Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Zion 100

another beautiful buckle
Here is a list of all the small things that I did wrong leading up to and during Ultra Adventures Zion 100, which hopefully I will learn from and not repeat:

  • I was a couple of pounds heavier than I should have been.  I just got complacent in the weeks leading up to the race and splurged too much.
  • I ate too much and too late the night before the race.  I had a nice mexican pizza in the late afternoon, but then I got greedy and made a heavy, high-calorie, dessert pizza late in the evening.  Damn Matt Gunn for providing glutenous pre-race food that I just can’t seem to resist.  I knew as I was eating that Nutella, banana, marshmallow pizza that it was not a good idea
  • I started out too fast, trying to avoid being caught up in the conga line up Flying Monkey.
  • I didn’t bother to slow down after making it up Flying Monkey.
  • I ran just a bit too fast on the Guacamole loop because I was trying to keep up with a couple of other runners, and I was having so much fun.
  • I didn’t use my ice-bandana to combat the heat.
  • I pushed way too hard up the climb to Goosebump aid.
  • From Goosebump to Grafton, I ran with someone who was going just a tad too fast for me.
  • Despite my detailed spreadsheets, I didn’t bother to pack clothes in early enough drop bags, mistakenly assuring myself that I would be running faster than I did.
  • LIGHTS - my first light was completely dead because it probably got switched on in the drop bag.  My second light faded after only 2 miles because I had not charged it in a while.  My third light was completely dead from having been turned on in the drop bag.
  • My short “racing” shorts do not provide adequate protection from rubbing for ultras over 50K. 

One of the positives was that I had absolutely no foot issues.  Without any considerable sand, I didn't suffer from a single blister. 

I started Thursday with a quick morning hike into Taylor Creek on the west side of Zion National Park.  This was one of Matt’s Trifecta challenges that proved to be a beautiful side trip.  The trail followed the middle fork of the creek, ending at the Double Arch Alcove.

Double Arch Alcove

I had thought about heading into the main part of the park for another hike, but instead volunteered at race headquarters.  After filling up dozens of 5 gallon water jugs again, I think it’s become my niche, and I look forward to doing repeating it at the Grand Canyon.  I was also tasked with getting firewood (from a 19 year old gal and her much younger siblings (scary watching them operate the splitter)), and a whole bunch of ice (you should have seen the young gal’s face when I asked for 40 bags) (thanks to Kelly Agnew for the help with both).

ultra runners go through lots of water

The back of my Outback is quite comfortable for sleeping, but getting race-ready in there is a bit more difficult and time consuming.  I therefore had only a minute to spare before the countdown was on and we were off.

looking back at the line of headlamps heading up to Flying Monkey
Based on the pre-race briefing Thursday evening, I decided that I need to start out much farther up front than I would typically like, just so that I could miss the backed-up conga line that was predicted up Flying Monkey.

view from Flying Monkey

Runners spread out along the road leading up to the base of the climb and the kicked up dust filled our headlamp beams and our lungs.  The climb itself was not too bad.  It was a slow hike, but nothing out of the ordinary.  The “rope section” that I had heard about was less than 10’ up a slope of slickrock.  I just went straight up without touching the rope.  Near the top, a young boy was directing traffic.  We were to run past the intersection, check in at the aid station and come back to hit the loop.  I don’t know why, but it seemed rather confusing at the time, even though I couldn’t yet blame it on fatigue.

At the Flying Monkey AS, I was a little disturbed to find that there were no drop bags.  I grabbed a few M&M’s, refilled my water, and headed out on the loop, praying that the bags would be there when I returned.  My stashed snacks and Doritos would be missed, but most important was the only pair of sunglasses that I had packed.  The prospect of running all day in the blazing sun with unprotected eyes really worried me.

I ran pretty much alone for the entire loop.  I could see others up ahead or behind, but we were pretty spread out at this point.  I enjoyed the rising sun (and temperatures) while I tried to picture the poor primates that our military had flung off the side of the mesa in order to test ejection seats and parachutes before our soldiers had to rely on them.

return down Flying Monkey
Back to the aid station, I was greatly relieved to find my drop bag.  I downed a can of club soda and received a few smart-ass comments about the bag of Doritos that I stuffed into my shorts before heading back down the trail.  The descent was not steep enough to slow things down a bit, but nothing worrisome.  I once again avoided the rope and just did a slide/jump down that section.  Back onto the desert floor, I settled into a comfortable pace.  We crossed the road and a creek which would be fondly remembered later during the heat of the day.  We climbed up and over a ridge and then descended into the Dalton Was AS, which was rather lively as it was a convenient spot for family and crew.

