What Makes An Ultrarunner:

Guts, GU, and (minimal) Glory


The morning of November 1st, at the beginning of the Javelina Jundred ultramarathon in the sandy outskirts of Phoenix, was glorious. The sun was below the horizon, lending an orange-purple flow to the lingering clouds. Some 700 runners had just started a very, very long day.

Howie and I, well, we almost screwed it up from the very beginning. My first status post after the race had been going a few hours revealed our mistake:

You see, Geoff Cordner, our friend and recipient of pacing/crewing services, was on a fairly defined plan to complete this thing around 26 hours (the race has a 30 hour cut-off, though the winner will finish around 16). The plan should have started with him not going out too freaking fast. The first loop would be in the vicinity of 3:45, maybe 3:30 if he was feeling perky. Perhaps he worried overly much about slowing down later in the night.

Earlier Howie and I had fetched race supplies from the campsite and were back at the race’s transition area (also known as Jeadquarters — you’ll see the “J” theme here) by 3:15 on the race clock to greet & feed Geoff and kick him off for the 2nd loop. For a few minutes we scanned folks coming in and when they looked to be genuine back-of-the-pack types we were worried. Really worried. I fumbled with the website on my phone, trying to load live results from a rather slow spreadsheet view, finally locating number 155 after several minutes. It said runner 155 had come through at 3:02. Shit. Shitshitshitshit!

I located Howie and gave him the bad news. He looked about as shocked as I felt crappy. We did the only thing we could: send some well-wishes into the desert and settled into our miniature canopy camp (the “fort”) to await the end of loop 2, where we would either be officially chewed out or forgiven. In either case we were sure to be the best damn crew ever until the race was over — we owed Geoff that much.

The forecast this year was about the best one could expect in the desert outside of Phoenix: variable clouds, highs in the 80s, lows in the 50s. The previous year it had been 106 on the first day and left ultra-wreckage strewn like tumbleweeds along the dusty trail and in aid stations, culminating in a 60% drop rate.

Javelina is punishing, despite what pussycat appearance the course initially teases: just 4000 feet of gain over the whole distance, all at a modest elevation. No mountains, no rivers. Six washing-machine loops (reversing direction each time, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth) of 15.3 miles followed by a truncated finishing loop of 9 miles nets the race 100.8 miles. But the punishing aspect is not from the crowds or the boredom of the loops, rather the triple factors of abrasive gravelly dirt underfoot that seeps into shoes, socks, and gaiters, the rolling hills that seem to come at the worst possible times, some studded with trip-friendly rocks, and the potential for stupid-hot temperatures in a baking sun.

Because it always falls right around Halloween, Javelina has been known since its inception in 2003 for the costume contest; many runners are decked out in everything from cowboy outfits to a full-body deal that looks like a piece of sushi. Weird, and hot, I would imagine. I’m playing along by wearing a full Wonder Woman costume with knee-high vinyl boots that are actually not uncomfortable. Howie has elected not to put on the tutu I brought along — the one I wore while pacing him at Angeles Crest 100 earlier this year — even though it IS his birthday. He’s just dressed up as normal crew person: boring! I’m walking and jogging back and forth on the trail to find Geoff before he comes in, getting a few comments about running in my boots from spectators. I won’t have them on for long, that’s for sure. Howie and I are chatting with Dominic Grossman and Katie DeSplinter, ultrarunning super duo from Los Angeles and all-around awesome humans. They’re here to work at the Jackass Junction aid station (mid-way in each loop) later this evening.

I’m still running around trying to see Geoff on his way in. I see a few folks I know, and then, the legend: Gordy Ainsleigh. In 1974 — the year I was born — Gordy was participating in a 100 mile horse race called the Tevis Cup in California. The story goes that his horse couldn’t run at the last minute so Gordy asked if he could just run it himself, since he was fit and willing. He was allowed, and completed the first known 100 mile ultramarathon distance in the West — and under 24 hours, too. THAT event became its own race called the Western States 100 Mile, one of the most famous ultra races on the planet. I saw Gordy about a month ago running a 50K in my home state of New Mexico, and our aid station crew had gotten the wild hair to offer ass slaps to runners who wanted a literal shove out back onto the trail. Some runners took us up on it, but Gordy? Gordy requested 10 slaps, 5 for each butt cheek. I grinned and complied, everyone in the aid station laughing, and he was off with a twinkle in his eye. Now, at Javelina Jundred Gordy is running again, looking happy and fit as a horse. I run next to him and ask if he’d like more ass slaps and he recognizes me and grins. This time he’s upped the ante: TEN slaps on each side. The crowd around me is hooting and hollering (apparently there were no photos taken, alas), and Gordy is off again. What a hoot, that guy.


