Last year I ran the Bear 100 in North Utah and, on my way to the race passed through South Utah and it’s amazing scenery. Towering multi-coloured sandstone mesas left a deep impression on me and, during the race I met a few people from the area who said I should come and run the Zion 100 in April. So, in the post-race afterglow from The Bear I signed up to do Zion, booked flights etc and put it in my diary.
Then, I heard about Tahoe 200 and entered the lottery for that and, to my amazement got in… Suddenly, Zion wasn’t a priority for 2014 – but as I’d shelled-out £1000 for the experience I was going to go back to Utah and see what I was missing.
2014 has already been a big year, with 5 or 6 marathon-length runs and 5 40-50 mile runs, the previous 3 weeks had involved a 44-mile 10,000′ run along the South West Coast path, the brutal 5,000′ MCN Black Mountains marathon and sweeping 26 miles the previous weekend at an ultra in Llanelli – it’s fair to say, I wasn’t rested and tapered.
So, I flew out to Vegas on Wednesday and arrived in the afternoon following a 22-hour flight. A quick overnight stop in Vegas and it was time to pick up the hire car and drive 150 miles to Utah for registration. I booked into the hotel in Hurricane then drove over to Springdale at the gates of Zion for registration, the scenery was epic… Towering red cliffs and mesas, and arriving a bit early soaked up the sunshine and scenery with a plate of chilli-cheese fries and a local IPA before picking up my race number.
Back to Hurricane and an early night beckoned, my idea was to stay on UK time to avoid jetlag – which meant getting up at 3am for the 6am start, (13:00 UK time) this seemed to work OK though I was a bit concerned about the amount of sleep I’d had over the past 48 hours, I.e. Not much…
The start was 15 miles away in a sleepy little western town called Virgin – named after the river, and also famous for having a law which REQUIRES all residents to own a gun and ammo! Let’s just hope they didn’t take too unkindly to 300+ smelly ultra-runner types descending on their little town at 5am on a Friday morning.
It was a usual low-key start, we lined up – headtorches on and with a few whoops and cheers headed off towards the first climb – 2,200′ straight up Smith Mesa including the infamous “Flying Monkey” trail – so a called due to the US Air Force using it to test ejector seats, basically they strapped chimps into the seats and fired them off the cliffs!
We were climbing straight away and I was huffing and puffing at 3,500′ and climbing. Singletrack most of the way up it was another case of get in line and keep going. I was recognised as a Brit by a US runner who struck up a conversation over the initial miles with me but lost me eventually. Slowly the sun started to come up, and at dawn we hit the Flying Monkey and the infamous “rope” which you need to use to clamber up the steepest section! We got higher, and higher and the scenery got more and more impressive below. A lot of this really was scrambling up rock faces with big drops and I had to give a gentalmanly “assist” to a young lady who was extremely grateful by all accounts, in fact she was telling anyone who would listen about my “butt-boost” and even said she might need my help later on!
On paper, the course looks very runnable – only 12,000′ of ascent so a sub-24 should be achievable. The Race Director had warned us though that it was much tougher than you’d expect due to several factors which I’ll come to later. Never-the-less, I had pace notes made up for a 24-hour finish. Coming in to CP1 I was 10 minutes down, but considering the difficulty of the climb wasn’t concerned.
The next 7 miles to CP2 were amazing, 2,000′ descent, straight down a dirt road – about 3 miles in we rounded a corner and the most amazing vista opened up. Everybody stopped there to take photos and swap cameras! I hooked up with a few people who’d run The Bear last year, and also a lad who’s doing Tahoe 200 and lives on the lake. He told me it’s the most beautiful place in the world. I told him that the current scenery blew my mind. We ran hard and fast down to CP2, all the time saying it was a mistake and our quads would be shot later on. In 7 miles I’d made up the 10 minutes and was ahead on my plan – game on!
The next section was on rolling trails, following the Virgin river which had carved out an impressive canyon in the landscape. The photos REALLY don’t do the scenery justice, I’m reminded of the Father Ted “small vs far away” sketch when I look at them! You have to find an ant-like runner to give them some perspective.
I was finding it difficult to find a comfortable pace on the terrain and working too hard for 14 miles-in, but kept going to CP3. The scenery changed in the next section – going through brilliant sandstone canyons with the multi-coloured Mesa in front of us, before eventually the trail turned left and started the climb up to CP4, the fearsome Gooseberry Mesa!
Everybody warned us about this, 1600′ of ascent in under a mile – and it was harsh. Slowly we ascended, swearing under laboured breath, the multicoloured cliffs which looked so impressive earlier slipped below as the altitude increased to over 5,000′. As people got to the top you heard whoops and screams of joy, it was as tough as any climb I’ve done before – and only at 20-miles into a 100!
But, it was worth it – and after catching my breath at the checkpoint, restocking with gels and water it was off on a 6-mile stretch across the top of the Mesa and my first encounter with slickrock. Slickrock is what would happen if you poured concrete randomly over rolling terrain. It’s uneven, alien-like and very difficult to find rhythm on so it was quite slow going but the views over the cliffs with a 2,000′ drop below made it worthwhile. There was a CP near the end of the Mesa and we were told to go 1/2 mile out to “Gooseberry Point” and come back.
It was obvious when you got to the turn-around, there was nowhere else to go, just a slab with 2,000′ drops on every side. Jaw dropping… Everyone got their cameras out for the photo opportunity – we had’t come this far not to take home a souvenir.
I met Carole and Ethan here and we set off back towards the CP 1/2 a mile away and then onwards on the other side of the Mesa back to the. Gooseberry CP for the second time. Carole was a veteran of The Bear and is also doing Tahoe 200 so we had loads to talk about, Ethan was doing his first 100 and looking to finish under cut-off at 32 hours so was surprised to be on a sub-24 schedule!
