To say I’m a bit fixated with the 48.3 mile Zion Traverse would be an understatement. Behind this fixation – is considerable history. My first exposure to the Zion Traverse was Thanksgiving weekend back in 2009 when I was honored to receive an invitation from Jared Campbell to join him and Christian Johnson in an FKT attempt. I didn’t have my wheels that day and watched Jared and Christian set a new FKT of 9:08.
Since then I’ve been able to run parts of the traverse with regular frequency during my monthly work trips to Kanab. I’ve run sections with friends like Rich McDonald. Yet, all the parts never seemed to add up to a whole for me. At some point, I knew I had to go back and complete the traverse in its entirety.
In April 2010 Matt Hart set a new FKT of 7:58. How might I measure up against greats like Jared, Christian and Matt? This past weekend I was finally able to find out.
I grew up in an era (a long, long time ago) when little boys read books about World War II. I was always fascinated about the strategy and logistics of the long distance bombing raids conducted by the Allies against Germany and the U.S. against Japan. These raids pushed to the limit what aircraft and their crews were capable of at the time. When I race, the strategies and tactics used by the crews of these bombers are both inspiring and metaphorically helpful.
I knew this would be a difficult mission. Weather, that critical variable that can bring out our best performance, or lead to catastrophic failure was not in my favor. Late June is not the ideal time for the Zion Traverse given high temperatures. But, it was the one weekend my work, personal and race schedule allowed. The assigned aircraft had some shakes and rattles due to a heavy racing schedule this spring. While my airframe has more years on it than most, I know that with good maintenance and smart piloting that it is capable of getting the job done. Despite concerns about the weather and my equipment, I knew my advantage was my intimate knowledge of the route – every hill, rock, and water source. Could this advantage and some element of experience and wits get me back across the English Channel??
I took off from the East Rim TH at 5:00 am in an effort to try and get ahead of the heat. My plan was to climb to the top of the East Rim in the dark and have first light greet me for the screaming descent into Zion Canyon. Matt had run this first 11.6 mile leg from the East Rim TH to the Grotto in 1:40 minutes - an extremely brisk time. I knew I would need to push my abilities to be even close to his time. I reached Echo Canyon in 1:38, eight minutes behind Matt’s pace. Ahead of me was 1.2 miles of road where I knew I would need to make up time if I wanted to go undetected by radar and avoid heavy anti-aircraft fire. I ran as fast as I could down the road and made up 4 minutes. I arrived at the Grotto at 1:44, 4 minutes behind Matt’s pace.
As I began the climb from the Grotto out of Zion Canyon to the West Rim, I watched my instrument panel in an effort to get the most efficiency out of the aircraft. Did I have the right fuel burn, was the aircraft properly trimmed, were there any shakes or rattles that needed attention? Now that I was at cruise altitude I felt good and forced myself to seize the moment and relax knowing that not far ahead was the midpoint of my mission where I would need to be at my best if I was to get back across the Channel.
I reached Lava Point (25.8 miles) in 4:19. I was exactly on Matt’s pace! I made a calculated decision to go light and jettison my hydration pack and run with 2 handhelds and a single bottle waist pack for the next nine miles. Unfortunately, the waist pack had not been restocked with nutrition. I began to bonk. It was if I had just dropped my bombs, had been hit by anti-aircraft fire, and faced the reality that I may not be getting back across the Channel. I kept saying to myself, “gotta keep it together.” I began flying by instinct.
At the Hop Valley TH (34.2) I was still exactly on Matt’s pace (5:46). I downed a Red Bull and immediately felt better. Yet, I could tell that I was getting tired, the 90+ degree heat and sun was getting to me, and that getting back across the Channel would take everything I had. As I slogged through the sand leading into Hop Valley I began to have doubts that I could beat Matt’s time. I needed to get my head back. I turned up the volume of my iPod. I drank heavily trying to lighten my load and stay hydrated. I thought of good friends and memories. Yet, I was having trouble keeping the turnover I needed in the sand and heat to stay on pace. More doubts. As if my doubts were conspiring with my abilities, I tripped on the root of a sagebrush and dove face first into a lush green flowering plant. As I lay there I couldn’t stop laughing. It was completely dark with my face pressed into the base of the plant. All I could think was, “Did I just crash into the Channel? “
I extracted myself from the plant with the realization that I have it pretty damn good! How lucky am I to be running across Zion? How lucky am I to be able to run? How f’n lucky am I to have my face in a soft fragrant plant, sand stuck to my sweaty body, with deer flies lusting after my flesh (always nice to have somebody wanting you) reminding me that it is the journey that brings us joy. Damn the f’ning Channel (and the deer flies too)!
As I plodded onward towards England I was in bliss. Yeah, I was tired – but I was having more fun than a grown man should be allowed to have. Would I beat Matt’s time? – who cared, I was LIVING. Was I disappointed in myself? – yes, but I had learned so much today that would better prepare me for future races.
I crossed the Channel and reached Lee Pass TH well baked and dehydrated in 8:12 minutes, 14 minutes off Matt’s time. I was content. As far as I was concerned, I made it back across the channel alive – and that much wiser and experienced for a future Zion Traverse FKT mission.