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Training With The Coconino Cowboys

With rabbitPRO Eric Senseman just about finished up with his training for the Black Canyon 100k, a Western States 100 "golden ticket" race, curious rabbits wanted to know: what's it like to train for such a big race with some of the best ultrarunners in the world?

If a group of running friends in Flagstaff get together and give themselves a name, does anyone care? If one of the group members is Jim Walmsley and the group’s stated purpose is to win as many ultramarathons as possible, then some people do.

Coconino County, Arizona is the second-largest county in the United States. It contains parts of Sedona, the entire Grand Canyon, the largest sequential ponderosa pine forest in the country, and 12,633-foot Humphrey’s Peak, the state’s highest point. Flagstaff, the county’s seat, sits at 7,000 feet above sea level at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. Historic Route 66 runs straight through town, and so does a major railroad, and the resulting traffic has helped the small southwestern town boom for many decades. Coconino County is part of what constituted the American frontier, or the Wild West. This was cowboy country. Those cowboys were tough. They worked hard in remote and grueling conditions. Perhaps, with that history in mind, you can understand the motivations behind the name of the ultarunning group now known as the Coconino Cowboys.

Lately, the Coconino Cowboys have gotten a lot of attention. Five members of the group—myself included—are trying to race their way into the 2018 Western States 100 in the hopes of running from Squaw Valley to Auburn together. Some fellow competitors take the group lightheartedly; some seem to take umbrage with it. Other ultrarunners and fans of the sport seem motivated and entertained by the media buzz the group has created. But the Coconino Cowboys was never created for the media hype or the attention; the group and its members never intended to be the object of praise or disdain. The Coconino Cowboys, in its most fundamental essence, was formed to motivate a group of running friends to get better. How do you get better at running? You get tough. You work hard. You train in remote and grueling conditions. You become a lot like a cowboy.

To become the best that we possibly can, we each ask ourselves this: what can I do in training to arrive at the start line of my next race with the best chance of winning? The answer, and resulting training, differs for everybody. I work with some frequency and on the days that I do work, I find it best to run commute to and from the office. Training at the highest possible level requires a good deal of stress maintenance, and it can be very stressful, and tiring, to schedule a 20-mile training run on an 8- to 10-hour work day. On my days off, I use all of Coconino County and beyond to get fit. And when I get days off, I try to schedule runs with the rest of the group. We’ll drive north to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and embark on the 21-mile Cowboy Loop; we’ll head to the warmth of the Verde Valley for a 3- to 4-hour run on the Black Canyon Trail; we’ll dip down to Sedona and take on the 18-mile Three Pass Loop; we’ll stay in town and tackle a 15- or 20-mile loop around the San Francisco Peaks, put some speed in our legs on the rolling dirt roads around nearby A1 Mountain for a 21-mile lollipop route, or, when rest is required, we’ll run some miles on a flat, smooth loop in Buffalo Park.

The amount that we run varies, too. Some of us can consecutively clip off 140-mile weeks and still arrive at the start line fresh enough to run as fast as possible. In order to race the best that we can, some of us, like me, need a full 10-week training block totaling nearly a thousand miles; others can get their fittest, and arrive at the start line freshest, from 4 or 5 weeks of 90 to 100 miles per week. Some of us can successfully run 2 or 3 hard workouts in a week while others are better off with only one workout in a week. In short, we train hard but do it with forethought and purpose. We run together as much as possible to push one another, and to make the ensuing suffering more tolerable. We grab a few beers after a big run to get a few extra calories and have a laugh. Basically, we hang out a lot because we’re friends and we want the same thing: to become the best runners that we possibly can.

When you train with the Coconino Cowboys, you train to be your best. When I toe the start line at the Black Canyon 100k next month, I’ll do so with a purpose—to get into Western States—and with the support of an awesome group of people that have helped me get the most out of myself. Training with the Coconino Cowboys has taught me to believe that perceived limits can be broken, and that with hard work, distant hopes can turn into reality. 

Training like a Cowboy can change your perception of yourself and your limits. Find a group of like-minded runners in your local area, train hard but be smart, and find out for yourself.

Coconino Cowboys Makai Clemons, Tim Freriks, Jared Hazen, Tommy Rivers Puzey, Cody Reed, and Jim Walmsley, along with photographer Myke Hermsmeyer, contributed to this post.

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