Sometime in 2015 a friend posted a link to an event in the Grand Circle Trail Series. That one little post led to an adventure.
Checking out the link I saw that Ultra Adventures runs the race series, with 100 mile races near many of the beautiful National Parks in Southern Utah and the surrounding areas. In addition to the 100 mile races each location has some shorter events, with distances depending on past interest and course viability, with one of the course factors being that it has to show the local scenery, versus providing views that could be had almost anywhere.
Since Kelli and I have grown quite fond of the Zion area it was in my mind to give one of the races there a shot. As luck would have it some of our friends were starting to think about trying an ultra and eventually the Zion 50k became the race the 6 of us would do. It would be the first ultra for the other 5 people in the group, though Kelli had done the Trans Rockies Run and a couple of Ironman events, and Ben & Jessica had both done a few IMs. Joe & Carissa were going to build off their first marathon (LA 2016, just 2 months prior to Zion) to do the race. There was another couple interested in joining us, but they switched to a race more local to them two weeks after Zion, which also happened to be on her birthday.
While training for the race we found out that our friend Eric from TRR was going to be doing it as well, bringing out some friends from NY to do the various distances. We also found out that Amber & Ryan would be there, her racing the 100, him crewing. All good folks from the Rockies that we hope to see at many more races.
As we got into taper some people began looking at the weather. Typically pretty dry, a week out from the race the forecast called for rain around race day. While the specifics changed every few hours the writing was on the wall – there would be rain at some point on race weekend, likely before or during the 50k race. Early in the week leading up to the race the RD sent out an email informing people that the local dirt “turns to a very slippery clay and can make an already challenging course, extremely difficult.” Anyone who wanted to defer would get a credit for their entry fee (minus $20) to apply to any of Ultra Adventures events up to and including Zion 2017.
About a day later a second email went out. Some excerpts:
“As many of you have noticed, there is a high likelihood that we will be receiving rain during the race this weekend. Of all the races that we put on, this one has always been my biggest worry of inclement weather due to the potential safety hazards and nasty trail conditions that would accompany it. …..Understand that there is a chance you will be running in a muddy slimy mess with 5 pounds of clay stuck to the bottom of your shoes and slipping all over the place and you could be putting your life in danger on the steep climbs. If you are not up for this challenge, please consider NOT starting the race so that we are not left with a large number of runners stranded at remote aid stations waiting for rides.”
Cue the group getting a bit more nervous. I was intent on doing the race, as were a few other people. The remaining folks decided to give it a whirl as well, especially since the forecast had improved slightly over the past 2 days, and would continue to do so through Friday.
Based on the second email sent by the RD I had a suspicion that we would likely have the alternate route. The original route has a potentially very dangerous climb & descent, and some trails through sensitive areas that would be destroyed with a few hundred people tromping through when muddy. With rain likely the night before our race I figured it was simply a question of when the rain fell to make the course decision. But since that was all in the future, we planned for the official course, and would modify our plans if and when new course details were provided.
We arrived out in St. George Friday afternoon and checked into our rental house for the weekend before heading to race central to pick up our bibs, etc. While we were hoping to bump into our friends from TRR that were out for the race, but Ryan was off crewing for Amber on course for the 100 miler, which had started that morning (as did the 100 km race), and Eric had checked in earlier in the day. We got our race stuff which included a choice of trucker hat or beanie, got answers to a few questions about various items, and headed home for dinner and hopefully early to bed.
Sometime overnight I woke to hear rain. And thunder. And then HEAVY rain. When we woke up it was intermittently raining. Oh well, prepare as best we can and see what the day has.
Kelli had been not feeling well all week leading up to the race, having picked up a bug on a work trip the prior weekend. She had been bouncing around the idea of deferring, but had been steadily improving all week so she was ready to go. Until waking up race morning. Whatever bug was nagging her had come back overnight so while we lay in bed after the alarm went off she made the very smart, yet difficult, decision to not start the race. I went down to eat and inform the others while she went back to bed to try and get better.
After breakfast we all piled into one car, leaving one for Kelli to come join us once she got up, hopefully feeling a bit better. When we arrived at the parking lot, about a mile from the start line, we were told by a shuttle driver that the start was delayed an hour.
We went back to the car to wait until the shuttle would start running athletes to the start line again in about 45 minutes. I closed my eyes and tried to rest, others were texting and trying to find the limited service in the parking lot. We eventually found out that the RD sent out an email about when we arrived announcing the delay. We also got a text from Kelli that Amber had just finished the 100 – in second place! At the appointed hour we went back to the shuttle and heard some scuttlebutt that the course was being changed.