“That was the worst 30 miles in a race I have ever had. Ever.”

By now it’s been over three hours after that embarrassing missed first loop clicked by, and we were READY. Who knows what Geoff has up his sleeve at this point — maybe a sub-24 — so Howie and I study the supply box, get food ready, and get excited. 3:30 goes by. 3:45. Close to the 4 hour mark I get a glimpse of our guy coming over the last sandy dunes toward our canopy-fort-thing. He looks…. beat. Uh-oh. The costume gets a smirk, at least, but then I hear the words tumble out, “that was the worst 30 miles in a race I’ve ever had.” My stomach dropped and I hustled him over to do the timing mat do-si-do, asking what he needed. “I need to sit down and think about this.” OK, then. He did at least peruse the aid table and picked up a sandwich to take as he walked. That alone was a good indicator that he wasn’t a lost cause, despite what he said.

Wonder Woman escorts #155 through the Jeadquarters maze:

Screengrab from the live race streaming video

Howie greeted us at the fort and Geoff relayed the same story — he has no idea what is going on but the last 10 miles had turned into a literal hot mess. He felt cooked. The heat (a rather reasonable 86) and sun were pummeling his desire and his stomach. Geoff was ready to drastically change his plan, maybe even considering dropping already, and we could see it in his face. We needed to tread carefully — this guy does not take well to commands, even if well-intentioned. “OK, you sit. What can we bring for you? Water? Fruit? Avocados? Another sandwich?” Dominic and Katie came over and immediately began adding strength to our “don’t DNF” support group. Dom pulled out one of his favorite secret weapons — caffeinated gel chews — saying that they’d had saved races for lots of other runners.

After one sandwich, lots of strawberries and grapes, some hibiscus tea, and some thinking, Geoff was looking less DNF-worthy each minute. We offered pizza from the local vendor who’d set up shop next to the finish. That perked him up and savior Katie (the only one of us with cash at the ready) ran off to procure a pepperoni pie. Unfortunately, this was lunch hour and the pizza guys were deep in the weeds — no pizza would be immediately available. In the end this worked out, for Geoff’s momentum was growing and he was going to leave for loop 3. Success! Only the final adjustments needed to be made — swap the cap for a sun hat, top up on sunscreen, swap bottles for pack, stuff GUs into pack pockets.

Full face. Photo from Geoff Cordner.

Still shoving food into his hands we all walked him out to those little rolling dunes, sending him off almost 45 minutes after he arrived. Whew.

I was ready to get those boots off (WHY didn’t I bring my sandals?), and we had a little time to go get lunch in town. Howie took another walk out to the truck while I re-organized the aid box. We zipped through the campground for shoes and money then into town, heading for the closest cheap 4-star Yelp place: DJ’s Bagel Cafe. Howie appreciated the NY deli feel to the place, with prepared salads in the cold case and liverwurst as a sandwich option.

Howie and I told our “how I met our runner” stories. His dated back a few years, to trail work for Angeles Crest 100 or something similar, and some mutual trail running friends who served as bridge between them. Since then they’d shared many trail miles and earnest conversations. For me it was a bit more recent — in person, at least. Geoff was one of the few other AC runners I’d consulted when researching strategy prior to my 2013 go at that race. Howie was another — he wrote up a fantastic blow-by-blow course description just for me with all of the gory details about which sections would suck and which might suck less. Both Howie’s description and Geoff’s personal report helped immensely. We were all Facebook friends, but I still hadn’t met Geoff in person. Finally we got out for a mountain run in early October when I was visiting my brother in LA for the bazillionth time. When I found out about Javelina and that Howie was already on board as crew, it sounded like my kind of trip, so I volunteered to be the 3rd party member.

