Timothy Olson of Ashland will try to win the Western States Endurance Run in Squaw Valley, Calif., this weekend. (MT file photo)

Local ultra runners gear up for 100-milers

Ashland's top ultramarathoners are in Squaw Valley, Calif., this weekend for the nation's oldest and most prestigious 100-mile race, the Western States Endurance Run.

Both Timothy Olson and Hal Koerner were ranked in the top 10 nationally last year by Ultrarunning Magazine and both are intimately familiar with the demands of this grueling competition.

Koerner, owner of Rogue Valley Runners store in Ashland, won the race in 2007 and 2009. Olson finished sixth last year. This year, however, they're not competitors, but teammates.

"I'm pacing Timothy for 18 miles from Foresthill (mile 62) to the river (mile 80)," Koerner explains.

Runners are encouraged to race with pacers during the final third of the race when mental and physical fatigue raise safety concerns.

Olson won the Bandera 100K race in January, the national championship race at that distance. He's hoping to translate that fitness and 150 miles per week of training into an improved time and place at Western States.

"I do pushups and situps in the sauna after hard runs to acclimate to the heat," says Olson. "I also run a mile or two barefoot in grassy parks to strengthen my feet and improve my form for the later miles in the race when I'm tired."

To win Western States — the most competitive of the nation's 100-milers — Olson knows that strategy is as important as training.

"There is a lot more climbing in the first half of the race, which is more my strong point, rather than the last 40 miles," says Olson. "I want to work hard in the first half so I will be in the lead group."

If all goes according to plan, steep canyons in the middle part of the race are where Olson will make his move.

"Heat plays a big factor in the canyons," says Olson. "I want to run strong there and hopefully put a gap on some of the other runners."

When Olson hits the 89.5-mile mark, he'll encounter a sea of familiar faces. A dozen Ashlanders will be staffing the Brown's Bar aid station, led by Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association president Rob Cain.

"It's a 13-hour gig because runners are so spread out that late in the race," says Cain. "We'll be bringing three pickup loads of stuff with us, including two generators and a four-burner stove."

Most runners will arrive at the aid station in darkness. Cain and his helpers will be cooking potato soup for them. Electricity is also needed for Christmas lights and music.

"We expect to feed about 600 people this year — about 300 competitors, each with a pacer," says Cain. "With considerably cooler temperatures this year, we're not expecting to see the usual carnage (runners suffering from heat exhaustion)."

But while heat is usually a factor at Western States, cold and altitude are the concerns at the 100-mile race Hal Koerner will be running two weeks later. His 18-mile pacing duties at Western States are merely a training run.

Koerner will run the Hardrock 100 in Colorado, hands down the toughest 100-mile race in the U.S. With an average elevation of more than two miles and a cumulative vertical gain of nearly 34,000 feet, even the toughest ultramarathoners are often forced to drop out of this race.

"The past two years, with my injuries and performance problems at Western States, I needed a break," Koerner explains. "I wanted to do something fresh this summer."

For training, Koerner regularly completes training runs with 3,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation gain. One of his favorites is to run from downtown Ashland to the summit of Mount Ashland and back, clawing his way through snow en route. At Hardrock he'll navigate snowpacks, scree slopes and boulder fields.

"I'm doing training to get me in the mindset of a little bit of climbing and a lot of suffering," says Koerner. "Those will be the things to prep my mind for."

To help prepare for the thin air of the high Rockies, Koerner purchased a secret weapon: An oxygen tent.

Each night Koerner sleeps inside a plastic enclosure that adjusts the oxygen level of the air to simulate race conditions.

"It's like living inside a plastic bag; it's a little humid inside," Koerner says. "I've got pets all around wondering what I'm doing in this contraption."

If you peek into his store on Main Street in Ashland, you'll see step two in Koerner's altitude training.

"I'll put the treadmill at a 15-percent grade, wear an oxygen mask and hike for 40 minutes," Koerner adds.

The hardest part of the Hardrock 100 race, says Koerner, is pacing.

"The course record is about 41/2; mph; it's not that fast, so not going out too hard is the main thing," says Koerner. "When your legs feel heavy and your stomach isn't doing so well with all the oxygen deprivation, that's when you have to know what a good pace is."

Even with the right pace, to win at Hardrock, says Koerner, "You have to love suffering."

Reach freelance writer Daniel Newberry at

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