By John Prohira

Respite (noun) - a period of temporary delay, an interval of rest or relief.

Impatient for spring and in need of escape from Western New York's winter I traveled to the high desert of southern Arizona hoping to find warmth and respite. In the predawn on March 1st I joined 70 other men and woman who would traverse 50 miles of forest service road and trail in the eastern portions of the Santa Rita Mountains on foot and be given 15 hours in which to do so. We would run on the Arizona Trail. I had assumed that trail had a long history perhaps relating to "how the West was won" but was surprised to discover the trail to be the result of the recent dream of Flagstaff hiker and schoolteacher, Dale Shewalter. While hiking in the Santa Ritas in the early 1970's, Shewalter conceived of an idea of a trail stretching across Arizona from Mexico to Utah. Since that time, hundreds of trail enthusiasts have been inspired by that vision and have joined together to make the Arizona Trail a reality. Today it stretches from the Coronado National Memorial in the south to Coyote Valley in the northern most part of the state.

We ran on land that had a feel of the old West about it. The Old Pueblo 50 Mile Endurance Run is staged about 35 miles north of Mexico. Gold had been discovered here in 1874, one of the largest and richest placer deposits in the state. Placer deposits consist of gold blended with sand and gravel and the way to separate the riches from dirt was by washing the mix with water. But water was scarcer than that precious metal. Miners would place sacks of this dirt on the backs of burros and haul it to the region's few running streams burros. Hard isolated work to say the least and once the richest deposits had been worked most moved on. In 1902 James Stetson, an engineer from California conceived of a plan to channel and collect runoff from the mountains into man-made reservoirs, collecting enough water to keep a mine going for ten months a year. He obtained funding for his project and in the years from 1902 to 1906 attempted to coax and collect the precious ore from the countryside. A mining camp was built in Kentucky Gulch but was abandoned when the endeavor became unprofitable. The Coronado National Forest acquired this land and the remnants of the Kentucky Camp, rebuilding a couple of decaying mining camp structures. One of these restored buildings served as race headquarters was for Old Pueblo.

Duane and Julie Arter and friends stage this intimate gathering and trail run. Their efforts appeared transparent, a reflection of fantastic planning and attention placed on every detail of directing a race like this. Every aspect of this event was top-notch, from the pre race coffee and aid throughout the day to the cookout afterwards. Shirts without advertising commemorating the day were given to each entrant, as was a cloth (not paper) BIB or race number. A handsome belt buckle was awarded every finisher. All involved made certain that the Old Pueblo was successful and they should be thanked and applauded for their hard work.

This land north of the border is called "the high desert" and receives a mere 15 inches of rain a year. Resilient trees like oak, pine, juniper and cypress survive here with only that small amount of water. I saw the cactus I expected I might find in a desert; the banana yucca, prickly pear, sotol and maybe small saguaros. Many of these cacti were blooming; a beautiful thing to see. My favorites were the pink flowers atop morning dew covered prickly pears, the morning sunlight glistening on the flat green flesh of that cactus. And cacti resembling small barrels appeared to be wearing yellow Mexican sombreros, their large flowers cocked on top of their heads. The Kentucky Camp, which was race's start and finish, lay at an elevation of 5142 ft above sea level. The course dipped as low as 4031 ft and climbed as high at 5857 ft. These are not significant altitudes by any means but flatlander that I am I sensed the "skinny air" from time to time. Our route was billed as having a 6% grade with 7000 ft of climb and 7000 ft of descent over the 50 miles. In the near distance snow covered Mount Wrightson could be seen. But I found distances here to be impossible to gauge, the land was so wide-open, unimpeded vistas without contrast. How does one judge distance? Even when running into and out of the canyons and arroyos, up and down steep rocky trail it was as if I could see forever. I wondered what it must have felt like loading bags of dirt and gravel; stuff hopefully mixed with gold onto pack animals and carrying them from these deep, dry canyons. There were times when I had all I could do to haul my own sorry self up and out and on towards the finish line. Ah but the rewards on top were breathtaking! Rugged mountain outcrops lined some of the trails, often just overhead. The primitive beauty that surrounded me most of the day was rejuvenating and was indeed part of that sought after reprieve and rest.

So much of what I experienced that weekend was new. I hadn't expected as chilly a day as I found, it had rained a bit in the days leading up to the Old Pueblo event and the springs and creeks were swollen by desert standards. Dawn brought clear and mostly sunny skies. Rain that had pooled as puddles froze overnight and the cattle bridges we moved over where slippery. Cattle bridges are grates made of metal with 4-5 inch spaces between the rungs. The free-range cattle refuse to walk over them and they serve as unfenced gates on many back dirt roads. Cattle won't walk over them and this ultrarunner will not run over them. I had nightmare visions of slipping a foot into one of those gaps in the grates and breaking an ankle. A bridge like that was one signal to walk, as were the steep climbs and the many opportunities to just stop and drink in the world that was being presented. Cool breezes met us at every ridge top. The image of cattle grazing freely on the open range was such a novel thing to see. I am used to seeing cows fenced in and being fed by farmers, not let loose to fend for themselves on sparse desert grasses. A friend told me that she had watched one of these hearty pieces of beef on the hoof eating cactus flowers.

