In 2014, I ran the Zion 100 as my first 100 mile race. To say it was a terrific experience would be an understatement. It was also incredibly difficult. I finished though I wasn’t thrilled with my performance. It was less about my time (29:32:06) than it was how demolished I felt at the end of the race. I decided to take another run at the course in 2015 looking to both better my result and have another excuse to visit Utah. While I wanted to run a faster time, I also knew it would be more difficult as the course had changed significantly since 2014 removing almost all the ‘easy’ road sections while adding more technical trails and vertical change. To address that change, the cutoff for the race was changed from 32 hours to 34 hours so I knew I would be in for a tough run.
My crew for the 2015 race was far different than in the prior year. In 2014, we had brought out the entire family but that wasn’t possible this year. While smaller in number, my good friend Betty and oldest son Jacob proved to be a rockstar team for the race.
The three of us traveled out to Utah on Wednesday before the race hoping to get some hiking in but were delayed by bad weather in Chicago. We rolled into Springdale around 7p on Wednesday almost five hours later than planned and checked into our hotel rooms at the Hampton Inn before grabbing a great meal at the Bit and Spur restaurant.
We spent the morning Thursday scouting the aid station locations and course layout. While I had run the race the prior year, it was interesting to see just how remote and difficult to access the aid stations were. We drove around making notes on logistics, expected timing and took lots of pictures.
After some lunch at Oscar’s, we spent the afternoon touring the park and did a quick hike on the Canyon Overlook trail. It was the perfect amount of activity to calm the nerves a bit without overdoing it the day before the race. Post sightseeing, we took care of packet pickup and grabbed an early dinner before calling it a night.
At 6am, we were off with nearly 300 headlamps bobbing off into the desert. The 100 milers and 100k runners started together with the fast runners darting off the front. I found my place pace-wise and made relatively easy work of the first four miles before starting our climb up the Flying Monkey trail. The early light crept up just before we hit the really technical rope section though we were frustrated to find that the ropes had snapped. The tough climb was even more nerve wracking than last year. After making the summit, we had a quick stop at the aid station before running a beautiful six mile loop of the mesa. I spent a number of miles running with an Australian runner named Natasha who had traveled all the way to Utah to run her first 100 miler. We chatted about our race experience and goals and the miles passed quickly. We made our way back to the Flying Monkey aid at mile 10 before beginning our descent (semi-controlled tumble) down the Flying Monkey trail. In 2014, we had used five miles of road to descend off the mesa but this was entirely different and more difficult. Its tough to train on steep / technical downhill in the midwest and I was plain old slow getting down the trail. I made it to the Dalton Wash aid at mile 15 nearly 30 minutes slower than I expected and slightly discouraged.
Betty and Jacob were there waiting and had me in and out in seconds heading up the hill towards Guacamole Mesa. It was a nearly four mile climb to get to the top along fire roads and I did my best to manage a steady run/walk up the hill. Guacamole had been my downfall in 2014 and I was determined not to let it get the better of my this time. I fell in with some new runners on top the mesa and made great time up top. Guacamole mesa had been miles 85-94 last year and took forever in the dark. While the terrain wasn’t easier, I made much better time given the combination of fresher legs and daylight and soon found myself cruising back down the four mile descent. I think that I managed to surprise Betty and Jacob having covered miles 15-30 slightly faster than the first 15!
The next five miles meant crossing the desert and then climbing the steepest climb of the race to Gooseberry mesa in the heat of the day. I was already getting hot and asked Betty to grab some cold popsicles on their way to the mesa. With that, I hit the trail towards Gooseberry. I made good progress through the desert and hit the climb blasting some Daft Punk to keep me motivated. I started the climb a bit too hard and quickly found myself short of breath and overheating. I downed a bottle of water and took in a bunch of calories while giving my body a couple minutes to regroup. Once resettled, I restarted the climb at a more reasonable pace and finished the climb without another break. Betty and Jacob were waiting at the top ready to change out my gear and most importantly, to provide an ice cold popsicle to cool me off. While waiting for me, they had run into Anastasia – a super accomplished Chicago ultrarunner who was also crewing/pacing at the race.
After cooling off, I had a 12 mile loop of Gooseberry to run. With lots of slickrock, it was slower going but I was in good spirits having finished three of the four toughest climbs on the course and having less than 20 miles before Betty would start running with me. I ran with a couple runners including Laura from California who gave me plenty of tips about Angeles Crest 100 which I would be running in California in August. Between the chats with laura and some podcasts, I soon found myself back at Goosebump to see Betty and Jacob. I took a couple minutes to reapply some blister shield on my feet and headed off on the six miles of fire road towards Grafton Mesa. Besides some hills, the fire road was runnable and I made great time cruising into Grafton in great spirits.