This was confirmed when we arrived at the start, and was soon followed up with an announcement that they were still out marking the new course, so we would have another hour delay to the start. Now we would not be starting until about 4 hours after breakfast, with many people a little behind in their calories for the day if they did not have enough to snack on while hanging out waiting to start.
As the appointed hour finally approached people began coming out of the varied warm/dry hideouts we had been in to gather at the start line for a quick talk and, finally, race start. With the start and finish line at the same location, as we were heading out there were 100 mile runners finishing. We were told to stay to one side going through their finish chute to allow space for the 100s to come in. It was entertaining for us, but I’m sure it was a WTF moment for the couple of people that finished as we were getting underway.
The first few miles were on ATV track rolling along towards the road that goes up Smith Mesa. Out of the gate my legs were not really showing up. I was not sure if it was the long time since breakfast, cold weather, lack of training, or something else, but I was a bit slow to get going. There were some short sharp inclines, but mostly gentle up and down through mud. Slippery, sticky, heavy, red, mud. On some of the steeper sections you would have to be strategic with foot placement to limit how much you slid backwards on each step, but everyone around me seemed to be managing OK.
After about 3.5 miles we hopped off the ATV track and onto a paved road to climb the mesa. If it was a dirt road turned-mud the 2.5 mile climb would have taken easily over an hour for most people. Later in the day someone actually commented along the lines of “this is the first race that I was happy to run on pavement.” I think many shared that sentiment by the end, but for now it was a nice speed hike up to our first aid station.
I had been somewhat running with our friend Ben early on, and he was about 50 yards in front of me to start the climb, so I focused on trying to slowly catch up to him by the top. While heading up the road a guy with a GoPro caught up to me. As he got closer I realized he looked familiar. “Hey, did you do Trans Rockies last year?” “Yea. You too? You look familiar.” Brian had done TRR with a buddy, filming chunks of the race just like he was doing at Zion. He was catching some great video now looking up the valley as we got close to the top of the mesa. There were also some clouds rolling in making for epic views before the rain started falling.
Both Brian and Ben were a few steps in front of me at the aid station. Being the sole AS for the course it had a decent spread, but it was hastily put together with the course change so there were no drop bags. I had planned on using a mix of Tailwind, that I was carrying, and only a little bit of the HEED that was provided on course. With the modified route I had to switch up my planned nutrition and was going to be using course nutrition for at least the first loop, which we found out was 9 miles. I filled up my bottle, grabbed some snacks and headed out with Brian and Ben to play in the mud.
Not far from the AS we turned onto a dirt road that was gently sloping down. Within a quarter mile we turned off onto another ATV trail. This is where the fun really started. The trail got steeper (downhill still) but there were ruts in the road and water flowing down the ruts. After a while I figured out that running in the water was better – you didn’t collect as much mud, and could even clean off some of it. It also meant that you were not trying to maintain balance on the slippery mud above the rut, but instead your feet would actually slide to where you wanted them to be – the middle of the rut.
The road faded into more double track trail and about 1.5 miles from the aid station we suddenly took a sharp left up hill. We were not sure that there was actually a trail there, but it was flagged for the race, so we knew we were on course. We were climbing a steep hill, basically winding around rocks and bushes, often using them for hand holds to not fall.
After what seemed like much longer than I’m sure it was we intersected another trail and turned right, again heading down hill. This was not so much running as attempted controlled sliding down the trail. Somehow I was lucky enough to not fall, but some people around me did, and I am sure there were many others.
The worst part was that the mud would just stick to anything it touched. As the saying goes, resistance was futile. You were going to have a lot of mud stuck to you. Stopping to scrape it off gave you only a few steps with clean shoes and took a lot of time. In fact, running often resulted in less mud accumulation than walking, since the momentum of the leg swing would propel some of the mud off with each step. Sometimes.
Continuing down the trail we had some random stream crossings. I’m sure many of the streams are typically dry, but being that it had been raining on and off for at least 12 hours every low point became a puddle or stream. Often the stream crossings had steep embankments on either side, up to 30’ high for a few. We would slide down to the stream, then have to scramble up the other side, hoping to not slip back down or fall on your face. There were generally a few conveniently located trees or shrubs to help get up the slopes thankfully.
With all the slipping and potential falling I really had to tell myself to stop and take in some fluids, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have drank anything for at least 90 minutes, likely longer. Unfortunately the HEED was not sitting too well with me this day so I was only taking small sips and started dropping behind on my nutrition.
We finally started curving to the right at the far end of the loop, and the trail leveled out a bit, making it much easier to actually run a little. I ended up talking with some traveling PTs currently residing in central CA. Talking with whoever was around was great; it kept our minds occupied beyond the muddy mess in front of us and the occasional rain.
