[Featured image: Overwhelmed with emotion at the finish line of the Javelina Jundred. Photo by the incomparable Howie Stern.]
A 100 mile trail race is much more than just the event itself. It’s a journey. It’s the decision to enter the event. It’s the long training process. It’s life that happens along the way. It’s the ups and downs of life that are encapsulated in the highs and lows of roughly a full day of non-stop movement on the trails. This is the story of my path to the finish line of the 2018 edition of the Javelina Jundred, a 100 mile trail race at McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Arizona. This was my third 100 mile race finish and, for a variety of reasons, perhaps my most challenging.
After my finish at the Chimera 100 in November 2017 ended a series of 100 mile race disappointments, I was determined to set upon a “revenge tour”, looking to complete races that I previously had not despite trying. I set my gaze upon the January 2019 HURT 100, as my attempt at the 2017 version ended at mile 40. That race has a lottery to determine the entrants. I was not selected, and was too far down the waitlist to possibly get in. Feeling the need to run a hundred in fall/winter 2018/2019, I assessed my available choices against my schedule. The Javelina Jundred was the only race I could get to work.
I was pretty familiar with Javelina. It is a big race, known for being very well-run, with a somewhat fast course and a unique Halloween party atmosphere. A significant number of my running friends have run the race. Many run it every year. I had not previously had much interest in it. My lack of interest was primarily because I prefer real mountain races with significant terrain, and generally don’t like races with large fields of runners and a lot of people on the course. I like more of a wilderness experience; a chance to explore a lot of rugged and beautiful terrain with the safety net and support of the race infrastructure, spending some trail time with old friends or new ones, and experiencing the challenge of finishing something so difficult. I’m not a runner that is particularly motivated by running itself, or running-based achievements, most of the time. It’s more of an extension of my life and interests as a biologist and naturalist.
With that in mind, I was somewhat hesitant about registering for the race. After I did, I laid out my training plan in a similar manner to Chimera. What was not expected (though welcome in the bigger scheme of things) was how busy I got at work, often working on projects that allowed no time for regular training at all, unless I wanted to sacrifice sleep, which would make my work incredibly difficult to do, and would also ultimately cause problems in training. I had a series of biological monitoring jobs, often working in the field from sunrise to sunset (with long drive times before and after), with weekend days often included. Sometimes, I would have a break of a couple days between those work outings, but I needed to catch up on other things.
In the end, I generally managed just 25-45 miles of running per week on most weeks. I did very little upper body strength training. I managed one four day stint a month before the race where I put in 60 miles. My original plan was 75-80 miles in my peak weeks. Nearly every run in my last couple of weeks felt bad. My legs felt flat. I did not come into the race with a good feeling about it. I was absolutely determined to succeed, I just was not confident I had properly prepared my body to get the job done.
The race is held at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, a natural area northeast of Phoenix, Arizona. The race is a series of five loops, with the first loop using a trail segment that makes it longer than 20 miles, and the remaining four using a different segment but all identical. Each loop is run in the opposite direction of the previous. The beginning and end of each loop passes through “Javelina Jeadquarters” and runners go through an area called “Tent City”, where runners can have a camping set-up or a personal aid/crewing station. The race also includes three aid stations on the course, with the biggest one, “Jackass Junction”, being roughly at the mid-point. We arrived at the park on Friday and established a campsite next to the course.
My wife, Emily, was my primary crew support and cheerleader. Literally. Many attendees dress up in Halloween costumes, and my wife wore a cheerleading outfit with “Go Marcus” on the front of it. She was also to pace me overnight on loop 4 (miles 60-80). Adjacent to us was the set-up for another friend running the race, McKinley Murphy, whose entourage included his girlfriend/ultrarunner Summer Wesson (also my wife’s best friend) and his parents. Their support also ended up being key for me.
Loop 1 (4 Hours and 12 Minutes)
I started in the second start wave of the race at 6:10 am, purposely toward the back of the corral as I wanted to go out conservatively. My goal was to try to be consistent. After toying around with a number of things during training, I settled on a one minute run/30 second walk scheme that is managed by my Garmin Fenix (vibrating at each interval). I wasn’t able to implement it for awhile, though, as the race quickly got onto fairly narrow singletrack trail and I was stuck behind a long conga line that was mostly walking, even on runnable terrain. My training pace was about 12:30, but I saw my in-race pace gradually slip to more than 16 minutes per mile at about two miles into the race. We finally switched onto a wider trail where passing was easier and things started to open up. I was finally free to manage my race how I wanted, and not feel dictated by what was in front of me or pressured by someone behind. My average pace started dropping.
