On Wednesday, 4/18/2018, I got up early, loaded up my car, and set out for Hurricane, Utah. I arrived and checked in to the Clarion Inn & Suites, which would be my staging ground for my my graduation exercise–the Zion Ultra 50K, a 50 kilometer (31 mile) romp through the deserts and mesas near Virgin, Ut.
When I retired in July, 2015, I began a process of restoring functionality to my body. My motto was “65 going on 45”. I had kept myself in pretty good shape until my early 50’s, having run the LA Marathon in 2003. The last 8 years of my working life, however, had confined me to sit for 10-12 hours a day, and that, together with a bone spur that had developed in my right ankle, played havoc with my conditioning.
When I was in my late 40’s I had a practice of doing a hike of at least 20 miles on a monthly basis, but by the time I retired that kind of endurance was a distant memory. I have worked hard over the last several years to remediate the bone spur and build up the muscles that had atrophied. I have completely revamped my gait, am feeling a lot more strong and stable, and was ready for a test. What better test could I ask for than an ultra-marathon?
I checked into the hotel about 2:30, and then headed down Utah route 9 towards Sheep Bridge Road, just outside of Virgin. This was where the 50K course would rejoin the road at the end of the race on Saturday, and I wanted to see what I was getting into.
The end of the course runs along the Virgin River west of the town of Virgin
I drove down the road a half mile to mile 28 where the last trail portion joined it, and headed back down that trail until I got to mile 25 where the last aid station would be. This portion started by hugging the rim of the Virgin River wash, following the rim of a feeder wash until it reached a crossing point, and then across the desert to the road junction where the aid station would be set up. I then reversed course, covering 6.2 miles and maintaining an 18 minutes/mile pace, more than sufficient for completing the course in 11 hours. I was stoked and feeling confident!
The next day, however, was a bit different. On Thursday morning I got up early and drove just past Virgin to the next river crossing point at Camino del Rio, where the race would leave the road after Saturday’s 6 am start. I was particularly concerned about this portion because it included a climb of over 1000 feet to the top of Gooseberry Mesa in just three-quarters of a mile. I am pretty good at going uphill as I am a grinder by nature–I just keep on chugging–but steep downhills fill me with terror and I wanted to see what I was in for.
Going to the top
My plan was to hike from route mile 2 to the top of the mesa and explore the routes up there a bit. The route for the race would reach the top at mile 5, follow the north rim of the mesa all the way to its tip, and then return via the south rim to the launch point at mile 17 for the way too steep descent. That steep stretch was, quite frankly, terrifying to me.
Sure enough, that steep bit posed a serious problem. My time from route mile 4 to the top at route mile 5 was 35 minutes, and coming down 37 minutes. Plus, I had a couple of nasty slips and wrenched my right knee enough so it was giving me grief. A 7.9 mile roundtrip had an average pace approaching 24 min/mile, and that was a pace that would not get the job done:-(!
My spirits going into Thursday evening were not high, and were further dampened by dark clouds on the horizon and a prediction of rain for Friday. After a very nice dinner at the Stagecoach Grille I returned to my hotel room to ice my body, stretch, and relax a bit. My only regret was not getting a picture of the giant platter of raw meat that the servers use to build their own muscles while enticing customers with those 52 oz steaks.
Friday was a rest day, and was miserable in the morning. I did my morning stretch and strengthening exercises but wasn’t able to pull myself out of my room until almost 11 when I headed down the road to the River Rock Roasting Company for caffeine and sustenance. The RRRC, like other similar establishments in the area, was quite busy. If one is camping in a tent, then when the weather turns bad the shelter of a warm, dry, and hospitable inn becomes quite attractive!
The River Rock Roasting Company is a gem. It is set on top of a bluff that overlooks the confluence of the Virgin River and a couple of feeder creeks, and there are picture postcard worthy views from their outdoor patios. That, combined with good coffee, good food, a great staff, and a very cool clientele made it a very pleasant place to be.
By the afternoon the clouds had cleared, and my spirits lifted accordingly. I was pretty confident that I could keep up a good pace on the 17 miles that were on flat sections. If I could also keep a decent pace on the 12 mile loop on the mesa then I figured it shouldn’t be hard to offset the time losses on the ascent/descent.
The Big Day
I spent a rather sleepless and short night, arising at 3:45 to get ready to roll. I was at the start just before 5:30, had a chance to use the composting toilets before the crush, and positioned myself at the very back of the pack at the start. The temperature was 47 degrees, and I was wearing four layers: a compression tee-shirt, an athletic tee, a lightweight merino wool long-sleeved shirt, and a light fleece.
At the start everyone but me took off running. As I traveled the first mile, which was on the road and in town I was passed by the occasional runner who had missed the start. About the first mile I fell in with another walker, a gentleman named Rob who was an accountant from Nashville and an ultra regular. Together we talked and walked a good pace; we managed to keep up a 3.6 mph average pace for the first 4 miles. I wound up dropping Rob on the climb and made it to the Goosebump Aid station at mile with a cushion of 25 minutes.
I was feeling pretty strong and confident at that time, and after replenishing my calories and liquids I was off on the North Rim portion. The first couple of miles were easy, with a proper trail winding its way along the rim of the mesa. I fell in with another walker, Jon, an IT professional from Florida, and we kept up some good conversation until the Gooseberry Point aid station at mile 9.5.
The Hard Part
That is the good news; the bad news was that the proper trail had disappeared a couple of miles in and the last four miles had mostly involved navigating across slickrock, something that I am not at all fond of.
I did the half-mile to the turnaround at the Point, and then back to the aid station again at mile 10.5. I hadn’t stocked up when I came through the first time, so I filled my reservoirs (a 1.5L Osprey HydraPak and two 500ml squeeze bottles), ate some fruit, and emptied the grit out of my shoes. By the time I hit the trail again everyone else had vanished. I think that at this point I was officially last, a state that would persist through the next 20 miles.
