This race isn’t hard to sum up in just a few words. I’d probably use the word Majestic to best describe it. If you have never been to Zion National Park, this is definitely a race to add to your bucket list. If you aren’t a 100 mile runner, no worries! They have a 100k distance as well as 50k, and even 1/2 marathon – something for everyone. The views are breathtaking and the 100 mile race gives you a 34-hour cutoff (which is definitely needed) if you want to enjoy the scenery and take it all in.
Two years ago I ran the Antelope Canyon 50-miler and visited Zion National Park for the first time. I knew I wanted to come back and run the Zion 100. It’s a Western States qualifying race, and while I’m on my journey to eventually run WS, I want to run some of my bucket list races, also. I like to see new parts of the country and enjoy each race, and this was a good year for Zion to fit into my schedule. I signed up in the fall of 2017 when I got early signup pricing, still months before the WS lottery drawing for the 2018 race. I chatted with my coach at the time about signing up for Zion not knowing the lottery outcome. We decided that I could always drop back to the 100k option or defer my entry (they are great about giving you lots of options). I tried to convince a few friends to come run it with me, but couldn’t seem to get anyone to jump on board, so this was my race and I was running it because I really wanted to do it.
My favorite running buddies, David Yerden and Rich Higgins, both agreed early on to crew and pace for me. I also wanted my husband, Ed, to come, but because our son was not on spring break it was just too rough for him to miss school or not have Ed at home to help him. Our son has challenges with school and I simply could not run ultra distances and races if it were not for the support of Ed! He may not get my “crazy” but he always supports me and I work hard to balance home and running. It’s not always an easy thing, and often puts a huge burden on Ed. Bless his heart!
The Zion 100 race has a Friday morning start. That meant leaving Atlanta on Wednesday, flying to Las Vegas and then driving to St. George, Utah, which is 30 minutes from the race start in Virgin, Utah. The small town of Virgin is barely a speed bump in the road, and you would miss it if you blinked. The race itself is not in Zion National Park, but just about 30 minutes outside the park. The race organizers were very clear about this in the literature for the race. Most ultra runners understand that NO race can take place in a National Park or on the Appalachian Trail (AT) for us East Coast runners. The views, the scenery, and the beauty of the area was on display even outside the park, however.
Leading up to Zion, I had a slight cough, probably due to the high pollen season in Atlanta in the spring. I didn’t have a sore throat or any other signs of being sick, but a rather annoying cough. At least 10 days out from the race I started taking Allegra and Ziacam to alleviate the cough. It did seem to help but I knew either way, it wouldn’t bother my running ability.
Early on Friday morning, we loaded up our rental car and headed to the race start. The weather wasn’t ideal as it was lightly raining, and the forecast was showing rain for a good bit of the day on Friday. I’ve run enough races in the rain, so I wasn’t at all concerned about that.
Lightly raining but ready to get started
We listened to a last minute briefing from the Race Director and then started the race right on time at 6:00 a.m. It started with an easy road, then trail, section that quickly led to the first climb of the course up to Smith Mesa and the Flying Monkey aid station. It’s a rough, paved road climb so while it’s a little slow going up, it didn’t feel terribly steep or bad. It was nice to chat with others around me and settle into the long race ahead. At the top, we were quickly onto the trails, which would normally have been an awesome, very runnable and easy section, even in the early dark hours of the race. But due to the rain, it felt like you had 20 lbs of clumpy clay mud on each foot. You literally felt the weight of it with each step, and this thick, slippery mud was not the kind that kicked or came off easily. Just as I was settling into the start of a nice race, I had to decide how I was going to navigate this trail and terrain. How long would this last? How long could I fight this mud, the slick sections, and the weight I felt on my feet? On top of that, I was already feeling a little off, physically. Nothing felt really bad, but I just felt “off.” Maybe it was the medicine I had been taking. I had that foggy feeling in my head. Later, I thought it also could have been due to the first climb up to the highest mesa of the race. Possibly the altitude was affecting me? I just knew it was way too early to be on the struggle bus and I wasn’t sure I could fight the mud and my foggy head for the next 90 miles. This wasn’t going to be pretty.
