What. An. Adventure.
Zion Ultras (100m, 100k)
Zion National Park (adjacent)- Virgin, UT
My latest race experience brought with it many unforeseen circumstances. It seemed that surprises were around every corner, starting as early as back in Nashville before we even left for the airport! Nights before travel/races can be somewhat sleepless, and this one was no exception. My brain decided to wake me up just before 3am, in time to hear my phone buzz with a new text message. It read “Your flight from BNA to LAS has been cancelled.” I, like many of my teammates, thought certainly this had to be a joke, since there was no inclement weather in Nashville nor Las Vegas, where our direct flight would take us. I checked my Southwest app and saw the flight was still on time. Waited a few minutes, refreshed the app a few more times, to no avail. I, being the lowest on the totem pole in terms of decision-making on our team, decided to go back to sleep and wait for someone else to make a move. Sure enough, Coach Kerry texted the group at 4:30am letting us know we did in fact need to rebook. Two options: leave for the airport right that second, maybe catch a 6:30am flight through LA en route to Vegas, or wait until 9am and hop to Denver on the way. Considering I wasn’t entirely packed, I chose the second option. My popular #dirtbagshittheroad hashtag had been updated to reflect our air travel, and #dirtbagshittheskies en route to Denver.
Upon landing in Denver, all our phones ping with a delay notification for our connecting flight. Bad weather was in the area. I and others got on the standby list for the earlier flight, but no one was picked. Our connection was ultimately cancelled, and the decision was made to drive overnight from Denver to Utah. #dirtbagshittheroad in two rental SUVs, with pit stops along the way (#dirtbagshitthechicken and #dirtbagshitabrewery). The 15-hour haul was long but frankly one of the more enjoyable road trips I’ve had. Always laughing with this bunch. The views were stellar until it got dark - then we couldn’t see squat. As I drove the last hour or so from our graceful pull-off pee stop, I commented, “there’s probably some really nice things to look at around here!!” We arrived in Hurricane, Utah at our Airbnb at 5am, greeted of course by AB^2. #dirtbagshitthesack for a few hours of sleep.
Thursday was fairly uneventful, all things considered. A trip to the grocery store, race nutrition prep, drop bag organizing, packet pick up, and an early bedtime. Keith briefed everyone on the course layout. All things considered, the three major crew aid stations were fairly close to the house. He commented confidently on how the last two miles were “on road” and “downhill” into town. Oh, how we’d come to learn about all the back half of this course would offer!!
Race morning: due to my proximity to the kitchen, I joined my teammates in their pre-race prep starting around 3:30am. We brew as many coffee pots as the tiny, dysfunctional coffee machine can handle, dress for a mild weather day, and the racers take turns (hopefully) enjoying the ramifications of their early cups of coffee. We pile into cars and head to the start line, and my expert driving skills are immediately called into use as I avoid beaning a dog crossing the street. Still waiting on that good karma to roll back around? Several posed photos of teammates grimacing with the knowledge of what they’re about to do, and they’re off. Cue start video with fantastic commentary from yours truly. Although dark, we attempt to pick out or team amongst the sea of headlamps.
It’s 11 miles until we’ll see the runners at the first AS, and just after 6am, so we make the quick drive to the nearest coffee shop, load up on pastries and fresh caffeine, and head to the first crew stop. We’ll hang out there pretty much all day, since our runners will pass through at 11, 22, and 28ish miles (Grafton Mesa). It’s a pretty ugly backdrop, but it’ll do! Our crew gets more efficient each time a runner comes through. Many are running together, and we notice a trend - warming temperatures means savory/salty foods and sunscreen become a priority. I didn’t want to be a drill sergeant, but it is helpful to have someone take the lead and offer suggestions. My experience crewing a 100 is precisely one race, but that’s more than nothing. When folks have specific tasks the whole operation becomes more diligent and effective. Someone had to sacrifice their hands to the sunscreen.
Once all are through 28, we head back to the house to rest up and organize before we meet our runners at Virgin Desert (mile 54). From my last crewing experience, I know that it can get pretty exhausting to crew as well, since even though you aren’t running you are still up all night. My pacing section also started at 54, so I needed to make sure I was fueled during the day and caught about an hour’s nap at the house. It’s not normal for me to start running at 8pm, but what I was on task to do was far less than what the runners had already done, so any complaints I could think of stayed to myself (which is one of my favorite things about pacing - I forget about what’s happening to me because I’m focused on my runner). I was super groggy getting out of the house, but perked up when some coffee hit my system and we were back on course cheering for the runners coming through. I said to various people throughout the day, “the best thing you can give a runner at an aid station is your energy.” This is crucial advice to anyone who may crew/pace in the future. Food is great, but positive energy is the intangible element that they need more and more as the hours go by.
Mile 54 aid was pretty smooth, again emphasizing salty and savory foods. Coming off the mesa, the runners were hot, dehydrated, and drained from a very technical descent on slickrock. I still don’t know what that is, but it sounds awful. Everyone needed a bit of a reset at mile 54 - we were knife-feeding mashed potatoes, shuttling cups of broth, changing socks, popping blisters, and gathering warm clothes and headlamps for the night ahead. Keith, Kerry, and Kara all came in together. Since I was pacing Keith, Jon (Kerry’s pacer) decided to hang back and hop in on the next section, at mile 80.
We started wondering and hoping that the next 4 runners would come in together. Since they had left mile 80 so close, it was likely. Sure enough, we met them out on the road crossing and enjoyed the sweet, sweet satisfaction of getting four runners across together. The finish line photos and videos of all four holding hands are a bit nauseating, but what can you do. We hung out to bring Kara in to the finish, and sure enough she came across in tears, so proud of finishing after she’d wanted to quit countless times.
