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Trail runner missing

ASHLAND — The search for a trail runner missing since Thursday will resume Saturday in the Ashland watershed after search crews and scores of fellow runners spent an exhausting day combing the network of forest trails above Lithia Park.

As many as 100 volunteers joined search-and-rescue teams from eight counties in today's search for Todd Ragsdale, a 46-year-old Talent distance runner who disappeared Thursday while on a run wearing a light jacket and running shorts, authorities said.

Volunteers crisscrossed the network of Forest Service and illegally built trails in teams but turned up no evidence of Ragsdale, the produce manager at the north Fred Meyer store who family members said went on a short trail run Thursday morning to help rehab an injured hamstring.

"There's just no sign of anything," said Southern Oregon University associate provost Jody Waters, a distance runner who helped search for Ragsdale today. "It's really hit home for a lot of us."

Jackson County Search and Rescue volunteer Mike Evans, who came to the watershed with his dog Lily, who's trained to pick up human scent, also scoured the trail system for hours to no avail.

"It is frustrating that we haven't found him yet," Evans said.

But crews were buoyed knowing the toughness of Ragsdale, a long-distance runner who six years ago set a Guinness World Record by running 102 miles barefoot in 24 hours.

"If he has the wherewithal to run 100 miles, he has the wherewithal to get through this," Jackson County Sheriff's Sgt. Shawn Richards said.

Rescue teams were working on the theory that Ragsdale was injured and possibly off-trail. Pat Rowland, a retired Jackson County sheriff's lieutenant helping in the search coordination, expected teams to continue with that theory in Saturday's search.

The search was scheduled to be suspended at 10 p.m. today because it was considered too unsafe for the volunteer trail-runners to be on the cold and wet trail system with temperatures forecast to drop into the 20s, Rowland said.

"We need to give those folks a rest," Rowland said.

Saturday's effort will have been planned and coordinated overnight, but it likely will focus in the sometimes steep and rocky off-trail woodlands. Crews began to search there intensely this afternoon after they believed they had covered the trail system.

Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls said officials were relying heavily on Ragsdale's fellow Southern Oregon Runners members, since most of the trails in that area didn't show up on search-and-rescue maps. Falls said the citizen volunteers, many spurred to the watershed via social media, brought 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."

However, Rowland said, the runners dressed in their regular athletic garb didn't have the boots and thick pants needed to search off-trail. Many had dispersed from the Granite Street command post by mid-afternoon Friday.

Most of today's search focused on a 3.5-square-mile area behind the water tower near the upper end of Lithia Park, while Ashland's Community Emergency Response Team combed through the park, Richards said.

While crews intensified their search in that area, "we are doing outside-the-box stuff as well," Richards said. That included search crews going high in the watershed, scouring Forest Service roads, and searching by air from two helicopters — one from Brim Aviation and another from Timberland, the firm that's currently logging in the watershed. Timberland has donated its time, Richards said.

Jesse Biesanz and a man who identified himself only as Blue, both of Ashland, were searching around the White Rabbit Trail far up in the Ashland watershed at noon today.

Blue, who's a former coworker of Ragsdale, said he was surprised Ragsdale hasn't been found and that he feared Ragsdale was injured in a remote canyon or possibly hurt by an animal.

Blue said the search grid could not be large enough to find the ultra-trail runner.

"The dude can run 100 miles," Blue said. "That guy could be freakin' anywhere. Hopefully he's over here and we can get him out."

A teenage girl reported this morning that she thought she heard someone call for help Thursday in an area near where searchers were hunting for Ragsdale. Four crews and a helicopter combed the site, but officials determined the report to be unfounded, Rowland said.

Snow levels could drop to as low as 2,500 feet Saturday, bringing 2 to 3 inches of snow in the hills surrounding Medford and Ashland, according to the National Weather Service office in Medford.

Ragsdale has been a Fred Meyer associate for 18 years and has worked at both the north and south stores, said Erika Spear, manager of the south Fred Meyer.

“When we heard about it, we knew we had to step up to the plate to help his family,” Spear said. “We are all family, of course, and take care of each other.”

The two Medford stores donated granola bars, water, sandwiches, hand warmers, flashlights and batteries to the searchers, Spear said.

“We will continue to see what other needs are there and provide those items,” she said.

Several Fred Meyer employees helped search for Ragsdale today and plan to join the effort Saturday, she said.

“Right now we are waiting for his safe return. We still have hope,” she said. 

Other volunteers brought water, coffee and Subway sandwiches and donated to Northwest Pizza for tonight's dinner for the searchers. They include teams from Lake, Klamath, Deschutes, Douglas, Siskiyou, Josephine and Jackson counties as well as the Ashland CERT.

When volunteer searchers came off their assigned routes today, they signed out and lingered under the Southern Oregon Runners' club shelters, standing in running shoes and running pants in the Granite Street command center.

"There's a huge running community who know him and a lot of people have run with him," said Torsten Heycke of the Ashland Trails Association.

"This is a testament to the tightness of the running community and the community in general," Heycke added. "There are a lot of nonrunners up here."

Ragsdale left his house around 10:30 a.m. for what he said was a light run or hike, deputies said. His vehicle was found Thursday afternoon in a parking area above Lithia Park and he was reported to Ashland police as missing at 3:30 p.m., police said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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Todd Ragsdale
As many as 100 volunteers participated in the search and rescue effort for lost runner Todd Ragsdale, who has been missing since 10:30 a.m. on Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch