I run Mesas too apparently.
Ok, here we go, the Zion 100k held in Virgin, Utah. Utah has been finished!
This was held on April 20th, 2018.
Let’s start from the very beginning. This year I had done a few marathons, Surf City being the first and plans to do another beginning of March which ended up being the Little Rock Marathon. My original plan was to use these marathons as prep for my 2nd 50k that I planned to do on my 31st birthday (31 miles for 31 years, clever I thought!) and race that for time, then relax with the Zion 50k, and use those as prep for my first 50 miler in July with Dances with Dirt Devil’s Lake! Then possibly my first 100k in December. Well all that went downhill fast…
I had promised that I would go with my friend Andrea to Zion last year with her, and they offer a few distances: 13.1 half marathon, 50km (31.5 miles), 100km (63.5 miles), and 100 miler ultra marathon. The race is under Vacation Races which typically features races near National Parks and are in lovely places. I had never done a race with them but had been eyeing them as they were ads on my facebook feed at least. We finally managed to communicate to get plane tickets, since we live about an hour apart we used facebook as a means to communicate. I immediately went to register for the race.
Sold out. Wow. Ok. I just paid hundreds for plane tickets, what do I do now? I am surely not going to just come to do the half marathon (and I’m not saying a half marathon isn’t challenging or fun, but I wanted to go in harder than that). Do I…do I sign up for the 100k? I could, and figure things out on how to get back down to the 50k? I was rather freaking out, but just in case the 100k sold out, I signed up for that then and there. I did NOT want to end up doing the half or 100 miler haha. So I emailed the race staff and told them my situation, and wondered if I could just drop to the 50k once I got there. I got a response pretty quickly, and I could drop to the 50k during the race and at the race if I wanted to. The communication with the race staff was excellent. I was pretty pleased! So then I began planning.
If I just didn’t race any of my planned races and added in back to back long runs after those races (and possibly before too), I could get enough training miles in to actually attempt the 100k. And if that plan fell through, I could still drop down. But the longer I planned and more I ran, the more embedded the 100k finish became in my mind and failure was no longer an option. I became determined to actually do the 100k. I was crazy.
I posted my decision on facebook to a smaller fraction of my friends, keeping this on the down low the whole time I was training from February on. I received a message from a friend I had never met, Sonja from the Seattle area, or better known as the Irongranny. She said she would offer to pace me. I was in shock and felt my heart fill up, that someone cared to come help me out selflessly, someone they had never met, and without me asking for a pacer. Quick run down: pacers are usually allowed at ultra distances over 50 miles for at least the last half of a race. They are in charge of keeping their racer in check and getting them to the finish when the going gets toughest. I told her I would love it if she did and then went on to ask Andrea if it was ok if she stayed with us at the airBnB we had reserved (more about that later on). Andrea had never met Sonja either, but it was fine with her. We all sort of knew each other through our running clothes brand Inknburn, which I know you have heard me mention every time I’ve raced if you’ve been following along. Inknburn brought to me my first exposure to a running community online, as I was an ambassador with them previously and racked up a lot of remote online friends, a majority I had never met. I will always be grateful for that. We set up a group chat and planned things out from there.
Training through the Wisconsin winter hit me hard this year. Everything about going outside was so unappealing that I just stayed indoors with the exception of super long runs. This didn’t help much, but at least I got on the stairmaster and did some high percent grade treadmill power hike practice in! If you’ve been following the blog, you know what happened during the prep races… but here is a quick rundown:
Little Rock was freezing cold rain in the 40s. I had forgotten arm sleeves and the temperature was not what it was forecasted and I had nothing to layer with or avoid the rain. It was miserable. I thought I would have luck since it was so far south. Nah. Then the OPSF 50|50 ultra marathon came up.
The weather was horrendous with sleet, hail, snow, and wind with temps in the low 30s at best, and the mud was deep, but not cakey. That was the event where people said it felt like a 50 miler and not a 50k. My luck with weather this year has been worse than bad to say the least. I was listening to the podcast for Becoming Ultra (I ended up gathering quite a few since I drop the 22 hour round trip drive to and from Little Rock instead of flying and needed something to listen to), and they talked a lot about Zion which was useful. They ended up interviewing Salem, the race director, and he spewed a ton of good info. I soaked it in, listening to that podcast a few times. He mentioned this past winter had been warm, and that the predicted temps were going to probably be hot. That got me excited.
But as the forecast closed in on April 20th, the temperature kept dropping and the chance of rain kept increasing, for that specific day. I narrowed my eyes in disbelief. Was this my luck? I continued to watch the forecast like a hawk. I started to prepare for the worst. Predicted weather the week of consisted of a high bouncing between 61 and 68 degrees and rain in the morning and over night. I feared that the rain would produce awful trail condition, as I had heard that the worst thing that could happen there is rain, making the clay mud sticky and hard to navigate through. Ugh, it will be what it will be. Still didn’t stop my endless and almost hourly stalking, which led to me researching weather models from at least 4 different sites. I did dwell on it to say the least.
