Zion 100 Trail Run
April 19-20th, 2013
Virgin Town Park
It was a trip that started and ended in Fabulous Las Vegas. Not ones to shy away from good food while tapering, Rob and I began our Zion 100 adventure with a little “R&R” in the entertainment capital of the world. As a gal who spends 99.873% of her waking hours in athletic clothes, I’ll admit it was amazingly fun to dress up and visit some top notch restaurants. Rob even captured the rare siting on camera…
2 days, 8 scoops of gelato, and copious amounts of chocolate later… and we were off to Utah in our super slick (bright green) Ford Fiesta. The dusty, monochrome Nevada landscape quickly transformed into a land of canyons and mountains as we neared St. George, and became terrifically breathtaking as we reached our final destination of Virgin, UT. En route to packet pickup, I took note of the pink/reflective flagging that dotted the roads and trails around us. Suddenly, the fact that I’d be running my first 100 miler of the season became very, very real.
The Zion 100 course weaves runners through the rugged outskirts of Zion National Park, its multiple loops and out-and-backs skirting up and over mesas and along tricky sections of slick rock. Having trained exclusively in the snowy mountains of New Hampshire, I was somewhat concerned about how I’d hold up in the dry desert climate. Moreover, Zion was to be my first “self-supported” 100. While I would have drop bags and the support of aid station volunteers, for the first time in a race of this length I would be without a pacer and a crew. The night before the race was a restless one, as I struggled to figure out my drop bag strategy and questioned how I’d do running solo in the dark.
100s are a very different sort of beast. Unlike with shorter distances (for which I feel I have a good fueling/pacing strategy in place), so many ever-changing factors come into play when you’re out running nonstop for hours on end – through extreme temperature swings, elevation ranges, darkness, and light. Even though I’d completed three 100s prior to Zion, I still very much felt like a “newbie” at the distance. In each of those prior races, I struggled with pacing issues, fueling issues, clothing issues… and though I learned several lessons from those mistakes, I knew I still had a long way to go.
Therefore, heading into Zion I decided that my primary goal would be to run as consistently as possible for the entire distance. I would employ my standard fueling/pacing strategy, with some minor adjustments:
- Pace based on HR minus 10-20 BPM (so 130 – 140 range)
- Gel every half hour
- NUUN/BCAA mix for hydration
- Protein drink every 20 or so miles
- Bars and PocketFuel as needed
…and let’s just say, I was surprised at how many components of that strategy changed while I was out there on the course. In the span of 20 hours and change, I hit some of the deepest lows I’ve ever experienced. I also reached some of the most delightful, unexpected highs, learning a ton about myself in the process.
Well, I shall cease with this inexcusably long introduction. Onto the race itself…
Start to Goosebump Aid (miles 0 – 19.1)
Friday April 19 dawned clear and cool. Rob and I arrived at the start line with about 40 minutes to spare, the majority of which I spent fumbling with my shoelaces, sipping (one too many cups of) coffee, and trying my best not to question my training and preparedness. I knew I had tapered well – perhaps too well? – but as always, the final moments before a 100 had transformed me into a bundle of nervousness. A few minutes prior to the start, Race Director Matt Gunn gathered us all together in a moment of silence. Reflecting upon the Boston Marathon tragedy, I realized how tremendously lucky I was to have the strength to embark upon a 100 mile journey. The commemoration promptly snapped me back into reality, and my nervous pre-race thoughts suddenly seemed trivial and self-centered. Lining up at the start, I resolved to run as best as I could that day, whether that meant a 100 mile PR or a death march to the finish. At 6:00am on the dot, we were off…
The first mile of the race brought us along the shoulder of Highway 9, from which point we briefly turned onto a dirt road and then finally onto singletrack. Temperatures were cool, the air was crisp, and conditions were just about as perfect as could be. However, almost right from the get go, something felt amiss. Perhaps it was the desert dust (or the smoke-filled Vegas casinos), but my chest felt tight and I found myself coughing frequently. Concerned but not deterred, I checked that my heart rate was in range and focused on taking deep, slow breaths. As the sun slowly peeked its way above the mountaintops and mesas, we were treated to some absolutely surreal views…
With ample fluid in my bladder, I was able to run straight through Virgin Dam Aid (mile 10.6) without stopping. Although still coughing quite a bit, my breathing had finally started to normalize which rose my spirits. The doubletrack underfoot was rolling and pleasant to run, so I picked up my pace, stopping every once in a while to snap a picture or two…
I could not wait to tackle the first big climb of the day – “the Goosebump” – which would take me up to Goosebump Aid and my first drop bag stash.
1,200 feet of climbing in 1 mile? Let’s do it!