Fed and perky after that deli lunch, Howie and I headed back to the campground again to pick up — hopefully — anything we would need until the end of the race. Getting back and forth between parking and Jeadquarters was beginning to be a pain in the ass, so the less trips, the better. We knew that we’d each be taking one or more pacing loops but had no idea which ones and how fast we’d be going. Warm clothes? Check. Sleeping bag and books for the fort? Check. And we’re ready.

The Fort. Our home base to crew Geoff.

The end of loop 3 had runners streaming in and out of the north side of Jeadquarters. I saw several familiar faces while checking for Geoff. The website results were crashed as this point so I put on a gracious smile and bothered the official dudes calling out names and writing down numbers. Number 155 was not yet here. We didn’t miss him — whew!

The time was 5:40 p.m. Soon to be twilight. There would be a 2/3 moon once it got full dark; the wedge already risen in the sky and was awaiting patiently its turn to shine. I stood sentry at the ingress point, too restless wondering what was happening out there to chill back at the fort. Runners streamed in, runners streamed out. A little girl, around 6 or 7 years old, was standing with her dad in his tutu and her sister waiting for their mom. As each runner came by she danced expectantly and held one little palm out, begging for a high-5. Each one she received resulted in this look on her face that said, “YES!!!!” and she hopped and spun around. I must have seen her do this 50 times. It was pretty amazing.

And then Geoff comes along on the trail. RUNNING. I fire off a text to Howie that conveys my relief. “He’s coming. And running thank gawd!”

We are both very excited by this potential turn for the better. After all, it’s getting later in the day with temperatures dropping and Geoff is completely convinced he is now functionally illiterate when it comes to hot weather running. Whether or not that’s true, the cooling temps seem to be serving as a salve.

A side note: runners in the middle of races such as this have been known to go into all kinds of despair and agitation, clamming up or becoming unintentionally or inadvertently terse with their friends and crew. I’ve done it — said, “what are you doing here!?” to family who dropped by an aid station unexpectedly — using a tone that I thought was jovial but was heard as hostile. Not Geoff. Over the course of any ups and downs throughout that long day, yes-or-no questions were always answered with “yes, please” or “no, thank you” and when things got tough he just got quiet. It was a lesson in being a good human.

Now that it’s been 46 miles and is almost night, Geoff can have a pacer for the last 55 miles. Howie and I chatted about order/swaps for the both of us and pacing legs earlier today. We’re thinking I will go first, then him, then let things sort themselves out later. This loop compared to the last, once Geoff is plopped on the chair, he’s looking better, especially once we shove pizza at him. The dogs are also interested in the pizza but that is only in their dreams….

Pizza and hungry doggies.

I’m almost ready but decide that the visual value of the Wonder Woman costume was enough of a novelty earlier, so I shuck it like a prom dress and put on some normal warm clothes — thin long-sleeved merino wool, my favorite type of running shirt for several years now — for the night. Before Geoff gets too comfortable we saddle him up with bottles, lights, and hit the trail in to the dark. He warns me right away that this loop will be lots of walking. He talks about the 100K buckle (an option after this loop is done). I won’t hear of it and I tell him so but I don’t argue. Direct rebuttal is likely to backfire. The shift has to happen internally, the swing from down to up. It’s the classic 100-mile funk, which we both know will pass (and then recur and so on), but it’s harder for him to see that being in the middle of the morass.

I’m still waiting for the upswing. I have all night.

The first aid station (Coyote Camp) is only 1 1/2 miles out, a somewhat strange spacing protocol with the next gap being 6.5 and then 5.2, but the nearby road crossing made it easy for Aravaipa to put it there. We’re through without much of a pause, and into the guts of the loop toward Jackass Junction aid station — very slowly ascending sandy trail. Despite the pizza infusion, Geoff is lagging a bit after some decently paced power walking. Nausea is forcing some brief breaks of very slow walking, but luckily they do not last long before we can pick it up again. But there’s no running. I’m still waiting for the upswing. I have all night. This is what pacers and crew do and we are happy to do it.