I would leave my house on Wednesday to head to my friend Andrea’s house…the moment I left, there was a winter storm warning issued. I hoped that the planes would still leave. Wisconsin had a rough winter to put it lightly, or the end was just too much for many who had lived here even to handle. Really, a winter storm warning on April 18? We had just had snow that previous weekend too. We were ALL done with it. Snow became the hush word you didn’t speak of on the trip. I made it to her house, thanks to Richard hubby who sadly had to take off for his grandmother’s funeral (it worked out at least with driving for the most part), and Andrea took me to pick up the girls. Andrea has three sweet very independent girls, two that are twins. They overwhelmed me!
I spent the night and got very little sleep (mainly due to the wake up time of 3am, before butts-o-clock, that’s still late night!), but I hadn’t gotten good sleep the previous two nights due to anxiety I could not turn my brain off from thinking about every last detail that I could not control. The storm dumped over 7 inches of snow on Madison, and only a little less than that where we were. I woke up with a sore throat and sneezed a bit on the plane on the way there…ugh I hope this is just allergies, but Rich had a cold that week and I was fighting it off since Monday. Flight left, and we eventually arrived in Las Vegas where the morning temperatures were in the 60s…a little chilly for Vegas! It was me, just call me Elsa.
We drove the 2 hours out to Virgin, Utah to the race expo (after we gathered some cokes and fruit from the local grocery there for my drop bags). The drive there was pretty amazing as desert revealed the looming mesas. The expo was small-ish but was surprisingly large for a trail race I thought. It was chilly, still in the 60s there and lots of wind and clouds. I picked up my packet and bib and dropped off all my drop bags for the next day, the nerves were getting worse and I worried about where things would end up.
After picking up our bibs and checking out the race swag, we headed 15 mins to the airbnb in Hurricane. This was my first experience with an airbnb too.
There was plenty of space and the porch faced the mesas and an open horse field. This was a win. The hosts did not live there, but their house was in front of the airbnb house. That was nice.
But things had to get done. I had pizza that evening which is not usually my food of choice, but we had had some tasty mexican earlier in Vegas. I just wanted to eat and gather myself for the next day.
Eyeing the weather again, I knew I was in deep. The forecast was calling for low 40s to start with rain starting at 5am. The race began at 6am. I was arguing with myself if I should wear arm sleeves, my altra ambassador jacket (the stash jacket, lightweight), Andrea’s waterproof/windproof jacket, or a combination of them. I finally decided to wear the altra arm sleeves and Andrea’s jacket for the start and reassess at mile 18 when I met up with crew and drop bags for the first time, I didn’t want to get too hot and I remember getting too warm in the altra jacket before during a similar temperature during a 10k the previous year. Andrea and Sonja were crewing me until Sonja picked up with her pacing duties at mile 33. Never again will I think I will get too warm. Never.
Here was the breakdown of the race course…
Start was at Virgin, Utah at the intersection of roads out in the middle of nowhere that had a few buildings. If you kept going down that road, you would end up in Zion National Park. The 100k went out north and headed up a not-as-intense grade single track road (well not as intense as what would come later, I was thankful it was pretty decently graded) up to Flying Monkey (mile 7), and thus the first of three mesas on course. You did a loop up there once you got to the first aid station (mile 13). Upon returning to the first aid station, you headed down, along some nice double and single track, and it brought you out to Dalton Wash, this was the second aid station and the first with crew and drop bags (mile 18). Then you headed up Guacamole mesa which was also nicely graded for the most part and hit Guacamole aid station at the top (mile 22) and did a loop on that mesa. Coming back to Guacamole aid station was mile 30ish and you headed back down to Dalton Wash (mile 33ish) and where you could pick up your pacer! From Dalton Wash, you head out to Goosebump aid station which was on top of Gooseberry Mesa, the hardest climb but the shortest (mile 38ish), you can access drop bags there. From there, you headed out to Gooseberry Point (more about the point later) which ended up at about mile 43 and 44 with a short out and back to the point. From there, you head back to Goosebump for the last time in this giant mesa loop (mile 50ish). Then you head down the mesa the same way you go up for a while, but then it turns off to head to the Virgin Desert, the last aid station (mile 58ish). From there, you head home to the finish on single track and some highway road.
I woke up with an even more sore throat at around 2:40am, my mind buzzing. I wasn’t feeling great at all physically due to the cold symptoms and apparent allergies. I was sick. It caught me. It was what it was and I was going in and go as far as my body would take me.
