Zion 100- Running 100 miles takes more than cycling legs and heart!

A runner at the top of Smith Mesa, 4 miles into the race, just after sunrise.

I hate quitting anything.  But there I was at mile 63 of the Zion 100, about a quarter-mile past Aid Station #7, alone on a dirt road walking hobbling, in circles. It was just after 1am, over 19 hours into the race. I knew Donovan was ‘only’ 7 miles away at Aid #8, waiting patiently to pace me the last 30 miles. My fuzzy brain calculated some fuzzy math that said it’d take me 2.5 hours to walk that short distance. The crazy thing is that I considered it. I had wanted to quit at the 51.5 mile aid station but when I walked up to the volunteers I just couldn’t get the words out (I asked for peanut butter on a tortilla instead). In my stubborn brain it was easier to carry on than to say the words ‘I quit’ aloud.  Now I was paying for that decision, 4 hours and only 11.5 miles across Gooseberry Mesa from there.

When a volunteer’s truck rolled up to me I was facing back toward the aid station. He asked if I was alright and I heard myself say, ‘I am done.’ His eagerness to help me out made me realize I probably looked pretty sad standing there alone in the middle of the night, facing the wrong direction. Once in the truck we started passing other runners and I hung my head low- I didn’t want to be recognized by anyone I had run with earlier. Partly because of my pride, but also because I didn’t want them to be discouraged by seeing a fellow runner fail. Every endurance athlete talks about not letting their crew down- it’s a significant motivating factor- so when I saw Donovan I felt a pang of sadness and my first vocalization was to apologize. But, like any good crew member, he knew what I had gone through and that if I had quit I must have been in pretty bad shape.  And I was.

Running 100 miles has been on my mind for over 5 years now- since the first time I helped at the Badwater Ultramarathon. I ran some 50k’s last year, then a 50-miler I was signed up for got canceled. Then I hurt my groin- which it turns out was from yoga and not running- and I basically stopped running. Getting to those longer distances always seemed just out of reach. Then February of this year I ran the La Jolla 50k in Malibu and felt really good- except for my foot. Did I not train enough? Post-race runs still bothered it. I was already signed up for the Zion 100- maybe I could switch to the 50-miler? But I did what every over-committed, busy person with too much on their plate does- nothing. Oops. Thirty-five miles a week had been my goal- I never even got close. My test run was 22 miles one night and then 13 five hours later two weeks before the race. And I decided to go for it! Like Shawn, who I ended up running the first 35 miles with, said, ‘Might as well start the 100-miler and see how far you can really go.’ Yeah, I like that.

I don’t find dogs, dogs find me! This little guy had some serious energy for it only being race check-in.

The Zion 100 is a brand-new race and the course is much harder than the 7850 feet of elevation would have you believe. Sixty-five percent is on single-track trails, much of it technical, and only 5 miles are paved. The rest is dirt roads and double track. Giant slick rock is everywhere- in many sections spray-painted circles on rocks marked the course. Sandy sections contrasted the rocks- both equally hard to get a groove on.

Technical rope section near mile 19.

This part of the descent required a rope. From here the trail stayed very technical as it ran in and out of the rocky creek bed.

My trip started on Wednesday when I rode 36 miles to a train to meet up with Donovan and Megan who was catching a ride with us to Las Vegas- where we’d spend the night before getting  Ronald’s vegan donuts, which is pretty much a mandatory stop.  Thursday was race check-in since the race started on Friday morning- something new to me. Is this an ultra-runner thing? The race organizer was thoughtful enough to post free camping spots on the site and Donovan and I took advantage of one just 5 miles up the road from the start.

Kolob Terrace Rd, the only significant paved section, very close to where we had camped the night before. Photo by Donovan.

When I stood there at the start and looked around I immediately felt out of place. Am I really here? Trying to make it back to this spot 100 miles and at least 24 hours later? Yes, I am! When the trumpet sounded I raced off at a blistering 12-minute mile pace.  I had met Shawn at check-in and he found me before the first climb and we’d end up running the first 35 miles together talking about everything from his experience at the Copper Canyon 50-miler (RIP Micah True) to our favorite places to eat.

