On August 13th, Alpenglow Sports will be aiding Bay Area ultra-marathoner Gary Gellin in his quest to break the supported speed record of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Set by Killian Jornet a few years ago, the record stands at 38 hours and 32 minutes. That is an amazingly fast pace for 170 miles. In preparation for his attempt, Gary just ran the inaugural Zion 100 Miler in Vigin, Utah and was kind enough to share his experience with us. Enjoy! Photo Credits: Gary Gellin and Zion 100 Miler.
“Everything in moderation” my mother tells me. Moderation is really a moving target, however. At my first 10k trail race in 2008 I was amazed that some people in the 50k division didn’t just jog in survival mode, they ran fast and hard. Some of those people were comfortable doing this twice in a month. It took over two years to develop the nerve to enter a 50 mile race, but it was only a short time before that distance became (and still is) a study in fine-tuning with the 100 mile distance looming as the next logical step in assuming new challenges. When seeking advice from 100-mile race specialist Karl Meltzer before my first 100-miler last fall, The Bear, he told me “100 miles is not that far”. I thought he was mocking me, but in reality this is his trademark slogan on his web site, and something he truly believes and can justify.
Two months after the Bear 100, which was a 70 mile race, followed by a 15 mile slog, followed by a 15 mile death march, I ran with Nick Pedatella, an astoundingly strong and accomplished 100 mile competitor from Boulder, Colorado. Nick assured me that “it gets easier”. I argued that it would be months before attempting this distance again, and that no training run comes close to simulating the effects of pounding along for 20 plus hours without sleep, but he stood firm.
My reasons for running Zion 100 were multifold. Of course, the incredible beauty of the canyons and mesas around Zion National Park is one of the most compelling. Another big reason was faith in first-time race director Matt Gunn who put more energy, dedication, and heart in to this event than most any I’ve seen. I could relate well to Matt, having gone through the tribulations of being a rookie race director, albeit on a smaller scale. Moreover, the event fit perfectly in my schedule to prepare for a speed record attempt of the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail this August 13th. It would also be a fun road trip with my pal Jim Moyles, a veteran of the Western State 100-mile race from the early 1980’s.
I took a rational approach to tactics for the race. This was to be my second ever run longer than 9 hours, so I took the advice of my wise friend and pacer, Mike Topper, to run within myself and not worry about the other competitors. This would be a training run of sorts – a proving ground for running a fixed, predetermined effort for a long time, and an opportunity to learn more about managing fuel intake, heat stress, sleep deprivation, pain management, and to discover and deal with new problems that would arise.
The obvious favorite was Jay Aldous, a 100-mile specialist from Salt Lake City who in fact had won a 100 mile race in a speedy 15 hours only two weeks earlier. We took off at 6AM, Jay at a furious clip, and the rest of us in the front of the pack at a semi-sensible, fast jog. I had my heart rate monitor to keep me company for the next day and night which would stay as close as possible to 30 beats below 50-mile race pace. This caused a lot of people to ask what I was doing drifting back so far in the field. Many of the runners took advantage of the cool temperatures in the morning, as we all knew it would be hot as blazes all day long. I chose to stick to my plan of running a steady effort, regardless of what place that would result in at the first few aid stations.
Click here to view the technical running experienced during the race. [ http://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10150726853754770]
Our first treat was a steep hike up to the top of Smith Mesa on the Flying Monkey Trail.
Our second treat was an actual flying monkey of sorts – a person in a gorilla suit hanging from a rope on a rock ledge, high-fiving the passing runners. This would be the first of many fine touches to the event.
One of the aphorisms in ultramarathon running is “walk early, walk often”. So when a group of us hit an abrupt, steep grade at mile 10, something I would hammer up full throttle in a 50k race, we walk.
After some technical running through a seldom-used trail lined with brilliantly flowering cacti, and a rough descent on ankle-twisting dirt roads pockmarked by a million cattle hooves, I arrive at the mile 27 aid station with no clue and no care as to how many runners are in front of me. As I roll out I see my friend Mark Tanaka arrive. Mark expects to finish the race about 6 hours behind me, so upon seeing me this far in to the race he blurts out an expression of grief.
After some miles of rhythm-killing rollers in the hot sun in a maze of dirt roads below the mesa, I arrive at the mile 35 aid station. There I am greeted by the paparazzi, otherwise known as John Medinger, publisher of Ultrarunning Magazine. I am told in great disbelief that only three runners have passed through. I don’t ask how far ahead they are and plow forward with two runners not far behind.
