back and there he was," said Skaggs. "I thought, 'Oh my God' — I was at a low point right there. That low point lasted pretty much for the rest of the race."

Hunched over, hands pressed on thighs to propel him upward on the steep final stretch, Skaggs still managed to finish 57 seconds ahead of Meade with a time of 1 hour, 51 minutes, 54 seconds.

The Mount Ashland Hill Climb features 5,600 feet, or more than a mile, of elevation gain over the course and finishes at an oxygen-depleted 7,533 feet.

The race is part of the La Sportiva 2011 USA Track & Field Oregon Mountain Running series.

This course was new to runner-up Meade of Santa Monica, Calif.

"I had no idea what to do, so I just tried to keep Erik in sight," said Meade. "I did the best I could to catch him on the flats, but he slowly pulled away on the hills."

On the longest flat stretch, the unexpected happened. Another runner pulled up alongside Meade.

"I caught Will around Mile 10, at Bull Gap," said Tim Van Orden, who ultimately finished third, 33 seconds behind Meade. "I had a 5:40 mile there. But when we hit the single track, he pulled away."

Van Orden, 43, of Bennington, Vt., finished in 1:53:24, breaking the master's record he set last year. Van Orden was the USATF Master's Mountain Runner of the Year in 2010.

The women's winner was never in question.

Two-time defending champion Stephanie Howe led the women's field from wire to wire, finishing in 2:11:40, her best time on this course and the second fastest women's time ever.

The 27 year-old athlete is an international-caliber cross-country ski racer. Last February, she won the prestigious Gatineau Loppet ski race in France. She races for Team XC Oregon in Bend.

She credits her stellar time this year to two factors.

"I'm stronger this year, that helps for hill climbing," said Howe. "It also makes a difference when you know the course. I knew to hold back at the beginning."

Howe has a demanding race schedule this summer. Later this month she'll compete in the Trans-Rockies six-day, 120-mile stage race on a team with fellow Team XC Oregon skier Zach Violett, who finished sixth in the Hill Climb.

Howe fits her training into a schedule that includes both work and school. She's in the process of transferring from Oregon to Oregon State to finish her doctorate in exercise physiology.

The women's runner-up was Michelle Barton of Laguna Niguel, Calif., finishing 10:50 behind Howe in 2:22:30.

A record 195 runners completed the Hill Climb. There were 300 who registered.

Top Male Finishers

1. Erik Skaggs, 29, Ashland, 1:51:54.

2. William Meade, 29, Santa Monica, Calif., 1:52:51.

3. Tim Van Orden, 43, Bennington, Vt., 1:53:24.

4. Jim Rebenack, 27, Arcata, Calif., 1:58:25.

5. Reuben Galbraith, 27, Portland, 1:59:34.

6. Zach Violett, 29, Bend, 2:01:11.

7. Hal Koerner, 35, Ashland, 2:01:42.

8. Ollie Burruss, 25, Bend, 2:01:56.

9. Richard Bolt, 41, Portland, 2:04:24.

10. Andrew Baird, 38, Portland, 2:05:43.

Top Female Finishers

1. Stephanie Howe, 27, Bend, 2:11:40.

2. Michelle Barton, 40, Laguna Niguel, Calif., 2:22:30.

3. Susan Barrows, 36, Bend, 2:28:57.

4. Mallory Gordon, 26, Portland, 2:30:33.

5. Laura Raber, 33, Eagle Point, 2:35:51.

6. Sarah Hyman, 42, Jacksonville, 2:38:48.

7. Kristin Zosel, 36, Eugene, 2:42:26.

8. Kathy Morell, 50, Ketchum, Idaho, 2:44:43.

9. Melissa Stanley, 36, Everett, Wash., 2:52:44.

10. Jennifer Boe, 49, Portland, 2:52:48.

For full results, visit http://ultrasignup.com/results_event.aspx?did=10633. For more information on the race and its history, visit http://www.mtashlandrun.com/index.html

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org

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