Chapter 4: Meaning
With her calf swelling and turning more blue by the minute, DeAnna kept pushing me to go ahead, but I felt uneasy leaving her with her injury, at least until we got closer to the Sedona aid station. There, I knew our son Walker would have joined Chris, to support us for the last two days. And I knew he would take care of his mom. 25-year old Walker is an experienced runner. Sub two-minute high school 800 meters, 2x Boston Marathon, 4th@Catalina 50 (in seven hours) and a SB Nine Trails under his belt. He had also paced me from Foresthill in my 2018 Western States 100 finish.
When I was about 3-4 miles from the Sedona aid stations we agreed that I would go ahead and take some time at the aid station and that depending on her pace we would probably see each other as she was arriving at the station and I was departing. Being forced to take it easy for DeAnna through the heat of Sedona turned out to be an unplanned benefit. I ran hard those last four miles into Sedona, passing six people in that stretch.
When I arrived at the Sedona Aid station (mile 145), I was greeted by the live video feed and did a little interview, a cool feature of Cocodona. So many friends were following the race and saw it, and it was neat to go back to the YouTube archives later to watch.
I put down yet another plate of pancakes, eggs & bacon while Chris got my pack refilled. Unfortunately Walker had not arrived yet but he was on the way. I gave Chris strict instructions that it was all about the Queen (our running nickname for DeAnna). We threw night gear in my pack and extra food and I headed out: I had hoped I would see DeAnna coming on the out and back section into the aid station, but I did not which meant she had really slowed down.
From Sedona the next section to Schnelby Hill was a long 16.8 mile section including a river crossing and a big climb up Casner Canyon to the Coconino Plateau.
As I made my way out of Sedona toward Schnelby Hill, the heat was oppressive and I was feeling it. By now, after every aid station it would take me a while to warm back up. My heels/achilles were throbbing from the chronic tendonitis I’d been barely managing in training.
Meanwhile, DeAnna got to the Sedona aid station and slept for 30 minutes, and when she woke up, her parents and Walker were there. By then, her whole lower leg was swollen and black and blue. They took a picture of it and sent it to Coach Yoda. Looking at the photos, Mike was pretty certain DeAnna had torn her calf, but told Mike she still wanted to continue her race if she didn’t risk doing permanent damage to herself. Mike gave her the thumbs up. Chris had bought her a compression sock to quell the swelling, and she and Walker headed out of Sedona with hope. And worst case: DeAnna would get some time with her son on the trail.
After another beautiful section of Sedona trails, I came upon the Schnelby Bridge, and crossed under it toward the river. I’d looked forward to running along Oak Creek, thinking it would be cooler near the water, but it wasn’t. In fact, it felt suffocating, there was no breeze at all. As I approached the creek crossing, I decided to cross barefoot over the slippery rocks (to avoid wet shoes and likely blisters) and after I made it across, a runner, Amy Gordon and her pacer Becky Bates, made their way across the creek too. Becky asked me if I was in the race. “You look too happy to be in it,” she said. Her comment meant a lot because it reminded me how much I love running long, the wilderness, the challenge, and it also confirmed that I was feeling good enough to appear, at least to Becky Bates, happy, over 150 miles into the race. Further up the trail, Amy and Becky passed me on the climb up Casner Canyon like I was standing still. I guess Amy was doing all right, too.
Climbing up Casner Canyon starts as a gradual ascent, but the heat was stifling, and when I found shade, I took a break to rest and drink. As I got into the steeper section, I pushed for three to five minutes, and when I found a comfortable rock, I’d sit and collect myself. The views back to Sedona were stellar and the red rock monoliths seemed other worldly. Wes Plate caught up to me. A vigorous climber, he paced me the rest of the way to the top.
Darkness was setting in, and so was the accumulation of almost no sleep after sixty-something hours, 165 miles or so in. As I came around a bend in the narrow trail, I saw a young girl, as clear as I could tell, waiting for a school bus, despite the fact that it was impossible for any bus or car to make it down the skinny trail. As I approached her to ask her her name, the girl came into focus and she - it - turned out to be an electrical utility box. I’ve taken myself to the hallucination stage a few times in my ultra career, but day two at Cocodona was pretty crazy. And despite the fact that this was my first time on these trails, I kept having moments of de ja vu, jarring and confusing hallucinations of their own kind.
Schnelby Hill Road was a long, false flat and a real grinder, so I was glad when Wes caught back up to me. He asked if I could help him do a quad leg stretch, which loosened him up, and then me. We finished off that section together and entered the loneliest, quietest aid station ever. I ate quesadillas and had broth and COFFEE!!!! Boy did I need the Coffee. I didn’t stay at this aid station very long and so said goodbye to Wes.
(Note: I later heard that just four weeks after Cocondona, Wes pounded out the Tahoe 200. Incredible.)
