Cocodona 250: in conversation with Jamil Coury
Adam Voidoid speaks with Jamil Coury about his history with running, race directing, and the inaugural Cocodona 250-mile race happening early May.
Can you introduce yourself and give us a short bio?
I'm Jamil Coury. I'm a trail ultrarunner, which is kind of how I would define myself. I've been doing that for 16 years. Through that, I also own and operate an events company that puts on trail and ultrarunning events. I organized my first race in 2008 and I ran my first ultra in 2005, and I just fell in love with the sport of running long distances and exploring outdoor spaces and nature and continue to do that today.
Do you remember what the first run you ever went on was?
Yeah, that's a tough one. My history with this kind of thing really started when I was a kid, just growing up in the Boy Scouts and doing camping and backpacking trips. So I would say that even back then I was "running" with a big backpack on or just "running" through the forest exploring. In that sense, it's always kind of been something that I did. I also joined the high school track team, which I guess is when my more serious side of my real running career started. So I did high school sports like cross country and track starting freshman year.
I would say that maybe the most defining trail run I went on was in college. I started running with a local group of trail runners and they had this free fun event called the "Tonto Fun Run," a 25-mile loop north of Phoenix. It was really rugged and remote and they just had someone drive their truck to the halfway point to give us water and bananas and stuff. I just remember coming back from that—it took something like 5 or 6 hours to do this loop and I was all scratched up from the overgrown desert vegetation—and I just fell in love with it. I was like, this is awesome, this is what I want to do — running out in the woods with a pack on. It was just so fun and felt so freeing and so wild.
You describe having experienced this "freeing" and "wild" feeling you got from that trail run. What would you say is the "why" for your running?
I think it's number one to explore my limits but I think it's also so good for me mentally. It's a way for me to clear my thoughts and strip everything away and get down to the core essence of being human.
Your favorite distance in high school was the 800m, and you used to run it so hard that you would puke afterward. But in that mix, you also said you would experience a high. In that sense, what does the High mean to you?
I think more than that, it's a series of highs and lows and I think that's why I specifically like long distance running: you get to experience all these waves throughout doing something like that. Even though parts of it are really hard and not fun and you want to quit, pushing through that and getting to a spot that you feel this euphoria later on and just the accomplishment of running that far and digging through those low points is what draws me back.
What did you end up going to school for after high school? I read online that after graduating college, you worked an accounting job for a year before deciding to quit and backpack 800 miles across Arizona — what was the impetus for that?
I always wanted to own my own business. I think that was just based upon the fact that it was what my dad did, and I always just looked up to him and what he accomplished. I just didn't know what that was going to be. I went to school and figured I should take some business classes and ended up getting degrees in accounting and economics.
In that first job after college doing tax accounting, it became pretty clear that I didn't want to do that... so I kind of left a little bit of a door open for myself and wanted to hike across the state of Arizona, my home state. The Arizona Trail wasn't quite yet completed back then when I did it. So the day after tax season was over, I was down at the Mexico border and hiked the whole thing in 31 days. I never went back to my job after that.
Maybe it's cliche to say, but it changed me and really set in motion a series of events that led to me eventually finding this path. I had fortunately agreed to take over a race before I even went on that hike, so I had this thing out there that I could work on. It wasn't immediately this business opportunity I was looking for, it was just that I wanted to learn how to put on a race in the sport that I loved and so I did everything I could to learn as much as I could about it and put on the best event possible. That was the driving force.
Was that race the Javelina Jundred?
It was, yeah.
What is the story behind that? It was a preexisting race, right?
Yeah, it happened five times before I took it over. I was good friends with the race directors. They actually also took it over. The original founder of the race — she put it on I believe two or three times? And then it was taken over by this other family. They bought a hotel in Silverton, Colorado and so they were splitting their time between Arizona and Colorado. I just kept volunteering at their races — they had another one they put on — eventually they just asked if I would take it on because they didn't have time for it anymore.
That's cool. I'm relatively new to running myself but I've heard of that race. From the contexts in which I've read about it, I feel like that race kind of sat at this borderline between the "old school" and "new school" ultrarunners, you know? That being said, have you noticed a shift in the culture and community of ultrarunning during the time you've been doing it?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like for myself, I definitely come from an old school background. When I got into the sport, we didn't even have Dean Karnazes' book Ultramarathon Man — you may not even know what that is!
I've heard of it!
At the time, it was a huge awakening of the sport. Like, when he wrote that book, he had famously on his 30th birthday ran home 30 miles from the bar to order a pizza or something like that.