Even though the terrain was better for running as we headed back towards the AS, it was still unstable. The variable footing, my lack of training, and reduced nutrition intake lead to some foot cramping issues as my feet were trying to conform to the slippery surface. I finally told myself I need to suck it up and put down some fluid, calories, and electrolytes, so I forced myself to take a few big swings of HEED and deal with the gassy consequences. If I didn’t I wasn’t going to be able to keep going much longer. (yes, I had other calories, salt pills, and water, but I would need more than what I had in my pockets to finish the race.) It helped that we were running near the edge of the mesa, with some great views across UT-89 to the mesa we were originally supposed to be running on.
As we rolled along the trail with a nice steep drop to our left we eventually finished the lollipop loop and got back to the double track trail we were on before the sharp left that led up the hillside. Since the outbound leg was a slight downhill, we were now on a slight climb. And while before it was muddy and slick, now it was the same, but also completely wrecked from everyone else running on it on the outbound leg. There was no smooth trail left, it was all covered with footprints and skid marks from people sliding all over.
We continued the mild climb on wrecked mud as we turned back onto the road. The good news was this meant that we were getting close to the aid station. About 3 hours into the race I pulled up to the tents again, this time at mile 15.5. We were supposed to have a 4.5 mile out-and-back (OAB), for a total of 9 more miles on the mesa. I knew I needed more calories and fluids and the HEED wasn’t cutting it today, so I used the remainder of the Tailwind powder I had on me and figured I could deal with the HEED for the last few miles of the day after the OAB section. Then I stuffed my face with pretzels, peanut butter pretzels, Oreos, and some chips before heading back towards the heart of the mesa.
As I pulled away from the AS the sun came out for a little bit bringing the temperature up some, and I’m sure making it more comfortable for many. We turned back down the same muddy road and followed our own footprints until they turned off onto the lollipop loop. This time we would simply continue straight on the road until the turn around.
Once we were back on ‘clean’ mud the road began a series of gently rolling climbs. Since the rain had been fairly sparse and light for the past few hours and the sun was occasionally peeking through, the mud was just starting to firm up a bit. While that provided a little more traction it also made the mud cling a little bit more. Joy. I ran through every little puddle I could find to get it off my shoes.
On our way up the road we would hear some occasional thunder pretty close by to our North. I was sure there was rain somewhere, but there were still splotches of sun where I was running. It made for some interesting thought games trying to figure out where thunder was coming from and where it might be raining.
After about 2 miles of gentle climbing / false flat the road suddenly pitched up. The old adage of “Two steps forward and one step back” crossed my mind. Or in this case take two steps forward and slide one back. It was not so much trying to hike quickly as it was trying to go backwards the least. This is where my limited training really started to show – I was moving slower than I otherwise would have, and most of the people I ran the second half of the lollipop with were pulling away from me. The good thing about that was when I saw them heading back down towards me I knew I was close to the turn – even though I was not quite 4 miles into what was supposed to be a 4.5 mile OAB. Of course the rain picked up again as I got near the top, so it wasn’t all good news. And with the sun gone it got quite a bit cooler too.
At the top of the climb the course suddenly veered off the road onto a trail again. The trail went about 75 feet before you were at the edge of a bluff on the mesa, looking down onto what I later figured out was the end of the loop. At that point the signage and trail markers simply stopped. I paused for a minute or so to enjoy the view in the rain before turning around to head back down. After the race I asked the RD about the turnaround and he said that it was pouring down so hard at 4am when he was out marking the new course that the markers wouldn’t write on the wet poster board to make any proper sign for the turn around. I think everyone figured it out pretty quickly, even without the sign.
Anyways, back on the downhill I was hopefully motivating people by letting people know the turn was just at the top, and yes it was shorter than expected. I was also doing my best to enjoy the hard earned descent but my legs were trashed by now from all the slipping and slogging of the day (yes, and my sub-par fitness. I take full blame for that one.) At least the descent was not as slick as some of the mud from earlier in the day was.
Once at the bottom of the hill, and theoretically able to run again, my legs started cramping up on me pretty much any time I would pick up the pace from a walk. I took some big gulps of my nutrition and had a few salt pills to try and push off the cramping. Brian was having some issues too so we would walk a minute then try to ‘run’ a minute together as we both dealt with our issues.
After about 10 minutes or so we were both starting to function a little better. I was on the lookout for the rest of my group heading the opposite direction, but Ben was the only one I saw, just at the bottom of the climb. Eric, who appeared to be ahead of his goal pace for the day, was not too far behind Ben. As we got closer to the aid station I was a little concerned for the other 3 people in our group that I had not seen. I had expected that everyone would have gotten to the aid station before I got back from the OAB. By the time I made it back to the pavement I accepted it was highly unlikely, and they were probably having a rough day dealing with the mud on the first loop. Adding to the concern was the fact that none of us had really trained in conditions remotely similar to this, but there was also not really anything I would be able to do for them that someone else near them on the course couldn’t. Lastly, I was somewhat grateful that Kelli was sick and not racing since I knew her knees, which had been giving her some problems, would not be happy with the slick surface.
