Remembering Todd Ragsdale
“I’m firmly convinced that God would be happy to bless me if I’m humble enough to step back and stop trying to make everything happen by my own strength. Anyway, my strength can’t hold out forever, right? It’s fun to watch Him work His magic, which He always does when I put a little faith in Him. I guess it took suffocating personal debt to wake me up a bit. Life is truly a crazy and wonderful ride!” –Todd Ragsdale, 2010
“So what do you think, Ian? Could a guy run a mountainous 100-mile race barefoot? Yep, Pine to Palm 100 Mile will be conquered barefoot. How about the Speedgoat 50k? Do you think that’s a barefoot friendly course?” he wrote in an email signed Todd “Twinkle Toes” Ragsdale. His motivation baffled me. Eventually, after much cajoling from myself and others, he finished both Speedgoat and Pine to Palm with his shoes on. However, he did go on to set a barefoot 24-hour world record and complete the rugged Mount Ashland Hill Climb (13.3 miles and 5,600 feet of gain) shoeless.
The grocery-store produce manager turned writer would often visit Rogue Valley Runners (RVR), Hal Koerner’s running specialty store in downtown Ashland, Oregon, or join me and others for long runs on the trails in the Siskiyou Mountains. It was during these gatherings that we’d converse the most. He’d genuinely congratulate me on my latest race finish or impressive training run, but inevitably, morph our heart-to-heart into some cockamamie one-sided dialog about his own plan on running the event or route faster, in costume, shoeless, with alcohol, or some combination thereof. As I’d be about to throw my hands up in protest, he’d sense my irritation and calm me down with a wide grin, pat on the shoulder, and an invite to join him in his shenanigans. His antics didn’t stop with me.
“He was a fun dude, but was always trying to rile you up,” recalls Chris Rennaker, a fellow RVR employee. “We had a standing competition at the McKenzie River 50k. We’ve both run it several times and Todd PR’d there in 2008 with a 3:58:23. I went back in 2010 and missed beating his time by 17 seconds. To Todd this was gold that he’d use over and over again against me.”
At one point, Erik Skaggs, a previous Quad Dipsea course-record holder and one of Todd’s many training partners, declared a local challenge. Who could run Pete’s Punisher (a trail that gained 1,500 feet of elevation in 1.15 miles) the most in one day? “I think I ran it six or seven times in one workout with all the ascents in under 20 minutes,” says Skaggs. “But then along comes Todd. He does it six times but drinks a Coors Light at the top of each climb. He was just walking his ass up the mountain. But that’s what people remember, not that I did it faster.”
Found but Never Forgotten
Ironically, Pete’s Punisher would be the setting for Todd’s final run. The bottom end of the steep trail empties out onto a watershed maintenance road. Just beyond the road and down the bank lies Lithia Creek, where Todd’s body was found floating this past January.
“It was like any other day,” says Nancy Ragsdale, Todd’s wife of two-and-a-half years. “He met me before I went to work, texted me later in the day to say that he had some of my homemade molasses cookies, was going for a short run, and that he loved me. That was the last I heard from him.” After several hours passed and Todd hadn’t returned home, Nancy began to call friends for his whereabouts. Initially, people weren’t overly concerned about his absence as Todd had a knack of “disappearing” before. After Koerner’s 2012 Hardrock 100 victory party in downtown Ashland, things got a little crazy, Todd had a touch too much to drink and ended up crashing at a friend’s house. Since Todd had misplaced his phone during the party, it took until the next afternoon for friends and family to locate him. This time, however, as night began to fall, along with the winter temperatures, the searching began.
“The back of Lithia Park (Ashland’s centerpiece park where Todd’s vehicle was found) was filled with uniformed search-and-rescue officers, K9 units, semi-truck trailers, tents, and ATVs,” says Koerner who, like hundreds of other local runners, climbers, bikers, and hikers, spent countless hours scouring the surrounding watershed both on and off trail for Todd. “It just blew my mind how many people showed up to look for him.”
“It truly was an amazing snapshot of our local community and demonstrated how tight-knit everyone is,” says Eric Poole, a local business owner who trained with and raced against Todd. “That weekend was a powerful experience. People didn’t go to work, missed meals, and spent all night in the woods so that they might find Todd. The ending was super sad, but there is some comfort in the fact that he passed away near his favorite trail doing what he enjoyed.”
A Best Friend In and Out of Competition
A few days after Todd’s body was recovered, I phoned his best friend, John Leuthold. The two were inseparable. My call to John went unanswered, but a text soon followed. “I am still trying to cope with my emotions, so it’s probably better I text you instead of bawling like a baby on the phone.” I’d learn later that John had just returned from a run during which his cell phone rang and the caller ID indicated that ‘Todd Ragsdale’ was on the other end. It was Nancy calling, but the optimistic thought of Todd still being alive triggered emotions he’d been holding back for days.
