Monday, April 11, 2016

Zion 100 Mile

The thing about reading someone's race report is you can skip parts, jump around, skim. If you were actually running the race, on the other hand, you'd have no choice but to take every, last, step—in order, one at a time.

If I were a good enough writer, I'd be able to help you feel what it's like to run 100 miles. Sometimes I think it'd be possible to do such a thing. Not right now, though.

Of course, I could tell you about some things that happened on the run. I could relay the facts, give you the play-by-play.

To be sure, some really terrible things happened: In the first two miles—it was still dark, and I didn't have my headlamp—I nicked my big toe on a rock. I didn't think anything of it until I felt an unusual slippery warmth underfoot. I looked down and saw blood everywhere. I quickly stanched the wound with my bandana and carried on. The bandage came loose and I retied it, again and again. Later, around mile 20, I thought I was going to have to throw in the towel after experiencing a throbbing headache, debilitating leg cramps and the kind of drowsiness that rarely manifests at 10 a.m. I was on a 7.5-mile section of petrified sand dunes,* and the sun was beating down. And then I ran out of water.

As all ultrarunners know, though, things always get better. Some hilarious things happened. I tried taking a selfie once and I ran into a prickly pear bush (deservedly). Later I got to pee off a cliff, fulfilling the dreams of every 10-year-old boy. At one point I thought I was gaining on my friend Shaina, who was also running the race, and I said coolly, "Well, fancy seeing you here," to a young woman who turned out to be a complete stranger. She turned around and said, "Oh, hey! How's it going?" To which I, still coolly, just said, "Oh, good. See you later!" and cruised on ahead. Around mile 52 my mom showed up with McDonald's, which I hadn't eaten in years, and so I had part of a cheeseburger because why not. One of the best parts of the race was running a six-mile dirt road in the dark; the terrain was easy enough that I didn't need to see, so I turned off my headlamp for a while and walked among the stars. It was incredible.

But still, it probably took you like one or two minutes to read those paragraphs.

Based on that, can you really wrap your head around what it's like to keep moving, from dawn to dusk to dawn, climbing mesa after mesa in the southern Utah desert? Being subject to the whims of the desert weather, knowing you need to eat but worrying it'll upset your stomach even more, trying to remember, again, why you do this to yourself. Stopping at an aid station at mile 85 and, from under the canopy, feeling the rain evolve into a torrential downpour and waiting to see if it'll let up soon or if you'll have to go out in it—when that cot in the corner is calling your name.

Maybe the only way you can really know what that's like is by doing it.

But why? I think there's tremendous value in ultrarunning, the nature of which I am still trying to unravel. (Indeed, it's part of my academic research.) I have to concede that it's probably not for everyone, but I do think virtually everyone can do it. (As much as I get lambasted for suggesting as much.) 100 miles is far, but it's not that far. It's hard, but it's not that hard. It doesn't take great athletic ability, per se, but rather a peculiar mix of smarts and idiocy. You have to be dumb enough to sign up but smart enough to finish. If you want to be reductionistic about it, running 100 miles is a series of thousands of micro-decisions. It's cognitively taxing, probably more than it is physically taxing. It's not about exerting yourself physically—rather, it's a practice in coming to grips with a seemingly-endless low-level discomfort. It's hard, but it's not that hard. This paragraph probably seems absurd to people who aren't already ultrarunners, so I'll stop it here.

On that note, I'm not sure where this "race report" is going, so I'll wrap it up. I'd like to give huge thanks to my mom who came out to support me on this little adventure. And to Max and Shaina, who it was great hanging out with before, during and after the run.

P.S.: If you want to get something of the ultrarunning experience without leaving your seat, just keep rereading this post for the next 26 hours. For added depth of experience, go outside, preferably while it's raining.

* * *

*The locals call this "slickrock," but I call it "spacerock." It's found on top of some of the mesas. It's basically an enormous undulating rock with holes and chasms all over the place. Like running on an asteroid. (Go back up.)

Click photos to embiggen.

The expo

Ascending the Flying Monkey mesa at dawn. Even with my toe bleeding prodigiously, I couldn't help but ogle at the view. Sprawling mesas in every direction, and a parade of headlamps like fireflies.

A bit higher up Flying Monkey

Fortunately it was cloudy for most of the day. The high-sun parts were barely tolerable. If it were sunny the whole day, I'm not sure I would have finished.

Around mile 14 cruising on some flat areas

One of the course's smaller ascents

Thought I should have a self-portrait from the race. Shortly after taking this photo was my run-in with the nopal.

The photos don't do justice to the striking scenery. We were running among these ancient mesas for the whole course—perhaps that's why I was so out of breath.

The race was right in time for the first wildflower blooms. Amidst the red clay and greenish shrubbery were here-and-there explosions of yellow, red and purple flowers.

Looking down from the edge of Guacamole Trail

I used to be down there, but now I'm up here!

A decent view of slickrock. This is the Guacamole Trail. Look for the teeny tiny people in the center of the photograph for scale.

Red rocks!

Ascending Goosebump. This was the steepest and longest climb of the race. It made me so grateful I'd been doing barbell squats and deadlifts. Again, look for the tiny person up the trail.

Looking down from the Goosebump climb (Gooseberry Mesa), and this isn't even all the way up!

Same view as the previous picture, but now from all the way up. This gives you a sense of the climb. Yowza. 

After ascending Goosebump, we ran a 12-mile roundtrip trail out to Gooseberry Point. A.k.a. more spacerock. This view made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park. So not only did I have to be afraid of running into elk or mountain lions, but I was afraid of velociraptors.

Cool tree!

At the very edge of Gooseberry. Hey, it's Clare!

Hanging out at Gooseberry. Stopped for the photo this time to avoid any cactus encounters.

Another view from Gooseberry

Near the end of the Gooseberry loop, heading back to the Goosebump aid station, around mile 46. Came across a random windmill. Made me think I was going crazy like Don Quixote.

Looking toward Zion around mile 50. The sun is setting.

This is what it's like running at night. Picture running like this for 9 hours when you're already tired. Some of those rocks look quite like pillows. 

After the maddening nighttime rains, the final six-mile stretch was a muddy mess. 

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