This was my fourth running of the Zion 100, and the fourth iteration of the course. I really enjoy this race, but that's not why I keep coming back. I return every year because I've never run this race in a satisfying way. It's a nagging little pain that returns every spring, prodding me to go back to Zion and try to figure this thing out. And every year, I fall a little short.
To be fair, I've never run this race on rested legs. I always show up feeling a little battle worn and banged up from some other race that just had to be run. This year was no different.
I decided I would run this race as an easy training run and I planned to nab a sub 24 hour finish. I wanted to take some time and play with my 100 mile nutrition strategy, mess with my pacing, and work on my gear selection. I didn't feel any pressure to do well or make an attempt to compete. I just wanted to enjoy the journey and learn a few valuable lessons along the way.
It was return to the lessons taught in Ultra Running 101. We all need a refresher sometimes.
After a quick race briefing, we lined up at the start and were sent into the desert at 6:00 AM. Sunrise was 40 minutes away, so we ran into the darkness, heading for the first big climb.
As I said earlier, this is the fourth iteration of this course. Every year, Matt Gunn, the Race Director, has made changes to improve the course. He's deleted road sections in favor of trail, he has changed the sequence of the trail sections to take advantage of daylight running in tricky areas, and this year, he eliminated an entire section of the course in favor of a series of challenging trail loops in the desert valley. All of these changes have consistently improved the course and the race. It's always exciting to see what Matt has in store each year.
For the first mile, the runners messed around trying to fall into the right place in the pack of bobbing headlamps. I placed myself deeper in the pack than I normally would and coasted down the trail at an easy pace. I fell into place alongside Danny Widerburg, a friend from the Wasatch Front. Danny and I frequently fall into place together in races and I was happy to see we had found each other again.
Danny is a great running companion because he cracks me up and we feed off each other through our inappropriate banter, salacious commentary and seemingly believable lines of BS. I like to think we provide a tremendous amount of entertainment for those around us. Either that, or we deeply offend those around us. It really depends on your sense of humor. I like to think we're hilarious.
Flying Monkey is our first big climb. We hit it and settled into the conga line, moving up to Smith Mesa. Danny and I were in full banter mode by now, putting on an impressive, impromptu comedy display for each other. Several times, I was forced to stop to catch my breath. Not from the climb, but because I was laughing myself into a fit of hysteria. I think my abs were getting more of a workout than my legs during the entire ascent.
Near the End of Flying Monkey
Flying Monkey gets its name from a very literal source. During the Cold War and through the development of the American War Machine, the mesa above Virgin Utah was used to test ejection seats for fighter jets and spacecraft being developed by the US government. They had developed a rail system that they used to launch these devices off the mesa to ensure that the designs were effective and kept our pilots and astronauts safe. Because pilots and astronauts were expensive, they used live monkeys to simulate the occupants of these devices. So yes, they literally launched monkeys off the mesa, hence the name "Flying Monkey".
Legend suggests the monkeys didn't like this practice, but would be quite compliant for their first test run. Assuming the monkey survived, they were rarely interested in any subsequent tests and would frequently beat the crap out of their handlers before relenting for another ride over the cliff.
Coming UP Flying Monkey
We hit an aid station near the top of the mesa. We grabbed some supplies and pushed on.
When we topped out, we ran a 6 mile loop of rolling jeep road. Danny and I were still running side by side, finding new people to offend with our banter as we slowly worked our way further toward the front of the pack. I think people were letting us pass just to be rid of the sound of our voices.
After finishing the loop, we hit the same aid station for a second time, then started back down the Flying Monkey trail to the valley floor.
The descent was really more like a "somewhat controlled tumble", mixed with a few calculated footsteps. We've always come off the mesa on a paved road, so this was my first descent on Flying Monkey and it was....exhilarating? That sounds appropriate.
After hitting the valley floor, we headed across the desert, working our way to the Dalton Wash aid station, which is where Jo would be waiting for me.
Danny had fallen behind me a bit, and I assumed he was giving English lessons to one of the foreign runners. Providing them with his broad vocabulary in English slang and treating them to a series of his best body fluid stories. Or maybe just explaining why the American government used to fling monkeys off the cliff behind us. Either way, I was somewhat concerned about foreign relations at that moment.