Jackass Junction is heard before seen. It’s 8pm and the party is going full-tilt, funk music roaring and everyone but bonking runners having a grand time. Dominic and Katie are working here and they will be a welcome sight for Geoff. He sits on a chair and I’m off to get food and bottles dealt with. Dom dances over, Katie is right behind and they are ECSTATIC to see him. Justin, our local friend and energizer bunny of dubiously-appropriate greetings, bounces up to Geoff and plants a kiss on his sweaty hat with a huge grin on his face. So now it’s four of us to one. Things are looking up. More calories, some broth, and we are getting out of here. This affectionate attention is perfect to start the next segment on a good note, and we are still slow but ascending the next rocky bit of trail with some hope.

For a while Geoff is on a high note. This is good. I tell him that we just need to time his up and down swings so that he’s on an up whenever we get back to Jeadquarters to keep his DNF temptations to a minimum. We’re navigating the rocky stretch of this trail by headlamp light and it is slow. It seems like we’re both cursing, only sometimes audibly. Despite this I lay out the not-so-grim reality of the race to Geoff: after his first 3 loops, the last three including this one can be 5 hours each, and that still leaves 3 hours for the final 9 miles (which I’ve found go faster than you think they will). I am very enthused about this. Geoff, hard to tell. He’s heading back into a low point as we cruise into Jeadquarters around 11pm and get ready to hand him off to Howie’s pacing expertise. First, a sock change (damn those Injinji socks are ridiculous, even if comfy).

Bare foot, broth, ginger ale.

Then after lots of broth but not enough calories, Howie and Geoff are off. I post a Facebook status update about them going off into the night to find Dom and Katie, then crawl into the tent and pass out after setting an alarm for 3am.


BRAAAAAA-BRAAAAA-BRAAAA! It was 3 am: time to wakey wakey, pacer wakey. I slept remarkably well given the noise and stress. Over to the main aid table for some coffee and then I begin vigil for my dudes. It has been four hours since they left. If Geoff is rallying, they’ll be along any moment. But they’re not. I wander around. I make sure the supply box is organized. I read a book about running and meditation.

Five hours after sending them out on loop 5, they arrive. I’m a little freaked because I’m worried that at this pace it is going to be a spiral into the temptation to drop, as often happens at mile 75. While you might think that 3/4 of the way through would make it easy to just keep going, mile 75 is often a very tempting place to drop in hundreds. You’re in the middle of the freaking night, you’re tired, you’re cranky, and you could have 8 or more hours to go if you are suffering. Geoff knows this well — he’s been through the spiral the wrong way at Angeles Crest 100's 75 mile aid station, Chantry Flats. Howie took 10 hours to go from Chantry to the finish at AC this year after a near-meltdown.

We don’t have 10 hours, or 8 hours. Right at this moment we have about 7 and a half until the final cutoff. Things need to get a bit of a move on; we need to light a fire under Geoff’s butt. As soon as he’s off in the porta pooper, I grill Howie on status, fearing the worst — that he’s just mentally done and ready to tear the number off. But no! Howie reports that despite the speed, Geoff is still in the game and only worried now about time. He wants to keep going until someone stops him. AWESOME.


“Do you have a towel?”

Once he comes back out to the fort it is all about getting his ass back on the trail with me as the next pacer. Food. Water. Lube. And, oh, Geoff wants to know if I have a towel. Of course. He probably wants to wipe off his face or something. I pull out a small hand towel out of my duffle and the two of them start laughing hysterically. Nope, this wasn’t a face washing towel. It was supposed to be a concealing device so Geoff can change his entire lower-body wardrobe. Now I’m laughing, too. It’s 4 a.m. in the middle of the desert and just a LOL-fest here with three ultrarunning friends. Anyway, it turns out we have a nice large fuzzy blanket. Problem solved and Geoff receives a shorts change without inadvertently being entered into the best ass contest.

An Ultrarunner Emerges

A new GPS watch is procured for Geoff’s wrist from Howie, and we’re off. Howie tells me he knows Geoff has a four-hour loop in him. I hope so. I’m gonna make him run way more than he wants to, and I warn him of this fact. Something has perked him up and we are off doing a very respectable run/walk pace to the next aid station, but the final cut-off is still a huge worry. He keeps asking me to check the pace on the watch on his arm with my flashlight, and eventually I just transfer the watch to my wrist to save time.

Geoff was running in a way that put his heart on his sleeve.

