Zion 100 miler 4/10/2021: Awe inspiring, draining, wonderful... all of that stuff and more.
The 10th year running of the Zion Ultras occurred on April 10th 2021. I had signed up for the event in 2020 but... Covid. Thankfully the folks at Vacation Races have a generous deferral policy anyways, and so after another full year of preparation I was to toe the line for my 3rd 100 mile effort in the amazing Southern Utah high desert outside of Zion National Park. Originally I’d planned on making this a solo trip. In 2020 my kids had school plans and my sister (who has frequently crewed me) had work she couldn’t get out of. I’d prepped and planned for a self-supported effort, knowing that the Vacation Races folks and all the volunteers would be able to help me get from aid-station to aid-station with strategic drop bags where I needed them. This year Covid mitigation strategies had proven safety at these events and even better I was thrilled to find out family would join me.
The Zion Ultras consist of a half-marathon, a 50k, 100k and the race I’d be doing, 100 miles. It is basically a loop course, with several additional loops off of the main one to go up and around and down picturesque mesas. Starting elevation is at 5000 ft and it goes both up to 5500 and down to around 3500 from there. Total elevation estimated on the site is 10,700 ft. The race had previously started and ended in Virgin Utah, but through a combination of Covid restrictions and the sale of a lot that was used for parking, the race directors decided to move the location to the opposite side of the loop in Apple Valley. While it was still essentially the same course, it meant hitting the mesas and different climbs/descents at different times of day than previous races. Other Covid changes meant packet-pickup was a drive-thru affair, masks were to be worn at start/finish and in aid-stations by runners/crew and volunteers, crew were limited to only a few aid stations with only one crew member allowed there, and separate rolling starts with ½ hr windows for each distance. What DIDN'T change from years past was the amazing organization, fabulous volunteers, and truly epic scenery that I’d read about and seen on videos over the past 2 years.
2021 being the year that it is… came with its own challenges right off the bat, but thankfully I remained healthy and fit, and even better, my sister decided to rent an RV and haul her, her significant other, her son, our nieces, my mom and their dog all the way down from the SF Bay Area to crew me and have a long awaited “finally vaccinated” family reunion. My kids naturally decided they wanted to come out too so the trip turned into a big cousin-party as well. We flew into St. George on the Thursday prior. I made a pilgrimage to the local running store (St. George Running), and took time for a shakeout run on a little random trail off the Kolob Terrace Hwy. Even this little slice of amazing rocks, and high desert views was astounding. Friday we all drove to Snow Canyon State Park (so the dog could be out of the RV), hiked around, climbed rocks and had a picnic. It was so lovely to have this time with family that I hadn’t seen since pre-pandemic.
My alarm went off at 3am on Saturday April 10th. I’m the kinda guy who likes to shower and eat some breakfast and really have at least an hour to get myself together in preparation for one of these really long efforts. We headed out by 4am: my sister and mom wanted to drive me to the start to see me off. We parked with all the other 100 milers as our window was 5 am to 5:30 am (each other distance would start behind us on the hour). I discovered my “starting” headlight battery was dead (how in the world did I NOT check that?!), but thankfully a kind volunteer gave me the used battery out of her headlight. After a quick visit to the environmentally conscious composting porta-potties, I crossed the start-line by myself at 5:15am.