Up, up, up I went, topping out on the beautiful Gooseberry Mesa and rolling into Goosebump Aid (mile 19.1) feeling strong.
Gooseberry Point Loop (miles 19.1 to 31)
Rummaging through my drop bag, I gathered up the supplies I’d need for the 11.9 mile loop out to Gooseberry Point. Oddly, I found myself craving solid food. This concerned me a little, as I have an extremely sensitive stomach and try to rely on gel as much as possible when running long events. After a bit of thought, I figured I’d succumb to my body’s needs, paying the price if need be. One Raw Revolution bar later, and I was off to attack the slick rock!
…and did I have a blast. My energy surged as I wound my way up, down, and around the rocky trail. The many twists and turns kept me on my toes, and I scanned the terrain ahead of me like a hawk to ensure that I was on course. Reaching Gooseberry Point Aid at mile 23.5, I called out my number and promptly proceeded out to the westernmost point of the mesa. What a treat it was. Even in the glaring late morning sun, I couldn’t help but stop and take a moment to soak in the landscape…
The journey back to Goosebump Aid felt slow and tedious. The irregular, twisting nature of the slick rock trails made it difficult to settle into a good running rhythm, and I soon found myself in a bit of a slump.
Refusing to succumb to negativity only a quarter of the way into the race, I assessed my situation and realized that I had not been fueling properly. Once again, the thought of gel seemed off-putting so I opted to eat another bar.
Wait… two bars, and my stomach was still settled?
I figured that if I could keep my demon of a stomach appeased, deviating from my standard fueling strategy just might work. It would require carrying a little extra weight in bars between aid stations (since I had not distributed bars evenly across my drop bags), but I was willing to give it a shot.
Goosebump Aid to Grafton Mesa Aid (miles 31 to 37.3)
Digging through my race vest at mile 31, I was amused to find that I’d carried my headlamp and all of my early morning layers for the entire Gooseberry Point loop. I quickly tossed them in my drop bag, and headed over to the main aid station to refill my bladder. As the sun beat down against my shoulders, I realized that some sort of preemptive cooling mechanism was in order. With crossed fingers and toes, I asked the aid station volunteers if they happened to have ice available. Met with a resounding yes, I proceeded to pour a few cupfuls down my sports bra and under my hat. I must admit, we girls do have an advantage with our sports bras in hot weather races!
The 6.3 miles down to Grafton Mesa Aid wound entirely along dirt road. Unbelievably scenic dirt road, I might add…
As the ice melted down my back, I found myself cool, collected, and ready to tackle the heat of the day. My spirits were lifted further by the many friendly mountain bikers and crew members who cheered me on as they passed by.
The aid station itself was preceded by a wonderful one mile descent, which I bounded down happily, reaching Grafton Mesa Aid with a smile on my face.
Eagle Crags Out-and-back / Loop (miles 37.3 to 52)
Grafton Mesa Aid marked the beginning/end of a 14.7 mile loop section, so I took some time to assess my supplies and determine what I’d need from my drop bag. Once again, I found myself craving fuel that I rarely use while running – this time bananas and Coke (of all things!). Since my stomach was still settled, I cautiously consumed both, and then gave myself a second welcome ice bath.
The 3.7 miles down to Smithsonian Butte water station were not only downhill, but also downright captivating.
I reached the water station in good time, and was directed to take a right to begin my out-and-back to Eagle Crags. I made steady enough progress up the climb, as tough as the asphalt was below my feet. Reaching the midpoint of the ascent, I was thrilled to see my good friend Anthony looking fresh and strong as he barreled down the road. He informed me that there wasn’t too much more distance to cover, so wolfed down a bar and pushed on a little harder.
Eagle Crags Aid (mile 44) not only had ice, but a mister. I chugged another cup of Coke and danced about as the cool water trickled down my shoulders. After topping off my bladder, I turned around and headed back down to the road.
The descent began smoothly enough, but as soon as I hit the flats I found myself starting to struggle. The relentless desert sun, coupled with the lack of shade, were finally taking a toll on my New England body. The 5 miles back to Grafton Mesa Aid were steep, slow, and difficult. Discouraged, I walked, stopped, and then walked a little more… and of course, I took pictures.
As low as I was, the rugged and dramatic landscape that surrounded me served as a welcome reminder as to why I partake in 100 mile events. How many opportunities does one have to run 100 miles in the desert along an incredibly marked course, all the while supported by friendly volunteers who have dedicated their personal time to help you succeed? I reminded myself that low points are a part of 100s… and that with sufficient drive to overcome them, they almost always pass.
