“A challenging and scenic run through the southern Utah desert adjacent to Zion National Park.”
The forecast for race day called for partially cloudy skies becoming more cloudy in the afternoon with temperatures in the high seventies.
The 100 milers started a few minutes before the 100K runners. The first mile was a gentle uphill climb. The second was too, but with several little dips that dropped about 8 feet and were so short you could almost stand at the top and jump over them. Mile three got quite a bit steeper as the Flying Monkey Trail took us up the side of our first mesa of the day. At about the three-mile mark, the single-file line of runners came to a halt. We stood there. And stood there. We pulled out our cameras. We saw a beautiful sunrise. We started talking to each other.
About a half hour later, a shirtless guy squeezed his way around the line, to the front. At first I was a little irritated. Everyone else was just waiting patiently in line. But then I realized that he was trying to get up to the rope climb that was the cause of the traffic jam. He showed everyone a way to get around the rock without using the rope. It was on loose rock on the steep canyon wall, but it got us moving again. There were sections where the trail was crumbly, sloping and barely two inches wide. I took deep breaths and kept moving forward.
The first aid station was at the top of the climb. We then did a loop around the mesa and hit the aid station again before descending on the same trail we’d climbed up.
I was expecting there to be some flat running on the top of the mesa, but there wasn’t. Instead, it was a roller coaster of short steep hills. The trail was also a lot rockier than I had expected. Somewhere up there, we ran into Cory Reese, the author of Nowhere Near First, which Brian and I had both read and loved. The Flying Monkey Trail was scarier on the way down, but at least the traffic jam was only backed up for about 5 minutes, as opposed to the 35 minutes on the way up.
The section from the bottom of the Flying Monkey Trail to the next aid station (Dalton Wash) went by pretty quickly. We talked to the girl with the “Do epic shit” picture for a while. She was doing the hundred miler. It was her first. This was the greenest section we were to see all day and included the only river crossing. The race guide said that you usually don’t have to get your feet wet. There were people trying to hop across on the rocks, but we just sloshed through. We’re used to running with our feet wet.
This was the largest ultra that I’ve done. I’m used to volunteers coming right up to me at aid stations, asking what I need and offering to fill my hydration pack. These aid stations weren’t like that. Honestly, all the attention at most ultras makes me a little uncomfortable, but as I struggled to push the water cooler button with one hand and hold my hydration bladder open and keep the mouth piece from dragging on the ground with the other, I found myself wishing somebody was there to help.
After Dalton Wash, we had a long climb up to Guacamole aid station, where we would again run a loop around the top of the mesa and hit the same aid station before descending the same way we’d come up. The top of this mesa was a little less hilly than the first one and there were plenty of views where the trail ran along the edge of the mesa. I stayed as far from the ledge as I could on these sections. We also ran for several miles on sandstone, which was uneven, hard as rock (ha!) and sometimes required a two-handed hop up or down. In other words, not easy trail.
I ran out of water about a quarter of a mile from the aid station. When we got there, we were told they were out of water. One of the volunteers was furiously peeling oranges, telling runners to squeeze the juice out for fluid. I was dumbfounded. We were in the desert, 7.5 miles from the next aid station.
We headed down the trail. Less than a mile later, a truck pulled up and a guy hopped out, asking if we needed any water. He apologized profusely for running out, letting us know he’d sent out several texts saying they were getting low and needed water. He said the last one was; “NEED FU&*ING WATER!!!” In all caps.
I’ll say. But whatever. I was able to refill my pack before it became an issue and I hoped everyone else was, too. A couple of miles later, another truck stopped to make sure we had enough water.
The sun started peeking through the clouds on this section. By the time we reached Dalton Wash aid station for the second time, the sun was out in full force. I was hot and a little annoyed at the weather forecast. It was supposed to be cloudy, dammit!
The section leaving Dalton Wash to the bottom of Gooseberry Mesa was my least favorite. We had to cross a busy road, then we were on a long, hot dusty road that stretched on in full view in front of us. Even though I’d applied sunblock at Dalton Wash, I could feel my face burning. My lower back was hurting pretty bad.