The first 5 miles or so is an easy dirt access road with a gentle incline and quite runnable. I had to rein myself in quickly so as to not go out too fast which is always easy to do when I’m excited and itching to get going. It was PITCH black with almost no moon. To say there were a million stars is an understatement. Several times I’d switch off my light when taking a walk break and just marvel at the night sky, finding it hard to even focus on the depth of the sky and the layers of stars. Approaching the Goosebump aid station there was just the hint of light bringing mountains to the east into relief. And then… slowly and with great drama… the Utah high desert revealed itself with at first a soft blue tint and then a warm orange/yellow glow of morning sun-drenched color. By this point I was running singletrack trails and rolling slick rock along sheer drops to my left as we circumnavigated the edge of Gooseberry Mesa. I’d have to say this was one of the most jaw-dropping points in the race as we approached a short out-and-back spur to the very end where we punched our bibs and all took photos of the incredible view of surrounding mountains, Zion National Park, nearby mesas and valley below. I feel like I spent way too long out there but in fact it was probably only a few minutes. Gooseberry Aid Station was moved for better access and that put it about a mile past where it was indicated on maps. I’d run out of fluids but it wasn’t affecting me and I helped myself to a quesadilla breakfast and refills before leaving the mesa. At this point the faster 100k folks were catching up to us. One guy passed by and turning around said “Hey I know you! You went to Sally’s trail camps and I saw you on that video!” He introduced himself as Ryan and shared that he’d been a Tanawha Adventures camper in a different year… small world out here 2000 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Coming back through Goosebump Aid we ran into the ½ marathoners hitting it at the same time. This was the only time it was busy and crowded at an aid station! It was semi-chaos, but it made me laugh, and I cheered on those hardy souls who had just 8 miles to go to get their medal.
Leaving Goosebump we found ourselves quite suddenly on a rocky, technical, STEEP drop off the mesa to the valley below. Seriously… Mondo Z descent drops over 1000 feet in just over a mile… and it is really really steep, loose dirt and large rocks. Fun, but very slow! Once down in the valley however we’d be experiencing the warmth of the sun now climbing up overhead and the dry, dry air that would become my nemesis over the next 8-10 hours. The valley floor has rolling “runnable” sections all the way to Virgin Desert Aid (where I would first see my crew). The heat was definitely bearable but nonetheless I knew the dryness (humidity reached only around 12%) was sapping me of energy unless I could aggressively keep up with fluid losses. By Virgin Dam Aid I was ready for a shirt/hat change, more lube and fluids for sure! Since only one crew (my sister) was allowed AT the aid station she shuttled me over to a side area near where the RV was parked and everyone was able to see me and cheer me on. My daughter slapped sunscreen on my face, I switched to a long sleeve SPF shirt and added a sun drape to a fresh hat, lubed up, filled up and trotted on out into the desert once again.
Queue the lonely desert soundtrack… Now I started to feel things. I was about 26 miles in and my legs were tired. My body could feel the heat (even though it was only in the low 80’s) and when I’d run for a bit my mouth and throat would get parched. I was also by myself for a while… there were folks behind and in front… but we were pretty spread out at that point. Around her was when we began to interact with mountain bikers who were doing their own race that day. We were told that it was not supposed to have overlapped, but I actually didn’t mind moving off the trail for them, and they were all polite and encouraging of us as we were of them. Eventually Bernie from Denver caught up to me and we spent the next several hours together and would till 52 miles in. Bernie and I found it challenging to keep running in the stifling valleys and low spots, but we kept trudging onward. At one point several of us gathered around a “water monster” (several hundred gallon tank with spigots surrounding) and marveled at the amazing, wonderful, exquisite taste and coldness of the life giving elixir. I’m pretty sure the water was lukewarm tap water trucked in from town, but we were briefly in a waterpark in Nirvana. More run/walking and trying to keep focused on moving forward eventually got us through Hurricane Mesa and to Virgin Dam Aid. We took several minutes, not wanting to leave as we knew there was more dry winding singletrack until a water-only stop preceding a giant climb up to Smith Mesa. Approaching said water-stop at Sheep Bridge I saw a woman sitting in the shade of the water monster. She had found the only shade for a mile or so at least, and she sadly informed us that it was “out of water”. This was terrible news. I was timing my water and electrolyte intake so that I had chugged the last of it approaching this stop. Ahead of us lay a 4 mile ~1700 foot climb up Smith Mesa in the heat of the afternoon. We trudged onward, debating raiding nearby homes for outdoor hose faucets or dog water bowls. A man hauling porta-potties drove by and I flagged him down. I asked if he had any water and he poured out the contents of his ICE COLD tumbler into three of our bottles… enough to keep us going if we rationed. He said he’d tell the race directors to get more water for those coming behind us. A true trail angel! I tried to call my crew, knowing we’d be crossing a road in about a mile or two but had no service.
