Cocodona 250Jon Wolfinger
Cocodona 250 Race Report
Everyone has their own “why” when tackling such a massive endeavor. Why run/walk/hike/cry/hurt across 250 miles of Arizona?
I can’t remember where I heard it, but it stuck with me; to see what happens.
If you want the short version, here’s what happened; I realized at a new, deep and profound level I am known and loved. By God, through a whole host of wonderful people.
On my 36th birthday, I wanted to attempt 36 miles as a bit of a test, and on that day I received an email from the legendary Cocodona Race Director, Steve Aderholt confirming they would allow me entrance to the race with a charity bib, giving me the opportunity to raise funds for a wonderful organization in Prescott, Agape House, that serves and resources families with transitional housing.
I’d never attempted anything close to 250 miles. My ultra-racing experience totaled TWO events. The Whiskey Basin 91k (57miles) in 2019 and Black Canyon 100k (62miles) in 20202. I’ll be the first to admit, I have an overconfidence in my abilities and that can block out conventional wisdom. But I read, watched, and did research and it all seemed feasible.
A little over 6 months of training later, my family and I arrived at the starting line, jet lagged after returning from a 12 day trip to Europe just 60 hours earlier, having no clue what to expect for the next five days. My wife Karen was completely new to crewing at had the 3 mini Wolf boys in tow. I’d never gone beyond 62 miles. What came over the next 5 days wouldn’t disappoint.
A Calm Resolve - Day 1
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
After a chill send off with my family and our like-family friends, the Garcias, I attempted to temper my nervous excitement with a calm, present, resolve to “just be here” for the first section of the race. As the first miles ticked by, with all the angst and conversations (both internal and external) happening, I felt the need to try and get my head in the right space to reckon with the next 5 days. It was odd rolling through the hometown hills and neighborhoods, to be just a few miles from home with so many more to go.
I got to see fellow Prescott people Jason Baum and Carol Northrup at the first aid station and headed out with some Pringles and watermelon to consume on the way. A photographer snapped a pic with them in my mouth, and about 50 yards later, I inhaled a chunk of chip and almost choked.
The next section I encountered a sweet king snake, followed a couple hundred feet later by a runner frozen on the trail hesitantly pushing us back saying, “SNAKE” - We saw it was a friendly bull snake and went around.
Coming into White Rock proved to be the difference for the race. It was the first encounter with crew. I rolled up to one of my boys holding a sign “You’re not almost there…But you are loved!”
Karen, our boys, and my sister were there to help. Their questions and smiles were so encouraging and proved to be a difference-maker throughout the race.
I would see them next at Skull Valley (Mile 36.5) after sharing some miles with Jason and Carol and getting one of the tastiest bacon cheeseburgers I’ve every had (thanks to James Nalley, Tracy Evans and the team down there). I was due for a little bit of foot care and a sock swap, and Karen was on it, though having never done it. A picture of love.
As I climbed back up the hill solo with the sun setting, I was overcome with a sense of awe and gratitude. Who gets to do this?! Through the support of a bunch of friends and family, I do, and it’s a privilege that I wouldn’t take for granted.
That evening I was wondering what the best sleep strategy would be. At times I was feeling great…So good I was running hard down some hills until my right hip started talking to me (rookie mistake). I was tempted to press past Whiskey Row to sleep later, but ultimately opted to “bank” some sleep. Not only that, a shower and my bed sounded nice, so Karen picked me up from downtown, I ate 1/2 a pizza on the way home, showered, slept for two hours, and met my first pacer and a good friend, Scott Ritchie at about 5:45am on Tuesday morning.
A Patient Persistence - Day 2
“But let patience have it’s perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
After heading out from Whiskey Row, I entered the “unknown” zone beyond 62 miles. Though a little tired, time with Scott was good, (admittedly, my end of conversation was not as quick and lively as usual), and we were able to stay ahead of goal pace. I was noticing a couple niggles still in my hip, and developing something in my left ankle and right achilles. We got to see a chilled out rattle snake on Iron King. Harley Guy was at the aid station and kind enough to get his watch charging cable, since mine wasn’t working. Jillian whipped up a mean lentil baked potato. My mom and family were at the aid station and we headed out toward Fain.
