Meet Chris Russell
Meet Chris Russell
Please welcome the 11th American Trail Running Association (ATRA) Trail Ambassador 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 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 AFB 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 singletrack 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.”
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.”
To read more of Russell’s story, click HERE.