Key words and phrases stuck in William Jackson’s mind as he read the description, so much so that he read and reread it for days on end.
Advanced degree endurance race.
Climbs and descents at 30-45% grades.
This is one of the most technical 100 milers in North America.
Yes, Jackson was intrigued by the Mogollon Monster 100. The 34-year-old resident of Salem, Mass., is no stranger to long-distance races – his 100-mile credits include Pine to Palm, Tahoe Rim Trail, the Bear, TARC and Ghost Train – but the description he kept reading sounded like a beast unlike anything he’d encountered before.
He’d found his next challenge.
“If you read the description of the race, some people say ‘Why would you do that? That sounds so scary,’” Jackson said. “For me, it’s the challenge, and the way (race founder Jeremy Dougherty) sets up the event is for it to be something special.”
Jackson admired the brutal honesty of Dougherty and fellow race director Jamil Coury in pointing out the difficulty of the course, including the fact that only 64 runners had finished the race during the first four years combined (only two in less than 24 hours), that severe weather brought the 2014 race to a halt due to dangerous conditions, and that “if you cannot make it several hours safely on your own, you will fail here.”
Jackson grew up in the White Mountains and has a strong background in hiking in harsh conditions. He spent the spring and summer training on trails – he finished 17th at the Salomon Trail Running Festival 50-miler in Maine in May and then won the TARC Summer Classic 40-miler in a course-record time in August – and supplemented his ultra-running passion with rock climbing. He trusted that his well-rounded background would have him as prepared as possible by mid-September to take on the mountain and desert conditions of the Mogollon Rim near Pine, Ariz.
A few days before the race, Jackson received an email from the race directors noting that a last-minute change to the course had to be made. The 106-mile course had been trimmed closer to 100 miles, however a new climb at mile 90 with around a 40-percent grade incline had been added. Jackson – joined by his pacer, Matthew Veiga of Lynn, Mass. – departed for Arizona prepared to take on the toughest course of his life. He was ready for the 22,000 feet of vertical gain, gnarly trails and harsh desert heat.
“As far as expectations, I’m very conservative and I essentially just wanted to finish and I wanted to go enjoy the experience,” Jackson said. “I enjoy the 100-mile distance for 100 different reasons, but I just wanted to finish. You have your soft goals, your ‘well, if I feel good I’ll try to go…,’ but to go into this course your first time and have a great race would be like winning the lottery.
“(Before Mogollon Monster) I’d never run a course where it just says, ‘Nope, you’re not going to do that, I’m sorry.’ This course has runnable sections, but it also has points where it’ll just bring you to a halt.”
The race began at 6 a.m. Saturday, and the running came relatively easy during the early miles with a mixture of singletrack trails, dirt roads, the first climb up the Mogollon Rim and some fast downhill sections. Jackson and most of the runners made good time during the first 20 miles as they enjoyed the cool early-morning temperatures.
As soon as the sun rose, the conditions grew more challenging.
“As it warms up, the ground heats up and it becomes more challenging as far as the environment goes,” Jackson said, noting that heat radiated off of the rocky ground and could be felt through his feet and all over his body.
Off-camber, washed-out sections of trail took their toll on Jackson’s ankles and hips, compounding the discomfort of his burning feet. Jackson carefully made his way through a section of the course where the trail was hidden beneath tall grass, masking rocks, holes, and other potential race-ending hazards near the Hell’s Gate aid station at mile 50.
Then there was the notorious powerline section which runners encountered three times – twice coming down and once climbing up. Composed of loose rock, that section gave Jackson pause each time he encountered it.
Unlike the 2014 race, which was shut down midway through for safety reasons after a snowstorm blanketed the course and a thick fog created blinding conditions, the 2016 event had typical September weather for the desert with lows in the 20s and highs in the 80s.
“I like the cold, but it was such a drastic change,” Jackson said. “I got through the heat of the day, and then it cooled down considerably. Coming down the powerline section for the third time, the wind was howling down on my neck. It was crazy.”
Of all the challenges that Jackson endured, however, the most consistent was difficulty breathing. He’d gone to the starting line battling a chest cold. Upon passing through a section of the course that had been burned by a forest fire, Jackson’s lungs took a turn for the worse and never recovered.
“I was almost choking at one point,” he says. “I could hear my lungs wheezing. I was trying to manage my breathing and have that not be a major issue. What can I do to move fast without hacking to death?”
Despite the considerable challenges posed by his lungs, the climate and the course, Jackson managed his race effectively. He completed the first 50 miles in around 13 hours and positioned himself well ahead of the cutoffs to beat the 36-hour time limit.
The second half of the race was slow-going with many technical climbs and descents during the overnight hours. Jackson thrived on the climbs; it was the downhills that took their toll as the course’s steady grind wore on him. A few hours after sunrise on Sunday morning, Jackson approached mile 92. That’s when an already hard race became considerably more difficult. A 1,000-foot climb lay before him during the course of the next mile; the steep grade made all the more difficult by the dirt and rock that were beginning their daily boil. The heat seeped through the soles of Jackson’s shoes, and his well-worn feet erupted in pain.
“I had blisters for the first time ever … on every one of my toes,” he said. “You had so much contact on your toes because that climb was so steep, and my shoes weren’t the tightest fitting even though they’d been fine all race. That climb and the heat coming out of the rock and dirt really added to it, but it was so late in the race that I really couldn’t stop to address (the blisters), so I just let them rip open and had to suffer the rest of the way.”
Upon summiting the final climb, Jackson knew he was home free. According to the race directors’ description, this final stretch was supposed to be fast. Jackson’s trashed feet wouldn’t allow it, though, so he and his pacer, Veiga, trod slowly onward. Eventually, one of Jackson’s running friends – Trent Wester of Santa Fe, N.M. – caught up with him and Veiga, which provided a much-needed morale boost.
“I was so psyched that he caught up with me,” Jackson says. “I wish he’d caught up with me sooner.”
The friends shared the final miles together and crossed the finish line side-by-side in 31:19:08, tied for 14th place.
Of the 47 runners who started the race, 33 finished. Andy Pearson of Santa Monica, Calif., became just the third person to complete the course in less than 24 hours with his winning time of 23:16:31. Only 12 runners finished in less than 30 hours.
The race marked the most time Jackson has ever spent on his feet without a break, and he said he was in awe of the course and the terrain.
“Thinking I did it that slowly, it’s like wow, you really have a respect for what you’re doing as far as the difficulty of the course that Jeremy and Jamil put together; it’s amazing,” he said. “I have deep respect for that environment. I’ve run in the desert before, but this place is a special challenge for sure.”
Once his finisher’s belt buckle had been collected and it was time to head back to Massachusetts, Jackson admitted that the feeling was bittersweet. He legs were happy that the race was over, but there was a piece of him that wasn’t ready to come home.
“You get used to it and it just feels right to be out there,” he said. “It really is the best way to enjoy a whole day just being out with people that are awesome in such beautiful country.”
Jackson is the first Massachusetts resident to finish the Mogollon Monster. He doesn’t want to be the last. He said he highly recommends the race to others who are looking for a serious challenge.
“It’s the best 100-miler I’ve ever been to,” Jackson said. “It’s really special. It’s such a small place and they love that event and do such a great job with it. It was just a pleasure to be a part of it.”
But, in keeping with the race directors’ honesty about what to expect from the course, Jackson offered one word of advice for future participants that he learned from first-hand experience.
“Don’t think this race is going to be nice to you; it’s not,” Jackson says. “Everybody’s bloody from cactuses and falling. I found out that every little cute plant has something sharp on it.”