Monday, April 13, 2015

Zion 100k Race Report

Two weeks after traveling to Portland, Oregon to take part in the Gorge Waterfalls 100k (which turned out to be a 50k, because of missing the 50k cut-off time by 4 minutes), I found myself traveling south to Virgin, Utah, just west of Zion National Park.

Let's back up a bit.  Gorge Waterfalls 100k:  beautiful course, ridiculous cut-offs.  Boasted to be "the hardest 100k", which it really wasn't:   I wouldn't consider 5,000 ft of vertical gain in 31 miles all that hard.  But the 8 hour cutoff time at 50k was set up to be quite elite (most other 100k events have a 50k cutoff time of at least 10 hours), eliminating B-team athletes such as myself.  I could have busted out that last 5 miles before the turn-around and made it, but why?  To face 3 more cutoffs and chase the clock all day?  No thanks.  James Varner does a huge disservice to runners with a strict cutoff such as this.  He probably argues that we could have taken the early start time of 3am to guarantee making it to the turn-around in time.  Which would mean getting up at 1:30 in the morning to make the 3am start.  Again:  no thanks.  Don't get me wrong:  the course was beautiful, the volunteers and aid stations were excellent, and the terrain was enjoyable.  It just would have been more enjoyable if the race director actually cared that people who can (physically) finish his race (if given a bit more time) were given the chance to finish.  I'm not asking to be given a day and a half to finish a race, but running under 20 hours for any 100k is still a respectable finish time, as far as I'm concerned.  But it appeared that he didn't want to stick around for a couple more hours.  His loss (I will never do one of his races again).  #sorrynotsorry

Happy at mile 30 ~
33 miles to go!
As it turned out, running an 8h 4min 50k two weeks before the Zion 100k was perfect training and warm up for the event that I really wanted to go to.  Many HUMRs would be there (Happy Utah Mountain Runners, the running club from Ogden, Utah of which I am a part) and I would see lots of familiar faces from Utah and Colorado and meet some new faces from Canada and Hong Kong (via Ireland).  Matt Gunn is one of the best race directors in the country, as far as I'm concerned and he has a great crew to support him (Turd'l, Cherri, and that course-marking guy, what's his name? along with countless others).  The trails were impecably marked, the aid stations were stocked with good food and happy, helpful volunteers.  The weather?  Southern Utah delight:  75 degrees and sunny.  The venue in the Virgin, Utah city park is casual and fabulous.  Last year I ran the 50k event and had decided to step things up a notch to 100k this year.  It seemed like a good idea when I signed up in October.

Indeed, it was amazing.  My friend Ann got me to the 6am start on Friday.  I was able to wear my puffy coat right up until the start (it was a chilly 45 degrees), and found myself tagging along behind fellow HUMR, Joel Hatch.  I was grateful that he had slowed down a bit to accommodate me (he was running the 100 mile event, and I was running the 100k).  We ran a relaxed pace through the desert leading up to the first climb at the Flying Monkey Mesa, and waited in the conga-line to get up the steep, roped section.  The rope had broken under the weight of so many runners, so we had to scramble around the side.  Another runner behind me was getting a little antsy as things were taking a while and we had to wait our turn.  I assured her that even though the 3-4 minute wait felt like an eternity, it would hardly make any difference in the grand scheme of things.
The morning view from
Flying Monkey Mesa

Flying Monkey Mesa was beautiful, rolling double track dirt.  We did a loop and then descended the technical section back down the way we had come:  the rope was fixed, and I descended with another girl (two of us on the rope) and I think I kind of scared the crap out of her with my confidence.  I passed her and her friend and cruised down the technical rocks with the steep drop-off to the right.  It felt good to run so well on the technical sections of the course.  Many of the people who were not as strong on the technical parts caught up with me on the dirt road sections, but again, I was Ok with it:  it would be a long day (and half of the night) before we would be done.

Hanging in there, on the
road to Guacamole Mesa
I came through Dalton Wash, aid station at mile 15, and joked that my crew was probably asleep at the hotel (which she was) but it was ok:  I would see her when I came through again at mile 30 (she was resting up as she would crew me all day and then race the 50k the next day, with a 6am start time).  I ate and walked up the warm dirt road and found myself typically between groups of runners, enjoying the time alone and listening to music.  I remembered this part from the 50k course the previous year, and enjoyed the steep climbs before topping out on Guacamole Mesa.  Let me tell you:  running on slickrock in the mid-morning heat without a breeze to speak of is a challenging affair.  Thankfully on this part of the course, the lead runners were coming back against us (there is a 2.5 mile out-and-back section with a small lollipop loop at the end) and it was nice to see some friendly faces and give and take some encouragement.  I saw my friend Pete, who appeared to be in about 10th place (one year after ACL surgery).  I was so happy to see he was smiling and doing well.  His optimisim is infectious, and I got a boost from his positive attitude.

