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Details emerge of Jacksonville runner's ordeal

It had been 56 hours, and still there was no sign of Ashley Laird. Her family and friends feared they might never seen her again — or if they did, she wouldn't be alive. 

Her father, Bruce Laird, had been looking for Ashley since she disappeared while on a run in Jacksonville Friday morning. If she wasn't found by nightfall Sunday, authorities would scale back their search. He was scouring a trail in Jacksonville when he saw someone in the brush. Alive. On her own two feet. 

He ran to his daughter.

"I have no memory of getting over there," he says. "The rawness of emotion is overwhelming. ... We had quite an embrace and a lot of tears. It’s beyond calculating that I was on the team that found her. What are the odds?"

Amidst celebration and relief, family and friends are still trying to piece together what happened.

The run that turned into a rescue mission

Ashley Laird left her Jacksonville home for a run at 9:30 a.m. Friday. Her husband, Dan Arnold, knew what time she'd be leaving, but they did not set a route or return time. She was carrying neither a cellphone nor the GPS tracking watch she sometimes wore.

"The run was not supposed to be any big deal, so she didn’t bring it," Bruce Laird says.

Ashley Laird is the mother of a 6-year-old son and emergency room physician at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center. An experienced runner, she won the 2014 American River 50-mile race.

It wasn't uncommon for Laird to embark on spontaneous routes that would take a couple of hours, Arnold says, but he began to get worried after a few hours when she still hadn't come back.

"It was that feeling of, how do I assess this, at what point do I decide to call for help?" Arnold says. "Once I reached the threshold of, clearly there's something wrong, I called the Jacksonville police."

Her husband and father spent the afternoon driving around Laird's usual routes, focusing on flat, paved roads. She'd been avoiding trails and hills because of injuries.

By Friday evening, the Laird family "went into full crisis mode," Arnold says. A grassroots effort blossomed overnight to launch a social media storm, organize a search party and set up a makeshift command center from the Laird home. Family and friends poured in from around Oregon and California.

The family worked in tandem with law enforcement from as far away as Siskiyou and Josephine counties in the search. By Sunday, almost 200 volunteers were assisting in the effort. Bruce Laird was assigned a search area in the morning, but there was no sign of his daughter by lunchtime.

Ashley Laird remembers few details 

Laird became lost at some point on her run Friday, Arnold says, but she is unable to remember many details of the weekend. It's possible she fell and hit her head and lost consciousness, suggested by a bump on her head. Given the scrapes and scratches on her body, she may have ended up off-trail.

"She got to a point where she didn’t know which trail was taking her where," Arnold says.

Laird pursued various trails to reach a high vantage point to get her bearings, Arnold says, but to no avail. At some point, she started to look for the road.

"She was trying to figure out how to get to the road,” Arnold says. “She was still holding plans to rescue herself even till the end.”

Laird slept on the ground Friday night, with only what she’d been wearing that morning: shorts, a green running shirt and a red and white Stanford baseball cap.

"The hardest thing for me was trying to sleep at night and imagining her out there in the dark and that was pretty hard for me to take," Arnold says. "It just hurt a lot. We’ve been together for pretty much our entire adult lives, so it just hurt."

By Sunday evening, Laird was moving very slowly, having to think through each step to keep herself going, Arnold says.

With no leads on the direction or route Laird may have taken, the Jackson County Search and Rescue team had been taking stabs in the dark with no luck. Jacksonville Police Chief David Towe said if Laird had not been found by Sunday night, the search would have been scaled back.

Arnold had gotten no more than a few hours of sleep since Friday. By late afternoon Sunday, he had mentally prepared himself for the worst.

"The honest truth is that the time before we found her was really, really dark," Arnold says. "All of us were maintaining the search to the highest possible level, all while knowing that when we found her, we probably weren’t going to be happy. All of us had at some level become resigned to having a terrible outcome."

Then, a miracle

A searcher looked through Laird's Garmin GPS watch, which authorities had taken Friday night, to ferret out any clues. Laird had programmed her watch to focus on distance and time, making it difficult to extract the routes. Eventually, new leads were identified — in Forest Park, west of Jacksonville.

Bruce Laird was in the team of searchers assigned to an area in Forest Park around 2:30 p.m. Sunday. They started on Ol' Miners Trail, then took the Rail Trail back toward the lower parking lot. At about 5:30 p.m., the trio of searchers were nearing the parking lot when they spotted Ashley not far from the trail. She was severely dehydrated and disoriented with some scrapes and bruises, but otherwise OK.

"I had my phone, and my brother-in-law called up and said that they’d found her," Arnold says. "I just sat down and looked at the sky and ran for the truck and started driving.

“To have her suddenly reappear and be basically fine was, I am kind of at a loss for words. It just felt like all of this pain and tragedy just got lifted off of me all at once and there she was."

Recovery

Emergency crews gave Laird intravenous fluids at the parking lot on Jacksonville-Reservoir Road before she was transported to RRMC by ambulance.

"She's very weak and very, very, very sore,” Arnold says. “She literally didn’t have a thing to eat or drink. Her body was essentially breaking down her muscles to survive. But she’s essentially fine. She seems just like her old self.

"They asked her what day it was. She said Saturday. Somehow she lost an entire day," Arnold says.

Laird's loss of memory may be due to dehydration, losing consciousness, trauma and adrenaline. Her father says she may never remember what happened. The particulars of Ashley's weekend remain a mystery.

But the Laird family, Ashley included, has felt the support of the community throughout the weekend.

"Out of these disasters, wonderful things can happen," Bruce says. "It's a testament to the discipline and organizational ability of the search-and-rescue team and the Jacksonville police. ... Our family can't possibly say enough thanks."

"The overwhelming sense for me from the weekend was just this incredible outpouring from the entire community,” Arnold says. “It just felt like absolutely every single person in just about the entire Rogue Valley was thinking about us and helping us and supporting us. And that is the thing that kept us going, just knowing that there were so many people on our side and helping. It was beautiful.

"And Ashley knows that. She's so, so grateful for all those people.”

There'll be at least one change at the house when Ashley recovers, Arnold says.

"I can guarantee we're going to get Ashley a white board she can hang on the fridge where she can write down exactly where she’s going," Arnold says. "I can’t imagine that she’ll stop running. She’ll never stop running.”

Reach reporting intern Hannah Golden at hgolden@mailtribune.com.

Ashley Laird