A story of friendships forged on the longest of runs
As a self-proclaimed journalist searching for something to journal about, I knew it would be impossible not to find a story at the 2019 Western States Endurance Run. Hundreds of runners come to Squaw Valley, California and set off at 5:00 AM to cover one hundred miles on foot. In witnessing the raw human strength and resilience that accompanies such a colossal task, one couldn’t possibly do justice to the amount of extraordinary stories behind this day. The front of this year’s race, however, was something that I couldn’t help but notice stood out a bit more. A combination of teamwork, tremendous athleticism and pure love.
Ultrarunning takes a certain amount of internal fire that often separates those who do it from — well — those who don’t. This is not to say that ultrarunners can’t fit in with the rest of society, or vice versa, but the fire within a person that leads them to endure the beautiful and outrageous act of a one-hundred mile footrace is not easily understood by all. To consider such a feat, not to mention train for it, is often a solitary pursuit. Whether it’s waking up before sunrise to fit in a long run before work, or spending the entirety of your weekend covering as many miles as possible on foot, it’s not exactly easy to convince your peers to accompany you for these rituals. So, it’s no wonder that ultrarunners find solace in one another.
This companionship of crazed athletic pursuit can be just that - companionship, somebody to run with every so often. Or, it can cultivate something much stronger - an individual requiring a team to tap into his own resources. The idea of having any semblance of a team of ultrarunners is fairly unheard of. Most likely because of the absurd time commitment, the scheduling difficulties, and the inevitably strong personalities. To foster such a team, though, means that it must be a strong one.
Some of us here (i.e. those with a particularly strong interest in this obscure sport) might be familiar with the Coconino Cowboys. Or maybe the Cappucino Cowboys. Either way, it’s a group of ultrarunners, all residing in Flagstaff, Arizona - which is nestled in the pines of Coconino County - who have banded together, ruffled some feathers, and absolutely torn things up on the trails around the globe.
The group now consists of six men - Tim Freriks, Jared Hazen, Stephen Kersh, Cody Reed, Eric Senseman, and Jim Walmsley. At this year’s Western States, the power of the group was evident, to say the least. In looking through the results, it’s hard not to notice that three of the top ten men are from Flagstaff. Jim smashed his own 2018 course record, Jared came in behind Jim, also breaking the previous course record, and Stephen finished his first 100-miler in an impressive time of 15:54 for seventh place. This showing makes it clear that there must be more to it for these men than Flagstaff’s thin air. From regular excursions in the Grand Canyon to too-long-to-bear-alone afternoon doubles from Senseman’s porch, this group has together built a ladder towards success that they have all been climbing.
The group started with Jim, Tim, and Cody, with Jared joining shortly after. “I met Jim at Lake Sonoma in 2015, and then about a year later, right when the group was forming, I came to town on what you could call a recruiting trip,” retells Jared. “I was pretty injured at the time, but we had a good time, so I moved here.” Jared and Jim now live together, making it almost too easy to train stride for stride.
Jared continues, “I think if you train with Jim a couple days a week… he likes to put on a bit of a show, he plays these little mental games with you. We train very similarly, and we’ve had the shared suffering of, like, I’m really fucking tired and I don’t want to run, and it’s 6pm, and he’s like, alright, let’s go, and we drag ourselves up Mount Elden for the seventh day in a row. I trained with Jim a lot, obviously, living with him, probably him the most. We got each other through it, I’d say.”
Shortly after Jared joined the group, Eric Senseman followed suit. Getting Kersh to join the crew wasn’t quite as seamless. “I was always hesitant to join, already being part of an unincorporated athletic club with the Jacuzzi Boys, and I think Jim always held a slight resentment that I was more of a Jacuzzi Boy than a Coconino Cowboy. But this last training block, I really relied on these guys to continue to inspire me and get me out the door.”
Stephen continues, somewhat jokingly, “I guess the moment I officially became a Coconino Cowboy was after Rim to Rim to Rim [of the Grand Canyon], we finished and Jim gave me some Coconino Cowboys t-shirts, so I think that was like my initiation. You just gotta go run 42 miles with the fellas, and then you’re a Cowboy, I guess.”
