Sights Set on Zion
Do you ever look back on an experience and simply cannot believe it turned out as it did? It is as if your fears or your pre-imagined version of it produced just as powerful an effect in mind and memory as the actual experience, and so traces of it remain even after the event has transpired. This sometimes happens for me, and it did with Zion.
I felt this race was doomed to turn out badly for me in some way. I had had bad premonitions before it. More than this, I had had actual warnings. I knew the weather had the potential to sour and make conditions — as the race directors had implied — um, unmanageable. I knew that there would be dangers of a variety of which I was unaccustomed. I dreamt of falling, not fearing the landing so much as the wide open space, that…that void. Falling into that vastness of open sky.
The imagined Zion loomed.
Zion is a name given to many things, the hill in Jerusalem upon which was built the City of David, its another name for Israel, a utopia, a heaven. I am not a religious person. For me it was a name for a race I wanted to run, and a pretty tourist destination to which I had never been. But I have a strong liking for things that are old. In them I find an aspect of the sacred. The name Zion is old indeed, and I couldn’t help but be drawn to this.
I read that the National Park had come to be called Zion in 1918, that before it had been called Mukuntuweap, a Paiute word meaning “straight canyon” (so straight forward), and that the change had its roots in ethnocentrism. The park director thought the native word would discourage visitors, so they adopted the name the Mormons gave it. When I first saw it, I thought the Mormons had chosen well. Those sheer walls, those soaring cliffs, that awe-inspiring beauty at every glance and angle. Surely this was about as close as one could come to an earthly idea of Heaven. It produced in me a strong emotional reaction. But I craved the cool, the rational, that practicality of thought demonstrated by the Paiute in their naming.
Zion for me was also a moment in time. I would be then as well as there. In my addled, pre-race head, I reached for it as if it were something bright and shining, yet also cold and unwelcoming, something pure and real beyond the imagination. It was itself the imagined void.
Like its cliff walls, Zion loomed.
I cannot explain why some races are like this for me. The last race I felt this way about was the Terrapin Mtn. 50k in 2011. It was for some reason unknown to me, something special, and so it was with Zion. Perhaps it is something of the mystery conjured, of not really knowing what I was in for.
Approaching my Zion experience, many things happened. I trained. I readied. The logistics fell in place. My husband and I would make a mini vacation of the trip and set a day or two before and after the race to hike and explore. Plane tickets procured, reservations set, gear and drop bags packed, etc., the preliminaries were uneventful.
Then came the email. The race directors said rain was likely. Rain in southern Utah has a unique effect on the ground, they explained. The clay mud is sticky, yet slippery. Deferment to the 2017 race was offered. Some took it. Mostly the 100k runners, but not the 100-mile runners, I was told later. We are a special lot, I think. “Bring it on,” I challenged the rain gods. Then, I wrote to the ultra runners I know who knew about Utah mud. What would they recommend? They gave me the facts and laid out the scenarios and flip flopped a bit in their advice. But it painted a clearer picture, and it wasn’t pretty.
Then another email came from the directors with contingency plans should we decide to run and the rain should happen. The would monitor the conditions at key points on the course and reroute and/or shorten it if necessary. It was enough. I decided.
“Bring it on,” again I challenged. The rain gods must have heard me.
In my head, the void grew. Again I dreamt I fell into the open sky. Only this time I landed hard.
Pre-race anxiety it a bitch. But at least I knew to expect it, and that like a kidney stone, it would eventually pass. And usually, at least for me, the worse the anxiety, the better the race experience. Chock it up to weird fluctuations in brain chemistry, I guess. I tried to go about my business as if I weren’t thinking about being swallowed by an enormous void. “Nothing to see here, move along… Keep calm and carry on…”
At last we arrived at that landscape of unforgiving beauty that is Zion. My husband is the best in helping me down off these mental cliffs. We had such fun exploring the park before the race. Trails were hiked and run, tourists tolerated, canyons explored, formations photographed, naked feet dipped in clear icy pools. Anxiety ebbed.
Night before the race, in a quiet lodge, to the gentle burbling of the Virgin river and in the shadow of the one hundred and fifty million year old, water-etched sandstone walls, I slept like a rock.
Morning view from the lodge window.
Race day happened.
I drifted through the morning motions without much thought from pillow to start. The darkness was warm, the strangers friendly. The smell of wood smoke brought on memories of endless camps, of tent living and hippy gatherings. I relaxed and chatted with the strangers, made acquaintances.