Shawn and I weigh-in at the Mile 35 aid station.

Donovan met me at mile 35 where I arrived in just over 8 hours- right where I wanted to be. It was warming up, but I felt good. I had been keeping a slow but steady pace. Shawn and I ran everything but the hills. Him and I got split up here, but it wouldn’t be the last I saw him. The next 10 miles were hot and exposed trails that transversed the desert in the mid-day heat. But I felt good! I ran nearly all of it and was passing people regularly. Too fast? At the mile 42 aid station a lot of people were sitting down in the shade- no way could I do that. I had only sat down once and that was to get the dirt out of my shoes.

Single track through the desert! Not bad at all.

And here’s where my story takes a turn for the worse. My elevation increased, 1500 feet in one mile to be exact, but my mental and physical state headed in the opposite direction. I was hydrated. I had eaten. My motivation was high. But something happened on that climb. It was one of the steepest trails I had ever been on. There were points where I could reach out and touch the trail in front of me. I got to the top and a water-only aid station and I laid down on the ground. I was out of it. No!

Gooseberry Mesa viewpoint. The climb that wiped me out did award me this view.

I drank some unexpected, delicious electrolyte slushy and I got up and pushed on. The trail was mostly on slick rock- I ached for my mountain bike. I was becoming more aware of my feet- hot spots were now turning to blisters. I was getting annoyed by little, unchangeable things, a sure sign of mental and physical fatigue. Why is this ribbon here? It should be over there!! I recognize this and take some deep breaths. Shoot some more photos and be thankful to be where I am right now. It helps everything but my feet.

Mini canyon-like sections on the North Rim Trail. Probably more fun to ride than run!

If you look closely you can see the 1000 foot drop just off of the trail!

And not long after this the slight pain in one of my toes becomes a sharp pain and I’m forced to limp. Wtf? I sit down and take off my shoe and sock and what I see turns my stomach. Two of my toes are totally black, which isn’t new, but they are both surrounded by huge blisters. One of which is behind my toe, closer to the top of my foot.  One runner stops, takes a look and makes a face like I had just dropped a piece of pizza on the ground cheese-side down. He runs on. I contemplate my options. Two more runners stop and one is an MD! He tells me what I already know- the toenail has to come off. They count down and I start to pull. They both moan, I pull harder- it doesn’t want to come off. The last vestige of healthy skin holds on. It finally snaps off in my hand and I get light-headed. The doctor’s friend teases him for being grossed out- I thought you were a doctor?  [photo at bottom of post!]

Gooseberry Point from the aid station. We did an out-and-back to the viewpoint- you can see runners out there in the photo.

I still managed to run a few of the miles into Aid Station #6 at mile 51.5. I had told myself I was quitting here. But then I went out to the viewpoint and realized I didn’t have it in me to tell them I was done just yet. I had carried my headlamp since mile 35, I might as well use it, right?

On Gooseberry Point. Thanks to the guy from Vegas’ pacer for the photo!

It’s now getting dark and I’m headed out for one of the most technical, confusing sections of the course. I put some motivating music on my headphones and work toward my second wind. I pace with a few other runners and their pacers, we get lost, we find the trail, go up and over so many big rocks I think we’re going in circles….and then I fall off of their pace. I eat and it doesn’t help. I get passed. The pain medicine has done very little for my feet that are aching like I’ve never felt before. My arches, achilles, toes, tendons, everything hurts. And now my knee does. Shoot. A few more lonely, slow, agonizing miles and this is where my story picks up where I began just past Aid Station #7.

A fire at Aid Station #8 warms runners and pacers.

I don’t regret my decision to quit. And yes, I do feel very accomplished for doubling the farthest I’ve ever gone. What is hard to accept is that I never reached physical exhaustion- my feet and knees quit first. It’s a frustratingly simple thing to overcome- just get more running miles in! I’m mad at myself for not respecting the distance and only getting a dozen or so runs done in the months leading up to the race. What did I think would happen? Sometimes stubborn people like me need to be standing alone on a dirt road in the middle of the night in order to learn these lessons. I guess if I was the type of person to figure this out ahead of time I wouldn’t be putting myself in these situations.  At least I know this about myself?

