Over the past few years Seattle’s Chris Ragsdale, who earned a reputation as one of the US’ top ultra cyclists, has increasingly put his athletic efforts into ultra running. Next on Chris’ hit list is the Moab 200, which starts October 13. I had to do a double-take to verify that this was a running event, NOT a mountain bike race! Either way, it sounds mind-bogglingly tough.
Chris has an enviable ultra cycling resume, including top finishes at The 508, a successful solo Race Across America (RAAM) in 2013, a fifth-place finish at Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, numerous Race Across Oregons, and numerous Seattle International Randonneurs’ events.
Solo ultra events, whether cycling or running, are actually team events, because the racers get indispensible support from pacers and supporters along the course. At the Moab 200, Chris’ frequent training partner Sammamish’ Jim Ryan, will one of his pacers.
Chris follows the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge Facebook Group, and some of his recent escapades are documented there. For example, while working on this post he sent me this text about a UPWC project he did last weekend:
“Sorry I didn’t respond to your text message yesterday. I went out for a 50-miler at Rainier. Like 13k of gain. Went solo and started at 11am, so I knew it would go into the night. In the middle of the night on one of the moraine fields near one of the glaciers I had a hard time following the cairns. Kept having to back track. Spent a long time finding it. Made it to the car at 3 am. Felt great though, really good training.”
We got the conversation started with some background about Jim Ryan.
Jim, you probably have one of the strongest, yet most under-rated, ultra cycling resumes in the Pacific Northwest. Give us a little background about your ultra cycling experiences.
My first ultra cycling experience was crewing for Gary “Bear” Baierl at the Furnace Creek 508 (now The 508) back in 2000 (instead of race numbers, competitors in The 508 choose an animal totem like “bear.”) It was his rookie solo attempt, and he had lots of challenges, but he persevered and finished. I was hooked. My first ultra was the National 24 Hour Challenge in Michigan. It was an inauspicious start, but I eventually got in the groove. I’ve raced Race Across America (RAAM) on a team, Race Across the West (RAW), Race Across Oregon, Ring of Fire 24, The 508, Hoodoo 500, Texas Time Trials and I’ve done many of those multiple times in a variety of configurations (solo, 2-man, 4-man) and categories (standard bike, tandem, and recumbent–a crazy story unto itself). On the randonneuring front, I usually get in something big every year. I’ve been to Paris-Brest-Paris twice, and I think I’ve done the Cascade 1200 twice. I’ve done tons of ultra cycling events.
Jim, you recently finished the Eastern States 100. How did it go?
Such a crazy race! 100% humidity, thunder, lightning, rattlesnakes, ankle breaking moss covered rocks, and off-camber mud covered trails. My target was to finish between 32-34 hours, and my fall-back goal was to finish within the time limit of 36 hours. The race has a reputation for spitting out DNF (did not finish) runners all over the course due to the terrain and the weather. Thankfully, it was moderate weather-wise (high 80’s, 100% humidity–which felt pretty hot to me). I had friends and family from the east coast crew for me, and had my first ever pace runner (Brett Shelton, a true runner who is breaking into ultra). Brett helped keep my pace up late in the race and I was nursing some mondo blisters on the bottoms of both feet. Rattlesnakes on the trail kept things lively overnight. I finished in 33:39, so I was within my target. I already have a list of “areas for improvement” if I ever go back.
Given that you guys both started out as cyclists, talk about how you got into running, and ultra running in particular. How does cycling fit in your lives now?
Honestly I’m not sure when exactly it happened. In the aftermath of solo Race Across America (RAAM) in 2013 I needed something else, something different. I joined Apex Racing and did a bunch of road and track racing for a year or so and had a lot of fun with it. But, that kind of racing felt like an inefficient use of my time, and I really missed going after big goals and events that scared the hell out of me. I was looking for events that make me nervous enough to have to train differently and push my comfort zone. Somehow I found running and immediately set my sights on ultra running. These days I don’t do much of anything on the bike except commuting.