After that station I caught up to Amy and pacer Becky again and ran several miles with them.We talked about the races we love, the ones that still had that old-school, grass-roots, community feel and had not become overly commercialized. I took notes on the races they loved and shared my favorites, such as the HURT100, the High Lonesome 100, and Cascade Crest 100.
Running ultras you have lots of ups and downs, and that point, nearly 165 miles into the race, I was having a resurgence - a runner’s high - which lasted for most of the rest of the race. I finished the last several miles into Munds Park by myself and ran most of it at a pretty good clip since it was a slight descent. During that stretch I passed a few people, which always gives me a lift.
At Munds (mile 171), they added a 16 mile out-and-back to make up for lost mileage due to the fire that caused a course change. Chris had set up at Munds with the van, and I ate pancakes and eggs again and took a 15 minute nap. He gave a report on DeAnna and Walker and DeAnna was still moving and feeling okay. Chris paced me on the out and back and that was a godsend. I needed to tune out a bit and not have to worry about course markers. Despite being just 24-years old, Chris has an old soul, and we had some great conversations as we made our way out to the turnaround point. I was surprised during the out and back to see Dom Grossman and then Eric Senseman, legends in the ultra world. Sure, they were several hours ahead of me, but the fact that I was even near them at that stage of the race was pretty encouraging, even if it was just a training run for these guys.
The turnaround point of the out-and-back where you punch your ticket to prove you made it all the way came much later than Chris and I (and our GPS’s) anticipated. That was a bit of a head game, so quite good when we finally made it to the turnaround, even though running back the way we’d just come would be a grind. Ten miles into the sixteen-plus mile section, I was dragging, and hallucinating again. This time, two guard dogs sprinting toward the property line of a field bordering on the trail turned out to be two burnt out logs. Chris brought some Mott’s fruit chews and talked me into eating a bag of them. For context, I’m a low carb guy. Even went Keto for a few years, but then moved to a more fat adapted but strategic carb protocol. The main reason was that I found the higher fat diet reduced the impact on my surgically created J Pouch and limited the number of times I needed take a crap on runs. Taking a crap every hour or so really costs you time. After several years of this, I’ve found that I can use carbs strategically before big climbs or on more intense workouts and they feel like performance enhancing drugs must feel. And the more simple the carb the better, because they have no fiber and so there’s less output. As an example, for a hundred mile race, I typically don’t drink Coke or ginger ale until the last 20 miles. So I took that first Motts chews and it was like rocket fuel. Downed the whole bag. Then for the next 6 miles if Chris felt I was slowing, he’d force another bag on me. So simple, right? Fuel level drops to empty, throw some more fuel in! About a mile or so from Munds (mile 186), we saw a sight for sore eyes! DeAnna and Walker starting their way to the Munds out-and-back. A quick kiss and we kept moving. DeAnna and Walker had smiles on their faces and seemed to be enjoying their time together. DeAnna was limping pretty badly, but I could see she still seemed determined to finish her race.
Arriving at Munds, I told Chris I wanted another eggs, pancakes and bacon plate. He and the aid station grill guy delivered and I hammered it down and took another fifteen minute nap. I didn’t know it until later, but at Schnelby, I was in 42th place overall, but as I left Munds, I had moved to 33rd place.
I set off alone for an 18 mile trek to Kelly Canyon in what I knew would be a long, hot slog where my mind flowed into a stream of consciousness. It started on paved roads through neighborhoods, with kids out playing, and past a golf course, folks having a good time socializing, swinging clubs, sipping coffee, and the effect it had on me was to snatch me out of the narrow, single-minded head space I usually occupy during races and drop me back into the normal world. The people went about their lives while I was hallucinating and having conversations with God, and let’s face it, suffering my butt off. Which made me ask myself as my consciousness streamed, why do I do this?
I already talked about the reasons why I love running long. But there’s more to it. Some folks spend days and weeks at silent meditation retreats, disappear into monasteries, or fast for days as a way to reflect, gain clarity, or even make self discoveries that heal them and alter their lives. They’re seeking something. So am I and I find it by running long. The solitude, the deep-in-your-own-head escape, the time interacting with nature and the metaphysical; having nature point to the Creator, the spiritual, the deep connection with the Holy Spirit and talking to God and asking Him big questions. What gives life meaning? And during Cocodona, what gives life enough meaning to make it worth risking your life for? Running long is not the answer to those questions; it’s the vehicle I take that deepens my connection and conversations with God. During Cocodona, I came away with a renewed sense that contrary to the ethos of our current, self-interested culture, my belief is that I am not my own authority. I answer to a higher power. And if that’s so (and it is for me) do I live like I actually believe that? Or have I put myself on the throne of my own life. In other words, am I a poser? Should personal, self-directed happiness be my goal? And in fact, one question I pondered for miles was, is happiness really what it’s cracked up to be? Is it just another disposable product being marketed to us, a short-term high, like a drug that once it wears off leaves you feeling low? And doesn’t it subvert what’s really important, what only comes from earning it: long-lasting joy?
