By Jeff Garmire
I ran Cocodona 250 last year with little idea what I was getting into. It was my third ultramarathon and much longer than my previous two. But, I had massive volume in my background and confidence from FKTs (Fastest Known Times) and many long days in the mountains. I finished and it went well considering I had no crew and only one pacer. This year I went back and did it differently and it was even more fun.
I wanted to have a good race and improve upon last year, but in March, I slipped on some ice while training in the mountains and ended up with an injury. Six weeks of physical therapy followed and the least amount of running I have done in years. My longest run leading up to Cocodona was seven miles. I only had to run 35 times further than my longest training run. But, despite the knee injury, the rest of my body felt fresh. I had a strange amount of confidence and a better idea of what to expect.
“My longest run leading up to Cocodona was seven miles. I only had to run 35 times further than my longest training run.”
Crew and pacers this year
My Aunt Kristen is newly retired. She and our friend Ginny went in together to buy a van. When I brought up the idea of Cocodona they were immediately interested. We got it on the calendar but they quickly realized how little planning I do. I tried my best to have a comprehensive email and a plan for the race, but it really is just not in my nature to fret over the details. They would meet me in Arizona and we could plan the entire race strategy the night before, or at least that is what I hoped to do.
I wanted to have pacers, but it is a strange thing to ask friends to take a week off of work and come run (at a very slow pace) with you through the desert. But, Cocodona sits right at the end of the Arizona Trail thru-hiking season and I targeted thru-hikers. Ari and Josh had just finished AZT thru-hikes and immediately signed on to pace me. Sydney was in Arizona visiting family and hiking a section of the AZT, and she was available to pace, too. I now had an awesome crew of five with the possibility of Bryce, my pacer from last year, joining me late in the race.
The night before I sat surrounded by a pile of items. It was a disorganized mess and I am sure it gave everyone anxiety. My Aunt said I wouldn't get dinner until she saw progress, in an attempt to motivate me. But, this was my first time doing something with a crew, and I simply did not know what I might want or need. Finally, I used my FKT approach and separated all the relevant items into ziplock bags. Foot care in one, medicine in another, and spare socks in another. The bin of random items quickly came together and it was the best I could do to set myself up for success.
A fire rerouted the course this year and changed the start time from 5 am to 10 am. It made the morning of the race a much more casual affair. I felt ready to go, with a strategy developed after seeing how last year’s race unfolded.
“The countdown began and we were off. I ran with the leaders for about a half mile before I realized this was not my pace, not my strategy, and a terrible idea.
The countdown began and we were off. I ran with the leaders for about a half mile before I realized this was not my pace, not my strategy, and a terrible idea. I fell back into my “forever pace” and let hordes of runners pass. It was demoralizing to quickly fall so far back in the pack, but I knew it would pay off if I could just stick to the plan.
It was a fast first day, but my patience paid off. By the time I got to Whiskey Row in Prescott, I had moved into the top ten. Josh joined me as a pacer and we stormed into the night. I had never met him before and the miles flew by as we got to know each other. He was a great pacer and kept the energy high, especially with his disco ball!
Ari paced me through the 100-mile mark and I was in 3rd place. Things were going well, I felt good despite being up for 36 hours. My crew was simply amazing and they did everything at the aid stations. And, getting to run with pacers was a very energizing experience. Sydney took me into the second night and exhaustion began to hit. A dirt nap didn’t suffice and I crawled in Kristen and Ginny’s van in Sedona to sleep for an hour. But, my good luck was over.
Immediately after waking up I walked outside and threw up. I am a puker, so it was not a foreign experience, but that does not make it pleasant. I collected myself and began the night with Ari. It was all downhill, while actually being uphill. We had a rough crossing at Oak Creek and then a long slow climb up Casner Canyon. I was running on fumes and vomiting frequently. Running was over, and I just tried to maintain a casual walking pace. I was passed multiple times on the climb, but there was still plenty of time to turn it around.
Coming into Munds Park at mile 171, my crew brought the energy. They had “Don’t Stop Believing” playing and we all belted out the lyrics. Before the race I had made sure everyone knew the goal was to have fun. The results would take care of themselves, but we all had to make a point to enjoy the experience. They did not disappoint. Everyone had animal print clothing ranging from dresses to oversized shirts. It paired well with my eccentric style and helped me stay positive in the toughest moments.
“Before the race I had made sure everyone knew the goal was to have fun. The results would take care of themselves, but we all had to make a point to enjoy the experience. They did not disappoint.”
The third day went well and the miles racked up quickly. My crew met all my needs and exceeded them by miles. They knew what I needed more than I did as my mental faculties degraded. But then the third night began.
With six miles to go to Fort Tuthill, my body began to fall apart. I could not speak in coherent sentences. The temperature dropped and my hip flexor screamed in pain. We didn’t have enough layers. I had on every layer possible and Sydney ingeniously wrapped herself up in two space blankets. It was a creative solution that only a thru-hiker could have concocted.
Then the flashing lights pulled behind us. Luckily, Sydney was able to explain to the Sheriff that we were in the middle of a 250-mile ultramarathon. With the law enforcement off my back, I stumbled into Fort Tuthill.
Sleep ate at the edges of my consciousness, but I did not want to sleep in the aid station. My friend Bryce was back to cover this stretch, much like last year, and getting out on the trail to Walnut Canyon was my priority. After only a few minutes at the aid station, we ran into the night. As the sun came up I started hallucinating. I described the strange man in a maroon hoodie that I saw running ahead of me and got a laugh out of Bryce. I have hallucinated from exhaustion so often that these strange sights are entertaining. At peak exhaustion, I took a final 10-minute nap on the pine needles, and then the push began.
“As the sun came up I started hallucinating. I described the strange man in a maroon hoodie that I saw running ahead of me and got a laugh out of Bryce. I have hallucinated from exhaustion so often that these strange sights are entertaining.”
I told Bryce to set an uncomfortable pace. The goal was to push to the finish. A couple of miles out from the final crew aid station I texted a list of instructions and when I arrived my crew set a record new bar with efficiency. Spoonfuls of food were thrust in front of me, electrolytes were handed to me, and my shoes were changed almost without me knowing. After only a couple of minutes, I was off to the final section with Ari.
With only 15 miles to go the crux of the whole course began. A massive climb up Mt. Elden started and I knew I could catch one of the runners ahead, so I pushed with an energy I didn’t know I had. Ari fell back, expecting to see me puking after the exertion, but I continued to run up the mountain. I grabbed water at the final aid station and sprinted the long descent to the finish line. With six miles to go, I caught the runner ahead of me and secured fifth place.
It took everything I had to get to the outskirts of Flagstaff, and with a mile to go my crew and pacers were there cheering. We went in together and crossed the finish line as a team. I cracked a beer and fell to the ground, completely spent. My team had helped me push far beyond what I thought I could do. They had made the experience more fun and embraced a selfless attitude I never could have predicted. It was so much fun that it was a letdown when it finally ended. On to next year!