Topping out on the mesa, I took down a little gel and soon found myself able to run again. Snaking through the slick rock, I figured that I’d passed the 50 mile mark, and took comfort in knowing that I was over halfway to the finish…
Grafton Mesa Aid to Goosebump Aid (miles 52 to 58.3)
At Grafton Mesa Aid, I was informed that I was developing a pretty colorful sunburn, and proceeded to slather my legs with sunblock. Coke had never tasted so good, and being the indulgent gal that I am I downed two cups this time around. The sugar perked me up a bit, and I was pleased to find that I was able to run all the way back to Goosebump Aid, albeit very much at “ultra pace” (though mentally I certainly felt as if I was trucking). My heart rate had settled into a steady 125-135 BPM range, which I resolved to adhere to for the remainder of the run.
Goosebump Aid to Guacamole Aid (miles 58.3 to 67.5)
Approaching mile 58.3, once again Coke was on the brain. Coke, ice, and double/triple/quadruple checking that I had all of my night running supplies and layers on hand. The aid station volunteers were just wonderful, and once again I was informed that I had some pretty nasty sunburn – this time on my arms and shoulders.
Sunscreen religiously reapplied? Check.
Ice down sports bra? Double check.
Lights and layers for night running? I must have checked this at least 4 times, for fear of being in the dark without a crew!
Coke? Mmmmmm, Coke…
Searching through my drop bag, I was excited to find that I’d stashed a PocketFuel, as I thought I’d left all three at later sections of the course. A jolt of chocolate espresso almond butter was exactly what I needed to propel me down the precipitous descent off Goosebump mesa.
For the first time during the run, I found myself wishing that I had my trekking poles with me. Carefully picking my way down the unstable trail, I thought of Rob and how I knew he’d love this technical section of the course. I envisioned him bombing all-out down the trail, and couldn’t help but smile.
A few of the speedy 100k runners passed me as I made my way back to Highway 9, where 100k’ers were directed to turn left, and 100 milers right. After a short stretch of highway, the course made a sharp left up to Dalton Wash Road. I soon passed another water station, but with 4 miles to go until reaching Guacamole Aid (my next drop bag stash), I figured I had enough liquid left in my bladder to complete the climb.
Within two miles, I’d drained my bladder entirely. The dirt road up the mesa was dusty, shade-less, and punishing.
Concerned about dehydration, I made sure to keep my pace steady, power hiking the steepest uphills and jogging the easier terrain. Baking in the heat, I found myself yearning for the sun to set. Running solo in the dark no longer sounded frightening, but oddly tempting.
Reaching the top of the mesa, I picked my way across a final section of slick rock over to Guacamole Aid. The volunteers were fantastic (one kind lady was even from my home state of New Hampshire), and informed me that the next 9 miles on the Guacamole Loop were tough. They double-checked to make sure I had my headlamp with me, filled me up with Coke, and sent me on my way.
With less than 2 hours of daylight remaining, I wondered if I’d be finishing the loop by headlamp. Nonetheless, I set a small personal goal of returning to the aid station before nightfall.
Guacamole Loop (miles 67.5 to 76.5)
…and I flew, my energy levels soaring as I zigzagged amongst the slick rock and stunted trees.
The loop was impeccably marked, though I still felt grateful to be running this section by daylight. I was thrilled to find that I could once again jog many of the uphills. As the sun dipped down below the ridge line, I realized that I just might meet my goal.
…and much to my delight, that bulky headlamp remained in my race vest all the way back to Guacamole Aid.
Guacamole Aid to Walsh Aid “Whiskeytown” (miles 76.5 to 83)
The aid station was a frenzy of activity upon my return. As I readied myself for night running, I was thrilled to see Rob jogging up! My excitement soon turned to worry, though, when I saw the state of his grapefruit-sized swollen knee. He had taken a pretty substantial fall early on in the race, and while his energy was high he was in a lot of pain. It hurt to see him struggling with such an injury, and the thought of him running alone out there in the dark was a tough one to bear. Stressed as I was, he encouraged me to continue, and after a long hug I hopped back across the slick rock by headlamp.
Less than 25 miles to go…
Perhaps it was the dark, but for some reason I became a little disoriented as I barreled down the mesa. All of the runners I passed were making the ascent up to Guacamole, and I became convinced that I was heading in the wrong direction.
Do you have a course map? Please say you have a course map! I hollered to every person I passed.
Then, another thought crossed my mind, and I tweaked my line of questioning…
Have you seen other runners heading back down this way?
The downhill miles suddenly seem to fly by. Several crew vehicles were parked at Dalton Wash water station, and a few kind folks directed me up a trail to my right. I was delighted to observe that many of the course markings were topped with tiny bulbs of light, making them extremely visible even in complete darkness. The cool temperatures were invigorating, and even after clumsily soaking my feet during (a shamefully straightforward) water crossing, I felt that I was making good progress.
