Some memories have a significant impact on you and your future. For me, last year’s DNF at the San Diego 100 was one of those memories. It humbled me and forced me to be honest with myself and my abilities. But it also lit a fire within me and became the catalyst for a rematch with the 100-mile distance, and I chose the Zion 100.
Ever since Monument Valley, I’d been experience some significant hip pain that had derailed my last 3-4 weeks of training. I’d gotten a few massages and met with a running doctor to help diagnose and fix the issue. I was physically feeling about 75-80%, however, mentally I was at 110-120%, so I figured I could hit the start line of Zion at 100% (of sorts).
C and I left San Diego early Thursday morning and arrived in Springdale, Utah, around 2:30 p.m. We checked in at the Pioneer Lodge then went into Zion National Park for a while to do some exploring before heading to packet pick-up which was at the start line in Virgin. We didn’t hang around too long. My nerves were kicking in and I just wanted to get some dinner and get some rest. I knew the next day was going to be a long one.
There’s an energy at the start of a 100-miler that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and the Zion 100 was no different. Both the 100-milers and 100K runners took off at 6 a.m., and just like that it was on. My second attempt at a 100-miler was underway.
As I approached the first big climb, Flying Monkey, the sun was just beginning to rise. I got up FM with no issues, hit the aid station up top and set out on the 6-mile loop atop the mesa.
The scenery up on top of the mesa was amazing – a completely different landscape than the land below. Oh, and the views from above were jaw-dropping.
I descended Flying Monkey with no issues and hit a nice stretch of Jeep road and was able to run most of it, before hopping on some single track and working my way to Dalton Wash Aid (mile 15).
C was anxiously waiting for me at Dalton. She knew that by now I’d know how the day was going to go. Once I got there she asked how I was doing – my response was simply “I made it to here.” I knew if I wanted to have ANY shot of staying in this thing, I had to focus exclusively on running from aid station to aid station.
After a quick pit stop I began the climb up to the Guacamole Loop, where runners would be treated to nearly 8 miles of challenging slick rock. It was impossible for me to get a rhythm going up there, so I just enjoyed the views and tried to keep moving as best I could. I finally made it off the mesa and back down to Dalton Aid 2.
Once I got there, I noticed my pacer and good friend Tony from San Diego had arrived and immediately jumped in to help C out in crewing me. I wanted to take a few extra minutes to rest up – my hip already wasn’t feeling great and I wanted to recharge for a minute.
Neither of them let me, and before I knew it was back on the trail.
After crossing the highway I headed toward the infamous Gooseberry mesa. In my research of the race, I knew this climb was going to be a beast. The climb gains 1,500 feet. Fast. Sprinkle on some serious exposure to the sun and a subpar hip, and 1,500-foot climb felt like I was climbing Whitney.
Once up to the top I came into Goosebump Aid, refueled, and then set out on my last solo loop across more slickrock to Gooseberry Point and back to Goosebump #2. I got back a little before 8 p.m., but not before taking in one of the most amazing sunsets I’d ever seen.
By this time I was only an hour ahead of the cutoffs. Definitely not where I wanted to be. I picked up my pacer, Tony, and we headed out into the darkness toward Grafton Mesa. Running with him was a huge breath of fresh air and though we weren’t moving fast, we were still moving. We arrived at Grafton Mesa, downed some soup and headed on through. Grafton was a breaking point for a lot of runners, many of whom were still sitting around waiting to get picked up.
I’d be lying if I said the thought of dropping didn’t cross my mind. I hurt from the start, I had yet to get into a rhythm, and now I was furiously chasing cutoffs … all with 45 more miles to go.
Before I could turn that thought into any more than just that (a thought), Tony said “You ready, G? We gotta go.” And just like that, we were back on the trail and off toward Cemetery Aid Station (mile 57.5).
After a mix of single track, slick rock, climbing, and then a huge descent off the mesa, we arrived at Cemetery Aid with 45 minutes to spare. After another quick in/out we were on our way back up. The climb up was the hardest and most challenging part of the day night for me (so far), but Tony did a fantastic job of keeping me moving.
This was also about the point in the race where I DNF’d in my 100-mile attempt last year (around mile 60). Tony knew this – and though we weren’t saying much at this point, he did say this:
“You’re about to be on the other side of what you know you’re capable of. It’s all new after this.”
In a weird way, hearing that gave me a spark that I hadn’t had most of the day. It was true; I was now further into a race than I’d ever been. What a rush.
The way back was a serious grind, and making cutoffs was still a top priority (talk about a feeling of added stress!). We were in and out of Grafton Mesa #2 within 5 minutes and got back to Goosebump Aid #3 by 4:45 a.m.
By this point all I could think about was how bad I wanted off the mesa. Upon leaving Goosebump I got my wish – in the form of a 1,500-foot, pitch-black descent down Gooseberry.
I’ll leave most of the details of it, but just know that I was in a dark place (both literally and figuratively) by this point.
A change of scenery
After getting off the mesa, we had to get to the Virgin Desert Aid station by 8:30 a.m. The stretch was tough, but we got there by 7:45 a.m. My hour buffer was fading.
Once you hit Virgin Desert Aid, the style of the race changes. Runners were now faced with a series of challenging desert loops. In prepping for this race, I had thought that if I could just “get to Virgin Aid” that I could spend some time getting re-energized before hammering the loops out, but being up against cutoffs, I didn’t have that luxury.