But yeah, I kind of fit on both ends. I come from the old school, old "guard" — but I embrace a lot of the new stuff that's happening, too. That's just kind of how I view myself. I want to balance where the sport came from with where it could go and keep that sense of history alive in what we do.
When you say "we", are you referring to Aravaipa Running?
Yeah, our company.
You took over the Javelina Jundred, but what was the first race Aravaipa was totally responsible for organizing?
The first race I made from scratch was the McDowell Mountain Frenzy. That was a little over a year after the first Javelina Jundred that I put on. I put that race on once and the next summer we formed Aravaipa, basically. The goal was to create a series of trail running events around Phoenix and some of these other regional parks that were similar to where Javelina was held but there were no trail running events in any of these places. We wanted something for everyone, so we had anything from a 5k to a 50k — it was really a big, wide range of things. That was kind of how we got started.
But yeah, the McDowell Mountain Frenzy was our first one.
Has Aravaipa stayed true to that? Are all your trail and race series still in Arizona and around Phoenix?
We're definitely branching out more now. We've got events all over Arizona and we do have an event in Utah and an event in Colorado.
I didn't realize that Aravaipa started as being primarily based around the Phoenix area. How does the Cocodona 250 relate to original concept and mission of Aravaipa?
Yeah, Cocodona for me is a celebration of my home state and tying together all of these awesome, historic towns across central Arizona and then connecting all the landscapes in between. We wanted to include as many towns as we could and really embrace the towns — so run right down Main Street, if at all possible. I hope someday everyone in all these towns knows what the race is and look forward to it each year, come out and cheer on all the runners, day or night, and really be proud of their area and be excited about all these athletes coming in from all over the place to come run through their town and across the mountains and canyons that connect all these cities together.
Besides the distance, what separates Cocodona from other races that you've organized?
I mean, the logistics of this one are daunting. There's probably over 60 permits to pull together between all the cities, towns, private lands, federal lands and parks and things — so logistically, it's just the biggest thing we've ever taken on.
Also, just in general, tying together all the different towns is definitely something unique. A lot of times we're in a park that's near a town or we just run on the outskirts, but actually going through the towns themselves is something that's unique and poses a lot of challenges for us too.
At this point, have you explored most of the course on foot?
Yeah, pretty close. There's a few sections that have changed a bit so I haven't touched every single mile of it. So some of it will be new. I just did the final 37 miles of it on Saturday, going into Flagstaff, and lot of that was new to me, so I've seen all that now.
I was out checking this river crossing around the halfway point—you're crossing the Verde River and you just kind of have to walk through it, it's kind of cool. It's only calf-deep right now but it's still pretty cool. It'll be nice because besides the start, it's the lowest point on the course, so it could be pretty warm there on day two or three for people. So if it's hot, it'll be a nice spot you can lay down, dunk in the river and cool back off.
What are ways people can tune in and check out Cocodona?
www.cocodona.com is our website. We're going to have on the homepage our livestream video coverage each day from the race. We're also going to have live tracking — every single participant will be carrying a satellite tracker, people can follow along anywhere in the world. You can follow a specific athlete or just watch the race unfold in total.
You're running Cocodona, right?
Yeah, I am.
Do you often run your own races?
I probably run maybe 3-4 per year of our own events, which I think is good — it gives me a nice inside look to the event. I hope to run them all someday, would be kind of fun.
Does your mentality toward racing change or differ at all when you're running your own race versus one you haven't organized yourself?
Yeah, I think so. I think it just depends on the race. Sometimes I'm literally out there just to use it as a training run, to have fun. Oftentimes I might even be fixing stuff or keeping an eye on things while I'm out there running, checking on the timing system, checking on the volunteers — so I would say I wouldn't do that stuff if it was someone else's event and I would take it more seriously. But yeah, that's probably the main mindset.
Having run for so long and in so many races, what would you say your goals are as a runner?
I certainly feel like I've checked off a bunch of bucket list races that I've wanted to do. That list is maybe growing smaller in some regards. I mean, right now, my biggest goal, honestly... I know I have Cocodona on the calendar and some other stuff... but I just really want to get back to running consistently and just getting into overall better shape throughout the whole year.
I oftentimes get so wrapped up in the business that I let my running go and don't train. So it would be nice to get in some more consistent training.
How many ultras have you run at this point? Is that something you even keep track of?!
No [laughs]. Honestly, I have no idea.
Maybe 100? I know I've done close to twenty 100-milers.
What have been your favorite races you weren't responsible for directing?