I was not turning back for anything. I got in a little more zzz’s before getting ready at 4:30am (still waking up before the alarm). I had my pre-race protein bar and some water, the water felt like acid down my throat. Ugh. I tried to keep hush about this to everyone because I felt it didn’t matter. We all arrived at the starting line around 5:30am, half an hour before race start. We all huddled around the fires under the awning near the start. The race director gave a pre-race run down. I had my head light ready. I lined up chaotically as the runners did not want to be in the pouring rain before we had to. Yup, it was raining. It was cold. Every time I exhaled, the cloud obscured part of my view in front of me with the headlamp on. Aye! I filtered in the back end of the pack heading across the starting line and was off. I knew being in the back was my plan because I didn’t plan on running up the first mesa as it was, and was going to take it easy and join the conga line heading up along the tight single track. I think one thing I wish I had gotten to experience was the sunrise, and I would have had the clouds and rain not been prevailing that morning. The gradual climb up to the first mesa was pretty relaxing. But it was odd no one was really talking to one another. Everyone seemed very focused as to what they were doing. I was cold, I was still cold. I wasn’t warming up. I pushed a little once the trail met the road going up the side of the mesa. 3 miles went by very quickly and I don’t remember too much of it. I will say I have never seen so many men peeing along side the road before. Just random males standing there letting it all go. Felt too early for this.
I started taking the tailwind I had in my orange mud endurance pack (2L) and had a gel about 3 miles in, power hiking the hill. My foot did the pins and needles thing again at this point which sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I had on my new (not really broken in at all) Altra Olympus 2.5s, and couldn’t really get my foot out to relieve the pressure. On top of that, I had trail gaiters on too so I couldn’t do what I normally do to help the sensation. I also started to notice 4 miles in my hands were already swelling up. Was I taking in too much salt already with the tailwind and the salt in the food I had had the day before? I couldn’t not take the tailwind because I had to stay hydrated, but my nutrition plan was already failing, and not just because of that, but because it was cold and I didn’t keep up with calories I needed from gel consumption. My hands became very uncomfortable from that point on until mile 29 just about. I reached the first aid station on flying monkey and took watermelon and oranges and left pretty quickly. This is probably part of the reason I did not have a negative split for the whole race…spending little time at the aid stations at the start. Once leaving the road, the narrow trail bumped up and down tiny mini hills (short punches as I usually say on the bike), the rain still falling. The mud was getting stickier. Soon the trail opened up to double track. Passing was more possible here. But the mud got way worse…
The best way I can describe the mud was a sticky brownie batter clay that stuck to shoes and continued to make layers on layers of mud until it was heavy enough to clump off occasionally. This was a learning experience. In my head, I was super discouraged. I was not in a real good place from mile 3 until mile 18. This was one of my worst lows, although no low was as rough as Ironman bike cut off was for me mentally. I was just depressed. The rain, the cold, the wind, the mud; I was like a drowned kitten and sad. If I walked, the mud just kept caking on layers, throwing weight in all different directions when I would pick up my foot to move forward, swinging sometimes to the sides throwing off my center of gravity at times. If I ran, I was burning matches as we say in the triathlon world…you only have so many matches to light for power and once you’re out, it’s hard to get that power back. But if I ran, the mud wouldn’t cake as bad and the mud would fall off faster, but the weight of the mud would still throw my foot in random directions. This was particularly hard on my knees. I scraped mud off at times in vain on rocks and trees. Three steps and the mud was back. At least the mud wasn’t deep. Wait, what? IS IT SNOWING? It was snowing. I was done. I threw my hands up. For crying out loud. This was the desert, it was raining, it was snowing now, and it was COLD. I know, I know, deserts can be cold, but this on wasn’t supposed to be. 😥
I stopped to take one picture up on the mesa as some of the clouds had passed and you could see some of the valley below.
I asked a passing runner to help, and he dropped my phone in the mud with an audible plop. I was sad, picture wasn’t even focused 😦 My only thoughts driving me forward were that my friend Alex from Vegas loved running in the rain and I pictured how happy he would be running in the rain, and how my 50k mud was way deeper and it tried to actually prepare me for this as much as it could, and my pacer was waiting for me. I was then out of tailwind and water by mile 12.