Then in the darkness we began to move across the dusty, undulating valley floor in a snaky glow of LEDs, approaching the faint black shadow of our first mesa. I tried hard to keep my footfalls soft. “Like water on stone,” I thought, and pictured the small, unassuming, now creek-sized Virgin river that had cut through the canyon. “Two hundred million years of this and I could form my own canyon,” I reasoned. Then suddenly we were at the mesa, and up the trail we went, climbing out of the darkness and into the dawn.
A shot from the 2015 climb up the Flying Monkey Trail
“This trail looked much worse in the video,” I said to no one in particular. A couple of women I was trailing who were chatting laughed, “That’s just what I was thinking!” said one. She was in the Navy–said the best thing about it was getting to see the world. Only sadly most of the world is water. We all laughed some more, a bit giddy, fresh and ready for hours of running. I skipped the helpful rope added to one steep section and scrambled up with hands and feet in the dust. Glad I hadn’t looked down. When I saw that spot coming down the trail later, I made no hesitation in grabbing for the rope. For the most part, the course footing was safe. But now and again we edged close to precipitous drops. One had to be careful.
This section was known as the Flying Monkey Trail, supposedly named for the use of apes in testing cockpit escape systems in fighter jets on the mesa during the 1950’s. I wondered if any of the test apes had dreamt beforehand of flying into that void. Hopefully they had all survived. Or then again maybe it was better if they hadn’t. I cannot imagine the psychologically devastating effects those tests had on the survivors. Poor creatures. Or maybe there was something instinctually natural in the experience of flight for all primates, who for eons moved so freely about the forest canopy, something freeing. But the sheer speed… I shook the thoughts from my head and dug in, focusing instead on the climb.
Up on the mesa we hit our first aid station and then just more sandy, undulating road, though more rutted than the one on the valley floor. The road twisted and turned among scrub pines, pinyons and boulders. There were bits and even large pieces of petrified wood scattered about, and tracks of some bovine variety on the road. It was other-worldly for me. I tried on a solid pace that I thought seemed reasonable, but soon found myself huffing and puffing, never considering we were running above 5000 feet. Though we had but 6 miles to go up here, it seemed to take a while. I warmed up and removed layers. Eventually, we hit the aid station again, and made our way back down the mesa. From this direction, the views were amazing. The valley stretched for miles in all directions, framed by more mesas, some of which I mused we would climb later in the day. Going down, the steepness of the trail became more apparent, and it was hard to push the pace. I made my way down gingerly. On similar terrain in other races I would have pushed harder in order to make time, but the drop offs here were too daunting.
Nearly 2000 feet of descent later, we were moving across the valley floor again along the hilly BMX road to the next climb.
I thought about race courses back East in Virginia, and how they differed from this. Much of this course was more runnable than the rocky, technical trails to which I had grown accustomed. And though I had been on steeper, longer climbs back home, there wasn’t much sustained running at elevation as there was here on the mesas. Back home, there were stunning views from those highly eroded Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Massanutten ridge lines. But here, you could much better see the evidence of time on the landscape, and for many more miles in all directions–a goodly portion of the course at once, even. What would seem like it should have been daunting to me was instead invigorating and liberating–to witness all of that distance and time.
The landscape kept changing, and I fell in love with the geography to a degree that I had not anticipated. I questioned every other runner about the surroundings with the enthusiasm of a 6-year-old, but being new to the area as much as I, most of them just shrugged. I began to daydream of having my own personal geologist to run with–someone to answer all of my questions (of course he was dashing and had a dry wit and may have sounded a bit like Sir David Attenborough). Funny things running long will do to the mind.
One of the next sections was through rounded hills of what appeared to be chunky, black basalt surrounded by sagey greenery punctuated by red and yellow wildflowers. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the Irish landscape. Something about the igneous formations piqued my interest more so even than the eroded sandstone layers, and that interest lingered. Later my husband began to count how many times I casually threw out the word basalt. Admittedly I wanted to take a column or two of it home with me. I had never seen it before, but something about it felt so familiar.
For the second climb, rather than single track, we reached the Guacamole mesa via a steep road. It proved runnable, and I was grateful to be feeling so strong on the uphills–a new development for me (ah, those good hill repeats! thanks, coach!).