As soon as I got that freedom, I noticed something highly significant: my legs felt “springy” and energetic for the first time in about a month. Running felt fluid and effortless. I felt strong on hikes. On the few steep uphills on the course, my breathing and heart rate barely budged. I took this as a fortuitous good sign. My negative thoughts about what may lie in wait for me during the race dissipated, and I started to enjoy touring this largely unfamiliar desert environment. The giant saguaros are kings of this landscape, with various other cacti, smaller trees like acacia, and a few small flowering plants. Curve-billed Trashers, Rock Wrens, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and Gila Woodpeckers made their presence known near the trail. Common Ravens watched, perched atop saguaros, perhaps curious what we were doing out there. I also got to enjoy some trail time and extended conversations with some of my friends from southern California who were also running the race.
The last trail section on this loop was only on this loop. It was rocky and exposed with a lot of climbing and descending. It was starting to get warm. I was glad we wouldn’t see that section again. I arrived at Javelina Jeadquarters 4 hours and 12 minutes after I started, feeling pretty good about things, and in no way cognizant of what was to come.
Loop 2 (5 Hours and 36 Minutes)
Loop 2 felt good at the start. For the first couple of miles, I kept up the alternating run and walk strategy that I used on Loop 1. It was maybe two miles in that the heat started to get noticeable. My legs started feeling heavier. While a lot of the opening of this section was very runnable but barely uphill “douche grade” (in ultrarunner vernacular) that I expected to walk/run on in this race, the grade started feeling like a climb up Everest to me. I started walking some steps during my running splits. I then started looking for strategies to mostly run when my watch said run, and walk when it said to walk. I ended up settling into counting 30 run steps, then 30 walk steps, then 30 run steps, etc. Of course, I hiked anything with a significant gradient, but what counted as significant changed as the race went on.
Per my plan, I still bypassed the first aid station. I had everything I needed, and things weren’t bad enough yet that I needed a rest or significant assistance. I thought I could work it all out while on the move. By the time I got to the mid-point at Jackass Junction, I was feeling pretty horrible. I was getting a lot of general muscle pain and fatigue, various sharp pains in my hips and feet that I wasn’t used to, and while I wasn’t losing my stomach yet, I no longer felt I could tolerate eating anything I wanted to. I sat at the aid station for a few, ate something or other, rehydrated a bit, sheltered from the sun, and then headed back out feeling a bit better.
Upon leaving that aid station is a short and steep climb, and it’s there that it instantly felt like everything was unraveling: the body aches, the intolerable heat and glare of the sun, the first feelings of nausea… it may be the worst I’ve felt with only 30 miles on my legs. From there it was a slow deterioration until I made it back to Jeadquarters at the end of Loop 2, a little over 40 miles into the race.
‘Hey, look! It’s Marcus in a zombie running costume!’ thought somebody, somewhere, probably.
When I got back to Emily, I told her she had a lot of work to do and that I would need to be there awhile. I needed to get a lot of things fixed to possibly continue onto Loop 3. McKinley’s family was kind enough to let us use their space, and I laid on their hammock/cot in the shade while Emily gave me a cold Guiness (something magical I discovered courtesy of Howie during Chimera last year) and a deep all-over massage, Summer helped ice me down, and McKinley’s dad got me a pepperoni pizza. These things brought me back to life. No, I didn’t feel as fresh as the start of the race, but certainly good enough to head out with hope instead of despair, and knowing that in 20 miles it would be dark and cool and my lovely wife would be my companion on the trail.
Loop 3 (6 Hours and 16 Minutes)
To be honest, I don’t remember much of Loop 3 (roughly miles 40-60). I started this loop just within the range of feeling I could continue on. That doesn’t mean I felt good. I didn’t. It was a struggle as my body deteriorated. I do remember the ecstasy of the sun disappearing behind the mountains, and that gave a huge psychological boost for a time. Every runner I came across was ecstatic and talking about it. I remember different groups of Coyotes howling near the trail. I remember a monstrous-looking moon rising in the east over the mountains. My stomach – almost always a problem in long races – eventually started to give up and solid food became nearly impossible to eat. I would start to try to push some to keep my pace up, then I’d feel nauseous, then I’d dry heave, feel better for a moment, then press on, and eventually repeat it all again. My main driving force was having my wife by my side after I returned.
Six hours and 16 minutes after I started the loop, I returned to Jeadquarters in the dark. Emily was ready to go. She gave me a bit of a massage, I had another Guiness and something to eat, and we headed back out onto the trails to tackle the night together.
