Hundreds take on a grueling footrace across Arizona's high country in the Cocodona 250

By Ron Dungan, Michel Marizco
Published: Monday, May 8, 2023 - 4:05am
Updated: Monday, May 8, 2023 - 9:57am

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Christopher St. Jean after running the Cocodona 250 in 2023
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Christopher St. Jean rests for a moment after running the Cocodona 250.

A marathon is a little more than 26 miles, which for most people is more than enough. But ultramarathons are longer — in some cases, a lot longer. The 2023 Cocodona ultramarathon is a 250-mile race that starts in Black Canyon City and ends in Flagstaff.

Early morning on race day, runners got ready for the first leg in the dark. Music played, cars rolled in and organizers scrambled. With temperatures climbing close to the century mark this time of year, the early start was important. Runner David Adams of San Diego says the combination of temperature and elevation gain make the first leg brutal.

“Desert pine, desert pine, desert pine is a reality in this race,” he said.

That first leg winds for 37 miles through the Bradshaw Mountains, all the way to Crown King.

“Within those 37 miles, with nothing but exposure to the sun, no shade, a cactus if you’re lucky. And very limited water. They had to mule water to us because the terrain is so difficult that they can’t get trucks to,” Adams said.

From Crown King, the course continues through Prescott, Jerome, Cottonwood, Sedona. Adams saids one purpose of the race is to connect small Arizona towns and landscapes. He has fallen in love with the state.

Chris St. Jean lives in Flagstaff. He has run 100-mile ultras, but this is the first time he’s run a race this long.

“Yeah, so this is just very much uncharted territory to me, for the most part.”

He recently ran the first leg for a training run.

“I know what’s coming in that section, and it’s, even though I know what’s coming, it still scares me. It is, it is a tough, tough section,” he said.

Aid stations along the route supply runners with water and other supplies. They carry GPS tracking devices, which race coordinators monitor in case someone wanders off trail. St. Jean says that ultras help him shed stress and give him a sense of confidence: “It’s a sense of being really deeply in tune with yourself.”

Not all the runners camped out, and it was still dark when those who slept off-site drove in. The parking lot filled, and a crowd gathered at the starting line as the eastern sky glowed and the race began.

The host counted down: “Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one!”

And so about 200 runners set off for the Bradshaws, with just enough light to see by.

Christopher St. Jean Cocodona 250 2023 finish line
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Christopher St. Jean crosses the finish line at the Cocodona 250.

Four days later, St. Jean is finishing the last mile of the race.

Flagstaff residents gathered along forest trails to cheer the runners on. They watched from the hospital and from downtown as runners weaved across the town to the finish line at Heritage Square.

St. Jean overtook a runner in the last mile.

“The Flagstaff man was in a rush to get home. He’s overtaken Killian and is coming in here fast. Average pace of about 6 miles an hour,” the host announced over a loudspeaker.

“And here he comes, just around the corner. Welcome, Christopher St. Jean into the finish line. Congratulations Christopher, welcome to the finish line my friend!”

The man’s family and even his puppy swarm over him.

“And a surprise visit from mom and dad from New Hampshire,” the host announces.

He’s tired but in good spirits when I approach.

“My colleague Ron Dungan interviewed you at the start line about four days ago,” I said.

“You mean four years ago?” he laughs.

“It’s still not quite real yet but I’m feeling real real good. It’s one of those moments that you visualize for so long and it doesn’t feel real even while you’re in it. I feel very relieved and I can honestly say I couldn’t have gone any harder.”

The nights were some of the toughest moments, he said.

“That was like what, 80-something hours? I had about three hours of sleep. In the day you try to get what you can. In the night, tough mentally,” St. Jean said. “Basically just doing everything you can to keep one step going in front of the other.”

About 200 runners started the race, and nearly three-quarters finished the grueling run across Arizona’s high country.

Kilian Korth Cocodona 250 finish line hug in 2023
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Kilian Korth greets a loved one after completing the Cocodona 250.

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