Thursday, May 17, 2012

Zion 100 Race Report

Zion 100 Buckle

At 4:30am I decided to crawl of out bed and get ready for a long day and night ahead. I didn’t sleep at all – and I’m not sure why. Drop bags had already been dropped off – pace chart had been made – clothes were laid out with race number attached – I had already run 100 miles before - what was there to be nervous about?

I was really looking forward to this race since southern Utah is my favorite place to vacation. The race prep by the RD leading up to the inaugural Zion 100 was tops. Excellent communication, maps, course descriptions, directions for crew to access the runners, course photos from training runs, a video clip, recommendations on what to do in the area. The RD also took it upon himself to try and find pacers for anyone that wanted and needed one. While not expected – I was certainly appreciative when I was paired with a great trail runner turned friend out of the SLC area that was to join me at mile 70. Everything indicated that this was going to be one awesome adventure – and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The drive out to Virgin, UT from the hotel was about 30 mins. I did my usual race prep reviewing the course, elevation, aid stations – eating my honey stinger bar, saltine crackers with peanut butter and hydrating. After a pre-race weigh-in (three weigh-ins throughout the day to stay within +/- 3% body weight) where we were reminded that the course was harder than the elevation chart indicated - we were off at straight up 6am.

The first part of the course ascends Smith Mesa with a fairly steep but walkable verticle of about 1000 feet. The adrenaline was pumping and the climb was pretty easy in the dry 50 degree air. The view at the top with the sunrise was spectacular and was a great way to start the morning. 

View from Smith Mesa - Starting Line is on the right side of the photo in the valley

Once on top of the Mesa – the course follows 10 miles of dirt road. After the slow climb to the top – this was a great way to make up some time and really get the legs turning. This was one of the few non-tech section where you can look around and enjoy the amazing scenery of southern Utah. A couple of hops over a few snakes and running hard through a fairly substantial headwind – the Mesa #2 aid station was in sight at mile 18.5 and the legs were feeling good.

Runnable section on dirt road

The RD had posted some photos of the next section which included a short distance that was narrow and then a steep drop off where holding onto a rope was required. I had been a little anxious about this section – but made it through fairly easily with a little guidance from a volunteer before dropping into a creek bed where we hopped large boulders and pools of water for what seemed to be ½ mile to a 1 before the trail opened up to some awesome single track – and eventually a jeep road. I ran into Andee from LA that was running her first 100 and we talked about how awesome the course had been so far – and the miles flew by. Towards the bottom of the trail the aid station was in sight, and we hit pavement at mile 27.5 where I had a surprise visit from my crew.

Runnable section on pavement

Crazy Crew Cindy giving aid and motivation

Transitioning to pavement for a few downhill miles was a welcome relief – as was seeing my crew which I hadn’t anticipated. Some minor GI issues were taken care of (no fun – but necessary!) and I continued keeping the legs moving on the pavement which was now starting to heat up. Forecast had been in the lower 90’s – and I knew the next 15 miles of exposed desert would be a battle throughout the afternoon. Sure enough – around mile 31 I started slowing down and going with a walk uphill and trot downhill to the aid station at mile 35 where I met my crew again – and my pacer Troy!

Troy and his wife Kandi were both volunteer pacers and had driven down earlier in the day to see their racers and hang out. Meeting them, seeing my crew, and getting an ice cold sponge dumped on top of my head unexpectedly (thanks Troy!) was the mental boost I needed to get me out of the funk I had been experiencing the last few miles. Out of the aid station and back in the desert on some smooth single track I started passing people. I wasn’t 100% but was still moving well. The heat radiating off of the rocks made me feel like I was baking in the sun – it was so hot. I figured if I could endure about 3 - 4 hours out in the sun, it would cool down and I could rally. So – my strategy was to keep the legs moving – even if it was at a slower pace than I wanted – stay hydrated and keep a positive attitude. Easier said than done! Although I didn’t have a really low point mentally – I definitely was in survival mode until the aid station at mile 42 where I had to sit down and completely regroup. I was in the stage where nothing except water sounded good. The thought of a gel, a cracker, a cookie, broth, candy made me almost sick. I knew I needed calories – and I knew there was no way I would make it to the top of the next climb coming up without calories – but I just couldn’t stomach them. So – reluctantly I put electrolytes in my handhelds – didn’t eat anything (but shoved a few gels in my shorts) and kept moving.

I thought the next section would have been a breeze to fly through on fresh legs – it wasn’t technical – had a few rollers –  just a great running surface but I still struggled. The encouraging thing was that I could see a few people in front of me that I had been leaping frogging through the desert – Sue from Calgary and a guy from Cleveland running his first 100 - and I didn’t appear to be losing ground so I felt like I was moving about as well as everyone else was. I finally got to a water only station at mile 45 – which I incorrectly thought was a drop bag station (mental bummer) - refilled my water bottles with hot water that had been sitting in the sun all day and started heading towards Gooseberry Mesa for the toughest climb of the day.

