Seattle’s Chris Ragsdale, considered one of the US’ top ultra cyclists, has increasingly put his athletic efforts into ultra running. As Chris’ training buddy Jim Ryan has noted, Chris is building a resume as an all-around ultra athlete. After a successful but painful 2013 Race Across America, Chris re-evaluated his interests and started to try running events. Chris’ growing interest in running is what happens for most of us: Our athletic interests may alternate with the seasons, or completely morph over time. For example, according to WSBA president Gina Kavesh, most USA Cycling (the bike race sanctioning organization in the US) memberships only last about four years.
The Moab 200 (actually 238) was held October 13-17. Chris finished in 82:46:34, and a very respectable 23rd out of 98 finishers. The event got a lot of attention both because of the distance, and because 32-year old Courtney Dauwalter completely dominated the race and finished in 57:55:13, nearly 10 hours ahead of second place.
To prepare for Moab, Chris analyzed four 200 mile running events (Bigfoot 200; Tahoe 200: 2015, 2016, 2017), and based on his UltraSignup ranking, he estimated he could finish in about 91 hours, an average speed of 2.6 mph (including stops).
He figured a best-case scenario of averaging 2.8 mph and finishing in 85 hours at 8pm Monday night. He thought a more realistic finish would be between 90-96 hours, and a worst case scenario would be finishing at the cutoff time of 110 hours.
Chris’pre-race email to his crew about sleep are an indication of the depth of his ultra experience:
“My experience tells me that you can’t plan for it. You just have to take it when you have to. I do plan to sleep, and I would prefer to do it before things get to rough. Ideally we can avoid the post-race PTSD I experienced after RAAM. If I need it the first night then I’ll take it, but I will probably push through the first night and maybe take a short ditch nap during the warmth of the 2nd day. Sleep is like medicine and food: we will need to consume it regularly and do our best to be efficient about it.”
In ultra events, crew and pacers are often critical to the success of the racer. I talked with Chris and his crew about how things went for them.
How did you decide on this particular group of folks to crew and pace you?
I originally thought I would only need 2 crew. My go-to guy has always been my longtime friend Matthew McDougall-Smith, and he committed early on. I have been training and going through this whole running process with Jim Ryan, so it was my hope he could make it as well and luckily he could. After talking with these guys we realized that it might be best to have a third as well and Jun Watanabe was a natural first pick. Jim, Jun and I all did Javelina 100 together last fall and I knew he could certainly do the running part.
The race went as well as it could have for Jun:
Chris finished strong and in great spirits. That’s a win for me!! It was an honor to be part of getting Chris to the finish line only 2 years after picking up this sport.
During your race planning you analyzed the results from previous 200s and came up with some possible best and worst case scenarios. How did the overall flow of the race go for you?
Since I’d never done a running event of this length, I really needed some type of framework to wrap my head around, so it was really healthy for me to break it down at least on the big picture of timing. The reality of trying to break down the course by section was unlikely to produce realistic numbers, but on a overall scale I thought it might work. It turns out that I was pretty close with the guestimate. When we found ourselves in the last hundred miles and on track to meet or exceed the goals I had set, we were feeling pretty good about things. I had to continue to let people go and stay focused on myself and keep tabs on finishing before sunset that day knowing that we would be well ahead of the goal. I am really happy with the result.
How did reality match up with your pre-race planning?
That analysis wasn’t as useful as I had hoped. The course profile proved to be less than perfect. Certain segments had way more climbing than I anticipated, and some of the flat stretches were hot–like on the first day–or in the middle of the night when I was super tired. Strangely, the difficulties I had I don’t feel were related to the course. They were working through physical issues that came up or sleepiness.
Talk about the role of sleep for you during an ultra.