I arrived back at the flying monkey aid station and refilled my water…just water, no more tailwind. My hands were freezing, which they never do even below 30 degrees, and in none of my races was it this bad at these temperatures. I had no gloves, not even in my drop bag still 5 miles away. I was chilled to the bone. I went to use one of the composting toilets (new to me, but they worked and they had toilet paper so I had no complaints), and pulling down my shorts was so painful, I cried a little. My thighs were so cold, and I was already chafing in some not so great parts. I sucked it up and continued out of the aid station, just having some sprite and an orange slice…nutrition was not going well, the cold affected me so much. Not too far off the aid station heading down, a 100-miler guy, came up to me and said “you look cold, do you have a hat?” I told him I was freezing but I will be ok, and I had no hat. He said I needed a hat to help the heat from escaping my head and was very nice and persistent. I appreciate that he was because as much as I didn’t want to take from him, he was right. He stopped and told me to reach into his pocket and grab the dry hat beanie, and I did. He told me to just leave the hat at lost and found at the finish and if I were going to take it that I had to promise him I would finish (I had told him this was my first 100k). I asked for his bib number, and he told me I would not remember it, he was bib 187. I still remember it and his kindness. I don’t think I would have made it if it weren’t for him.
I felt a little better, but heading down the steep end of the trail of the mesa, I started realizing my left knee was bugging me on the downgrades a lot more than it was in the mud. I knew this was probably from the mud swinging my legs around up on the muddy mesa (there was nothing I could have done to prevent that), and it took a large toll early on. I took it easy knowing I had two more mesas to go. But then I saw a rope… Yup, there was the rope I had heard about. It was about a 20 foot drop down slick rock, and you had to use the rope to safely bring yourself down to the trail below. Madness!
I was a little scared of course, but I grabbed hold of dear life and made it down. Somehow this was ok. The trail below was very very narrow and the drop off beside it clear of anything to grab hold of. A group of runners (most doing the 100 miler) asked me where my treking poles were. I told them I didn’t have them. They asked “oh did you just forget them?” I said no. They said, “Oh so they’re at home then!” And I said no again, I didn’t have any at all. They said, “oh.”
I wanted to take a picture, but it was still raining and I didn’t want to waste time or get my phone wet…again. At some point, the trail go so narrow you could only fit the width of one shoe on the path. This was probably where the saying “don’t fall off the mesa” came from. No other trail from that point on was that narrow with such a drop off beside it.
Half way down, the train of runners backed up again as there was no real place to pass. The sun started peaking out, and two of the runners broke out in song “here comes the sun” by the beatles. The sun disappeared almost as soon as it appeared and the rain started again. The bottom of that mesa was probably the best runnable section of the course however, and I made some good time on these double track mountain bike trails. The mud wasn’t nearly as bad, and probably wasn’t clay. There were some more steep/short punch hills. This lead into another section of the course into some trees. Behind the trees were some cows. Did not expect to take a turn and see cows. Soon I came to the one stream crossing. I had heard that you could probably cross this without getting your feet wet, but with the rain, this made that notion impossible.
I came up on two other girl runners would stood there confused at the bank of the stream as one guy passed all of us and headed through the water across. They were debating where to cross and looking for a bridge. I blatantly asked them “have you ever done a stream crossing before?” I did not mean for that to come out sounding rude. They said defiantly “no!” I told them, well just get in and GO. And so I left them and went across. The water was cold and actually felt good against my feet, and got some of the mud off of them. But as quickly as I had taken the mud off, I started on a steep climb up a random hill and the mud returned. I knew I had to run in order to keep my shoes from accumulating mud. My knees were now in not great shape. Down the hill was Dalton Wash.
I heard Andrea yell as I was coming down the hill and my spirits lifted a little as I realized I had made it to my crew! Here I sat down and switched jackets, good thing. I kept the arm sleeves on, bad (I’ll explain). I should have just had both jackets on. I took in some Dr. Pepper and had some fruit cup peaches.
My throat wasn’t having solid food well. I still tried to get in the calories though. I decided to keep filling my pack with plain water and skipped the tailwind because the swelling in my hands just wasn’t going down. I kept skipping all electrolytes. I was kind of sketched out about this. I apologized to my crew for being so late to the aid station, I was behind my planned times. Andrea ran beside me, I felt too slow haha, but I appreciated her running along side me into the aid station. That was exciting.
At this point, I switched shoes and socks. I had a small blister on my 3rd toe left foot, but no big deal, I could deal with it. But I smothered my feet in a fresh coat of baby powder. Grabbed the new socks (and brand new to me, yay nothing new on race day continues…not). I switched over to my old lone peaks because my feet just moved too much in my Olympus ones for the trail I was on. Having a clean pair of shoes on felt pretty ok, but not as great as I had expected. By the time I had made it to mile 18, I felt like I had already run 30 miles. Not a great sign. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But I thought about something I had read: Are you injured? No. Can you keep going? Yes. Then keep going.
