Heather Johnson climbs Hanley Hill towards the half way mark of the Pear Blossom Run. Photo by Denise Baratta

Johnson boogies to fast time in women's Pear win

There seems to be a correlation between music blaring and Heather Johnson succeeding.

Johnson considered that notion as a rock ‘n’ roll song burst from speakers near the finish line of the 42nd Pear Blossom Run Saturday in front of Medford City Hall.

As a young girl, she competed in gymnastics and fared best on the tune-enhanced floor and balance-beam disciplines.

“Maybe that’s it,” she said with a laugh. “I just need music to get me going.”

Johnson, 22, had no trouble getting going or finishing strong in her third Pear Blossom, racing to victory in the 10-mile event with a time of 57 minutes, 56.78 seconds.

She’s the first woman other than course-record holder Marci Klimek — a six-time champion — to eclipse 58 minutes since 2002, when Rosa Gutierrez, herself a three-time winner, did so.

Johnson was second last year to Klimek, who lives in Massachusetts and didn’t make the trip home. Klimek set the record of 57:04 in 2015.

Johnson, a relative newcomer to competitive racing, finished well ahead of runner-up Sierra Brown, a former Hidden Valley High and Northwest Christian University standout. Brown, of Jacksonville, clocked 1:00:54.65.

Third place went to Natalie Chirgwin of Ashland in 1:05:56.37, while Gutierrez of San Jose, California — who last won in 2004 — was fourth in 1:07:22.90. Medford’s Ellery Kaiser placed fifth in 1:07:49.45.

Johnson was pleased with how the morning went. So, too, was her 1 1/2-year-old son, Ezekiel, who waited near the finish line and had a big hug for Mom.

“Yeah,” said Johnson, “it went better than I thought. I just wanted to get under an hour, and I definitely made that. I felt really good in the first half. The second half was distracting; lots of (crowd) noise. It’s good, but it’s hard to focus really well.”

On her return trip along the out-and-back course, she high-fived her husband, who was also racing, and tried to keep up with the few men ahead of her.

“I was holding a solid fourth,” said Johnson, “then someone did catch up to me. The hill (entering the fifth mile) was a little hard. I always know to expect it, but every time I hit it, it takes a toll.

“Mainly, I was watching the person getting away from me in front, seeing the distance get farther and farther and farther. Then it was, ‘OK, now I should get close and try to stay on his heels, at least.”

Johnson’s ascension in the local running ranks has been rapid.

Except for when she was growing up in Medford and entered the Mayor’s Cup 1-mile fun run, she had little interest in the sport.

“I didn’t realize there was a 10-mile race,” she said.

She competed for five years in gymnastics, going to state a couple times with her team. But through her high school years, when her family moved to the Dominican Republic for missionary work, she suffered from scoliosis — a curvature of the spine during growth stages — and stayed away from sports.

Upon returning to the Rogue Valley, Johnson began running to “loosen my back, and I took to it.”

“I didn’t think I would get this fast,” she said. “It was cool last year (in the Pear Blossom) when I hit, like, 1:01:45.0. I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m going to have to work a couple years to get faster than that.’ I feel like maybe because I haven’t run very much or very long, I have time for improvement.”

At the moment, she’s entered in only one other race — “I always sign up late,” said Johnson — a 50K event at Lost Creek Lake next month.

She also hopes to tackle marathons.

Brown hasn’t been in top shape, she said, but elected to “go out and have fun and do what you can with what you’ve been given.”

She was a three-time high school state track champion for the Mustangs in Murphy and earned All-American honors six times at Northwest Christian. Her college cross country team won the national championship her junior year, when she placed fourth.

Brown elected not to go out fast with Johnson.

“I like to start off a little more conservatively,” said Brown, “and build as it goes. I’m so used to doing 5Ks, I want to make sure I finish, so I’m still getting over that mindset.”

This was her second go-round in the Pear Blossom. The first was as an eighth-grader.

In the 5-kilometer, Desiree Piter of Medford won in 19:36.52, Caitlin Fugate was second in 21:47:15 and Becky Hacker of Medford was third in 21:55:85.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or

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