For me, running the Zion 100 has evolved into a tradition, rather than a competitive endeavor. As a brand new, inexperienced ultra runner, I lined up for the inaugural Zion 100 and it taught me a lot of valuable lessons that day. I've returned to that race every year since, and I continue to learn and grow from the experience.
I've watched this race evolve over the years as Matt Gunn continues to refine the event as better trail options become available, and as conditions dictate, as the race continues to grow and draw a larger field each year. 2016 had the fewest changes so far, with almost everything remaining the same from the previous year, with the exception of the location of the start line. Instead of starting in the Virgin City Park, we relocated to a large camping area nestled in the desert just outside of town. In my opinion, this is a major upgrade for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it makes it easier for us to camp at the start line.
There had been a lot of buzz leading up to the race because the weather forecast was predicting rain. In most races, this is just a minor annoyance, but a steady rain in the desert presents a long list of serious hazards and can lead to significant degradation of the trails. Water doesn't soak into the desert soil very well. It likes to form rivers and shoe sucking, slippery mud.
The Calm Before the Actual Storm
This was my 3rd consecutive weekend of travel and racing, so as the race started at 6:00 AM, I pushed myself deep into the pack of anxious runners. This wasn't going to be a day to run hard, or to take things too seriously.
A long line of glowing headlamps headed out of the campground and into the desert for a traverse to the first big climb, Flying Monkey. I was feeling good and enjoying the casual banter as we navigated through the dark to the base of Smith Mesa, and a climb I'm all too familiar with.
In addition to starting a familiar climb, I found myself in a familiar situation with a familiar friend. Due to some law of nature that I can't quite explain, I found myself making this climb with Danny Widerburg. If Danny and I are in the same race, we always end up together for the first several miles. And like a well oiled machine, and without preplanning or coaxing of any kind, we begin a relentless banter that could probably get us banned from future races. The hardest thing about climbing a steep grade with Danny is managing my airflow in between fits of laughter. Good times.
Some things I learned from my time with Danny:
1. I'm on Danny's Fantasy Ultra Running Team. But so is Steve Prefontaine. And he's dead. And he's not even an ultra runner.
2. Steve Prefontaine was actually the same height as Danny's 7 year old son. This is an historic fact I did not know.
3. Some overuse injuries that runners deal with can actually be spread through intimate contact, much like an STD.
I always learn something from that guy...
After finishing the ascent to Smith Mesa, we hit the first aid station before heading out for a long, rolling loop that would eventually bring us back to this aid station before hurling ourselves back down the Flying Monkey.
For the first time that morning, I was able to see the sky and the clouds building off to the south. The overcast skies were perfect for running, but it left little doubt that we were going to see rain.
After finishing the loop and making a quick stop at the aid station, we dropped back down Flying Monkey for a fast, technical descent.
Disclaimer: This trail scares the crap out of me! It's the perfect mix of runnable and technical, which can get me into a pretty bad situation. It's a trail that begs to be ran down quickly, but presents you with perfectly engineered rocks that are expertly placed with the intention of grabbing a shoe or snapping an ankle. I'm actually surprised that half the field even makes it to the bottom without some form of serious injury.
"Dude…Look How Fast I'm Running Down This Thing"
Photo Credit: Derrick Lytle
After surviving the descent, we headed across the desert, making our way to the Dalton Wash aid station on a nice piece of single track.
I started to develop some pain in my right knee during this section, and quietly wondered if my wife also had some pain in her right knee. Very little else could explain this. Thanks, Danny!
Water Crossing Headed to Dalton Wash
Dalton Wash is at mile 15, and is the first crew access point. Jo was waiting for me there and helped me reload my hydration pack while I fueled up. I was in and out quickly.
Dalton Wash Inbound
Danny Widerburg and Tobias Sorensen On My Heels
Leaving Dalton Wash, Heading to Guacamole!
Leaving Dalton Wash starts with a long climb up a power line road before dropping onto the "actual" Dalton Wash Road, where we begin the LONG gradual climb to Guacamole. The climb to the mesa isn't punishing because it's not steep like the other major climbs on the course. But it's LONG and serves to slowly chip away at you. Little by little, eroding your strength and sense of humor.
We're greeted by another aid station when we top out at the Mesa. After a quick stop, we head out and run a long, undulating loop on slickrock mountain bike trails. I've always enjoyed this part of the race because it provides great views and it's relatively easy running. For Slickrock anyway.
After finishing the loop, I headed directly back down Dalton Wash Road without stopping at the Guacamole aid station. I was well supplied with fluids and Hammer gels, and from experience, I know it's a fast downhill trip to the Dalton Wash aid station.
Back at Dalton Wash Aid Station
The Goosebump is the climb to access Gooseberry Mesa. The Goosebump sucks.
After cutting through the desert for a few miles, I reached the base of the climb, dropped a few swear words, and began the ascent. The footing is terrible for the first quarter mile. Loose sandstone, scattered rock, and plenty of eroded ruts make for entertaining climbing. The upper areas of the climb offer boulders and jagged rock to keep things interesting.
To my surprise, it was my best ascent to the mesa ever! I didn't vomit, make any enemies, and I only stopped to catch my breath once. Definitely a new record!
