“Oh man, thanks, I was wiped out the other day and we were way back in the woods up the Elk River,” Hal Koerner blew me off once, and then a second time. “Eff man, I’m sorry, I just got into the office, long morning.” If it was anybody else, I would’ve moved on, but Koerner is well known as a happy guy, and he’s easily forgiven.
Since 2006 Koerner has owned and operated Rogue Valley Runners, a running store in Ashland, Oregon. The town’s population is just over 20,000, and Koerner helps me to understand how a running store could thrive in such a small town. Ashland is only 10 miles from Medford, there’s 250,000 people in the valley, and there’s a university in Ashland too, for starters. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is based in Ashland, and is a huge driver for tourism. Folks from San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland come for the theater, and spend money in the town’s restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and shops. “It’s our lifeblood,” Koerner says simply. There’s no Shakespeare Festival this year though, and a few bad fire seasons further hurt the local economy, so much that a few retailers have recently left main street.
But for Koerner and Rogue Valley Runners, it’s an active community. “I’d never seen more people on the trails, never seen more people running,” Koerner said about Ashland during the COVID-19 shutdown period. “I saw 60- to 70-year-old-people on steep climbs with an umbrella.” His voice spikes on the “with an umbrella,” but he’s definitely serious. “We were able to provide the one thing that people could do, and wanted to do. I feel pretty blessed.”
Koerner is championing the shop local message. “We’re a curated boutique. We win on specialized fittings and customer service, and I give back to the community–high school, elementary programs, races. I’m trying to foster that more than ever,” he says. Koerner works the shop with a pair of employees and calls the store an extension of his home, and it’s almost literally true. He lives just a quarter mile away.
He’s race director for the Pine to Palm 100 Mile, the Lithia Loop Trail Marathon, and the Tar ‘n’ Trail six miler, and is co-RD for the Siskiyou Out Back group of races. Most events are being canceled, but he’s hopeful that he can find a path forward for Pine to Palm, for this year, while conceding, “there’s the old ultra adage, prepare for everything.” As for Siskiyou, he says, “those races really put this area on the map for ultrarunning. There are 800-plus runners across the events, and it’s great, all non-profit. I’m really proud to be a part of that, and was honored to be brought on there.”
Koerner still runs himself too and enjoys it immensely, but also still feels a 2014 knee surgery. “If I could run without feeling it, it would be the greatest day of my life,” he wished. That 2014 surgeon recommended that he not run on pavement again, and the surgery came only after serious problems and added compensation injuries. “My body was feeling the mileage, but I couldn’t think about it at the time,” he said. “The Hardrocks, Javelinas…,” he recalled races of yesteryear.
While still running, Koerner’s also active on a bike and in the gym three days a week. One of our earlier missed connections was when he was attempting to bike from Ashland to the Oregon Coast. I look at a map and see no clear path, and Koerner aborted the adventure with low water and hours ahead of what he called logging routes through burly terrain. Koerner’s girlfriend rescued him from that misstep.
He mentions his girlfriend and our conversation pivots. “Last summer we separated,” he explained of his marriage. His divorce is nearing its end. “It’s nice to be excited for each other. We were together for 15 years, that’s a really long time and a lot of great things happened. It’s easy to look down on it and down on yourself, and you go through all these feelings,” Koerner thought inward. “But today’s a brand-new day, and that’s all we’ve got.”
His two kids are ages 4 and 6, but he says closer to 5 and 7. “It’s a beautiful thing when the kids get along and play together, but this morning was not one of them,” he exhaled. I understand, and understand how hard it is to teach a 4 year old to bike too. We both pledge to get there by the end of the summer.
Koerner’s great on Instagram with cleverly framed photos and witty captions, and I prod him on the visible gray in his beard. He’s 44. “It’s just in my beard,” he laughs. “It’s a sign of maturity. For years my hair was breaking, I probably pulled a bunch out, but it’s coming back. It’s coming back,” he jokes, noting that his kids are sleeping longer and better as they grow. “Sleep is an amazing thing.”
And on an even greater sign of maturity, Koerner’s the president of the President Teacher Committee (PTC) at his kid’s outdoor-themed school. His youngest will start kindergarten there this fall. The school allows for grades kindergarten through eighth grade, all in small classes. They spend one day per week entirely outside, and while being outdoor-oriented, still have traditional classes like music and art. When the students reach grades seven and eight, they backpack the Rogue River with classmates. That sounds like fun, and especially so if Koerner is volunteering for the adventure.
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