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Cocodona 250 Race Recap

The race started off with a bang. Actually, I cannot remember if they actually just yelled, “Go.” 5:00 am in Black Canyon City, and the sun was threatening to rise, but I still opted to use a headlamp. I have learned to be a cautious starter in these long endeavors. So, I played it safe and slowly jogged along a couple of groups back from the leaders. My headlamp lit the way, and I focused on making deliberate steps to find some rhythm. Finding this rhythm and full immersement in an activity is why I have been so drawn to long races and adventures. But, Cocodona 250 would teach me a number of lessons.

Homemade Janji Race Kit
Homemade Janji Race Kit, this guy has no idea what is about to go down.

The Before

It was my third year doing Cocodona. I showed up with about 340 miles of racing to start the year. I had already foregone three full nights of sleep to start off 2023, but physically I felt great. Even with a few minor injuries creeping up through the first four months of the year, I was able to back off training almost completely in April to show up healthy. With lots of experience tackling long distances, I was confident in the race if I was healthy.

Ok ok, I felt healthy. I ran a lot. I had a weird training plan that peaked a month before the race. I was confident I could cover the miles. BUT, I was in a weird headspace. Ever since the John Muir Trail, I had been struggling with the start of races. The fresh memories of pushing through a couple of rough days and nights in the Sierra always took over. I managed this feeling pretty well through Across the Years “Last Person Standing” and Jackpot 48. But leading into Cocodona, a number of further stressors took over, and I could never find the visualization and acceptance of what was to come. The impacts of organizing tour dates for a movie, losing clients, and traveling way too much are just a few things that weighed on me. \

Memories of the first 33 miles kept me up at night. 2021 had been rough, and I remember how much the heat and climbing had impacted me. I kept slipping into this trap of telling myself that I was “bad at heat.” While I am not the best in the heat, this sort of attitude is something I am usually good at attacking and finding some string of positivity to lean on, but I just couldn’t find that mental and emotional confidence this year. I followed a strict sauna program, ran in the heat in New Mexico a week before the race, and even put in some hot treadmill miles to find confidence. But, these trepidations leading into Cocodona were only the beginnings.

The Race

Wet feet at mile 2

It was rolling hills on the Black Canyon Trail to start. Then at mile 2, we all had to get our feet wet. The Agua Fria had more water running in it than I had seen in May. So, to begin the most difficult 33 miles of the course, we had wet feet. My plan was to hold myself back and run smart. I just needed to survive the beginning. But, like so many of these long races, a number of people took off. I pushed pretty well, maybe even too well, as the day started to heat up.

<— *Wet Feet At Mile 2*

I chatted with the other runners, joking, and enjoying the sweeping views as we climbed into the Bradshaw Mountains. But, then my energy began to disappear. I knew this feeling, I have had it five distinct times before. If I didn’t act quickly I would start to suffer heat exhaustion. I layed in a scrap of shade and tried to let my racing heartbeat relax. Two minutes later, I got up and started uphill again. But, things were getting worse. I sat down again, and Sally McRae came by as I was a lump in the shade. She offered Tylenol and I took it while getting up to join her. Two minutes later, it all began.

I vomited everywhere, right in the middle of a story from Sally. The runner behind me laughed and offered me a piece of ginger. The puke was cartoonish, spraying liquid, and all the calories I had consumed all over the bushes near the trail. But, I took the ginger, thinking one piece would solve all my problems. I tried to stay with the witness to my puke, but my stomach soon turned again. More vomit. I was losing calories, water, and lots of energy. I sat down again and soon was face down in a pool of my own puke. It was a bad start to the race. Pete Kostelnik sat down to take a break to check if I was a runner or a corpse.