Near the Top of Goosebump
The Gooseberry aid station sits right at the top of the climb and is always a welcomed sight. Even more so this year when I was greeted by the familiar faces of Aaron Williams and his awesome wife, Kristyan, as they were manning the aid station. I stopped long enough to reload the pack and down some calories before heading out for 12 miles of slickrock running on the mesa.
I felt good running the mesa and wrapped it up quickly, returning to the aid station before pointing my feet toward Grafton Mesa, and my crew chief!
The trip to Grafton aid is quick. It's a 6 mile stretch of dirt road that is mostly flat with a little bit of rolling as you pass through wash areas. I was feeling good and making great time.
Heading to Grafton Aid
Coming into Grafton
Jo was waiting for me when I arrived and we started to make preparations for running in the dark, and for running in the rain, which seemed imminent at this point. I grabbed a waterproof jacket, fueled up and rolled out.
As soon as I left the aid station, it started to pour.
It rained the entire time as I dropped down toward the Grafton Cemetery and then back up Grafton Mesa. The ground was getting greasy, but it was still runnable. That wouldn't last.
When I made it back to the Grafton Mesa aid station, the sun was beginning to set. The rain was coming and going, but was going more than it wasn't. I took ample time to load my pack with everything I might need if the weather worsened. I swapped shorts for tights, added gloves and put on a long sleeve tech shirt.
I was going to be running through a storm for 14 miles before seeing Jo again. I needed to prepare for everything.
I ran back down the dirt road toward the Goosebump as quickly as I could. I was worried the descent was going to degrade quickly with the rain and I wanted to get off the mesa as fast as possible. I passed the Gooseberry aid station without stopping and I bailed off the mesa heading to the desert floor.
Most of the trail was still in good shape and handled the rain well. When I got near the base of mesa, the trail got slick and I had to carefully pick my down to the bottom.
Once I hit the desert floor, I was headed through 8 miles of sand, dirt and wash bottoms to the Virgin Desert aid station.
The trail was in good shape, but there was plenty of slipping and sliding along the way. The rain was stopping and starting again, but it was getting more intense as time went on. There was a real danger of this race being stopped if things got worse and I felt a strong sense of urgency to make it to the finish before that happened.
When I got to Virgin Desert, they placed a red wristband on me, which corresponded with the flagging on the red loop. My first of three loops before heading to the finish.
The rain had started in earnest now and it wasn't letting up.
About 2 miles into this 5 mile loop, I was forced to make a quick pit stop. I stepped 10 feet off the trail and added even more moisture to the desert floor. Anxious to get back on the trail, I spun around and launched my leg right into a cholla cactus. These are nasty little buggers! When you connect with a cholla deeply enough, the entire branch just separates from the plant and stays with you. When I looked down, I could see this giant chunk of cactus hanging from my leg. I can't grab it because then it'll just stick to my hand. I hunted around and found two flat rocks that I used to pinch the cholla, then pull it away from me. After a few painful tugs, it fell to the ground. I inspected the wound and found about a dozen cactus needles still deeply embedded in my leg. I tried to pull them out but they wouldn't budge. So I turned and ran the last 3 miles to finish my loop.
Not the Same Cactus, But an Accurate Depiction of Your Common Cholla
When I got to the aid station, I found a volunteer with a fencing tool. He agreed to pull the needles out of my leg. He gingerly grabbed each needle, we both took a deep breath, then he'd rip it out.
It hurt like hell!
All fixed up, I swapped my red wristband for a white wristband and headed out for a 6 mile jaunt in the rain.
The white trail was getting extremely slick and muddy, but for the most part, it was still runnable. The rain hadn't let up at all and was only getting worse. Moving as quickly as possible, I made it back to Virgin Desert to start my final loop before heading toward the finish line.
The blue loop was much worse than the previous loops and I began to feel pretty bad for the runners that would be dealing with this mess later tonight, or even tomorrow morning. It was barely runnable.
I hit the Virgin Desert aid station for a final time. I loaded up on water and fuel before heading out for the final 8 miles.
The first few miles went well. The trail surface handled the water well and I made good time. The final miles before the finish line were a mess. Mud was caking to my shoes, adding unneeded weight and burden. I was skiing down the short hills because it seemed to be the safest mode of transportation by that point. As the finish line came into view, I made the final descent in cartoon character fashion, doing everything I could to stay vertical. I succeeded.
Finishing in 22:59
The rain grew stronger in the moments after I finished, but by then, it didn't matter. Jo covered me with an umbrella as I warmed up by a fire, reliving my trek through the worst desert rainstorm I'd ever seen.
I soon learned that sections of the course were being closed due to the conditions and runners were being routed back toward the finish. Depending on where they were at the time, they would finish the race with either 85 miles or 92 miles. Only a handful of runners would run the entire 100 mile course. I was grateful to be one of them.
Runners in Need of Mudflaps!!
Knowing that rain was likely, I ran the race in the Topo Athletic Hydroventure. These shoes are designed to keep water out, and they did. I ran through the night in a heavy rain and wet, sloppy mud and my feet were dry at the finish. Definitely an advantage.
This is a race that will be talked about for a long time. I'm sure some runners are disappointed, but there was nothing that could have been done to control the weather, and the conditions were becoming dangerous for the runners and harmful for the trails. The race staff did all the right things.
Week 4 of my binge racing saga continues next week as I run a road marathon in my home town. I haven't been home in 10 years, so running my way through town is the best way to see what's new in that sleepy little burg.
Thanks for reading!