Runners will push the limits of body, mind

Runners will push the limits of body, mind

Horse racing has the Kentucky Derby. Bicycling has the Tour de France. Ultramarathoning has the Western States Endurance Run.

On Saturday, five Rogue Valley athletes will be in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California to compete in the oldest, most prestigious and perhaps the most grueling 100-mile foot race in the world.

"It's a difficult 100K and a not-so-difficult last 39 miles," says John Trent, one of the race's organizers. "The course has canyons in the middle that are a couple thousand feet down and a couple thousand back up ... They come after the high country, over 7,000 feet, and are often quite hot: 100 to 105 degrees."

The five local runners, ranging in age from 25 to 64, are all experienced ultramarathoners, having completed 32 100-mile races between them.

Hal Koerner, owner of Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, is the defending champion. The 33-year-old won the race in 2007, but last year it was cancelled because of wildfire danger. He's been training 120 miles a week to prepare, but he says it takes more than fitness to win this race.

"I feel really good this year, but you can't underestimate the distance. (In 2007) it was a day when everything came together "¦ Watch out for the heat, it can sneak up on you. Early on, you have to be paying attention, you may not feel that it's that hot. If you get a little behind on hydration, a little behind on salt or fuel to some degree, you'll never be able to make it up," Koerner says.

The mental challenge of running 100 miles can be daunting.

"Even if you're prepared, you'll still have to deal with doubt. You feel bad sometimes, but you have to work at putting yourself in another place ... It's hard to do," says Tom Pelsor, one of the five runners making the trip this year.

The former race co-director of Ashland's own ultramarathon, the Siskiyou Out Back (SOB), Pelsor has run the Western States race three times. For Pelsor, eating regularly during the race is key.

"It's critical to keep up carbohydrates in your brain, because that affects your attitude, it affects your judgment. You can slide over almost imperceptibly into that fog of negativity, you feel like you want to slow down and walk, and it's usually because you don't have enough carbohydrates," Pelsor explains.

Proper race nutrition is an art that takes experimentation, because it's different for everyone, Pelsor says. Most runners consume up to three sports gels an hour. Gels are made primarily of maltodextrin, a complex carbohydrate that's easy to digest.

"I take gels, whatever is the least nasty-tasting, whatever your stomach tells you," says Neil Olsen, a family practice doctor in Central Point.

"This race is not just about the heart and muscles, it's also the stomach. You're pushing the limit of how much fluid you can absorb and how many calories," Olsen says.

Olsen is the only newcomer to the 100-mile distance in the group, but he's not new to ultramarathoning. Last year, the 42-year-old won the 100K — 62-mile — national championship race, "Where's Waldo," near Eugene.

Other runners have different preferences.

"When it's hot, you're searching for something you can get down, you don't like to eat. I consume chocolate milk," says Ashlander Rob Cain.

Cain, 55, is race co-director of the SOB ultramarathon. He's completed three 100-milers, including one Western States finish.

In a race of this distance, pain and fatigue catch up to all runners. In the latter stages of the race, hallucinations are not uncommon for a runner all alone in the forest, desert or on a ridgetop.

"I saw a little girl in a white dress in the middle of the road and I screamed. I ran up there and she was gone. (In another race in the middle of the night) I kept seeing a gate with people sitting on top. Then I got to the gate and there was no gate and no people," says Jenn Shelton of Ashland.

Though Shelton is new to the Western States course, the 25-year-old Ashland runner has completed four 100-milers, including a course record at the Rocky Racoon race in Texas two years ago that propelled her onto the national stage.

Shelton has won many local races since moving to Ashland more than a year ago, including the Ashland Hill Climb and Crater Lake Marathon. She's in top condition and, according to race organizer John Trent, Shelton is one of five elite runners who are contenders for the women's race this year.

In the men's race, Koerner will be up against course record-holder Scott Jurek of Seattle. Jurek has run this race seven times and never lost. Koerner says he's ready.

"I think I can run as fast as he can. In the past a lot of people watched what Scott did and how he ran to dictate the race. On race day it's time to be more focused on what my race is," Koerner says.

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

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