Not surprisingly, John met Todd during a race in Medford, Oregon, as one fought to stay ahead of the other. “When I was first getting into running, Todd was always beating me,” says John. “My single ambition became to finish ahead of that red-headed guy. It finally happened at the Longest Day 5k. I was psyched! But I found out after he crossed the line behind me that he had Hepatitis C and was on injections of Interferon. I had basically outkicked a cripple.”
“When Todd got healthy, I invited him to join me on my regular six-mile out-and-back running route,” John remembers. “The run was supposed to be easy, but it turned into a pissing match on the way back.” The two discovered that this rivalry would become mutually beneficial.
“Todd took me for my first trail run,” explains John. “Straight up Ashland’s Ostrich Peak (a four-mile, 2,800-foot climb) and he just about killed me. Then I took him to the track and demolished him there.” For several years, the Rogue Valley experienced the Todd and John show where the two would podium in virtually every race they entered.
“It was a no-brainer,” says Koerner about adding Todd and John to the newly formed Rogue Valley Runners Racing Team. “These guys were consistently finishing in the top two at most races in the valley. Todd even beat me at the Pear Blossom 10 Mile.”
Koerner continues, “Todd would love to tell me repeatedly how my store was never going to make it in Ashland. He drove me crazy when he’d run races barefoot. That’s just not good advertising for a shoe store. Ultimately, though, he was one of the best at promoting the shop. I think, when they found his body, he was wearing a RVR jacket.”
Have Wings Will Travel
Joe Griffin, another RVR team member and ubiquitous local-racing icon, was the first runner Todd befriended after he relocated to the Rogue Valley from the Denver, Colorado, suburbs. “My wife, Jan, and I took Todd under our wings,” says Joe. “He had gone through hell before moving here. His first wife left him and he had an unhappy family life. Add to that his bout with Hep C and folks just didn’t want to have anything to do with him.”
Joe and Todd traveled together to the 2000 Napa Valley Marathon. Before the race started a spectator asked them if they were a father-and-son team. “From that day forward Todd always called me his ‘Running Dad,’” says Joe. “I simply returned the favor by calling him my red-headed stepchild.”
Todd and Joe would crisscross the country in search of events. “He just wanted to go with you,” adds Joe. “No matter where or what the race was, he just wanted to be a part of the fun.” They would run on the same Hood to Coast Relay team for 10 years, lose the skin on the bottoms of their feet at the Pikes Peak Marathon, and scramble the steps of California’s famous Dipsea Race in tandem. “One year he ran the Crater Lake Marathon,” says Joe. “I met him in Bend, Oregon, the following day for the Haulin’ Aspen Marathon. I thought there’d be no chance I’d see him since he just ran a marathon the day before. But at mile 18, Todd came bounding by me with that dang smile on his face.”
Todd and Nancy
“We met and 42 days later we were married,” says Nancy. “It was bliss and it was meant to be.” The two found much in common including a zest for life. “Todd was so sweet, sensitive, selfless, and giving. I come from a hardworking but somewhat boring family, and Todd brought color, life, and a creative spirit that my family cherished.”
“He’d leave hidden Post-it love notes and send me sweet text messages all the time,” recalls Nancy. “He’d never admit it to his running buddies, but he’d watch The Bachelor and drink pink wine with me in the evenings.”
If it’s not already obvious, Todd had an imaginative mind. He wrote the book Saved By Sasquatch. “Which I intend to have edited and published soon,” says Nancy. He was a game creator and invented a round chessboard. He was a master with duct tape and made art, clothing, and shoes from it. “The hallways of the house are filled with his beautiful works,” proclaims Nancy.
“He had no idea just how many people loved him and how many lives he touched,” says Joe. That became evident not only during the days following his disappearance, but also a few weeks later at a race-turned-fundraiser for Nancy, hosted by the Southern Oregon Runners. “I wasn’t sure if I could run. I was just so sad, but John ran by my side the whole way. Everyone was there and was yelling, ‘We love you Nancy!’ I was overwhelmed by the support. Todd would have smiled.”
The community’s outpouring of support continued with a GoFundMe site that was set up to help Nancy offset the funeral expenses. It raised over $18,000 in a week. Plans are afoot to build a memorial bench in Todd’s honor near the top of Pete’s Punisher and to name a local trail after him.
A Celebration of Light Service will be held on March 5, 2016, at 11:00 a.m. at the Ashland Christian Fellowship. A reception will follow and all are welcome to attend. “I plan to hold another ‘running memorial’ for Todd as well,” says Nancy. “I think it’d be appropriate that we all run to the top of Pete’s, scatter his ashes, and drink a Coors Light in his honor.”
I can’t help but think that it’s Todd who, once again, has gotten the last laugh. He managed to bring a legion of people together in a forest above Ashland, reminding us all how fragile and ephemeral life is. His generous spirit will always be remembered and his presence missed.