Rolling Into Dalton Wash
Jo handed me a fresh pack, loaded with my gear and race fuel, as I handed off my depleted pack. I gave her a quick update, a kiss and we were off again, headed to Guacamole.
Getting to Guacamole requires a long, tedious climb on a dirt road. It's a big piece of vertical gain, but it comes easier than the other big climbs. We ran, walked and shuffled our way to the top.
Top of the Mesa
We're greeted by the Guacamole aid station as soon as we top out. The aid station was manned by friends, so I took an extra minute to talk and laugh with these great people before pushing out onto the slick rock trail around the top of the mesa.
The Guacamole loop is 7.5 miles of aggravating rock and sand. It's an impossible trail to get a rhythm going and you're constantly shifting gears to cover the variable terrain. It's mentally and physically frustrating.
Danny and I got separated at the beginning of the loop for reasons beyond my control, so I ended up running the loop solo. I caught back up with him at the aid station before making the descent back into the valley.
Leaving Guacamole Aid Station
Leaving Guac, we headed back down the dirt road to Dalton Wash, where Jo would be waiting for me. This is a LONG gradual descent, which made for easy running and an opportunity to share a few more laughs along the way.
Dalton Wash Aid Station
Danny and I coming into Dalton Wash
Again, Jo and I swapped packs, kisses and a few words before I headed back to the trail.
Leaving Dalton Wash, I crossed the highway and headed toward Gooseberry Mesa. The path to the base of Gooseberry takes a rolling trail across the desert floor. This is mostly jeep road all the way to the start of the climb, also known as Goosebump.
Danny and I had got separated during the desert crossing. While I would see him a couple more times during the race, we were destined for different paths for the rest of the race. (imagine sad face here).
The Goosebump climb has officially reached "Legendary Status". Trail runners will frequently measure other climbs based on how it compares to the Goosebump. If it's "as difficult" or "more difficult" you know you're in for a tough day.
Dragging my Butt to the Top of the "BUMP"
The Goosebump Aid Station marks mile 35 of the course. It was getting HOT and I was tired from the climb. I took time to fuel up and hydrate before heading out on the 12.5 mile slick rock loop across the mesa.
Introducing an Australian Runner to the Idea of Race Day PBR. He Approved of the Idea. Reaching Across Hemispheres to Make Runners Happier.
Like I said earlier, I was using this race to play with pace and fueling. I was taking in slightly more calories while maintaining a slower pace. I felt really good, even after the biggest climbs and despite the heat.
Gooseberry Mesa slick rock would put a dent in that.
I had forgot how much I disliked this 12.5 mile loop. The undulating terrain frustrates me to no end and the constantly changing surface demands intense focus. This is hard to pull off with a beer in your hand.
After 5 miles, we hit an aid station and then do a quick out and back to the Gooseberry Point. The point has a ridiculously awesome view, that I totally ignored because all I wanted to do was get off this mesa. I punched my bib with the hole punch (tied to a bush) and headed back out to the aid station whence I just came.
I loaded my pack up with ice at the aid station, chatted briefly with a few runners, then headed out to finish this frustrating loop.
Gooseberry is designed to be a mountain biking trail, which means that the trail is designed to take the rider over every rolling, twisting, technical natural feature available. The fastest or most efficient path is never a consideration. The only consideration is complexity. As a runner, it's a maddening burden.
But on I went. Cussing mountain bikers the entire way.
View Heading Back to the Goosebump Aid Station
Coming to Goosebump at Mile 47
I came and went from the aid station quickly because that loop had taken longer than I had hoped for. I had built in plenty of extra time into my race plan, but I didn't want to eat into it this early.
Leaving Goosebump, we run down a 6 mile stretch of dirt road, heading to the Grafton Mesa Aid Station. This road is an easy run, with some gentle rollers scattered throughout, but it's a challenge because of the vehicle traffic. The dust is tough to deal with and the traffic not associated with the race tends to be less than interested when dealing with the runners o the road.
Coming Into Grafton Mesa Aid Station
Jo was waiting for me at Grafton Mesa. We made a quick pack swap and I headed down the trail toward a descent to the Grafton Cemetery Aid Station.
This trail is pretty runnable and somewhat shaded for a while. The trip to the Cemetery Aid Station was enjoyable and it felt fast. I didn't need anything when I arrived, so I checked in and headed right back out.