On the top of the mesa was a sea of rounded mounds of weathered sandstone called slickrock–which turns out is not really slick, but still not so easily traversed. It reminded me of another place I had been–Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, but those rocks were at sea level and comprised of 415-million-year-old Devonian granite. That was a world away and another time. Though I didn’t really know much about this surface at the time, I had the impression that this was once a sea bed evidenced by the rounded pebbles scattered everywhere, and what looked like water marks and rounded holes in the stone. I marveled at the thought of the sea level being some 5–6000 feet higher.
Later I read that in the middle Triassic (that’s 235–247 million years ago when we think the world looked like this), the sea bed that later became western Utah was forced upward along the Wasach and Hurricane fault lines. Then the area had become sand dunes (these dunes are what formed Zion Natl. Park) and later during the Jurassic, became a flood plain. That hardened and this rock surface was known as the Chinle Formation, a conglomerate called Shinarump. A lot more happened in the millions of years that followed. The land rose and fell, the area became a shallow lake. Eventually it eroded back to that layer that was created during the Triassic, and into those hard sandstone mounds and little quartzite pebbles and loose sand that we were running on. Those little quartzite pebbles visible everywhere that had been deposited during the Triassic and later survived the erosion dated back to 500–1000 million years ago. Damn. Old pebbles.
There were all kinds of geological goodies up here, including more petrified wood left over from when a forest grew after the sea was forced up and became highland, then later flood plain. And there were even dinosaur fossils. Wished I had had time to look. After the race, I wanted to visit Gooseberry, (the next mesa we ran that was similar to Guac, but more spectacular) with my husband, but the weather conditions made it inaccessible. Like so many places, I realized, had I not been running long, I would never have seen it.
Here on this petrified golf course of sandstone slickrock, I met up with a merry band of runners from northern California, Jesse, John and Chuck. Jesse and his wife Jenni I had met the day before at the race expo, and now he remembered me. We unintentionally matched pace and I kept falling in and out with them. They were clearly trail-running pals, ribbing one and other, and telling lively stories of past runs. Eventually they asked me if I wanted to join up with them. Sure, why not? They were proving stellar company. I felt like I had already known them forever. I was in.
On both the Guacamole and Gooseberry mesas we were following mountain bike trails that were marked by white dots painted intermittently on the rock . We navigated the pathless, meandering course over the rocks carefully–marker to marker, pink flag to streamer, to white dot to rock stack. At one point on Gooseberry we got off trail and met up with runners coming from another direction and we all had to stop and figure out which way to go on the course. No body wanted to run the loop again. The weather had been a bit humid, but pretty great up until then. Now the rain was visibly headed in and tensions grew. We all reasoned through and found our way back to the aid station in good time. The team work of strangers can be a beautiful thing.
I borrowed Jesse’s photos of us on Gooseberry trying to figure out which way to go. Note the rain in the distance, and then below.
Back at the Guacamole aid station, the Cali crew took off quickly, and John gave me a yell they were headed out. I was having issues filling my water, and had to leave later. (I’m going to design a new water bladder. Somebody needs to! None of them open and close easily.) Coming down the road (I like to fly down the hills and make some time), I passed them. It had been humid up on the mesa, and I was soaked with sweat. Now, the wind was picking up so I let out my matted braid to dry my hair out. A storm was moving in and the wind was lifting dust up off the road in clouds. I put my hair up and pulled my buff up over my face.
The road weaved through pasture here and barbed wire, fenced-in fields of cacti and huge, squarish boulders that looked to me like they had tumbled off the edge of the mesa. Tumble weeds rolled across the road under the fences. Then back through the sage and black basalt hills we weaved, and up a small but steep climb, back onto the road that lead into the Dalton Wash aid station (this time, at mile 30.5) The merry band from Cali caught up with me on the road here, and we rolled in together. It was clear to me from here that I had become part of their team, and would likely be sticking with them. No closer friendships are made than those formed on the trail, I am convinced. Especially when conditions get rough and thoughts turn from racing to survival.
Jesse in the back, Chuck center, me on the right (John in the front, just off camera)
We were making good time. From here, we crossed the valley floor again. The road was more hilly than our last valley crossing and we took our time, anticipating the climb to come up the Gooseberry mesa. Though only around 1600 feet, it is particularly steep. There were a couple sets of ropes to help with the steepest sections, and I didn’t hesitate to make use of them. For me, this climb called for short breaks here and there to get the heart rate down. These proved both good and bad at giving me a nice pause to check out the view, both breathtaking and a little terrifying. There was a good view of the Moenkopie formation here, another Triassic formation of red and pink and white striped layers of eroded sandstone with plenty of undulations and skirting.
