Modesto runner never lost hope of surviving after going missing on trail

04/02/2014 8:32 PM

04/03/2014 6:32 AM

Robert Root arrived back in Modesto on Wednesday, three days after he went missing on an 18-mile training run in Placer County. The 52-hour ordeal left scrapes on his arms and legs, but no major injuries. He said he was very tired, but wanted to hold an impromptu news conference to thank everyone.

“I want people to know I’m very grateful for all the people – the ones who prayed for me, searched for me, supported me,” he said. “I’m just shocked at how much effort went into it. I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart.”

The 55-year-old long-distance runner, who participated in the Modesto Marathon a week earlier, disappeared into the wilderness Sunday a short time after he left the trailhead in Michigan Bluff, a small mountain community near Foresthill. He said Wednesday that he was in the middle of the pack of two running groups and had passed one of the runners in the faster group. He decided to try to move ahead and catch up with the rest of them.

Instead, he took a wrong turn after crossing El Dorado Bridge. Root ended up off the trail and on some cliffs overlooking the American River; he spent two nights in the rain and cold weather until he found his way back to the bridge Tuesday.

Tracy Harbeck, his girlfriend, and Chad Johnson, president of Modesto’s ShadowChase Running Club, said they had begun to lose hope Tuesday morning that rescuers would find Root alive.

“We had a foot of snow (Tuesday). I was terrified,” Harbeck said. “It was a nightmare. I thought he was gone. Chad and I were just sitting around a table. Tears welled up in both our eyes. Then somebody got a call from someone, telling me to get down there; they had found something. But they didn’t tell me what.”

For his part, Root said he never lost hope.

“I wouldn’t let myself think I wasn’t going to make it,” he said. “I just decided I wasn’t going to die. The one thought I had was that if I had any control over it, I wasn’t going to let it take me.”

He said he made some mistakes, such as not turning around when he first realized he had lost the trail. He also didn’t take his usual equipment, such as a whistle and snakebite kit. He lost his cellphone early on, he said. “I probably wouldn’t have had cellphone reception, but I could have used the light” to see at night and, more important, try to attract rescuers.

Root said he expected to be found in a few hours. He stayed in an open area on the cliff with a gold-colored tech shirt and a headband across his lap to attract a possible sighting from a helicopter. He also yelled a lot.

“I did a lot of screaming and yelling to get someone’s attention,” he said with a grin. “But there was no one out there.”

After a second day, during which he accidentally walked in a circle, he said he concluded no one was going to find him and that it was up to him to find his way out.

“I just wanted to be home,” he said.

Rather than trying to get down to the river on the third day, he headed “up and to the left” and came upon a trail. He followed that back nearly to the bridge where he took the wrong turn, but came at it from the other direction.

“I saw some people in bright clothes and went up to them and said, ‘Hi,’ ” he said. “They asked, ‘Are you Bob Root?’ ”

Everyone was amazed that Root, clad only in running shorts, a lightweight windbreaker and running shoes, wasn’t suffering from frostbite or worse, as it had snowed about a foot from Monday afternoon through noon Tuesday. But Root said he wasn’t above the snowline when he was lost; his main trouble was lots of rain and the low temperature, which dropped over the two days.

The first thing he said he craved, after hugging his girlfriend, family members and close friends, was an In-N-Out burger.

“We always have those after a training run,” he laughed.

He said he will not go off on his own again. He’s also decided to take the Placer County sheriff’s advice and get a satellite locator for future runs.

As for those future runs, he said, he doesn’t think he’s going to go back to that particular trail anytime soon. In fact, he said, he’s likely taking a pass on the Canyon Run trail race in that area May 1.

“No,” he said emphatically.

Root said he’d rather keep to training runs in the Pleasanton and Livermore area: “Safe areas where you can run on the trails and not get lost.”

Mainly, he said, he’s just thankful to be home and overwhelmed by the officials and volunteers who hunted for him and cared for him on the mountain and in the hospital.

“They were wonderful,” he said.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service