The Rogue Valley lost one of its iconic runners when former U.S. marathon champion Ric Sayre of Ashland collapsed and died Tuesday, reportedly following a recreational morning run. The cause of the 57-year-old's death was not immediately available.
Among Sayre's notable accomplishments was a victory in the inaugural Los Angeles Marathon in 1986, when he ran a personal-best of 2 hours, 12 minutes, 59 seconds.
He was one of only four American men to qualify for the Olympic marathon trials five times, and in addition to capturing the national championship in 1987, he represented the U.S. in the Pan American Games that year.
Sayre competed in 50 marathons nationally and internationally, winning 12 of them, but he also was a frequent competitor in local events.
He was the 1982 Pear Blossom Run champion and blew away fields in other events such as the Mt. Ashland Hill Climb and the Tough as Nails 10-mile run on Anderson Butte.
Ashland's annual Fourth of July Run is approaching, and Sayre owns four of the top eight times in its 34-year history.
"He was so good, he just kind of set the standard for toughness," said Bob Julian Jr., the Ashland High School cross country coach who knew Sayre most of his life.
"He basically was the standard around here, and nobody could compete with him."
And running or not, Sayre could be found at distance events.
Last fall, he served as the finishing judge for Julian at the district cross country championships hosted by Ashland High and had to make a controversial call when one runner interfered with another, thereby affecting who advanced to state.
"Ric wasn't just about running," said Julian. "He was a pretty humble guy, pretty quiet. He'd always stand up for people and would help them out if they were having rough times."
Sayre grew up in Ohio but, hoping to find an environment better suited to running, moved to Ashland in 1981.
He was a talented runner who would only get better.
Julian remembers his family having Sayre over for dinner shortly after he arrived in the Rogue Valley. Not long after, Sayre claimed his lone Pear Blossom title.
"He beat these world-class guys from Eugene," said Julian. "He was wearing socks on his hands and he had long hair. From that point on, he was a hero to me, an inspiration to me."
Joe Volk, the cross country and track coach at St. Mary's High, remembers starting the Tough as Nails Run. It was a low-key event with about 40 runners, he said. Sayre was in the mix against Matt Cato and Tracy Garrison, each of whom has won the Pear Blossom.
"There were three speedster guys out there, and Ric just punished them," said Volk. "He just ran away from them."
Sayre worked at the Ashland Food Co-op for 14 years. He was nearing the end of his third three-year term as the staff representative to the board of directors.
A somber mood enveloped the co-op Wednesday. A bulletin board was set up in the back for the posting of remembrances and photos, said Richard Katz, co-op general manager and a friend of Sayre's for some 30 years.
"Ric was very well known in the community for his running," said Katz. "He participated in a lot of local events and was a leader in the community. At work, he liked to work hard. He just put his head down and worked. He was very dedicated, very responsible. He cared about people. He was an exceptionally likable guy and just never hurt anybody."
A profile of Sayre on the co-op website indicates his support of natural and organic food.
A year after Sayre's Los Angeles Marathon victory, the Los Angeles Times previewed his '87 title defense. In it, Sayre was called a "warhorse" because he ran seven or eight marathons a year. He credited his vegetarian diet for his ability to recover quickly.
Most marathoners ran one or two races each year, he said, and subscribed to the theory that recovery takes a day for every mile.
"But it takes me four days to a week to recover," he said. "I think part of it has to do with my diet and part of it has to do with psychology."
To lend credence, his Los Angeles victory at age 32 followed by only five weeks a win in the Long Beach Marathon.
The Los Angeles triumph was significant both for credibility and finances. He earned $10,000, plus a $23,000 Mercedes-Benz. He sold the car to help finance a two-story home he built in Ashland.
"I've been running for 20 years," he said, "but I've only been able to make a living at it for the last two."
Ashland has become something of a "mecca" for elite trail running in recent years, said Julian.
Sayre, he said, was the pioneer.
"He was the first guy to go up there and explore behind the watershed," said Julian. "He'd go run for three hours up in the wilderness. He was the original trail runner."
Tim Trower is sports editor for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.