The Zion Canyon Half Marathon

My legs were shaking, my heart felt like it was about to pound out of my chest and I felt myself start to grip the chain that I was holding onto even harder than I already had been. When you’re standing on the edge of an open cliff and the drop is over 1000 feet, the worst thing you can do is look down. But for some reason I felt compelled to and that was almost the end of my Angels Landing experience at Zion National Park in Utah….

Before I finish that story though, let’s turn the clock back a little bit and talk about why I would even think about standing on the edge of a cliff that was that high up in the first place.

About six months ago, I decided that I wanted to run a race in Utah as part of my 50 states goal. I originally looked at the Salt Lake City Marathon, which also looks like a nice race, but a friend suggested that I check out the Zion Canyon Half Marathon, which is about a month earlier. I had never heard of this race, but when I saw that it featured a point-to-point course literally goes right through the middle of Zion Canyon, I couldn’t resist. I signed up for the race as soon as registration opened and by the time I was ready to make the trip I had been looking forward to it for what felt like forever. And for a good reason too: with the possible exceptions of Anchorage, Alaska and Sedona, Arizona, the Zion Canyon Half was probably the most scenic race I’ve ever done.

For anyone that’s not familiar with Zion, it’s the oldest national park in Utah. Zion National Park is smaller than a lot of the other national parks (about 229 square feet total) and a little more remote, but it also boasts some of the most amazing scenery that you’ll find anywhere in the United States. The most well known feature of Zion National Park is Zion Canyon, which was carved by the Virgin River in a similar process to the way the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon. Zion National Park also includes Kolob Canyon as well as a number of mountains, buttes, mesas, monoliths, rivers, slot canyons, and natural arches. The Great Basin, Mojave Desert and Colorado Plateau all converge in Zion National Park, which creates a number of different types of environments that can be found at various points throughout the park (desert, riparian, woodland, and coniferous forest being the most widespread). The park is also home to over 400 different animal species.

The Zion Canyon Half Marathon is a relatively new race. It was the first race ever run in a series created by an organization called Vacation Races. Since the initial Zion Canyon Half Marathon in 2013, the Vacation Races organizers have added seven additional races in places like Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains. If the others are anything like Zion, these are probably some of the prettiest races that anyone will ever do.

Zion National Park is in a remote location in the southwest corner of Utah. The closest city with an airport is St. George, which is about 40 minutes away, but the St. George Airport is a smaller regional airport, so if you want to fly into it your flight options will most likely be pretty limited (and expensive). So if you don’t live in the area and you’re planning on flying, your best bet will be to fly into either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and drive the rest of the way. The drive from Vegas is about an hour shorter than the drive from Salt Lake City, but it’s still roughly 3 hours so regardless of where you’re coming from, be prepared for a road trip. Despite being long, the drive is fairly straightforward though: I-15 to Route 9 East and then you can follow Route 9 right through the middle of the park.

The closest town to Zion National Park is Springdale, UT (this is also where the finish line of the race is). There are a few suggested hotels on the race website, but if you look around, you can find others in Springdale that might be a little less expensive. Springdale is a small town that mainly caters to tourists who visit the park, so while you’re there, you’ll find a lot of hotels, restaurants and shops selling gems, artwork, and other Zion Canyon themed merchandise.

Another option is to stay in Mount Carmel Junction, which is on the opposite side of the state park from Springdale. Mount Carmel Junction is a lot smaller (only a handful of hotels and maybe one or two restaurants) so on the surface, it might not be as desirable of a location to stay in but it does have a few advantages. First, there’s less traffic at the park entrance. If you’re driving into the park from the Springdale side, don’t be surprised to see backups of up to a half mile or so long at the park entrance, particularly on Saturday afternoon. Coming in from the Mount Carmel side, you probably won’t be behind more than one or two cars. Hotels in Mount Carmel are also a lot cheaper and the drive to Mount Carmel is extremely scenic as it takes you through the entire National Park and also includes a trip through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which is a 1.1 mile long tunnel that goes through the wall of the east canyon and is the biggest tunnel of its type in the United States.

If you’re looking for places to eat, the Zion Canyon Brewpub in Springdale has really good burgers along with an excellent variety of locally brewed beers. The Switchback Grille is the place to go for fish or steak, and Wildcat Willies has a nice Southwestern atmosphere. If you decide to stay in Mount Carmel, stop by the Thunderbird Lodge for a slice of delicious tasting “Ho-Made” Pie. A lot of the sponsor restaurants give discounts to runners after the race so make sure to bring your bib and your medal when you’re ready to go grab your post race meal.