The climb out from the aid station was relatively gentle, on a dirt road and mostly runnable, except towards the end.  It topped out at the Guacamole AS, where I quickly went through my standard resupply routine.  I started out on the loop and hooked up with a couple of other runners as we enjoyed the views off the edge of the mesa.  Pretty soon, we were on the loop portion, which is a slickrock mountain biking trail.  I had an absolute blast on this section, though everyone around me and later on commented on how terrible it was.  Unfortunately, between enjoying myself and wanting to keep up with the other runners, I pushed myself just a bit too hard for this early in the day.

I made it back to Guacamole aid and refueled.resupplied yet again.  I had packed my ice bandana anticipating a hot day, but I stupidly decided to forego it since I was still feeling good.  I didn’t want to bother with the ice at each stop and I had the camera in my back pocket which would have gotten waterlogged from the melting ice.  The temperature was climbing, but it was still early and a mild breeze at the top belied the desert climate that was still waiting to entrap me.

At the aid station, I also ran into Jeff, who I had chased down in the first half of the Monument Valley 100 a month earlier.  I passed him at the descent as he stopped to catch up with friends.  The road back to Dalton made for pretty good running, though I felt for runners that were still making the climb.

Back at Dalton, it was even crazier than the first visit.  The road was lined with cars, crews, and cheering families.  The route led down the dirt road a short way, then along the main paved highway, until we turned off to the south.  We ran across the desert on another dirt road, heading towards the Goosebump climb.  I could see it up in the distance and was still feeling good, despite the rapidly rising temperatures and the unrelenting sun.  I pushed pretty hard up that climb.  Only 30 something miles in, there was no reason for such an effort.  I could feel the sun baking me as I struggled up the incredibly steep climb.  A short section of shade near the top brought some welcomed relief as I drained the last drops from my hand-held.

looking towards the climb up Goosebump

Topping out, the Goosebump AS was a hub of activity.  Not quite as crazy as Dalton, since it was still early, but lots going on.  Despite having studied the darn course map at length, I could not remember this section and relied on directions from the volunteers.  The station was split into two, going through one side on the way out and coming back through another tent on the return.  The trail was pretty easy to follow but at some point, I missed a turn and when I found the next course marker a minute later, I headed out in the wrong direction.  It was a section with a bit of a horseshoe bend but luckily I realized my error pretty quickly and only lost a couple of minutes.

Matt was there helping with the setup at Gooseberry point AS.  This guy is all over the course during the race.  Managing a 100 mile race has got to be so much more physically demanding than running it.  I headed out on the short out-and-back to a spectacular view point, punched my bib and came back to the aid station where I unhappily discovered that the return was 2.5 miles longer.  I still enjoyed the undulating slickrock, much like Guacamole.

looking back towards Gooseberry Point

As part of my arrogant approach to Zion, I chose to wear my “racing” shorts - shorter and lighter, making me feel faster.  Unfortunately these shorts seem to have a limit of about 50K.  By the time I got to Goosebump, I had goosebumps (uncomfortable ones) on the insides of my thighs.  Copious amounts of vaseline helped, but only temporarily.  I wound up re-applying multiple times throughout the day and night, resulting in a rather heavy, disgusting pair of shorts by the end.  It felt more like I was wearing diapers by the end, rather than the “racing” shorts I had hoped for.

slickrock trail between Goosebump and Gooseberry

On the return to Goosebump, I was caught by Jeff and we headed out for the next section together.  He wasn’t really pushing the pace, but it was just a touch faster than my fatiguing body should have been going.  About halfway to Grafton, I started falling back and was eventually walking the slightest of hills.  The excesses of the first half were finally catching up to me.  In addition to my deteriorating pace, my stomach was now becoming an issue, which meant I had to cut back on my fueling, furthering my downward spiral.

lots of blooming cacti
After a brief stop at Grafton, I continued on and was quite disappointed that the drop down to Cemetery was not all downhill.  There was some climbing involved and then the trail was so incredibly circuitous.  These little things seem significant when everything was falling apart.  And to almost make matter totally unbearable, I came extremely close to falling onto a cactus.

Near Grafton, I passed Rachael, Ethan, and a few other familiar faces.  I was still a bit grumpy and it showed through in the content and tone of my responses.  Someone pointed out that despite my “misfortunes” I was 10 miles ahead of them, only halfway through the race.  This was a cold slap of reality right across my face and took the took the wind out of my self-indulgent pity.  My attitude changed then and despite continuing mishaps, I tried to see the humor of the situation (especially with my lights).