I catch the third place runner on the 1500 ft, 25% plus grade scramble up to Gooseberry Mesa at mile 42. At this point it is brutally hot and there is no shade. Third place is a fellow who runs a 31 minute 10k and I am reminded starkly of the effect that a long ultramarathon has on reducing speed demons to crawling zombies.
On top of Gooseberry Mesa we have 17 miles of uneven “slickrock” running. We follow a series of painted dots, probably 8500 of them, over a boulder field partially smoothed by geological time. This would be slow, but fun running on a cool day with only 5 miles in your legs, but after 40 miles in the hot sun it is a punishing meat grinder. I feel very sorry for the slower runners who have to navigate this section at night. I repeatedly pass and then get caught by the then 2nd place runner who ultimately pays for a fast start and fades hard from mile 62 on. This section is very hard on me and I am eventually caught by Justin Faul from Arizona. I enjoy the company, even to the point where we carelessly stray from the trail, only to be redirected by two runners who were lost themselves. Justin is running megamiles – 150 per week – and is training for an 80-day Transamerica run two weeks later. He plans to run 8 miles on Sunday. I tell him he is nuts.
Things are getting exciting as five runners hit the mile 62 aid station at about the same time. Apparently, there had been a shuffling of 2nd though 10th places, and it was destined to continue for the remainder of the day and night. Finally, a section of run-able dirt road appears at the end of the mesa, albeit an Escherian uphill in the hot sun. This was fortunate as the mesa had wreaked havoc on my hip flexor, but was able to loosen up on the road.
At last I arrive at mile 70 and am greeted by my friends, my wife, Holly Harris, and my pacer/hero Mike Topper. Unlike at The Bear, I feel good and am ready to run another 50k – not a fast one, but one without dread. I am in 4th place now – oops, make that 2nd place – as Justin and Slater make a wrong turn, the first of many. Slater is a pro triathlete in his first 100-miler, but has very impressive credentials. He has recovered from a long rough patch throughout much of the day and is ready to put the hammer down. Course marking had been stupendous for the first 35 miles, not bad (in daylight) for the next 35, but the final 30 miles proved to be very challenging to follow.
Our race director, probably in his rookie zeal to seek absolute perfection in every other department, had quite a few loose ends with marking the final section of the course. Fortunately for me, I always load the gps track in to my wristwatch when running unfamiliar terrain, so could rely on my own navigation.
At nightfall and at the mile 77 aid station, I take a shot of some highly caffeinated concoction normally sold to 20 year old partiers at quickie marts. This was the antidote I needed but didn’t have at my last 100-miler, and it allowed me to run a few fast miles and open up a big gap on Justin. Another problem to deal with late in the race is excessive peeing, which is really much better than the not uncommon problem of not being able to pee (which can be associated with kidney malfunction). Fortunately, I have perfected the art of peeing while running a 10-minute mile without mess (x-rated instructional video featuring Tony Krupicka to follow).
Up the trail, I find out that 2nd place Slater had taken a wrong turn again. Mike and I make a very quick stop at mile 83 where there is a final medical check. I tell them my blood pressure is 120/80 and get the hell out of there. It isn’t long before we see headlights in the distance behind. At about two minutes to midnight and around mile 91, Slater and his pacer come ripping by us on the single track at marathon pace.
We smell the barn at mile 94 at which point the single track terminates in a pair of “wrong way ” red ribbons. I consult my gps for the zillionth time and see that the course is right where we are headed. However, Matt had changed the course at the last minute and intended for us to do some bushwhacking in the dark to reach the final aid station sooner. Rather than search for the new route, I take no chances and follow the “official” map. My watch finally ticks over 100 miles at just under 20 hours. We still have 1.7 miles to go, however, due to that “extra-credit” loop. We arrive at the finish in 20:16, happy and exhausted.
The advertised elevation gain of less than 8,000 ft was extremely deceptive. The uneven terrain and the heat made it very difficult, and the 36 hour time limit was by no means a generosity on the part of the race committee.
The 100 mile race on Friday was followed 24 hours later by a 50-miler which also included Gooseberry Mesa. My wife Holly, in honor of her 50th birthday year, ran the 50 miles along with her friend Janet Wagner. I am happy to report they both finished with Holly just squeezing in under the 14 hour time limit.
The Virgin, Utah Town Park was host to a big post-race party with wood-fired pizza oven, a live band, a dunking tank for the kids, and a steady stream of prizes launched in the air with some sort of giant slingshot apparatus. Matt conducted the awards ceremony on what was probably two hours of sleep in four days, wearing the same change of clothes he had on for that duration. Kudos to Matt Gunn and his large group of family and friends for shooting for the moon and getting damned close to the target on the first try.