Sleep is a weird thing, I mentioned in a pre-race email to crew that I knew I wanted to sleep during the event. I didn’t want to try and push through. I had issues with sleep deprivation at RAAM and I didn’t want to go through that again. I spent time looking at the science of sleep and even saw a sleep specialist and did a sleep study all hooked up to wires and the whole bit years back. In the end the doctor said the science and these studies are useless for what I’m doing. The body is in a completely different state after days of pushing hard. Best case scenario is to get into and out of the rest period as efficiently as possible , and to try get up when the body is tossing or turning and not in actual sleep, not at any exact time. I chose 90 minutes as an appx amount of time. Some get by with less and some take more. I have found the result to be similar. More rest and you move slightly faster, less rest you go slower. But for something like this you end up in a similar position either way. I found that true compared to the other runners near me.
At one point during the race the crew pitched the idea of you running a 13-mile section solo. How did you react?
I had just come off from doing a section with Jun during the afternoon and I had gotten really sleepy and actually tried laying down on the trail for a few minutes but had gotten too cold to get any sleep. We were headed into the second night and I knew sleep deprivation would be kicking in for sure. It helps me a lot out there to have someone to talk to help me stay engaged and motivated. So when they mentioned me going solo that night I think my eyes grew big. It just really seemed like the least preferable option to me.
Now that you have another big run in the books, how are you feeling about ultra running compared to ultra cycling?
I really like ultra running. There are certainly pros and cons compared to ultra cycling. I love that I can train in much smaller time increments. I really like that I don’t have the exposure to cars and drivers with cell phones. I like that I can run with with my family. Both my wife Lara and my oldest son Caden can come running with me. The size and scale of the events in running is much bigger. But, that can lead into a con for ultra running. Many of the bigger and more premier events are difficult if not impossible to get into. Even local events sell out the day registration opens or even have lotteries to get into. That is never the case in ultra cycling.
One of the things I struggle with is competitiveness. In ultra cycling, from the beginning, I was usually near the front. Running has not come as naturally. I don’t have a runner’s body and the physical adaptation has not come easily. Fortunately I have skipped over the whole running fast thing and gone right into long events where the head is a much bigger factor than leg speed. But, even in the longer events I have found it is not likely I will be on many podiums without more dedicated time to speed and fundamentals. My goal is to train my brain to be ok with not needing to win. Mentally I’ve burnt a lot of matches over the years in competition. I am finding the reward in finishing and in enjoying more time in the events. When at the front, most of the time during the events could be either very stressful or painful. I strive to be a happy mid-pack finisher at big demanding events that capture my imagination. I feel fortunate to have done exactly that with Moab 240.
What were your impressions of the winner, Courtney Dauwalter?
I had listened to a podcast with Courtney just a week or so before the event. It was the one where she talked about her win at Run Rabbit Run where she literally went blind during the event, yet continued on stumbling and falling on the trail and still won. I was totally blown away. I consider myself to be pretty gritty and willing to push through some tough stuff to finish these types of things. But, if I ever go blind in an event I’m screaming my way to the nearest possible DNF (did not finish).
What is next on your to-do list?
I want to keep running. I’m looking at maybe trying to combine the winter ultra stuff I did on a bike like Iditasport and Jay Petervary’s Fat Pursuit. I think that would be a cool challenge and would have me learning new tricks and skills. I want to do some more local ultra runs like Sun Mountain. I think Jim is going to do Tahoe 200, and I would love to crew for him on that. We are working on some other things as well, but it is pretty open right now.
Jim Ryan and Chris frequently train together, and since Jim is also an experienced ultra cyclist, both share that cross-discipline perspective. At Moab, Jim paced Chris for about 90 miles. Imagine pacing your racer for an ultra distance!
How did you go about deciding the pacer sequence and sections to pace?
Chris proposed an initial plan: Start pacing with Jun, then I would go through the night. Jun is super fast, so I liked a plan that would have him with Chris when Chris was fresh, then I come in when the suffering and sleep deprivation is front and center. With that, Jun picked up Chris at the first crew-accessible aid station, Hamburger Rock (mile 56). I took over at The Island (mile 69) and ran two segments through the night. We covered the next aid station, “Bridger Jack”, mile 84 and met up with crew at Shay Mountain (mile 103). From there we rotated, with Matt taking a double shift (from Shay Mountain to RD 46). Jun was on point for the high altitude section to Oowah Lake (he’s a mountain goat, and he lives in Boulder).
