It's Good To Be King - Page 2
Photo by David Clifford.
THE GUY WHO ALWAYS COMES SECOND TO MAX
Shortly after I-5 deposited me into the low-lying hills of southern Oregon, I pulled up to the house of Rob Cain. As a competitor, race director, volunteer or (as it was in the case of that particular night) party host, Cain has found himself at the center of Ashland’s ultrarunning scene for over a decade. Three-dozen runners gathered in his living room for an annual get-together following the Southern Oregon Fat Ass (SOFA) 50K along the Rogue River that takes place every January. In addition to food, drinks and the retelling of ultra war stories, gold-painted plaster toes were passed out as awards—in a roast manner— for the various long-standing members of the group. Golden Toes have been bestowed in the past for such categories as the Drunken Pacer Award, the Most Damaged Feet Award and the Puke of the Year Award.
I entered the living room to find King on the floor doing something that doesn’t seem to come easily to him—relaxing. Seeing King, known for a rancher’s work- to-be-done persona, reclining with a whiskey in his hand, at first seemed, if not forced, then at least slightly awkward.
Anna Frost, 31, of New Zealand, two-time winner of the The North Face 50 Mile Championships in San Francisco and 2012 winner of the Transvulcania 50 in the Canary Islands, insists that the serious vibe that King often gives off is an unintentional byproduct of shyness and pre-race jitters. “He looks very strict, structured and straightforward, but after a race you learn that it is a state that he puts himself in,” she says. “He is otherwise calm and happy to be living the life that he is living. I think that surprises a lot of people.”
If resilience can be misinterpreted for seriousness, then Max has that too. “He’s a legend with his toughness,” says Sage Canaday, 27, of Boulder, Colorado. The trail-running upstart trailed King by five years at their mutual alma mater, Cornell University in Upstate New York. He looked up to King long before the rest of the distance-running world took notice and says that King is the main reason that he switched from running 2:16 marathons to 50K and 100K trail races. “He’s disciplined, tough and perhaps a little bit of a masochist,” continues Canaday. “That character has shaped who he is as a runner. The success that he’s had is a reflection of his hard work ethic and integrity.”
On the floor beside King was a Golden Toe, awarded for his course-record wins at both the Ultra Race of Champions in Virginia this past September and the JFK 50 in Maryland one month later. He has been awarded the Golden Toe before, which he cherishes more than trophies as a symbol of appreciation and respect amongst one’s fellow runners.
Though King and his family live over three hours away in the high desert of Central Oregon, his childhood was spent primarily in the surrounding hills and mountains of the Southern Cascades. With his mother just up the road from Ashland in Medford, he is accustomed to making the drive, then calling upon a short list of guys to join him for an easy 15- or 20-mile run.
Cain interrupted the drone of ultra stories to introduce a man known well to the group: “The Guy Who Always Comes Second to Max.” With thin blond hair flopped about the crown of his head, Erik Skaggs stood before the group with an old and darkened acoustic guitar hanging over his shoulder. An accurate comparison of Skaggs to a young Robert Redford has been made by his Ashland friends.
With accolades that include a 100K U.S. Championship title and course records around the country, for Skaggs to come second to anybody speaks highly of that person.
After a quick guitar tuning, Skaggs started off in a bluegrass-y timbre, a modified Johnny Cash song about the runners in present company.
I hear that little man comin’
He’s rollin’ round from Bend
And I ain’t been first place,
since I don’t know when,
Lord, I’m slippin’ out the slipstream
and he keeps rollin’ on if you’re lookin’ for race glory
don’t move to Oregon.