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Hiking Training

My Worst Great Adventure: 24 Hours of the Prescott Circle Trail

When I ran Javelina Jundred 100k in 2016, the biggest surprise I had in graduating to that distance from 50k was what the last four, five, six hours felt like. I knew it wasn’t going to be fun, but I wasn’t ready for how not-fun it was going to be. And then when I ran Black Canyon 100k in 2018, I was again surprised—but this time it was by how much easier the back half of the race was, and I think it had a lot to do with knowing what to expect. 

So when I started planning the final training block for my first 100 mile race, I wanted to ensure as few unpleasant surprises as possible, and the biggest one I had my eye on was the final hours of the night. It’s a time that is well known for being the worst part of the race, and it makes runners drop. 

In my 100Ks, I had passed the 2 AM mark during the race and knew that I could manage that much okay. So it was really the stretch from 2 AM to sunrise that was my area of greatest concern. I didn’t know how it would hit me when it came, and I didn’t want the race to be when I found out for the first time.

Thus was born the idea for my last big training push for Stagecoach. I would go on a 24 hour hike. I chose hiking rather than running, because the point was “time on feet” rather than distance, and hiking would be less wear and tear on me. Running for 24 hours seemed to me like it would be the classic mistake of “running the race before the race.”

After I came up with this plan, I had to decide where to do it. I didn’t want to just repeat loops out at the local parks over and over, so I started looking around for ideas that sounded a little more interesting. I did a rough estimate of what the distance would be if I did 24 hours at a fairly comfortable pace (I was estimating between two and three miles per hour) and came up with a little over 50 miles. That gave me an idea to go do a thing I’d been wanting to do for a while: complete a circuit of the Prescott Circle Trail.

Destination: Prescott

The Plan

I would reserve a campsite at the White Spar campground just south of Prescott, that intersects with the trail. Go up and stay there the night before, and reserve it for the second night so I had a place to keep my car, and maybe get a little sleep after I finished.

I got online and mapped out water sources along the trail that I could use to keep going continuously. There are some longer dry stretches (~15 miles), but mostly it looked doable to be self-supported. I would carry all the food I planned on eating. I was deliberately planning to pack a little heavier than necessary in the hopes that, come race day, the running pack would seem light throughout the race.

I knew I wasn’t going to want to be out in the woods around Prescott at night by myself. Fortunately, a friend told me almost right away that coming along for some or all of it would dovetail nicely with his own training plan for a race he had coming up shortly after Stagecoach, so I was set on that front.

We would start from White Spar around 8:00 and head counter clockwise around the Circle. The focus was to hike through to sunrise the next day—not on completing the full length of the trail. If we did that, it would be icing on the cake, but I wanted to keep the pace easy and not worry about hurrying or maintaining a certain speed.

Things Go South (as they usually do in some way)

About a week before the hike, I checked in with the friend who was going, and he told me he wasn’t going to be able to make it. Of all the things that could have gone wrong, this was the one that I really, really had hoped wouldn’t be it.

In a low-grade panic, I started hitting up everyone I knew who I thought might be both willing and able to hop into a long hike to help me out (it wasn’t a long list). I immediately dismissed the idea of having someone with me in the daytime—I was just looking for anyone who could do the night stretch with me, which I was estimating would be 20-25 miles.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t have any takers.

My friend Chris stepped in and saved the thing from being a total loss (because I was seriously thinking about calling it off and just doing a more-conventional back to back long run weekend). He wasn’t up for the distance of the hike, but he offered to crew me instead, meeting up with me at road crossings to help with food and necessities, and most importantly to keep me from having to go the whole night alone. He would meet me at White Spar on Saturday morning to kick the “event” off, and then would meet me at certain points along the trail throughout the next 24 hours. He would bring his motor home so he had comfy accommodations while he waited for me, and there was even a possibility of getting a shower in it once we finished.

Starting out Saturday morning

We Get Started

So Friday night, I drove up to the campsite and slept. It was a nice night, cool but mild. I left the rain fly off my tent and went to sleep with the stars over my head. It was a beautiful night.

Chris met me the next morning as planned, while I packed up camp. Then I was done, and we were off. I didn’t get started quite on the time we’d planned, which unfortunately is pretty normal for me. I like snoozing a little too much.

