Petty Officer 3rd Class Craig Longobardi, who wrote this blog post for the Compass, traveled with Lt. Cmdr. Russell Merrick to the 2016 Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run that spans from Mount St. Helens in the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington to Randle, Washington. Longobardi and Merrick serve together at Coast Guard Sector North Bend in Oregon.
Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Craig Longobardi, Coast Guard Sector North Bend
There is more than 96,000 feet of elevation change, over 50,000 feet of ascent and 205.8 miles of trail awaiting competitors of the Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run. The views of misty mountains, volcanoes, lakes, streams, rivers and forests are astounding.
To call it just another marathon wouldn’t do it justice.
Runners must complete the race in 105 hours or less and any time a runner takes to rest counts toward their overall time. Although there are six sleep stations, some racers go the full run without sleep.
Coast Guardsman Lt. Cmdr. Russell Merrick, stationed in North Bend, Oregon, was one of those who chose to complete the race with no sleep.
The day of the run Merrick woke up at 5 a.m., and drove 2 ½ hours before spending the next nearly 105 hours running.
Merrick’s determination and drive allowed him to complete this event.
“I’m getting old in the tooth but I’ll still get out there and run stupid distances,” said the 38-year-old. “I’m not fast by any means, but I can set a comfortable pace and run all day. I’ve been able to get some of the young pups to come out and join me in lunch-time runs and for some trips to the mountains. It’s fun to get people out there to try things they might have initially thought were beyond their capabilities or out of their comfort zones.”
Originally from Rehoboth, Massachusetts, Merrick enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1996 when he was just 18.
“I joined because I wanted to help save people who were in distress,” Merrick said. “I was an EMT before joining so I had already experienced a taste of the lifestyle and wanted more.”
After joining Merrick became a flight mechanic. While stationed in Traverse City, Michigan, a chief petty officer who was a prior company commander at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May suggested he become a company commander.
Merrick told the chief that he wasn’t mean enough and couldn’t see himself yelling at the recruits.
“He said that’s exactly why you should go,” Merrick said. “It got my wheels turning. At the time we had a few young people who were less than spectacular performers. Instead of just complaining about them, I figured maybe I’d go try to make a difference.”
Following his stint as a company commander, Merrick was selected for Officer Candidate School in New London, Connecticut, and Naval Flight Training School in Pensacola, Florida, after that. He’s three classes away from completing his Master of Science in Aeronautics.
“If you showed the 18-year-old Russ Merrick all that he was going to learn in the upcoming years, he’d probably have had a heart attack,” Merrick said. “It’s all in how you approach the goals. As you master new skills you gain some confidence, which you can build upon through a lifetime. All those small achievements help foster that spirit that you can surpass your own personal limits and expand your comfort envelope. Sure, occasionally you do something and fail, so you get set back a bit. I think those events are good in life and teach you humility.”
The Bigfoot 200 had something to teach Merrick – never give up. To complete this run, he had to dig deep – real deep.
To complete the race in time, runners must make it to specified cut off points by a certain time.
Exhausted, in pain and delirious from sleep deprivation, Merrick didn’t make the 190-mile cutoff point in time and thought he wouldn’t be able to finish in time. He was crushed to get so far and not be able to complete his goal.
After I spoke to a medic to see if there was a way he would could finish, they allowed me and another runner, Justin McCuistion, to help him make it to the finish line if he could make the overall cut off time.
Merrick met McCuiston at one of the aid stations. McCuiston was supposed to pace someone, but they had dropped out of the event. Merrick welcomed him to run with him.
McCuiston was with him most of that night and early morning hours. That’s when I learned about what kind of shape he was in. I was told he was lying in the middle of the trail in the blazing sun. His broken down knees were locked and he had no desire to move. His blistered feet were extremely swollen from a size 9 shoe to a size 11.
In and out of hallucinations, Merrick had random thoughts between losing his job to people running him in circles, plotting and conspiring against him. He was in a deep, dark place not many people ever get to experience.
That’s when I knew it was time. I broke out Old Glory – the old red, white and blue.
I told him I brought it with me to a Mount Everest ultra marathon back in 2013.
Then I leaned over and whispered in his ear how this particular flag was flown at Pearl Harbor over the USS Arizona memorial. I reminded him of the pain and suffering others had gone through. Touching on his deep patriotic love for his country, I told him to think about what allows Old Glory to still fly.
Merrick said his patriotism is why he’s in the Coast Guard. Seeing the stars and stripes snapped his focus back and gave him the drive to pull himself from that dark place.
We kept the pace with Old Glory in front of him like a carrot on a stick. We made him chase us until he crossed the finish line!
He had a mere 33 minutes to spare.
Merrick sets an outstanding example of leadership and determination by not only challenging others, but encouraging others to challenge themselves.
During his 20 years of Coast Guard service Merrick has deployed to the Persian Gulf, circumnavigated the world and inspired countless shipmates.