See the results here (pdf!). When a Badwater winner takes 26 hours you know it’s a hard course!

We hitched a ride back to Virgin and it was about 4am when we went to sleep in the park just 100 feet from the start/finish line. After a few hours sleep we decided to head back toward California, but not without stopping at The Bean Scene in St George for breakfast burritos and coffee.

A few questions I’ve gotten:

What did you carry?
I carried my phone, headphones and a few gels in my shorts pockets and sunglasses for the day and a headlamp for night. My only water was one 24-ounce handheld which was plenty for all but one section where I ran out early in the day.

What did you eat?
Mostly bananas, peanut butter on tortillas and potatoes. Gels for between aid stations.

Did you use drop bags?
Nope.

Pacers?
Donovan was going to pace me for the last 30 miles.

How much did you actually run?
Most of the first 45 miles- except the really technical sections or steep hills. Less from 45-63.

I cannot even imagine this. What’s it like?
Imagine a long hike with aid stations where you run the flats and downhills! And remember it’s for fun. That helps. It wasn’t that long ago I couldn’t imagine running double digits! You’re looking at someone who brought two clif bars and two gels on a 10k cause I was worried I’d get hungry!

Why?
Not sure. Scott Jurek has a good explanation.

Did this make you more or less stoked on running? Will you try the 100-mile distance again?
More stoked! I can’t wait to start running again and I’m already signed up for the Oil Creek 100 in October. Plenty of time to train and run some 50-milers or 100k’s, right?

 

Sorry it’s out of focus!

13 Comments

Filed under race, run, travel

13 responses to “Zion 100- Running 100 miles takes more than cycling legs and heart!

  1. that toe nail story was great. and pics to prove it. nice job my friend

  2. Wow, Matt. Thank you for the intimate view of ultra running. I love the photos I could almost feel your pain. The trails look pretty rad with so many awesome spots to hike and explore, maybe at a slower speed over many days would be my preference but to each their own! Good luck at Oil Creek.

  3. Thanks for sharing. The photos are great! Good luck on your future races :)

  4. Badass! I respect you for listening to your body, regardless of wanting to finish. Thanks for sharing your journey and your corresponding mental process. The fact that you apologize for your toenail photo being out of focus made me chuckle.
    P.S. I’d pack a picnic to run a 10k…and spread those miles over the course of a week. An ultra is an amazing thing to even think about attempting. Very inspiring!!

  5. Tom

    WOW. that was amazing coverage, and well documented, thoroughly enjoyed the read!! Thanks

  6. Lynette

    Nice work! Be proud of your accomplishment! And if finishing a 100 miler is important to you, it’s just like falling off a horse. You just have to get back on and you will get there! We often learn a lot about ourselves and what our bodies can do during our toughest races. Hope to see you on the trails again!

  7. My brother just did his first 50 and did pretty well – he keeps trying to get me to run one but I’m chicken.

    You’ve got so much experience, I think you’ll figure it out at 100, but I definitely think jumping from 50k to 100M is too big a leap. And you gotta get more miles, you’re definitely right about that.
    All your photos make me want to visit Zion again.

  8. Congrats on making it that far! I also ran Malibu 50K, with the Ray Miller 50K the day before for Zion training. I had to drop at 52.5, battling heat exhaustion and dehydration for 16 hours. It was a much tougher course than I thought, but you toughed it out and you should be super proud. Hope to see you on the trails soon in Cali

  9. I did this race also, I think it was much harder than people bargained for.

    You bring up something really important about the training. I have friends who want to run an ultra thinking it’s all mental and if they are just determined, they can finish. Of course the mental part is huge, but the physical part and adequate training is just as critical.

    Even if that were the only thing you took away from the race, I’d consider it a success. Congrats on pushing through so far on a tough course!

  10. Pingback: The Dirty Double: San Diego County Double Century with 35 Miles of Dirt | True Love Health

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