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Shockwaves went through the Ashland, Oregon, running community last weekend when Todd Ragsdale, a runner from the nearby town of Talent, was found dead near a trail in Lithia Park. Ragsdale had been reported missing Thursday after he didn’t return home from a run.
According to people there, to know Ragsdale was to be a runner in Ashland. At the very least, you would run into him at a race, or see him go past in a costume. If you were lucky, you might be running with him when he came upon one of the beers he would stash in the nearby hills.
“He’d always know where they were,” says Hal Koerner, 39, who owns the specialty running shop Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland. “You’d be 20 miles into a run with him and he’d pull off and find it.”
Hijinks were the name of the game for Ragsdale, who was 46: running shirtless with a kilt (“I couldn’t shoot any photos of him uphill from me that time,” says photographer and runner Andy Atkinson); running a trail marathon in a Bigfoot costume; or running barefoot when it wasn’t really appropriate, like at the 2011 Rocky Raccoon 100, when temperatures were below freezing and the ground was frozen and hard.
“He must have lost the skin off the bottom of his feet about 40 miles in, but he was stubborn like that,” says Koerner. “He liked to do that peculiar stuff, to be out of the box.”
“He was always up to something,” says Jenn Shelton, who used to live in Ashland and was a close friend of Ragsdale’s. “Todd was a wacko and it was completely truthful and real … I’ve never met someone more genuine.”
In other words, he was the fun-loving guy—competitive, but not too serious—who exists in every running community across the country. And since every runner knows a “Todd Ragsdale,” news of his sudden death has hit runners—even outside Ashland—hard.
“He’s the guy who you had all the stories about,” says Koerner. “That’s part of why this is so hard.”
Shelton, noting that Ashland’s running community is even more tight-knit than most, says the news almost “doesn’t make sense.”
“I cannot imagine going back to Ashland and him not being there,” she says. “I don’t want to know an Ashland where I won’t run into Ragsdale, because you always run into Ragsdale.”
Missing on a Run
Ragsdale was reported missing Thursday after he didn’t return from a morning run that he had told his wife would last an hour or an hour and a half. The Mail Tribune of Medford, Oregon, reported that Ragsdale’s car was found Thursday in a parking area above Ashland’s Lithia Park, and he was reported missing that afternoon.
“I got a text that Todd was missing,” Koerner says. “And my first thought was, ‘Well no, he’s just out for a really long run.’”
But that afternoon, Koerner, along with several other friends and Ashland-area runners, were combing the area, texting one other about which spots they had covered. More people joined the group that evening. They searched the trails into the early morning with no results.
By Koerner’s estimate, the search party grew to over 100 on Friday and Saturday, and included local search-and-rescue officials almost from the start.
On Saturday afternoon, Koerner was still out looking when his wife called him. Someone had found Ragsdale’s body near Ashland Creek, just out of sight in a spot that had already been searched, next to an access road and roughly a quarter mile from park buildings where search-and-rescue operations were being staged.
It may have seemed inevitable, but still, it was a phone call he hoped he wouldn’t get.
“I was devastated,” he says.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said there was nothing suspicious about Ragsdale’s death, the Ashland Daily Tidings reported Monday afternoon, but the specific cause of death remains unknown. Detective Mike Wojack, the on-call deputy medical examiner when Ragsdale’s body was found, told Trail Runner that the investigation into cause of death could take as long as three months, pending results from toxicology tests.
A Love of Running
In 2006, when Koerner first moved to Ashland and was opening Rogue Valley Runners, Ragsdale was one of the first runners he met, and one of his first training partners in the area.
“He loved running at least as much as I did,” Koerner says. “He raced pretty much every race our running club puts on. He was out there every weekend, or he’d call me every weekend to go do a long run.”
“Whenever I was shooting a race, he was always the one throwing up a peace sign, a thumbs up or a ‘hang loose,’” says Atkinson, who crossed paths with Ragsdale constantly, both at races and at the grocery store where the Ragsdale worked as a produce stocker. “He’s one of those guys who’s so happy—when he runs past there’s a vibe about him. No matter how hard he was hurting he could always throw up a smile in a heartbeat.”
And while Koerner already had some notoriety as an accomplished trail runner—he would win the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run in 2007 and 2009—he notes Ragsdale didn’t really care.
“When I started having some success, he’d never let me forget that I was a privileged white guy who got to travel to races,” Koerner says. “He let me know he could be winning races too if he had my deal.”
Ragsdale may have been ultra-competitive, but he never lost his sense of humor. Shelton, who met him the day she moved to Ashland in 2007, recalled a two-hour drive to the Crater Lake Marathon, during which Ragsdale recounted the plot of a novel he was working on. At one point, he was writing so much that an inside joke formed about Ragsdale becoming a “fat author.” So he embraced it and wore a fat-author costume while running the Lithia Loop Marathon.
“The costume was a fat suit, tweed jacket and cigar … I think khakis, leather belt and maybe even leather dress shoes,” Shelton says. “The whole costume was an inside joke with himself. It did not make sense … that’s why it was my favorite of all his costumes.”
Above all, he loved running, and he loved and supported the Ashland running community.
“Ashland has many great runners who get to travel all over the world, seeing new places in distant lands, all in the name of running,” Shelton says. “I’m sure Todd would have loved to do more of that, but he never said so. He was genuinely happy living and racing in his steep, green, beautiful valley.”
And from the participation in the rescue effort and the outpouring of grief at his death, it’s clear that valley loved him back.
“His world, though smaller geographically, was fuller than all of ours who got to travel wherever we wanted, combined,” Shelton says.