SAN JOSE, Calif. (KRON) — Running a 250-mile race through the Arizona desert is “crazy.” That’s the reaction runner Jose Hernandez heard when he told friends about what he’s been training for.

“I like the challenge of people telling me ‘that’s crazy.'” Hernandez told KRON4.  

Hernandez is one of 200 distance runners competing in the annual Cocodona 250 ultramarathon. The grueling race began on Monday. Its course traverses the Bradshaw Mountains, Mount Union, Prescott Valley, Granite Dells, Mingus Mountain, Sedona, Mount Elden, and finishes in Flagstaff.

Hernandez, 41, of San Jose, served in the U.S. Marine Corps and fought overseas in the Iraq War.

“Cocodona will be the most challenging physical and mental thing I’ve ever done. Even all the military training I’ve done in my past, was not this extreme,” Hernandez told KRON4.

Challenges that cause athletes to drop out before reaching the finish line are: Heat exhaustion, dehydration, lack of electrolytes and fuel, getting lost, poor pacing, foot and leg injuries, falling, and lack of sleep.

“You can’t stay low forever,” Hernandez said. (KRON4 photo)

“People start hallucinating, they get lost, they mentally quit. I’m prepared to hurt, struggle, feel the lowest of lows. But I’m OK with that. Some people don’t want to be in that low place because it’s miserable. But with those lows, there are also going to be highs. You can’t stay low forever,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez trained on mountain trails in Los Gatos, San Jose, and Redwood City. Running extreme distances and steep elevations keeps his life moving in the right direction, he told KRON4.

“Any anxiety or stress I have fades away. I’m focused on running, where I am stepping, the trail,” he said.

Like other veterans, Hernandez struggled to transition from military to civilian life. He was recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps straight out of high school and began boot camp when he was 18. From 1999-2010, serving in the military gave his life structure and purpose.  

When he left the military in 2010, “I felt like I had to start all over at the age of 30. Now what do I do? I don’t know anything else. I didn’t know if I was good at anything.”

Cocodona Race map

He struggled with alcohol use disorder for a decade.

“I spent a lot of time struggling with addiction, feeling like a failure. It was all self-sabotage. I spent a lot of time feeling miserable. I didn’t feel capable of getting out of that cycle. I didn’t believe in myself. I thought everything positive was behind me,” Hernandez said.

On Monday afternoon, Hernandez was far from failure. He bolted into the top 20 in the elite runners pack, and passed the first aid station without stopping. His goal is to complete the race in four days.

Track the runners: Cocodona 250 live race map

Hernandez dedicated his Cocodona race to his two young sons, and his boss, Darryl Denny. Denny, 54, of Los Gatos, completed the Cocodona 250 last year and is crewing for Hernandez this week.

“I’m so excited for Jose. I knew he was a great runner the first time I ran with him. He has a great, long stride. His heartrate is so low. I think he’s going to beat me by 24 hours,” Denny said.

Denny said his “lowest of the low” point last year was when he hit mile-100 on the race in Prescott Valley.

“It was the middle of the day. I was going down this long, flat fire trail and it was completely exposed to the sun. I had heat exhaustion and my feet were destroyed. I was in a horrible space mentally,” Denny said.

Hernandez trains on Bay Area mountains with steep elevation. (KRON4 photo)

Denny recovered at an aid station by drinking electrolyte-packed liquids, eating bananas, and hearing words of encouragement from other runners and crew members.

One kind stranger told him, “You’ve gone this far. Get back on the trail and you will get through this. You can’t quit.”

As he climbed up Mingus Mountain in the middle of the night, Denny began hallucinating. Cocodona competitors only sleep when they choose to, and some make the mistake of not stopping to sleep long enough.

“It’s the middle of night, middle of nowhere, and this big black bird with gold eyes kept landing in front of me. I knew it wasn’t real. But your mind is telling you it’s real. I literally fell over and fell asleep on the trail,” Denny said.

Denny said his passion for long distance running comes from his love of nature and living in the present moment.

Denny said, “Being out in the mountains is my therapy. When I run, I feel closest to my higher power. Most people are thinking forward or thinking backward. The greatest thing about running is I’m completely present. I don’t think about anything else other than the run. It is the most present you can possibly be in your life.”