The steep, rocky climb up Gooseberry in the heat of the day (around 430pm) was not what the doc had ordered after 15 miles of crossing the desert. I felt like I was standing under a heat lamp. My mouth was dry and my lips were sticking to my gums. My legs felt like lead – so heavy and slow. This was the type of climb where you put your hands on your hips and slowly take one step after another. Stopping to catch your breath almost isn’t an option – because it’s easier to move up slow and steady than it is to keep your balance while standing still on the steep slope. Looking up I thought the trail went on forever. I was mentally and physically fading. Just about the time I thought I couldn’t go on – pretty close to the top – a volunteer came flying down the trail and grabbed my handhelds. A few minutes later he had them filled with ice cold water and brought them back to me. He told me “we’re all waiting for you up at the top” so I was expecting to see my crew – air guitar! But when I got to the top there were all of the runners I had been leap frogging sitting in chairs trying to bounce back. Well – no crew – but it was good to see that everyone I had been running with/near had made it! I sat down in the shade in a chair – ate shaved ice snow cones with electrolytes – cooled down and rehydrated and felt like I had a new lease on life. I had battled through the only real low point so far and was back in the game.

The trail on Gooseberry was a slow go. It was a mixture of trail, sand, and many, many rocky outcrops. Because there were no trees to tie ribbons to on the outcrops – there were painted dots and reflective tape to follow. So – you would come to an outcrop – stand there and look around for a dot. Then another dot. Then another dot. It was like a human version of connecting the dots. Sometimes they were hard to find – and while this was really the only way the RD could mark the course – it really took a lot of time and there was no opportunity to get into any rhythm. Fortunately Sue from Calgary was running with me hand we picked through the terrain together giving each other direction “I see a dot over here Sue!” until the first aid station at mile 51. This continued past the aid station for another 10 miles – about half which was run in the dark once the sun went down.

Around mile 60 the sun is down and I’m moving well when I see headlamps coming towards me. Two guys ask “are you going the right way??” Well – I tell them that I think I am – and have been following the markers. I tell them I am working my way to aid station at mile 62 – and they tell me they are as well – but we are going in opposite directions. A guy that I had recently passed a mile or so back seemed familiar with the course – so we all waited a few seconds – saw his headlamps through the trees and waited for him to catch up to verify who was going the right direction. It ends up that he had actually marked that section of the course – so he verified he and I were going the right way – so the guys turned around and we all started heading in the same direction. Whewww disaster avoided – the last thing I needed was to be off course. After a few miles we were at aid station 62.

The next section was a flat direct road and the first time I had been able to get into any rhythm since pavement earlier in the day around mile 27. I met up with a couple of folks that were running well - another lady from Calgary and Dennis from Utah - got the legs turning – the miles clicked away – and I could see the Smithsonian Aid Station near mile 70 in the distance.

Seeing my crew and my pacer Troy was awesome since it had been 35 battle scarred miles since I had last seen them. The medics took my bloodpressure – 120/78 and my weight (only down a pound) – I took care of a blister that had developed on the side of my heel – downed a few calories - and Troy and I were off.

This was my first time to run with a pacer. I actually wasn’t running – it was a shuffle every now and then but mostly a steady, decently paced walk. Most of the miles to the next aid station were uphill – but it was gradual and went by quickly. I immediately appreciated the benefit of having a buddy around to run.. er… walk with. I never really verified Troy’s plan to get me to the finish because he had paced people before at 100’s and honestly I really didn’t want to know the strategy – but it seemed he was always a step or two ahead of me and I was forced to keep my pace going to keep up so I didn’t get left! I think his legs were twice as long as mine – so even when I was trotting – he was still walking! Anyways – having to keep up worked for me. It was similar to dragging me along without dragging me.

Through the aid station at mile 77 and then a decent but manageable drop off into the valley and we were at Kokopelli Golf Course around mile 80. In the middle of the golf course we see three of four headlamps. Other runners that had been just ahead of us were apparently lost. Which way is the trail? After a few minutes of searching – we decide as a group we’ve found the right path and head off to the next aid station around mile 83.

We leave mile 83 aid station – still on a dirt road – and after a mile or so see headlamps coming towards us again – the same group that we met at the golf course that was off course. They tell us we are off course again and we have to backtrack. We about face – and start walking back towards the aid station and find a very scarcely marked single track trail. We’re back on track after adding a little extra mileage – and surprisingly enough mentally I’m handling the few extra miles ok. I think it was because everyone else was in the same boat and we were all just dealing with it as a group.

In and out of a small canyon along Gould’s rim the sun started to come up. This is the first time I had seen the sunrise twice during a race. I hadn’t forgotten how the sun had baked me the day before – and Troy and I decided it was going to get hot quickly – and that was motivation for me to suck it up and get a move on. The aid station at mile 90 was a good place to work on getting my mojo back – which I did with a couple of cups of broth and a transition back into sunglasses and sunscreen.

