For Miles and Miles: Ultrarunning in the Rogue Valley
The Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. The Marathon Monks of Japan. The message carriers of the Incan Empire and those of the Iroquois Confederacy. These were some of the original ultrarunners, athletes who ran beyond limit and reason. Here in the Rogue Valley, the tradition continues.
Most ultra-races have a minimum length of 50 kilometers, though many races are often much longer; the time that it takes to complete some of them can take days. To run a marathon (26.1 miles) is no small feat and it requires weeks of training and dedication. But ultrarunning is another beast entirely, and for some, it is a lifestyle. Due to Ashland’s immediate proximity to steep terrain and long trails, the area has become a hotspot for ultrarunners dedicated to pushing their limits.
“There is a large population of ultrarunners here,” says Carly Koerner, a thirty-something ultrarunner based in Ashland. “Feature articles in major publications have showcased our valley and the large pool of ultrarunning talent that have chosen to call it home. It’s no surprise to me! In less than a quarter mile, I can be running on a trail that connects through the Ashland Watershed to the PCT and runs all the way to either Canada or Mexico. And that isn’t just one trail. The trail system starting right in town is vast and growing thanks to the work done by the Ashland Woodlands and Trail Association.”
The AWTA plays a pivotal role for runners in the Rogue Valley. The nonprofit has been responsible for building and maintaining miles and miles of trail around Ashland. Additionally, they have been a go-to resource for individuals looking to sign up for a wide variety of short and long-distance races.
Carly, whose husband Hal Koerner owns and runs Rogue Valley Runners, believes that the sport of ultrarunning is evolving into more of a mainstream running choice. “It’s oftentimes seemed like something runners do later in life, after they’ve enjoyed track, cross-country and marathon racing, the sports that competitively have a shelf life. Now, more than ever, really young runners are dominating ultrarunning because they are jumping into it ahead of the previous curve.”
Ryan Ghelfi is one such example. After running cross-country for SOU, Ryan found himself working at Rogue Valley Runners alongside some of the bigger names in the sport. People like Erik Skaggs and Jenn Shelton became some of his primary influences and helped motivate him to run harder and further.
“We have so many amazing places to train and explore here,” Ghelfi says, who recently set the fastest known ascent for Mt. Shasta. He smiles as he begins to list off race after race, including the Pine to Palm, a 100-mile ultra, which Ghelfi took first place in last summer. “I think we are going to see more and more local people take the leap and come out to try one of these great races. These runs can be a gateway into the addicting and amazing world of trail and ultra-running.”
In addition to being a new father and competitive ultra-runner, Ghelfi runs his own coaching business, Trails and Tarmac, and councils runners in every stage of the sport.
“I would encourage folks to try, just try running,” he says. “The number one key is to learn how to run ‘easy.’ Find your easy pace, learn to be a consistent runner, find joy in the process, and stick with it. It’s one of the most rewarding endeavors on the planet and I think most everyone is capable of doing it.”
“In terms of the racing side of things,” Ghelfi adds, “what is hardest about running 100 miles, is those moments, or hours!, during the race when you experience the lowest of lows. They will come for you in nearly every long race. Mentally and physically, you find yourself just wanting to stop, to lay down, to quit so badly. Finding the strength, and remembering that things will get better, that’s the key to continuing and finishing the race. I think it really takes doing a 100 mile race to truly find that part of your brain and see what you’d do when things get really bad.”