Since Jacob is too young to drive, we had to be strategic about the sections where Betty and Jacob would pace since Betty was the only one that could drive the car. Our plan was to have Betty pace the section from Grafton -> Cemetery -> Grafton which was 9 miles and then to rejoin me again for the Red, White and Blue loops from the Virgin Desert aid. Jacob was eager to pace as well and planned to join me from Grafton back to Goosebump and then again for the final leg from Virgin Desert to the finish. It made for lots of handoffs and logistics but Betty and Jacob made an amazing team and kept a great attitude throughout.
I grabbed my headlamp at Grafton and headed out with Betty towards the Cemetery aid station. While I had run with a number of runners through the day, it was great to catch up with Betty and hear about how the day had been going. We chatted about the course, aid stations and marveled at the scenic views. This section was pretty technical and included a nearly 1,000 ft descent to the aid station only to turn right around and climb right back up. We made it about halfway down the descent before turning on our headlamps and beginning the night portion of the race. Betty and I have run together a bunch – she has paced me at both Burning River and Javelina and I have paced her at Des Plaines River Trail so we had a great rhythm. That said, we both noted how much more difficult the terrain was at Zion compared to other runs. We made it back to Grafton unscathed to find Jacob geared up and ready for his first pacing assignment.
Jacob and I took off towards Goosebump and Betty got in the car to leapfrog us towards the next aid station. Jacob was really having a great day and told me all about the people he had met and the runners he had seen so far. He kept talking about Anastasia who had taken to calling him “the kid” and what a great adventure it had been. We fell into a nice walk/run routine jogging the flats and downs and hiking all the uphills. Jacob quickly grasped the trail etiquette encouraging all the runners that we were passing. We moved past a couple groups on our way towards Gooseberry and also saw almost 15 runners who were just heading to Grafton having finished Gooseberry some 15 miles behind us.
We pulled into Goosebump AS and I got geared up for the next 8 miles which I would be alone for. It was getting cold and I grabbed a jacket, gloves and hat along with a fresh battery for my headlamp. This next section was going to be the most difficult of the race as it meant descending from Goosebump at night – a steep and technical descent on which I had taken a nasty fall in the 2014 race. I knew that if I could survive the descent, I was in great shape since there would ‘only’ be 30 miles to go. I slipped, slided and at times butt-slided but managed to get down the mesa without killing myself. After the descent, I had another six miles of rolling desert terrain before pulling into the Virgin Desert aid station where Betty was waiting for me.
After downing a couple pancakes at the aid station, we were off on the first of three loops in the desert. The red loop at 4.7 miles was the shortest but also included a bunch of rolling hills alongside the mesa. The white loop was next at 5.9 miles with nearly non-stop mini hills. This was clearly a mountain bike trail and while I’m sure it would be tons of fun to ride up and down the hills, it was pretty tough with nearly 85 miles on my legs. Coming in off the white loop, the sun started to rise as the 2nd day of the race began for me. We dropped our headlamps before heading out on the blue loop which was nearly 7 miles long. This loop used parts of the JEM trail and had even more climbing and lots of rocks. I was slowing down and having trouble finding all the trail markers and asked Betty to take the lead not wanting to add any unnecessary bonus miles at this point.
Eventually, we made our way back to Virgin Desert Aid having finished the last of the loops. Betty had texted Jacob to let him know that we were inbound and he was ready for us. I thanked Betty, dropped some layers and headed out with Jacob for the last six miles of the run while Betty drove the car to the finish line.
At this point, it was mainly hiking with Jacob though we did run a couple sections. The 25k and 50k races were going on Saturday morning and the runners passing us yelled out encouragement which was terrific. With a bit over a mile to go, we turned off the trail onto the road and saw Betty who had run back from the finish line to run in together. She informed me that we had 1.2 miles to go which was a huge relief. We marched down the road and eventually made our way to Town Park in Virgin where the three of us ran in together.
My time was 28:04 – more than 90 minutes faster than my 2014 result on a much more difficult iteration of the course. While I covered the miles, a huge portion of the credit goes to Betty and Jacob who crewed and paced for the entire duration of the race with minimal rest. They were amazing and made the race both successful and incredibly fun!
We went back to the hotel and took some showers and then to Oscar’s where we refueled!
After lots of eating and drinking, we went back to the race where we cheered in other runners including Crystal and Ramon who had also run the 100 mile race.
Zion is both an amazing race and a bucket list destination to visit. Matt and the entire group at Ultra Adventures do a terrific job and managed to make a great race even better in the 2015 iteration. I’m so glad that Betty and Jacob were able to share the experience. It was a great adventure with memories that I will cherish.
- Hoka Rapa Nui Trail
- Injinji socks
- Saucony Throttle Shorts
- North Face Better Than Naked Shirt
- North Face Better Than Naked Jacket
- Julbo Dirt Sunglasses (day)
- Ultimate Direction SJ Pack
- Garmin 910XT
- Petzl NAO Headlamp