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Baby on board: Pear Blossom champ back for more (and pregnant)

Heather Johnson doesn’t expect to blend into the crowd when she toes the line in the 43rd Pear Blossom Run Saturday.

And her anonymity won’t be compromised solely because she’s the reigning women’s champion.

She’ll also stick out because, well, at 8 months pregnant, she’s literally sticking out.

“This is my last baby, and I want to have fun with it and do anything I can,” said the 23-year-old Medford woman.

She and her husband, Nate, have a 2 1/2-year-old son, Ezekiel, who greeted Mom with a big hug at the finish line last year. He’s soon to have a little sister.

Johnson, a childhood gymnast who took up competitive running after high school to help overcome the effects of scoliosis, ran one of the finer Pear Blossom women’s races in recent memory a year ago, churning out a winning time of 57 minutes, 56.78 seconds in the race that starts and ends in downtown Medford.

The runner-up in her Pear Blossom debut the year before to Marci Klimek, Johnson became the first female other than Klimek to eclipse 58 minutes since 2002. Klimek is No. 2 in all-time victories with six.

With Johnson not in contention to repeat and Klimek not returning because she’ll run in the Boston Marathon on Monday, the women’s field appears wide open.

The only other woman from last year’s top five who had registered by Thursday was Ellery Kaiser of Medford, fifth in 2018 in 1:07:49.45. Medford’s Desiree Piter, winner of last year’s 5K race in 19:36.52, is entered in the marquee 10-miler this year.

On the men’s side, Portlander Chris Platano, who won the Pear Blossom for the first time last year in his third attempt, will skip the race to compete with his Bowerman Track Club mates as they go for the team title in the Boston Marathon.

Platano, who captured the Pear Blossom title in a personal-best 52:24.16, said in a message: “I’m bummed to miss out on the Pear Blossom this year - it’s always a fantastic event. I’m planning to be back next year for it though!”

Daniel Lindstrom of Central Point, the 2018 runner-up in 56:35.65, and third-place Levi Jackson, also of Central Point, return among the men.

The 10-mile race starts at 8:20 a.m. in front of Medford City Hall. The course follows Oakdale Avenue to West Main Street and Hanley Road before reversing at Ross Lane and returning along the same route.

Other running events are the 5-kilometer road race and 1- and 2-mile Mayor’s Cup fun runs.

Nearly 4,000 entrants are expected for the various running events. The 10-mile annually attracts about 800.

This is the third time in four years that neither the men’s or women’s champion will attempt to defend their titles. Prior to 2016, it hadn’t happened in five years.

Johnson, of course, would try to win under normal circumstances. But not this time around.

“I will not be going for any records at all, that’s for sure,” she laughed. “The idea is to finish and not exactly kill myself in the process.”

She will run with her husband, who is a trained EMT — “So if anything goes wrong, I’m in good hands,” she said — and she isn’t opposed to walking, if the need arises.

Johnson expects to run 8- to 10-minute miles and finish in about an hour and a half.

She has been running throughout her pregnancy, and competed in the California International Marathon in December. She followed that with a mile race a couple weeks later.

“I’ve been running pretty consistently this entire time,” said Johnson. “It’s been mostly good. The last few weeks have been a little harder, heavier, obviously a little slower. I’ll just have to take it easy and make sure I’m well-fed.

“I’m definitely open to walking, if necessary. I did a test run this (past) weekend and ran 10 miles, so that felt good.”

A Runner’s World article posted in July says running while expecting is safe and is encouraged by experts, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Exercising at least 20 to 30 minutes a day through pregnancy, it says, reduces the risk of a variety of ailments and can make the mother feel better and relieve anxiety “over carrying and caring for a new baby, perhaps.”

It says running won’t put a woman through labor but can help her get through it easier and promote a quicker recovery.

“I’m excited to just run and not be out in the lead on my own,” said Johnson. “It’s kind of nice to run with people and enjoy it.”

Among them, her husband. Nate is running his third Pear, and last year, they high-fived as Heather was on the return route and he was still headed to the halfway point.

This will be one race she doesn’t pull away from him.

Weather conditions are expected to be close to ideal for running, said race director Rich Stanfield, who ran for Southern Oregon University when the late Dan Bulkley coached the cross country and track teams.

“At race time, it’ll be cooler than the 50s,” he said, “but your good runners heat up so fast because they’re running at an incredible rate.”

Among the entrants are five men who have competed in every Pear Blossom: Mike Barrett, Leonard Hill, Tim Rose, Jerry Swartsley and Kenny White.

They’ll take off when Stanfield fires the starter’s gun.

“It’s exciting, it’s hair raising,” said Stanfield, “because you’ve got all of that energy and adrenalin all ready to go. I look for a good race; I look for good weather, and I look for a good competitive race out of both the men and the women.”

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com

Denise Baratta/For the Mail Tribune Heather Johnson climbs Hanley Hill towards the halfway mark of the 2018 Pear Blossom Run.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Heather Johnson crosses the finish line winning the Pear Blossom 10-Mile Run Saturday morning in Medford.