When it comes to climbing hills most American would have a hard time hanging with the average Norwegian, whose home country’s elevation map glows like a bowl of rainbow Sherbert. Ten peaks in Norway — a country about one and half times the size of Oregon —surpass 7,700 feet (Mount Ashland is 7,533); close to 300 top 6,500 feet.
But not even Runar Hjelle and Kjetil Nilsen, who hail from the coastal city of Alesund in western Norway, have faced a climbing challenge as steep and as daunting as the one they’ll be tackling today starting at 7:30 a.m. at Lithia Park.
Both visitors have run half-marathons and climbed mountains, but neither has done both of those things simultaneously, which is why they decided to swing through Ashland on a scheduled 4,700-mile business trip and take part in the 40th annual Mount Ashland Hill Climb Run.
It was a former colleague of Hjelle and Nilsen, Will Roberts, who directed the duo here. The three worked together for Rolls-Royce in Norway and Roberts knew Hjelle and Nilsen liked to run and enjoyed challenges. Roberts, who now lives in Seattle, has family ties in Ashland and had run the Hill Climb. "Try it," he said, "and good luck." Today, they will.
“He challenged us to run this one,” said Hjelle, 45. “We have some similar races in Norway but we don’t try them too much. We decided to try this one.”
The Hill Climb begins at 7:30 a.m. on Winburn Way in front of Sesame Asian Kitchen. From there, runners will head up to the reservoir and take Ashland Loop Road for about four miles before hitting the Bull Gap trail head. That’s where runners will enjoy a brief flat/downhill section before the long, excruciating charge up, up, up to the Mount Ashland parking lot, where the collapsing begins.
All told, the 13.3-mile rout includes 5,600 feet of climbing, more than a vertical mile. According to promoters, that represents the second-most elevation gain of any “continuous” hill climb in the continental U.S., trailing only the Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado (7,800 feet).
To emphasize this fact, the Hill Climb’s web site warns that only those in excellent shape should attempt the race. The FAQ page asks, "If the race is so hard, why is everyone in the photos smiling?" The answer: “Some of those people are hypoxic, possibly even brain-dead, and they probably couldn’t tell you who the current president is.”
Nilsen said they were hoping to run the Hill Climb together last year but when that didn’t come together they pledged to hammer out a plan this year.
For Nilsen and Hjelle, the stop in Ashland will be brief, as they’re in the middle of a business trip that began in San Francisco and will also include stops in Portland and Seattle. Nilsen said he’s run in at least five half-marathons, but he expects this — his first in the U.S. — to be the most challenging, given the elevation gain and the heat (Alesund’s average high temperature in August is 61 degrees).
“We just thought it was a nice challenge to try something else,” Nilsen said.
“We have a lot of steep mountains in Norway that we frequently use,” Hjelle said. “I’ll just start easy and see how it goes. I think actually the heat is going to be the challenging part. We’re not used to this temperature.”
Max King set the Hill Climb record when he finished the 2010 race in 1 hour, 41 minutes, 50 seconds. The top female time (2:07:00) was set by Camelia Mayfield in 2015.
Neither Nilsen nor Hjelle have a specific time goal in mind.
Asked if he’s planning on coming back for another go next year, Hjelle hesitated.
“Uh,” he said, “I’ll have to think about that one Sunday.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.