Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100-Mile, 55K, 100-Mile Mountain Bike Race, and Relays
Presented by Babbitt Ranches
September 16-17, 2023
On The Trail To Recovery: The 2022 Stagecoach Ultra
By Claire Davenport
I began training for the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile run days after the death of my son Casey in January of 2020. Casey was in love with the Arizona Trail—he had gathered equipment for big plans to hike it solo one day. However, he did not get that chance. He was 22 when he died by suicide.
I could not sleep after his death, and when I did, pain would flood me as I remembered he was gone. There wasn’t only emotional pain, his death physically hurt. A concerned friend told me that I needed to exercise, that I could not go on like this. I wasn’t a runner, but that very day I grabbed a couple of plastic water bottles and ran out on the dirt paths through the Saguaro cactus forest in Tucson not knowing what I would discover.
Two weeks following his death, I wrote, “When I run long distances, I feel Casey’s heart, I see his eyes, I feel his kindness and love all around. How unique, charismatic, intelligent, witty, kind and big-hearted he was. When I run, I am aware that he is not a physical body anymore. I feel him as an energy. I have begun training for the Stagecoach race. I will run 100 miles along the Arizona Trail. It’s a chance to cultivate my relationship with him in a beautiful way that acknowledges his passing and allows his memory to solidify as ever present in my life.”
Claire and Rowe at the Stagecoach starting line.
The Stagecoach 100 Mile carried deep meaning for me—it was about rebuilding trust after trauma, connecting with my son, and ultimately, healing. Over the course of 2.5 years I built up my running base, researched, planned and collected equipment. I surrounded myself with people who believed in me including my brother David who committed to running the race too. During our training, we completed three 50-mile ultras learning, often the hard way, as we went. I discovered and overcame overuse injuries, incorrect shoes, chaffing, dehydration and improper nutrition.
Most notably, heartbreaking moments of grief would process through me as I ran. I learned to stop and scream like a mountain lion in the woods when the pain of loss was overwhelming. I also felt my son running alongside, cautioning me of loose stones and chiding me for not bringing enough water. I felt his laughter in the big blue sky.
As race day approached, the organizer, Ian, gave a great pre-meeting talk about emergencies, aid stations, crew, drop bags; he went through everything. We even learned more about the history of the trail. Race day morning was a flurry of excitement at the Flagstaff Hotshots Ranch.
On her way and tucked into the pack.
We started with a few mishaps. I slept only 3.5 hours the night before—yet I was wired. My brother forgot his bib. I started the race at the back of the pack as David sped off with my father in the opposite direction to fetch it. Though he did catch up to the pack 15 minutes later.
I wound through the mountainous single track nice and slow and up the steady elevation gain. I listened to people chatter and breathed the cool air. As I approached Kelly Tank Aid at the 21-mile mark I had developed a solid rhythm of running and speed walking. I had never used this approach before and it seemed to be working. I would not let my walking speed drop below 17 minutes/mile and kept the physical form of running but allowed both my feet to be grounded for a microsecond during each step. My small muscles would recover while still making quick strides forward. This groundedness became an anchor of calm, focused energy that carried me through the race—especially during the toughest moments to come.
Claire and Rowe on the course.
As I approached Cedar Ranch, the finish for the 55k race, I noticed a seasoned runner who appeared to be in pain. I began walking with him at that point. Mel had run the race many years in a row and this year was particularly challenging him. The course is technically difficult, especially in the hot sun. I saw quite a few people fall and over-exerting themselves. I learned that he is an Indigenous person and Trail Steward of the Arizona Trail. He walks the complete Trail yearly. I felt honored to run alongside him in this sacred place, a place that he gives so much of himself to. I paced with him and encouraged him forward to the finish. His embrace at Cedar Ranch fueled my heart in unspeakable ways.
The aid stations are incredibly well-stocked. People are friendly, supportive, positive and helpful and provided gear adjustments, supply top-offs and refueling. I was diligent in taking in as much of the 3.5 liters of fluid I was carrying between stations and stayed on top of electrolytes and food. There was an enormous selection of potatoes, fruits and additional supplements. There was nothing better than that frozen grape Popsicle after the long hours in the exposed sun across the rolling prairie.
