Meet ATRA Trail Ambassador – Chris Russell

Please welcome the 11th of our 2017 American Trail Running Association (ATRA) Trail Ambassadors presented by CamelBak. We’re proud to introduce you to Chris Russell, a giant in stature and personality. “Chris is hard to miss,” writes friend and nominator Brian Ricketts. “Standing 6’8″ tall, he doesn’t look like your average trail runner. His personality is even bigger than his physical stature, and you can hear him coming from miles away.”

At 51 years old, Russell has called San Antonio home since 2006. He grew up in Oklahoma, and moved to Phoenix in the ninth grade, then attended the U.S. Air Force Academy. Retired from the Air Force after 21 years of service, Russell is presently a cost analyst for the Air Force, a role in which he has served for nearly six years.

He started trail running in 2004. “I was going through a bit of a mid-life crisis and became obsessed with idea of hiking the PCT,” Russell recounted. “I was stationed at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix, and while hiking some local mountains, I noticed some folks running the trails. I thought, ‘hmmmm….I didn’t know you could run trails,’ so I started doing some short three to four-mile trail runs. Shortly after that I got sent to the Pentagon and I lived right by Prince William Forest Park in Northern Virginia, which has 20-plus miles of nice single track trails. I got into the habit of running there every weekend and talked a couple of buddies into regularly joining me. Eventually we found ourselves doing three-hour runs. It was great therapy.”

His first trail race was a half marathon at Prince William Forest Park in May, 2005. “It rained the night before so the trail was a muddy mess,” said Russell. “I fell four times but had a great time. I had done a road half marathon earlier that year but the trail half marathon took me 25 minutes longer and my entire body was exhausted.”

About that same time Russell read (Dean) Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man and decided to give an ultra a try. “I chose the Catoctin 50K near Frederick, MD, a low-key ultra that follows the Catoctin Trail in the mountains,” said Russell. “It is so low-key that there really aren’t any markings. All you do is follow the blue blazes, which at times feels like a scavenger hunt. Needless to say….I got lost multiple times, rolled my ankle five times (very rocky trail), got stung by hornets a couple of times and finished at the back of the pack. Afterwards I thought I was done with ultras. Two weeks later I signed up for JFK 50 Mile.”

Russell continues to race, mixing it up in his home state as well as in other pockets of the country. He has two or three favorite Texas races that he does every year and he tries to do one or two out-of-state races every year. Two years ago he did 3 Days of Syllamo, and Never Summer 100K.

A family man with a wife and two daughters, Russell shared a story about his younger daughter Dakota who also runs trails and completed the Cactus to Cloud 50K in 2016. “It is a challenging race that has over 9,000 feet of climbing,” said Russell. “Dakota was living in El Paso at the time and because the race was in Southern NM, I thought it would be a fun Father-daughter thing we could do together, so I talked her into it. She had stomach issues all race and called it the most miserable experience of her life. She finished but I don’t think she ever forgave me for talking her into it.”

Russell’s enthusiasm for the sport is infectious. According to Ricketts, “Chris is the de facto social leader and ‘newbie greeter’ for the Rockhoppers, our local trail running group in San Antonio, TX. Give Chris five minutes with someone, and he will have their life story memorized. He is constantly organizing runs, eager to show new runners the local trails. He has been known to look up a new runner’s Ultrasignup times to make sure they will have someone near their pace to run with. Everyone likes Chris and enjoys being around him.

“Chris loves to talk shop and is able to rattle off the most obscure facts about runners most of us have never heard of,” wrote Ricketts. “He relishes in imparting his knowledge on new runners, and when he isn’t racing, you’ll be sure to see him (or at least hear him) volunteering at an aid station. He is the essence of what makes the trail running community special.”

The Rockhoppers started in 2009 with less than 10 members. “Quite honestly, there weren’t that many trail runners in San Antonio at the time,” reflected Russell. “When I first moved to San Antonio in 2006, it was pretty rare to run into another trail runner and I would try to recruit people I worked with in the Air Force to run with me. Eventually over the next 2 or 3 years there became a small core group of us (which included well-known ultrarunner, Liza Howard) that would run regularly together and we had a lot of fun joking and needling each other. One of the runners, John Palmer, really wanted to have a San Antonio trail running club. At the time, the big trail running club was Hill Country Trail Runners which was based out of Austin. It was a good club that many of us were members of but it was basically geared towards Austin area runners. John encouraged us to come up with a name and start a group email list. We settled on Rockhoppers because of the rocky terrain around here. As we came across other runners we would see if they wanted to be part of the Rockhoppers and we would add them to the list. Soon….word of mouth spread and we start having people approach us about breaking into trail running and wanted to be a part of the group. We now have over 250 people on the list with most of them being from San Antonio. I like to think we have helped trail running in the San Antonio area grow quite a bit.”

The Rockhoppers have no annual dues or officers and is very much an organic club. “Anyone can organize a group run or host an activity,” said Russell. “It truly is what you put into it is what you get out of it. Plus without dues or officers it helps keep politics out of play because there is no power to grab. We definitely do not take ourselves seriously and our motto is ‘Run Hard, Laugh Harder.’”

The Rockhoppers host a few trail maintenance projects each year at local and state park, and several Rockhoppers do trail work on their own. Russell manages the group’s email list and keeps track of the races and results from the group, and organizes one or two Saturday group runs per month. But, his most important job is emcee of the Annual Rockhopper Awards. “These are not typical awards,” said Russell. “We have categories like Best Fall, Best Puke, Best Bonk, Getting Lost, Best Animal Encounter etc. About ninety percent of the awards are humorous with ten percent being serious.”

Russell volunteers at three to four races a year including course marshaling at the Bandera 100K. He says that the best part of volunteering at trail races is the interaction with the runners. “Especially if it is a multi-loop course,” said Russell. “It is a lot of fun to watch their progress throughout the race, give them encouragement or even needle them a little bit. I have made a lot of new friends that way and I find it very motivational. When I have been in a bit of a running rut…volunteering and watching the other runners push themselves almost always helps me break out of my rut.”

Russell’s advice to those considering getting into trail running or racing includes two tidbits. “First is to stop and smell the roses,” said Russell. “Many runners come from a road or triathlon background and they are still caught up in splits, maintaining a certain pace, etc. Consequently, they run right past a beautiful new view, miss some cool wildlife or pass up an impromptu opportunity to jump into a swimming hole. Part of trail running is just enjoying being in nature.”

Don’t take yourself too seriously is the second piece of advice. “This is a hobby that can cause one to find themselves in some pretty ridiculous situations, so it is best to have a sense of humor and laugh about it,” said Russell. “At the recent Cactus Rose 100 mile race….one of the Rockhoppers was having some major night vision problems and ended up going in circles and doing the same hill three times just two miles from the finish. He was leading the race at the time and we got quite worried as time went by. Fortunately he eventually figured it out and still managed to win the race. We (and him) got a big laugh out of it. Bottom line, if you find yourself staying upset about stuff like that….you probably need to go back to triathlons.”

What’s up next for Russell? “I have a hip that is out of whack, so I need to get addressed before I set any major goals. I slowed down quite a bit recently and I couldn’t figure out why. A fellow runner observed that my left leg stride was half the length as my right leg and running on 1.5 legs does not lend itself to racing success. So, my big goal for 2018 is to get that squared away. Having said that….I am thinking about Black Canyon 100K.”