So here’s the thing about 100 mile races — even more so than ‘regular’ ultra marathons — they’re weird. The people are weird, and tough, and a little bit jangly in the brain. I’ve seen a runner nurse her baby at mile 75 in a mountain hundred. I’ve been through a lightning storm above treeline in the San Juans with dozens of other runners. I’ve seen feet that would make the most jaded pedicurist faint. But those races and the runners doing them combine in magical ways. Mental and emotional breakthroughs happen out there. This is what Ken Chlouber says in his Leadville 100 rally speech each year, “You’re better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.” Geoff was going through this, as he worked out whatever was happening in his neural network he was getting faster and happier. Geoff was running in a way that put his heart on his sleeve. That’s an ultrarunner. It’s not finishing the distance, earning a buckle, or posting to Facebook. It’s the heart-mind-guts melding, out there, you alone, even if surrounded by friends.

Other racers are going through their own crash and burn phases here, and we pass at least a dozen before arriving back again at Jackass Junction. No Dom and Katie this time so the party atmosphere has tempered slightly. The dawn light is beginning to appear. Geoff says that last time he finished, it got light not long after he left Jackass, so we are not really so far behind that. I ask him, just to drive the point home, “and how long before the final cut-off did you finish last year?” The answer is an hour, so now his prospects are on the sunny side and he knows it. In the light, the formerly curse-worthy stretch of rocky trail has suddenly become . . . runnable. And really not so bad. Amazing, the difference.

After a few miles we get to the cut-off point on the Tonto Trail where runners make a turn during the final 9 mile segment. Geoff asks me to note the distance so he will know EXACTLY where it is in a few hours. In doing so, I can relay good news to runners coming the other way, on THEIR final push: “only a third of a mile to the cut-off trail!” or “only a half mile to the cut-off!” Most of them are really happy to get that information. We’re running a lot now, averaging 13 or 14 minutes per mile. This is going to be a good loop, meeting Howie’s prediction. One more aid station and then the rolling sandy arroyo crap into Jeadquarters. Geoff says I should stay as pacer for the last bit, too. Works for me; I’m having fun and I like more miles. We’ll just have to break the news to Howie, who’s probably expecting to swap again. We tear into the turnaround with 3:45 on the clock for this loop with big smiles. As Geoff goes to do the timing mat loop-di-do, I tell Howie, “I’ll see your four hours and raise you a minute per mile!”

And then, without the assistance of any shiny silver/blue taurine-enhanced beverage, Geoff got his wings and we flew.

Last 9: it’s go time. More calories, more drinks, but no more GUs. Those little squeezy sugar bombs are turning stomachs left and right. We take off back the way we came, saying hello and good-job to lots of runners we’ve been seeing all night in our taillights. Over the last 25 mile stretch Geoff will ultimately pass about 50 runners and be passed by ZERO. That’s how this is going. I can hardly wipe the grin off my face. Up the sandy trail to the first aid station, then up the rocky crap towards the Tonto turnoff, where there used to be a water stop. Nothing is promised this year. We get closer . . . one mile out, half a mile, and then we’re there. And there’s water! Some amazing person is manning a double water tank stop, despite the warnings there might be nothing. This is the place Geoff had been waiting for, the magical final downhill. We paused to soak in the moment, bathed in the magical funk of far too many miles since our last showers. And then, without the assistance of any shiny silver/blue taurine-enhanced beverage, Geoff got his wings and we fucking flew.

More runners to pass, more and more and more. Gordy and Catra Corbett and people we didn’t know, one after the other. We hit the bottom trail junction and slipped through the sandy arroyos for the final mile+ to the finish at Jeadquarters. Through the rolling dunes we saw Criss Furman the photographer from Silverton, and watched for Howie. Surely he’d be waiting for us. The last quarter mile, *I* could barely keep up with Geoff. Into the curlicues of the finishing chute, around the corner, and then…. done.

28:27:27

Geoff had done the final 9 in 2:12, at a time when many runners are taking 3 hours or so. Howie missed the finish by just a few minutes — he was off on the trail trying to see us but we slipped by. We congregate at the finish, inhaling lemonade and pizza and watching the rest trickle in. It’s the ending we all hoped for, even if it seemed a tall order for many hours.

An ultrarunner, his pacers, and his buckle.