Passing through Grafton the second time, I was welcomed with the most incredible cheese quesadillas.  This seems to be a recurring theme on my 100 milers, and a welcomed on at that.  With my stomach feeling a bit better, I knew I had to make up for lost time and refuel for the oncoming night.  I took a couple of extra large pieces, then a couple of more, and more - at least 8, pizza slice portions.  The full stomach slowed me down, but man were they great!

For the past few miles, I was continually calculating my pace vs. the onset of night.  What I was sure would be a daytime descent from Goosebump was clearly not going to happen.  It was going to be dicey to even make it back it back to Goosebump before dark.  Luckily, I had packed a small, emergency flashlight (at the last minute) in my Grafton drop bag.  I held it comfortingly in my hand as I steadily made my way back on the road.  I was feeling a bit better now, but definitely not 100%.  I tried to enjoy the sunset and be positive and supportive to the oncoming runners that trailed me by many miles.  Even though it had gotten completely dark, the road was wide and smooth so I didn’t bother to turn on the light, which was a good thing.  Upon entering Goosebump aid for the final time, I clicked on my light so that I could find my drop bag.  Nothing happened.  I clicked again and again.  Nothing.  I had tested it out at home so I can only guess that it must have inadvertently turned on in the drop bag and died.  No problem - I had one of my main lights at Goosebump, so I just laughed it off.

With my new, working light, I dropped off the rim and headed down the incredibly steep descent.  It wouldn’t have been much faster in the daytime as the full effort was involved in just staying upright.  The “trail” alternated between broken, jumbled rocks, and loose, dusty sand.  Fortunately for my burning quads, we hit the base sooner than expected and I was able to run again on the rolling jeep road.  Soon after I made the right turn towards Virgin, and only a couple of miles into this 8 mile section, I came to the horrific realization that the flashlight that normally lasts me 3+ hours was already dimming.  I hadn’t recharged this light before the race and had just assumed that it was full.

I knew that I couldn’t make it to Virgin before it gave out.  The sky was pretty clear, but the moon wouldn’t rise for many hours and my chances of staying on route purely by starlight were miniscule.  I had passed a couple of runners on the way down the slope, so I could wait for them, but I noticed a bobbing light far up ahead.  I decided to push on, fueled by desperation, to try and catch up to the next runner.  It was an odd game.  The dying battery forced me to run faster, yet the reduced light made it tougher.  I eventually caught up to the light and was surprised by how long it had taken me, given that it was a 100K’er who was now walking.  I asked to share his light and company.  He graciously agreed and I enjoyed the slowed pace, though the reduced effort made me shiver in the chill night.

I had a long sleeve shirt tied around my waist and was now quite glad to have it.  It wasn’t mine.  No, this was another element of my stupidity.  Despite my meticulously detailed spreadsheet, I was so sure I would make it to Virgin early enough, that I didn’t bother to pack so much as a T-shirt in my earlier drop bags.  This, despite the fact that I have so many stinking, technical race shirts that I give them away to friends and Goodwill, and still have piles in my closet.  Luckily, back at Goosebump, a lovely aid station volunteer looked horrified when I admitted that I had nothing but the shorts around my loins until Virgin, so she went to her car and gave me a nice shirt to borrow.  Other than the chill of leaving the fire at the aid station, it had been quite warm, especially with my efforts on the descent and then to chase the light, so I had kept running shirtless.  I was now quite glad to have this shirt, though I deserved to shiver through my stupidity.

After a while, another runner came upon us and I bid my helpful friend goodbye as I leached onto another host.  This guy was running pretty well, having conserved his strength early on (as I should have done).  It took a good effort to hang with him, but at least I was rested from the walking break.  As we followed the road, I could run by his side and make full use of his light.  Unfortunately, the route meandered a bit on and off some trails too.  These sections were quite difficult as my light was pretty dim by now and I had to really push to stay on his heels.

I was so incredibly thankful to arrive at Virgin Desert.  As we were going to visit this aid station 4 times, this was my main stash.  I quickly put on my own shirt, replenished snacks and took out my main light - the one with a freshly charged, high-capacity battery.  I clicked it on and was dismayed by the darkness emanating from the lens.  ^&&^$@!!!!!  Even though I had wrapped it in a shirt, the switch must have gotten pushed on and it was completely and utterly dead!  Was this a comedy of errors, or cosmic stupidity?  I cried.  I laughed.  I mostly cried.