Given that you’ve been training with Chris leading up to the Moab 240, how do you think the race went?
It was a great race. 238 miles was uncharted territory for him, and I think it was really important to come away with a successful effort based on a sound plan. Now, Chris has a baseline to work from. If he wanted to try and lay down a faster time at a future event he’s got a solid experience to work from. For this event, he came in with a plan and strategy, and essentially followed it – beating his pre-race low-end ETA by a few hours. We were having a blast supporting him.
Were there any memorable highs or lows?
There were a lot of highs, and not too many lows. Chris feeling nauseous on the trail the first night was a little concerning and definitely got my attention (when he laid down on the trail around midnight and let me know he ‘felt sick’), but he walked it off and regrouped at the next aid station.
The last leg of the race was a high point. We went through Moab and traversed a singletrack ridge line, scrambled up a steep climb of switchbacks strewn with boulders which opened into an amazing lush high valley with red rock mesas as bookends, ran through the valley and climbed up into a huge slickrock playground; then a gnarly descent back down to the river (and the road to the finish). It wasn’t really described well in the race manual and it was eye-popping cool. That last segment captured the variety of the race terrain and scenery: it had everything, including one happy dude crossing the finish line.
What is your perspective on the similarities and differences between ultra running and cycling?
Courtney Dauwalter won the race in 57 hours, then proceeded to return to the finish line each of the next two days to cheer on the other finishers. Similarly, Chris was a fixture at the finish line of The 508 each year doing the same thing. That tells us something about the character of ultra athletes that may be different from the mainstream stuff. The shared experience that ultra racers have builds humility and mutual respect; you see that at the start, on the course, and at the finish. That’s a similarity in ultra running and ultra cycling and it’s a big part of what makes the community special.
Crewing ultrarunning reminds me of riding self-supported team divisions in ultra cycling; as a pace runner you’re alternating shifts; you’re providing crew support when you’re not pacing then you’ve got to suit up and get on the course. I was digging it. Pacing ultrarunners might well be the best of all worlds: you get to run the course and help the racer be successful, and you get to experience the laughs and good times from being confined in a rental car with no sleep for several days. Sample laugh moment: Chris, completely sleepy, wants his “green socks.” It’s late in the race and stuff is everywhere. He says: “they’re probably in Matt’s pocke…”. I walk over to Matt: “Green socks?” Matt reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pair of clean green socks. That’s some crazy stuff!
Matthew McDougall-Smith been a friend of Chris’ since childhood, has been a big part of Chris’ ultra pursuits, and he’s passionate about it: Matt says he has over 60 days worth of ultra crewing and racing experience.
Tell us about the longevity of your relationship with Chris and the ultras you have done together.
Chris and I first met during freshman football during the fall of 1991. Chris was a natural at sports and pretty much good at everything he did. Events in our lives brought Chris to live in my parents house near the end of high school, and that put our friendship into the brother realm. We didn’t fight like brothers, but we were are closer than friends just as a result of that shared life experience. When he moved to Seattle in 1997 it was hard to see him go. We’ve managed to stay close this whole time. It predated social media, and we actually sent letters and postcards back and forth. I went out and visited him as much as I could and he would come home to Michigan to see his family. There was a time when I flew out to see him as a surprise, and he had done the same thing and flew home to Michigan. I landed in Seattle and called him only to find out he was back in Michigan. In true Chris Ragsdale fashion he made some calls to people he had met, and his new friends came to take care of me for a week until returned.