Coming around a bend shuffling along a dry dirt road I saw in the distance my amazing and wonderful teenage girls jumping up and down and running towards us. They’d known about the road crossing and took that opportunity to set up an “unofficial” crew access point to cheer for me. “Water! We all need water!” I yelled to them, they immediately told my sister and crew and sprung into action. Several runners with me at this point were completely out of water. Bernie and I had only a little from the port-a-potty hauler guy. They had ice too, and even more amazing and timely… popsicles! There were several people I ran into later in the race that thanked me directly for the generosity and timing of my family out there at that highway crossing doling out water, ice and popsicles! It still fills me with pride and I know my crew felt so good being able to do that for so many of my fellow runners.
The paved road up Smith Mesa sucked. Yep… it wasn’t all beauty and grandeur out there. While there were views off to the left over and over as we climbed and climbed… it was just hot, slow and generally miserable. Halfway up the popsicle high was gone and we were just trudging. Several folks were stopped on the roadside wherever they could find shade against the cliff. When we finally crested the top and stumbled into the Smith Mesa Aid it looked like a MASH unit. There were folks sitting in chairs everywhere, several laying on the ground, some puking, and MOST with that 1000 yard stare that says they are thinking of dropping. We were 42.6 miles in and the course and the heat were kicking our butts. I did what I always do: denied myself the urge to sit… grabbed a bite, filled my bottles and walked out onto Flying Monkey Mesa. It was getting late and I wanted to make it to BMX Aid @ mile 52 before dark.
Flying Monkey Mesa was honestly a bit of a blur. I caught up to and passed and then was passed again by Everett, a 59 yr old guy from Washington who would turn 60 at midnight. We had hopscotched each other all day (and would the rest of the race) and he’d been ahead of me till he had bad stomach issues. This tough dude couldn’t keep anything down mile after mile, but he kept trying and when he’d puke he’d just soldier onward. He inspired me and also hiked way faster than me! Bernie caught back up with me having had serious thoughts of dropping at Smith Mesa Aid, but was told it was “mostly downhill” to BMX Aid. Yeah… not so much. Plenty of up and down till we finally came to the “rappelling” section dropping into BMX. Again we would be descending around 1700 feet in about a mile, but this section was hairy. The trail clings to the side of the cliff and in parts has boulders to clamber over and even a section of rope to climb down a rock face. Parts of the trail were so narrow you wouldn’t put two feet next to each other, and the drop-off to the right was terrifying. I had been fried navigating the Flying Monkey Mesa, but now I was ENERGIZED and laughing! I was suddenly having FUN again! As we finally navigated the last narrow rolling trails off the cliffside and into the valley I saw a familiar figure on the top of a rise in the trail… my own Audrey had run out almost a mile to greet me as she’d become worried that the light was fading and she knew I had no headlight. I nearly cried seeing her, and we ran into BMX Aid together, where my crew awaited at the RV with fresh socks/shoes/shirt and supplies.
Normally I like to change shoes once at least during a 100 mile effort. BMX Aid Station at 51.8 miles was the perfect opportunity, however there was to be a water crossing heading up to Guacamole Mesa and again on the return to BMX at mile 70. I’d seen some YouTube videos of folks just taking off shoes to cross, and I considered that... at the last minute I decided instead to use a “sacrificial” pair of Hokas just for this 19.2 mile section, meaning I’d have dry feet for the remaining 30 miles to the finish and less chance of blisters (I’d seen too many blisters on friends’ feet in the prior weeks crewing and covering Aid Stations, and I DEFINITELY didn’t want that). It turned out to be crucial, as the creek crossing was preceded by several yards of wet, squidgy cow-turd infused mud on the banks of the creek.
