Mogollon Monster 100: How Tough is Too Tough?
Jaret Seiberg submits a report of his experience at the inaugural "Mogollon Monster 100" in Pine, AZ.
I missed a time cutoff for the first time in my ultra running career when I could not get to the mile 56 aid station at the Mogollon Monster 100 before 5 a.m., which would have been 19 hours into the race.
When I told folks that I missed the cutoff, most expected me to be disappointed. Yet I’m not. What I realized around Mile 18 is that there was no way I was going to be able to finish this race in the time allotted. I simply was not a skilled enough or strong enough runner for this course. Nor were Joe Schramka or Doug Sullivan, who were my partners in crime in this mis-adventure.
This is probably where I could use John Dodds to recount the ultra achievements of the three of us. Doug in the last several months finished San Diego 100, Hardrock and the Ring. Joe is a veteran with two straight MMT finishes. And I’ve finished 100 milers that required me to climb in the Grand Tetons, scale the cliffs at the Headlands 100 and dodge 18 wheelers in the three Mother Road races. That’s on top of two MMT finishes.
In short, we were a pretty experienced group. And we had no chance of finishing this race.
But I get ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
With Kerry Owens and Doug Sullivan now having a house in Sedona, Doug began looking for a 100 miler to do. In steps in the Mogollon Monster, which held its an inaugural race on Sept. 28 and 29.
Doug starts touting the race and signs up himself and Kerry. Then Joe commits with Betsy signing on to crew him. So I decide to join the fun and book a trip out to Arizona.
The Mogollon Monster web site includes the standard description of the course and a warning that it is for experienced ultra runners. In fact, race director Jeremy Dougherty was blunt that first timers might want to find another race.
Yet we were not newbies.
The course did involve more than 18,000 feet of climbing, but that seemed doable. And the elevation stays below 8,000 feet., which was another plus.
When race day came, there were only three of us at the starting line. Kerry opted to pace Doug at night rather than run the entire race. This once again confirms that Kerry is in fact the smartest person in the VHTRC.
(Yes, I realize as we are a club that has members who milk venom out of snakes while on training runs that Kerry being the smartest in the VHTRC may be the equivalent of being the shortest giant or tallest midget, but it is still noteworthy.)
The race starts out better than expected. We begin with the longest climb of the entire course. It goes close to 3,000 feet up from the town of Pine to the top of a mountain.
The views are amazing. We see the town of Pine – which already is small – getting tinier and tinier as we climb. You can see mountains and valleys. The terrain is packed dirt, but it is not a dessert like you see on television. We go through pine forests and cross creeks with water in them.
As the race starts at 10 a.m. to give those from Phoenix and Tucson the ability to get there that morning, we climb in the heat of the day. But even that is not terrible. It was hot, but the dryness meant you didn’t get soaked and you were less likely to chafe.
We reach the first aid station at just under nine miles at 12:30 p.m. Given the elevation gain, my estimate was three hours for the first climb. So we were actually ahead of schedule.
The elevation profile suggests that we should be mostly going downhill until the major aid station at mile 27. My estimate was that we would get to this aid station – named Washington Park – at 4 p.m., which would be six hours into the race.
The estimate looked a bit shaky. The three of us moved pretty well until aid station 2. The course was mostly dirt road and some relatively flat trail that followed a minor highway. Joe and I left aid station 2 a bit ahead of Doug, though he quickly caught us.
This is when I began to doubt my estimate. I expected to be able to run down the mountain and make up some of the time we lost climbing up the mountain. That was just not possible.
We descended steeply on loose rocks. One wrong move and you would not just fall down on the trail. You could fall off the mountain. I’d be shocked if we did better than 15 minute miles on this descent. I was thinking we might do eight or nine minute miles.
My estimate on when we would get to mile 27 was now seven hours.
Then we screwed up. And when I say we I really don’t mean Doug, Joe or myself. Or the other seven people that we turned around after we went off course. What happened is we came to a well marked right hand turn off a dirt road we were running on.