Back around 2009, I decided I could extend my fitness after cycling season by training for 4 or 5 weeks then run the Seattle Marathon. It became an annual thing. One of those years Chris ran the Seattle Marathon after following my questionable training plan. That was probably the first spark.
Chris also has a way of hooking people into stuff. In Fall of 2015 I got a message from him: “any interest in running an ultra?” I said “yeah, sure.” We ran a local trail half marathon in November 2015, then set our sights on the Badwater Salton Sea 80 miler in April/May 2016. We ran a 50 miler in Monument Valley as a tune-up. Badwater Salton Sea is a team race–you have to stay together as a team for the entire distance. I had too many issues to list here, but we finished well in spite of all my antics. After Badwater, we “sort of just signed up” for another 50 miler, and finished the year with a 100-miler in Arizona. The bug took hold from there.
I’ve been getting some rides in this year but this will be my first year without a ultra race in a long time. I’m surprised that my cycling fitness has stayed pretty decent–indicating that trail running and cycling (at least for me) are complimentary. I still have some stuff on my bucket list for cycling so I’ll have to figure out how to balance it all.
How did you guys connect as ultra running buddies?
I think I may have touched base with Jim first. I knew he was a local ultra cyclist who had been running, and he seemed like the right person. He certainly knew more about running them me, and given his ultra cycling experience he understood where I was coming from. So, we started getting out together.
Back around 2009, I decided I could extend my fitness after cycling season by training for 4 or 5 weeks then run the Seattle Marathon. It became an annual thing. One of those years Chris ran the Seattle Marathon following my questionable training plan–that was probably the first spark.
Since that first trail half marathon, we regularly hooked up for training runs to prep for Salton Sea. I think 2016 had one real “goal” race, and a couple of opportunistic races. In 2017 we’ve had a couple of common goals: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R), Wonderland Trail, and I had Eastern States 100, Chris had Moab. When he mentioned the Moab 200, I was stoked to be able to crew and pace him. That event framed up the year for both of us. I have to train my ass off just to be his pace runner because he’s a gifted athlete and anyone who paces that guy will need to be on their game.
Talk about your progression in ultra running. How do your past experiences with ultra cycling help with ultra running?
Jim and I set the goal of Badwater Salton Sea. That was an ~80 miler and we needed to finish a 50 miler to qualify. We picked Monument Valley 50 miler. That turned out to be a difficult first race for me: there was tons of sand and the warm temperature made it quite tough. But, I got through it and a few others. Javelina Jundred was the big goal for last year and it actually went ok for me. Naturally, I started looking for the next challenge and found the Moab 200.
I was curious whether any of my ultra cycling experience would carry over, and I wondered how running into hour 20 compared with biking into hour 20. In both sports it’s all about finding a way to settle into the discomfort, and know it will pass or at least the pain will move around. The math is certainly different. I am a numbers guy, and I am constantly calculating the time to next aid station or the finish, and it is crazy how damn slow we are going but that’s the game. Just gotta keep moving forward.
Chris has a way of hooking people into stuff. In Fall 2015 I get a message from him: “any interest in running an ultra?” I said “yeah, sure.” We ran a local trail half marathon in November ‘15, and set our sites on the Badwater Salton Sea 80 miler in April/May 2016. We ran the 50 miler in Monument Valley as a tune-up. Badwater Salton Sea is a team race. You have to stay together as a team for the entire distance. I had too many issues to list here, but we finished well in spite of all my antics. After BW, we “sort of just signed up” for another 50 miler, and finished the year with a 100 miler in AZ. The bug took hold from there.
I’ve been getting in some rides this year, but this will be my first year without a ultra bike race in a long time. I’m surprised that my cycling fitness has stayed pretty decent–indicating that trail running and cycling (at least for me) are complimentary. I still have some stuff on my bucket list for cycling so I’ll have to figure out how to balance it all.