After a narrow and steep trail up-and-over a hill I found myself (once again) alone on a long access road up to Guacamole Mesa. As I did in the morning, I sometimes would turn off my lights and gaze upward while running to marvel at the astounding number of stars flooding the night sky. I joined other runners on the lollipop loop of Guacamole… more slick rock and challenges finding the trail, but somewhat easier at night when the flags would reflect off my headlight. While it was somewhat slow-going, I nonetheless kept pretty good forward progress and it was perfect nighttime temps for short sleeves still. I made good time back downhill but then lost it all when I couldn’t find the marker flags crossing the Dalton Wash creek again and spent at least 10-15 minutes sloshing around in mud and calf-deep water until I was finally able to bushwhack back onto the proper trail back to BMX.
After a change of shoes/socks and switching to my PATH projects Peregrine hoodie, I was ready to spend the rest of the night working my way back across the desert floor to the Mondo Z climb and the final two mesa loops in daylight. I was feeling pretty good at this point, ate some food and said goodbye to crew till mile 80ish. While not particularly fast, the 4 miles to Mondo Z went by easily. I’d been worried that Mondo Z was going to be a soul-crusher, and as I approached I had several guys following me as we started the ascent with our poles. As steep as it seemed going down, it felt even steeper going up. Each step was less than half a normal stride and my calves and achilles were stretched to the max. My quads burned and my heart pounded in my chest. But… somehow I was able to keep a steady metronome-like pace up that monster. Several times I’d check with the guys behind me to see if they’d want to pass but all said I was keeping the fastest pace anyone wanted to attempt at this point so I continued to lead. About 50 yards before the top we started to hear the pounding bass of some rap music… it was the best song I’d ever heard (I still can’t remember what it was but it didn’t matter), I was SO glad to be approaching that Gooseberry AS! We all congratulated ourselves for making it up, and before long we were headed down the road towards the mile 80 Crew Access area as the light slowly infused color into the surrounding peaks and mesas. I was still moving relatively well, but I was finding that fatigue was setting in as well.
The last Crew Access point is basically just an intersection on one of the dirt access roads. My crew wasn’t sure where to go so they ended up driving towards me and then there they were with my sister on the running boards of the RV and my kids running behind to catch up!. A quick re-stock and shirt/hat change and I was on my way… but as I ran ahead I realized that with 20 miles to go I’d be back in the bright sun of the day and I’d want my sunglasses again. I mimed “sunglasses” to the approaching RV before they passed me and on-the-run got sunglasses from my sister who was once again riding on the running boards to reach out to me! Pretty sweet! Got cheers from other runners and crews for that little maneuver. That interaction lifted my spirits once again and I got some good running in on the steady 2 mile downhill dirt road.
Then came Wire Mesa, and the wheels started to come off. This was another beautiful trail, meandering around the mesa, with gorgeous views off sharp drops of the neighboring peaks and cliffs as the sun climbed higher overhead. But as I began to weave around and back, and back and forth and around again… seeing the same vista multiple times as the trail twisted and turned… the mileage, the hours, the heat and the dryness began to take their toll. By roughly mile 88 I was spent. I was shuffling, demoralized, parched, burnt and feeling very sorry for myself. I no longer cared about each amazing view, and just wanted to be done. I had to stop a few times under small scrubby trees to cool off, and I was moving slowly enough that now my fluids were getting close to empty and I still had a couple miles to go to exit Wire Mesa and the aid station. I made a promise to myself: I WOULD finish, (I never considered dropping) but I had to take at least 20 minutes to sit and cool off when I got there, knowing I had a 2 mile sun-exposed uphill trudge to get to the final mesa loop at Grafton. I am always opposed to sitting down to “rest” at an aid station, but I knew that’d be the only way I could keep going.
At Wire Mesa exit aid station I got some ice in my bandanna, I filled up both bottles with ice cold water and had them make me a grilled turkey and cheese sandwich. Then I planted myself in a chair under a shady canopy and closed my eyes. Drinking cold water with one bottle and the other on my forehead, ice around my neck, solid food in my stomach… it took me 30 minutes and another trip back to the table for more ice/water before I finally felt clear-headed and ready to push onward.