The Zion Half has a cap of about 2000 runners, but in 2015, it attracted runners from 48 states and four different countries. So even though it’s a relatively new race, the word is definitely starting to get out about it and I wouldn’t be surprised if future races start to sell out quickly. The original race in 2013 attracted 500 runners so in just two years it’s quadrupled in size.

Runners had a choice of either picking up their packets at the Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theater, which is a movie theater in Springdale just outside of the entrance to the park, or at the start line on race morning (this is one of the few half marathons I’ve done that offers race day packet pickup). In addition to a bib and a t-shirt, runners also get a Hydrapouch for their water.

One of the things that’s unique about the Zion Canyon Half (and all of the other Vacation Races events as well) is that it’s a cup free race. What this means is that there are no paper cups available at water tables, and the reason for it makes a lot of sense: with the race being in the vicinity of a national park, having runners sip water and then toss their cups on the ground is even less desirable than it is in other races and the race organizers felt that even if they were to provide extra garbage cans and get an excellent cleanup crew, there’s still a chance that some cups would make their way into the park or the surrounding areas, which would damage the environment. So rather than cups, runners have a choice of either bringing their own water bottles or being issued a free hydrapouch at packet pickup. Then the water tables all have coolers where runners can fill up their bottles or pouches. This was the first race I ran that used this system and I have to say that I didn’t mind it at all and I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more races switching to something similar.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with a hydrapouch, basically it’s a soft collapsible plastic cup that runners carry along with them and fill with water when they need it. The race organizers also did demos to show runners how to use them. Hydrapouches have a plastic clip on them so that they can be clipped to your shorts, but after the first couple miles of the race, I thought it was easier to just carry mine in my hand. They’re simple to use though and only take a couple seconds to fill — my water stops really didn’t take any longer than they do at any other races, and after the race, you can keep your hydrapouch for other races or training runs. I really didn’t mind using mine at all.

In another environmentally friendly move, the race organizers also don’t provide gear check bags at packet pickup. So that means that if you have any gear that you want to check, you’ll need to either bring your own bag or purchase a recyclable one at the expo. Honestly, I think this is another good idea. I have tons of gear check bags sitting around in my closet from old races. Every now and then I’ll throw them away, only to have them pile right back up. I definitely don’t need any more of them.

One of the biggest things to think about before the race is where you’re going to park. With the course being point-to-point, there are are a couple options: The easiest one is probably to park at the start line and take a shuttle back after you finish. There’s plenty of parking at the start line and the shuttles run every 15 minutes after about 10:15am. The downside to this is that while there’s plenty of parking, Route 9 is the only road you can take to get to the start line and traffic starts to back up pretty early. So if this is your plan, make sure you get there before 6:00am so that you’ll have plenty of time to park and walk over to the start corral by 7:00.

The other option is to park at the finish line and take a shuttle to the start (or if you’re staying at a hotel that’s near the finish line, you can just walk to the shuttle and not have to drive at all). This is more convenient because your car will be waiting for you when you finish the race, but there really aren’t a lot of places to park near the finish line and there are also limited spots available on the shuttle. So if this is what you’re planning on doing, you’ll have to make a reservation in advance. Regardless of how you get there though, the start line is nice and festive with a warming tent that has music and raffles for runners. The raffles start at 5:30am and are totally worth arriving early for because giveaways include things like free race entries and GPS watches.

The course doesn’t go through the national park itself, but it does go through the part of Zion Canyon that leads up to the park entrance. The start line is in the town of Virgin and passes through Coalpits Wash, which is the lowest point in Zion Canyon and then through Rockville and finishes in Springdale. The entire course goes along Route 9 and it’s an open course. There’s really no way to close it because Route 9 is the only way to access the towns from the outside but the lanes that are designated for runners are blocked off and clearly marked and with the race being held fairly early on a Saturday morning, there’s really not very much traffic to worry about anyway.

If you look at the elevation chart for the course, it looks like you’re going to be running uphill the entire time, but it really didn’t feel that way. Other than a really big hill between mile 6 and 7, the rest of the inclines are barely noticeable and there are actually a lot of declines during the first half of the race. The total elevation gain for the course is only about 400 feet. The one thing that is noticeable though is the altitude. At higher altitudes, the amount of oxygen in the air is lower so you have to breathe harder to get the same amount of oxygen into your blood. Zion Canyon is roughly 4,000 feet above sea level so if you’re like me and you’re used to running at lower altitudes, make sure to go for a warm up run or two ahead of time to let your lungs adjust. There were also some pretty strong headwinds at various points during the course, and the temperature is pretty cold out at the beginning of the race. It does get warmer after the sun comes up but I was still happy that I wore a long sleeve running shirt for this one. Another option that the race organizers give to runners is to wear a sweatshirt for the first three miles and then take it off and drop it by the three mile marker. Volunteers will pick it up for you and have it waiting at the finish line (although you’ll have to search for it yourself among all of the others that they picked up).