I swapped out the one spare battery I had packed and was so relieved when the blinding light shone in my face.  In my fatigued and battered mind, I tried to do the complex time math.  I had only tested these batteries out for 5 hours.  I still had 23+ miles to run.  There was no way I could hold a 13 minute pace.  The moon would be out by then, but what the heck could I do by the light of a half moon in unfamiliar territory?  Of well, I would burn that bridge when I came to it.

I put on my red bracelet (the color coded loops really made it simple), gulped down three cups of spicy ramen, and headed out on the first loop.  This loop, the shortest of the three, was all single-track, but included quite a bit of little up-and-downs.  The trail cut across the side of “rivulets” coming down from higher ground, creating a continuous roller-coaster of dips and hills, only a few feet high.  Though the elevation gain from these was not great, they prohibited any kind of rhythm or steady pace.  I’m betting that these would have been a blast on a mountain bike, but not so much while running at night.

I was glad to return to Virgin Desert.  More spicy ramen, a white bracelet (which glowed faintly), and I headed out for the second loop.  The second loop was longer than the first, but much of the same terrain, including the annoying roller-coaster rivulets.

Back to Virgin Desert again, I traded my white bracelet for a blue one, downed more ramen and soda, and headed out on the final, longest loop.  I started out with another runner, but he dropped me pretty quickly.  Shortly after the blue loop broke off of the yellow route (for the 100K), there was a trail intersection with no race markings.  It took me about 2 minutes to figure out the correct way and find the next marker.  This was the first and only route marking issue that I experienced the entire time.  The trail now seemed to follow the top of a vertical ravine of unknown depth.  It must have been around 2:00 AM at this point, because a faint orange glow developed in the east and soon the half moon rose above the distant hills.  It never gave off enough usable light, but the company that it provided on this remote section was invaluable.  I purposely avoided checking the mileage on my Garmin but when Virgin Desert came into view from the top of a rise, I knew it was too good to be true.  As I suspected, the trail turned in the opposite direction and the welcoming lights quickly dropped out of view.  I felt totally alone out here and I’m glad I had recovered (at least mentally) and didn’t have any further equipment or physical issues or I might have just laid down and waited for the sun to rise.

At the 6:00 AM start, after a good night’s sleep, fully fueled and hydrated, pumped up on the adrenaline of the glorious day to come, 45 degrees was invigorating on my shirtless torso.  22 hours later, physically and mentally fatigued, disenchanted by my lackluster performance and confounded by my cumulative stupidity, 45 degrees was practically hypothermia inducing, even with a long sleeved shirt, hat, hooded jacket, and gloves.  I shivered uncontrollably as I left Virgin Desert for the final time, running on fumes, and the smell of the barn - the dim light at the end of the long tunnel, the finish line.

Not long after leaving Virgin Desert, I looked back to see a headlamp following less than a quarter mile behind.  It was still a ways to the finish, but I didn’t want my mediocre performance to be deteriorated further by being passed so close to the end.  I was feeling better now and the terrain was quite runnable, so I kicked it up a notch.  Soon, the light was lost even though I could see a good ways back.

I eventually made it back onto the main paved road and took advantage of the flat, paved surface to maintain a good pace.  I didn’t bother to look at my Garmin until I was on the edge of Virgin and then I realized that I had a shot at breaking 23 hours, so I really hit the gas.  I sprinted at a sub 9 minute pace (yes, that is considered a fast sprint at the end of 100 miles), finishing in 22:59:04.  Alas, as a final indignation, my Garmin and the official race clock were off by one minute, so UltraSignup shows me at 23:00:04 :-(   boo hoo.  But at least I beat their prediction by finishing 22nd instead of 23rd.

Matt and all of his crew put on yet another incredible race.  I don’t know if Zion was really any tougher than Antelope or Monument Valley.  I certainly had a tougher time, but that might have been the cumulative effect of all of the mistakes I made.  It’s not quite as scenic as the other two races, but those are pretty high standards to measure up to.  I did like not having to run through much sand.  The energy of the larger crowds and more runners was also nice and the start/finish area in the town park was better for hanging out.  The course was very well marked, the single track sections were fun, and I had a blast on the slickrock, though I seemed to be the only one.  All in all, an awesome race that is well worth running.

Grand Canyon is next.  Who's going to join me?

1 comment:

  1. Great recap. Read it in prep for my running of the Zion 100 in a few weeks. Should be helpful!