Finally back at the AS both Brian and took off our shoes to try and clear some of the mud and rocks out of our socks. I had limited success with my numb fingers and water bottle – I didn’t want to take everything off and try to rinse it in water from the AS that other people might need to drink. Plus it was a bit of a pain in the ass. I got my shoes back on and rinsed my hands off before hitting the buffet line. This time it was lots of orange slices, and chips. Then the volunteers brought out a bunch of fresh pancakes to put on the table. Hell yea. A pancake and syrup was quickly rolled up and devoured before I stuffed a big handful of pretzels into my pocket for the last 6.5 miles.
Brian got out of the AS a minute or so ahead of me and it looked like he was enjoying the downhill. I decided it was in my best interest to take it a bit easier. My legs were spent, my feet trashed from all the cold water and small rocks, and my ankle brace had begun to dig into my ankle through all the wrap I had under it (I had sprained it a week or so before the race; I know, a bad habit I need to stop). I focused on keeping it nice and steady on the way down and was paying way more attention to distance than I typically do, aided by the fact that I knew exactly how far it was to the bottom of the steep section, then to the trails, and finally to the finish.
I got to the bottom and onto the trails having passed a few people that had pulled out of the race and decided they would ‘walk it home’ after the first loop instead of waiting an unknown time for a car to maybe come get them – there was no cell or radio signal at the aid station so it was hard to get information back to base camp without sending someone down the hill. Not long after I turned back onto the ATV trails the rain started up again with a good stiff wind blowing it horizontal. Thankfully it was generally not directly into my face.
For those last 3+ miles I was basically running just to finish. I would see someone ahead of me who was walking and tell myself ‘just catch up to that person.’ Most of these folks had DNF’d by opting not to do the OAB and were simply trying to get back to the start.
The rain lasted until I was about a mile from the finish and it actually didn’t seem to make the ATV trails any worse than they were in the morning. In fact, I felt that they were in slightly better condition my second time through, even with the rain pelting down. The rain did, however, clean a bit of the mud off my shoes and my body.
As I got close to the finish I began recognizing trail features – a steep 10’ climb from early in the race, a sharp turn at the bottom of a short drop. I occupied my mind trying to recall what other features I might remember coming up and trying to figure out if I could catch the runner a little bit a head who kept popping out of sight over a bump or around a turn. I finally started to hear the music from the finish line as I approached the road crossing. I knew I just had to cross the road and loop around to the finish.
Finally. 27 miles, 5:52, 3350’ gain. And a whole lot of mud.
In lieu of traditional medals they handed out local crafts that made with materials found on course. The belt buckles for the 100 mile and medals for the 100 km had small twigs and grasses spell out Zion 100 on a colorful background and were encased in resin. The 50k finishers had their choice of hand crafted mugs made from the clay that we had spent all day trying to get rid of. Since all of the items were of a similar design, but custom, the finishers got to pick what they wanted out of the remaining awards for their distance as they finished.
Once I was all checked in at the finish and had my mug I went in search of warmth and food. I didn’t want to get too comfortable because I knew I needed to clean off and get proper clothing on soon so I could warm up but what I needed right then was a seat next to some chips, Oreos, and fluids. Once I had some calories in and was feeling slightly mobile again I headed off to get my sweatshirt and bumped into Kelli. It turns out the ladies of our group had pulled out after the loop and lucked out to get one of the few random rides back down from the AS. They had pulled up to the finish right as Kelli got there a few minutes earlier so they were actually at the car getting cleaned up and warm. As much as I wanted to go talk with them and hear their thoughts as first time ultra runners I needed to clean up, change, and warm up so I wandered myself down to North Creek, the cold, muddy, stream that ran past the finish area, to clean off my feet and legs. I think I lost about 5 pounds just removing the mud from my body and shoes.
Once I got some nice dry clothing on and more food in me I was doing much better. I settled down by one of the fires near the finish line to talk to other athletes and wait for the rest of our crew. All athletes were given a voucher for some food, so I went and got some pizza. There were also some local artisans with their rafts out for sale so I did some window shopping while waiting for the pizza to cook.
Overall, it was a pretty rough day. I don’t think you will be able to find anyone that says otherwise. The RD and his staff did a great job with all the last minute changes and warning the athletes about what could happen, and providing opportunity for anyone to DNS and take a credit to a future event. I definitely want to do more of the Grande Circle Trail Race Series, and I would certainly come back for another run at the Zion event. Though maybe not in the rain.