Not doing well on the climb

Not doing well on the climb

The puddle of puke pic

The puddle of puke pic

Laying down after the heat takes it toll

Laying down after the heat takes it toll

He left, and I slowly crawled onward. More puke, but more forward motion. It took me 10 hours and 25 minutes to cover the first 33 miles of the course. The leaders had done it in under 8 hours. But not only had I fallen way behind where I wanted to be, I had no calories, no hydration, and I couldn’t keep anything down. I tried soda at the aid station and then moved on down toward Crown King as quickly as I could. My crew would be there, and I could get this stupid shirt covered in vomit off. I was in 68th place.

The run to Crown King was eye-opening. I got to meet so many new and inspiring runners. I was not feeling great, but the stories were motivating. One runner had been a heroin addict turned sober badass ultrarunner. These stories are all over ultrarunning, and chatting with the other participants is one of my favorite ways to connect as an introvert.

I got to Crown King and didn’t want to eat anything. My crew tried to find things I was into, but I knew it would only come back up. I jogged off for the next 34 miles without crew. Climbing out of Crown King went pretty well and I even passed people on the downhill, but on the Sentinel Highway, I began to vomit again. These pukes were traumatizing. My whole body would seize, and I would fall to the ground dramatically. The heat had messed me up, and my body was off. I took a few breaks and really tried to focus on keeping my heart rate down, but nothing helped.

As it got dark I linked up with Elle Spacek, and we covered a few miles efficiently into Arrastra Creek Aid Station. I was dying. I sat in a chair and eventually laid down. I needed to get some water down at the very least. Between crew and friends, we had decided that I needed to be able to keep water down fairly immediately, or my race would be over. So, I took my time and managed to slowly hydrate while lying down. It was painful, but after 30 minutes, I needed to keep moving. Things would not keep improving by sitting.

The feeling didn’t improve, but I only puked once in the next section. Small sips of water stayed down, but I wasn’t adventurous enough to try food. So, I trekked on, under the power of water. I got to Camp Kipa late. Soda sounded good, and I wanted the caffeine in Coke. So I downed some, waited for a few minutes, and Mike McKnight walked out, then Pete Kostelnik. I expected them to be way ahead, but they both looked beat up by the race. With a little nudging, I convinced both of them to continue down the hill with me. Racing is fun because of the people, and when you get to run with the best, you have to take advantage. Mike was on the verge of calling his race, but I think the commraderie and the simple suggestion of running together really helped us all turn our races around and enjoy the next section. At Camp Kipa, I was in 72nd place. It had taken me 20 hours and 53 minutes to cover just 63 miles. That is not the time I expected or wanted.

We ran well and had fun together, despite a couple of wrong turns, and before long, we got to the first location we could have a pacer and only the second time in 71 miles that we had seen our crew. I did not want to waste much time. My body could handle liquids, and it was time to make up some of the awful first day. I ran with Julie for the 7-mile section, and we saw the sky turn from night to day. The birds chirped, and my pace quickened on the way into Prescott. It was the first time I actually thought I could turn this around and not simply death march my way to the finish.

In Prescott, I picked up Kyla. I grabbed a little food, but I didn’t trust it yet. I relied on a Sour Patch Kid or two at a time and a small sip of water. I needed to keep this stomach progress going and made the plan with my crew that I would try eating at the Fein Ranch Aid Station. In the early morning, I was able to run most of the miles through the Granite Dells and then hit a long expansive flat section across some hot fields. Kyla was a great pacer because she just filled me in on all the gossip about everything, while I simply tried to maintain a solid 10-11 minute mile. We had to cross the valley before ascending Mingus Mountain, and in the middle of it was the Fein Ranch aid station. I felt better than the moment the race started. I ate some eggs, and potatoes, and even tried a Floda—A flat soda from Satisfy. It was… fine.