The dirt road climb back to Grafton was nearly as miserable as I thought it’d be, but I persisted and kept drinking with my plan to finish both 500ml bottles by the Grafton AS in just 2 miles. This road had seemed so easy and runnable on the way down! Amazingly before I knew it I was at Grafton AS. I’d thought I’d have to sit and cool off again but I felt good enough to just refill bottles and ice in the bandanna and move forward onto the trail. Grafton Mesa trail is only about 4.5 miles, and it’s far less serpiginous than Wire Mesa which made it far more tolerable. The heat and dryness was still kicking my butt, making it difficult to keep any sustained running going before I’d get so parched and winded. As I came around the opposite side of the mesa (which includes some more climbing thankyouverymuch) I could at least start to feel like the end was near. When I finally passed back through the AS for the last time I knew I could practically crawl the rest of the way and I’d be fine. Of course the last 2+ miles are mostly a gradual uphill, but I trudged onward. My watch hit 100 miles at one point and I knew I had at least another mile to go so I just mentally acknowledged it and kept going.
With ¼ mile to go I looked ahead and saw two sets of poorly hidden legs peeking out from under a shrubby tree ahead. There’s something about your own children that you can recognize even from afar… even half hidden… even brain-addled by fatigue. Audrey and Cora Lee were there to meet me, hug me and run the last bit in with me. I stopped briefly and told them how much they’d been on my mind, the whole time, but SO much in those last several hours when I was at my lowest. We’d had so much to navigate over the last year and especially the prior 3 months, I’d dedicated my forward motion for the past 10 miles to THEM. I cried telling them that and how much it meant to me that they were there with me. My emotions overflowed, and I was glad we had a private moment just the three of us there on the trail before I gathered myself up and headed toward that blessed arch and the sweet release of no-more-running! Finish time 33hrs, 53min. Total miles 101.45. I was ecstatic, and suddenly had all my energy and a grin from ear-to-ear! Hugs from family, seeing some of the folks I’d shared trail time with, and choosing my unique hand-made buckle from a table full of amazing original designs felt amazing! All that was left was to waddle/hobble over to the RV, plop down in a chair and take off my shoes one last time. Other than a couple small blisters, not too bad,... and slipping my feet into soft Oofos sandals and opening up a cold beer set the tone for a perfect afternoon.
I ate all the pizza that night, sitting outside on a bluff overlooking La Verkin and watching sunset with my family. I felt pretty good all-in-all despite some slight rough spots, and by 8 pm I was literally falling asleep while trying to carry on conversations. I managed to recover quickly over the next couple days, and credit that to consistency in my training and some of the mobility and core stuff I’d been doing as well. A huge thank you to Aaron Saft of MRrunningpains coaching for that. Vacation Races put on an amazing event and the area around Zion in southern Utah is truly breathtakingly beautiful. The course is well designed, and definitely doable, though it’s harder than it looks on paper. I had an amazing time, and I’m so thankful I was able to make it to the starting line, and even more thankful to get to share the experience with my family. My sister Cindy pulled off an incredible effort of organization and flexibility to make it possible for them all to give me fantastic support. To quote a phrase from The Wood Brothers, I truly feel like the “Luckiest Man”.
PATH Projects: Sykes AT shorts, Torch FX liners, Pyrenees hoodie, Big Bend/Rainier/Muir caps, Pinyon bandanna.
CoolNES: hat drape
Xoskin & Injinji: toe socks
Topo Athletic: Ultraventure Pro (1st 52 mi)
Hoka One One: Speedgoat (2nd 50 mi)
Ultraspire: Alpha 4.0 vest (with UD soft flasks), Lumen 600 waist light
Black Diamond: Spot headlamp
Leki: Micro Trail Carbon poles (shark grip system)
Coros: Apex GPS watch
Trail Toes: skin lubricant & blister tape
Precision Hydration: electrolyte mix (& pre/post race hydration)
Spring Energy: gels
Skratch Labs: gummies
Run-n-Tri Outfitters: My fav running store...it's like "Cheers". I could spend hours there even when I don't need to buy anything!
Shirts were a mix of Rabbit, Nike and my local run club House of Hops.
Favorite AS food: grilled cheese, quesadillas, pickle juice, Nutella on tortillas, Pringles, soup, watermelon, and the best popsicle EVER at mile 40!