Heather Timmons of Ashland nears the end of the SOFA run Saturday, which covered 50 kilometers and drew about 40 runners. - Julia Moore

Ultra soggy

Last Saturday, nearly 40 people converged on the flooded parking lot at Grave Creek, the trailhead for the footpath that runs through the lower Rogue River Canyon. Their goal was to burn off their holiday pounds — or ounces as the case may be.

This late January tradition regularly attracts ultrarunners from all over Oregon, who rack up as much as 50 kilometers — 31 miles — in this "fun run" along the Wild & Scenic reach of the Rogue River Trail.

The SOFA run, as this event is known, dates back to 2003 when organizer Tim Turk ran the trail in January to celebrate his birthday with several friends from Eugene. The run is patterned after similar post-holiday runs around the country. Many have the letters "F.A." as part of the name.

"They told me about these Fat A$$ runs they had in Eugene," Turk explains. "I called this the Southern Oregon Fat A$$ and the acronym 'SOFA' stuck."

If you haven't seen this event advertised, that's because it's unofficial and publicized only through social networks.

"It's on the same weekend every year," says Turk. "All I have to do is send out an email and people show up."

This year, Turk added a Facebook page so runners could see who else was planning to attend.

The weather added a challenge to the already rocky trail and 3,700 feet of climbing over the 31 mile out-and-back route. Rain and temperatures in the low 40s were constant throughout the day. The normally dry or low-water streams that generally trickle across the trail turned into turbulent stream crossings every half mile or so. Two crossings were thigh deep.

Eugene runner Scott Wolfe lost his footing in the deepest stream and found himself under water. His camera, water bottle and hat may be in Gold Beach by now. He warmed up somewhat after a few miles of running.

This run is not for the faint of heart.

As an unofficial event — or gathering — there are no aid stations, no volunteers. All food, water and extra clothing must be carried. This run is strictly self-contained.

Numerous hazards lurk on this trail.

Two years ago, Olympic Trials runner Max King turned his ankle and had to hobble back for more than an hour to reach the parking lot. The previous year, Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association President Rob Cain refilled his water bottle in a stream and ended up with a case of giardia.

For many of these distance runners, SOFA is an excuse to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones, even if that means hours of driving.

"It sometimes takes an organized event to get everyone together, and this facilitates such a gathering," says Corvallis resident Meghan Arbogast.

Arbogast, who competed on the U.S. team at the World 100K Championship race last year, found the wet conditions to be only a minor annoyance.

"The trail is beautiful," Arbogast explains. "Since it is so rocky, it is quite runnable in wet conditions, whereas in the Willamette Valley, most everything single track turns to mud."

One of the most intrepid runners was barefoot and ran on four legs.

"Ember is roughly 4 years old," says Ashland runner Carly Koerner. "We adopted her from the Oregon Australian Shepherd Rescue."

Koerner's goal was to run 20 miles, though for a dog it can be much more.

"Dog miles are when she triples my distance, because she runs up ahead, then behind, then she zigzags up the hills, thus creating bonus mileage," Koerner explains.

After carrying the 27-pound dog over several of the deep stream crossings, Ember's reluctance to be carried signaled it was time for Koerner to turn back.

The extreme award for the day went to Clayton Gillette and Marcus Mayfield, who began their run with flashlights and ended it the same way, 40 miles down the trail.

"We've done it many times, sometimes on New Year's Day," says Gillette, a retired teacher from Griffin Creek School in Medford.

"We finished at Illahe and we had a friend pick us up," Gillette says. "It's not that cold if you're dressed for it. It took us about 10 hours."

Even when carrying gels and other easily digestible food, running 31 miles in hypothermic conditions burns far more calories than a runner can ingest.

Event organizer and Ashland runner Tim Turk had a solution to this problem. He cut his run short to 20 miles and hopped in his van. There, he fired up a camp stove and put on a pot of chicken soup.

"You know they're cold. You know they're hungry. Anything salty tastes good," Turk says. "It's the best bowl of soup you've had in your life."

SOFA. Call it chicken soup for the ultrarunner's soul.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. This was his second SOFA run. You can reach him at

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