I left Dalton Wash aid station with some more gels and headed off to Guacamole up a gravel road. This part of the course was not so steep so I ran a lot of it and started actually using my heart rate at the point as to when to walk and slow down. I upper my normal numbers due to being sick, at slight elevation, and in distress. So my goal was below 158 bpm. Not at 158 bpm? Then keep running because I should be ok even if it painful to continue to run. There was a lot of mental fighting with myself in this section because it wasn’t particularly difficult to navigate. The gravel road turned into a dirt road, THUS a mud road. Yup, the rain started coming down a bit more. The puddles were annoying to run around, but I was determined to keep these shoes as clean as possible for as long as possible because now I didn’t have back up shoes until Virgin Desert at mile 58. The road eventually became steeper as it headed up the mesa. Power walk time. I passed quite a few people during this segment. When I got to the top where the aid station was, I hit a gel and realized I wasn’t taking as much as I should be. I was still cold, and the wind was picking up. This loop at the top of Guac was not really a trail, but more of a point to point to point path that was created at the top of this mesa. It was lollipop style with a stick and pop and the whole thing was basically slick rock.
What my impression of slick rock was before I saw what it was, was that it was (that was a lot of “was’s” sorry) a rock that was slippery and hard to run on because of traction. This was wrong. It was just smooth rock, that looked like giant rock pancakes that someone arranged on top of this mesa. The rain was settling down by now but the clouds remained as the winds picked up even more. I blamed the winds on the lack of trees up here and the fact it was higher up…this wasn’t completely correct, the winds just picked up because of the cold front exiting.
The stick felt like it took forever, but it was more well marked than what was to come. I came up to the “pop” intersection and headed out. Some quick math told me it was not a short loop. Buh. I didn’t think it would take that long, but this is where I started to slow down. And when I slowed down, my body cooled and my mind went with it down the hole. The reason being is that you had to navigate between all the pink flags. It was at this point that I realized I was following pink flags. It was told in the podcast that 1. just walk 10 steps and you should see a flag (this was true), and 2. the place where people usually got lost was not this mesa (it was Gooseberry). Yes you could walk and see the flag, but since there was no real trail up there, you had to stop at each flag and sort of look around for the next flag because the direction you were supposed to go was NOT obvious at all at really any point. I was amazed I never really got lost, but it was frustrating having to literally stop and find the next flag. I was still appreciative that the race took the time to lay out the flags, and understood putting more flags in might have been not only a pain but probably excessive. The clouds around the mesa were rising, and it was stunning. It was like a fog was lifting, and the air was starting to clear up. But the clouds had not yet finished with me. The wind took what was left and spit it into my face while I was on the exposed rock at the top.
By the way, the rock patties were huge, so you could not see from one end of where you were standing more than like 50 feet or so at times, the area was not flat. I learned I was not good at running on slick rock. I got frustrated with my hands so much that even though I was cold, I needed to figure out if the arm sleeves were just too tight and cutting off circulation and allowing fluid to pool in my hands, so I rolled up the tight jacket and torn the sleeves off. It did feel a bit better. But now I was colder, but I knew that would happen. There were also a few places up on Guac where you had to jump across very deep crevasses in the rocks, kind of scary. I ate one of my airheads candy up here. Didn’t quite hit the spot but I was already behind in calories so I sucked it up.
I checked my garmin and found out it was net “uphill” around the pop, so coming back to the aid station, it would be next “down”. I never felt more alone than up on Guacamole. It was so desolate. I never saw any runners and I wondered if I was last (this was very not the case but it seemed like it). Being up there alone made me feel sad too. Anyway, I came back and was very thankful to have reached the stick again, because the pop was awful for me. The stick the second time flew by, and literally felt like half the distance (it was the same distance), but the ground was drier and so everything looked different. I took some time at the porta at the aid station, my thighs still hurt from the cold and I was still wet. Sigh. I took some salt from a plate at the aid station as my hands were still awful and swollen. More orange slices and some coke from this aid station. I was at the marathon distance by this point, 26-27 miles deep.
I headed back down the path I had come up earlier and it was starting to get in better condition with the rain having stopped (finally). Coming down my spirit lifted a little more with the lack of rain and that my pacer would be there waiting for me and I needed to speed up to get there! I bombed the downhill, my knee kind of holding up…it was all or nothing (if I held back my knee would complain). I managed a sub 10 minute mile somewhere in there, and most others averaging between 10-12 min/mi with some walking and watching of the heart rate now that I could do that again. I knew how this road went, or so I thought. I came up on this girl standing to the side of the road saying “you’re almost back! Just down the hill.” I believed her. LOL. It was exactly a mile from where she said “you’re almost there!”…that’s not close! Whatever. My feet were hurting a little by this point, ugh. I will fix them when I get down to Dalton, I told myself.