My pure look of "Joy"

My pure look of “Joy” with Kyla

Zach joined me as we crossed Fein Ranch. There was no trail, and it was pure cross-country travel with eyes glued to the simple line in the GPS app. Zach kicked a cactus and had to de-shoe just to get the thorn out, but he soon caught back up. We made multiple zig-zagging wrong turns, but we finally joined a road and made it to the Mt. Mingus trailhead. This is where my climbing legs took over. I passed a number of people on the climb, and at the top, I jogged it into the Mingus Mountain aid station. I came into Mingus in 23rd place. I didn’t want anything other than a refill on my bottles and to keep going. So, to the amazement of my crew, it was only a couple-minute turnaround. Calvin joined me on the jog out, and we passed more people. The exhaustion of the puking and a sleepless night was wearing me down, but I still had a very comfortable downhill to lean into, and legs that felt strong.

Then in the middle of the section, just when I was finding my stride, I got a couple of texts that threw me. I was finally feeling immersed in the race, but then the whole world outside the race and the current stressors, and life situations presented themselves. There was a palpable shift from enjoyment to extreme stress and anxiety. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I could only dejectedly lumber on. I tried to talk to Calvin about everything, but I had lost it. I was exhausted, anxious, stressed, and defeated. It became a just hold-on situation. Luckily, there was no reason or need to stop, so despite feeling like complete $%&# and such an emotional shift, I was able to jog on and log some good miles into the Jerome aid station. I climbed up to 12th place. But, now, I didn’t even feel like I wanted to be out here. I was so stuck in my own head. The real world had poked its head into my race and all it took was a couple of texts at the least expected time to break me into a stressed and anxious frenzy. So, I had a beer in Jerome. I tried to treat it like a mental reset, change my clothes and compartmentalize mentally. But, I couldn’t.

Running through the rugged Granite Dells

Running through the rugged Granite Dells

Calvin jogged on with me as it turned to night on a heinous downhill cross-country section through cacti. Then he kicked a cactus, just like Zach had earlier. Just like my other pacer, Calvin sat down and took his shoe and sock off to try to pull out the needle. Luckily, I kicked no cacti throughout the race.

We jogged the series of trails and the road to Dead Horse State Park while calling his wife, and my good friend, Emily, just to get some positivite energy and try to get out of my mental funk. Night two had begun, and I had used so much energy on day 1 that it was catching up.

At Deadhorse State Park, I was eating enough for my sanity, but my crew also kept stuffing more into my pack. We had a disconnect about the amount of food I wanted to try to consume, and since I had a cautious stomach throughout the race, I probably ended up carrying lots of extra cumulative food weight. Instead of calories, I began using Red Bull for energy. My mental and emotional state was a wreck, but my body could still move. I jogged off with Zach and covered the first half of the section very quickly. And then, I shut down. I needed my first dirt nap and tried a five-minute one. It worked for a mile, but then I began to hallucinate.

Chicken feet were sticking out of the ground, and a pirate ship lay beached nearby. The hallucinations were hitting harder and sooner than any FKT or race in the past. Zach helped me press on and used all the right tricks.

“It is only a couple miles to the aid station,” he would tell me, but I continually met his ploy with doubt. It wasn’t that we were moving slowly, but inefficiently. I needed about 20 minutes of sleep badly. I jogged when I could but mostly stumbled along until we finally reached the aid station. I immediately crawled into the back of Kyla’s truck and passed out for 25 minutes.

Waking up, I was ready to go and jogged off with Kyla. Running still felt really good at mile 150. The sun rose as we came into Sedona for a quick stop. I ate multiple breakfast burritos and quickly pushed onward up a big hot climb out of Oak Creek. The heat didn’t hit as hard, and I passed a couple of runners on the climb. We ran fairly well into the aid station, but it was once again a frustrating morning. I was just so tired. The muscles felt good, but I was so depleted mentally and emotionally early in this race.

Sedona views from Cocodona

Sedona views from Cocodona

It was a very quick transition at Schnebly aid station, and I ran the 12 miles with Calvin to Munds Park. I could maintain an 11-12 minute mile and push it into the single digits on the downhill. Calvin is very fast and soon became a really fun pacer to try to push some quick miles with. I was over-wasting time at the aid station, so as quickly as I could fill my bottles and eat some food, I was off on a 21-mile section with Kyla. This was when things got even more weird.

