Every man for himself

Defending champ Koerner will see a host of challengers, including Jurek
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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By Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor Hal Koerner took off down the Western States Trail and never looked back on his way to his first victory in the Western States Endurance Run two years ago. After battling plantar fasciitis for much of 2008, then breaking through with an impressive win at the Angeles Crest 100 last August, Koerner is in great shape to defend his crown at Saturday’s 100-mile race from Squaw Valley to Auburn. But he knows there will be plenty of folks following him if he tries to break away in the mountains Saturday morning. “People let me go in 2007, but I don’t think that will happen this year,” Koerner said by phone from his office at Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, Ore. Thursday. “I’m going to run hard, run my own race. I run hills every morning so on the climb up Emigrant Pass, I think I’ll run that pretty hard and we’ll see who goes with me.” Scott Jurek vowed last week at the Western States Media Day in Auburn that he, “won’t let anyone run away with the race.” The seven-time Western States champion and course record holder is back for the first time since 2005. After dabbling in other endurance events for the past three years, Jurek decided to return his focus to the race where he staked his claim as the best ultrarunner of the past decade. “Coming back, I wanted to see the best competition,” said Jurek, who lives in Seattle. The Western States field should provide plenty. Koerner and Jurek are sure to see challenges from 2006 champion Graham Cooper, two-time runner-up Erik Skaden, Max King, who won the American River 50 this year and Brian Morrison, who was the first to cross the finish line in 2006, but was disqualified after receiving assistance to get to the finish. Veterans Dave Mackey, Lon Freeman and Jorge Pacheco could also come up with a big effort and contend for the most prestigious prize in ultrarunning. “I definitely anticipate seeing a handful of guys that can hang for the long haul,” Koerner said. “There’s so many guys that will be behind you, you’ve got to be watching. We’ll play it how it comes.” King earned a place in the Western States field with his win in April in Auburn. The former Cornell track and cross country standout was hesitant to commit to his first 100-mile race following the 50, which ends in Auburn. “I want to do Western States, but I don’t know about this year,” King said at the time. “That’s a pretty big jump (in mileage).” But King is in and many observers believe he could contend. Anton Krupicka, from Colorado Springs, Colo., was another dark horse favorite heading into Saturday, but an injury may keep him from competing. Skaden was less than optimistic about his chances at breaking through with a win at Western States. The Folsom resident and former Jesuit cross country standout said he isn’t in prime condition, as he was for the last two WS 100s, where he finished second. “I’m healthy enough to complete the distance, but I’m not in the best shape of my life,” Skaden said. “I’m 37 now. I’m not 28 anymore. I think the focus this year is not on attempting to win as it has been in the past. It’s hard to keep doing all the things necessary to have a shot at winning year after year. I want to enjoy the event this year.” Skaden may not figure into the overall title race, but he feels the energy around the race after two years of buildup and the flock of top-notch runners to the event. “This race gives more legitimacy to ultrarunning,” he said. “There are so many guys with great resumés in this race. At a lot of ultras there’s never a real deep, competitive field. But this race is really respected.” With temperatures creeping up as race day approaches, the Western States winner will need to survive the blazing canyons Saturday. Jurek is notorious for making the grueling journey look easy and Koerner still looked fresh after his journey in 2007. “I’m sure the canyons will be brutal,” Koerner said. “I think it’s going to be a good footrace to Devil’s Thumb (45 miles) and then it’s whoever can hang on from there.” The pending duel between Koerner and Jurek may be the most intriguing aspect of Saturday’s race. The two have trained together several times and consider each other friends, but their competitive streaks will be in high gear this weekend. “This will be my seventh Western States and Scott’s won seven, so we’ve both been around the block,” Koerner said. “I revel in what he’s able to do – it’s unbelievable. I used to be a little intimidated running against him. We like to joke around with each other, but I’m sure we’ll both be focused. This race has been our focus all year so I’m sure it will be tooth and nail.”