I never thought I’d be here. In fact, I promised my mom when I started dating Nick that I would never do these types of races. By “these types” of races, that meant anything over a half-marathon.
I’m a trustworthy person, but I broke that promise. I ran a bunch of 50Ks, R2R2R, a gnarly 50-mile race in Santa Barbara and then this: Zion 100.
I think the idea situated itself in my head after crewing Nick at San Diego 100, the first 100-mile race I had ever experienced. It was 2 a.m., I was tired of crewing since 6 a.m. the morning before, and I fell asleep on the floor of the Old Al Bahr shrine, sharing a pillow with an older man who I hoped wouldn’t wake up and tell me to move. Nick came in shortly after. I congratulated him, then fell back asleep on the floor, completely exhausted. Never mind the fact that the Nick was the one who had just run 100 miles. Still, as tired as he was, he drove us home. (I’ve gotten slightly better at crewing since then…)
Since that first race, it was always in the back of my mind that I would one day run 100 miles. At least, I would try it out and see if I liked it. I didn’t know when that would be, nor did I want to start plotting my future with all of the boxes I had to check in order to reach the 100-mile race. It just happened that Zion 100 was there, I had never been to Zion National Park, and I figured it was about time I started going for it.
So here I was, at 4 a.m, the day before the race. Nick and I had packed up the night before to make the wake up as easy as possible. We dumped our bags–full of running shoes, running clothes, hydration packs, food, pillows, Arnica gels and Magnesium lotions and vitamins–into the car and headed into the dark night. After roughly 7 hours of driving, we made it to Utah! The packet pick-up and check-in was located in Hurricane, also the start of the race site. We quickly took the shuttle to the registration, grabbed my bib and snapped some photos. Of course, Nick stopped for a Navajo taco served at one of the race booths while I picked out a dried juniper berry necklace for my mom.
By this time it was already 3 p.m. and wanting a good rest before the race to come, we checked in to Canyon Ranch Motel. I had chosen a cheaper motel to save some money after the cost of a race entry, the drive, meals, etc. but I had no idea how close the motel was to the entrance of Zion National Park! Nick and I took a dip in both the freezing cold pool and the hot tub, alternating between the two until it was time to eat, pack, and head to bed.
We barely made it to the start on time. Wanting all the sleep we could get, we set our alarms for 4:45 a.m. and struggled out the door at 5:30. I had thought that I would get poor sleep the night before my first big race, but I felt fairly refreshed, almost confident.
“Nervous?” Nick asked.
I shook my head. “Not really. I figure I’ll have 99 miles to get nervous about things.”
Even the fact that we were still standing in the shuttle line, five minutes before start time at 6 a.m. didn’t bother me. Volunteers must have soon realized that there was no way all of the people standing at the parking site would make it to the start line on the one shuttle bus because soon we were ushered into private vehicles and rushed to the start. I had time to remove my sweater and say goodbye to Nick before people started running–the race had begun!
I spent the first few miles dodging and being dodged by runners eager to avoid the congo line up our first climb, Flying Monkey Mesa. It was still very dark and my headlamp illuminated the dust that was being kicked up by 200 runners. Within a mile or two the field started to spread out, and I took a conservative approach as I tackled the hills. Along the way I ran into Balmore Flores who warned me to take it easy for the first fifty miles. “Everyone else will blow up now, and you can pass them so easy in the second half of the race.” I took his advice to heart and relaxed as we peaked at the top of Flying Monkey (for the weird story on how this mesa got it’s name, check out this blog post).
Sunrise finally came just after 7 a.m. and began to light up the mesas on the far horizon. I concentrated on fueling myself, remembering the mantra “fuel early and often.” Down went a slow-burning Muir Energy gel. At the aid station at the top of hill, promising Nick I would eat at every station I came across, I grabbed a few pickles despite it being 7 in the morning. (Side note: my nickname as a child was Pickle. Guess why?)