I was grateful the wind was at our backs, because this section was a bit boring and tedious finding the way where there was no real trail leading to Mingus. Give me a home, where the buffalo roam? We simply persisted and pressed forward.
My sister Rachel and brother in law Jimmy, as well as Karen and the boys met us at the Fain Ranch with a nice smoothie and on we went toward Mingus. Scott shared some delicious dark chocolate/almond butter treat and was able to tackle his first ultra-distance making it the 31 miles to Mingus.
I was a bit fatigued at Mingus (learning I’m not a fan of 1-4pm), but two plates of lasagna, a hip stretch, time with the family and the Garcias, and having my next good friend and pacer, James Madson join the fun boosted the spirits.
James and I headed out, enjoyed the beautiful scenery and sunset, and endured the crazy scramble down into Jerome with a celebratory beer at the 100 mile marker. I had my only fall of the race in this section which was a little more like a slide. I remember being a bit gassed at Jerome, ready for some sleep, but James convinced me to get a couple coffees down and try to make it to Deadhorse.
He helped navigate my weary body through that section and we plotted to only sleep an hour there to try and beat the heat the next day heading into Sedona. I was a little frustrated that it felt like I was losing the ability to run about 110 miles in, but we were still making good time.
The Wheels Fall Off - Day 3
“Everything come back around full circle
Why do lies sound pleasant but the truth hurtful?
Everybody gotta cry once in a while
But how long will it take 'fore you smile?”
J. Cole - The Climb Back
After a solid hour nap at Dead Horse and waking up, drenched in a cold sweat, I remember whining to Karen, who got my butt moving (this would become a theme after sleep). I downed a taco, some coffee, took another taco for the road and we headed out at 3:30am. Because my ankle and achilles were sore, I slipped some compression sleeves on which proved to be a mistake.
The morning was gorgeous. The blossoming cactus and ocotillos, the birds, and James giving me nature lessons from his recent experience in ornithology was wonderful. Then blisters on the right foot hit like an arrow head between my first and second toe. Ouch. Sleeve off, tape on. Move forward.
We met Karen and the boys at Deer Pass before 8. Chugged an energy drink, ate some sort of wonderful pastry, and moved out as quick as possible to encounter another set of blisters, this time on the left foot from the compression sleeve. Ah, well. Quick clean, tape, move forward.
The next 6-8 miles were fun and beautiful with all the wildflowers in bloom in some alien landscapes, but about 3 miles before the Sedona aid, the wheels came off.
My left ankle went from sore to flaring pain, and the right achilles started locking up and any amount of speed or power were gone. It was getting warmer, and it felt as though the aid station would never come. My mood started to sour, pace started to slow, and I started considering the need to drop at the next aid. Karen and I had an agreement that if my body didn’t cooperate, I wouldn’t compromise permanent damage, but would pull myself. It seemed that reality was approaching.
I texted Karen “Can we just move here? Today?” I wondered if the church we were heading to needed a pastor…Maybe I could start today?
Bigfoot Madson proved to be not only a great friend but a superb pacer and crew. He heard me, encouraged, and really didn’t give credence to my complaints. Just get to aid. Get some food. Get some medicine. He’s really the best. He put in a strong and helpful 54 miles.
We got there close to 2pm and the goose was cooked. Walking was difficult, the pain was high, and I told Karen I was done. Everything from the ankles up felt great. I still had energy, clarity, etc, but the feet and mechanics weren’t there. I thought she’d say “ok, I understand, good call honey.” But what I got was “You’re Switzerland for the next hour. Remain neutral. Let’s not say for sure what’s happening either way.. Eat this burger, take this medicine and get an hour of sleep.”
Huh? I thought we had an agreement? Really? Ok. Burger. Medicine. Sleep. Wake up. It’s worse. I go (hobble) to the medical tent where Ulysses did a fantastic job taping some blisters and evaluating my ankle with another EMT and both agreed that I should not continue, due to swelling, current injuries and the risk of permanent damage. Bummer. But I wasn’t quitting, I was getting pulled, right? However, we were at a church and a mini resurrection was underway. The shoes went on and I was able to walk with a little bit of purpose. Ok. Here we go. I found out the medics marked me as not continuing and were surprised to see me leave the aid station on foot.
