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    Finding adventure in the trails of America

    Finding adventure in the trails of America

    Photo By Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Hurd | Air Force Col. Shannon Johnson poses with his 10th buckle after completing the...... read more read more



    Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Hurd 

    Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling

    WASHINGTON -- Running up and down a hiking trail in the desert of Utah, Air Force Col. Shannon Johnson was on the last leg of the Bryce Canyon 100-mile ultramarathon, June 18, when he looked down at his watch.

    “I had my last nine miles to go, and I realized I wasn’t going to make it,” he said. “I was going to get kicked out again.”

    Quitting, however, wasn’t an option for Johnson, an attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency. It was something that just wasn’t in him.

    Growing up in Palmer, Alaska, Johnson started running at a young age, taking in the state’s beautiful scenery.

    “I’ve always enjoyed running,” he said, recalling his early running days.

    As a senior in high school, he ran and finished his first marathon, which boosted his confidence. After graduating, he joined the Air Force in 1986 and continued to run — completing a marathon every year. Soon the challenge and scenery of the road weren’t enough for him.

    In 2001, while stationed in Arkansas, he found out about 100-mile ultramarathon wilderness races. They were mostly single track hiking trail races in remote areas across America.

    “[They’re] like a challenge combined with beautiful scenery, and you have an adventure,” Johnson explained. “So, it’s all the things I love. It fits me to a ‘T’.”

    During these grueling races, runners are timed at checkpoints, usually seven to eight miles apart. Race officials check participants vitals to make sure they’re healthy enough to continue. If someone fails to meet the time limit or is not physically fit to continue, they get kicked out.

    Interested, Johnson found a race in Arkansas and with the support of his wife, Christie, decided to try it out.

    “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have any of the right gear, and I didn’t make it,” he recalled. “I got kicked out at mile 52, but I learned a lot from that.”

    Taking that knowledge, he came back the next year and finished, getting his first 100-mile buckle. From that point on, he was hooked, competing in a race almost every year, with each race providing a unique challenge.

    In 2011, at the “Susitna 100” in Alaska, he had to pull a sled filled with his supplies in temperatures as low as minus 11.

    “I’ll never do that one again,” he said laughing. “That was the hardest one I’ve ever done. Pulling that sled was horrible.”

    Two years later, at the “Salt Flats 100” in Arizona, he would suffer his worst injury.

    In the early morning hours of the race, he began to drift off the trail and was caught in the leg by a cactus.

    “Having to pull yourself off a cactus at three in the morning by flash light was pretty disheartening,” Johnson admitted.

    Quickly taking a sock from his bag, he tied it off to stop the bleeding. He didn’t want race officials to see the wound at the next checkpoint and kick him out. They saw the wound, but bandaged him up and let him continue – radioing to the next checkpoint to keep an eye on the injury. He gutted through and finished the race.

    “Every race, I think I’m going to get kicked out,” he explained. “I’ve never quit a single race, and I never will, but I always reach a point during a race where I’m pretty sure I’m going to get kicked out, and you just start doubting yourself in the wee dark hours.”

    He hit that point during his most recent race – “The Bryce Canyon 100 miler.” During the second to last leg, mile 81-91, in 84 degree desert heat at 8,000 feet of altitude, he ran out of water with three miles to the next checkpoint.

    “I filled my [water] as full as I could get it, but I could not physically carry enough to run 10 miles in that type of environment,” he said.

    He told himself “You’ll get water in 30 minutes.” Other runners stopped after also running out of water. He kept his determination and pushed to make it to the checkpoint.

    “Fortunately at mile 91, I got water!”

    After leaving the checkpoint, he looked at his watch and a familiar realization set in.

    “I realized I wasn’t going to make it,” he said.

    Having failed to get his 10th buckle in a race in 2014 in Maryland, he was determined to not to let it happen again.

    “I didn’t know if I was going to make it, but I knew I wasn’t going to quit,” Johnson said. “I’m just going to run this thing through and let the chips fall where they do.”

    He picked up the pace with the help of a fellow racer as they challenged each other. They powered up and down hills pushing each other to make it.

    “It hurt, but we ran really hard,” Johnson said.

    Finally after reaching the top of another canyon, Johnson was sure they would see the trail going back down again. But instead, at the top, he looked out and saw where the trail met the parking lot for the finish. Both runners made it with time to spare.

    “That’s exhilaration,” Johnson said of crossing the finish line. “Such a sense of accomplishment and triumph. Then seeing your wife, it’s kind of a shared ‘we-did-this-together’ feeling.”

    Two minutes after celebrating with his wife, and making the 1,000 mile club, he fell asleep, exhausted. He had pushed through the altitude, the extreme temperatures and never quit.

    Now, after taking a week off, he’s back running seven miles a day. He’s getting ready for that next event because he loves the adventure.

    “When you’re wading across an icy cold river at two in the morning with a flashlight and no one else is around, just a billion stars over head, that is pretty cool. That’s definitely adventure.”



    Date Taken: 07.22.2016
    Date Posted: 08.03.2016 12:37
    Story ID: 205947
    Location: PALMER, AK, US 
    Hometown: PALMER, AK, US

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