Running long is an excellent metaphor for those truths. Because to run a 250 mile race, or a 50k even, you have to suffer during the months of training just to get to point where you can attempt the race. And along the way, during the suffering, you must make hundreds of small choices that are antithetical to happiness to gain the endurance, experience, and resilience needed to get you to the joy that is the finish line. That’s what the buckle’s about. It’s not a brag; it’s a badge of joy. Sure, DeAnna and I love training together, it makes us happy every time we’re out in the mountains, crossing streams, among the trees, but we wouldn’t have finished a single race if we hadn’t given up short term happiness for long-term joy. But it’s worth it.
Chapter 5: Closing Cocodona
Those thoughts streamed their way through my consciousness during that 18-mile stretch to Kelly Canyon which took me about six hours, during which I only saw one other runner, a women who was sitting with her pacer on the trail. She was having heat-related distress. She said she was dehydrated, and short on water. I had plenty of water, so I topped off her bottles and said, “I’m not a doctor, but Tylenol can reduce a fever,” and I offered her one. Turns out the woman in distress was a doctor and she accepted the Tylenol (though I’m not sure if she took it.) But spending those few moments with the woman, seeing that she was in the midst of that familiar suffering all runners suffer, hoping she can turn things around as I knew DeAnna was hoping to, and achieve that joyful finish.
(Note: Doctor Ultra (my nickname for her) rebounded and got her buckle of joy.)
This Munds to Kelly Canyon section was a real, hot, grind. But getting into my own head made me calm and the heat was just background noise. I found the zone and trudged along. A mix of speed hiking and jogging the short downhills worked well for me. I had several flashes of deja vu all over again, and thought I’d circled back on already-passed parts of the trail, but my tired brain was just playing tricks again.
Getting to the aid station at Kelly Canyon at mile 205 was a huge relief. I ate some cookies, then was cared for by a woman with a solid set of tattoos, and she was awesome. I only spent seven minutes at the station and walked out with a handful of banana slices. The next stretch would be to Fort Tuthill which was probably my favorite aid station. On the nine miles to Tuthill, I spent a few miles with a young, nice guy named Mark Difalco who works in a Tucson rehab facility. During the few minutes I talked to him I knew he had picked the right profession. I could see him being good at helping folks through addiction. Just a sweet and gentle spirit. Mark had a fast hike/run going and I couldn’t keep up with him despite wishing I could have talked to him some more.
(Note: I finished ahead of Mark, but only because he took more time to sleep or enjoyed the aid stations longer than me.)
The last few miles into Tuthill were up a freshly asphalted section of road. When I say fresh, I mean, like that very day they must have laid that asphalt down. You could feel the heat from it and there were spots where your shoes actually stuck on it. Chris met me at the entrance to the Tuthill area and we jogged to the indoor aid station. They had the camera rolling on the livestream broadcast when I told Chris, I thought I could make my goal of finishing in under a hundred hours, and by a fair amount. I also told him I was pumped to be beyond the 200 mile mark, and I was feeling springy and competitive.
The Squirrel's Nut Butter (SNB) team ran to the aid station at mile 214 and served me up a hot plate of pasta and sausage. Their founder, a super encouraging dude, Chris Thornley, was a great ambassador for his product. He and his wife Stacy had developed SNB to help their daughter, who had a skin issue. There is something to be said about a business built around a passion for helping people, most of the businesses that I started and run do the same, and I swore I’d never buy any other product that competed with SNB.
A few aid stations back, I’d told Chris about a craving I kept having, for a chocolate milkshake. Absurd right? Out in the middle of nowhere. But Chris took it upon himself to find one, from Freddies (I love Freddies!) and I downed all twenty ounces. Best shake ever. So needless to say - though I’m saying it now - I was jacked up after Tuthill and didn’t even bother to nap. In fact, for the rest of the race, I didn’t sleep another wink. I connected with my in-laws, restocked my pack and headed out at about 5:30PM for my final night of the race. Since I had been at Tuthill a little longer than most stations, my tender heels needed to get moving slowly again and it took a while for me to get full range of motion. About 1/2 mile out of the aid station, I came upon a family. The parents looked to be in their early 30’s, the kids elementary aged, and they had come to cheer on the runners, and as I ran by they yelled out my name. Turns out they tracked all the runners on the Cocodona webpage and saw I was from Santa Barbara where the couple had been married and lived until they relocated to Flagstaff. I chatted with them and they said that I was the first “old guy” they’d seen.