Oh man, there's a lot. My favorite is probably still the Barkeley Marathons. I love Hardrock. Ronda Del Cims was a really good one over in Andora in between Spain and France that no longer exists, unfortunately. There's just too many to name, really [laughs].
What would you say to an avid runner who has done distances like half and full marathons and is interested in progressing into ultras? Are there any pointers you would offer from a training perspective in making that transition?
I think just increasing your mileage, your long run. I think more than anything, anyone who wants to do it can set their mind to it and they can accomplish it. I mean, there's people of all skills and ability levels who do these longer races. It's just a matter of wanting to do it and then focusing on what kind of gear you might need, just to make sure you have what you need out in the woods. For me, it's something I grew up with, just being in the Scouts. We talked a lot about that, just having the right kind of food, water and survival stuff, 'cause when you go out there in the woods, you need to make sure you can get yourself back out. For me, that's a big thing.
Also, it's okay to walk and hike when you do these longer distances. Don't think that I'm going to be running 250 miles straight. I'm gonna be probably walking most of it and running here and there, when it's downhill probably. It doesn't have to be a super intimidating thing. I mean, if you can keep putting one foot in front of the other, you can eat and drink all day, and you want to be outside all day, exploring — I think that this is a great activity to check and it's really open to anyone.
I think that's something a lot of runners don't realize, is that so much of ultras is "power hiking," if you want to call it that, or walking, as you said. Depending on the type of ultra that you're getting into, how does that strategy change?
We don't care about pace at ultras. It doesn't matter. Throw away that mentality and just get out there. A lot of the times I just let the terrain dictate my pace. If I'm just getting into the sport, if I were doing my first 50k, 50 miler — honestly, I would walk every uphill, if I were you, and I would try and take care of myself, make sure I'm eating and drinking well. And if you feel good later on, you can run more. But I think it's a mistake I know I've made, is trying to go out too hard right out of the gates. Just enjoy the process and experience.
What have become your must-haves in terms of putting together a proper ultra kit, especially for an ultra that spans different temperatures and climates like Cocodona?
Yeah, great question. I've been doing some longer training runs. One thing I always have with me is my phone and a battery pack so I can keep it charged up because I've got the route in my phone — which is something that, you know, 15 years ago wasn't really a thing when I got into the sport. And even if you're doing races, you never know when part of the course markers are going to get vandalized, and it's always nice to have that. You can load it into your watch too, so you can see the little breadcrumbs on the track that way.
Other things: water capacity. They make really awesome water bottle filters now, so if you are in a place where you know you're going to have a stream or a creek out on the course or on your route, you can just dip into that and drink it through the filter. I'm definitely going to be carrying one of those, especially for the first day of Cocodona — I'll probably carry one the whole time, just as a back up. I definitely don't want to be running out of water.
Having some extra calories in your pack of different types of things, just to make sure you're covered and you're not gonna bonk out there and run low on energy.
I think for anytime I'm in colder weather, I always carry one of those little mylar space blankets. It literally weighs nothing and if you had to spend the night out in the woods, you'll at least survive the night. It's not something any of us ever plan to happen — you're hiking and for some reason maybe you go off trail or something, you slip and fall and hurt your ankle and you literally can't walk out, you could at least survive.
There are some things to think about, for sure.
Outside of running, what does self-care mean to you?
I don't know if I'm good at that [laughs]. I think it's a goal to get better. I think if I had an optimum "self-care" regiment, I'd be getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night, making sure I've got fresh and healthy foods to fuel up every day so I can have the energy I need, and I think I would also include having a day per week to relax and check out.
For me, what's been great lately, I've been using a day as a long training run. That's kind of my day to just be doing what I love. That is my way of kind of recovering or resting my mind from everything else going on. I can just go out and run all day, then eat a big meal, and get a lot of sleep. That's the perfect self-care day for myself, because I come out of that and I feel energized and recharged from the effort and, if I got enough sleep, I'm also feeling recovered, I'm kind of sore, but also just satisfied with the experience. Then I'm ready to dive back into getting my work done after getting that nice big day out there doing what I love.
Any last words?
I'm kind of nervous about Cocodona. Even just me running it — it's an intimidating distance but I think it's going to be a lot of fun too. I've got a lot of my friends out there running. I'm really excited to step into the unknown — no one's done this whole route in one shot before. It's exciting especially for me to be towing the line the first year. I'm excited to see how everyone else views the course and the route and the concept and see if what I've been envisioning becomes a reality in any fashion or see where it goes from here.