Views from that first climb
Photo Cred: John Taylor
Just as I was starting to feel a little defeated and unsure of how things might play out, my friends, Tony and Kathy (who were the only 2 people I knew at the race and they were running the 100k distance) caught up to me. It was so nice to see them and just have friends around for encouragement. I was determined to stick with the two of them to get me to my crew and pacers later in the race. We were soon at the second aid station and headed off the mesa towards Dalton Wash aid station, where I would see my crew at mile 18. As soon as I started descending I began to feel better and the running was much easier without all the mud. Things were looking up! I had gotten ahead of Tony and Kathy coming off the mesa, but they quickly caught back up and we came into the aid station together.
I don’t remember what I ate at this aid station, but the important thing was drinking Ginger Ale that my crew had for me. My stomach felt “off” from the very start and I wanted to be proactive in settling things down. I handed off my lights and got a dry pair of gloves to try and stay warm. I left the aid station with Tony and Kathy, while Rich walked me up the road to let me try and drink more Coke before he headed back. This section was another hill climb on dirt road. We ran a good bit at first because it was more of a gentle climb. Tony and Kathy were moving stronger, but I worked to keep up. I was trying to hang on to them for dear life, hoping I could just get pulled along. The top of the climb was steep, but at the top we arrived at the next aid station. This was Guacamole Mesa, and after the aid station we had a 7.5 mile loop and then we would head back down to our crew again at mile 33. One thing that seemed to always taste good to me during this race was oranges. They had lots of fruit choices and the oranges just seemed to be a winner for me. It wasn’t the calories I needed, but it was something that worked. As we left that aid station, Tony asked if I wanted some of the broth he was carrying in a cup. That sounded good and it was also warm and soothing. The weather was still rainy and it was getting to be annoying. The mud wasn’t an issue at the top of this mesa, but there were endless puddles of water and many rocky sections. Tony and Kathy eventually slipped ahead of me as I fought to pull things together and tried to keep moving. I think Tony and Kathy were just on a faster pace because of running the shorter distance, and I knew I needed to take care of myself and run my own race. After the broth had a chance to settle, I began to perk up and for the first time in nearly 25 miles I was beginning to feel better. My stomach still felt rough (and it stayed that way the entire race) but with something in my stomach, I felt better. I stayed with a guy named Vic for the rest of the miles back into the 33 mile aid station where I saw David and Rich for the second time. Vic said if I left the aid station before him, he’d catch up to me, but I didn’t see him again until we saw each other on an out-and-back section 44 miles into the race.
Feeling a little better and the rain has stopped
Feeling a little better this time in the aid station, my crew insisted I eat more, and I did. We walked to the car and I sat for a minute and drank more Ginger Ale and ate a whole PB&J sandwich. The more food I ate, the better I felt, although my stomach never felt great. Rich again walked me out of the aid station, letting me drink a cold Coke and getting me to the turnoff for the next section. I was now at mile 33, and I wouldn’t see them again for 23 miles, where I could pick up one of them to pace me. The toughest climb of the course was just a few miles ahead of me. This is where not fully knowing the course might have been a good thing. I was able to move well on the downhill’s and flat sections of the course, but I saved myself and hiked most of the uphill’s. The steep climb up to the Goosebump aid station was almost enough to take out the toughest of runners. It was extremely long and very steep, with the trail getting rougher and rockier with each step. The top section was hardly a trail but more like a boulder field climb (some exaggeration here, but that’s how it felt). When I say the climb was worth the view, I can’t even begin to describe the beauty this course showcased. While my stomach didn’t feel so great for most of the race, I didn’t fail to take in the views and enjoyed every minute of the course. I tried to run in the moment and focus on the scenery surrounding me. Some of my favorite running is single track technical, and the rocks and sections on top of the mesas offered me trails in my ultra happy place.