I wish I’d been able to see AB^2 finish their 100k races, but I was on course when it happened! It is an amazing feat to have a 100% finish rate for our team. EVERYONE crossed the finish line, and we had zero injuries. Absolutely incredible. Beautiful scenery, stellar friends, and a course with a deceptively gnarly back half. What. An. Adventure.
Time for me to run! I was on tap for 26 miles from 54-80 (BMX), with what Keith described as “only one big climb.” HA. The lower section through the desert fields was runnable enough, and our run/walk flag to flag strategy was working out really well. Kerry and Kara caught up to us and all three observed my prescribed snack windows. We ran strong to the next AS, which was fantastic. Keith had noticed that the aid stations seemed to be staffed by awesome volunteers, but they weren’t ultrarunners. This makes a noticeable difference. When we were in sight of the mile 62 aid, I took stock of what Keith needed and ran up to get it ready for him. This aid was lit - they had music, and it was totally staffed by ultrarunners. Everything Keith needed, they had - broth, noodles, bacon, coffee, and tape for a blister. He spent a few minutes eating and we were out again. Kerry went ahead and Kara left just after us. The bacon was such a hit that Keith ate his to-go bacon before he left and grabbed a restock of to-go bacon. He felt a little bit queasy after eating a lot so we slowed up for a bit to recuperate.
Keith stashed a Huma gel to eat just before The Climb and was saving his to-go bacon as a reward at the top. We crossed the highway and started up a winding, albeit paved road. The Climb. We both commented that if it was on this road, it would be doable. We settled into a strong hike. Keith had his poles out, was breathing low and deeply, and not much was said. The dude never wavered on that climb - 3.5 miles, 1500 ft of gain, at an 8% grade. It took us just about an hour to climb. Never stopped once. Grabbed himself 7th overall on the Strava segment in the process, and passed nearly 10 runners on the way up. All we could think about was the aid at the top.
News flash: the aid at the top was a preeeetty big bummer. They were not equipped for what runners would really be needing at the end of a climb like that. I don’t even want to think about how many runners dropped at that aid. It was really cold at the top of the mesa, so I stood by the fire for a minute or so. Kerry left with us as we had caught up to him through our strong climb. We passed Kara as well, who had gone by us earlier, feeling good and wanting to move a bit faster. It was 9 miles to the next aid, and Keith made a point to grab something to take with him, but he was hard-pressed to find anything. He mentioned to the volunteers that it was a bad move to ask runners to go so far in between aid when there wasn’t really enough food to get them there. He was 100% right.
We were all convinced that once we hit the high point of the mesa, it’d be All Downhill From There. HA. The next 8 miles were steady rollers on fairly technical terrain. The toughest part was that it all looked the same. It seemed like we were staring at the same trees, the same bends in the trail, and the same rocks for hours. It didn’t help that the flagging in that section was poor - it was my job to find the flags (and do the thinking for the group), and I’m honestly shocked that we only got off course once, and briefly at that. All the sameness gives you a lot of time to think about how much you’d like to run on something new. We moved well, but not fast.
Kara had told us about the Flying Monkey section, where she’d had to use a rope to ascend a climb. We were headed down that section, but didn’t have a clue what lay ahead. The last descent into mile 80 was absolutely bananas. Suffice to say, it was all but hands and knees at some parts. The Rope had some loops tied into it, but they were too far apart to be intuitive to the layperson. We picked our way slowly down the 1500 ft of descent until the mile 80 aid was finally in sight. However, this course was so full of wiggles and turns (plus it was dark) that we realistically had no clue when or where the aid station actually was. It had been 9 miles of dragging two pretty ragged, tired dudes through some gnarly terrain, and our energy picked up as we got closer.
I have to say, I was glad to be done. I had mentioned to Keith early on that I’d continue with him if he really needed the support, but I was not really feeling that any more. Luckily, since Jon hadn’t started at Virgin Desert (54), he was fresh at BMX (80). I was cold af and once K^2 were out (just a few minutes behind M^2 - Malin and Michele), I sat in the car wrapped in a blanket getting my core temp back up. We blasted the heat and headed to the finish line, with our runners about 20 miles from being done!
We posted up as the sun rose and settled in to await their arrival. It was nice to be able to go down the road and greet them as they came across the highway. We timed it perfectly to catch the first runner, who was still able to enjoy an empty finish chute despite the fact that there were half-marathoners coming through at a steady rate. I have to say, finishing in the same chute with no PA announcer pissed me off. I try to remind myself that celebrating all distances is important - for some, that may have been their first half and that is a huge accomplishment! However, running 13.1 miles is NOT the same as running 100 miles, and there was no acknowledgement of 100 milers finishing. These folks deserve a cold beer in their hand immediately upon crossing the finish line. Half marathoners, you are great, but I’m sorry, I wasn’t super excited for you right then.
PS. Since we were so close to Zion NP, Brad and I drove down to get some more miles in on Sunday. We braved the lines at Angel’s Landing, and stared down the river into the closed Narrows. Our runners drank dozens of beers and enjoyed the satisfaction of a poolside recovery day. Recovery walk on Monday before another delayed flight brought us back into Nashville after 2am on Monday. Oh, well. Totally worth every moment of lost sleep. Zion 2019 was an entirely successful trip with some of my favorite ultrarunners. Can’t wait for the next one!!
Snow Canyon State Park
Near the top of Angel's Landing
Can you spot me?
Panoramic view of Angel's
Panoramic view of Snow Canyon State Park