Sunday, April 19, 2015

Return to the Hundred: Zion

After running the North Fork 50K in Colorado a couple years ago, I discovered that my asthma
and altitude did not mix. I didn’t look at any other races in the west, because most of the ones I wanted to run were at higher altitudes. But after a trip to Moab in November, I began looking for a desert race and found the Grand Circle series directed by Matt Gunn. It's a pretty amazing series, where you run in places such as Bryce Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon and the place that fit my schedule, Zion.

I really didn’t have any business signing up for a hundred, after hosting giardia for almost a year and only running one race because of it in 2014. And I hadn’t run a hundred since Vermont in 2013. But the draw of ultra-tourism is strong. Where else could I get a 34 hour tour of the desert, complete with snacks and drinks along the way? So one little click on ultrasignup and I was in.

Training did not go particularly well, with a hamstring pull eight weeks out from the race. On the bright side, if you are down with an injury for three weeks at that point, you don’t have to worry about that annoying taper when you have nothing to taper from. And I threw that whole idea of resting before the race out the window, too. We might only be in the area once and I spent the days before the race running, hiking and exploring.

So on race day, I was the least prepared for a race that I have ever been. But I really wanted that pretty buckle and would keep moving until they made me quit. 

Here are some highlights:

The course:  Is mainly flatish roads and trails that connect mesas.  You climb up the mesa, run a loop on the top over slickrock, run back down and head towards the next mesa.  The last 24 miles is a series of loops in the desert.

The ups and downs. Although the race only has 10,000 feet of elevation gain, a lot of it is concentrated in a few very steep climbs (and descents). The initial climb and descent of the Flying Monkey mesa (1200 feet per mile) involved a segment in which a rope was necessary. The climb up Gooseberry was exceptionally steep, (1500 feet in a mile) on loose sand and gravel. One segment was pretty scary, where a misplaced foot would send you tumbling down into the valley. And the descent back down Gooseberry was a semi-controlled slide in the dark on tired legs. 

Dust. Lots of long dusty roads and trails. My lungs hurt and two days later, I am still coughing up the desert.

Slickrock. Despite it being a hard, clean surface, it is anything but flat and smooth. Constant speed bumps, humps, hills, holes, ridges, sharp dips make it very difficult to run with any rhythm. I thought it would really pound me and annoy me, but I liked it. You stick to almost vertical surfaces and certainly don't get bored.

Running on top of mesas. There were long sections run along the very edge of cliffs which drop down into the valley floor a couple thousand feet below. If you got distracted and didn't watch where you were going, you wouldn't have to worry about doing it again. Beautiful views, though, which leads to…

Lots of time eaten up with picture taking. If a good chunk of the race hadn't been in the dark, I might have missed the cutoff. The desert is pretty fascinating when you live in a rainforest. Of course, everything was beautiful the first day. The next day, not so much.

Weather. In the seventies with a breeze. Sounds nice, but full sun, no shade, no haze makes it pretty hot. Then the night got very cold (especially with sunburn) and I was shivering with four shirts on right before sunrise. Then very hot again, to the point where I crossed the finish line with heat exhaustion.

Favorite parts of race. The steep climb up Gooseberry (despite the difficulty, the view continued to get better and better) and the running on the slickrock and cliffs of Gooseberry and Guacamole mesas. Grafton was probably pretty, too, but it was dark when I ran it. 

Least favorite. The Virgin desert loops. If they hadn't been the last 24 miles of the race, they may have been fine, but three different loops through the desert when I was ready to be finished were monotonous. On each loop, I could see the aid station where I was trying to get to, but the trails kept leading me farther away.

Most challenging for me. A lot of relatively flat terrain, which I am not good at. I like climbing and descents, but the majority of the race was little tiny ups and downs, very runnable, but hard to get a rhythm on.

My race. At the beginning, it seemed like I was passed by everyone, and it has been so long since I have run a hundred, I forget that I catch back up with a lot of them later. (See squirrel story below). It was pretty demoralizing, but when we finally got to Gooseberry and more technical sections, I started passing a lot of people. I passed even more on the technical downhill on Grafton Mesa. At the third Gooseberry aid station, there were seventy some people still out there behind me. I would end up getting passed off and on during the death march segment on the loops, but by that point, I knew I would finish and it didn’t bother me. I ended up finishing 107 out of 185ish starters in 31:45. Which proves that stubbornness and persistence can overcome many physical shortcomings.

Squirrel! When I was coming down off Guacamole, I was feeling pretty low, thinking I was I at the very back of the pack (and I well may have been), when a rather large squirrel started to cross the road in front of me. He changed his mind when a vehicle came up behind me and he turned around and waddled back over the edge. The driver stopped next to me and told me that that was my spirit animal. Great, I said. This means I am going to be running back and forth across the road all day. No, he said, it means you will finish because the squirrel saves up everything for later. At first, I was even more demoralized. I must be somewhere near DFL and this was meant to encourage me. But then I took it as he meant it and carried on with my slow but steady forward progress.

My crew. Since we didn't know the area, I tried not to rely on Tony coming to aid stations. We rented a mountain bike for a couple of days and I hoped he would spend his time riding. He did ride some, but he also surprised me by coming to see me a few times. Best of all he did the last long, hot Virgin desert loop with me and it was very nice to have a distraction at that point.

Swag.  A shirt and a hat, a custom-made wood-fired pizza, and a buckle made from items found along the course.  

Verdict. This was one of the better organized races I have been to and I am glad to support a race director who gives back to the community. The course was beautiful and well-marked, the time of year perfect, and everyone I met was cheerful and helpful. Everything seemed to run smoothly and my only "complaint" was the aid stations ran out of soda by the time I got there (and I really hoped for a hamburger along the way). In the end, despite my swearing in the middle of the night I would never run it again, nor another hundred and in fact 5Ks were starting to sound good, I would go back and do it again.