After a few miles of winding fire road and a traverse back down the steep trail we had come up, I reached the first crew-accessible aid station at Dalton Wash. Nick grabbed my pack, refilled it with water, and threw in a few extra gels.
He wasted no time in getting me back out on course, to where we were directed up and over a glute-burning hill and along 4-miles of dirt road. Here, I fell into line with several 100-mile and 100K female runners, one of whom was Andi Ramer. She knew me through Nick, and we chatted for a while about her past times at Zion and how lovely the weather was right now. And it was–I wore shorts and a light, long-sleeve shirt but had begun to feel hot as the weather warmed to a perfect 70 degrees. In the distance dark clouds gathered, but they looked far away. I focused instead on powering up the grade and to the top of the mesa. Here, the trail zig-zagged past juniper bushes and over white slick rock. I struggled at times to stay on the right trail, following the path of white dots.
By the time I made it back to the aid station at mile 25, I was hard-pressed to believe I had only gone 25 miles. Rather than start calculating numbers, I focused on getting to see Nick in just five miles.
I came into the aid station suddenly scared of the distance, but with others there, I couldn’t yet let my guard down. I still had 70 miles to go–completely unimaginable at this point in the game. So, instead I thanked Nick for the picnic he had set out–kombucha and berries and more pickles and chocolate covered goji berries. I grabbed some salted potatoes, he stuffed more food into my pack, and I kissed him goodbye.
After leaving Dalton Wash, the route crossed the highway and led up towards Gooseberry Mesa. I felt fine for the first few miles, but as the dark clouds that had appeared distant seemed to gather above, my spirits dwindled. The few runners head of me had slowed to a walk and I couldn’t figure out why until I got to that point: the rain had come and, being exposed on the plain, we were being hit with wind and rain–Hard, pelting rain and I didn’t have a jacket!
The reprieve came not in the form of something less wet, but in the form of a steep, steep climb that slowed even the legendary Pam Reed to a power hike ahead of me. At least I was keeping warm as I worked my way up the hill.
At the top of climb was Goosebump Aid Station. I hadn’t planned on switching to comfort foods so early on, but the quesadillas looked delicious and hot and I was cold and uncomfortable so I grabbed a couple. The rain started to pour just then–and I still had nothing but the shirt I was wearing.
“Hey! I think I know you,” said a 100K runner with a bright smile. “You’re Jade, right?”
We knew of each other through a mutual friend and somehow she happened to have an extra jacket in her drop bag! I thanked her before wishing her good luck in her race. She took off ahead of me, smiling despite the pouring rain.
Gooseberry Mesa followed a similar path to that of Guacamole–that is, the trail followed closely to one side of the mesa–so much so that the a bad fall could send you toppling hundreds of feet off of the cliff–and lead to Gooseberry Point where we punched holes in our bibs to verify we had done the out-and-back loop. On the 8-mile trail back, I ended up running in sync with a Dallas runner named Ryan. We talked about everything from how we “met” ultra running to how we met our significant others to what he plans on naming his new baby boy or girl (although I’m completely sworn to secrecy!). Despite our conversation, it still felt like it took forever for the Goosebumps Aid Station to come into sight.
We hung around only long enough to grab some more quesadillas before we headed off the other side of the mesa and down the six-mile fire road to Grafton Mesa Aid Station.
“Congratulations!” Ryan said excitedly. I was struggling at this point, in a complete low spot and anxious to see Nick. Luckily the rain had died off a little, but I wasn’t holding my breath.
“Why?” I asked.
“You’ve now run the farthest you’ve ever run!”
And it was true. It was mile 51 and every step past this was, in a way, something to celebrate!
Within seconds, however, the rain started dumping. The clay soil suddenly turned to mud, making it so that with every step I carried 5 pounds of mud on each foot. Ryan and I slid our way into the aid station and to where Nick was waiting, dry clothes in hand.