All that being said though, this course is really not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it really isn’t bad at all. To put things in perspective, even with the inclines, the high elevation and the headwinds, I still finished with my fastest half marathon time in almost five years. I’m sure that the amazing scenery along the course and being able to watch the sunrise over the canyon helped to motivate me but it really does say a lot about the course not being as tough as it looks on paper.

The race finishes at the Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theater and there are plenty of drinks and snacks available for runners. The medals are amazing looking. They’re in the shape of the national park logo and have the race name and date on them along with a picture from Zion Canyon. They’re also BIG — I had seen pictures of the medals before the race, but for some reason they looked a lot smaller in the pictures than they actually are. In reality, this is probably one of the biggest race medals I have in my collection.

OK, so now back to my cliff story. If you’re going to travel to Zion Canyon for this race, you also need to make sure to check out the National Park itself. It’s $25 per car to get into the park and passes are good for 7 days, so unless you’re going with a large group of people that take up multiple cars, chances are that you’ll only have to pay $25 to get in and out of the park as many times as you want over the course of the weekend. The park has campgrounds, a museum, a lodge and tons of places to drive, bike, run, walk, and hike and no matter what it is that you’re into, you’re guaranteed to have an awesome time and see some amazing things.

The people at Vacation Races also have a couple challenges available to anyone who does the half. After the race, you can hike to the top of Observation Point, check out a combination of the Kolob Canyons, the Riverside Walk and the Canyon Overlook, or do the big one, which is the Angels Landing Hike. Submitting a picture of yourself doing any of these things will get you a discount on a future race entry, your picture on their website, and bragging rights.

Angels Landing is by far the toughest of these challenges. Observation Point is the longest, and the other challenge requires you to do three different things, but what makes Angels Landing tough is that even though it’s only a 5 1/2 mile round trip hike, the first 2 1/2 miles gain over 1500 feet in elevation and for the last half mile, you have to hold onto chains because you’re essentially hiking next to an open cliff. Sound crazy? Yeah maybe it is a little bit…. but you can’t beat the views from the top. It took me about three hours total to go up and back down, and besides being so high up, the winds at the top were a bit unnerving as well. Overall though, this was a lot of fun to do. (And I obviously made it back alive or I wouldn’t be writing this haha).

Angels landing is a tough hike, especially for someone who just finished running 13.1 miles. The race organizers give you 72 hours to do it and my advice is to wait until the next morning. The reason for this is because by the time you finish the race on Saturday and then go and get cleaned up and grab a bite to eat or whatever, you’re going to go back to the trail and it’ll be packed. Not just with other runners but people who are visiting the park in general. Trying to navigate a trail with open cliffs is a lot easier and safer when you aren’t going around people or waiting for them to pass you. My original plan was to do the hike in the afternoon after I finished the race but I ended up being glad that I waited. The trail is quiet early in the morning and if you go up early enough, you can also watch the sunrise.

If you aren’t interested in doing any of the challenges (or even if you are but you still have time left over to do an extra hike), there are plenty of other trails to hike in and around the park and something else that I would recommend checking out are the Emerald Pools. The emerald pools are a series of three pools of water (upper, middle, lower) that flow over the side of one of the mountains into each other, creating a tiered waterfall effect. The pools are home to some of the more rare wildlife in Zion Canyon and they’re stunning to look at. The trail stops at each of the three pools increasing in elevation between them and also goes underneath the waterfalls that flow into the lower pool. Depending on how far you want to hike, you can either see all three waterfalls or turn around at any point. The upper pool is definitely the hardest one to get to because the trail has a series of boulders that you’ll need to climb over, but it’s also the most beautiful.

I really can’t say enough about the whole experience of visiting Zion Canyon and doing this race. The area was even more beautiful than I expected it to be and the race was so much fun that I could have easily run another 13.1 miles and I still would have felt great when I finished. This is definitely one of most scenic races that I’ve ever done and honestly it’s probably one of the most scenic races anywhere in the United States. My suggestion to anyone that’s considering this race is to ignore the hills and altitude and just go and enjoy it. You won’t regret the experience.