So guess what we did? We turned and followed the course marking. That was a mistake. We ran and walked uphill for about 25 minutes. Then the two women with us decided this had to be a mistake because we were climbing too much in what was supposed to be a downhill section.
We had a powwow of the two women, Joe and me. Doug sat on a rock and supervised. The consensus was that we shouldn’t have taken this turn because we were now on the return course. It took us exactly 14 minutes to run – and we were running as it was downhill – to get back to the wrong turn.
And there hidden around the bend was another ribbon suggesting you also could go straight.
This brings us to the issue of course markings. As a runner, I want the marking to be consistent. If you are going to put down confidence markers between turns then you need to always do that. Otherwise a runner will assume that he is off trail. And if you mark wrong turns with a different color ribbon, then you need to always do that to avoid confusion.
This is where I’d raise my first fault of the race. The markings – when there were markings – were very inconsistent. There were not two ribbons to mark a turn. Sometimes there were not any ribbons to mark a turn. In other spots, the markings rivaled MMT. They were so good you couldn’t get lost.
As we get to the mile 18ish aid station, my estimate to get to Washington Park is now 7.5 hours into the race. I thought I was conservative as the downhill and uphill on this section were close. I was off by an hour in the bad direction.
The next section was the second worst yet of the course. There are tons of trails on this section, but we only wanted a specific one. Yet markings were few and far between. By this point, it was just Joe and I. Doug was about 10 minutes behind us. We wasted countless minutes when the trail would end and we would have no idea where to go as there were multiple options and few markings. And the views were no existent as we seemed to be traversing a valley.
For me, the worst part of this section was when we emerged at a road. I really thought this has to be the road to the aid station. But there was nothing saying we should go down the road. And there was a ribbon saying we should climb up the trail.
This was a hard call for Joe and I. Time wise we felt we should be there. And it was not out of question for the out and back to the aid station to not be marked. Yet there also was a ribbon telling us to get on the trail.
So we climbed the trail. After 10 minutes or so I told Joe that we might be en route to the next aid station, which was another six miles and another 2,000 foot plus climb away. That would have been a problem as we were running low of fluids.
Yet just as we were losing all hope we began to descend and emerged at a dirt road just a 100 yards or so from the aid station.
It was now 6:30 p.m. We needed 8.5 hours to travel 27 miles.
There were 43 runners I believe signed up for the race. I believe about 33 actually started. We were around the 17th and 18th runners to get to Washington Park. As we refilled our packs and grabbed some food I told Joe that we might time out as we had to be back to Washington Park by 3 a.m. That meant we had 8.5 hours to cover 23 miles in the dark. And it did get dark. We were using headlamps within five minutes of leaving the aid station.
I had high hopes for this climb as the course had us going up it once and down it twice. My expectation was that we could power walk up it and run down it. That might give us a chance to gain some time.
My hopes were dashed. What began as a rocky dirt road became double track with small stream crossings. So far, this was going to be okay. Then it became a scramble up a rock slide. I thought Joe was going to lose it. I thought I was going to lose it.
Not only was it steep and the footing was terrible because these were loose rocks, but it also wasn’t marked. So we had no idea if we really were on trail or not.
That is until we saw the lead runner coming down the rock scramble toward us. To call this demoralizing is an understatement. He was 20 miles ahead of us and moving like the course was nothing to him.
We believe he was the eventual winner. We were told at an aid station that he is a local who runs these trails all the time. The results tell us he is Jamil Coury of Phoenix and he won in 22:24. Two other runners broke 30 hours, one broke 34 hours, and the remaining four finishers made the 36 hour limit by between 11 minutes and 99 minutes.
Now let’s put this in perspective. The finishing rate appeared to be under 30%. All but one was a local. And that non-local was Andy Pearson, whose bio on ultra signup suggests he is pretty good as he finished 8th at Jemez 50, which is similarly tough to this run.