The next four miles turned out to be my most difficult challenge as I had to navigate myself over a seemingly endless expanse of slickrock. Traveling over slickrock presents an array of physical, emotional, and mental problems. There is no such thing as flat footing, and there is no such thing as a clear sight line or a clear trail. Navigation involved sighting the occasional pink ribbons and the white dots on the rock, and my progress was dismayingly slow!
I do owe big thanks to my mentor, Kerry Ward, for getting me out on a slickrock excursion to Reflection Canyon two weeks before with Tom and Mauri Seletos. The eight miles of slickrock travel on that jaunt, combined with the night of thunderstorms on the slickrock with four of us crammed into a two-person tent, provided some toughening that I had to draw on through this part of the race.
False color image of Reflection Canyon. Enhanced by my brother Robert Novak, but should have white rock rather than red rock.
Finally the slickrock came to an end and I was on a trail where I could make up some time. About a mile from the Goosebump Aid Station (mile 17 this time around) I met up with Frances, a young lady who had lost the trail, gotten side-tracked, and then managed to find it again. I walked with Frances until we reached the Aid Station.
Too Close for Comfort!
I veered off trail to the tent to see what nourishment was available, but the staff rather frantically told me that I needed to go through the timing chute “Right now!” The cutoff time for this penultimate aid station was 12:20, and it was now 12:19. If I didn’t make that cut time my race would be over!
I did make it through the chute in time, and then the staff marshaled me back to the tent where they treated me royally, replenishing my fluids and making me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then it was off to face the task I had been dreading for the past several days–the descent from the mesa. I was now officially behind pace, but I figured that if I could make it down to the bottom in good shape I would be able to make up time on the relatively flat desert portion. Frances had not stopped at the station and was long gone by this time. I was again alone on the course.
Rocky chute at the top of the mesa
There was a very rocky and steep chute near the top that I negotiated successfully, but then a couple of dozens yards down a steep dirt slope my feet slipped out from under me and I went down on my back. “It’s going to be a real long way down,” I thought to myself, and my spirits were at their nadir.
Saved by an Angel!
As I struggled to regain my feet I heard a voice behind me ask “Are you okay?” I looked back, and up the trail was a vertitable angel in a baseball cap and trail running gear. “Are you the sweeper?,” I asked. She told me that she was, and said that if I like she would just hang back. Or she could keep up with me as she went along with her task of picking up all the trail markers.
Morgan (call me Mo) Sjogren, aka The Running Bum, @running_bum_ on IG
I opted for the latter course, and what would have otherwise been a stoic and lonely eight miles to the next aid station became a much more interesting and enjoyable experience. I had not met up with just any pacer, but was now in the company of Morgan Sjogren, aka @running_bum_ on Instagram, who is not only an avid explorer but also a published author. In her own words she is
“…a free range raconteur focused on the outdoors, human powered adventure and public lands. My first book, The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes is now available! When I’m not writing I’m usually exploring the world on a two-footed quest for new trails, hidden treasure and the next adventure.”
Morgan is currently exploring the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument and compiling information for her next guide, titled something like, oh, The Best Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument Hikes.
The Final Stretch
Time passed quickly as I trucked along, keeping up a good pace, conversing with Morgan when she wasn’t pausing to pick up markers. Morgan, or Mo, was also in cell phone communication with her boyfriend, Mike Versteeg, who was sweeping the last segments of the 100 mile course. Mike, by the way, is a man of distinction himself, being the world record holder for the off-road beer half-marathon.
We met up with Mike at the last aid station at mile 25, and he took over sweeping duties. About a mile and a half from the finish he pointed out two individuals walking several hundred meters ahead. “See the guy in the white shirt?,” he said. “He’s the last finisher for the 100 mile race. We are going to catch up with him.” That we did, and at 4:36 pm, 10 hours and 35 minutes after my start we crossed the finish line together. I did run the last 50 yards, which was the only running I did all day.
Then it was over! I felt great as I crossed the line, and could easily have continued on indefinitely. I sat down and ate half a pizza, and by the time I stood up again I had stiffened up a bit but still felt good. I drove the 9 miles back to my hotel, got some ice and chilled my knees and ankles, drank some Gatorade to replenish fluids and electrolytes, took a shower, and then a short nap. Within a couple of hours I was moving normally.
Works like a charm!!
In the longer run there was virtually no period of recovery required. I drove back to Long Beach on Sunday, stopping to meet Kerry and Danielle Ward for lunch at the Palazzo in Las Vegas. The drive back was pretty miserable–Sunday is the worst time to drive back from Vegas–but I did make it without incident. I resumed my normal activities on Monday, going to a Power Pilates class at Pilates X in the morning followed by my swing dance lesson with Mary-Morgan Childs. I did trim my dance class from 90 to 60 minutes as my right ankle was a bit tender, but that had cleared up by the next morning. That week I did four ballet classes, three Power Pilates classes, two yoga classes, my swing dance class, two Gyrotonic sessions, and a couple of bicycle rides. My body has responded not as if I punished it in some way, but more like I just had a really good workout.
I am now thinking that a 100K is in the works, and my goal for next time is to be able to run enough so that I am not left behind. I most enjoyed the times when I had the company of other people. I particularly love getting to know people, and the people who one encounters in an ultra are a rare and special breed. Next time I plan on making yet more friends.
The End…. Or is it?
Postscript–I have been telling everyone that I was the DLF, or Dead Last Finisher. I have been informed by those in the know that the proper abbreviation is DFL, which stands for Dead F@%king Last, a moniker that I still wear with pride!