Running into Munds Park with Calvin

Running into Munds Park with Calvin

I ran out of motivation. I didn’t stop jogging—because the pace felt automatic—but I began to mentally and emotionally break down. I was struggling to see the point of it all, the stress and anxiety of the day before, and the demoralizing start weighed heavily, and I just jogged along and treated Kyla as my therapist. But, we covered the miles fairly quickly despite not seeing a sole. This part of the race was especially difficult because after Schnebly Hill and through Fort Tuthill (33 miles) I had no contact with other runners. It felt like I was just out there running. The feel of the race had disappeared, and my mind drifted to stressors and problems that I could not solve while in the middle of a race. It was a battle, but we made it to Fort Tuthill.

Everything was stressing me out, and I was on edge. I was jumpy, and anxiety was nearing panic. I needed to get in front of this and eliminate any other triggers. Going into Fort Tuthill I told Kyla I really wanted to avoid the livestream and just try to hold it together. I didn’t want to say anything, and I just wanted to get in and get right back out. This is where she shined. She told the operator that I was not interested in being filmed, and I composed myself. Luckily, this was the aid station where I made up for many lost calories. I had two impossible burgers and slammed a Red Bull before jogging off with Calvin. The food helped, and my pace was in the 8-9 range for several miles. I was trying to make the final 38-mile push… and then BAM! Hallucinations hit hard. 

The cliff became a giant robot staring right at me, and I suddenly stopped and stared back. My eyesight got crazy, and everything began to bounce. This happened on the John Muir Trail, and it feels like a giant earthquake is happening. It is tough to stay upright and even more difficult to focus on where to step. I told Calvin I needed a nap, and a few minutes later, I was up and running again. But this time, after only a mile, the world went sideways, and I couldn’t see. My vision was deceptive. I could barely make out where I was or move forward. In fact, the tunnel of trees in Walnut Canyon was so strange I struggled to figure out which race I was even running. The last six miles were tortuous. I took another nap or two, but they had diminishing effects. With spurts of running and just trying to move forward, I finally made it to the Walnut Canyon aid station and passed out. I just needed 25 minutes, and then I slammed… another Red Bull and took off.

A dirt nap in Walnut Canyon as taken by Calvin

My dirt nap in Walnut Canyon as captured by Calvin

A couple of miles later, I realized that my crew had stuck enough quesadillas in my pack to fuel me for 100 miles, but I couldn’t blame them, I had eaten like a king at Fort Tuthill, and I had no requests or even words at Walnut Canyon, so I had plenty of nutrition for the last 21 miles.

There were two runners ahead of me, and I wanted to catch one of them. I was really excited about the Mt. Elden climb simply because I love climbing and especially on tired legs at the end of a race, it makes it such a fun challenge. Just a climb over 2k feet to end a race.

We crushed the climb, even with my road shoes on the snow, we were quick. Then the wall of wind hit. The road down was tough, but with a runnable grade, we took advantage, but it was so cold, yet my body temperature regulation was so broken that I decided against another layer. We hit Buffalo Park, and the true descent began. For the last couple of miles, I kept my pace in low 8s and finally felt a feeling of gratitude for my body. It had put up with all my feelings, anxiety, and mental woes to simply continue on forward. I passed one of the other runners right near the end and turned the whole thing around with a 6th place finish.

All the people that helped get me to the finish!

All the people that helped get me to the finish!

The Learning

This was a learning experience. At some point, I was going to learn that I simply cannot compartmentalize everything going into races over and over again. The three races this year took a toll on me mentally, and the stressors of life came in to haunt me emotionally at mile 115. The race was a battle, not against the other competitors, but against myself and the natural inclination to give up and sulk. But, I pushed on and learned that I can. I just hope I don’t have to do it like that again.

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