I arrived back at Dalton and saw Andrea and Sonja waiting, and a few cheers were thrown my way. I was a little nervous about the cut off time (which was actually at 5pm), but I was there at like 3pm or something like that. Past the 50k mark, only the last half of the race to go. I sat down and applied the most liberal amounts of powder on my feet. I had more soda and some grapes. I got some grapes into a plastic baggie I had in my drop bag to take along too. The weird thing about those grapes is that they had the taste of black pepper to me…it was a little jarring. I also had my water refilled here, but I later found out the water was a little chemical tasting, boo. Everything tasted weird except for gels. I was so happy to see everyone though, and gave some hugs. I had at some point stuffed the hat and my headlamp back into my camelback (unknowingly a good thing for later because there was no way to get my headlamp to Gooseberry’s drop bag cause crew cannot access that point). Took a few pictures with Sonja and we were off!
I was still fighting with myself, and Sonja didn’t know I was, but I don’t think I actually came out of my low spot until the top of Gooseberry that I had been in from the top of flying monkey now I think about it. They say in a long ultra distance like this you will have highs and lows, but I think I only hit the one low, but I was there for a very long time. Sonja knew I was having a hard mental time though right away and was trying to force me to move forward more than I wanted to (pushing my heart rate beyond what I had wanted to be at, which was not too logical for what I had been doing before then), and force me to eat and drink when I did not want to. I didn’t feel I needed it.
The sun came out. FINALLY. I admit, the sun being out helped, but I was still cold. Sonja said “I’d like to see you stop and take that jacket off.” I never did, and I do not regret that decision at all. There were periods when we started off the 33 mile mark where I felt a little warm than necessary, but not minutes later feeling chilled when the wind would gust over 25mph. We traveled up and down some steep punches, she helping me learn to time my power hikes to 17 min/mi paces, and trying to run at 13 min/mi paces when possible. My knee was acting up even more now, and I started to dread the descent of Gooseberry. While thinking about all this dread, we had actually started to climb Gooseberry which I didn’t even realize until I was about ¼ of a mile into the wicked steep climb, and all of a sudden asked, “wait, is this Gooseberry?!” I was tired from being pushed through the first miles of being paced from Dalton, and took mini breaks when there were reprieves in the steep slopes, breathing hard going up. I knew this climb was either going to be as bad or a little less worse than the climb I had at mile 23 of my first 50k in Virginia (the death climb, 1.5 miles with 1500 feet of gain; but that climb had none of these reprieves). Also this was at mile 35 or so, quite a few miles further than the 50k in Virginia, and I was way more tired than I was then due to the start of the race destroying my “matches”.
The climb up Gooseberry was rocky, but wasn’t overly scary. I took some pictures, and the mesas over in the distance were covered in….
Whatever, it was sunny now. I nearly thought we were going to get blown off the mesa with the wind though! The climb felt like it took forever, and I lost a lot of time here as my paces crept higher. I knew this would probably be the case, having 25-33 min/mi paces up. Arriving at the Goosebump aid station, I had more fruit and coke. I also realized at this point that I would have needed to put my headlamp in this drop bag before the race if I had wanted it when it got dark later in the race, which wasn’t possible because I needed the headlamp at the beginning of the race (since the race started 50 minutes before sunrise—and with the rain was super dark anyway at the start). My head spun. Oh well, I had my headlamp in my pack still right? I did manage to pack my extra batteries in the drop bag, but I also realized how little I had put in this bag. Not that I needed a lot of the things in all my drop bags, but I liked being over-prepared, and now I knew I had been. The loop on top of Gooseberry mesa was daunting, it was basically a half marathon loop and I knew how long that distance had been taking me. The next aid station was said to be more bare because it was out on the “point” (and I now understand that to be literal, it was the point of the mesa), but it was only like 4 miles away and that meant it wasn’t half way. My plan was to try and get around the loop before sundown because I DID NOT want to go down the mesa in the dark. This was a driving force up there. Oh Sonja, the good pacer that mom’d me to eat and drink. I started to take more gels, and learned more when I needed them at this point, not the best point in the race to start, but better late than never. Up here, being all mountain bike trails, there was a unique half moon shape ramp of sorts for the bikers we had to maneuver over…neat, kind of like a kids’ jungle gym. Mile 42 went by. We followed the mountain biking white dots along the slick rock and the pink flags along the trail portions. This mesa was mixed slick rock and trails. Not nearly as bad as Guac, but still not easy to navigate. Some points along this loop took longer because we were trying to figure out where the trail went (much like Guacamole). I was glad not to be alone. I knew from the podcast that you shouldn’t depend on the white dots, that the course did not always follow them, but they’d be close sometimes and overlap. We reached Gooseberry point aid station in what seemed like forever. Sonja created a chasing game for me, where I was trying to overtake certain runners in front of me. It was ok, and kept me occupied. I always felt kind of bad because I would get super focused on what I was doing and not be real chatty with her.
