I have a love for Zion National Park and the region that surrounds it. I’m lucky in that I get to travel to this area every couple of months for work. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of running the Zion traverse several times and much of the trail system between the Park and Hurricane. When I heard Matt Gunn was planning an ultra in the area – I was intrigued. When I was able to get in – I was ecstatic!
The course is a figure eight that that starts and ends in the Virgin, UT town park. At 6:00 am on May 11th 2012, a group of about 100 runners left the park for the inaugural Zion 100 and began the first climb of the day to the top of Flying Monkey Mesa. The lead group went out slower than I expected or wanted, so I was quickly off the front. Part of my plan for the day was to go out fast, trying to put maximum miles in before afternoon temperatures reached the 90’s. I felt good climbing the single track up the mesa and was surprised to have Matt hand me a Ben Franklin at the top. I had no idea there was a preem for the first to the top of Flying Monkey. Lesson learned, don’t be sitting in the blue box before a race instead of listening to the prerace briefing.
The next 15 miles or so were rolling graded road and I focused on getting into a rhythm and going to that other place. The morning was cool and the miles went by quickly. I wanted to make some good time knowing that the section after mile 18 was a single track descent and moderately technical – two things I don’t do well.
This section did not disappoint. Immediately after the aid station you drop into North Creek. The descent while short, is steep. Volunteers had placed a rope to help with the drop which was most appreciated. Without the rope – I would have been doing some ass sliding. The trail then followed the creek for a bit before meandering down the canyon. This section was just slow; navigating through the stream, doing the multiple 90-degree turn thing while navigating through tamarisk, watching for flags. Then, when the trail finally opened up it was pocked with the hoof prints of cattle. I felt as if I was running on fossilized bubble wrap. Foot placement was tricky. I wished I had beefier shoes. I began to feel the heat of the sun. The Smash Mouth song “ might as well be walkin’ on the sun” got stuck in my head.
At the Sheep Bridge Road aid station (mile 35) I transitioned from a single bottle waist pack and handheld to a Nathan hydration pack knowing that hydration would be key in the heat of the day. Thank you Jamie Kamm for not only having my pack ready, but also having a rag with cold water to cool me down. It was exactly what I needed.
I left the aid station feeling optimistic that the day was going to go well. Then rather quickly, I started to run out of gas. The legs started to feel heavy. I was having trouble keeping up the turnover. I had no energy. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was I tired from running the Salt Flats 100 two weeks ago? I had learned earlier in the week that I was anemic again. Is this what bad blood feels like I thought to myself? Or, was I just experiencing mid-race laziness? As much as I tried, I just couldn’t seem to keep moving as fast as I wanted.
The miles to AS#5 (42.4 miles) were hard. I could feel the heat. I wasn’t in the zone. I struggled. I was looking forward to the climb up to Gooseberry Mesa where I could do some power-walking, work on hydration, and hopefully regroup.
As I climbed up to the mesa I started to experience cramps in my calves. My best guess was that despite being conscious about drinking, I was behind on hydration. I took a couple of salt tabs and emptied my Nathan. The cramps got worse. At the top of the mesa there was a self-service water drop. I filled my pack and drank all that could. However, the cramps continued to get worse both in my calves and quads. The trail along Gooseberry Mesa meanders along the rim of the mesa, undulating between slick rock and sand. If I lifted my leg to high to step onto a sandstone ridge I could feel a cramp coming on. If I pushed too hard in the sand I could feel a cramp coming on. If I turned a corner too tight or hard, I could feel a cramp coming on. I knew it was inevitable and just mater of time before I seized. I tripped on a root and as I went to catch myself, my left calf cramped.
As I laid on the ground I was able to fully flex my foot before the cramp became so severe that I would have had a hard time releasing it. I got up and started walking in an effort to stretch my calves and legs. I realized the only real option I had was to try and drink myself out this predicament and get some electrolytes at the next aid station. If hydration didn’t work, then the race was over for me.
By the time I reached AS#6 (Gooseberry Point - mile 51.5) I was feeling better. I figured some Coke, electrolytes and food would have me back in business. To my dismay, I got there before the aid station volunteers had arrived. However, the radio crew was there and shared some water with me. I left the aid station knowing that things could get a bit precarious over the next 10-mile section of the course with no food or electrolytes.
This section of the course was new to me, and my expectations that it would be a fairly fast section were misguided. It was technical and slow. What I had thought would be a 90-minute leg took well over two hours. I was bonking and getting dehydrated again. It was one of those times for me that we all know so well, when that needed or anticipated aid station just never seems to be around the corner like we think or hope it should me. Then, suddenly Matt appeared running the opposite direction. He indicated that he was checking on the flagging. I told him the flagging was fine, but asked if he had any food. I thanked my lucky stars that he had a gel in his pack.
AS#7 (62.7 miles) was not setup when I arrived. Fortunately, the radio crew had arrived and some kind volunteer offered me part of his lunch - a Mountain Dew and banana. It was exactly what I would have picked up off the aid station table had it been there!
With the last 20 miles having been a train wreck for me, I was ready to get back to the business of racing. I was sure any lead I may have had, had evaporated in the heat of the day. And that any chance I had to win depended on me starting to motor. I pushed hard to AS#8 (Smithsonian Butte - 69.7 miles) where Adrienne and my kids met me and quickly got me on my way.
Shortly after leaving AS#8 I somehow got off course. While I had a sense as to where I should be, it took me sometime to get reoriented and back on course. My best estimate is that I added about four bonus miles. I was cursing myself knowing that speedster Gary Gellin had the GPS coordinates and had most likely passed me while I was on my detour. However, upon arrival at AS#10 (Diamond Ranch - 82.7 miles) I was stoked to learn I was still in the lead.
I took some time at AS#10 to regroup. The extra distance and mental stress of the detour had me feeling a bit off. I needed to eat and drink. But nothing sounded good. I tried a few things - canned peaches, Skittles, dried ginger, Red Bull – but nothing hit the spot. I moved on…
I was excited about the last section of the course. I knew it fairly well from previous runs and knew that it favored my abilities – rolling and non-technical. I knew I just had to keep moving. The last 20 miles went by quickly. I enjoyed the solitude of the night. I found amusement in watching the bugs and rodents scamper out of my way. I daydreamed. I finally got into the zone for the first time all day. Things were good.
I crossed the finish in 18:25, several hours slower than I had planned. Yet, I was pleased with the result given the surprises during the day that I had encountered.
A big shout out to RD Matt Gunn, his family, and all the volunteers that made this race possible. Conceiving, planning and executing an event of this scale and complexity is no small feat.
Congrats to Slater Fletcher for running a remarkable first 100. Sarah Evans on placing second. Brian Kamm for running an extremely smart and patient race. Race results can be found at http://ultralive.net/zion100/webcast.php