Running down the road again, I was so glad to have Guacamole Mesa behind me.  It was really tough up there, with the heat, the lack of wind, and the undulating terrain.  I also felt that I had crossed a mental hurdle off of my list with getting two of the three mesas finished, and only had one left:  Gooseberry.  I came through Dalton Wash at mile 30 and just over 7 hours and was happy also to see Ann, who helped me with my gear and to get my feet clean and in clean socks.  Felt so good to be in clean socks!  She walked with me for a little bit, and I drank a 5 hour energy and got a little boost.  The next 4 miles leading up to the Goosebump climb (It had to be at least 1,500ft in a mile) I found myself the only runner in the vacinity running 10 min-mile pace along the dirt roads.  I received some encouraging words from runners whom I passed along the way.
Slickrock potholes on
Guacamole Mesa

I got to the Goosebump climb and put my head down and got to work.  I think I passed at least a half-dozen people on that climb, some of them in awe of how I was powering up the hill so well.  I think this is one of my strengths:  steep climbing well into the race.  I told them it helped that I was fom Salt Lake City and lived at elevation, and that they shouldn't get down on themselves about it.  I also had lots of practice on Bacon & Eggs Hill near my house, which I try to hit at least once a week in the springtime.

View from Guacamole Mesa
I got up to Goosebump aid station, mile 35, and expected to see Ann, but she wasn't there.  I got a couple of food items from my drop bag, refilled some fluids in my pack, and got some snacks from the food tent.  As it turned out, Ann got there about 2 minutes after I had left.  It's a long drive around for the crew to get to the aid station, so she had just missed me.  It turned out ok:  I just wanted to get this next section done:  ticking away miles along the North Rim trail on Gooseberry, the weather was getting really kind of hot (it was 2pm).  There were some mountain bikers on the trail who, for the most part looked frustrated yet happy to move aside for several hundred runners.  One fella asked if I was Ok, if I needed anything, any water.  I thought to myself, "I've been out here taking care of myself for nearly 10 hours without you, and as much as I appreciate the sentiment, I really don't want any help from anyone."  Yeah, I was starting to get grumpy.  I made it to the Gooseberry Point aid station and there was a mass of runners there (10-12) and I couldn't tell which way I was supposed to go.  I yelled, "Which way?"  And someone pointed me out to the point.  I then remembered vaguely that we needed to go to the point and punch our number with a hole punch.
Matt Gunn:  race director

I saw Joel again on the trail out to the point, and he told me to watch out for a swarm of bees in a tree by the trail.  As soon as I saw the hole punch, I punched my number and turned around, barely even taking time to look at the view.  I walked past the swarm of bees for the second time, realizing that I hadn't even seen it the first time past, in my haste to get to the hole punch.

I got back to the aid station and took some ice in my pack (oh, it tasted good... ) ate some chips, and got outta there.  I looked up to see Joel again, who was standing at the top of a little hill looking around.  "Did you forget something?"  He was actually looking for the course marker which was placed directly at his feet.  "You're on the right track, " I assured him.  He answered, "I'm getting a little grumpy."  And I responded, "Yeah, me too."  It was 4pm and we had 8 miles left to go to Goosebump aid station, mile 47.5.  We were hot and tired.  I tried to follow Joel for a bit, but he seemed to be fueled by his grumpiness, and I was happy for him that he was able to take off quickly across the slickrock.  I sat down on the South Rim trail and ate a Tylenol and a Zofran and tried to gather some composure.  I was starting to get really tired (I know, right?  40 miles into it, and I was "starting" to get tired).  I looked at the view for a couple of minutes, took a couple of pictures, and drew some energy from my beautiful surroundings.
Gooseberry Point

The next 7.5 miles were kind of a blurr of frustration for me.  I talked myself out of crying several times.  I encouraged people who passed me as I walked the undulating slickrock.  I took respite in the shady sections.  I started to beat myself up a bit, reprimanding myself for not running, and walking too much.  I got mad at my visor on my head and took it off.  I got tired of holding my visor in my hand and put it back on my head.  I got tired of it being too hot on my head and put it back in my hand.  I got frustrated that I didn't have the energy to just take my pack off and put my visor in my pack.  I got mad that my pack was heavy and decided if I drank more water, my pack would be lighter, so I drank.  It was rough, really rough in that section:  mentally and physically.