Loop 4 (7 Hours and 9 Minutes)
It is entirely possible that having my wife with me was the only thing that kept me going on Loop 4. That said, I did insist she stay behind me (instead of the more common pacing from the front) because I knew how much time I had, and I wanted to push my progress as much as possible, but not overtax myself with too much effort as that made things worse. Especially my stomach. We made it to the Jackass Junction halfway point in a relatively slow time, but largely unscathed. I don’t recall how much time we spent there, nor how much I ate.
Between Jackass Junction and the next aid station is where things got bad. Shortly after passing a runner sleeping on the trail with her pacer watching over her, then another who was asleep on her feet and stumbling around, I started doing the same. In contrast to Chimera, where I never really got sleepy overnight, I completely lost my mind with exhaustion. I couldn’t run anymore. I started staggering from side to side. We were in a rocky section of trail, and every small rock became a serious obstacle. I was tripping. I could barely talk. Then, I violently puked along the trail. Repeatedly. That woke me up for a bit and things improved, but then it got bad again. My wife was concerned I’d fall into a cactus. The 5.6 miles between aid stations seemed like an eternity.
The aid station finally appeared in the distance and I told Emily that there was no stopping it: I was going to nap at the station. As we approached, I noticed a prop tent that was erected as a Halloween decoration. I took off my running vest, threw it inside, and plopped face down onto it. My head was next to a loudspeaker blasting music at levels likely unsafe for my hearing at that proximity but it did not matter whatsoever. It was as if I fell into a coma.
At some point, Emily shouting my name pierced the darkness in my head, and I awoke to see her standing there with coffee. She said she let me sleep 15 minutes. I sat in a sheltered area out of the wind with a blanket on and drank my coffee. My world and my race outlook had changed drastically for the better.
Loop 5 (5 Hours and 6 Minutes)
After a short bit of recovery time at Jeadquarters, I knew I needed to really move if I were going to get it done. And I was absolutely filled with determination to get it done. The end was in sight. While 20 miles is a long distance generally, in this case it is the last 20 of a 100 and a distance I run minimum on most weekend outings before doing other things. Mentally, it seems like nothing. Given my propensity to be able to get down calories and push well based on adrenaline after puking, I decided I was going to push my pace with every single ounce of determination I could dig out of me, even if my stomach started to go. I’d just make myself puke really quick and continue on. I did this once, about three miles in after the sun started rising, then never had to do it again. As the sun rose, so did my spirit. My legs seemed to loosen. A lot. I was able to actually run for extended periods. I switched off the buzzer on my watch and ran based on feel and terrain, taking my running stretches as far as possible, and just walking if I needed to. It worked. I was somehow able to maintain it through the majority of the loop, bypassing every aid station along the way (except for a quick water refill) and passing a lot of other runners in the process. It was a great feeling.
It was in the last two miles that a combination of the building heat and my extended effort came to a head and I was forced to back off. I walked most of it. I even paused for a moment to check out a Western Diamondback rattlesnake along the trail. As I rounded turns in the trail I kept expecting to see the marker for the turn-off to the finish, but it seemed to never appear, like so many false summits on an arduous mountain climb. I started talking to myself, telling myself this would all be over soon, and I needed to get it together to run it strong into the finish.
Eventually, finally, I found that trail junction. I ran the initial downhill stretch, and then hiked the short uphill toward the entrance to Jeadquarters. I saw the first crowds of people cheering and the emotions of finally getting to the end started to fill me, as they are now while writing this. Those emotions buoyed me to run hard, and I charged the long loop through the Tent City and across the finish line, where I nearly collapsed with emotion. These races strip everything from you, then make you whole again. I felt this race, this time, did so more than any other. Those tears were for a lot of things, only one of which was being a finisher.
It should be obvious here that I want to thank my wife, Emily, for being my “partner in crime”. We once said “‘til death to us part”, and that nearly happened here ( 🙂 ). Critically important was the support of Summer Wesson and McKinley Murphy’s parents. Howie Stern’s friendship and advice is always a welcome part of this. Also: FUMS. I also got great advice from Ken Lewis (who brought up this race while on a short visit to my house the same day I first looked at entering it), and Diana Treister. I enjoyed extended quality trail time with Naomi Ruiz and Stephanie Fraser. Tricia Strawn at Vision For Enrichment is my massage therapist, and is instrumental in keeping my body working. She does magic. If you’re an athlete in southern California and don’t have a massage therapist, you should. You should give her a call.
I know too many folks that I spent time and chatted with before, during, and after the race to name everyone. It all added to the enjoyment of the experience. Also, thanks to the volunteers and staff at Aravaipa Running for putting on a great event.
Now onto the Angeles Crest 100…