Cocodona 250: Kahtoola’s Tyler Welch Talks Family, Community and Exceeding His Own Expectations
Cocodona 250: Kahtoola’s Tyler Welch Talks Family, Community and Exceeding His Own Expectations
When he moved to Flagstaff in 2018, Kahtoola Associate Tyler Welch never would have thought that in just four short years, he’d be competing in a 250-mile trail running race, let alone finishing in the top 10 men. But that’s precisely what happened as Tyler crossed the finish line of the Cocodona 250 on May 5, 2022, after 81 hours and 49 minutes of racing, in his adopted hometown of Flagstaff, AZ.
Only in its second year, the Cocodona 250 is one of Arizona’s newest ultrarunning events and is among an up-and-coming breed of races that have runners pushing their limits over a distance of 250 miles. Due to the Crooks fire southwest of Prescott, this year’s Cocodona began in Prescott rather than Black Canyon City and ended in Flagstaff. In between, it passed through the towns of Crown King, Jerome and Sedona as runners traversed the Bradshaw Mountains and the unique terrain that forms Arizona’s Granite Dells.
Community spirit is high at Cocodona—not surprising among people who are running together over such a huge distance. In many ways, it echoes the community spirit here in Flagstaff, and we’re excited that Tyler and Kahtoola were able to be part of this special event that finishes just blocks from our headquarters.
In this year’s edition of Cocodona, Tyler placed 9th in the men’s open category and 11th overall. That’s a feat even the most experienced ultrarunners would be proud to put on their resume. And now Tyler can add it to his, having never previously raced anything longer than a 100-miler. The achievement is a testament to what can be done with determination, a positive outlook on life, the support of friends and family and, let’s face it, the ability to set your pain and suffering aside and just carry on.
We’re immensely proud to have been able to support Tyler in this endeavor. His story is an example of how we all have the power to push beyond the limits we set for ourselves. But that, of course, is much easier said than done. Fortunately, Tyler agreed to sit down with us and let us pick his brain about what motivates him, what advice he would give to someone thinking about tackling their first 250-miler, and why he sees the Cocodona 250 as much more than just a running race. Here’s what he had to say:
First off, this type of 250-mile race might sound crazy to a lot of people. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to it and why?
I was involved a little bit with the race last year doing some pacing for another runner, and I was really excited by the vibe of it all. Everybody is really positive and supportive all while going through one of the most difficult things they might ever do. That really drew me to the event and so when the opportunity came up about a month before this year’s event, I took it. It seemed like everything was coming together for me this year too. My fitness was good as I’d already been training for another shorter race but, more importantly, I’m also just really happy in my life. My partner and I are expecting our firstborn son, and I’m feeling a lot of love and support from my friends and family and I knew they would be there to support me at Cocodona. It hasn’t always been that way for me, I’ve gone through some dark times in the past where I’ve felt really alone and just had to hold onto the idea that there was something bigger ahead of me. I think that happiness is one of the most important factors for me. At other times in my life I’ve maybe felt I was in better shape, leaner or faster, but because Cocodona is such a long race, I think being in the right mental space is really important.
It sounds like things were coming together well for you leading up to the race. With that working in your favor, how did you go about mentally preparing for the race itself?
I think the race definitely speaks to people that are looking for an adventure and that’s personally how I approached it. Before the race, I talked to a lot of people about it and some of them took the approach of hyper analyzing everything. They wanted to know all there was to know about each section—the bare bones—and they had lists of everything they were going to do during the race. I didn’t want that, I wanted it to be an adventure and to take it one step at a time, and that ended up working out quite well for me. I think this race lends itself well to that as there are aid stations every 20 miles or so, which means you don’t have to plan everything out in advance as much as you would if you were thru-hiking, for example.
Going into the race, Cocodona was more than twice the distance you had covered in any previous race. As you set off, what did success look like to you?
Going into this, I had no idea what to expect, so my plan was to just keep moving and see what I could do. Apart from that, I always kind of have a descending list of goals. First and foremost, I just wanted to finish the race. And then, if I wasn’t able to finish, my goal was to make it longer than I ever had in a race, which would have been 106 miles. I think giving yourself achievable goals is important. It’s great to shoot for the stars, but at the same time, you have to be realistic. That also leaves room for you to surprise yourself a bit. I’d rather go into a situation being a little more humble, give it all I’ve got, and hopefully be pleasantly surprised when I do better than I thought I would—in this case, that was me finishing in 11th place.
The support of friends, family, and even the wider community helped you make the decision to take on Cocodona and, in the end, you exceeded your own expectations. Was that support also instrumental during the race itself?
