Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Hal Koerner of Ashland, Ore. crosses the middle fork of the American River Saturday afternoon during the Western States Endurance Run. He led within the first climb at Squaw Valley all the way to the finish at Placer High's Le Febvre Stadium. Photo by Michael Kirby/Auburn Journal
Determined to run his own race Saturday, Hal Koerner made sure he didn't have any footsteps to follow.
The 31-year-old from Ashland, Ore. darted up Emigrant Pass from the start at Squaw Valley and didn't look back until the finish line at Auburn's Le Febvre Stadium. He led virtually the entire way to win the 34th Western States Endurance Run in his sixth try.
"I knew there were so many talented guys and gals here today and I wanted to run my own race," Koerner said. "I knew if I got out a little further (in front), no one else could dictate what my pace would be. Usually if I run behind other people, things don't go so well."
Things went beautifully for Koerner on Saturday. He finished the 100-mile trek in 16 hours, 12 minutes and 15 seconds, crossing the finish line at 9:12 p.m.
Folsom's Erik Skaden chugged across the finish line in 16:37:01 and was the runner-up for the second straight year.
Koerner took third overall in 2004 and was ninth in 2003, but never felt as good as he did Saturday, when relatively mild temperatures in the canyons and no snow at the start of the race made for excellent running conditions.
Koerner set a brutally fast pace early, cruising through the Robinson Flat aid station at 9:30 a.m., 15 minutes ahead of Lon Freeman, who dropped out some 50 miles later at Auburn Lake Trails.
Skaden slid into second place between Foresthill and the Rucky Chucky River Crossing, followed closely by Phil Kochik, who finished fifth. The Folsom runner, who won the American River 50 in April, said he struggled in the middle of the race in the heat of the day, but was able to pull through.
"The Deadwood and El Dorado - it was warmer than I anticipated," Skaden said. "It was nothing compared to last year." Skaden referred to the soaring temperatures in 2006 that led to leader Brian Morrison collapsing less than 400 yards from the finish line. His crew physically aided him to the finish and he was disqualified. Graham Cooper, last year's WS champion, took third on Saturday, followed by Andy Jones-Wilkins and Kochik.
In the race for the women's title, defending champion Nikki Kimball had a sizeable lead at press time Saturday night, nearly an hour ahead of second place runner Beverly Anderson-Abbs. It would be Kimball's third victory in four years.
Koerner won the prestigious Angeles Crest 100 in Arcadia last July, but considers the Western States victory his crowning achievement in eight years of endurance running.
"I've done a lot of runs, but no other race brings together the caliber of runners that this one does. No other race is even close," Koerner said. "To be out here on this course with all the variables and then to run 100 miles, this here is pretty huge."
Many along the trail believed Koerner's strategy might come back to haunt him once the heat of the day set in, but the owner of Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland was never threatened.
"I thought if I could get as much of a lead by 80 miles, then I could have a little cushion for the last 20," Koerner said. "It was a cool day, so I figured I had to get as much out of the way as I could before it got hot."
Koerner was not a runner in high school, preferring to play basketball as a youth growing up in Colorado. He got into endurance running at age 23 and quickly emerged as a star.
His mother Diane Koerner said her nerves were still on edge even after her son crossed the finish line as the champion.
"I've been here when he was hooked up to an IV at the end and had to drop at mile 89," she said. "I've been through some bad times, so this is definitely a happy ending. Relatives, friends and everybody asks why? But we've crewed maybe 27 of his races and you get here and you just get caught up in it. This ultrarunning community is fantastic. It's just a great sport."