As we chatted over the slickrock I lost attention and tripped landing very hard on my right arm and left knee. Carole and Ethan were quite concerned as my arm was dripping blood, i was a bit shocked but the adrenaline kicked it and I walked it off for 10 minutes or so. Fortunately, it didn’t cause me any problems later on but I’ve a few nice bruises now.
We took a wrong turn at one point and had to bushwhack through cactus-infested slickrock to rejoin the trail. At some point I brushed my foot on a cactus and sent cactus spines through my shoe into my toes, it was uncomfortable for a while but settled down. I’ve spent a good few minutes extracting cactus spines from my toes with tweezers this evening!
Getting back into Gooseberry we’d lost Ethan and Carol met her husband who was crewing for her and whom I’d heard a lot about, (more on this later) so I carried on after restocking. By now i was 30 minutes down on my sub-24 schedule, mainly due to the enforced walk break, the difficulty of the slickrock and photo opportunities.
The pack had spread out now and aside from a chap sporting a UTMB shirt which I I chatted to I didn’t see anyone until the next CP at Grafton. This was a big CP and one we’d be visiting 3 times so I had my one and only drop bag here. I’d just put my hi-viz jacked, 2 bottles of 5-hour energy and some spare batteries. As I grabbed a 5-hour energy and downed it in one, some of the yanks commented on my blood-soaked arm and asked if I was Ok.
“I’m British, I’m far too polite – it could be falling off and I’d still maintain everything was OK”
I replied – to much amusement. And, downing a bottle of 5-hour energy headed off onto a 5-mile loop of Grafton Mesa.
The loop started OK as the energy kicked-in, but dragged on-and-on… It took over 90 minutes to do 5 miles as the terrain got more and more technical. Coming back into Grafton I was over an hour down on my sub-24 schedule, nobody was overtaking me – but I was going backwards on my expectations.
6 miles to the next Aid Station and the 60-mile point and it was getting dark, I made it to a mile before the CP before putting on the headtorch. There was a big hill up to the scarily named “Eagle Crags” and getting there I dropped 200mg of caffeine and had a cheese burrito which was fabulous, but somehow couldn’t manage a second one – swallowing was a problem.
Thinking nothing of the eating issues it it was back down the hill and a nice runnable section before back onto rolling dirt road and then off on a trail towards a 1,000′ climb back up to Grafton for the final time.
And this is where things really began to unravel. I’d resigned myself that sub-24 wasn’t going to happen, but now I was struggling. It was cold and getting colder, my energy levels had dropped to new lows and I slowed to a crawl going up the vertical rock face having to stop every few feet to catch my breath at 5,000′ I felt like an Everest climber who takes a step every 2-3 seconds and it actually started to become quite scary. But eventually, relentless forward progress got me to the top at back to Grafton.
I was now concerned about the cold and my ability to continue safely but knew it was an easy 6 miles back to Gooseberry. So I collected my drop bag, put on all my layers, filled my water bottle with hot broth and headed out at walking pace.
The next 6 miles were surreal, I hadn’t been able to eat anything for a couple of hours and was unable to run. Tiredness finally caught up with me and I had to use all my concentration to avoid staggering around like a drunk. About halfway through the hallucinations started, there were bushes all along the dirt road which came alive like something out of The Lord of the Rings with squirming branches – I was in a bad way.
It took over 2 hours to make the 6 miles back to Gooseberry and while nobody passed me, there was no way I was going on in this state. I knew the next section started with a reversal of the 1,600′ climb we’d done earlier and then another 1,600′ climb back up. Even in my mind, this wasn’t safe – I could barely stand on level ground, descending on a 30% rocky gradient with a 2000′ drop inches away was going to be suicide.
So I dropped at 74 miles with 19:30 on the clock and popped myself down by the roaring brazier. I was offered a lift back by someone crewing a runner but would have to wait for them to come in so wrapped myself in blankets and tried to keep warm. The dust churned up by passing cars on the roads had got into my lungs and that combined with the altitude gave me a rough cough and raspy voice.
Carol’s husband arrived and I had quite a chat with him – he’ll be crewing at Tahoe 200 so said I’d see him there. Eventually though everything worked out and I got back, warmed up and got back to Vegas, safe and sound.
A few hours later and despite a few battle scars, a rough throat and aching quads everything is pretty good. I’m certain I made the right decision – I came to see Zion and I did that in spades. It’s certainly given me some things to think about on the run-up to Tahoe though – food for thought.
Epilogue – What I learnt…
- Travelling for 20+ hours and having 3 disrupted nights right before a 100-miler isn’t a good idea
- “You can’t wing a 100-miler”, at least I can’t… A heavy weekend running schedule leading up to the race, coupled with travel immediately prior contributed to the extreme exhaustion that bought me to my knees
- I’ve not been paying attention to my nutrition closely enough – i.e. drinking and eating too much! I need to get back down to my racing weight.
- Running at altitude, (for a seal-level dweller like me) combined with dusty roads destroyed my throat and lungs… Maybe cover my nose/mouth with a buff next time?
- Respect the course – it looked easy on paper. We were warned it was tough, but by the time I’d accepted this it was too late.
- Eat real food early-on… I know this, but on reflection relied far too much on gels and sugar in the early stages. Also – pay attention to hydration, I know I didn’t drink enough.
- I have no regrets about dropping. Having heard about the next section up on Guacamole I may have got into real problems on my own up there.
- Utah is awesome – I may have to come back in 2015 to deal with some unfinished business in those final 26 miles!