We had planned for Nick to either join me here or at the following 63.5 aid station, but it was getting dark and I was hoping to have someone run with me in the dark. I gave him a hug and kiss when I saw him, but I won’t lie–I was grumpy and cold. I grumbled about needing to change my clothes, so Nick led me out of the aid station to a tree where I changed my shorts for capris and my soaked shirt to another shirt, a sweater and a rain jacket. We also ditched my Brooks PureGrits for Altras I had begun wearing about two weeks earlier. Bad choice.
After refueling, Nick followed me down the trail to Grafton Wash (mile 57.5). I had been in a terrible mood this entire section and Nick had finally convinced me to listen to my iPod in the hopes of getting me out of the low I was experiencing. Luckily, we finally topped back off at the Grafton Mesa Aid Station. The sun had set and this was the last chance to grab any of my belongings, so I downed a Yerba Mate we had picked up and hoped the caffeine would kick in. I suppose it did since I felt awake and excited for the next section of the course.
Although the night was cold, the stars were brilliant as Nick and I left the aid station. Here, we followed the six miles back up to the Goosebump Aid Station. I sang out loud, urging Nick to join me, and though I felt a bit sore and knew I still had miles and miles to go, this was by far my favorite part of the race: the freckled croaks of frogs and the beaming stars and Nick beside me, sharing in something–a 100 mile race!–that means so much to him.
We agreed to whiz through the next aid station and take advantage of my high, so we stopped at Goosebump only long enough to check my bib. The descent down the steep climb was slow, however, and several runners passed me as my left ankle suddenly started to hurt. The rain started to pick up once more as we reached the bottom and turned left towards the Virgin Desert.
“Ow!” I yelped as pain shot up from my ankle and towards my knee.
Besides scoliosis, the one and only actual injury/issue I’ve had to content with was a broke collar bone at the age of eight. I don’t remember what that felt like (who falls off of a chair while carving a pumpkin and breaks their collar bone anyway, right?) but this pain was an 8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being excruciating.
The miles went on and on as I shuffled to the aid station. These were the darkest hours of the night, both literarlly and figuratively. Nick found a yucca stick on the side of the trail and used it to take some of the weight off of my ankle. Still, I sank down to the ground several times as runners passed us, asking if everything was okay.
“Great!” I replied. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I felt absolutely miserable.
We reached the Virgin Desert Aid Station in the early morning hours and I crashed. My ankle felt swollen and bruised and broken and I begged a volunteer for some kind of tape. As Nick grabbed more quesadillas from the other tent, I found a warm chair and a heater and fell asleep for a few minutes.
Nick woke me up and the volunteer came in to wrap my ankle. It hurt, but I hoped that it would keep things together. Unfortunately, as soon as I stood up to test it out, pain shot up my leg once more. This wasn’t looking good.
“Well, I’ll try it out,” I said as Nick and I started to head out on the first of three loops that are to be completed on this section of the course. Red loop was first.
“This hurts so bad,” I cried as we started walking out of the aid station and back onto the course. “I can’t do this.” My feet slipped in the mud and with each step I winced in pain.
My heart sunk as I told Nick that this was it. I didn’t want to hurt my body for the sake of one race–I took care of myself too much everyday to damage my body for years to come.
“It’s not worth it,” I repeated. “I have to quit.” And by have to, I meant I had to quit for the sake of my body. I turned to the volunteer.
“I can’t do this,” I said.
“You sure?” He said cautiously. He didn’t look upset or doubtful or angry. Just sad.
I nodded. “If it’s a stress fracture, I can’t hurt my body this bad.”
“I’ll need to take your bib then,” he said. I handed my bib to him. So long, #816.
He paused, as though asking me once more if this is what I wanted to do. “So, then…” He took his time with his words. “This is a DNF.”
I couldn’t take it. The words DNF were like a giant slap to the face, but one that stung more the pain that I felt. I started to cry and turned towards Nick.