I was feeling pretty good, so I lead the charge for a few stretches. I love climbs. John and Chuck had the aid of poles and Jesse had the edge of being the youngest in the group and also having the most positive disposition of anyone I believe I have ever met–next to his wife, Jenni so I did my best to contribute when my energy was good. John ran the course last year, and it seemed he remembered everything in great detail–a serious boon, and Chuck spent a great deal of his mental energy calculating and recalculating our finish time based on the time it was taking us to finish each section and the mileage accumulation marked by aid stations. None of us were wearing mileage trackers and we all had a good laugh about it. I typically do calculations like this too when I am running, but I was using all of my mental energy (and probably glycogen) to get up the mesa at this point.
At the immediate top of of the Gooseberry mesa climb, we rolled into the Goosebump aid station. We would pass through here three times–provided all went as planned. (Jesse noted later that it was aptly named–as it was always freezing there.) The wind whipped over the mesa ledge here, and the station had a little fire going. We all grabbed some dry or warmer layers, grabbed food and huddled briefly around the fire. I can’t remember now if it had started raining then. The rain had started to fall off and on, but only lightly, so I never really noticed when it was there or not. It made for cooler temps, kept the sun off my translucent, northern-gened skin, and didn’t create a hazard in such small amounts, so I was grateful for it. So far, so good.
We had a good 12-mile loop on the Gooseberry mesa to follow–complete with a little out-and-back to a point where we had to punch our number bibs to prove we’d been there. The topography here was much like the Guacamole mesa, but the drops were so steep, and the path close to some of them. I was beginning to get used to it a little.
There were plenty of other runners out on the mesa and mountain bikers as well. A few others joined our group for stretches, including Taka, from Kyoto. He told me a little about running there. The heavy humidity, the beautiful temples. His eyes lit up when he talked about it. There were so many places I wished I could run. It was great to be able to share others’ experiences, even only in imagination.
The loop was long, but the point was just stunning! It reminded me a little of the rocky outcroppings on the eastern trails, but times a thousand. The sheer vastness, the open and flat valley floor 2000 feet below that stretched for miles and miles. I tried to photograph it, but could not come close to capturing that vastness. Here’s someone’s mountain biking video of it that shows a little of the approach and the view in each direction. And us…
Yutaka, Dani, John, Chuck and Jesse on Gooseberry Point
We still had some mileage to lay down from here, so we pressed on. When we hit the Goosebump station again, we were nearly half way and still making good time. Taka split off from us here, and now it was just four of us again on what felt like a long stretch but only 6 miles out to Grafton Mesa. The rain was starting off and on again, and the going was slow as we used up the last of our sunlight.
We came into the Grafton mesa aid station around 8pm. I had no idea what we were in for next. Navigating the meandering trails at Grafton after dark was a bear, and I realized that had I been traveling alone at this point, I might still be there trying to find my way out of the rocks and prickly cacti. Here Chuck– and therefore the group–picked up a pacer, James, so our little posse grew again and now had a renewing boost of energy. Chuck and John took turns leading and kept us on track, down the steep climb in the dark to the cemetery aid station. My stomach had been holding up pretty well despite all of the sugary gels I’d been feeding it, but now at mile 58, in the middle of the night, it began to get a little queasy. The volunteers gave me some broth and rice and it hit the spot. Stellar volunteers at every station! God bless them, out there taking risks with us in the foul weather! Then we moved quickly as possible back up the steep trail, our last climb, to the top of the mesa, and round that maze of rocks, scrub pines and cacti back to the Grafton mesa aid.
We wasted little time there, and not long after we rolled out, I heard a sound off to the left out across the inky blackness that I knew at some point became nothing but open air and a long drop to the valley–something that sounded faintly like a train. And all it once it hit me. “The rain is coming!” I hollered, and we all scrambled to suit up in little windbreakers. It began to pour, and the road instantly turned as slick as black ice. Now I worried. I turned to John: “Geezus, how are we going to get off the the mesa?” He said we would find out when we reached the aid station. I was putting the cart before the horse. First we had to get back to Goosebump. Just off the the slick road in a tiny parking area, we soon found Jesse’s wife Jenni, their kids and their friend Laura, who were all crewing for Jesse and the boys. The roads were so hazardous, they weren’t able to meet them at Grafton, so they had been waiting up the hill along the road in a section that was just a bit more navigable. They had been having adventures of their own just trying to find access to the runners, driving on the slick roads and helping others out of jams. I can’t say enough kind things about Jenni. If there are angels on earth, surely she is one. By far one of the sweetest, kindest, most giving, loving, happy, energetic and fun people I have ever met–and all who know her contest to this–she now broke out some clear plastic ponchos and hand warmers for all of us, just when I was beginning to think that we were doomed to hypothermia from the combination of being soaked to the skin and having to move glacially over the slick mud. The ponchos were just enough to keep us warm. I didn’t even need gloves or hand warmers. I really think mine saved me.