Since I had cell coverage, I called my youngest daughter, Rallie, and then my parents, Bill and Gayle, which lasted for thirty minutes, a blessed distraction. Like me, my mom said that she’d only slept a few hours during my race. She loves to track me during my long races. My parents are concerned about my health, heightened because they were at my side during my illness and surgeries.
After the phone calls, I was warmed up enough to start shuffling along on what was a pretty slow 15 miles between Tuthill and Walnut.
On the stretch to Walnut (mile 229), I had one of my scarier moments of the race. In the dark of night, I left the trail to relieve myself (#2) and when I returned to the trail I got turned around, unsure which way I was supposed to go. Even with the help of the mapping app, it still wasn’t clear, and there were no major milestones or landmarks for miles. I was tired and now more than a little concerned that I might have been adding mileage with every step rather than moving closer to the finish. I had no choice but to keep moving in the direction my gut thought was right. Twenty minutes later I was relieved to see from the map app that I’d gone in the right direction. From then on, when I had to “go” off trail, I laid my hiking poles on the trail with the pointy end aimed in the direction I needed to go.
After the phone calls, a couple of fast dirt naps and lots of potty breaks, it had taken me almost 6 hours to cover the 15 miles to Walnut (mile 229), just shy of midnight. It was there that I was greeted by Walker and Chris and learned that DeAnna’s Cocodona had ended at mile 200. She had courageously made it eighty five miles running on a torn calf, but she had been leaning to one side, and that threw her hip and back out. Had she continued on that way she risked long term damage. I know for certain she could have finished given the time buffer that she had, but at what cost? Ultimately, she was right to call it done and live to fight another day. She will take on and conquer Cocodona in 2023, I know that for sure.
Walker had been pacing DeAnna for around 60 miles and a full 24 hours straight, so he and Chris decided that Chris should pace me up Elden and to the finish line. Being a part-time resident of Flagstaff, Chris had done the Elden climb more than a dozen times and seemed to know every rock, crack and crevice on that hill. We left Walnut around midnight, and on our way up the hill a young guy came flying past us. So fast that I couldn’t believe he was in the race. At the top of Elden (mile 242), the sun was rising, the wind howling but it was absolutely beautiful, and I was smelling the barn, so the stoke was very high. We asked at the aid station if they had seen any other runners recently and they said, just that guy. They pointed to the young kid who’d flown by us up the hill. He was sitting with his eyes shut and a Modelo in his hand and an empty Modelo at his feet.
(Note: We didn’t see him again, but I did later confirm that he made it to the finish line later that day.)
Chris and I bombed down the descent from Elden, and I actually had a sub-ten-minute mile or two during the steeper first four miles of the final eight to the finish line. I was stoked that I could run that pace, and later on I found out that only five people in the race completed the Walnut-to-Elden section faster than I had.
One of my favorite movie lines comes from the film, “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Alec Baldwin plays “Blake,” the boss who’s trying to motivate his ragtag, undisciplined team of real estate salesmen, and he tells “Shelley Levene” (played masterfully by Jack Lemmon) that he doesn’t deserve to drink from the office coffee pot because he hasn’t closed a deal in a while. Baldwin barks at Levene as he pours his morning cup of Joe, “Put that coffee down. Coffee is for Closers only.” It’s cutthroat, bad managing, and just plain mean. But the part that resonates for me is that if I have the discipline in the first half of a race to hold back enough so that I can close and close strong, then I feel like I’ve earned my coffee. As I approached the end of the race, I did earn mine, passing three more runners in the final twenty-one miles (including the Modelo dude.)
Flagstaff never looked so good to me, and about a mile out from the finish line, a woman came running up next to me with her cellphone camera aimed my way. She was broadcasting the event’s live stream, and she did a short interview with me. With the camera pointed at me on live, no way I was going to walk to the finish line, and I was thankful for the gradual downhill and the euphoria that had been building.
I took a hard right down an alley to Historic Square and I saw the banner marking the finish line, but more importantly, I saw DeAnna, Walker, Roy and Linda waiting for me. I’d made it.
As I crossed the finish line, the countdown clock read, “Ninety-three hours, thirty-two minutes and nine seconds.” I had reached my goal which gave me a sense of relief, but also a kind of mourning, a sadness that the adventure was over. It’s an emotion I often have after long races. Like most good things, the journey toward the finish line, but not the line itself, is a big part of the joy.
I finished 28th overall (or 30th depending on whether you believe Ultrasignup or the Cocodona tracker) and was surprised to learn I was the first finisher over 50 years old.
Since the finishers were so spread out, the crew and family really got to celebrate the finish. Plenty of hugs, pictures, and a few more pancakes, and another cup of coffee. DeAnna had a few tears, but not because she didn’t finish her race; clearly it was joy for me because I had.