Zion 50k Race Report – How to Go Off Course With Confidence

After last year’s Zion 100k disaster, I swore I’d never run a race in Zion again. My race last year was highlighted by a busted hydration bladder (with no backup plan), a watch I mistakenly didn’t charge, an overwhelming desire to take pictures of the course instead of actually racing, and ultimately a DNF due to a major case of the f$ck its. Despite this, the addition of a 50k course was enough to lure me back to one of my favorite places in the world.

I hadn’t given much thought to the race itself. This wasn’t on purpose; I just didn’t make the time to study it. For some reason I thought the sections we were running were easier than the 100k course and contained little to no slickrock. I was wrong.

After grabbing some dinner with my fellow HUMRs Friday night, we got back to the hotel to attempt to get some good sleep. I met Joel, Kelsey and Brandon in the morning and we arrived at the start with 10 minutes to spare. In my haste to quietly get ready in our room, I completely forgot my handheld.  This would prove costly.

Once at the start, pictures were taken with the rest of the HUMRs running the 50k. I saw a few other familiar faces and once the race started, I settled in towards the front with Zac Marion and Ryan. We made our way up a short stretch of pavement and I found myself in the lead. This turned out to be a terrible scenario for the lead pack as I promptly made a right turn once we hit dirt and went off course for a bit. I partially blame the dude in the car directing traffic… at least I did at the time.

After realizing our error, I made my way through a line of runners that were ahead of us and was back up towards the front. Little did I know that this would be a reoccurring theme… roughly 15 to 30 minutes later I lead the lead group astray again. Apparently I thought it was perfectly normal that this course would require runners to go through a fence that was marked “private property.”  Needless to say, after I confidently slipped through this fence and lead a half dozen or so poor souls off course again, we quickly realized our error (and by our, I mean mine). I’m pretty sure there was another wrong turn I could be blamed for during this first hour and a half, but my memory is failing me.

After numerous wrong turns, I was determined to no longer lead the group. Eventually we made our way up a dirt road and I was running side by side with Ryan. We topped out around mile 7 or so and began a 9 mile loop. At this point I was around 3rd place. As soon as I began this section I realized it would be a significant amount of slickrock. I navigated this loop fairly well, with only one wrong turn. I did manage to bite it on the side of a rock however and busted my GPS watch off my wrist.

During this section I saw Jim finishing up his 100 mile race. The sun rose and I quickly remembered why I love Zion and the surrounding area so much. I wasn’t fueling well and my forgotten handheld was starting to prove to be a major mistake. I completed this loop and managed to get back to the 17.5 mile aid station. Course markings were a bit sketchy and I found myself second guessing every turn. 100 miler runners were running the same direction as I and then the opposite direction. This proved confusing to my simple, calorie deprived brain.

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I made my way down the same hill Ryan and I climbed a few hours earlier. Second place was pulling away and I was soon passed again, despite running 7 minute miles. Around mile 21 I saw Breein, Madi and Brandon. They were encouraging. Breein told me the two runners ahead of me were “blowing each other up.”  I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was blowing up myself. After this temporary boost in morale, I promptly took a right hand turn when I should have gone straight up a large climb. I continued on for about a quarter mile before realizing my error and headed back the way I came.

By this time, Zac and Ryan had passed me and I was playing the familiar game of catch up again. My calves started to seize up during this climb and I was forced to stop a few times to let them calm down. We ran together to the last aid station and chatted about how we were feeling. I pulled ahead of them into the last aid station, drank as much Coke as I could and continued on. The most significant climb of the course was ahead and I tried my best to maintain a respectable pace. In all honesty my only motivation to keep up the pace was that I just wanted to be done. My poor calorie intake and overall fatigue was catching up to me.

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Mile 25 marked the beginning of a mile and half climb. It was brutal. I became acutely aware of the fact that I hadn’t  been doing enough vertical in my training. I zombied through it and shuffled along the top of the mesa before finally beginning the downhill to the finish. With about 3 miles to go I was passed for the last time, thus dropping to 6th overall. I used him as a bit of a carrot as I ran the downhill road as hard as my legs would allow. Once cutting off the seemingly endless road, I meandered through an exposed desert jeep trail and prayed for the finish line to come into view. At this point I was content to coast it into the finish and checked over my shoulder a few times to make sure I didn’t drop another place. I finished in 6th overall in 5:08:02 with 32.9 miles on my watch.

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Newly developed ranking/scaling system:

Attitude: (A-) – Despite taking 5 wrong turns, I was able to keep a positive outlook.  Eventually it became a bit comical although I’m sure others following me may not agree.

Fueling: (D-) – It is embarrassing how few calories I consume during these races. This was my worst regarding fueling in awhile. I would estimate I successfully ate about 600 calories. I would have given myself a failing grade if I actually would have passed out. I still hold out hope that I’ll figure out something that will work for me.

Preparation: (D) – I didn’t adequately review the course information. There is no reason why I would have thought there wasn’t any slickrock on the 50k course. I underestimated the difficulty of this race.

Climbing: (D) – My legs aren’t there yet for climbing. I’ve been running too much flat stuff and roads to expect much in the way of power hiking. Malan’s repeats will begin soon. I’ll be ready for Bryce.

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Downhill: (B) – Overall I felt good on the downhill sections. This was similar to the Buffalo Run. Turnover was pretty good.

Overall: (C-) – I may have had some unrealistic expectations coming into this race. Running hard at the  Buffalo Run 50 and our trip to Pennsylvania took it out of me more than I thought it would. On a day where everything would have gone perfectly I feel like there was a possibility of doing  25+ minutes faster on this course. It was an opportunity lost.

My Final Thoughts (Jerry Springer style)

– Shortly after finishing I swore to Kathleen (as I typically do when I don’t perform as I expect) that I was retiring. No Salt Flats 50, no Ogden marathon. That’s obviously not going to happen. I’m already thinking of how fast I could run Salt Flats.

– The Zion 100k will be on my race calendar next year

Photo Credit: Breein Clark
Photo Credit: Breein Clark

– Britta finished a mere 3.5 minutes behind me and I was happy to see her perform so well on her first race of the season.  I was extremely proud to be part of the HUMR group that represented so well in Zion.

– I need a signed copy of BJ’s Squeaky Cheeks sample card. (#imlovinit)

– I finally got to see Scott Jaime’s movie “Running the Edge” and it was awesome. The thing that stood out most to me was how much Scott’s running (and ability to balance his training with all other aspects of his life) positively impacts his sons. I hope I can be that positive influence and role model for Leo.

– Although I have no illusions about setting any “fastest known times,” I do want to explore some multi day thru hiking. Seeing the film got me especially excited about our Alta Via 1 adventure this summer. I would also like to do the Appalachian Trail through my home state of Pennsylvania… 2015 perhaps?

After Race
Things got strange after the race. Photo Credit: Breein Clark

– We had a great group of HUMRs down in Zion. The post-race festivities continue to be one of the things I look forward to most about these adventures.

– Leo has successfully visited two National Parks before 6 months of age. Hopefully we can hit three more before his first birthday.

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