James Nalley (a fellow PATR and one of the best pianists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform) picke- up pacing in Sedona. We left about 4:45pm and I told Karen I’d text her by Midgley Bridge, about 5 miles later, to pick me up if things weren’t working.
Things weren’t really working, but I was happy with being able to maintain 18-20minute miles and in doing the math, if I could keep that going, I wouldn’t have to go through the 5th night. The rotation of tylenol and ibuprofen, alternating every 4 hours kept things mostly manageable.
We climbed the beast of a hill at sunset and I laughed as I smelled like my boys as babies due to the A&D diaper ointment that was trying to fix some of the chafing issues I was having. I was grateful to still be out there with James Nalley ahead of me, leading the way.
That night of forest roads to Munds was interesting. I swore James was dancing tango, flamenco, and crip walking…but he assured me, he was not. Also, I’m pretty sure there are not rows of warehouses (at least James said there weren’t) - And the muffled female voices in the distance weren’t real either. Ah well. I was hoping for some epiphany or lucid vision, but it never came.
We got to Munds at 3am. I ate a pile of bacon and bread, Karen helped me get changed and settled into the sleep tent and I was out cold for a 90 minute nap to get ready for the next day.
Up, Down, Up, Down, Further Down - Day 4
“Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.”
JK Rowling, The Goblet of Fire
“If you can hold on, if you can hold, hold on”
The Killers, All These Things That I’ve done
One second after my alarm went off, my helpful and sweet wife was unzipping the tent to get me moving and out. She declined my invitation to join me in the sleeping bag, which I found mildly offensive to be rejected in my time of need, but she too was on a mission…To get me on two feet again.
More bacon. Pancakes. 16 mile out and back. The morning was beautiful and though the section felt like it’d never end, we returned in high spirits. Some of the PATR crew was there to greet us, the family was there– this time with my brother and his 3 kiddos, Mike Versteeg was giving encouragement too, and to top it off, it was our son, Theo’s 7th birthday! We were making progress and spirits were high.
Feet were re-taped and swelling, so I laced my shoes a lot looser, which proved to be another mistake later, but vibes were good. We got a brief catch up with the Northrup crew, as she had continued to fly through the course. Tracy Evans asked if I could wrap up the race in the afternoon tomorrow so she could be there and I promised to do my best.
On the road again, I called my friend Anthony Garcia, we talked for a bit, then shortly after, another round of pain entered. My now loose shoes began to blister my heels and the heat was rising again. Medicine was wearing off and I was slowing down again. It was frustrating to be in such a beautiful, runnable place and to only muster 20-minute miles, but I guess that’s part of life after 190 miles.
As we neared Kelly Canyon aid, the second bacon pancake sandwich and monster energy drink helped press through the wall, and Rage Against the Machine and Snapcase in the headphones had me pushing with some power.
At Kelly Canyon, I had the heel blisters popped and taped, and the aid station volunteer kept asking if I things sounded good…And after a series of 5+ “yes"es, I wound up with a delicious chicken nugget avocado, something sandwich. We got out of there as quick as we could to get to Fort Tuthill for some sleep before a final push.
Approaching Tuthill the pain went beyond management again, the miles slowed to 25ish minutes and the feet, ankle, and achilles weren’t cooperating again.
We arrived and I was at a new low. All hydration and nutrition were on point still, my stomach being the MVP of my body for the race, but I was back to having difficulty bearing weight on my feet. James and Jessica Madson were there with Karen to help, with a cold Modelo, tempurpedic sleep mats for James Nalley and I, and anything else that was needed. Seriously– thank you guys.
At this point it felt dumb to continue. I tried giving Karen another “I quit” speech which for some odd reason, wasn’t landing with any reception. She sent me to bed, and I told James Nalley I set my alarm for 90minutes, meaning I’d be up at 12:45am, then we could figure it out from there. Apparently there was a breakdown in communication because he woke me up at 12:30am, encouraging me to get moving as to loosen things up. Under normal circumstances, I’m not great being woken-up…But the surprise, being drenched in sweat and disoriented wasn’t the best start to the day.
