Some of the best distance runners in the Pacific Northwest will compete Saturday in the 31st annual Mount Ashland Hill Climb Run, a half-marathon from the plaza to the summit of Mount Ashland.

Climbing more than a vertical mile, the course's elevation gain is bested by only one other half-marathon in the country. The event is part of the U.S. Track and Field La Sportiva Oregon Mountain Running Series and is attracting star runners from Oregon, Washington and Northern California.

Last year's winners, Brayton Osgood, 27, and Evelyn Dong, 23, both of Bend, are returning to defend their titles. Osgood and Dong are members of XC Oregon, an elite cross country ski team. Eight members of that team will be competing here. Among them is Zach Violett, 26, who finished third last year.

The increasing talent pool of local ultra-runners (those who run 50 kilometers or more) will add some competition for the skiers. Ian Torrance, 35, and Eric Skaggs, 26, and former Hill Climb winner and Rogue Valley Runners store owner, Hal Koerner, 32, all have the potential to step across the line first.

Other challengers include Bob Julian, 40, of Ashland and Ian Solof, 37, of Portland, both winners of many local events over the years. Richard Bolt, of Portland, leads the Oregon Mountain Running Series and could also threaten for the top spot.

On the women's side Dong will be competing against multiple Hill Climb winner, Dolores Bergmann, 36, as well as talented locals, Jenn Shelton, 24, Ixel Sanchez, 22, and local Ashland High standout Aria Hemphill, 18.

"If conditions are cool and the smoke isn't too bad, we may see the women's record fall," event organizer Torsten Heycke said.

Bergman holds that record, 2 hours, 13 minutes and 39 seconds in 2004.

The men's record, held by Ric Sayre (approximately 1:42), seems unlikely to fall despite the keen competition. Sayre won the Los Angeles Marathon that year (1986) as well.

According to Heycke, entry forms are no longer being accepted.

"We're full," he said. "People really like this race and we got some good press. We filled up way ahead of last year. The Forest Service limits us to 250 folks, a number we're comfortable with.

"We're sorry that we can't take any more participants, but if you want to watch, the Mount Ashland Lodge parking lot is the place to be."

Many of the original runners who took part in the first run, in 1978, still grace the event with their presence. Kathy Wolfe and Larry Zowada are perennial participants. Ben Benjamin managed the aid stations for several years and Chuck Taubner occasionally enters.

The original Mount Ashland run was the brainchild of Chuck Taubner along with Bruce Bergstrom (Sawyer Paddle) and Dr. John Maurer. For many years, the event was primarily locally publicized and attracted a handful of mostly local runners.

Tim Turk and Torsten Heycke, who finished first and second, respectively, in 2002, took over the event in 2003 and began working on sponsors. Standing Stone Brewing Company was an early supporter. Participants get a $10 certificate from the restaurant. Men's and women's winners appear on the beer keg trophy which is stored at the restaurant.

Hal Koerner and his store, Rogue Valley Runners, have been sponsors as well, helping secure a good t-shirt deal, a significant sock sponsorship. This year he is offering Rogue Valley Runner water bottles to participants as well.

"What Hal brings to the local running community is amazing," Heycke said. "He opens his store and promptly wins the most prestigious ultra running event in the country, the Western States 100-mile run. This area already had a number of ultra runners, but his presence has lifted the caliber significantly. Other ultra runners have moved to the area."

Dagoba Chocolates is providing copious amounts of chocolate again this year. Chocolate is said to have anti-oxidant capabilities.