I knew this first stretch pretty well, better than any other part of the trail for sure. I’d come up and run it a few times in the summer months—it’s a good one for warmer weather because it’s a forest area and there is a lot of shade. 

And just to prove how well I knew it, I took my first wrong turn of the day about five miles in. I retraced my steps as soon as I figured it out, and then waffled around for a while trying to follow the navigation in the GPS app I was using. It was nonsensical and did not appear to match any of the trails I could see, so I got back to familiar territory and retired that app for the remainder of the trip.

I had my first meetup with Chris shortly after, as I crossed Senator Highway a little past the five mile mark. He brought out my bag of snacks, and we refilled my water. We kept this aid stop short since there were going to be a lot of them ahead of us, and I started off on the first section of the trail I had never seen.

The next stretch was long, exposed, and dry. It ended up taking about 15 miles and almost five and a half hours to cover, so it was pretty warm by the time Chris and I met up next. He came out on the trail to meet me with some cold Powerade (blue, which is the best Powerade flavor), which was very welcome at that point. We walked together for a while, I ate and got some rest, and started on the next stretch.

Hiking Through Town

The next 13 (-ish) miles were a little weird. Everything up to that point had been outside of and away from town. In the Goldwater Lake section of trail, I couldn’t see town at all. In the Badger Mountain section I had just finished, I could see parts of Prescott while I hiked and gradually got closer, but the trail was still pretty separated from town. From here on for a while, I started hiking along town roads and through parks, and sometimes feeling like I was going through people’s back yards.

Chris and I continued to meet up as I moved around the edges of town for the next five hours or so, and we met up to have a dinner or sorts at a little past the 32 mile mark, at around 8:15 PM. I’d been in the dark for a couple of hours and was starting to realize that I could have planned this better. Once I left that stop, I would be heading away from town, on moonless and windy night, by myself for hours and hours on end.

If I had started at a different part of the circle (like… exactly where I was at right then), I could have timed it so that I would have been in the town stretch during the darkest parts of the night. Still not ideal, but better than what I was looking at doing next.

I stayed a while during that break to eat. I was eating, but I was also trying to mentally prepare for the long night ahead. I was going to need it.

The Fun Time

From that stop, I started moving away from town for the most part. I passed to the north side of Pioneer Parkway and stopped seeing city lights for a while. The wind blew, and the night was dark and quiet. I started to surprise night birds that had settled down in the grass near the trail or on the trail itself. They would burst out of hiding mere feet from me as a passed by them, startling me over and over again. I saw my first deer of the night as well. 

There would be plenty more.

I started singing to distract myself, and to try and make a little more noise that might get the animals to start moving before I was right on top of them. I ran through as many songs as I could think of to sing that might cheer me up, and then I ran out and decided to start telling myself stories about dumb things me and my friends did when we were teenagers.

At about 10:45 PM, I got to the one spot of the Circle Trail that I think is a major design failure and deeply in need of redesigning: the intersection of Pioneer Parkway and N Williamson Valley Road. Both roads are massive, multi-lane affairs, and even though there are stoplights, there are no marked crosswalks, and no way for Circle Trail pedestrians to halt the flow of traffic to safely cross the road (and no pedestrian tunnel or overpass). So you have to wait for a break in traffic, and run and pray. And then once you make your way across this intersection and head south, there is no trail marked on either side of the road, so your options are either walking the wrong way down the shoulder of this road where cars are blowing past you at 50 miles per hour, or if you do like I did because that was terrifying that late at night, you walk on the other side of the guardrail, off the road, and spend a while kicking your way through scrubby grass and rocks.

Fortunately, it’s not a long stretch (just a little under half a mile), and then you peel off N Williamson Valley Road and head into a little neighborhood, and that was where I met up with Chris again. I ate some snacks and refilled water, we talked a bit, and I headed out again.

The Even More Fun Time

The beginning of this stretch was pretty weird. Unless you have a map indicating that you are supposed to spend mile walking through the neighborhood I was in, you wouldn’t be able to tell. There aren’t any signs indicating that the Circle Trail continues through it, or the roads you need to turn on to get through and out of it in the right place (south on Hozoni Rd, west on Katahn Dr). I realize that there is a pretty safe assumption that users navigating the trail will already have some sort of map and/or navigation that they are using, but I personally feel like it should be navigable without them, especially in urban/suburban sections like this where you are relying solely on paved roads.

