I arrived in Ashland on Monday and made my first stop at the Rogue Valley Runners store on Main Street, the hub of Southern Oregon’s vibrant trail running scene. Owner Hal Koerner, the two-time Western States Endurance Run champion, sat down to chat before he takes off for Squaw Valley, where the 38th running of the 100-mile race starts Saturday morning.
This will be Koerner’s eighth start at States. He won it in 2007 in a time of 16:12 and 2009 in 16:24. Now he hopes to stage a comeback after dropping out last year with an ankle injury.
The buzz about Western States is bigger than ever this year for three main reasons: (1) the competition looks as fierce as last year, when the two top finishers crushed the record previously held by Scott Jurek (15:36 set in 2004); (2) the record snowpack has forced a course rerouting and is throwing unexpected challenges at runners and crew; and (3), a documentary film trailer about last year’s historic States race, Unbreakable, became an overnight hit through social media and infected just about everyone who saw it with WS100 fever. Hal is one of four runners profiled in the forthcoming film (see the trailer below).
Hal, who’s 35, was so injured in the middle of 2010 that he could barely put weight on his ankle. He recovered for the new year, however, and ran exceptional times at the Rocky Raccoon 100M in February (13:26) and Miwok 100K in May (8:06). Most recently, he won the June 4 Shadow of the Giants 50K in 3:24.
Hal sat in the specialty running store he opened five years ago and talked about his hopes and plans for the race this weekend, his pain at last year’s Western States, and the experience of being at the center of a film that documents his low point last year.
Sarah: You’ve had a great training and racing season so far. How are you feeling?
Hal: I feel really good. I’ve done a lot of racing—already six races this year, which is a ton—but I feel I’ve found a way to recover from those a little better. I haven’t been saying that I need to run 100- or 120-mile weeks to feel confident. Coupled with these races, I’m feeling more and more like I can go that distance; there’s strength in there, obviously, from those events. Miwok was a super effort for May, so I didn’t want to do too much after that.
What kind of race do you hope to have this Saturday?
Constantly for me, the idea is: just looking to improve. I’d like to be somebody who runs 15 hours at Western States regardless of whatever course it’s on. [Due to rerouting for snow and other factors, the course varies slightly in some years.] … I’d like to be able to run better than I have before; I’d like to be in the top 3. Everybody is a really good runner, but 100 miles is such a different distance, I think everything has to work on that day. I still think I’ve got as good a shot as anybody does.
Your MO at States is to go all out from the start. I know you probably don’t want to tip your hand too much, but what is your plan for how you’ll run it this year?
Most of us [front-runners] will stick together … but you can dictate the pace more early on and make them work a little bit harder. … There’s a handful of people who will want to run that way; other people will have a pace and watch splits and decide they want to run harder later, but that’s not how I run my race or get excited. I’d rather be out there running fast from the get go. Mentally, if I were behind someone for that long, I would worry way too much about it.
How is your ankle behaving?
It’s fine—it’s good—everything feels really in place.
What exactly happened last year that caused you to drop at mile 80?
It was hard to go into Western States being the two-time defending champ, and two days before, I tried to run around Lithia Park [in Ashland] and couldn’t even make it halfway around. I’d gone on several training runs in May, and we’d do our 26-mile Lithia Loop route, and I got to like 18 and was walking—so it started going bad then in May, and from May I had no long runs. I tried to tell myself, “Oh, I’ll be rested,” but at times when I’d be running, any pressure on my ankle would make me have to stop and walk.
Was it an overuse or acute injury?
I’ve had this chronic kind of deal with it for years and years, so it’s kind of fickle, and the stability in there is bad. Then [in March 2010] I rolled it at Lake Sonoma 50 and then ran Miwok [in early May], and at Miwok last year I remember hammering the downhills, and it was just in bad shape—I could put no weight on it. So at the start [of last year’s Western States race], I was getting all this treatment and it was OK—but I pronate on it because it’s rolled so many times, so with the way the snow and cant on the hill were, it was flexing and flexing, and eventually that killed it. I know how to deal with some of that pain, and it’d get numb to a degree, but toward the end—going into Devil’s Thumb [Mile 47] and into Foresthill [Mile 62] was so painful, I was pretty much done at Foresthill.
A lot of people have seen the trailer to the forthcoming film Unbreakable, which profiles you along with the three other front-runners. How did the making of that film play into your experience at States last year? Did you feel pressure to race since you were being profiled in the film?
Sure, a little bit. I mean, I didn’t worry about it too much. JB Benna [the filmmaker] is a really good friend, and I knew he was gonna make a great movie and think he wanted me to be a part of it regardless—and I had committed to running it. There were numerous things—I had sponsors looking forward to me running the race, film opportunities—and I was like, I can’t not ride this out and just say maybe it’ll get better by then and not commit and not tell all these people I’m gonna do it. So all that played a factor. … I wanted to give it a shot. But there was no possible way.
But did you compromise your ankle further because of the combination of making the film and the commitment to sponsors?
Probably to a degree, yeah. It’s one of those things that’s hard because some days you can run, like, five miles on it—but that was just five miles—and some days it just wasn’t working. But part of me was like, “Maybe on race day it’ll just be fine,” because when I had plantar fasciitis [in 2008], I couldn’t race for eight or nine months, and then I went and ran Angeles Crest [100 Mile], and it hurt for a little bit in the middle but then the pain was gone. That was my last episode with plantar fasciitis—which was really weird—so part of me was banking on that chance.”
Is it a little hard to stomach that the film documents your DNF instead of one of your victories?
Yeah, it is, but I think luckily that once you have two victories, I can sit back and say, “Well, that makes those other type of days a little easier to swallow.” More than anything, I wanted to be a part of the race with those three runners [Geoff Roes, Anton Krupicka and Killian Jornet]. I ran with them for 20 miles … and into Duncan Canyon, and at that point I just knew I was not running with them on that day because (a) I didn’t have the fitness and (b) it was just too painful.
What do you do during the week leading up to States?
More than anything else, I just try to stay relaxed. Right now everybody [who's competing at States], to some degree, is probably thinking, “Did I do enough? Have I done all the right things?” But I feel I just need to do the same as I normally do, and if that means going out late and having pizza with friends, up until Wednesday or so, then that’s the same routine I’m gonna have. … There’s not a whole lot of running [this week]. I typically run this 3000-foot run that’s about four miles up, four miles down, and I did that yesterday, a little easier than I normally do, to make sure everything’s OK. I was pretty happy with my fitness level, so I didn’t feel like I needed to prove anything mentally to myself. The next few days will just be easy jogs in the park.
What’s something interesting about you that most people don’t know?
I love music, but I’m a terrible dancer—at least that’s what everyone tells me. … I’m usually way too meticulous about my car, and I like fast cars … and I eat way too much fast food. There’s, like, no fast food place in Ashland, so we go to In-N-Out Burger in California, and I have White Castles in my freezer at home.
Thanks, Hal, for your time! I’ll be following you and the other competitors online and wishing you the best of luck under tough conditions. (For race weekend coverage, follow the WS100 webcast and iRunFar’s twitter feed.)
Coming soon: A profile of Ashland as a destination, including Hal’s recommendations for trail running in the area and my recommendations on where to eat & things to do (besides running, of course).