Monday, April 11, 2016

Zion 150k ;)

Before my race I made a list of factors that were within my control. Weather was not on my list.

I signed up for Zion 100 last summer, not too long after completing Laurel Highlands but falling short of the time required for a WSER lottery ticket. After also COMPLETELY failing to BQ at Marine Corps Marathon in October (and wow, these sentences make 2015 sound like a way worse race year than it was!) I found myself more anxious than excited about the race, worried it would distract me from schoolwork and a busy spring conference season, worried about the cost. I decided to defer my entry to 2017, as the race has an extremely generous deferral policy, but by the time 2016 rolled around I realized I was running around 60 miles a week and feeling great, and whenever I told friends I wasn’t going to run the race after all I felt a bit sick to my stomach and more and more sad each time I did so. After a quick check revealed I had enough miles to fly to Utah for less than $200, I bought my ticket and decided I would make it work.

Tickets without using miles weren’t cheap, so I told my Philly friends not to come out to pace or crew. None of us have any money! I was staying at a house with some New York trail running friends, so it wasn’t going to be an entirely solitary trip. Then a few weeks before the race I met another runner from Philly, Tim, who was racing, and a week before my best friend from college, Jamie, confirmed that she and her brother Mike were going to drive out from CA to crew me. Trail/ultra running is often a very strange mix of the solitary and the social and is filled with serendipitous connections. It just felt like a lot of these were happening for me before I even got to Utah. I felt good going into the race. I had a good handful of training weeks in the 90-110 mile range in February and March, I’d run a decent amount of bleachers, stairs, and hills in training, I did a full 3-week taper (with a lot of conference travel!), and I was uninjured.

We’d heard some dire weather scenarios – it was supposed to occasionally shower starting Friday afternoon and continuing through Saturday, but the trails don’t handle saturation well, and the organizers had course modification contingencies in place in case conditions became dangerous. I didn’t expect that to happen, as the days leading up to the race were dry and predictions were holding for occasional showers: I was just glad temperatures weren’t supposed to climb above the high 60s.

The race began with the first of three big climbs, up Flying Monkey. You feel pretty badass because there’s a short section where there’s a (much appreciated) rope to assist you in hauling yourself up. The climb also occurs at sunrise: the stunning views start early on this course! For such a steep climb so early I, like everyone around me, settled in and power hiked. I felt fine but not great yet. The loop at the top of the mesa was fun and runnable, but I still couldn’t quite tell where my body was at. I think the distances for the first few segments were short, and my body finally woke up when I was headed back down Flying Monkey, not pushing the pace at all but well ahead of expected pace (which means absolutely nothing 10 miles into 100!). I definitely was not prepared for the slickrock sections, the first of which occurred at mile 19, on Guacamole mesa. The sun was out and it got uncomfortably warm during these 7.5 miles, though the views made up for it! The rocky, twisty, undulating mountain bike trails were like nothing I know where to train on near Philly, and it was hard to find a rhythm or feel confident here, but it seemed to challenge most runners I spoke with, so I tried to just go with the flow.

At mile 30.5 I stopped to text Jamie, who I was going to see at mile 53, and let her know that even though I was ahead of the fastest projected schedule on my spreadsheet, I was about to face the biggest climb of the race and things could look drastically different in a couple hours. The Gooseberry climb was everything advertised, but again I just settled in and hiked, stopped to take in the views (and settle my heart rate) every now and then, and soon enough I was at the top. The wind picked up on top of the mesa and it was cold, so I grabbed a pair of gloves from my drop bag (which I stuffed in my hydration pack a mile or two later). But while I survived the epic climb in good spirits, the following 12 mile slickrock loop (miles 35-47) was my lowest section of the entire race. I just didn’t feel great. The terrain made for very slow going, and I had to be very alert in watching for course markings (the course was well marked, but again, it’s just different terrain than I’m used to and harder to pick out what is “trail”). I felt sleepy, my back was a bit sore, I felt my form beginning to suffer, and my stomach felt a bit queasy. I didn’t feel terrible, but I started to worry about what this foretold for, say, mile 70. I’d seen too many races turn to suffer fests in the last 30 miles to expect I would be immune! The Goosebump aid station was a bright spot, as we got some (more) spectacular views, and I saw both Tim and Ryan, who was staying at the same house. Ryan and I, and two 100k runners, ended up completing this seemingly endless loop together. I had this ridiculous plan? Expectation? That when I saw Jamie I was going to make her show me a cute picture of Woody, that seeing him would make me cry, and that this would be extremely cathartic and get me through whatever came next.

