Last September, with McDowell Mountain Regional Park shrouded in darkness, Dave Bloom opened up his stride along the hardpack soil. His headlamp created a tunnel of light, illuminating only a few feet of trail at a time and occasionally catching the lurking figures of towering saguaros or creeping tarantulas. Alone, he was accompanied only by the sound of his footfalls and his own inhales and exhales.
Although this scene could easily foreshadow a calamitous end, Bloom was completely at peace. Having found his Zen, the Phoenician, 33, paced himself all the way to a first-place finish in the 100K event at the 2013 Javelina Jangover. Bloom was one of 450-odd competitors who tackle the annual trail-running race, which is staged over several distances, including “ultra-marathons” at more than 26.2 miles. If that weren’t challenge enough, the race is also held at night; it’s the fifth in a seven-part Insomniac Night Series organized by Arizona-based Aravaipa Running (pronounced air-uh-vie-pah).
Nationally, the number of participants in ultra-running events jumped 10 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to UltraRunning Magazine. The Valley is no exception to this trend. Demand spurred Aravaipa Running to coordinate more than 20 events per year, up from the single event they began with in 2009 – the Javelina Jundred, a daytime 100K.
For many ultra competitors, the goal is simple: to push their bodies to the limit. The races are catnip for A-types.
Bloom has only been a runner for two years – “I’d run down the street, then be out of breath,” he says. But wins in a few early 10K and marathon events hooked him. After moving to Phoenix from Colorado in July 2012, the elementary-school teacher began trail running and completed his first 50K within a month. “I just like to top everything,” he says.
Holly Miller, 39, winner of the 2013 Javelina Jangover 50K, began ultras with the same mindset. “I’d run two marathons in one day and done a couple Ironman triathlons. I wanted a bigger challenge... Now I do it more for the enjoyment, rather than trying to prove to myself that I could do the distance,” says the massage therapist and personal trainer.
But isn’t running 62 miles kind of... crazy? “I used to be one of those people! I thought runners were nuts. It’s all perspective,” Bloom says.
As for running at night, the choice is part novelty, part practicality. In Arizona, the wee hours offer cooler climes than daytime. “It sounds twisted, but night runs are my absolute favorite,” Miller says. “It feels so adventurous and intense. You’re not looking at your Garmin [to track distance and speed], you’re looking at the terrain so you don’t fall.”
The communal spirit of trail and long-distance racing has also drawn in Bloom and Miller. This camaraderie is a hallmark of Aravaipa Running. “We’re a family business,” says Nick Coury, chief technology officer of the company he and brother Jamil created. “So our events are immediately like a family. But our biggest focus is really making a premier experience... We’re not run over with sponsors and fanfare, but there’s lots of energy. We like to build an atmosphere that feels different from normal races.”
Aravaipa extended that ethos to create brothers and sisters in sweat with their running team, of which Bloom and Miller are members. Coury’s advice helped guide Bloom to a different training approach – getting rid of punishing, junk miles – for this year’s Javelina Jangover, during which he once again hopes to break the tape.
Held at McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills on Sat., Sept. 6-Sun., Sept 7, 2014. The 75K (the longest distance this year) begins at 7 p.m.; races with shorter distances follow. aravaiparunning.com
In these Valley races, runners don’t just cover distance – they hurdle obstacles and otherwise push themselves to the limit.
October 4: Atlas Race
This race features more than 20 military-style obstacles, such as over-unders, rope climbs and slippery slopes, over a 3- to 5-mile course. mudrunguide.com
November 8: Zombie Run
The Walking Dead meets running during this event, which requires competitors to go off course to escape the fallout of a zombie apocalypse. thezombierun.com
November 22: Rugged Maniac Run
If a wall of fire and a 60-foot water slide sound like your idea of a fun Saturday, this obstacle run at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park is for you. ruggedmaniac.com
Coming in 2015: Spartan Sprint
Last February’s event saw competitors climbing walls, slogging through mud pits, bouncing through joust gauntlets and more along a 3-mile route at Fort McDowell Rodeo Grounds. spartanrace.com