I actually had a background in ultra events before Chris. I started racing the Ausable River Canoe Marathon in 1997, around the time Chris moved to Seattle. In the early 2000’s adventure races became really big in Michigan and the midwest and I started racing in a number of 12- to 24-hour events. Having raced events like the canoe marathon and adventure races, my experience helps me anticipate what the athlete needs or might be experiencing. When Chris started coming home to Michigan to race at National 24 Hour Challenge it was an easy fit for me to support him. Furnace Creek 508 (now called The 508) was the first race that I really had to travel to crew for him. Race Across America was on my radar because we had a mutual friend who researched doing it. When Chris started winning races and raising the bar on what he wanted to challenge himself with, I told him if he ever did RAAM I wanted to crew. RAAM is the greatest crew challenge out there; it is extremely difficult on the athlete and crew. I am grateful to him for letting me tag along to all these races and events. I have been able to see most of the United States and was able to go to France with his Seattle buddies.
The races Matt has crewed for Chris include:
—National 24-Hour 6x
–Race Across America (RAAM)
–Texas Hill Country
–Furnace Creek 508 (now called The 508) 2x
Together, Matt and Chris crewed Seattle Randonneurs Bob Brudvik and Mark Thomas at Paris Brest Paris 2015. Matt says: “Spending two weeks in France with your best friend is one of my best memories. Chris was not racing but we got Mark Thomas to the Charlie Miller time that he wanted. The last 4 days were spent in an apartment a block away from the Eiffel tower. We spent those days walking 20 plus miles a day, seeing as much as we could.”
Jim mentioned that you took on the role managing the vehicle. Talk about why you think it’s important to have everything super-organized in an ultra. Do you have any wisdom to share for folks thinking about this kind of event?
There is something about crewing that fits well with my personality: I have the Boy Scout “Be Prepared” mantra going on. In adventure races, because you are racing with different gear over the course of the event, it works best to set up bins for each leg. So, you make a bin with bike clothes and gear, a paddling bin, a hiking bin, and so on. Organization is paramount if you want to get in and out of the transitions efficiently. I brought this knowledge to crewing for Chris in his cycling events.
In events like the National 24 Hour Challenge, you are in a parking lot waiting for your rider to come to you. At RAAM and The 508 you are doing leapfrog support during the daylight and direct follow during the night. Talking to Chris before the event is important to see what his goals and plans are for the race. Going over the terrain and the types of weather to expect give me an idea on what will be needed down the road. We also go over his diet needs and plans and talk about different scenarios. There is always the chance that all of this could get thrown out the window, and a new plan needs to develop during the race. As soon as I have an idea of what he will need, I prefer to pack his stuff. That way I know where every single piece of gear is located. Packing up the van is my job. Chris is usually relaxing or eating and drinking. The more prepared you are before the race, the less stressful the race will be. I try to pack all nonessential stuff on the bottom, or in the luggage bag up top, to keep it out of the fray.
Having crewed Chris in numerous multi-day events, I try to anticipate his needs. If he has been eating and drinking the same thing for a couple hours I start to offer alternatives to keep him interested in food and drink. Sometimes athletes don’t want to take in enough calories, so having a variety of foods is important. I would also suggest to anyone racing or crewing an event, have the athlete race how they train, meaning if they eat junk food while training they should eat junk food in race. Many times I have witnessed someone get sick because they added something new on race day.
The biggest advice I would give is to anticipate change and stay calm if the athlete is falling apart. If the crew seems disorganized and in chaos that can begin to add unneeded stress to the athlete. I would also add that being on the crew means being in the race 100 percent. Whatever happens during the race happens to the whole team and acting in unison will make it run smoother. Chris is really good at multitasking stops. We would talk about an aid station in advance and plan out more than one item. If you are going to stop and eat you should be changing clothes, taking care of any medical needs, talking about the course or any big climbs coming up. For example, if the racer stops to use the bathroom, then think about anything else that can be done during that time.