Once we started the unbelievably steep climb up Gooseberry Mesa, I actually felt better. The climbing eased my back pain and the different terrain was a nice distraction. My only complaint was the damn sun beating down on me. Stupid wrong weather forecast. Most people were not as happy about the climb as I was. We passed more than a few people seated on rocks or the ground on the side of the trail, suffering from cramps or just plain exhaustion.
About halfway up, Brian slowed considerably. Eventually he asked if we could stop for a minute. He said his heart was pounding. I was a little concerned when I turned around and saw that he was visibly wet with sweat. I sweat way more than he does, but in these hot, dry conditions, I was just salt-crusted and dry. It struck me as very odd that he was wet. A little while later, he said he felt nauseated. We trudged on, stopping frequently for breaks. Near the top, he sat down on a rock. I went a little ahead to find a place where I could get off the trail to allow others to pass. We sat for a while. I looked back and saw Brian vomiting a huge amount of water onto the dry ground in front of him. I had no idea what I should do. He looked like hell, but said he’d be fine in a minute. He was ready to go sooner than I thought he would be. We were only about a quarter of a mile from Goosebump aid station. When we got there, he went and found a chair in the tent and I got him a ginger ale and some broth. The broth went down well, so I got him some more. A lady in the tent said he was dehydrated and his body had gone into shock and stopped absorbing water. He needed to rest and re-hydrate, but should be fine.
We headed out of the aid station an hour before the 6 PM cut-off. We had five hours to make it the 12 miles before the next cut-off, but only 5 miles to go to the next aid station. Brian was still feeling a little weak from getting sick and I was in no hurry. Before the race, we’d talked about whether or not we’d stay together for the whole thing. The week before, I’d pretty much decided that I wanted to. Ever since my months of intense half-iron training, I’ve lost the desire to push myself. This race was no different. We had covered more than 30 miles at this point. My back was hurting more with every step. I had zero interest in seeing how fast I could get to the finish line. I just wanted to get there before the cut-off. Doing that with Brian was much more appealing than doing that by myself. Facing 30 more miles alone was not something I had any desire to do.
The views from the top of Gooseberry Mesa were pretty incredible.
The sky got even more beautiful as the sun started to set. It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d need our headlamps on this leg, but I soon realized that we would. We caught up to Cory again on this stretch. He asked if we’d mind taking his picture. We joked that it would probably cost us the win. As Brian took his camera from him, I asked if he’d mind taking a selfie with us in return.
Just before dark, we started running again. It actually didn’t hurt any worse than walking. In fact, I think my back felt a little better running. Cory passed us again. He’d taken a cool picture of us and told us if we emailed him after the race, he’d send it to us.
When we reached Goosebump aid station for the second time, my first priority was pain medicine for my back. A volunteer kept coming into the runner’s tent with hot quesadillas. The ones with beans and cheese tasted amazing. As tired as we were, I think Brian and I were both eager to get moving again, if only to get the last 18 miles over with. Once again, we pulled out of the aid station an hour before the cut-off.
The longest miles there ever were.
The descent from Gooseberry mesa was on the same trail we’d used on the way up. If you can call it a trail. The first portion was just a steep jumble of loose rock and sand. I asked Brian if he was sure we were on the trail and he said yes, but I still had a hard time believing it. The climb down from Gooseberry was my second least favorite part of the course (for the record, my two favorite parts were the climb up the Flying Monkey Trail and the views from the top of Gooseberry mesa). I made up a song about how badly I wanted to be off the mesa and sang it a few times to Brian.
He loved it.
I’m very musical.
Once we were finally off the mesa, I started feeling much better. The pain medicine had started working, which made a huge difference. I think the back pain was from not having my hydration pack properly adjusted. It happened at Fat Dog, too. I guess I can get away with it for shorter runs, but an improperly adjusted pack starts hurting like hell after about 10 hours.