The aid station at Gooseberry point was not, in my opinion, sparse for supplies at all. They had the composting portas, honey stingers, water, electrolyte drink, fruits, and solid foods, soda, and probably more I didn’t notice. I took the opportunity to use the porta here, and still no real GI upsets yet. But my skin felt much better this time around. Sonja was nervous for me because I wasn’t drinking enough. I felt fine and did know my body and how much I should be peeing during an endurance event. But hardly anyone believes me that I’m ok. I’ve taught my body to not always expect hydration and how to work with limited supply over the past 2-3 years (not advisable for anyone, just noting). Here I took some of my salt chews for the first time and some Motrin, and an extra gel. I had previous tried to use KT tape for my knee (which felt great for half a mile), but it all fell off pretty quickly. Willing to try anything to make my knee not be puffy and unhappy. The trail from Gooseberry Point went literally out to the point. It was only half a mile out and back, but I got close to the end, and there was a giant separation of the rocks, like to me felt like the point was disconnected from the mesa rock and there was nothing but h e double hockey sticks down between those rocks.
I’m putting it lightly because I do not handle heights well with vertigo and all the red fire alarms going off in my head. My legs started to lock up as I edged closer to the turn around, and I started breathing too shallow and quickly…have to prevent a full on panic attack now. I didn’t go around the flag that was positioned at the very edge of the point on the mesa with hundreds of foot perpendicular drop offs on EVERY side but from where you came from. It’s ok, I got lost later on course and made up the whole 20 feet I didn’t make by not going around the flag. Sonja helped me back across the devil crack in the mesa, and prevented my death by holding on to me as we made our way back to the aid station. Crisis adverted (and I mean I was putting my hand up to my face to block my view of what was around me).
Grabbed some more honey stingers just in case as we left the aid station for the last 7 miles of the large loop. I started to feel good here. I started banging out sub 16 min miles super focused on beating sundown and the end of the race cut off. Although there was only one hard cut off (5pm at Dalton, also called the grim reaper), the race cut off was 20 hours (and that was also wrong, it was 22 hours), and nothing pushes me more, even if anxiety induced, than beating cut offs. I pushed and pushed through a lot of pain. All these miles from Dalton Wash on with my pacer were all new to me and new territory, new pain to fight through. I celebrated when I got sub 16, I was bummed out when I didn’t. But I kept moving and I was moving pretty good. I kept hitting the gels and getting in my calories, finally, all thanks to Sonja. I even made it down to a few sub 14 min/miles during this segment. Along the way we met up with one of my target runner passes. He told us he didn’t have much more to give and was going to follow us the best he could. He kept up! We talked a lot, well mainly Sonja and him, but I listened and it kept me occupied. He followed us all the way into the aid station back at Goosebump. This was the 50 mile mark for me, something that should have been monumental, but I had to keep going and pushing through to the end, half a marathon of miles left in the whole race.
The sun had set. I had run to the aid station past dusk. Sun set was at 8:42pm. I did my best. My words for myself was “let’s go”. Dunno why. But every time I needed to get going, that’s what I said out loud.
Last refill until Virgin Desert. More coke, more gels refilled. Put on the headlamp that WAS in my pack (yay) and put the extra batteries in my pack. While Sonja was refilling her goods, I messed with the glow stick bracelets I had bought for the night time. Well, I managed to get two of them working! The mainly just wanted to snap apart. I was a little bummed about it, but I didn’t want to waste more time, as it was getting cold now. Sonja gave me her light jacket to put over my jacket I already had on, no regrets for staying warm. I was very thankful.
(Not many more pictures because it was dark…)
We left the aid station, and headed down the dark path of Gooseberry mesa. The mesas were DONE. But on the way down, went much faster than I anticipated even though we were walking/shuffling down the steep grade. That was nice. My knee was killing me slowly, and I ended up falling backwards here slipping on a loose rock that could not have really been prevented. Hurt my hand and I thought it was bleeding, but wasn’t. I think my body wasn’t prepared for that pain since it was already managing massive amounts of dissimilar pain everywhere else. It was funny because several people (from the expo to the race) made comments about my temporary tattoo I had placed on my left calf that I had gotten for my recent birthday asking if I was bleeding– they were red and pink butterflies. I remember when I put the Phoenix-Mesa (lol mesa) marathon tattoo on my left ankle and every time I looked down, I thought I was bleeding. Guess it was everyone else’s turn. At this point, I had forgotten I was sick.
At some point during the climb down, we split off from where we had come up, not sure where though, and I got freaked out a little because I didn’t know if we were on course, and I most certainly didn’t want to end up on the 100 miler course (which took a small detour along the 100k course off to one last mesa and then made a few small loops around the Virgin Desert aid station later on). The course rolled up and down dry dirt mounds, no real steep punches anymore. Gee this would be real fun on a mountain bike! It was pitch black out there, and we could see the top of the mesa where we came from, noted by the lights from the aid station at Goosebump. I kept getting weirded out by the moon rising because I kept thinking it was another runner with a headlamp. The trail was pretty easy to navigate at night, smooth and not very rocky through this section leading up to Virgin Desert aid. There’s not too much to talk about here because there wasn’t anything to see. We just kept soldiering onward in the dark. At one point, we turned out headlamps off to see the stars. Also we shined out lights out in the darkness and saw some cool rock formations. I finally got to talking more. I was feeling ok. I did get a side stitch somewhere along the way before reaching the aid station that I had to walk to control.