I can’t do this, I thought once again. Except this time it was stronger even, more resolute. I can’t do this. I CAN’T DNF. I have to finish.
“I can’t DNF,” I said to Nick. I wiped my tears away. “I change my mind.”
Luckily, all of this had taken place within seconds and so nothing had been recorded or reported. The volunteer still held my bib in his hand; he had been watching me.
“Here you go then,” he said, handing back my bib. It was dark out, so it’s hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure he smiled. The race continued.
After grabbing my bib, Nick and I headed immediately back out onto the course, focused on completing the red loop, a 4.7-mile section of single track that wound up and down the desert floor. It was still raining, though faintly, and the night seemed to have gotten cooler still. The first section was incredibly muddy–I had my yucca poles, but I still slipped and with every step the pain from my ankle radiated throughout my entire leg so that I was constantly muttering under my breath. “F***, this hurts…”
“I feel so terrible right now,” I told Nick. I sat down on the trail, breathed a few times to collect myself, and stood back up.
The downhill sections were the worst. Because I couldn’t flex my ankle, I had to hang on to Nick’s arm in order to stumble down the hill without pain shooting up my leg. I waddled up the hills slow, but all right, and still there were several times along the three-mile singletrack where I had to sit down on the side of the trail, breathe deeply once more, and clench my teeth in order to get through the pain radiating from my ankle.
Finally, the aid station came into view. As we hobbled up to the volunteer, I wondered how in the world I would make it through two more loops–and several more hours–of pain.
“How was that?” The volunteer asked.
“Terrible,” I said, unable to lie. It hurt just standing there in front of him.
“Well, good news then,” he said. “The RD has cut the course due to the bad conditions. I mean, we’ve had reports of people falling and hurting themselves badly because of the muddy trails”
“No more loops?” Nick asked.
“Nope, that’s it,” said the volunteer. “We’ve been telling people to stop wherever they are and head back to the finish. Environmental damage and all…”
I didn’t hear the rest of what the man said. I don’t think I would have stopped regardless of whether the course was shortened or not, but it was a huge relief. I immediately wrapped my arms around Nick and cried. I would finish.
The last eight or so miles of the race were slow and I stopped once to remove the tape; the bottom of my shin looked swollen and bruised and it still hurt to put any weight on the foot. Still, we maintained good spirits as the rain started up once more and we made our way down the gravel road and across the highway, following muddy and muddier trails to the finish line.
The finish wasn’t anything special; there were a few people hanging around, but other runners had headed home almost immediately. It had started to rain again and the grounds were even worse here with large puddles of water and slippery soil. Even the finisher’s banner had fallen down, so a few volunteers quickly scrambled to hold it back up as we crossed the finish line.
Did I complete my goal?
Well, I didn’t hit my very personal goal of a sub-24 hour finish. But I finished–despite the (possible) stress fracture and terrible conditions..
To be honest, it was wonderful to finish, to have the promise of a shower and good food and sleep ahead of me, but the highlight of my race was changing my mind–of not DNFing even though I was afraid of damaging my body for months to come..
Was this is a good idea?
I’m not sure. I focus so much on health and longevity and quality of life day-to-day– from religiously strength training to eating organically to not drinking, etc, that it felt good for once to take my chances. I don’t know if it was the smart choice, but I DO know that taking a DNF was not the right decision for me that day.
Congratulations to everyone who finished and everyone who didn’t; as my parents reminded me before I began, just signing up and showing up is a courageous act in itself!
Thank you to all of the volunteers for your help and support and delicious grilled cheese sandwiches and quesadillas at the aid stations! Thank you especially to RD, Matt Gunn, for creating a low-impact/zero waste event with spectacular views. I’m so proud to call Zion 100 my first hundred!
Thank you to Nick who helped me train, prepare and get through the most painful miles of my life. Most importantly, thank you for supporting me no matter what I chose to do.
For more information, check out Ultra Adventures’ Zion 100 here!