Zion 100 Race Report: Miserable is Memorable


Badwater’s youngest finisher and recent Barkley camp Nickademus Hollon once said: “Miserable is memorable.”

His quote became a mantra for Shacky and me as we neared mile 50 on the Zion 100 course last Friday, but it wasn’t until a couple of days later that I realized just how memorable this race had actually been, how much I had learned, and what a rich experience I had come to know at Zion.

Shacky and I didn’t finish the race. We both dropped at mile 52, though I accused him of having sympathy pains. He argued that he had complained about his knee long before I had, so maybe mine were the sympathy pains?

Either way, I came into the mile 52 aid station limping and leaning on a stick for support. I had tweaked my knee on some slick rock back at mile 30, and the pain kept getting worse until it seemed unbearable at mile 50.

Judging from my recovery after the race, I have no doubt that I would have seriously injured my knee had I chosen to continue. The limping was causing my good knee to slowly give out as I overcompensated.

For the first time in my life, I learned what “bad” pain felt like—the kind of injury that it would take weeks or months to recover from. I wasn’t willing to put in that kind of recovery time. We were headed to Sequoia National Park, Yellowstone, and the Redwoods after Zion. I had to be healthy enough to run among those trees.

The pain I felt in my knee after mile 30 confused me. The course led us down a very runnable, downhill dirt road. I kept trying to break into a run, only to be forced to walk after about five steps due to pain. When I walked, I felt no pain. Finally, I resorted to a speed walk and figured I would just power hike the rest of the way.

At around mile 40, even the hiking started to hurt, and the downhills started to kill. The pain only stopped when I stopped moving.

I wondered if I was just being a wuss, and decided to try an all-out sprinting pace to see what that did. I felt a sharp pain shot up through my knee that made my leg buckle under me. I hopped on my good leg to avoid falling.

People who passed me changed their comments from “Great job!” to “Way to tough it out…”

And at the bottom of Grafton Mesa, the third climb of the race, I sat down on a rock and cried. Why did it hurt this bad? I had never hurt this bad before.

Determined to get to my pacer who was waiting at mile 52, I told myself to pull it together and started climbing Grafton Mesa. On fresh legs, this climb is mostly runnable. Instead, I was inching my way along, limping and grabbing on to rocks to keep the weight off my bad leg. It was pretty miserable, and Shacky gently suggested that I consider dropping at the next aid station—a thought that had already occurred to me.

The idea of dropping felt strange. Other than my knee, I felt fabulous. My other leg felt strong, my nutrition was perfect, and mentally I was ready for many more hours on the trail. I was also, despite the pain, genuinely enjoying the day. The weather was perfect, the course was fabulous, and the race was so well marked.

Inching my way to the aid station, I wondered how dropping would make me feel. I tried to push myself to continue by appealing to my ego. I tried to tell myself that everyone was watching and that I would fail myself and fail my pacers… but I just couldn’t believe that.

I felt—whether I finished or not—like an awesome runner. I had run 100s before, and I would run many more after this. Deep down, I felt strong even though I was limping.

I thought of the Boston batons that the race director had sent out on the course. There was a gold and a blue baton being passed on from runner to runner throughout the course. The batons had the names of the Boston victims, those who would never run again, and would be sent to the families of the victims after they had been carried through the Zion 100.

I tried to motivate myself by thinking about how the Boston victims couldn’t run, so I should run for them. But instead it occurred to me that the greater honor would be to make a decision that would allow me to run again in a couple of days—and for the rest of my life—instead of pushing myself into an injury that would take months to recover from, and then re-occur at every race in the future. How would hurting myself honor anyone?

I thought about how funny perspective is. If this had been a 50 miler, I would be finishing victoriously. But because it’s a 100 miler, I would end the day in failure. And yet the distance is the same. I just ran 50 miles. 50 MILES! Should I really be ashamed?

I felt a distinct shift in my perception of the race. In previous races, I would think of it as: ME vs the TRAIL. But in Zion, the trails feel like my home. We had been here for three weeks, running all these same trails and doing all these same climbs. I knew I could summit and I knew the course would still be there tomorrow. The views were spectacular but familiar, and I just couldn’t see this event as a do-or-die.

When you wake up in the morning, do you race to see how fast you can make coffee? How long you can take to prepare dinner? Of course not—because those are your daily activities. They are your routine. That’s what the trails have become for me. They are my routine and my home. They are there when I fall asleep and there when I wake up. If I can’t run 100 miles today, maybe I can run 50 miles today. Maybe I can run 100 miles tomorrow.

Somewhere along the line, I have managed to detach my ego from my running, looking instead to the journey ahead and knowing that there are so many more trails to run, and an endless amount of miles to cover. I want to run today so I can run tomorrow.

I knew that by dropping at mile 52, I could rest for a couple of days and be back on my feet by the time we got to the next National Park. The other option was to push hard for this buckle, and be out of running for weeks. In my mind, I could imagine the towering trees of the West coast and I pictured them waiting for me. I could smell the moist dirt under my feet, and the soft leaves at my fingertips. It was a no-brainer. I must stay healthy so I could run more—not today, but tomorrow.

The next morning, we drove to the mile 83 aid station, also the home of George and Melissa Walsh. Their aid station theme was “Whiskey Town” complete with limitless drinks and jello shots. Shacky had whiskey for breakfast, and we shared some San Diego IPA.

The Walshes ran such a memorable aid station that the front runners were finishing the course, then driving back to Whiskey Town to party for the rest of the night. Amazingly, they only had one drop there.

Well into the next day, the festivities continued. Matt Gunn had organized a big screen showing of the Western States movie Unbreakable at the local movie theater, followed by a live Q&A with UltrAspire’s elite athletes. After that, it was free burgers and drinks at a local restaurant, and just in case you weren’t exhausted enough, there was also free river rafting.

The running community and volunteers were so warm and inviting that we ended up spending the next day at Tracy and Robin’s house. We talked about aquaponics, checked out their Air Stream trailer converted into a garden, saw some solar LED lights they had made out of Pabst beer cans, and played with their dog and cats.

Memorable is an understatement for what RD Matt Gunn put together this year at the Zion 100. I have no doubt the entries next year will soar. The course is brutally challenging yet still mostly runnable. There was a low-key, small town feel, the marking was flawless, the weather was perfect, and every single finisher’s buckle was handmade.

As we continue to travel the country, I will look back fondly on these memories and do my best to stay healthy enough to run another day in Zion.

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker