Monday, April 7, 2014

Zion 100 Race Report: A Win & Unlikely Friendships

Fitting Together

At mile 80 Sam's pacer
Asked me why I do it
He runs marathons, 
One for each state.
I really don't know right now, 
I answered, ask me when I finish.

Five of us jogged slowly
up the highway looking
for an arrow that would send us up 
the last climb in the race.
We moved like a centipede,
Many legs connected 
In a run-walk dance with the trail.

At that moment it occurred to me 
None of us had met before today
We were pieces of a puzzle
That the race arranged
That together made a picture 
And my puzzle piece 
Finally made sense.

Richard and me running together around mile ~14. Photo by Alex Santiago
I met Richard on the first climb. I wanted to say, stop talking to me I'm trying to breathe, as a line of runners two miles long pushed me and the other front runners up the steepest and longest climb of the race right out of the gates. Our hands grasped prickly desert brush. Our glutes and calves pressed the loose, fine red dust that Zion was so well known for into the earth. I was feeling introverted and a little grumpy. We still had 98 miles to go and my running groove just wasn't going to happen until we topped off at almost 6,000 feet at the top of Smith mesa. I was looking forward to running, not this hands-on-knees lung collapsing shoot up the mountain. 

Video pre-race chilling out in Zion National Park

I walked a flat section and Richard politely passed me. I had a feeling I'd see him later. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was in 1st place when a woman with bleach blonde hair and a tan that could only come from some serious dedication passed me as though she had an extra gear to drive from. Damn, impressive, but somehow I wasn't at all worried. I felt like I'd see her again. I was just trying to chill out and get my legs in a groove while calming my mind with some deep breathing.  My body likes to freak out when I begin on a steep climb. The feeling was familiar so I let it pass not giving it any energy. 
Game face. Photo by Alex Santiago
Near the top, I noticed Keira Henninger, a fellow race director and impressive athlete with some 100 mile wins to her name, had caught up to me on the climb and as we crested the top of the mesa she passed me and we ran together. I could tell there would be some friendly competition here. I stayed with her chatting about life, race directing, and relationships. Cool lady I thought. I hope we get to run together more during the race. We were at Aid #1 at mile 7 before I knew it and wow, I felt gooood. Keira went over to her crew. I hadn't eaten anything or drank any water on the climb, my pack was still full, so I skipped quickly through the aid station and began a fun and fast descent back toward Virgin, UT. 
Richard and me running early on in the race. Photo by Alex Santiago
Right away I caught up to Richard, but now I was feeling quite cheerful and we chatted like old friends the entire way down, blasting past other runners in what was probably a little fast for so early in a 100. Yet, it was so runnable: a paved steep downhill and I didn't want to over think my pace. I was just trying to go with the flow. I told Richard our pace and he looked surprised as well. We both shrugged, oh well, and I mentioned that I wanted to take chances in this race anyway. I don't always want to play it safe. We clicked off 7 min miles and settled behind the blonde girl with good climbing gears. Apparently my downhill running had leveled the playing field.

A little after Aid #2, mile 14, Richard took off or I slowed down for a gel. I let him go. I noticed that I was at the 25k distance in just over 2 hours and 30 minutes and again thought, hmmm that's a bit faster than I expected especially with almost 3,000 feet of climbing. Oh well. I caught up to the blonde gear girl again and we chatted. This was her second 100 miler and she was from Utah. Although I wanted to stick around and chat more, the pace was a little slow and so I passed and rode the roller coaster corners down the hill loving every second of it and passing early starters in groups. The early starters had a 1-2 hour head start so that they could make the 32 hour cut off.
Photo by Cory Reese from 2013 race, the first climb up Smith mesa
Mile 20 in 3 hours. It was fun to run a "runnable" course. I was in 1st place again, and without any crew I was completely unaware of what place I was. I thought I was in 2nd place, but I wasn't worried since it was early in the race. Just before mile 31 and Aid Station #4, the trail shot up a steep 1 mile climb that gained something around 1,000 feet. Wow, that was painful and I had been out of water for the past 3 miles. All I could think about was the pleasure of chugging about 5 glasses of ice cold H20 and 5 glasses of ice cold coke. I climbed one foot after another, hands on thighs steep. I could see that I was getting a sunburn. Shit. Should've gotten some sunscreen on sooner. I considered grabbing dirt and rubbing in on my skin. I decided to wait since I had sunscreen in my drop bag just up the hill. Some people wooped encouragement from the top of the mesa and I hollered back Woohooo!!! Excited to get to the top and despite feeling a bit worn out, I was going to have fun damn it!
Photo by Rico Sesto
Up to this point I'd only been having VFuel gels, coke and a bit of perpetuum in a water bottle. I'd trained on very minimal calories and water the past few months and it seemed as though my body just didn't need much.  I've found that for me personally overeating is way more disastrous than under eating. I've gotten pretty good at finding that sweet spot where I am eating just enough without over filling my stomach. Despite this I'd felt a little unsettled in the tummy all day, from the first climb and then on and off.  Probably due to the faster pace and more runnable miles.
Coming into Aid Station at mile 31. Photo by Alex Santiago
I reached Aid #4 at mile 31 and immediately chugged water. One glass. Two glasses, three glasses, four. Coke, more coke. Stupid horrible cupless plastic cups. I think my sports bra drank half the coke. I hurried to my drop bag and applied my sun screen. I'd rather put on sunscreen than a shirt. As I was heading out of the aid station I noticed Keira's crew walking back from the trail and I realized she'd slipped right past me while I was getting sunscreen! I saw her through the desert brush and within a minute I was behind her. I had the feeling that I wasn't supposed to know she'd passed me, but the cat was out of the bag and I felt good. I said hi and since I still had no idea what place I was in I asked Keira. I think she was surprised by the question, and she said, "We're in first" as though we were tied for the lead. It was a nice gesture considering that she was a few steps ahead of me. Awkward, though perhaps.
Photo by Rico Sesto
Keira stepped aside to use the proverbial bathroom and I said, Ok, see you in a bit! I was thinking this would be a fun race and we could push each other to a good finishing time, how exciting! I picked up the pace weaving and rolling through the slick rock. I was going to make her work to catch me! It was fun at first running through the slick rock section but increasingly stressful as the markers were often hard to follow and I did not want to get lost. As a race director I am especially careful to watch for markings and not just blast through an intersection. This was no ordinary trail, it was an up and down roller coaster of rock hopping and a little sand trail running between the large rock slabs. The views were incredible. The climb had been worth it. Every miserable upward step. I was in love with the red striped rocks that exploded from the valley into incredible mesas for as far as the eye could see.
Photo by Rico Sesto, unknown runners. 
After a few miles Keira still hadn't caught up which I thought was odd, but not too crazy. After all I hadn't seen her from mile 7 to mile 31, so maybe she was chilling out and grooving back there. A short 1 mile out and back to another stunning mesa viewpoint and still no Keira on the way back. That meant she was at least a mile behind me already. Hmmm. Again I was surprised, but I was hoping to win the race, so I thought perhaps I'd just increased the lead with my faster pace.

