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Massive search underway for missing distance runner Todd Ragsdale

Todd Ragsdale went for a “light run” Thursday morning at 10:30 and didn't come back. Friday, up above the paved roads, past Terrace Drive and the Ashland Loop where the streets are dirt and mud, rutted and winding, the fog settled in and the wind blew over the backs of searchers and runners all trying to find 46-year-old Ragsdale, an ultra-marathon runner. 

He said before leaving Thursday he would be hitting the White Rabbit Trails, which are known to be steep, muddy and full of deep trenches, uncleared tree branches and slippery trails this time of year. Ragsdale was reported missing at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday after he failed to return to his home in Talent. His vehicle was located in a parking area above the park. 

Ragsdale wasn’t in his usual shape. “He’s nursing a hamstring injury,” said Sgt. Shawn Richards of the Jackson County Sheriff’s office. “ He also could have got turned around. We always give the benefit of the doubt to people who are missing.” 

Richards spoke outside a sheriff’s trailer under a tarp on a drippy Friday morning near the south end of Granite Street, near the end of Lithia Park. Volunteers kept pulling up and dropping off water and supplies. A newly arrived group was given instructions on how to begin their part of the search. A dog attached to the leash of a searcher in an official Search and Rescue jacket sniffed around. Cars lined the road, bumper-to-bumper, for miles. All the faces are serious, the discussions quiet and direct. 

There were 70 “emergent volunteers,” people who parked along Granite road and asked to help find Ragsdale, on hand Friday morning. Richards says most of them are runners and hikers. Seven different counties, from Siskiyou up through Douglas, sent search and rescue teams to help look for Ragsdale. A helicopter was also deployed. 

Richards said, “We have plenty of help. We don’t need more. If someone had contact with him on the trail, we’d need to talk them, but otherwise we’ve got what we need.” 

Ashland city crews are combing Lithia Park, while Jackson County Search and Rescue and a large contingent of trail runners are working the uphill trails. The search was concentrated on an area about 3.5 miles south of Lithia Park. 

"We all know if something did happen, you can be pretty remote very quickly in this watershed," said Torsten Heyske of the Ashland Trails Association. "This is a testament to the tightness of the running community and the community in general," Heyske added. "There are a lot of nonrunners up here." 

Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls, speaking from a command post on Granite Street, said the citizen volunteers, many spurred to the watershed via social media, are bringing a unique set of skills to the search.

"We're getting a ton of runners showing up and these guys know the trails like crazy," Falls said. "These guys are hard-core and they know where they're going." 

An informal searcher, Cat Gould, who hikes the trials up near the watershed every week, said the main trails have been combed so heavily he must be off the path somewhere and she hopes to find him. 

“I hike out here on my own," Gould said, "and I’d like to hope this is what the community would do to find me. This is what a community does.” 

She was bundled in rain-proof gear, a hood and boots. Gould, soaking wet with the wind blowing her coat around, blocked the drizzle from her face as she spoke. Rain has been falling on and off since Thursday and in higher elevations there’s substantial fog.

The missing runner was not prepared for a night in those conditions. 

When Ragsdale left home, his wife reported to officials, he was only wearing running shorts, a black beanie cap, bright green running shoes, a T-shirt and a blue "Rogue Valley Runners" jacket. Sheriff's department officials said Ragsdale also may be wearing a Star Wars head band. He expected to be gone just a short time and wasn’t dressed for anything more. Ragsdale is described as 5 feet 10 inches tall, about 165 pounds and has red hair and blue eyes. With low temperatures huddling around freezing and daytime high’s in the 40s, the weather makes finding him more urgent. 

But, Richards remains optimistic, “If he has the wherewithal to run 100 miles, he has the wherewithal to get through this.” 

In June 2010, Ragsdale broke what was then the Guinness World Record for distance run barefoot in 24 hours by covering 102 miles, shattering the previous mark of 90.6 miles. The previous winner of the Crater Lake Marathon circled a Medford high school track 413 times in a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. 

Search-and-rescue officials are asking anyone who has heard from Ragsdale since Thursday to contact Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon dispatch at 541-776-7206.

Search and rescue coordinators said late Friday afternoon they will suspend the hunt for Todd Ragsdale at 10 p.m. over concerns of the safety of volunteers, who are encountering wet and slippery terrain in the Ashland watershed.

"We need to give those folks a rest," said Pat Rowland, retired Jackson County sheriff's lieutenant working on the search.

The search will resume Saturday morning, though a time was not immediately available.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins. Reporters Ryan Pfeil and Mark Freeman contributed to this report.