Reaching Walsh “Whiskeytown” Aid, I was treated to the cheers, a cup of scalding hot coffee, and even offered a jello shot (which I graciously declined). The volunteers were full of enthusiasm, and their energy was contagious. As I departed, one kind girl walked partways up the road with me, letting me know that the next climb was steep, but very well-marked.
17 miles to go… not so bad in the grand scheme of things?
However, it was during those 17 miles where I really began to fall apart.
Walsh Aid to Smith Mesa Aid (miles 83 to 89.5)
Typically, I’m the sort of girl who loves to climb. One of my strengths as a runner is my ability to set a solid, sustainable pace as I ascend even the trickiest terrain. Nevertheless, with 83 miles on my feet, Flying Monkey ate me alive… and then spit me up, stomped on me a little, and tossed me out into a remote corner of the desert to wallow in self-misery. Picking my way up the relentless, uneven, and sidehilling trail (which in retrospect I’m glad I tackled in the dark per this video), I found myself yearning for companionship. I would have given anything at that moment for a pacer, or even the silent solace found through a fellow runner’s company… but I was very much alone.
Nevertheless, as low as I was I did my best to focus on the positive. I reminded myself of just how far I’d come, of how lucky I was to be injury free, of how lovely it was to be rid of the afternoon heat, of how every step forward took me closer and closer to that finish line…
Smith Mesa Out-and-back to Finish (miles 89.5 to 100)
At Smith Mesa Aid I prepared a little bit of miso soup and filled my bladder one final time. The salty broth roused me somewhat, and I was able to scuttle along the flat 1.5 mile out-and-back with some semblance of a running motion. With that final section completed, the finish now seemed within sight. Tired as I was, I kept my eyes focused on the tiny lights of Virgin, glittering far below me, seemingly close yet deceptively far away.
The final two miles of the course consisted of rolling ATV trail. With 98 miles on my feet, even the smallest blips of uphills felt tortuously mountainous. I tried my best to run them, but eventually settled into a run/walk strategy.
Crossing Highway 9 one final time, I had absolutely no idea what my finishing time would be. I hadn’t checked the time since leaving Guacamole Aid, and felt that I’d taken such a long time up Flying Monkey that I’d be finishing in the 23-24 hour range. As the race clock came into sight, I picked up my pace and was amazed to see the 20 hours flashing upon the screen. I was going to PR! Sprinting out those last few feet, I crossed the finish line in 20:22:23, 31 minutes faster than my former 100 mile best.
8 days out from the race, and I still find that it is constantly on my mind. It was a tremendous honor to share the day with many talented runners, especially the incredible Jen Benna who set an impressive women’s course record and inspired me throughout the run. While I am thrilled with my finish, I realize that I still have much to learn when it comes to running 100s. Perhaps it’s a distance that I’ll never quite excel at. Regardless, I am the sort of person who always strives for self-improvement, and I hope that I will continue to make progress when I tackle the Vermont 100 at the end of July.
A huge thank you to Race Director Matt Gunn, the many fantastic aid station volunteers, and the friendly folks out on the course. I will forever have fond memories of southern Utah, and hope to return back to run Bryce 100 next year.
Some fun facts…
- Gels consumed – 15ish? (8 Honey Stinger, 6 Vega Sport, 1 VFuel)
- Bars consumed – 9 or 10 (Raw Revolution)
- PocketFuel consumed – 2.5 packets
- Fruit consumed – 6 segments of banana
- Cups of Coke consumed – far too many…
- Soup consumed – 3 cups of miso
- Water consumed – lots and lots of liters (NUUN mixed with BCAA powder)
- Salt consumed – 10 SaltStick tabs
- Protein consumed post-race – 2 packets SFH Recovery (chocolate)
- Calories burned – 8,564
- Average HR – 129
- Max HR – 160
- UltraAspire Omega race vest
- HydraPak 2L bladder
- iPod Shuffle (carried for 100 miles but not used)
- YurBuds headphones (carried for 100 miles but not used)
- Fenix HP11 headlamp
- Black Diamond Spot headlamp
- Polar FT4 heart rate monitor
- Flag nor Fail “Work Is in My Blood” white tank top
- Patagonia Houdini shell
- Voler arm sleeves
- Lululemon Dart and Dash shorts
- LL Bean power stretch gloves
- Hoka Bondi Bs
- Darn Tough socks
- Dirty Girl gaiters (fabulous pink camo)
- Headsweats race hat
- Headsweats beanie
- Ryders Nitrous sunglasses
…and yes, the trip did end in Vegas as well – at no better place than the Aria Resort & Casino (which I managed to score at a steeply discounted rate).