The next 6 miles flew by and I ran with a  couple runners who were in the 100k. As it turned out, the man who was running the 100k had seen Keira heading back to the aid station at mile 31 to drop. What??! I was shocked. It turned out that she had fallen and had her hip popped back in place. I sent a little prayer for her and finally understood why she had disappeared. Side note, she is okay, but recovering.
Photo by Rico Sesto, Richard running the road section.
The next few sections were a bit tedious dirt road running with crew's vehicles kicking up dust much of the way. Around a bend I was super excited to see Richard. He was walking and I jogged up to him. He was going through a low point he said, but then proceeded to run the rest of the way with me to Grafton Aid Station, mile 49 in 9 hours in 15 minutes. The guy was able to turn around his low so quick! We grabbed some soup, coke, and more gels at the aid station. After a slight hesitation I grabbed a burrito. I never eat real food this early in a 100, I told Richard. He didn't appear concerned as he chugged chocolate milk and grabbed two burritos. What the hell. This was supposed to be fun right? 
Bummed out after getting significantly off course
We jogged out of the aid station to the soon-to-be-infamous unmarked turn. We'd been following pink and green flagging and at a Y in the trail the green flags went to the right and the pink ones went straight. We paused. Which way do we go? We were just far enough from the aid station that we didn't want to go back. Well we were following pink earlier we agreed and so we followed the pink all the way down a big climb and through a few mesas where we ran into two men who told us we were going the wrong way. Shit, fuck, & damn it! They had also gone down the climb, one of them (he'd been in 2nd place) going almost all the way to Eagle Aid Station (4-6 miles) before running into the eventual winner, who told him that he was going the wrong way. The other man, Jan Kriska, had been 1/4-1/2 mile ahead of us, and both men were contemplating quitting. At this point my legs felt so shot (it was only mile 52) that I also considered dropping. It was so disappointing to get off course by so much!
Richard and me coming into Grafton after getting off course. Photo by Alex Santiago

Photo by Rico Sesto
We slowly trudged up the technical climb and it was at that point that I knew that Richard and I would finish the race together. I can't explain exactly why, but he wasn't going to let me drop that much I could tell. We finally got back on course and told the aid station about the confusing intersection hoping no one else would make the same mistake.  As we were heading out toward Eagle Aid Station, we ran into Jan again, but he was walking back to Grafton, the wrong way. I'm dropping, he said. Just run to the next aid station with us, I encouraged him, We're running together I said pointing to RichardTo my surprise, he said, ok. Wow that was easy!
The Trio of Jan Kriska, me, and Richard Kresser leaving Eagle Aid Station. Determination!
From there on we made a silent and strong pact to run together for the rest of the race. And we did for 48 miles we jogged, walked, ran, suffered, and shared a joy that you can only experience with fellow runners, all in it to finish it. It was magical and unique. It was as though we were the same heart, the same legs and we pushed each other and rested with each other in synch. A true gift of running friendship.
Jan Kriska, early on in the race. Picture courtesy J.K.
Just after nightfall, our posse of 3 caught up with a talented nubie ultra runner, Sam, who was doing his first 100 miler. Sam was a team player too and joined us despite saying from time to time that he would have to walk the next section or that he'd never felt so much pain. The guy was an animal. He kept overcoming his mental and physical obstacles and ran with us for the next 20+ miles along with his pacer, Rahim, a prolific marathoner, who insisted he wasn't ever going to do a 100 miler. Yeah, suuuuure, Richard said. I agreed, yeah right that's what they all say. It was funny but true. Sam and Rahim stayed with our trio, now 5 strong until the last 9 miles where he walked the downhill to appease his painful legs, finishing in a strong 23:30-something.
Rahim, Sam's pacer on the left in orange jacket and Sam on the right in green jacket enjoying some post race beers. Picture courtesy of Rahim. 
Jan, Richard and I ran step for step the rest of the way finishing holding hands and embracing in a way that only people who have experienced life on the edge can embrace. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world! After all was said and done, I finished in first place in 23:04, slower than expected, but with at least 4 bonus miles and a 1,500 foot extra climb. It was my most enjoyable 100 miler to date. It was a beautiful picture of friendship and team work.

A big thank you to race director Matt Gunn, the many, many volunteers, and race sponsors. Big thank you to VFuel Endurance for fueling me to a win at The Zion 100 and Ultimate Direction for their excellent Ultra Vesta, perfect pack for the race. Thanks Pearl Izumi/Running, Trail N2's helped me navigate the course and performed spectacularly in the desert terrain.

Most of all, thank you to Richard, Jan, Sam, and Rahim. <3
A little pre-race yoga in Zion National park the day before the race. 
Photo by Jason Sung

4 comments:

  1. Omg...I love everything about your recap on so many levels... Congrats C.! No compression socks for you on this one?

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  2. Wonderful race report! Congratulations on the win!!! I might have to do this one, though it will certainly test me...

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  3. Nice recap, Candice! Look forward to meeting you at Bryce! Cheers.

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