Lessons learned racing the Zion 100K

By April 20, 2016Run

Post by: Giff Walters, Swiftwick ambassador. 

Running down the 25% grade “Cry Baby Hill” at mile 48, I see one of my buddies from back home on his way up the climb. He has a huge smile on his face, we share a high five and he lets me know that I’m in third place with 14 miles to go. It’s time to drop the hammer, empty the tank and run with heart. Just a few years ago I would have laughed at the idea of running a marathon, let alone an ultra marathon… so how did I get here?   

I was a mediocre, asthmatic cross-country runner in high school on a team whose motto was “run fast, don’t get last.” I loved running, but after every season I reconfirmed that I wasn’t very good at it.

I took a break from “competitive” running by climbing and backpacking my way through college, and I discovered a new passion for spending long days in wild places.  I gradually began running downhill back to my car on longer adventures, then I started carrying less stuff and running the flats and downs, and finally I transitioned to bringing the bare minimum and just running the trails.

My training has since evolved from mashing together plans I found on the internet and chasing every Strava course record in town to spending almost an entire year building my aerobic base and finally progressing to a polarized (80% easy/20% hard) training approach. Most days I log easy miles on the trails, and the couple of hard days each week are focused on speed and hills with an emphasis on quality. Leading up to the Zion 100K this year, I kept a rolling average of around 55-65 miles per week and took four days during my spring break to scout the course on foot and on mountain bike. 

There are three major climbs and descents on the Zion 100K course, a double-black downhill mountain bike trail ,“The Flying Monkey” that you climb by headlamp, a long grinding dirt road up to Guacamole Mesa, and the infamous “Cry Baby Hill” that climbs 1,500 feet in under a mile up to Gooseberry Mesa. The elevation profile hints at their difficulty but their technical nature surprises many runners.

Looking back at the West Temple from Gooseberry

The Zion 100K course manages to link together many miles of amazing single-track and slickrock running with dirt road when necessary. Many sections are part of very quiet trail networks that do not have a trailhead, maps or official markers. There are miles and miles where the route traverses across slickrock, marked only by cairns in a wasteland of charred juniper trees with the West Temple and Mount Kinesava looming in the distance.  The flagging helps during the race, but there are not many places to attach it. In other areas, the slickrock has faded white paint marking the route, but there are unmarked intersections and the trails weave in and out of hidden drainages.  There are miles that follow dry washes, packed red dirt and others that skirt along the edge of one of the many beautiful mesas with sweeping views of the multi-color rock landscape over a thousand feet below in the valley. 

As with other ultras I have done, my plan was to run my own race, take the first third easy, push when needed during the middle and then give it everything I had left for the final third. Everyone has their own strengths and moves at different speeds over different terrain, so I found myself falling behind and catching up to other runners throughout the day as we made our way through the course.

I knew I was near the front through mile 40, which meant it was time to start pushing the pace. I tried to move fluidly across the technical rock of Gooseberry Mesa’s South Rim back to “Cry Baby Hill” and was pleasantly surprised when the course markings deviated from the double-black trail onto an easier trail and then onto smooth double-track back to the aid station at the top of the hill. After a quick refill and chug of Coke I headed down “Cry Baby Hill,” passed my friend and learned that I was positioned to get on my first ultra podium of the season.

The last miles in any long run are always the hardest, and those final 14 miles did not disappoint. But those last miles are also where you learn the most about yourself. You have the opportunity to distill life to a point where everything seems so simple. You get to explore what you are capable of, and what it is that motivates you to get through the inevitable low points.

There is never one solution to getting through a low point. Sometimes listening to music for the first time that day or changing the song works. Sometimes a hit of caffeine or more calories will pick you up. Sometimes it’s thinking about my friends and family, of making them proud, or thinking about the people in my community that are rooting for me.  Sometimes I think about going back home and facing people when they ask how I did. I didn’t want to be the guy that had a spot on the podium and lost it today, and I also don’t want to cross the finish line knowing that I didn’t give it everything I had.

Sometimes it just takes complete focus on the task at hand, 100 percent presence by way of a mantra or scanning your body. Sometimes I need to be imaginative and think about my legs as machines, other times I have to be pragmatic and think about what I can do to just work 2 percent harder than I am. Every race is an opportunity to try something new, to learn about your own perceived limits and both your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations.  The days I run my best races I run at my own pace, play to my strengths and enjoy the process of discovering and rediscovering what motivates me and what gives me energy when I am physically and mentally haggard. It is the days when I get through the lows quickly and run with heart that I see success.

In the final ten miles, I was looking over my shoulder every couple of minutes, seeing if someone was going to catch me. With the rolling terrain it was hard to see very far though, and I wanted to finish knowing that I hadn’t backed off or taken it easy those last few miles regardless of my position. I wanted to discover what was possible. 

I finished six minutes under my goal time and remained in an elated, blissful state for the two days following the race. As I write this, recovering with bike rides and brisk walks, I am already dreaming of the next time I have the opportunity to see what’s possible.

Follow more of Giff’s adventures on his blog and Instagram!