I first met Hal Koerner at the 2001 Phoenix National Trail 50 Miler at South Mountain Park in Phoenix, AZ. This was in the early days of ultra trail racing and this event was an old-school affair. Hal had come down from Colorado to run with his buddy Dale Peterson, an old grizzled ultra guy from way back. Now, this wasn’t exactly The Gordy old days, but let’s just say the race was not tweeted out to the masses and after the race when we had to call our families we did it on the payphone by the picnic shelter. In other words, Hal’s been doing this stuff for a long, long time!
Craig Thornley, Race Director-Elect at the Western States 100, states boldly that, “Not too many people know this, but I have kicked Hal’s butt at Western States several times.” He says this with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, but then goes on to expound on his boast, “The first time I ‘met’ Hal was at WS in 2001. He was a big up-and-comer stud from Colorado at the time. I didn’t have the man crush on him that I do today, but I did think he was pretty sexy back then. Anyway, I come into Highway 49, fumble with getting a cup of soup and flashlights, and my pacer yells ‘Go with Koerner.’ It was the first I’d seen of him all day. We left together and I quickly dropped him on the climb after the aid station. I finished 16th to his 19th.” (Author’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I finished a couple hours behind Craig and Hal that year in 35th.)
A year later, Thornley once again crossed paths with Hal at Western States, this time when Hal was “taking up space in a chair” at Browns Bar. Craig’s pacer then pointed out Hal to Craig and Craig distinctly recalls seeing his huge, drop-dead gorgeous grin on his face even though he was miserable and dropping out. “This was much different than the big name guy who drops out and then hides. I liked that.”
Ultrarunning legend and world-class coach Ian Torrence also met Hal for the first time in 2001 at the Catalina Island 50K/100K. As Ian recalls it he was, at the time, working the Montrail table with Scott Jurek when, “as the clock ticked closer to my Course Record finishing time and I thought I still had it in the bag, this guy Hal from Colorado (who I’d never met before) came around the corner to take the win and new Course Record.”
On that day 12 years ago, a deep and meaningful friendship was born between Ian and Hal – a friendship that is alive and well to this day forged through many adventures, and a few misadventures, along the way. Ian recalls a time during a Double Crossing of the Grand Canyon when he went really ill at the bottom of the Canyon on the return trip. To help his buddy out, Hal dazzled the young lady at the store into allowing him to purchase food and drink with his memorized credit card number. Then, there was the time in 2006, when Ian bailed on his National Park Service job trail work job so Hal could hire him to be one of the first employees at Rogue Valley Runners, his fledgling running store in Ashland, OR.
Hal created his running company after apprenticing with Scott McCoubrey and the rest of the burgeoning Seattle running scene at the iconic Seattle Running Company between 2003 and 2005. When he knew he had learned what it took to go it alone he found the perfect location to seed a business and has single-handedly grown Ashland into a trail running mecca. Along the way he has mentored and trained with some of the finest trail runners in the country. As Thornley puts it, “The first day I walked into his new store, Rogue Valley Runners, he had some Larry Gassan pictures on the wall, including one of me and my brother after Angeles Crest in 2003. When I saw that picture of me and my brother Hal had hooked a lifetime customer out of me. I mean, if you walk into a new store and your picture is on the wall that’s pretty amazing. In addition to being a phenomenal runner, he’s a damn good businessman.”
Hal’s distinctive look with visor pulled down and long loping stride powering off mountains has become legendary. And yet, he also has a bit of everyman in him. I recall running up on Hal in Western States in 2006 when I was cruising along with our mutual friend Tommy Nielsen. We could tell Hal was not having his best day but as we approached he stopped, turned, smiled and gave us both a big sweaty bear hug. Or how about his six-month battle a few years ago with plantar fasciitis? Who ever thought that legendary runners like Hal could get such a baseline injury? Well, he did, battled through it, and we know what happened next. Finally, of course, there was his now epic death slog into the finish at the UTMB race in France last summer. You just can’t help but admire a guy who sets his pride aside and gets the job done, no matter what it takes.
So now, in the store window in Ashland, alongside his two Western States Cougars and his two Angeles Crest Championships, is the Hardrock 100 Championship trophy. There have been many, many iconic finishers of the Hardrock 100 over the last 19 years and in my book, with his extraordinary race last weekend and all that he has done for our sport, Hal Koerner has clearly established his place on ultrarunning’s Mount Rushmore.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week is Shiner Bock from Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas. Why, you might ask, is this week’s beer of the week from Texas when the article is about a guy from Oregon who just won a race in Colorado? Well, the reason is, one of my fondest memories of Hal is hanging out with him far longer than I should have on the afternoon and evening following the Sunmart 50 Miler in December, 2006. Let’s just say, on that day, we did our part to support the local beer economy. Plus, there’s nothing like a cold Shiner on a hot midsummer day.
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
What’s your favorite Hal Koerner story?