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Race to top of Mount A no ordinary chase

On Saturday, 250 runners will attempt to race 5,600 feet, about a mile, and a lucky few may break two hours.

Sound easy?

Consider that these 5,600 feet are all vertical and will require running, walking and climbing 13.3 miles on trails, dirt roads and boulders.

The 32nd annual Ashland Hill Climb, which starts at 7:30 a.m. in Lithia Park and finishes on the summit of Mount Ashland, is actually two races, according to course record holder and running legend, Ric Sayre.

“The first race is 13 miles to the lodge. The second is 0.2 miles to the top. You feel the effects of altitude in the second race. I've raced it six or seven times. It never gets easy,” says Sayre.

The second race is where strategy becomes crucial.

When runners reach the lodge, they have a choice between running up the über-steep Upper Tempest ski run, or the moderately steep Upper Dream slope that takes a more circuitous route to the top.

“The first year I ran it, I had an eight-minute lead (at the lodge). At the top my lead was only three and a half. I wasn't used to stopping and catching my breath. I stopped three times. It's more of a psychological barrier,” Sayre explains.

Sayre last ran the Hill Climb in 2005, when he was 51, and finished second.

No one has come close to Sayre's course record of 1 hour and 42 minutes set in 1986 — the year he won the Los Angeles marathon — but last year Ashlander Erik Skaggs ran the second-fastest time at 1:53:01.

Skaggs favors the steeper path to the top. “You're tired as it is. You're not going to run the whole way anyway. You might as well take the direct way,” Skaggs says, then lowers his voice conspiratorially, “besides, Ric Sayre told me he ran the steep route on his CR (course record).”

The 26-year-old Skaggs hopes to defend his title this year, but faces stiff competition.

2009 National Mountain Running champion Joseph Gray of Lakewood, Wash., is expected to provide the chief competition. The 24-year-old Gray outsprinted Pear Blossom record holder Max King by two seconds last year to win the Mountain Running championship at the Mt. Hood ski area. This year Gray will represent the United States at the world mountain running championship race.

How will Skaggs race Gray?

“I'm not going to take it to him immediately. I hope this is longer than he usually races. I'll hang on,” Skaggs explains.

The dark horse is Zach Violett of Bend, runner-up at the Hill Climb last year, and a member of the U.S. cross-country ski team, part of a group of national caliber skiers who live and train in Bend.

“(My) strategy for this year's race is just to survive. That is always my strategy. This race is soooo hard that you need to be careful not to blow your legs out or get cramps. The race is won at the end, not the start,” says Violett.

One of Violett's fellow skiers from Bend is Evelyn Dong, who set the women's course record last year with a time of 2:08:40, and also won in 2007. She is part of a contingent of Bend skiers who compete in the Hill Climb each year for bragging rights against a group of equally elite Ashland trail runners.

“Training for cross-country skiing fits in pretty well for the Ashland Hill Climb because we do a lot of uphill running intervals,” Dong explains.

Dong cancelled earlier this week because of work conflicts, so the women's field is wide open.

The contenders include last year's runner-up Jenn Shelton of Ashland and Meghan Arbogast of Corvallis. Shelton is nursing an injury sustained last month at the Western States 100-mile run, so she may or may not toe the line.

Arbogast ages like fine wine. At 48, she is at her best, and is one of the top-ranked ultramarathoners nationally. In 2007, she won the national 100-kilometer ultramarathon championship, finishing ahead of all the women and men.

Amidst the gasping and aching muscles, there's a fun side to this race.

“There's an incentive for local runners to enter: It's like a catered event. For a $20 entrance fee you get $25-30 of merchandise and food, including Dagoba chocolate and a $10 gift certificate to Standing Stone,” says race director Torsten Heycke.

But if you're thinking about entering, you'll have to wait until next year.

“We filled earlier this year. It's getting more popular as faster runners participate. It attracts other runners who think ‘I can do well against them,' ” Heycke explains.

This is Heycke's eighth year as race director and he has seen the number of entrants grow from 80 to 250. This year there is a change at the start. Instead of allowing runners who need more time to start an hour early, all runners will start at 7:30 a.m.

“It got confusing. People would change their minds (about the start time) and we'd have to switch numbers at the starting line,” Heycke says.

This year all runners will walk away with a different sort of souvenir.

“People get tired of t-shirts, so we're giving away hats made of bamboo fiber made by Dreamsacks. They're light-weight and wick moisture away,” says Heycke.

For the winners, a unique trophy awaits.

In 2005, Standing Stone Brewery fabricated a trophy from a beer keg. Each year, the names of the men's and women's winners are etched on the trophy, which remains at the restaurant all year.

For the other 248 participants, consider Sayre's advice.

“Your reward is at the top,” says Sayre, “seeing where you've come from — downtown Ashland, and the scope of what you've done.”

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

Erik Skaggs of Ashland scrambles to the summit of Mount Ashland to win last year's Ashland Hillclimb. - Andy Atkinson