The next 6 mile section was hard packed, wide, smooth, gently gently rolling dirt roads, and I ran almost the whole thing and felt absolutely fantastic. It started raining again, and the roads got muddy, so when I got to the aid station at mile 53 Mike and Jamie were not there because Mike’s car couldn’t safely make it up there. Ryan’s crew was there, however, and they cheered me and made me eat vegan broth and noodles, made sure I grabbed my headlamp, and sent me off in good spirits. As I headed off down the trail, I giggled to myself, “I love running! It’s so funny!” The next section started off with rocky, twisty, single track. It had some elements of the slickrock sections, but I was able to run for significant stretches. It ended with a mile-ish steep descent, in the dark, that seemed to go on forever. I was getting low again anticipating the climb back up, and I was starting to feel sad that now I wouldn’t see my crew till mile 76 – almost 20 miles, and in the dark, with a huge climb and a huger descent – but when I got to the bottom, the volunteer checking runners in notified me that I had “people here for me”, and there were Jamie and Mike! Not only did I get surprise hugs from my best friend, but the aid station (like many of them) had delicious watermelon. The climb back up wasn’t so bad after all ;)

As I made my way back to the gooseberry aid station, I was starting to feel tired but not awful, though I was not looking forward to the steep, endless climb down the mesa. About a mile from the aid station, around mile 67, I took a “vitamin I” (Ibuprofen). I was limiting myself to 2 over the course of the race and this seemed like a good time for the first. As I approached the aid station just after midnight, the wind picked up like crazy and it started raining pretty hardcore for the first time since the race start. Now I REALLY was dreading the descent, but I started off after only a short break to grab extra batteries and warm layers, hoping to get down before the ground got too saturated. The muddy clay stuff did stick to my shoes, but it basically just added weight and cushion, and the weight wasn’t a problem for descending, as the ground was sticky, not slippery. I moved as quickly as I could, but carefully. This was an 8 mile section between aid stations, and my GPS had long since died so it felt LONG. The "vitamin I" had kicked in though (it tends to be effective, as I use it very sparingly), so I ran a lot of this, more and more as I thought I must be getting close to aid and my crew. My headlamp blinked for low battery at one point, but when I tried to change batteries in the rain I messed it all up and then it didn't work at all. Luckily I was a smart enough cookie to carry a handheld flashlight in my pack the whole time. It worked very well for lighting the trail, it but didn’t reflect as well on the markers.

I got to mile 76, Virgin Desert aid station sometime between 2:30 and 3am, and Jamie and Mike had just rolled up. Mike fixed my headlamp, Jamie brought me THIN MINTS!!!!!, and she and I set off on the first of 3 loops I had to do from that aid station before heading back to the finish. We mostly hiked and chatted, and she apologized for being slow, though the bits when she broke into a run it was way more work to keep up than I thought it should be: even though I thought I felt great, my body had, you know, run almost 80 miles. I left on the second loop in fantastic spirits (and after a good poop!), but the rain was beginning to take its toll on the trail, and that loop was pretty slippery and harder than I had expected it to be. I returned still in good spirits ready to tackle the last and longest loop, possibly with Mike. However, when I got in they announced that due to dangerous conditions they were sending all runners straight to the finish line regardless of what loop they were on. This was a contingency plan put in place in the days leading up to the race, and I knew I would still get an official finish, a buckle, and a WSER lottery entry. I think Jamie expected me to be more upset than I was. But I was completely in a mindset of judging my performance by what was in my control, and I was incredibly thrilled with how I was holding shit together in this race. Given the choice, of course I would have run that 7 mile loop regardless of how sloppy it was. But it entirely was not my choice, and I’d seen enough of what even a little rain could do to these trails to trust the race director was making an informed decision and not being paranoid or babying us. I thought I might feel more strongly about things later, but I was experiencing a weird pre-dawn self-satisfied numbness and just hugged my friends, ate a couple more Thin Mints, changed into my Back on My Feet t-shirt I wanted to finish in, and took off down the road.