The Virgin Desert aid station was well lit, wow 58 miles in, what are these numbers. I didn’t put much in my drop bag here. I wish Andrea had been there with my pullover, I could have used another layer to keep warm because once I stopped here, I started to lock up and freeze and knew I needed to get out and move on. I know Sonja was not too happy about this because she needed things there and wanted more time. I used the porta one last time here and had a chocolate milk. I thought this would be a good idea. It didn’t exactly sit well, but it didn’t do any harm…so next time, no milk til after running. Taking my pack off for a minute with the sweat that had been under it drove the cold into my bones. I decided to not switch shoes here to road shoes (knowing we had some road miles coming at the end). When we left, we were both so cold we couldn’t run. We then forced ourselves into a power walk and then run to get warm. I put my borrowed hat back on. We cracked open some hand warmers. This part of the trail was very dusty and rocky. I started stumbling on random rocks I knew were there. Picking up my feet became hard. We walked when it became too rocky, to help prevent falling in the last 5 miles. We reached “the road”, which was just a dirt and gravel road. We heard the Virgin River flowing, somewhere out there. Then the road turned into rough pavement…ouch, this actually felt very awkward and hurt the padding of my feet upon running on it. This ended up feeling like the longest stretch of the course. This road let out to the main highway, but not before we had to cross a cattle grating. This was also very awkward because I did NOT want to risk falling here and with my small feet, they didn’t span comfortable across the bars. I took this super carefully.
Getting on the highway, we started making bets on where the end was where we would turn into the finish. The road rose and fell with the hills some more, gotta get in those last several feet of gain! There were some questions as to where the trail markers were, but we never went off course. As we climbed the last hill, we saw where the end was, past the one, ONE, lamppost in the whole area. I knew I was going to ugly cry. I didn’t know if I was going to make it ever. I turned onto the last street and Sonja ran ahead of me with my phone and positioned herself in front of the finish line next to Andrea as I went across the finish: 19 hours and 10 minutes.
Right now, I cannot believe I even went that far. It was twice the distance I had ever run, 64 miles. Even looking at the number as I type it seems unbelievable. I cannot thank Andrea enough for this, for being there for me, helping me without question during the race, always being positive.
I cannot thank my pacer Sonja enough for literally everything she did for me, even after the race, being a spring chicken, not even phased from doing a 50k, and helping me recover. I would have not gotten through it without you. Also thanks to #187 who lent me your hat, I’ll always remember your kindness. Thanks to the Altra Red Team for believing in me and making it seem like an ultra marathon is reasonable thing to just do, you guys are truly inspirational. Without Altra, I probably wouldn’t have all my toenail intact, yeah, that’s right, I have all my toenails, they are fine, and my feet are in great shape. I got no significant blisters other than the one I had early on. People were simply amazed by the state of my feet post race (as I love my oofos recovery flip flops). Thanks to Inknburn, not only for the 6” shorts (and the singlet no one ever saw I was wearing under all my layers), but for the community of people I have been able to meet and connect with. Can you imagine? Three strangers meeting up for Zion helping each other out?! It’s incredible. (My plan before and after race below)
The next day (Sunday for me since I finished past midnight), we went on a 4.8 mile hike in Snow Canyon. It was rough going for me. Made it back home early Monday morning at 3am. Still feel super stiff in the muscles, and I am slowly getting better. I still can’t get up and down without assistance from my arms, but it’s to be expected. I don’t know what direction I will go from here. I need to see how recovery goes and how my knee is reacting. I tore my left meniscus twice, once in 2007 and again in 2011, and I never got surgical repairs done. I haven’t had many issues, but the swelling does happen occasionally. I think everything going on there is swelling, but I will take it easy and see.
The idea of 100 miles is in the back of my mind, but it’s not something I think feasible for me personally right this minute. I need more experience I think. I have been considering my 2nd Ironman in Cozumel. But I don’t know if going back to tri’s this year or sticking with Ultras will be the plan. I know I have some time to think and I will be back after my next race, which is Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin relay in early June.
Ending notes: I lived in New Mexico near Albuquerque for almost 4 years in grad school, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with how the desert worked. I knew the nights were always much cooler, the humidity was low (well apart from the rain I ran in), and all about the sun and risk of burning (although I personally did not have to worry about it, again, see rain). I won’t forget you any time soon, mesas.