I came seeking respite and that is what I found. The combination of hot sun on my face and cool air seemed to nurture my spirits. The camaraderie felt while standing with my fellow runners before race's start always charms and soothes me. We left Kentucky Camp at the bottom of a gully and climbed up onto the high flatlands before sunrise. Dawn brought with it a world of red rock and dirt, I remembered cowboy movie matinees I saw as a child and felt that I'd seen this land before. Perhaps I had for I learned that many movie Westerns had been shot here. Oklahoma had been filmed a few miles from where we were at the break of day. Some of the climbs and downs went on for miles at a time. Some of the trail was rocky enough that strict attention had to be paid less the runner fall and hobble himself. A lot of the trail was a combination of sand and fine gravel that taxed lower legs. But the contrast of up and down was good; there was never any long repetitive motion. Trail running like this gives every part of the body the opportunity to work and play. I kept the trail out of my shoes by wearing gators. Twenty miles into the run turquoise stones littered the trail, as did unfamiliar scat. Why didn't I pick up souvenirs? (Turquoise, not trail poop). I saw no wild animals other than birds, no mountain lions or coyotes. I was oddly reassured that if I had wanted to I could run away and get lost in these hills. I smiled knowing that much of the land I ran on belonged to me as a United States citizen.

We did cross private property from time to time, having to open and shut gates as we moved along on our way. At one point late in the race it took both myself and another runner to figure out how to open a primitive gate and then our combined strength to close it again. I did see lots of barbed wire that weekend. It was cool enough to wear tights all day and the two bottles carried on my belt helped keep me hydrated in between aid stations. Salt, GU, Ensure, fruit and chocolate candy fueled my body. The smiling faces of aid workers every 5 or 6 miles and the example my fellow runners provided fed my psyche. Trail running on courses such as the Old Pueblo's can be spiritually uplifting but mentally draining. Attention must be paid to the lay of the land or the runner can find himself or herself seeing it up close and perhaps even tasting it. I usually do watch where I place my feet especially on technical parts of a course, it's when the trail becomes flat and clear that I relax and then relax too much. This occurred while on a red dirt road about 40 miles into the run. I do not know what I tripped over, maybe my own feet but down I went. Boom! I wasn't hurt just completely down and prone, horizontal. And it felt so good. That respite from movement in the midst of my intended respite felt exquisite. I just lay there a little bit drinking in how good it felt. I lay there like I often do in bed just after the morning alarm goes off. I know I should get up and get going but in a minute . . . . in a minute.

We hopped over and through many small streams and creeks, perhaps some of the winter runoff that 100 years ago James Stetson had hoped to store and use to get rich. I managed to keep my feet relatively dry while crossing the water. One of my favorite parts of the course was dirt laden and led into a steeply banked gully that I moved down into by negotiating and running along its walls. It reminded me of a toboggan course but instead of being lined and covered with snow it was made of red desert dirt.

I felt strong and capable most of the day. Aches and pains were transient. I thought my effort was measured and steady. But it's interesting how that perception was skewed. I came into the 25-mile aid station at Box Canyon after 4 hours and 45 minutes on the course. It took me 3 hours and 35 minutes to reach Cave Canyon at 40 miles and another 2-½ hours to finish up. Although I felt I was running well and moving right along my watch told me I averaged only 4 mph for the last 10 miles. Maybe it was a taste of the elevation, more likely a measure of my fitness. Nonetheless I felt like a runner doing what a runner does and enjoying it. It made complete sense to be spending the day like that.

It really was a very relaxed day in the high desert. The field was limited to 80 entrants, 71 started. The group was small enough that there were long periods when I would run alone without seeing another, alone but not lonely. Maybe this is how those solitary miners felt in years gone by. Coming across the finish line I smiled when I saw that there was no visible clock ticking the minutes away, I liked that! Time was of course recorded and I was more than satisfied with breaking 11 hours. Burgers, Coke and endorphin inspired good will met me at the finish line.

There are always one or two I meet for the first time or again that inspire me and help validate what I do while running from here to there. It was and always is a pleasure to run with Rolly Portelance from Canada. Rolly is an ultrarunner with a long and impressive resume' and a gentleman besides. I was pleased to see his mobile retirement home parked off Gardner Canyon Road inside the National Forest boundary on Friday afternoon. Rolly's words of encouragement during one of my first long trail runs in northern Ontario one night helped get me to the finish line. A new acquaintance was a fellow I met in a general store the night before the race. He is known as the Kid but I think the name on his driver's license is Grant Holdaway from Utah. Grant is seventy something years young and was so totally up for the distance and day's challenge. I want to be like these men when I grow up.

I went into the canyons and ran over the high grazing lands of southern Arizona and found what I sought. An interval of rest, delay and reprieve from the stresses that everyday life presents the 21st century man and woman. I was able to step off that beaten path for a short time and gain strength through active respite. I was lucky enough to understand my need to leave newspapers and the computer behind and be able to distance myself from the onslaught of information that makes up my working day to day world, to rest - if only for a little while. I needed that time of moving meditation to gain spiritual and mental strength. I wondered if there was more sought by those hearty dirt miners at the turn of the century than riches. Did those placer miners look for something in desert hills other than gold? Perhaps seeking the rewards of self-sufficiency? Of solitude and a well-defined goal? I do hope that they found what they needed and were looking for. I found respite in the high desert doing a very simple thing moving from here to there and trying to pay attention to what surrounded me and remembering as much as I could, returning home refreshed and ready.

Happy Trails,


Results from the Old Pueblo