I found myself leading here for a stretch–just trying to find a firm trail with traction through the mud. In the wee hours of the morning, I tend to find my best energy. When all others are flagging, I’m often hitting a second wind. Dunno why. Typically, I’m an early to bed, early riser. I was determined now to set a good pace through the mud and get us back to Goosebump aid (provided there was anyone left there when we arrived). It was hard to know what to expect in these conditions, but I felt the directors wouldn’t leave us stranded. A few big-tired 4-wheelers passed us, and we had to move to the side of the road. This instantly got us into the sticky mud that weighted our shoes. It was frustrating. But we shook it off, and confined to the crinkly oases created by our little poncho bubbles, we trudged on in relative silence.
Eventually, we rolled into the station. The good news was the rain had done less damage here, and the trail was navigable. I lead the charge down the mesa, determined to press us on. Throughout we’d all been looking out for one and other. When someone’s energy would flag, we’d offer encouragement. We reminded each other to drink water often. We took turns taking the lead, and now at last it was mine. John offered me his poles, and when I declined (I’m a klutz with poles), said “I was afraid you’d say that.” It made me laugh. I felt sturdy and clear-headed and set what I felt was a safe and steady pace down the mesa, enjoying the little rope section, and honestly feeling ready to run the whole way back.
The valley floor was muddy, but not as bad as it had been on the mesa. We moved steadily then on toward the last aid station, Virgin Desert, where we were to run three short loops and then bring her home. The rain came off and on and the road conditions got worse then better then worse again. We talked about what we were going to do at the station as if it were an anticipated vacation: meeting crew, getting warm food, dry socks, etc. All the creature comforts. With the mud and rain, it took a long time to cover 7.5 miles, and when we finally arrived, everything was wet from the rain. I changed socks and some layers, dropped my trash and picked up some gels. Just then, the director announced that we had been ordered off the trails because of the hazardous conditions. An alternate route mentioned before the race in an email would become a shortened but official finish. We had to forgo the loops and instead follow the road out and then onto the highway for several miles to the finish. The course was shortened for most of the field by about 15 miles. It was disappointing, but with the hazardous conditions, it only made sense.
We trudged along the highway in the rain as the dawn came on, deciding at some point that since the race had been a team effort, we should all finish together. No one would honor my idea to sprint, though. I think my feet were in better shape than others.’ So we came across the muddy, rainy finish line linked arm in arm and then squeezed in for a group hug. There is simply nothing quite like finding trail family so far from home.
Later, I was emailing with one of the directors, and he wrote about some of the problems they’d had. He also mentioned something else that hit home for me, so I asked if I could share his words:
“It’s funny the races that are the most memorable are when something crazy happens, usually weather! Last year we had 6 inches of fresh snow on our Grand Canyon race in mid May! We all remember it! Bryce had one of the most intense lightning storms and people still talk about it! Zion will go down as one of the most extreme ever! Crew stuck in the mud…getting the aid station transport vehicle stuck in a ravine, etc.” — Matt Anderson
The race directors had handled the challenges in a smart and stellar fashion, and despite the perils, we all came out safely. Though it was a little disappointing to miss a small section of the course, we would-be 100-mile finishers still buckled and qualified for Western States. They modified the stats on Ultrasignup a few times because of the divided field, and at one point I landed as first female for the 100 mile “alt” group. “Never before, and never again,” I laughed to myself. Only in such a fluke set of circumstances could that happen. Now, I’m ranked as #2. All-in-all, they are just numbers and after this experience, one could see how very arbitrary they really are. Exploring such an amazing place, and making such good friends of the trail-running variety were experiences beyond compare.
Cool detail: the Zion 100 buckles are each unique and include items found along the course. The one I chose has petrified wood.