Nearly 18 miles of running across the hard rock surface began to wear down my legs, however. It was almost like running on pavement, but I was eventually back to the Goosebump aid station and headed towards my crew and pacer. It was starting to get dark and I ran as much as I could to try and get to my crew before having to turn on my headlamp. They were able to meet and crew me about a mile before the next aid station. After taking care of a few things, getting Ginger Ale, changing into warm dry clothes for the night, switching to a smaller pack, and picking up my poles, I was off again, with Rich pacing me. The next aid station was 1.5 miles away and for the first time in the race I sat down here for a longer time. I drank a couple of cups of Roman Noodles and broth, ate some bacon (which for the first time in the race didn’t make me want to throw up just smelling it) and after feeling much better I was off for a 6 mile loop with Rich leading the way. Rich set a good pace, and we moved really well. The last part of the loop was a lot more technical and hilly which slowed us down (ok, I slowed us down). Even at night you could see the beauty of the course. We went through the aid station, saw David again at mile 64, and then headed off for a fairly long section before we’d see David again at mile 76.
Rich was with me this time as we came down the long steep climb I had gone up earlier in the day getting to the Goosebump aid station. I tried to tell him how tough it was and I’m not sure that even going down you could grasp how tough it was going uphill. I was really happy I had my poles to give my legs that extra support going down. It was then another 7 miles through the desert to get to David at the Virgin Desert aid station at mile 76. It seemed like moving through the rolling hills in the desert at night took a very long time, but we were passing lots of runners and moving really well. Just before getting to the aid station, I got really cold. The desert night had brought down the temperature and because I was slower and sleepy, I began to get very cold. As soon as we got into the aid station, I told David I needed to get into the car. He tried to get me to warm up by the fire, but that’s a no-no for me. It would warm me up, but I’d be way too cold after walking away. In the car, I put on another jacket, long pants over my shorts, and also put on a beanie hat.
I drank a little more and I was off to tackle the first of 3 loops that were based out of this aid station. The loops were 5, 6 and 7 miles long. Rich lead me on the first loop where we were able to get into a good running pace, again passing lots of runners and moving pretty well. I warmed up quickly at this pace and soon took off the extra jacket. David began pacing me on the second loop, now at mile 81. It was longer and more technical than the first loop, so we were a bit slower this time around. We were again passing more runners and kept moving along. For the first time during the race, I began to eat sugary treats to pick up my energy – Skittles! I love almost everything about Skittles although they are harder to chew when they’re cold. David also started giving me Tums when he began pacing me to see if that would help my stomach. It seemed to work a little but wasn’t a totally winner. As we started the final 7 mile loop, the sun was up, and we were able to turn off our headlamps. That always seems to pick up your spirits as the new day breaks, and of course seeing the sunrise was beautiful. This loop had some spectacular canyon views below us and was easily the prettiest of the 3 loops. We saw Rich one last time when we finished this loop, and we had 5 miles left to the finish. I took off my long pants, my gloves (which I had worn the entire race), switched back to my trucker hat and put on my sunglasses. It was the home stretch and I wasn’t slowing down.
Ready to finish the last stretch
This last section had lots of gentle downhill running, then a short climb up to the road, where it was 1.5 miles to the finish. There were more runners around us now as the 50k and half-marathoners were coming in on the same trail to the finish. We managed to pass a few more people and David did a great job keeping me running all the way to the finish. I had high expectations of finishing this race between 26 – 28 hours. That goal was sort of thrown out early on with the mud and my stomach issues, so I tried to enjoy the course and finish strong in the end. David said I could get in under 29 hours, so we continued to run as best as I could. When I crossed the finish in 28:47, I was more than thrilled.
A 100 mile finish is always sweet!
The race has a 34 hour cut-off and while I was well ahead of that time, the day was beginning to warm up, so it was nice to be finished! You get to pick your own buckle, as they are all custom made and each one is different. I sat down, took off my shoes for the first time, and enjoyed watching others finish and feeling the warmth of the sun. Tony and Kathy showed up before we left the finish area and it was fun to see them again before we headed back to our hotel for a shower and some rest.
I can say the race was very well run and had great volunteers! Each aid station had lots of food, plenty of water and supplies. It’s a “green” race, with recycle bins and compost toilets at each aid station which can be very nice to have, especially when you have 100 miles of stomach issues. My crew wasn’t a fan of the compost toilets and were not disappointed to bid them farewell when the race was over. No matter what may have gone wrong in this race, you would have missed out had you not stopped a moment to take it all in and enjoyed the views and surroundings. Truly a majestic place to run, no matter what distance is your jam.