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Running on the Edge

When an athlete pushes himself to the limit, he never knows what will happen.

Just ask Erik Skaggs.

The 27-year-old Ashland ultramarathoner not only won the USA Track & Field national championship 100 Kilometer — 61 miles — race near Eugene last Saturday, he smashed the course record by more than 56 minutes.

The race, known as "Where's Waldo," runs through forest trails that start and end at the mile-high Willamette Pass and gain and lose 11,000 feet of elevation en route. Skaggs finished 28 minutes and 30 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, Zach Miller of Bozeman, Mont.

Saturday's weather was perfect for a fast race, but nobody anticipated how fast it would be.

"They were the best conditions we've had, it maybe hit 70 during the day," said race director Craig Thornley. "We barely had the last two aid stations up and running when Erik got there."

It wasn't immediately obvious after the race that anything was wrong.

"The finish felt great," said Skaggs. "I was so glad to be done ... I knew something was off on the ride home from Willamette Pass — I got sick three times "¦ but I thought that was electrolytes. I'd never vomited from running before, ever."

He spoke from his bed at Rogue Valley Medical Center on Thursday.

Two days after the race, still suffering from nausea, Skaggs decided to visit the hospital, but nothing serious was discovered.

His running friend, Neil Olsen, convinced Skaggs to take a trip back to the hospital. Immediately.

Olsen, 42, won the Where's Waldo race last year, establishing the course record, and finished fourth this year, winning the Master's championship.

Olsen also happens to be a medical doctor and suspected something serious.

On his return trip to the hospital, Skaggs learned that he was experiencing acute kidney failure, a condition that, while uncommon, is well documented in medical literature as a consequence of taking the painkiller ibuprofen while running a demanding ultramarathon.

The condition is life-threatening.

In the hours and days following an endurance race, the body puts many times the usual level of waste products into the bloodstream in the expected process of repairing damaged muscles. The kidneys must work especially hard during this recovery period.

For some endurance athletes, ibuprofen puts excessive stress on the kidneys, and dehydration adds even more. The combination of factors impacts everyone differently, and there's no way to know in advance how a specific athlete will react.

Full recovery of kidney function may take months.

This setback comes at a particularly difficult time for Skaggs, who has been listed in the national rankings in Ultrarunning magazine for the past two years.

He's in the best shape of his life.

In the past nine months he's won all three ultramarathons he's entered: the 28.4-mile Quad Dipsea in California, the 31-mile Siskiyou Out Back on Mt. Ashland, and now the Where's Waldo. In each, he set a course record.

His current hospital visit — he was still in Friday afternoon — has Skaggs thinking about why he runs and what's important in life.

"You realize what you miss the most is just being outside," Skaggs said, and lifted his chin toward his third floor window. "It's not the racing so much at all. It's just getting to go out there and do that run every day."

His next run, however, will have to wait a while.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org