John Nagel, front, leads a group of high school runners from the Lynn Canal Running Camp through Spalding Meadows. Nagel often volunteers his local outdoor adventure knowledge and health tips with various groups, clubs and teams.
John Nagel takes a break above the Granite Creek basin after running the ridge line connecting Gastineau Peak, Roberts Peak, Sheep Mountain and Clark Peak.
Story last updated at 9/25/2013 - 1:35 pm
John Nagel, an athlete who grew up in Juneau and returned in 2009, has done relays meant for five people alone. He's completed 100-mile races, full-length triathlons, 50-mile races, 50-kilometer races and marathons. Sometimes, he adds a level of challenge to an already difficult event - swimming a 5,000-yard fundraising race half butterfly, for example (for the non-swimmers out there, butterfly is the hardest stroke).
In the early 1980s, Nagel left Juneau and "got into triathlons in a big way." The first marathon he ever ran was in Hawaii, as part of the Ironman triathlon. (Prior to the 26.2-mile run, the Ironman involves a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike.) The week before he completed that Ironman, he did a half-Ironman.
"At that point, it (the Ironman) was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life," he said.
In 1992, he ran his third marathon, in Japan, completing the race in two hours and 33 minutes, finishing 11th out of 6,500 people.
"It started me thinking about the Olympic trials, but 11 minutes is a long time in a marathon," he said. The Olympic trial qualifying time was then about 11 minutes faster than his time.
After taking time off for plantar faciitis, he "remembered what Ironman did for my psyche" and began training for the McKenzie River Trail Run outside of Eugene, Ore. He finished in less than six hours, getting second place. He and that runner were the first to break seven hours in the course, he said.
That race had a personal significance in that it was the first race his mother had seen him run since he was a senior in high school. A few months afterward, his mother died, and Nagel began training for a 100-mile race, the Western States Endurance Run, which he completed in her memory.
"Because the ultra-marathoning community is what it is, the holy grail is 100 miles," Nagel said.
He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
"You cannot think 100 miles," he said. "It's a long race."
He completed some Western States training camps, and did a 100-kilometer run the April before.
"I got a little depleted," he said. "A month later, I was lining up for what turned out to be the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life. I thought Ironman was hard... this was hard. But I was hooked. ... to get through it, you're going to face adversity, and it's how you handle it (that matters)."
When he finished at more than 24 hours, his first thought, he said, was "Wait for next year."
His second time running Western States, he met "another John" 60 miles in. That John's college roommate was someone Nagel knew from Juneau, a positive moment. "When we got out of the canyon (near mile 55) we were looking at each other almost giggling," he said.
Over the time they'd talked, they'd cut 40 minutes from their pace. He ended up finishing that race more than seven hours faster than the year before, at 21 hours and 35 minutes.
In 1999, he ran it again, tying for third place - the last time he ran 100 miles, though he's run 100-kilometer races since then.
That's also around the time he discovered massage therapy, which he practices now.
Nagel loves the "tight" running community in Juneau.
"That was a huge draw for me when I moved back," he said. "These guys are awesome. People who like to recreate that way have been some of the nicest, down to earth, open minded, pleasant happy people I've been around - and I guess that's another motivation for doing it."
Nagel credits local endurance runner Geoff Roes with "really showing me what's possible in the mountains around here" and says runner Glenn Frick is an inspiration as well.
Nagel regularly gets out in the mountains, linking ridges and running trails.
"I don't see it as extreme anymore. It's just getting out there and spending a bunch of hours moving light and fast through this playground we have here," he said. It's also serious, however. You can love the mountains, but they don't love you back. You don't take them for granted, not for a second."
Some of his favorite moments have been seeing animals while out in the mountains - bears, ptarmigan, marmots, and mountain goats. Just more than a week ago, he saw a wolf on the Juneau ridge, after years of seeing only tracks.
Now that he's in Juneau, he says it's not about miles, but about "the hours and vertical feet."
"We all have gifts, but at the same time, I'm a firm believer in the quote 'If you think you can't, either way you're right.' I think we need more people out there that think they can, and do," he said.
Mary Catharine Martin is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.