I thought of the Moab 240 as being similar to an adventure race. The crew drives to different spots along the course and waits for hours until the athlete arrives. At each spot we tried to take care of whatever Chris’ needs might be, like doing medical on his feet, feeding him, and a giving him a back rub all at the same time. Moab was also different in that we had to take care of the pacer’s needs as well. Jim and Jun were really good at helping out when they were not pacing.
There was only one spot during the race where I thought Chris might be in trouble and that was at Oowah Lake sleep station. After his 90-minute nap I went into the tent to wake him up and he had a hard time waking up and realizing where he was. He asked me to sit down and talk for a minute. Everything with Chris during these races is effort and math. How much effort will it take to get to the next aid station? How long is it in miles? What is terrain like with how much elevation gain or loss. Sitting in the tent him for a couple minutes is where the friendship really comes into play. There is history between us that we have kept adding onto for 26 years. I have seen him in similar situations in past races, and know what his process is in overcoming adversity. His ability to test his mind and body is hard to describe. If another person was in the tent with him they might think of pulling him out of the race, but Chris and the other athletes at these kinds of races are not normal. While most people would give up, these athletes somehow find the will to stand back up and deal with the pain and discomfort. For some reason Chris is really good at living in in a state of discomfort. I have said in the past that crewing for Chris is loving him enough to kill him but not let him die.
For anyone thinking of getting into ultras of any kind, I would tell them to go crew for someone who is experienced. Or go work an aid station to get a feel for what it is like. It does not always look pretty, the athlete might not always be looking well, and you have to accept the fact that the athlete is going to be miserable and suffering. Doing the “smart” thing is not always the right thing. In my opinion it is up to the athlete to make decisions on health and dropping out of races. It is the crew’s job to get them to the finish line by any means necessary. I would never even mention dropping out as an option to Chris. There will be a time when the athlete wants to be rescued or given a parachute to save themselves. This is why I encourage a pre-race meeting with everyone to set up a decision protocol. There can be no doubt who is in charge if it comes to deciding whether to drop out of a race.
What were some memorable highs or lows for you?
Jim mentioned the story about how Chris and I are like an old married couple, but it gives you an idea about how long we have been doing this together. Chris asked Jim for a pair of socks and told him to ask me since they were probably in my pocket. They were in my pocket. Chris didn’t see me put them there, nor did we talk about it. He just knows me enough to have a sense of where I put stuff. That is another tip I would give: When the racer is coming into an aid station, have essentials read to go for them, like socks, hats, gloves, and medicine.
I was able to do back-to-back 13.6 mile stretches which got me to a marathon distance for the race. It was the flattest part of the course on a wide road in which we walked down the middle of and never once saw a car. There were times where you would walk past a runner just laying on the ground sleeping or stretching. Chris was sleepy during this time of night and we had to do different things to keep him awake. We would talk about family stuff, or do math on how his pace was, run for a count of 20 and fast hike for 20 alternating back and forth to keep him awake. There was a couple times that he fell asleep walking and was still moving forward.
It’s also important to mention that my wife is extremely supportive of my travels with Chris. We have a 6-year old daughter and 3-year old boy, and the time away can be a challenge, but my ultra crewing and race experiences add a certain something to my life that I can’t get anywhere else.
Other top 50 finishers from the Pacific Northwest:
10. Gavin Woody, Bellevue: 78:00:58
12. Kerry Ward North Vancouver, BC: 78:35:24
13. Cameron Hanes, Eugene: 79:19:25
14. Taylor Spike, Harrisburg, OR: 79:41:10
17. Saravanan Mylsamy, Klamath Falls: 81:27:35
32. Van Phan, Maple Valley: 89:55:27
33. Mark Cliggett, Seattle: 90:27:54
34. Dan Wolfe, Spokane: 91:52:22
37. Rick Arikado, Vancouver, BC: 92:41:54
42. Brandon Lott, Burbank, WA: 94:00:02
43. Jeff Wright, Burien: 94:01:21
46. Jennifer Merchant, Olympia: 96:28:20
47. Shawn Merchant, Olympia: 96:28:20