C was waiting for me at Virgin Aid and would be responsible for pacing me out the rest of the way (25 miles). Tony had done a phenomenal job keeping me moving overnight, knowing that I was hurting and not in a good spot. He was able to keep me on pace, and focused just on the next aid station. It was a night I never thought would end – but, like all things, it did.
For the record, Tony wasn’t unaware of what was going on at all, either. He knew we were crunched for time, had a long way to go, and that I was starting to fall apart. (He had dug deep and finished the SD 100 last year, so he knew what it took to get to the finish – and what I had yet to go through).
The red, white, and blue
By now my mental state had gotten a lot worse, and I was seriously rationalizing a second DNF in my head.
“Well G, you made it 76.5, farther than you’d ever gone – but it’s just not going to be your day. You weren’t 100% when you started … and you’re paying for it now.”
This “inner monologue” slowly started to leave my head and now C and Tony were hearing it … but they weren’t having it. They both knew me well and weren’t ready to have a repeat of last year.
And just like that, they switched roles. C was ready to go and after 5 minutes we were out on the Red Loop, a 4.7 stretch of rolling desert single track … with a cutoff of 9:15 a.m.
A snail’s pace is probably an adequate comparison to what I was churning out at this point. I asked C every 3-5 minutes “how much distance have we covered? Do you think we’ll make the cutoff?”
C, being the ever-positive person she is, assured me we were doing great and that we could make it.
I apparently thought otherwise. I began walking, saying I had “given it my best effort, but it just wasn’t going to happen.” We came in at 9:10 a.m, the cutoff was 9:15 a.m – and I didn’t think I could go back out.
I thought it was 9:15 a.m.
An aid station worker who had taken notice of me when I first came into Virgin Desert Aid came over and said “Don’t get too comfortable buddy, the cutoff is 9:30 a.m. You have to get back out there. You’ve come this far. You’ve got to keep going.”
He took my red bracelet and replaced it with a white one, to signify I was about to start the second loop.
And again, just like that, we were off.
The white loop (mile 81), was a bit longer with more rolling hills … and it was getting hot. I was kicking out salt bad and knew I was on the verge of losing control of my nutrition, but we slugged it out. All thanks to C.
It gets a bit overwhelming when you start to think that you’re within 20-30 minutes of not being able to continue on, which is exactly where we were at when we returned from the white loop.
Time in/out: 11:10a.m./11:22 a.m.
Cutoff: 11:30 a.m
The same aid station worker that had kept me on course earlier found me again and offered me more words of encouragement and advice. His support, along with C and Tony’s was hitting me hard, but I was falling apart. I hadn’t stopped for more than 5-10 minutes since mile 47.5. My hip was on fire, my feet were all blistered, and my nutrition was in the tank. I was a mess.
Even with all the support I was ready for a DNF in my head. But my crew didn’t let me act on that thought and sent me back out. I had more than 3 hours to go 7 or so miles. But like I said, I had fallen apart. I was walking/shuffling along at a dismal pace, and things were looking bleak.
The blue loop was also the most exposed (and challenging) of the loops, and the sun was just roasting us. We had caught up with a few other people who were in the same boat, wished them well and continued to shuffle along.
C did an unreal job pacing me, knowing just when to talk and when to let it ride. When to let me vent and when to tell me to man-up. It was a delicate balance and she managed it well.
In my head I thought that IF I could somehow get back to Virgin Aid for the last time by 1:30 p.m. that would give me 2.5 hours to finish, and at the pace I was moving at, I thought I MIGHT have a shot.
But 1:30 p.m. quickly passed, and I was still out there. I watched 1:45 and 2 p.m. tick by as well, before getting returning to Virgin Aid for the last time at 2:18 p.m.
That was it. I came into that aid station to drop. I was dehydrated and distraught. I thought I had left it all out there and came up short. There was no way I could go 6 miles in less than 1 hour 45 minutes based on how I had been performing for the last 12 hours.
It wasn’t possible. Not to me.
I walked in and sat down, ready to make my announcement, but before I could, the aid station volunteer dumped an entire cooler of ice water over my head, and said “Hey buddy, you look like hell, I know you feel like hell – but YOU. CAN’T. STOP. YOU GO FINISH THIS THING! YOU’VE COME TOO FAR TO QUIT!”
His statement was matched with Tony handing me two new water bottles and C pulling me back out on the course.
This was it. We were going for it.
The ice bath was reinvigorating – and the support from my crew and the aid station worker helped stoke a fire deep within me. I was 94 miles in. I had 1 hour 35 minutes to give it everything I had.
And so I did.
For the first time since miles 10-20 I started running. As hard as I could. I’d tell C to “Go” and we’d run as hard as we could, walk and repeat. Tony had parked near mile 97 and was stressed to the max, he knew I had fallen apart and my pace was bad.
Until he saw C and I come around the corner. 3 miles down in 35 minutes. Some of the fastest miles of the day for me were miles 94-96. I had 3 miles to go – and more than an hour to get there.
I gave the next few miles all I had as well, and came across the finish line in 33:25, side by side with C, Tony, and my friend Corina, who had hung around to watch me finish.
I couldn’t have done it without the support of C, Tony, Corina, the aid station worker, and my fellow runners. It truly was a life-changing experience. I learned more about myself during this race than I ever thought possible, but most importantly, I learned to never give up – in running or in life.