Ultra cycling has definitely given me the ability to endure through discomfort and keep pressing on. The issues I experience in running aren’t exactly the same, but the mental approach of managing issues is very familiar. Also, in ultra cycling, you improve with experience and I’ve noticed the same thing in ultra running. It’s cool to have a new pursuit where I’m a total rookie and I have a chance to figure out the formula for what it takes to have strong consistent performances.
What are your objectives for the Moab 200?
My objective is to finish. And to try and ignore my instincts as much as possible. I am always keeping track of where I am in the race and usually trying to figure some kind of plan to move up. But I am under-trained physically and again lacking experience in this type of event. So I need to be conservative and keep the focus on finishing. I will have 3 crew/pacers: Jim Ryan, Matt Smith, and Jun Watanabe will come out for a couple days of it.
Chris is so tough mentally. My goal is to simply keep him moving strong and talk him off the cliff during any low moments. I will keep him on top of his nutrition plan, and take some of the load off in making sure we’re on course. The pacer can also help make sure transitions in the aid stations are efficient, and keep the crew apprised of the runner’s performance (and any issues) when the runner starts getting punchy. I think he’s going to have a great run.
Chris is the star of this show; he’s a heck of a talent.
What’s next on your ultra running calendar?
Moab is it. I have nothing beyond that. Jim’s putting bugs in my ear about racing in Europe, like UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc). I am focused on Moab and nothing else at this point.
After Moab I’ll probably take in another Seattle Marathon. I will enter the lottery this Fall for the 2018 Western States 100, but the likelihood of getting is low, but that would be super cool to be able to experience. Western States is the granddaddy of 100 milers (originated as a horse race) and it’s one of the big goals of any of these crazy ultra runners. Beyond that, I noted to Chris recently that we are actually both qualified to enter the lottery for UTMB’s CCC or TDS races in Chamonix FR; UTMB is kind of like the Paris-Brest-Paris of ultra running. A 2018 calendar with Western States and UTMB on it would be pretty spectacular, so fingers crossed. If those don’t pan out I’m sure we’ll trip over something interesting that lands on the calendar.
“This event is considered an ‘Endurance Run’ and as such it is not considered a competitive event but rather a life accomplishment. We will record finish times and award top finishers but the the accomplishment of the participants in running it is in the experience of it, not how fast you can finish it. Therefore, the spirit of the event is captured in the journey, rather than in each participant’s end result.”
–Moab 200 race manual Rule #12, which Chris says he may need to keep in his pocket as a reminder
Chris, you recently did something totally different, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon 2017. Was that part of your training plans for the Moab 200?
The AuSable was a long-time project in the works. It was completely separate from the Moab project. Matt Smith, a long-time friend from high school, had done this event a bunch of times and we had always talked about doing it together. We both turned 40 this year, and about a year and a half ago we decided to make it happen. I bought a boat and did a bunch of training. Long story short, we failed miserably. I had trained myself physically, and knew I could handle the mental part of it. But I had none of the technical boat handling skills necessary to pull this off. We flipped 3 times early in the race, and punctured a hole in the boat. We had to DNF (did not finish) by hour 3. It was humbling to participate the event; it’s an incredible event that is relatively unknown.
Anything else that readers might find interesting?
My athletic pursuits are really all about the journey, and not the destination. I have a T shirt that says “the pursuit is happiness,” and that sums me up pretty well. I love the learning and figuring out of these projects, the challenge of it all. Going from being blown away that an event like that even exists to standing at the start line and believing “I got this.” It’s a really fun process. My identity of myself is in that process. I never really thought of myself as a cyclist and certainly wouldn’t call myself a runner. But those have been the venues of my pursuit thus far.
My wife says: “the fact that you’re a vegan is interesting.” I switched about 5 years ago and I think it’s been a contributor to improving my performances.