If you’re an ultrarunner or aspire to be one, Halloween likely evokes thoughts of the Javelina Jundred (JJ100) out in the Sonoran Desert, in Fountain Hills, Arizona, where for the last 14 years the best costumed trail-run party in the nation has occurred. Howling coyotes, baby tarantulas, and rattlesnakes come out for the celebration, but mostly, it is the 600+ runners that one encounters out on the course – and decked out in costumes ranging from Spider Man, to Beer Man, to the Big Bad Wolf Lady, intercepting with them makes for a creepy night in the desert!
Aravaipa Running, the mastermind behind the 100-mile and 100K trail party, mapped out a new course for 2016, so that runners faced loops of approximately 20 miles on rolling single track, with a backdrop of reaching Saguaro Cactus, granite boulders, and dry wash-beds, mostly following the Pemberton Trail in the scenic McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The sandy and rocky trail consists of sweeping climbs, dips, and twists and turns, with the challenge culminating as the race persists: simple climbs become monumental sometime during the third or fourth loop, when runner’s legs begin to fatigue.
With four aid stations per loop—think pit-stops to help you refuel and re-energize—just when you think you cannot go on, there’s happy, smiling faces cheering you forward, helping you to refill your water bottles, grab some food, and get you back on the course. The race staff and volunteers are nothing short of extraordinary at this event—whatever you need, they are there to help you. Javelina’s unique washing-machine style loops (runners reverse direction after each lap) enable runners of all levels to watch the race unfold, offer “good job” to one another, and serves as a great reminder to speed up when you see fellow runners already out on their next loop!
This year’s record temperatures of 102 degrees out in the desert didn’t hold back elite runner Zach Bitter, who went on to set a course record, blazing the 100 miles in a speedy 13:30:28. To put that in perspective, it is roughly eight minutes per mile. “My goal was to run a strong race and manage the hot temperatures,” said Bitter, who noted that his race went as well as could be expected on a day where temps reached triple digits. “My main goal for the day was to acquire a Western States Qualifier, but I wasn’t going to hold back if my legs felt good.” Bitter ran a solid time, setting a new course record by over 15 minutes. There was also a course record set for the 100K race by Courtney Dauwalter, in 8:48:45.
According to the results, though, not everyone fared so well. Of the 530 runners that started the 100-mile race, only 286 finished, for a 54% finisher rate. For the 100K, out of 185 starters, there were 127 finishers, for a 68.6% finisher rate.
The Allure of Ultrarunning: A Personal Perspective
My relationship with JJ100 spans five years. It was in 2011, nearly six months after losing my mom to Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), that I toed the line at my first ever 100-mile race at Javelina. My dad was there with me, and we had no idea what we were in for in terms of pain, emotions, and the grit that crossing the finish entailed. That year a monsoon hit in the evening, and as one runner after another dropped out, I battled my way through 100 miles of trail heaven and often hell, to complete my first 100-mile race. I laughed, cried, spoke to my mom amidst the dips and peaks of the course, and made some new friends, too. I let strangers take care of me, and when I lost my way more than once through the torrential night, I crouched alongside colossal cacti until runners appeared and I followed in their footsteps. JJ100 holds a special place in my life, and for the past four years, each time I am out in that desert, I feel a kinship to my mom that I don’t always experience in my daily life. There is something to the vastness of that sky and those looming mountains that enable me to tap into the eternal nature of our connections and remind me of the tremendous opportunities we possess.
It was after completing my second JJ100 that I learned about the five-time finisher’s jacket, which required a racer to put in 500 miles out in the Sonoran Desert. While I am not sentimental when it comes to race memorabilia, a what if was planted. What would it require for me to be trained and up for running JJ100 five years to acquire that coveted five-time finisher jacket? With twenty-five races of 100 miles or more under my belt, I was about to find out.
For 2016, instead of enlisting friends and family on my JJ100 journey, I chose a different route: I flew out to Arizona alone, camped out at Javelina Jeadquarters Friday night, where a magical tent camp existed under a star-dazzled sky, and when Saturday morning came, although I knew tons of other runners—part of the magic of the JJ100 party—I lined up alone at the start line to run my own race. My desire to run was not about anyone or anything, but miles out in the desert, on a course that enables me to connect with my higher self. As I had run another 100 miler two weeks back, my physical and emotional exhaustion was palpable—I could almost hear my mom asking me, “do you really need to be doing this?”—but something inside of me propelled me forward. “Yes,” I was able to say. “I need to be here,” although I wasn’t sure why just yet.
