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Pear Blossom gets new blood

It appears the time has come for another wave of former local high school champion runners to take center stage at the Pear Blossom Run.

For the first time in five years, the reigning women's and men's champions won't defend their titles in the 40th annual 10-mile race that begins and ends Saturday morning in downtown Medford.

Marci Klimek Gage, who would have been going for a record-tying sixth straight victory in the women's race, and Trevor Palmer, winner of the past two men's races, are out with injuries.

Gage, a former Phoenix High standout, has been sidelined by a hip injury that prevented her from competing in the Olympic marathon trials in February. Gage broke Deanna O'Neil's 21-year-old course record last year with a time of 57 minutes, 4 seconds, but her bid to overtake O'Neil's mark of nine titles overall is on hold.

Palmer, who once starred for Crater High, fell and injured a kneecap three weeks ago. It's the same injury, he said, that forced him to miss four months during his college career at Southern Oregon.

It prevents him from trying to become only the second person, after Max King, another ex-Comet, to win three straight men's Pears.

"I'd definitely like to go for it," said Palmer. "It just won't be this year."

It would have been a tall order, regardless, given a couple of first-time entrants.

Following in the footsteps of the aforementioned former local prep standouts will be Cole Watson and Drew Jordan in the men's race. Because of track team commitments in the past, neither has been in the Pear's marquee race.

That will change Saturday, adding an element of intrigue.

Watson claimed seven state championships in track and cross country before graduating from Rogue River High in 2009.

Jordan won back-to-back cross country state championships for North Medford High, graduating the same year as Watson.

Each went on to successful Pac-12 Conference careers — Watson at Oregon and Jordan at Washington State — which ended last spring.

They ran different distances in college track, Watson sticking to middle distances and Jordan the longer races, but they did cross paths in cross country.

"We competed against each other all through middle school and high school, so it was fun to bump into each other at races in college," said Jordan.

Both runners said they took turns getting the best of each other the handful of times they met. How the Pear shakes out remains to be seen.

"It would be fun if he wanted to duke it out (in the Pear)," said Watson. "That would be great."

That doesn't seem likely, given their respective fitness levels.

Watson, the Rogue Community College cross country coach, is in competition form. He earned a spot in the Olympic marathon trials and gave it a go two months ago with a plan to drop out early.

Jordan, meanwhile, rated his condition at "a little above moderate." He took the winter off and only began training six weeks ago in anticipation of the Pear and, in three weeks, the Bloomsday run in Spokane, Wash., where he now lives.

"I wanted to get back for the Pear," said Jordan, who as a youngster ran in shorter Pear races with his family. "This will be my middle-of-Bloomsday (training) indicator. I'm going to run it hard, but I'm definitely not in the best shape ever."

He has no designs on winning, he said. He’s expecting a time in the 56- or 57-minute range, which historically would place him just inside the top 10.

Watson and Jordan were Pear scholarship winners as seniors in high school, adding to their affinity for the event.

Watson has had the race on his schedule for some time.

"It has the richest tradition of any road run in all of southern Oregon," he said. "Being from here, I could never run it during school. It's not the smartest thing to run 10 miles in the middle of track season when you're a half-miler or miler. It's something I've always wanted to do, and now that I'm not in college, I can do what I want.

"If you want to call yourself a runner and you're from the Rogue Valley, you've got to run the Pear at least once."

Watson's ascension to longer distances has been rapid.

After college, and with his RCC teams, he increased his mileage. It was "less intense and more sustainable," he said, and his endurance improved dramatically.

After a successful 8-mile Turkey Trot last fall, he had confidence to try a half-marathon in January. His time of 1:03:50 in the Arizona Rock 'n’ Roll 13.1-mile race bettered the Olympic marathon trials qualifying standard by more than a minute.

"I'm still so surprised with what I ran," said Watson.

That distance was a stretch for him. Trying to double it to a marathon three weeks later at the trials would have been foolhardy, he surmised.

Instead, Watson toed the line, ran hard and with the leaders for about 10 kilometers, then dropped out.

"I wanted to experience everything about it," said Watson. "Going out there was something I could never simulate. I just wanted to be down there with great road runners and see what it's like. It was fun."

Watson would like to eventually run a full marathon and is essentially pointing to the trials in four years, but he prefers not to get too far ahead of himself. His priority is developing the RCC cross country teams — which debuted last fall — and giving the Pear a try.

If he has a good day, Watson said, he can break the course record. King set the standard of 49:10 in 2011.

No one since, outside of King in 2012, has had a winning time inside 3 minutes of the record. Palmer clocked 52:10 last year.

"I think it's definitely within my grasp," said Watson.

Only two of last year's top five men have entered again, Justin Gindlesperger (second) and Chris Platano (fifth).

Among the women, the lone top-five returner is Carissa Fleskes (third).

Online registration ended Wednesday night, and run organizers said the event is on pace to exceed last year's total of 4,575 registrants for the 10-mile, 5-kilometer and 2- and 1-mile Mayor's Cup runs.

There are 4,036 signed up online, with 986 in the 10-mile, 1,337 in the 5K and 1,887 in the Mayor's Cup runs.

Sign-ups will be taken Friday during packet-pickup hours, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., at the Rogue Valley Family YMCA, 522 W. Sixth St. Brad Russell, executive director of the YMCA, said more than 500 runners signed up the day before last year’s run.

Registration for the Mayor's Cup runs will continue through Saturday morning.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

Former Rogue River state champion and University of Oregon runner Cole Watson will make his debut in the Pear 10-miler on Saturday. PHOTO FROM COLE WATSON