Why I Ran 250 Miles (And Insufficient Explanations As To How)
You might wonder why anyone would want to run two hundred and fifty miles through the desert of Arizona in May. That is, you might wonder why anyone would ever want to run theCocodona 250. You’d be right to ask.
I didn’t start running long distances until I was eighteen years old. By that time, I was technically an adult, but I became engrossed with running, in part, because it made me feel like a kid. It felt mischievous in some way to take part in something that most of my peers dismissed; to purposefully pursue discomfort instead of seeking solace.
In college, I’d be enraptured by a fervor of anticipation as I brewed up plans to run at odd times. I’d hop fences and run on golf courses at night. I’d run several times throughout the day. I quickly became intrigued by longer and longer distances, each milestone more thrilling than the last: eight miles, then ten, then twelve, then twenty–all the way up to the marathon distance. There was something powerful and empowering about exploring increasingly longer routes. And there was something deeply fulfilling, and intellectually stimulating, about the process of first believing that I could go farther, and then actually completing a new-to-me distance. There is often a stark disconnect between thoughts and actions. We think things will turn out a certain way, we talk about how we will make them so, but the expected result never comes to fruition. In running, I found an intoxicatingly clear and unambiguous combination–a direct and immediate connection between theory and practice.
After college, I continued to chase longer distances: fifty kilometers, fifty miles, ninety kilometers, one hundred kilometers, one hundred miles. I wanted to run as fast as I could, too, and I trained feverishly to improve. It became a rhythmic cycle for years: three months of hard training, race, recovery, repeat. While it produced some unexpected and proud results over the years, it also became stale and, at times, uninspiring. I’d find myself asking: What’s the point? Too often, it seemed absurd. Albert Camus, inThe Myth of Sisyphus, does well to explain this phenomenon of questioning:
It happens that the stage set collapses. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm–this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.
Why we do things becomes especially important when the thing we’re doing is difficult. Running is a difficult thing, and long distance running especially so. It occurred to me recently that I had forgotten why I truly love to run–I lost the thread, so to speak. I got into the sport to explore what’s possible, to see how far I could travel by foot, to be, even if temporarily, unburdened by the demands of everyday life.
Why did I want to run the Cocodona 250? I thought I could, so I had to see if I could. I wanted to see, as I have so many times over the years, if my thoughts could still become reality. I wanted to see if I could cover 250 miles on foot.
It’s not uncommon to be reduced to impotence when confronted with a monumental task. When a task is large enough, it’s easy to be deterred by its sheer magnitude. It’s like a kitchen full of dirty dishes–the concept of getting the entire kitchen cleaned up might be so overwhelming that you can’t even start. I’ve often thought that ultrarunning is like that: When I consciously consider the entirety of an impending race, I’m terrified. When I’ve found some success in races, it’s in large part because I don’t think about the sum total of what’s before me. Instead, I break the race down into digestible segments that I can stomach. In shorter distance ultras, like, for example, fifty-mile races, I only consider the next aid station. When I focus solely on that, I get the most out of myself: I can run harder between two points when I’m only considering those two points, and not the many points beyond.
In preparing for the Cocodona 250, that same mental approach evolved further. I didn’t even break the race down into segments between aid stations. All I thought about was getting from one place on the map to the next: Prescott to Skull Valley to Whiskey Row to Mingus Mountain to the Verde River to Sedona to the Colorado Plateau to Fort Tuthill to Mt. Elden to Flagstaff. I tried not to think about the mileage or the terrain or anything else, except for eating and drinking and keeping the effort easy along the way.
This mental strategy proved largely advantageous, except when my mind wandered, and I abandoned this disciplined approach to consider how far I still had to go. I remember that happening for the first time on a lazy climb above Prescott around twenty-two miles into the race. I was reduced to a standstill, and then sat down on the side of the trail. Here I was, about four hours into the race, having completed less than ten percent of the distance, but still having covered twenty-two miles! My brain isn’t equipped to easily cope with such knowledge. I sat there, as the stage set collapsed, brooding heavily in that weariness tinged with amazement. How the hell could I continue for another two hundred and twenty-eight miles? Why should I continue? This was the first time I thought about dropping out of the race. I’ll drop at Skull Valley, mile thirty-seven, I thought. I’ll try this another time, I thought.
Then I stood up, and I continued–for another eighty-five hours.
I don’t know what the human spirit consists of, or if there even is such a thing, or what it even might consist of, but I do know that if it exists, it’s present in every competitor at an endurance event. I can’t otherwise explain how two hundred and twenty-six people began a 250-mile journey from Prescott to Flagstaff and one hundred and fifty-one finished. Because I have to assume that every single runner went through something similar to what I did, and it’s a testament to the human spirit–whatever that is–that so many people believed they could complete the journey, and that so many actually did. Perhaps the human spirit is best exemplified by the thing that has so fascinated me with running: The ability to turn transcendent thoughts into concrete reality.
There is a lot about the Cocodona 250 that I can’t recall. There are things I said and things I did, recounted to me after the fact, that have no place in my memory. But there are also things I recall vividly: The sun rising over Mingus Mountain on Tuesday morning and above Sedona on Wednesday morning; the cold rush of Oak Creek in the afternoon warmth; the back of the car where I slept more often than planned; the sharp pain of most every step each time I left an aid station in the second half of the race; a joyful team of crew members welcoming me to the last major aid station; hugging my wife after I crossed the finish line.
I wish I could depict each moment of the race in intense detail, but I lack the recollection in many cases, and the writing prowess in others. But I still don’t think I, myself, have fully absorbed the enormity of the task I completed. And, really, I’m not sure that I’ll ever fully digest or understand what I went through, or how I willed myself through it. Yet, even if I retained every memory, and my writing abilities improved, and I could intimately comprehend the enormity of covering 250 miles on foot and all that that entailed, I’m not sure that I could accurately disclose everything about the experience.
There are certain things in life, I think, that can only be experienced. Like the human spirit, they can be described but their essence can’t be properly captured by words alone. These experiences can be talked about, and reflected on, and viewed from every possible angle, but without the accompanying sensations and feelings, they can’t be perfectly understood. When thoughts finally do become reality, the words we use to describe the process begin to lose their meaning.
There are things, like the Cocodona 250, that can only be lived. While we live, let us live.
Photos by Stephen Kersh / rabbitwolf creative.