What I Thought About While I Ran
During the first five miles as the pack of runners bottlenecked on the single-track trail, my thoughts went to quitting. To calling it a day. The dust was suffocating me, people were way too happy, and I didn’t have the mental energy I needed. I knew that right away. Bad idea loomed above me, like a cloud I couldn’t shake. But as daybreak materialized and we arrived at the first aid station – Coyote Camp—I shifted. There were the usual miracle workers at the aid station which lifted my spirits, but beyond that, I was back in familiar territory, and the course cast its spell on me. The silence of it, the poetry of seeing fellow runners climbing and cascading in the distance inspired me. Although the course is reminiscent of a waste land in many areas with its desolate clay and rock-filled trail, the juxtaposition of its majestic vistas transcend me in some way, making me feel as if I am part of something so much larger than my little life.
As I navigated that first loop, the sun beginning to scorch the desert, I thought about what I have learned by enduring long races. They have taught me humility, and faith, and often, patience, with myself, and with the process of living. Races, by nature, accentuate the need to keep going, to keep pushing forward. They are perseverance in motion. Often, after some ten or so hours into a race, I day dream about stopping, and how great it will be to eventually lounge around and not have to rush. As the miles accumulate, I anticipate being done, but I also appreciate that it is never going to be over—that we never really stop, regardless of crossing that finish line.
When nightfall set in, the cool desert breeze was a welcomed distraction from the monotony of motion. As 10 p.m. arrived, then midnight, there were moments of confusion and exhaustion. Sometimes my eyes shut as I pushed forward, popping open when I hit a rock or stumbled on the path. Most runners around me were out on the course with their pacers and friends. I was okay to be alone. Sometimes misery loves company, but other times, it craves to find its own way. The coyotes howled from sundown till after sunrise, and often, their cries sounded like laughter, like clapping, like community. As I approached Jackass Junction, the mid-course aid station otherwise known as disco party-central through the night, runners were resting in the makeshift infirmary, while others were busy dancing. I grabbed what had become my staples throughout the day: some M&M’s, a piece of watermelon, a few potato chips. Every ultrarunner has their own relationship with food as a race wears on. For me, less is often more. I was grateful that daylight was only a few hours away.
By my fifth loop, some 80 miles in, I knew that the worst was over, and anticipated that I was going to finish. I just hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to accomplish the final 20 miles that would lead me across the finish line. Twenty miles in the desert can feel like 200 when you are depleted and in search of a reason to keep going. People tend to inquire about the physical demands of ultrarunning, but to me, it’s more of a mental battle. Your body somehow figures it out—it keeps moving long after it seems possible. It is hard, though, to be stuck in your head for so long. After a while, your mind loses its way and creates lopsided stories. And yet, if you can remind yourself of some distant why, and keep leading your mind back, seek stillness in the movement, there’s the possibility of growth and understanding. With the endless highs and lows, the feelings of desperation followed by euphoria, there is an intimacy that running long and far instigates: an opportunity to explore and examine yourself, if you so choose. As I plodded on, it was clear to me why I was out there: because being so far away from my everyday life often helps me to find my way back to my everyday life.
The Finish Line
About three miles out from the finish line, I moved past the pack I had been with, and the tears rose up in me. I cried because I found that something within me which battles out the good and the bad and finds a way to survive and exist. I cried because in the end, it is a process: one foot in front of the other. I cried because sometimes our memorable experiences occur during our solitary journeys, and as much as we want to share them with others, words diminish them. I cried because loss is real and permanent and so much has occurred in my life since my mom departed. I cried because I was going to cross that finish line, and just then, I had forgotten the struggles it took to get me to that then and there of my life. Perhaps that is the greatest learning of all –that no matter how hard or impossible it may seem, beyond our pain and fear and excuses, lives the next chapter of our lives. It’s usually just a few more steps forward for us to arrive.