Brian and Troy at mile 90

Apparently we had both forgotten about an aid station at mile 95 – because neither of us could figure out what the heck it was that we saw in the distance. A house? A barn? We weren’t sure until we got close enough to realize that it was an aid station – and our crew was there for motivation. At this point – I was ready to keep on moving and didn’t stop long. We started down the single track trail and about 100 yards from the aid station a couple of mountain bikers headed towards us. I was in the lead – and as I started to get over off of the trail Troy said jokingly “hey – this guy just ran 95 miles – let’s give him some room.” Apparently the mountain bikers had encountered some less courteous runners ahead of us – because the guy jumps off his bike and starts swinging at Troy saying he doesn't care how far I've run. Yes – I hear my pacer turned bodyguard tell the mountain biker’s wife who is also riding to get her husband under control before the cops are called. Wha?? Is this a hallucination? I hear the chaos behind me – but any step that isn’t towards the finish line is a step that I am not going to take. Sorry Troy buddy – you’re going to have to take them out without me – and I had confidence that he could! He diffuses the situation – catches back up to me – and we make pretty good time on the easy, smooth and slightly downhill single track laughing about the situation. The altercation gave me the adrenaline boost I needed!

The final mile was back on pavement and I could see the turnoff for the finish line in the distance. The heat was already back – and it was hot even for 945am in the morning. As much as I wanted to walk uphill to the turnoff – I kept the legs moving. We turned the corner – saw the park in the distance – and ran it in to finish my second 100 in 27:46 and 34th place out of 103 starters and 59 finishers.

Brian and Troy with 100 yards to the finish
Crossing the finish line!

Overall – the race was definitely harder than I expected – and while I did have a few moments where I felt deflated I never had the feeling that I wouldn’t make it to the finish line. Well – maybe for a brief moment while dry roasting in the desert! But in general I was able to keep it together pretty well. I’ve read a few blogs about races like Western States where it gets really hot during the day – and the consensus is if you can hang on and get through the heat – you can turn it around once the sun goes down and you get some calories in you. I kept telling myself that throughout the hot sections of the course – this isn’t forever – it will cool off – keep moving. I think Troy told me this at the mile 35 aid station - keep going and don't stop.

I heard a lot of people that were a little annoyed with course markings – and while there were a few places where it could have been marked better – particularly between miles 80 – 90 when we were all fatigued and in the dark – overall I thought it was fairly easy to navigate. The course markings and a few glitches here and there were far outweighed by the overall organization of the race which I thought was awesome. The RD also took complete responsibility for some sketchy markings and was extremely apologetic both at the finish line and in some online posts.

I can’t give enough thanks to my crew – the dos locas senoritas – that came all the way from Texas to crew my second 100. Even though I wasn’t able to see them often – there were multiple times that I wasn’t expecting to see them and did. They were always positive – made sure I was ready for the next section – and boosted my spirits.

I also can’t say thanks enough to my pacer Troy who very subtly kept me moving and dialed in. I think one reason I didn’t have any low points was because I never had a chance to think a whole lot of negative thoughts since we were talking and I was distracted. Maybe that’s the point! Races we’ve run – races we want to run – work – Church – growing up – family – more running – and roughing up mountain bikers.  J

Recovery has been surprisingly quick – and I’m already out running – doing gym work – and feeling great. I’m really glad I chose to run the Zion 100 – I met some amazing people that I can’t wait to see again at future races – saw some amazing scenery – and tested myself mentally and physically. There are already talks from the RD of tweaks to the course for next year – moving it up a month earlier to avoid some of the heat – and switching the course around to include less time in the desert. Even without the changes – this is a race that I would definitely consider running again – and would without a doubt recommend to anyone looking for a fun, challenging 100 mile run.

Brian and Troy with the finisher's buckle and tired legs!


  1. Well done, Brian!! Troy was such a rad dude. His rendition of the mountain biker encounter was hilarious!!!

  2. This, my friend, is an awesome race report! Everything you wrote here describes my race perfectly.

    I got annoyed by all the mountain bikers in the last 10 miles. I know they were just out enjoying the trail too, but it took so much physical and mental energy to keep stepping off the trail for them to pass.

    Congrats on making it to the finish of a challenging race!

  3. Great race report. Southern Utah is also my favorite place in the world, and I look forward to running a trail race there one day. I just signed up for my very first ultra: Palo Duro 50K! Nervous, but excited!

    1. Run Nature - how did Palo Duro go? That's such a great race. I've done the 50K a few times and the 50 mile a few times. I signed up for the Bryce 100 back out in Utah this May. Same great scenery - same great race director. Once you have tackled PD - it's time to head west for some real mountain running!