The sleep, medicine, and food seemed to make no difference and I still couldn’t move well. Ate some ramen, drank some coffee, and everyone kept saying “Only 36 more miles!”...I hear you, but do you know how long 36 miles is on feet when said feet aren’t functioning? Dumb. That’s how long. Again, my “this isn’t a good idea, long term damage-blah blah blah” had zero…ZERO power with my wonderful wife.
When we started I told her “your job as the crew lead is to make sure I don’t quit.” I guess she took that to heart. When I asked later about how we agreed on the whole “long term damage” thing and that didn’t seem to matter, she let me know that had more to do with my vital organs, which all seemed functioning and fine, and little to do with my feet and ankles. Ah yes, #communication.
At Tuthill, one table over, there was a grizzled vet, 65 year old Minnesotan, Jeff Goldstein who came in looking just as bad, if not worse than me, who also needed blister care, but at no point showed any hesitation in heading back out. He looked at me and said “let’s get going!” - To which I thought “uh…no thanks, have fun.” But next thing you know, my shoes are on, Karen is waking up Nalley (who went back to sleep thinking I was throwing in the towel) and I was out the door at 2:30am.
Dead Man Hiking - Day 5
“Another way to say it is that everybody is dying and going to die of something. And if you’re not spending your life on the stuff you believe, then what are you even doing? What is the point of the whole thing?” Daniel Nayeri - Everything Sad is Untrue
I don’t know if I’ll ever understand what happened from Fort Tuthill to Walnut Canyon. It was a walk of death. I felt stripped bare physically and emotionally, and was in a dark place, but moving forward. There was a lot of thinking through life, pain, the last few days, the many surprises of my unbelievably supportive family, and crazy capable crew-boss wife, and the fact that I was still out there nearing a finish.
The sun came up on Walnut Canyon, James highlighting just how beautiful it was, and all I could muster was a grunt and a “pretty” - But I knew in making it to Walnut Canyon aid, the end was really, really in sight.
It was morning, and Karen and the boys were there again with my brother and his crew caring for me and filling things up and sending us on our way.
My spirits were back up and we began the march toward Mordor, I mean, Mt. Elden. It really looms large and is fun to see it grow as you approach it. I chugged a monster energy drink and ate a sandwich on the approach. The climb was mostly enjoyable, then the 3rd bloody nose of the week set in, except this time, no wet wipes were left. Snow at the top provided some cooling and cleaning of the face, and the medicine was wearing off as I hobbled into the final aid station.
James Madson was there yet again with help filling bottles and encouragement. Ryan, one of the volunteers, was eager to get me filled up with sausage, potatoes, ribs, and a bourbon and coke followed by another shot of bourbon to put the final dose of ibuprofen down.
Cleaned up, filled up, and medicined up, we set off down the hill with the pace slightly improving. Chad Trumbo, Tony Russ and Amy Gordon all passed us on this section, as it appeared they all had some semblance of downhill legs. Just mildly jealous.
I realized the race wasn’t quite over, so I ate 3 Take-5 candy bars that Theo had given me earlier in the race and continued to push the fluids.
I was mildly self conscious entering Buffalo Park knowing there would be cameras and people, so I brushed my teeth and rinsed with scope as we moved closer to the finish. I didn’t want Karen to be completely disgusted with the finish line kiss.
We turned the corner, James Nalley having 106 miles on his legs, and 250 on mine and I saw Tracy… “I told you I’d finish in the afternoon!”. The family, friends, and a pillar in the middle of the finish line asking to be hopped. I was 95% sure both feet would break, or it’d end in failure, but thankfully everything held up. I got to see the line I’d been imagining for months. We did it. Together, stretched beyond our comfort limits. We did it. A group and family effort. What grace! I’m known. I’m loved. I see it in the eyes of those celebrating, the messages of those supporting, the prayers and donations of so many who believed the risk would be worth it.
We did it. In 102 hours 15 minutes.