There was Gray area at the Mount Ashland Hill Climb Saturday.
It was at the front of the pack.
Joseph Gray of Lakewood, Wash., won the 32nd edition of the race in 1 hour, 47 minutes and 29 seconds. It was the second fastest time on record despite being contested in the hottest conditions ever recorded for the event.
Gray is the 2009 U.S. mountain running national champion and will compete in the world championship race in Campodolcino, Italy, on Sept. 6. He finished 4:01 ahead of Erik Skaggs of Ashland, last year's winner.
"After about two miles, I started to get a gap," Gray said at the summit of Mount Ashland, shortly after his victory. "It was just me and Erik,"
The 13.3-mile Ashland Hill Climb begins at Lithia Park and finishes at the top of Mount Ashland. There is 5,600 feet of elevation gain, and much of the race is on trails, dirt roads and boulder fields. Only the Pike's Peak Ascent in Colorado has a greater elevation gain among continuous hill-climb races in the continental U.S.
The final third of a mile, from the ski lodge to the summit, is the steepest section. Competitors are reduced to walking on a dusty ski slope strewn with boulders.
The race is part of the 2009 USATF Oregon Mountain Running Series.
In addition to the heat, the 190 finishers had to contend with smoke from a forest fire near Roseburg that settled into the Rogue Valley Friday.
"My lungs really tightened up," said Skaggs, who, despite the tough conditions, finished two minutes faster than his winning time of 2008.
The competition was fierce this year.
"We've always had good runners, but this year the caliber of male runners, this is the best we've ever had," race director Torsten Heycke said.
Stephanie Howe of Bend broke the tape as the first woman in a time of 2:13:17. She was 12th overall.
Jenn Shelton of Ashland was runner-up for the second straight year. Her time was 2:25:28.
Howe is a national-caliber cross-country skier who competes for team XC Oregon. Her victory comes shortly after a six-week layoff from running because of a broken foot. She preferred the terrain in this race because it's not conducive to a fast pace.
"It was probably to my advantage that it was hilly. My legs aren't ready for the flats," Howe said.
Howe was joined in the race by three skier teammates. For the past three years, the elite Bend skiers have engaged in a friendly rivalry for bragging rights with a group of equally elite Ashland ultramarathoners.
This year, Ashland claimed the men's race, taking second (Skaggs), fourth (Hal Koerner), and eighth (Ian Torrence) places. Bend skiers finished third (Santiago Ocariz), fifth (Zachary Violett) and 17th (Eric Jacobson). Bend claimed the women's race with Howe finishing ahead of Shelton.
MEN'S TOP 10
1, Joseph Gray, Lakewood, Wash., 1:47:29.
2, Erik Skaggs, Ashland, 1:51:30.
3, Santiago Ocariz, Bend, 1:54:44.
4, Hal Koerner, Ashland, 1:59:17.
5, Zachary Violett, Bend, 2:00:31.
6, Timothy Olson, Ashland, 2:04:46.
7, Andy James, Seattle, Wash., 2:05:23.
8, Ian Torrence, Ashland, 2:06:33.
9, Gary Gellin, Menlo Park, Calif., 2:09:59.
10, Craig Kenworthy, Bozeman, Mont., 2:11:23.
WOMEN'S TOP 10
1, Stephanie Howe, Bend, 2:13:17.
2, Jenn Shelton, Ashland, 2:25:28.
3, Meghan Arbogast, Corvallis, 2:28:43.
4, Lindsay Kluck, Bend, 2:33:42.
5, Melissa Schweisguth, Hershey, Pa., 2:35:47.
6, Amy Smith, Talent, 2:43:23.
7, Melinda Wenny, Portland, 2:56:22.
8, Darcy Kleiman, Talent, 2:56:39.
9, Jennifer Callans, Eagle Point, 3:00:06.
10, Lisa Norvell, Ashland, 3:03:31.
Visit www.mtashlandrun.com for results
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at email@example.com