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Trail champs ready for Lithia Loop

In only two years, the Lithia Loop Marathon in Ashland has gone from a new race that needed to prove itself to a national championship event.

Saturday's race, which starts in Lithia Park at 8 a.m., is the 2009 U.S.A. Track & Field National Trail Marathon Championship.

"The USATF — who selects the Olympic running team, as well — looks at geography," says Richard Bolt, Oregon's representative to the USATF for mountain, ultra and trail races. "Is there an active trail-running community? They want it to be a showcase for the best national runners, as well as a lot of local runners.

"But proven experience in organizing races is criteria No. 1 for awarding championships," Bolt adds.

The award is for two years: 2009 and 2010.

Race co-directors Ian Torrence and Hal Koerner, store manager and owner of Rogue Valley Runners, respectively, have managed many races and are nationally known trail runners and ultramarathoners.

Prize money helped, too.

"We've put up $6,000 for (winners)," says Torrence.

Approximately 160 runners have signed up so far, almost double the 88 finishers in 2008, according to Torrence.

The 26.2-mile course is substantially the same as last year except that the start at the Butler Band Shell is closer to the finish at Pioneer Hall to avoid the need to shuttle racers from the parking area to the start.

The course still boasts a tough, 4,700-foot elevation gain on a route that winds through 21 miles of dirt roads, four miles of single track trail and one mile of pavement in the Ashland watershed.

Most of the course is on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service. This year, that agency increased the limit from 100 to 300 runners.

"Last year was the first year. We wanted to see how that worked," says Steve Johnson, special uses permit manager for the Forest Service.

"The race was run extremely well. No complaints. People really seemed to enjoy the event. There was no reason not to up the number," Johnson says.

The top contenders this year boast impressive résumés.

In the men's race, Jeff Caba of Bend will return to defend his 2008 Lithia Loop victory. Andy Martin, also of Bend, competed in the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials. Steeplechaser Thomas Brooks of Eugene placed third in 2007 in the national outdoor championships and ran in the 2004 Olympic Trials. Those three will get a run for their money from Aaron Saft of Asheville, N.C., the 2007 national trail marathon champ.

Pear Blossom record holder Max King, who is recovering after running a time of 2:19:11 in the New York City marathon Sunday, is expected to compete, as well.

The women's race features Seattle's Krissy Moehl, who last summer won the international Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, a 103-mile race in France. Moehl also placed second this year at the Western States Endurance Run. Challenging her will be fellow Seattle runner Devon Crosby-Helms, who won the 2008 Vermont 100-miler, as well as the 2009 TransRockies six-day, 113-mile stage race in Colorado.

One of the country's top running coaches, Greg McMillan, is among the top masters contenders for this race. McMillan will be at Rogue Valley Runners on Main Street in Ashland at 5:30 p.m. Friday to give a talk entitled "Run Faster. Period. Tips for Dialing in Training for Successful Running."

Local businesses have lined up to support this race, including Ashland Springs Hotel, Lithia Motors, Peerless restaurant and BestTel. It all adds up to a lot of extra goodies for participants.

"Finishers get water bottles, socks, long-sleeve Patagonia tees, hats for first-time marathoners, a goodie bag, a coupon for Peerless restaurant and a post-race feed. All this for $60," says Koerner.

With the national championship designation returning to Ashland in 2010, the event will only get bigger.

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

Jeff Caba of Bend, shown on the BTI Trail during last year's race, will return Saturday to defend his 2008 Lithia Loop Marathon victory. - Andy Atkinson