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Trails are for running

In the summer of 1978, 11 athletes ran from the Plaza in downtown Ashland to the summit of Mount Ashland on a course that followed a series of roads and trails. The Mt. Ashland Hill Climb, as it is called, will have its 37th running this year, but it is now only one of nearly two-dozen trail races in the Rogue Valley that — combined — will attract well over 1,000 runners.

Ashland is the local trail-running hub, and it's not only because of the approximately 40 miles of trails just above the city in and around the Ashland watershed and the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Several trailheads lie within the city limits, making these trails accessible from downtown. This trail network — including the Creek to Crest Trail — connects to the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada.

Because many of the Ashland trails were built by and for mountain bikers, you might expect plenty of conflicts, but the two communities of athletes coexist harmoniously for the most part.

Runners, bikers, hikers and equestrians in the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association came together recently to develop a trails master plan for the U.S. Forest Service to guide future use and expansion of the trails system. A fundamental part of this plan was to create several bike-only and several pedestrian-only trails to improve safety as the number of trail users continues to rise.

Volunteer trail maintenance is part of the trail-user ethic in Southern Oregon. The AWTA's volunteers annually log thousands of hours repairing — and even building new — trails. Thanks to their efforts, this trail system remains in much better condition than is found in many other regions.

The epicenter of the trail-running scene is Rogue Valley Runners, the specialty shoe store on Ashland's main street. Opened in 2006, the store is owned by Hal Koerner, a nationally ranked ultramarathoner for the past decade and two-time winner of the prestigious Western States Endurance Run 100-mile race.

Koerner has attracted other elite ultramarathoners to Ashland, many have worked at his store, and all have benefitted from the challenging terrain and competition.

For non-elite runners, Koerner has opened many local trail runners to the idea that it is possible to run for as many hours as you can hike.

The Rogue Valley boasts its own ultramarathon competitions that attract competitors from around the country and even internationally.

The Siskiyou Out Back — S.O.B. — 50-kilometer race began in 1999 and now sells out months before its July start.

In 2012, a 50-mile edition of the S.O.B. was added to meet the demand. The 100-mile Pine to Palm race in September traverses a gnarly mountainous course that sports more than 20,000 feet each of climbing and descent as it winds from Williams to Ashland. Many more runners start than finish the race.

Farther north in the Rogue Valley are several other well-used trail systems. In the past 20 years, the Jacksonville Woodlands Association has preserved 320 acres in and around historic downtown Jacksonville and built 15 miles of connecting trails. If you run, walk or ride a horse on these trails at the right time in April, you'll be treated to a display of bright orange fritillaria flowers (aka Gentner's fritillary). Fifteen new trail miles were recently added to the adjacent 1,100-acre Forest Park.

Farther up Route 238 from Jacksonville is the Applegate Valley, home to many well established Bureau of Land Management and national forest trails that are popular with trail runners, especially the 18-mile loop trail around the Applegate Reservoir and the 5-mile Collings Mountain Trail, home of the only Bigfoot trap in the region.

Most trails in the region are hilly, so if you're after something flat, consider running the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail, which parallels 17 miles of a 19th-century ditch that fed a placer gold mining operation.

Near the north end of Route 238, on the outskirts of Grants Pass, is the Cathedral Hills trails system. This 10-mile urban trail system ranges from flat to steep, so there's something for all levels of hiker, runner, mountain biker or horseback rider.

Because of the Southern Oregon climate, many of the local trails are runnable throughout the year. With the incredible scenery, variety of forested and ridgetop trails, it should come as no surprise that Trail Runner magazine chose Ashland as one of the best trail running locations in the U.S. for 2008.

Outside magazine chose Ashland as one of its "Best Towns" in both 2010 and 2011. The trail system was mentioned as leading to that decision.

Trail runners, after all, need trails.

Jim Clover, right, and Seth Weintraub run on the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail off Upper Applegate Road near Ruch.