Blooming Barrel Cacti
I passed the old windmill which I remembered from the last time I was at Gooseberry, probably 8 years ago (when I was injured with an ACL tear, waiting for surgery).  I knew I was getting close to the aid station again.  I heard voices and saw cars.  Thank goodness, I had made it.  I was counting the miles... I would be happy when I had less than 20 to go, and it seemed that time would never come.  Suddenly, here I was, with 15 miles to go, and friends waiting for me in the aid station.  Ann was there with my drop bag and I melted down.  She asked me what I needed and I replied, "I just need a minute."  I went through my bag and sorted through some snacks which I wanted to take with me on the next section.  She got me some snacks from the aid station (oh, salty Ruffles potato chips, you are delightful... ).  I washed my feet and popped a couple of blisters.  I put on fresh socks and laced up my shoes again.  I cried.  My feet hurt.  So. Bad.  Ann asked me what else I needed.  I threw the visor and pushed it away from my.  "I need to not have that damn visor anymore!"  I was ready to go.  I got some hugs from Ann and Ann Watts.  They told me I was awesome, which I wanted to believe but couldn't quite, and started shuffling out of the aid station.

Down, down, down the steep Goosebump trail.  It seemed impossible.  "It's only a mile," I told myself.  And about halfway down, I saw another woman, really struggling.  She was side-stepping down the trail because it hurt so bad.  I slipped a couple of times and think I must have scared her that I would run into her.  I thought to myself, "That poor girl.  At least I don't feel as bad as she does."

Zion Desert Sunset
Over the next 15 miles, that girl, Angela, who is originally from Ireland and lives in Hong Kong, and I became lifelong friends.  It's like someone was looking out for us and decided that we needed to finish this race together.  We walked along at 3 1/2 mile per hour pace, deciding to take care of each other.  We did that through telling stories, complaining about the uphills (which probably weren't even that bad in all reality), commenting on how much we hurt,  and how long it was taking to do 7.5 miles to the next aid station.  It seemed it would never come.  Finally, some lights in the distance, pointed out by another runner, signaled that we were getting close.  Angela wanted to quit:  she had been battling a stomach virus all day.  I told her she would not quit.  We would finish together.  We were mighty.  She used the facilities at the aid station and I thought she would take a long time.  I got some food and sat down for a minute or two, and we found ourselves leaving the aid station together again, combining the strength of our headlamp beams and our wills and we got through the next 5 miles until we reached the highway.
Ann finishing the 50k

Angela's friend Becky came along in a car and asked if Angela was Ok.  I spoke for us both:  "We are fine."  And I meant it.  We would finish this race, despite being behind our projected and wished-for times.  We would finish and we would do it strong.

We counted the blocks to the turn off to the town park in Virgin.  It was only a quarter mile more.  I couldn't believe it.  Only a quarter mile!  She said, "Go," and I picked up my pace to a shuffle-jog.  I saw Ann, waiting for me near the finish.  I crossed the line and turned around to find Angela, 30 seconds behind me.  We hugged and congratulated each other.  We had done it.

Our finish time was 17 hours and 34 minutes, finishing at 11:30pm at night.  Ann and I got back to the hotel, and I showered, Ann went to bed, and we got a bit of rest.  I woke up starving hungry at 3:30 in the morning.  Ann got up at 4:30 to get ready for her race.  I drove her to the start, saw her off and wished her well, then drove to the first turn off to wish all of the runners a good day on the trails.  I went back to the hotel and slept for 2 1/2 more hours, then packed up the car.

Joel finishing the 100 mile
I hung out in the park with HUMRs and watched my friends finish.  I ate good food, drank a beer, and shared stories with strangers who are now my friends.  I watched Ann come into the finish with a smile on her face after having a spectacular day.  I watched my friend Becca come across the line for her second 100-mile finish and watched her husband hug and kiss her, in awe of his amazing wife.  I was in awe of the love that they were able to share in that moment.  I watched Joel shuffle across that line with one of the gutsiest ultra-performances I will probably ever witness.  Lindsay came across 5 seconds later and the HUMRs erupted in jubilant glee.

It's hard not to get sentimental about such things.  All these people coming together to help each other through adversity.  All these people who really "get it", whatever "it" may be.  All these people who can put aside pain and grief and come together to reach a common goal, facing their demons and putting those demons to death.  The good wolf versus the bad wolf and the good wolf survives.

It was a great weekend, and one that helps to resore my faith in humanity and realize the resilience of the human race.