The desert in the dark is a tricky place. It feels like you can see everything for miles, but in truth, there is a lot hidden behind hills and below the valley floor. We ran and ran (and walked) for what felt like forever. When I thought we couldn’t be more than two miles from the next (last!) aid station, a man passed us going in the opposite direction wearing jeans and a t-shirt and carrying no light. A few seconds after we’d passed each other, he yelled out “an hour and a half walking time to the next aid station.” That one statement completely demoralized me. Every bit of energy I had disappeared. That couldn’t be right.
But right it was. Some time after that, a young guy we’d seen on top of Gooseberry mesa caught up to us. He asked if the next aid station actually existed. We all agreed that we should have been there by now. I was just going by feel, but they both had GPS devices that backed up what we all felt. He ran the rest of the way to the aid station with us. I thought we would see the lights long before we got there, but we just turned a corner, and there it was.
I had to use the bathroom so we took longer at this aid station than I wanted to. As we headed back out in the dark, I noticed that my headlamp was really dim. I’d never used it for more than 4 or 5 hours and hadn’t anticipated doing so this time, either. I ran my first 100K in 15 hours. Going by elevation gain alone, this race should have been easier (it was not). Taking the heat and unfamiliar terrain into consideration, I had anticipated finishing this one in 16-18 hours. I really thought we’d be finished by midnight at the absolute latest. But that hope had long since vanished.
At this point, we were both still 100% confident that we’d make the 2 AM cut-off, though.
My headlamp continued to get dimmer and dimmer until I finally had to resort to digging out one of the cheap back-up pen flashlights Brian and I each had in our packs. It was annoying to carry and wasn’t much brighter than my headlamp. The light also moved with my arms as I ran, which I wasn’t used to. But it was light. The nighttime desert was playing tricks on us again. It was getting dangerously close to the cut-off time and we were still heading away from the only light we could see for miles. We started thinking we had somehow gotten off trail. Reason told me that we had followed all of the signs and therefore must be going the right way. But my tired, sleep-deprived brain panicked, imagining that we were heading aimlessly off into the desert. Brian was convinced we had gone the wrong way. At this point, that could easily mean not making the cut-off.
We backtracked about a half mile to the last sign that we’d seen. It pointed us in the direction we had gone. We turned around and ran as fast as we could in the direction we’d just come from. I had no way of knowing the time, but Brian’s watch said we’d been running for about 19 hours and 50 minutes. We had 10 minutes to get to a finish line that was nowhere in sight. It felt pretty hopeless, but we ran blindly into the night. Finally, we could see a faint light ahead. It was definitely the finish. The trail took us right by it. I couldn’t believe we were so close and still running away from it. When we finally did turn so we were running towards it and could see the clock, It read 19:59:30. Holy crap were we cutting it close. I sped up as I heard Brian say “we’re going to be fine.” How could our reactions be so opposite? I wasn’t sure we’d make it in 30 seconds, but he was right. The clock read 19:59:47 as we crossed the finish line.
We later realized that because of chip timing and the fact that the 100 milers started a few minutes before us, we actually had a little over 5 minutes to spare. But I kind of liked the idea of making the cut-off by mere seconds. I also thought that we had achieved the DFL (dead fu#*ing last) title, but there were a few people listed in the results as finishing after us. They didn’t finish within the 20 hours though. So I’m not sure if we can claim the DFL title or not.
But I think we can.
Finishing my second 100K has got me thinking more about attempting a 100 miler.
The main reason that I’ve not really wanted to try the 100 mile distance is because I hate the idea of running through the night, but it surprised me how well I handled running from 6 Am until 2 AM. I know it would suck, but I now think I might be able to handle the whole staying awake all night part. Just a thought.
There’s something to be said for finishing at the very back of the pack (or dead fu*#ing last). Neither one of us was all that sore the next day. By Sunday we felt fine (other than the nasty blisters on both of Brian’s feet) to do some hiking in Zion National Park.