To successfully complete this race, I needed to let go of self-sufficiency and allow others to support me. Having been through a traumatic loss, my sense of trust was injured. I knew that it would soon be dark and I would be cold. I needed my crew to bring dinner, equipment and a change of clothing to Chapel Mountain Aid. My mom, dad and teenage daughter, Rowe, committed to being there for me and it was a chance to rebuild my sense of trust.
The setting sun.
When I approached the 42-mile mark at Chapel, my daughter ran towards me. I felt confident in my crew and in my body. I changed, restocked, downed my mom’s hot lentil soup and applied aid to a blister. My dad initiated a group hug and I set out after a long break back onto the trail and into the sunset. I FaceTimed my husband and youngest, reassured to see their faces and hear their voices as the sun sank below the horizon. I felt trust growing in me, I was not alone.
Strong waves of grief struck as the sun set behind the evergreen trees. I did not want to see Casey’s life as an ending. I wanted to see his life as hope, as a rising sun. The calm I had cultivated throughout the race allowed the tears to flow. The vivid colors of the wild flowers faded to grey and this would be a wholly new experience for me—to run through the night.
Claire arrives at an aid station.
As I approached Boundary Aid, mile 55, I would intermittently stop, turn off my headlamp and look up. The stars in the moonless sky were astounding. It was like being at the highest point on the flat prairie, immersed in a sea of stars. The landscape was invigorating as the neon lights of Boundary came into view. My parents restocked my vest, and my daughter asked if I had ever known that the Milky Way was like a rainbow across the sky? That’s when I looked from one end of the sky to the other, the galaxy in full view. Inspired, I set back out. I noticed the tip of the moon begin to rise to my right just beyond a hill. I followed the road towards the rising light when I heard a strange blowing multi-toned sound. It was like a cacophony of flute like tones, warning screams and low bellows. It was an elk.
Generally speaking, the trail was well marked. As a first timer, it felt like a long time between markers given there were less than 100 people spread out over 100 miles. I came to a cross road and noted no trail markings, and quickly realized that I had taken a wrong turn. I remembered the advice if lost and backtracked to the last reflectors, which was 1.5 miles from where I turned back. My approach to Russel Tank Aid was filled with anxiety and anger. I felt like I had added 5 miles to my run by getting lost, and my legs were so sore. My stomach was turning; it was getting more difficult to take in electrolytes and water. I felt like I needed some caffeine but that would not help my stomach.
Between the muscle fatigue and the panic over getting off-course, I was drained. Although the Coconino Rim Aid Station was probably the sweetest aid station with super friendly folks, I was in a terrible mood. I complained about getting lost and I fretted over the many miles to Hull Cabin—the next aid station. I grabbed a caffeinated gel that I knew would just cause more stomach pain and set off on the next leg, mono-focused on moving forward.
I walked as quickly as I could for 7 miles until my legs recovered enough to run again. I wanted to rest against a tree, lay on the ground, or try to listen to a book or music, but these would only distract me from what I needed to do. I thought about when I was on cardiology ICU rounds during my medical training. I’d stay awake and focus for 24 hours at a time, running codes and making diagnoses. I had been through hard things before, and I knew that Hull Cabin would come. I told myself to “just keep moving.”
As I turned the bend in the road towards Hull Cabin, I felt a wave of hope and positivity. I knew that I was going to be able to run the last 20 miles. I would lay down for a bit and replenish. I was going to finish this race on my own terms. At Hull, I laid on a bunk with my feet up on a post, my mom pressed her thumbs into my calves and felt them release, and I changed out of my warm clothes. 20 minutes later, my daughter shoved an almond butter sandwich in my hands, and I reemerged into a lightening sky, back on the trail again.
David and Claire finish 100 miles together.
As I left, the staff told me I was second female. I was in disbelief, and also excited and motivated to run the last 20. I pounded the sandwich and approached Watson Tank Aid, mile 88, just as my brother was departing. I did not want to stop at the station, so we set out on the final 13 miles together, and together we sprinted over the finish line.
The Arizona Trail has always provided a physical connection to my son. On Casey’s birthday we ask people to donate to the Arizona Trail Association in support of their children’s programming that allows other youth to explore nature in the desert our son loved. For one revolution of the earth and 100 miles covered on foot, I arrived to the finish feeling at home, surrounded by good and kind people, and filled to the brim with Casey’s spirit on a path forward.
For a very good article on the impact of trail running and how it is growing, check out this issue of Running Times.