From the aid station, we make a daunting climb back to the top of Grafton Mesa. By now, I had been running alone for a while. I was picking up spots, but none of the people I passed felt like chatting, so I pushed on.
I missed Danny.
The sun was fading fast on my return to the Grafton Mesa Aid Station. Jo had packed a headlamp for me when I last saw her, so I dug it out and strapped it on.
I was looking forward to a cold night of running.
My fueling and pacing strategy was working out well. I felt good as Jo handed me a fresh pack, so I just rolled right on through without stopping. I glanced at the aid station and realized I must have just gained 5 positions as I headed down the road toward the Goosebump Aid Station for the final time.
It was cooling off fast as the night settled in. When I got to Goosebump, I met Jo at our truck and made a few wardrobe modifications for night running, grabbed a fresh pack and headed off the mesa.
I was at mile 68.5 and was feeling strong.
The descent off Gooseberry is a monster at night. It's too steep and technical to run and the dust is so thick, it obliterated my vision in the beam of my headlamp. It's faster than the climb up, but not by much.
When I reached the bottom, I began a 7 mile trek through the desert valley, headed for the Virgin Desert Aid Station.
I've been on this rolling trail before, but never when I had 70 miles on my legs. The constant climbing and downhill pounding was deeply frustrating and exhausting.
My mantra devolved to "This is Bullsh**!!!".
I managed to pick off four more runners before getting to the aid station, so that helped the pain to subside.
I checked in at Virgin Desert and started out on the first of three loops that I had to run before heading to the finish line.
Each loop was color coded. Red, White and Blue. Before heading out to do a loop, we had to check in and get a bracelet that matched the color of the loop. This was helpful for those of us who have already lost our ability to reason.
The Red loop was the shortest and easiest, only 5ish miles of decent terrain. It went pleasantly fast and I stopped back in to the aid station, got my white bracelet and head back out again.
The White loop was a bit more challenging and slightly longer. The only encouraging thing was that I passed two more runners along the way. I was fantasizing about the end of the race and just wanted this to be over.
I proudly finished my loop and grabbed my blue bracelet. I had plenty of fluids and Hammer gels to get me through the loop, so I didn't waste any time.
The Blue loop was the longest and definitely the most challenging. A lot of that challenge was probably mental, as it usually is at this point of a 100 mile race. I powered along, running when I could and walking when it was the only sound choice.
I checked into the Virgin Desert aid station for the final time, handing off my blue bracelet with a big grin.
I ducked my head into the aid station and saw Danny. He looked relatively decent and I was happy to see he had made it off the mesa alive and well. We exchanged a few words and I pushed on.
Danny MAY have been crying when we parted ways. I can't say for sure, but it's highly likely. The separation anxiety was tough for both of us.
I had a 6 mile jaunt through the desert before reaching the finish line. Again, this was a familiar trail and I felt right at home as I cruised along.
My watch told me that I would definitely make it under 24 hours, but not by a very large margin. But enough of a margin that I could go as easy as I wanted. I just needed to keep moving in the right direction, which isn't always a guarantee.
I left the trail and hit the highway for the final mile to the finish. I was feeling great!
Crossing the Finish in 23:39:39
It was close to 6:00 AM when I finished and the 50k runners were lining up to start their race. This provided a large and enthusiastic crowd to cheer me at the finish. It was a nice touch.
It wasn't my fastest time at the Zion 100, but it was the best I ever felt and I had the most fun. The course is better than ever and Matt is doing a great job of nurturing this race along.
My increased fueling and reduced pace taught me a few valuable lessons. My education isn't complete, but I took a few big steps in the right direction.
I was also testing out my new trail shoes from Topo Athletic. The Runventure is a brilliant trail shoe that proved to be perfect for this terrain. They worked flawlessly for this 100 mile race and I plan to employ them extensively in future races. I urge people to keep an eye on this brand and give them a try. They're becoming the premier trail shoe on the market today.
Once again, I need to thank my beautiful and tireless wife for crewing me through another LONG 100 mile trail race. She's the reason I can do what I do and I wouldn't even bother with it without her. She's simply awesome.
And I want to thank all my sponsors for their continued support. Especially Hammer Nutrition, Topo Athletic and Gear:30. It's great to have the confidence of good people and good companies!
Next stop...Manitoba Canada to conquer the Great White North and 100 miles of trails in the wilderness!