But I get ahead of myself.
Joe and I are cursing up a storm as we climb the rock slide. We had already decided the theme for the run was F--- Y’All. As in every time we couldn’t find the course we’d yell, F—Y’all. Or when we tripped on rocks it was an F--- Y’all. That phrase was repeated often, loudly and without the hyphens.
We reached the top of the rock slide and I told Joe that we were not going to make the 3 a.m. cutoff at mile 50 as it was clear we’d make up no time running down the rock slide.
Yet we took off down what turned out to be a dirt road. The next four miles were the best of the course. I wish I had a picture but the iPhone ran out of juice. The full moon meant we did not need headlamps.
And we could run. Yes we were up around 7,500 feet. But the temperatures were cool, the road smooth and views stunning. And by stunning I mean really incredible. You could make out the sides of the cliffs and valley below.
Then we saw a bright light on the left side of the road. We decided to check out the light and discovered it was the entrance to the trail that led to the aid station. (Doug was about 15 minutes behind us and not as lucky. His group thought the lantern was part of a campsite and they did not want to disturb them. So they added bonus miles down the road.)
At the aid station we had chicken soup and grilled cheese before heading out. Our spirits were up. I now thought we could get to Washington Park by 1 a.m., which would put us two hours ahead of the cutoff.
Then partial disaster struck. Joe got sick. He quickly recovered, but we lost some momentum and I was worried that Joe would get dehydrated and have to drop. And that would suck because Joe was fun to banter with and because we worked well together in staying on trail.
We were now running the down hills and power walking the ups. This was pure single track, but it had the feel of running the Ridge Trail in Rock Creek park. There were ups and downs. But the footing was the best of the day outside of the dirt road and we made relatively solid time to Pinchot Cabin aid station.
From there we had five miles of trails and then the two mile rock slide descent to Washington Park. The trails were slower than before. Part of it was at least me as I was getting tired. And my Camelbak was bothering the living daylights out of my back. (I learned at the next aid station that they put the bladder in backwards so the hose connector was jabbing my back the entire seven miles.)
The trails here were interesting. Though dark, we were running along the banks of streams. Sometimes the banks were very sandy and you’d lose your forward momentum. Other times the trails were packed hard and you could pick up some time.
We emerged at the Rock Slide a bit behind schedule. I now had us getting to Washington Park at 1:30 a.m. That was when I realized just how terrible the rock slide was. Going down it took forever. It was steep. The rocks would let lose with every footstep. It was not fun.
We got to Washington Park at Mile 50 in 15:45 at around 1:45 a.m. We were 1:15 ahead of the cutoff.
As we had our packs refilled and we ate, Joe and I decided to press forward even though it seemed highly unlikely that we could finish. We would have to average 20 minute miles the rest of the way to get back to Washington Park at Mile 86 before 3 p.m. Even then, we would then need to average 20 minute miles to the finish. This included on the second biggest climb of the course.
And did I mention that the course is 106 miles long?
Despite the long odds, Joe and I had repeatedly agreed we were in this race until we missed a cut off. So with Betsy now as our pacer, we were off on this 36 mile loop.
Now I had some hope for this next section. It was mostly downhill to Mile 56. We had three hours to get there. And we had a pacer with fresh eyes to keep us from getting lost and fresh stories to keep us amused.
We should have dropped at mile 50.
The next section was the worst I have experienced at any race. I should have known things were going to be bad when we cross a creek out of the aid station and immediately go the wrong way.
Yet that was a minor issue. There were very few ribbons on this section. We often had to only trust that we were on course. There was barely even a trail to follow much of the time. We were pushing our way between waist high grass, pricker bushes, and some type of pointed desert plant. The worst part was that you often could not see your feet because of the vegetation. So you would stumble all the time when there was a rock or a hole in the trail.