That support was incredibly important. For the entire race, I just knew I had love, support and help all around me and it made all the difference in the world. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family. At one point I was running and walking and actually falling asleep at the same time. Then I got a text from my partner and my Mom that kept me going. They said that all the kids were waiting for me at the next aid station so I had better hurry my ass up because I had hugs waiting! My Mom and Dad were there all the way from Pennsylvania. My Dad was crewing for me and my Mom was helping on the home front, so it really felt like we were working as a team and that was really special. On top of that, friends and the community were important. I had people offering to pace me that I didn’t even know and a co-worker from Kahtoola, Austin, paced for me as well through a section I was really having a hard time with. While I was out there, I had no excuse not to be happy. All of these people were there for me, and I loved being able to share that experience with them.
Looking in from the outside, it would appear that a 250-mile running race like Cocodona is reserved only for hardened professional athletes. What’s your take on that?
I’m not anybody special. I’m just a normal guy that only started my running journey five years ago and was able to progress well. So, while I would say the mental aspect of a 250-miler is really tough, I actually think they’re more accessible than some of the shorter races because you aren’t expected to run the whole thing. I know I struggled more during the 100-miler that I did than at Cocodona because, in that race, I wanted to push more and run faster. I blew up 70 miles in and then really struggled for the last 20-30 miles. On the other hand, a race like Cocodona is so long that I knew I needed to take it slow, take care of myself and not think too much about the end goal. You don’t need to sprint something like this and so I think that’s why there is such a wide range of people at Cocodona—a lot of thru-hikers, for example. Because they have the grit and endurance to just keep moving for 20 hours a day.
Knowing what you know now, and if you could go back to the day before the race, what advice would you give yourself as you take on a challenge that far outside your comfort zone?
I would probably take more ibuprofen! I really didn’t take very much because I can be a little bit of a hard head sometimes, and l like to know I can get along without it. That ended up slowing me down because I have some neuroma in my feet, which causes them to swell up, pinching the nerves and causing numbness through my feet and legs. As I ran, I took videos of myself so that I could look back on them and get an idea of where I was mentally at certain times. In one of the videos—I believe when I was walking up to Elden—I rated my foot pain as an 8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 and at that point, I was really struggling just to move. On top of the ibuprofen, I would also try to be willing to take “dirt naps” more often. I spent about 45 minutes to an hour at each aid station, napping and eating. But the top racers just took quick naps on the side of the trail for 20-30 minutes and that difference probably adds up to four or six or even eight hours over the whole race.
A 250-mile race can be a lot for people to wrap their heads around. Do you have any advice for those who might be unsure about challenging themselves with an event like Cocodona for the first time?
Be sure to take care of yourself early and often, by doing things like changing your shoes and socks and cleaning your feet. Also, keep up on your calories and electrolyte intake, it’s very likely that you’ll need more than you think.
You live in Flagstaff. What does it mean to you to have an event like this finish right in your own backyard?
It’s really amazing. At the end of the race, I felt like I was coming home because I got to run a half-mile from my house. These are the trails that I run, bike and walk with my family and dogs almost every day, so that was pretty amazing. And being able to bring in a strong finish as a Flagstaffian was pretty awesome. Kahtoola is based in Flagstaff, so a whole bunch of my co-workers could all be there at the finish cheering me on, which wouldn’t necessarily happen somewhere else. I had friends and co-workers running and biking with me near the end and it felt like there were a hundred people cheering at the finish with kids giving high fives. It was a great atmosphere. Having an epic race like this finish here just makes sense because the community is so supportive that even people who aren’t runners come out to support it for the love of the outdoors and adventure.
These 250-mile races are a fairly new type of running event but they’re gaining in popularity. Do you believe they’ll continue to grow? What makes them special?
I do think they’ll continue to grow because they attract a different crowd of people. It’s not something that you can do super fast, so you get a broader range of participants. This event also has pretty flexible cutoff times and with the 125-hour limit, that makes it more accessible to more people. It may sound strange, but these events are also a way for people to try this distance for the first time. It’s really logistically difficult to plan a run on your own that’s two or three hundred miles long because you have to have food and water drops. But in events like these, you’re supported, so you can just step in and go for it and that’s pretty incredible. You just have to have the mental strength to continue to move, and I think your body will happily surprise you a lot of the time.
Now that you’ve got Cocodona 250 under your belt, what’s your next challenge?
Having a baby! That’s pretty high up on the list for me and it’s getting pretty close now. Other than that I have the UT 100 in Moab in August. Right now I’m planning on racing that, but it all depends on how things go with the baby. That’s my priority right now.