The first half-ish of the last section was a hard packed smooth, mostly not muddy, mostly gently downhill dirt road. The final few miles were ridiculously muddy undulating short but steep and seemingly endless bumps I had to scramble up with “fast” feet and then slide back down. When I finally came within sight of the finish area my hands were covered in mud, though I hadn’t quite fallen on my ass. Hilariously, when I came to make the final turn through the finishing arch, the 50k race was just starting, and I had to step aside and wait for those runners to go through. The volunteers assured me they got my actual time, which I wasn’t too worried about, but it was kind of surreal and funny. 

I finished 93-ish miles in just over 26 hours. My goal had been sub-30, and the cutoff was 34. Trail conditions were the only thing preventing me from moving quickly at the end of the race, and I’m pretty sure that in other circumstances I could have finished in around 28 hours. Of course, it’s a race: you get the circumstances you’re dealt, and what ifs are basically a futile exercise. It was somewhat helpful to think about though because I did need to walk away feeling there was no question I could have finished 100 full miles, and finished strong. So I finished elated, and already hungry for the next adventure. I picked out my gorgeous buckle, and Jamie met me with a Lagunitas IPA and a rainbow stuffed lobster. Seriously, what could be better? She also literally gave me the shirt (well, sweater) off her back, as probably my worst packing/planning decision was only putting shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals in my finish line drop bag, and it was still cold and raining. I didn’t think I felt as cold as I was, but then I realized I was shivering like crazy! When we got back to the house, Mike ran out and got me a frozen pizza and guacamole, as per my request :P

My only chafing was from my bra, where the flap of fabric that covers the fastener got folded over and the metal clasps had rubbed against my back a bit. Two of my toenails felt bruised but they feel pretty normal now and haven’t darkened at all (yet). I thought I had blisters, or their beginnings, on the bottom of my feet, but it turned out my feet were just a bit water logged and wrinkly, and the wrinkles had folded over and rubbed a bit. They dried out too dry so I lubed them up and they were quickly back to normal. My nutrition was good, my hydration was good, and my recovery is progressing way way better than I expected. I walked a couple dogs today, got a massage, and ate EVERYTHING.

Special shoutouts to Lou, Megan, and David who were there for everything leading up to this, were the best virtual/remote cheer squad, and made post-flight pizza, beer, chips and guac, cheesecake and ice cream (all vegan) happen. Lou very graciously cared for my Dear Disreputable Dog all weekend too. There are a TON of other people who supported me, and I owe you all huge huge hugs.

I don’t think I’ve managed to communicate it here, but this is the best race I’ve ever had. It’s hard to describe how it feels to feel so strong, to be exhausted and soaked but know you can handle whatever is thrown at you next with feet that you think are mostly "running" and at least occasional smiles.

And I just have to say a bit more about Jamie. She’s no stranger to hiking and backpacking but is not at all interested in running herself – we also haven’t seen each other in what? Two years? – but she crewed like a complete pro. She read race reports and articles with advice on pacing and crewing, made my spreadsheet legible, dealt with weather-related contingencies, brought me surprise snacks and presents, checked in to make sure my feet didn’t need attention, and about a zillion other things. Most importantly, she made me smile a hell of a lot. 

I wore lots of INKnBURN (and sometimes a super light patagonia shell), a Nathan hydration pack, and "Maggie hat". Feet had trail toes + injinji trail socks + thin smartwool socks + Nike Wildhorse 3s + Dirty Girl gaiters.


  1. Great to read and hear about your best race ever! Way to be smart, resourceful, and persistent out there (among awesome, of course :) )!

  2. Smash smash smash! I am so happy to see you had an amazing race and I love the recap. You are quite the amazing runner and human. Mad props...happy props...props!