Two bronze cougars sit in the window display at the Rogue Valley Runners store on East Main Street in Ashland. A third rests on a mantelpiece a mile away.
These trophies are the most coveted in the sport of ultrarunning, earned by winners of the country's oldest and most prestigious 100-mile footrace, the Western States Endurance Run.
Ashland is the only town in the race's 39-year history to produce two winners: Hal Koerner, 37, who is a two-time winner, and Timothy Olson, 29, the defending champion and course record holder.
When Olson smashed the old record by more than 20 minutes last year, Koerner paced him for the final 38 miles, reminding the younger runner of the subtleties of each mile of the course ahead, knowledge he had gained during the nine times he wore a Western States race bib.
"Hal's been my mentor for several years. I moved to this town right after he won Western States — I thought that was awesome," Olson reveals. "Now we're on the same team, and last year he was my pacer, and we've built this friendship over the years that's special."
Both athletes are sponsored by the North Face company, and as members of this team, they travel around the world, competing and serving as ultrarunning ambassadors. In the past year, Koerner has traveled to Iceland, Olson to New Zealand and the Canary Islands.
"He's been training like crazy, and he'll be ready to go," says Koerner. "He's set his sights on this race and he's peaked really well, and he's overly motivated from a standpoint that you don't often see."
Both runners had a phenomenal 2012. In addition to winning Western States, Olson won two important 100-kilometer trail races, including the USA Track & Field national championship. Koerner won two 100-milers, including Hardrock, a high-elevation course in Colorado's San Juan mountains, considered the nation's toughest 100-mile race. Olson took Ultrarunning Magazine's No. 2 national ranking, Koerner snagged the No. 4 spot.
These Ashland runners are considered top contenders for this year's race, so a fourth Ashland cougar may be on the horizon. Of the two, experience favors Koerner — he has finished well over 100 ultramarathons and counts two top-10 finishes at this course in addition to his two victories. Olson's victory is more recent and his racing skills are a bit sharper, as he's competed more often than Koerner in the past year.
Both local runners know they have more than each other to contend with. This year the field is packed with contenders, led by Mike Morton, a former Western States course record holder and last year's top-ranked ultrarunner, and Rob Krar, an accomplished track runner who recently smashed the Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim record.
"There are so many talented runners out there who are training so hard," says Olson. "It's not just my competition, it's the training, the mountains; you never know what's going to be thrown your way in a race."
The über-competition in this race has been building for several years. The course record was also broken in 2010, by more than 29 minutes. Koerner, who will enter this race for his 10th time, believes victory this year calls for a new strategy.
"From the get-go, you have to push yourself a little harder than you used to have to in those first 30 miles," Koerner explains. "The guys coming in now are shorter-distance specialists, they're faster. Just by their nature they're going to run that a bit faster "¦ you don't know what's going to happen up front, and I've let some people get away in races and then you never see them again. For me, it helps me stay motivated to keep the pace."
The Western States course — beginning near Lake Tahoe and ending in Auburn, Calif., is known for triple-digit heat in a series of steep canyons in the middle of the race.
"The meat of the course, it's the canyons," says Koerner. "People will make moves on the climbs, because I don't think you're going to run away from people on the downhills. Some of those uphills out of the canyons you can make minutes and start to put people away; people will really start to feel tired."
To build heat fitness, both Koerner and Olson run at the hottest time of day and spend more than an hour at a time in a sauna.
"When you go to run 100 miles in 100-degree heat, you can't prepare for it physically, you can only prepare for it mentally," says Olson. "There's a point in the race where no matter how you trained, your legs are spent, and mentally you come in thinking you're mentally prepared for whatever will come your way, but 100 miles will still break you. "¦ That's where I feel the heart takes over. Physically, mentally you can't go any farther, but there's something deep inside of you that wants to battle on, this primal feeling that wants you to survive, to go beyond what you think is possible."
Koerner's and Olson's lives have intertwined in several other ways. Last year at race time, Olson was soon to be a first-time father. This year it's Koerner's turn.
"The sleep deprivation will probably be good ultra training," Koerner jokes. After a pause, he continues, "It's a fun new chapter in life. Now what I want to do is pass things on to my children, watching them grow up and enjoy the outdoors."
Olson has figured out that the best way to integrate fatherhood and training starts with an off-road stroller.
"I run with him a couple of times a week," says Olson. "He loves it. He kicks his legs. He can't talk yet, but I feel like he's saying 'faster, faster daddy!' When we're flying downhill, he's smiling from ear to ear like he's on a roller-coaster ride."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at email@example.com.