San Diego, CA

Their son went jogging and drowned in a California park, now his family is building a bridge in his name

Jano le Roux

Max Lenail jogged towards the San Diego River in the local Mission Trails Regional Park on the last day of his life. According to family members, the 21-year-run old’s on Jan. 29 was part of his training for an ultramarathon with his brother, and he had plans with friends to leave on a climbing expedition in Joshua Tree National Park that evening. Lenail was a serious climber who had previously climbed with Alex Honnold and was in outstanding physical shape.

An atmospheric river dumped more than an inch of rain over the region the night before Lenail’s race, and a flash flood watch was issued for San Diego County’s inland valleys, mountains, and coastal areas on Friday. As a result, when Lenail arrived at the San Diego River about 2 p.m. that day, the water level was almost certainly very high.

Because plans for a bridge across the river had been on hold for more than a decade, Lenail had only two options: cross the perilous river and jog for another 10 minutes to complete his planned loop, or backtrack upwards of 5 kilometers to reach his car. He’d miss the river but have to climb another 2,000 feet in a hailstorm.

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Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

Lenail elected to cross the river, but he never returned to his car.

According to his parents, Lenail aspired to be a doctor and spend his life helping others. He had planned to graduate with a degree in neurobiology from Brown University this semester. He was interested in plant-based cookery and sustainable farming. He was a huge fan of photography. He had mastered the art of glass blowing.

When Lenail parked at the Mission Trails Visitor Center and began his run that morning, the weather had been clear and cooperative. However, as he approached the final section of the 6-mile loop, a hailstorm began to fall. As the storm approached, Lenail narrated in a cellphone video, “It’s a moody day.”

Soon later, Lenail arrived at Jackson Crossing, a collection of stones in the San Diego River on the trail. It’s marked as “seasonal” on park maps, and hikers and cyclists are welcome (but not horses). According to local guidebook author Scott Turner, this portion of the trail has become a popular river crossing.

Max’s three roommates sent him a flurry of panicked text messages when he didn’t arrive home that evening. Max had still not responded as midnight approached. Ben Lenail and Laurie Yoler, his parents, were approached by his friends. The couple resides in Palo Alto, where they instilled a love of the outdoors in their two sons by taking them hiking and camping every summer and encouraged Lenail to construct a climbing wall in the backyard.

Hikers discovered Lenail’s body near a park waterfall about 2 p.m. that day, in what Yoler characterizes as “every parent’s worst nightmare.” Friends and family members were devastated. Ben Lenail wrote on Facebook, “With unspeakable grief, I must report that our beloved Max is dead.” “We are grateful to God for loaning him to us for 21 years, as cruel as his death is.”

Lenail’s parents discovered that a bridge across this section of river is actually built into the Mission Trail Regional Park’s Master Plan after conducting some research on the park’s history and design. According to reports, negotiations on a bridge began in 2010 at local committee meetings and in less formal venues.

According to a statement from the city of San Diego, the project has been stalled for the past decade owing to a lack of finance, arguments over whether the bridge should be for walkers or vehicles (or both), and potential environmental implications. According to local officials, there is no established schedule for bridge-building. Meanwhile, the park opened a new ranger station in February that cost more than $6 million.

The Mission Trails Regional Park Task Force unanimously authorized the Max Lenail Memorial Bridge on Thursday, May 20, and his parents tell reporters that they are “ecstatic that it got approved.” Ben Lenail says the current intentions are to keep the project within $2 million and to open to the public by March 26, 2023, which would have been their son’s 26th birthday.

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