I came out the west end of the neighborhood and found the trail again, and this was really where the night really started to get rough for me mentally.

I headed out into the hills, climbing for several miles, and felt truly and deeply alone in the dark. The wind blew, and I left civilization further and further behind. I continued to tell stories to no one just to hear the sound of my voice, and to give any animals nearby a little warning that I was coming.

Deer seen in the daylight. They really are all over the place along the trail.

I saw more deer. Lots and lots of deer, all through the rest of the night. I was looking off one side of the trail to the other, mostly to try and avoid getting tunnel vision, but I was seeing eyes reflecting back to me out of the dark way more often than I had expected. I had no idea I would see so many deer out there, and every time I did, they’d give me a brief jolt of surprise. It got to be a familiar routine—see eyes in the dark, jump, strain to see what I was looking at, and relax a little again.

Deer were good. They get to be surprisingly creepy after a while of seeing them, the way they (mostly) just stare back at you in the dark without moving, but I took their presence to indicate that predatory animals weren’t nearby. So I could relax about that, too.

I followed my map and the trail, saw deer, talked to myself, and met up with Chris a couple more times. That became my life for the rest of the night. 

At one point, the trail led me into a small depression with about a dozen deer distributed on the hills above me to either side, and that gave me pause for a bit. Eventually I went forward, vocally reminding the deer about the natural order of things and how they were afraid of me, and that nobody needed to get riled up about anything. I guess it worked because they all stayed cool (I also suggested that “everybody be cool” several times) as I crossed their turf and kept going.

Later on, in a spot where the direction I needed to take at a fork in the trail was unclear, something that I assume was an owl screeched down at me very unpleasantly while I walked back and forth trying to see which way was the right way to go on my GPS app. 

Weirdly, my favorite part of my solo stretches of the night was when I stopped to take a break and eat. I think the biggest part of the struggle I had that night was the primitive part of my lizard brain wanting to hunker down and take shelter in the dark, and being tremendously uncomfortable being out and walking around. So when I stopped to sit and snack for a few minutes, it just felt tremendously restful.

Also, maybe it was just the fact that I stopped talking for a little while and took the time to look around and appreciate the night.

The Final Stretch

I met with Chris one last time in the dark, and we decided that the next segment would be the last segment. Sunrise was only a couple of hours away, and the goal had been to go through the night until sunrise. Mission (would be) accomplished.

We (briefly) debated continuing all the way around to close the circle, so that I would have done the full thing in one activity, but we were both tired and that hadn’t been the main objective. And on top of that, combined with the mileage I had already done and would still be doing, we estimated that we were probably looking at something close to 60 miles and (at least) several additional hours. We decided that we weren’t up for any of that.

I went out into the dark again, and after a while, sunrise started. I couldn’t even guess at how many times I have heard about the invigorating effect morning sunlight has for runners who have been going through the night, so I was expecting something magical to happen. It didn’t, really.

Even if it wasn’t magical, it was still a nice sunrise.

I capped off the adventure by taking the wrong fork of the trail at a confusingly-marked intersection, which ended up dumping me off the trail much sooner than taking the correct fork would have. At the time I wasn’t happy about it, but after returning to it later and seeing how much longer I would have been on trail if I’d gone the right way, I’m kind of glad it happened. I was ready to be done.

I had to call Chris and direct him to where I was—obviously I hadn’t emerged at the right place. He drove back and found me, and we went into town and had some breakfast. It was really good.

Analysis

It was a really good training activity, both physically and mentally. I didn’t struggle with tiredness at all through the night, and wasn’t even sleepy when I went back to the campsite to take a nap before driving home. I dozed for a little while, much less than I expected, and was ready for the drive home when I woke up.

It’s hard to overstate how much I disliked hiking out there in the woods in the dark by myself all night long. I can safely say I don’t want to do that again. Ever. If I’d had a tent and a sleeping bag, I could have spent the night happily just about anywhere along the way, but it turns out that being out and walking is a whole different experience.

In spite of the rough night, the overall experience was a tremendous confidence booster for Stagecoach. Even if I don’t necessarily want to repeat the experience, I’m glad I did it.

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