This crushed me. I just couldn’t believe it. Once again we had a section where I was hoping we would make up time and I realized that we were not even going to manage 30 minute miles on it.
We hit the aid station about six minutes after the cutoff. Then we got our surprise of the night. You may have timed out of the race, but you couldn’t drop there unless you were willing to hike 2.2 miles down a road and find someone willing to drive 25 miles from Washington Park to get you.
As we had no idea who could get us – we assumed Kerry was pacing Doug at this point and kept expecting them to catch us – so we had to proceed on the course despite missing the cut off.
The next section seemed easy even though it should have been hard. It seemed easy because we were on actual trails. You could run. You could power walk. You could mall walk. You could do anything because it was a real trail.
This real trail soon went up the mountain to the Rim. That meant about a 2,000 foot climb. This also was insanely steep, but we made excellent time. The problem was that the next aid station was around mile 63 and we had only about 1:45 to get there. With that major climb, that was just not possible.
We did get to enjoy stunning views of the mountains, the cliffs and valley as the sun rose. That was spectacular. And the temperature was cool for the climb as the sun had not yet warmed things up.
Once we were on the road, we began trying to figure out a way back to Washington Park. It was evident to us that there was no transportation if you missed a cutoff. You had to get to Mile 86 no matter what.
This is when Joe and Betsy flagged down a pick up truck. We were about a mile from that aid station and realized there was no point running all day if we were already out of the race. And there was no way given the nature of the trails that we had a chance to get ahead of the cutoffs again by mile 86.
There was a very friendly older couple driving the truck. They showed us their map, which confirmed that we were about seven miles from the rock slide trail to Washington Park. They then offered to give us a ride, which we graciously accepted. These were wonderful people. A huge thank you to them.
The truck ride meant we didn’t have to run those seven miles. But we still had about 2.5 miles to the aid station from where they left us off. That took some time as we need to get down the rock slide.
We arrived at Mile 86 to cheers. They even cheered when we explained that we had dropped up at the Rim.
Betsy drove me back to my car in Pine and we learned that Doug had dropped out of the race before descending the Rim the first time. After a stop at Dairy Queen and Starbucks, I was off to Sedona for a shower and a nap.
So now back to my question at the start of this report. Did Jeremy design a “fair” 100 mile course?
If you asked me that Saturday night, the answer was a clear “no.” But I would be more nuanced today in my response.
The course was not fair because it was too tough for someone unfamiliar from the trails to navigate it. The markings were inconsistent and misleading. And that was when the course was marked. We wasted all of our cushion trying to figure out where to go.
I suspect that will be fixed in future years as Jeremy was otherwise quite skilled in putting the race together. The aid stations were in the right spots, they were well staffed, there was plenty of liquids and food, and drop bags got to where they needed to be.
With the navigation fixes, the course becomes doable for anyone who is strong at altitude and is willing to accept that the course is six miles long and offers precious few opportunities to make up time. In short, if there is a tough way to go and an easy way to go, it seems like the course goes the tough way just about every time.
Is that fair? It probably is. Race directors have a clear right to design courses however they want. This is designed to be extremely tough. It uses some of the Zane Gray trails, which is considered one of the hardest 50 milers. To me, it was much harder than the Jemez 50 milers, which is also considered a very hard race.
Yet it also means this race is not for even an experienced ultra runner. The 106 mile distance means you are up against the equivalent of a 34 hour cutoff for a 100 mile distance. So you have the difficulty of the course and a compressed time period in which to complete it. You also start late in the morning, which means you lose several hours to daylight on that first morning. And finally the most runnable sections occur up on the Rim. Yet runners don’t hit them until around Mile 30. By then it was dark for most of us. That limited the ability to take advantage of the relatively better footing.
So congratulations to Jeremy for pulling off this inaugural event. It took tremendous work and effort. I hope the race prospers, the markings improve and the field gets bigger. But for now I would not recommend this race unless you are the elite of the elite.