“I think if you train with Jim a couple days a week… he likes to put on a bit of a show, he plays these little mental games with you."
I asked if Jim would have given him the shirts had he not finished the run. “I think he would have said he wouldn’t have, but underneath it all, Jim is a really nice guy and cares about us a lot, so he probably would have.” Jared then adds, “At one point in time, Stephen was complaining that he didn’t have any Coconino Cowboy gear, and Jim was like, Stephen keeps complaining about this, and he couldn’t remember the discount code, so he fucking bought Coconino Cowboy gear just so Stephen could have it.”
While being naturally competitive with one another, these guys are nothing short of teammates. Stephen admits that he didn’t even know what Western States was until a couple years ago. “Until meeting Jim and Tim and all these guys doing all these races, it opened my eyes to a whole new world… having that kind of intel in your backyard is pretty special. They all started something that the ultrarunning world hadn’t really seen before, so it was cool to look at it from the outside, and then to now be a part of it.”
Hazen agrees, acknowledging the confidence that the group gives him. “If I have like one down week, I start doubting myself. So that filled in a good piece of the puzzle for me, maybe that was missing, of the confidence and self-belief, and the training definitely got elevated with the way these guys go about it. Training in the [Grand] Canyon, and doing things like heat training. Jim’s got this stupid sauna in our garage, and it was just like, this guy is spending like half an hour in there every day, like now I have to.”
Forming a team of highly successful and competitive athletes is not always easy. Keeping the scale balanced between healthy competition and teamwork is incredibly tricky. Which is why, when Jim won Western States and eagerly waited for Jared to come through in second, everybody in the crowd felt the uniqueness and beauty of this team. “I was basically running scared all day… things started rolling again as I crossed the river, and, I don’t know, I just can’t wait to see Jared finish...” Later, he continues, “This is probably the most rewarding Western States, because that guy pushing me and clipping my heels is also one of my best friends that I train with all the time in Flagstaff, and for us, we couldn’t have asked for a better day. And Stephen Kersh really crushed his hundred-mile debut...”
“I was basically running scared all day… things started rolling again as I crossed the river, and, I don’t know, I just can’t wait to see Jared finish...”
Jim and Jared both lined up for Western States with the same goal: to win. About two weeks before the race, Jim explains after finishing, they didn’t really run together at all. “He has a goal to win, and I have a goal to win, and I think we need to kind of stop picking on each other at that point, and both get our heads right to go put ourselves in a position to win it.” When Jim knew that Jared was on his heels, Jared was just like any other competitor, in his mind. Knowing his competition so well might have even helped Jim, knowing of Jared’s absolute relentlessness.
Similarly, knowing Jim’s tactics from years of training together pushed Jared to a place he might not have gone otherwise. “I think, on race day, knowing each other so well, I was thinking a lot of the time, like, you give this guy an inch and he takes a mile. So that was on my mind a lot, like, you can’t give him anything, you gotta stay on the gas.” For most of the race, Jim and Jared were getting the same update - that Jared was around 8-10 minutes back. They both knew that the other wasn’t going to budge.
They had dragged each other up Flagstaff’s mountains and through Arizona’s canyons, and they had seen each other hurt. Would we have seen the race play out the same had the Coconino Cowboys not existed? It’s hard to say. Jim exclaims, in his post-race interview, “I couldn’t ask for anyone else to be pushing me today, I just want to see him come screaming through, and just want nothing but the best for him. In Flagstaff in general, we’ve just got a really good group of guys.”
Once the dust from Auburn, California had settled, I spoke to Jared about his relationship with Jim and the other Cowboys. Beyond the sport that ties them together and the trails they share in Flagstaff, it’s clear a blood-is-thicker-than-water relationship exists. “Somewhere along the line, we were watching the Robertson brothers - Zane and Jake,” Jared recalls. “And Jim was like, Dude, that’s like us man, we’re like brothers… like shit-faced after downing a bottle of wine.”