It was January 1st and I was attempting my first run of the year while on holiday vacation back in the states. That 17km run was painful because I was A. out of shape, B. 7kgs/15lbs over my typical race weight, and C. pretty exhausted from the night before. On that run, I decided it was time to get my act together and use the New Year’s Rich Roll podcast with David Goggins as my fuel to get back to top form. I went back to my training logs and found that the best thing for me is to run streak aka run every day. The way I can do that is by doing the vast majority of my runs at a very easy pace which prevents injury. As fate would have it, the new Mexican president decided to create a gas shortage to fight theft from fuel lines. Since I didn’t want to wait 2-3 hours to fill my tank, in mid-January, I began commuting to work by foot—a journey of 12-13kms/7mi. That allowed me to build a big base for my fitness. On top of that, I stayed out of the brutally horrible Mexican traffic. For the next 3 months, I ran 99 straight days leading up to the race and had 11 straight weeks of over 161km/100mi. Along the way, I saw amazing gains in fitness getting to the best shape of my life. I dropped 10kgs/22lbs and set two half-marathon PRs in a span of three days without intending to.
Going into the race, I had a good level of confidence. Because of my fitness gains and looking at previous results of the Zion 100km, I thought that I had the potential to podium (finish 1, 2, or 3) and set a new PR for 100km which was a 10:48 two years ago at the Javelina 100mi. In fact, I dared to dream big and wanted to go for the win—something I had never thought of in my 6 years as a runner.
This was my 6th ultramarathon and I’ve refined my routine down to a science. I woke up at 3am, got some food and coffee and headed to the start arriving at 5am. My wife and I hung out in the car since it was barely above freezing that morning. Around 5:30, we walked over to the starting line. I positioned myself at the front because I didn’t want to get stuck behind the 500 runners going up the big climb, 425m/1500ft in around a mile or less, to the top of Goosebump Mesa. The race started with around ten of us in the lead pack. I was a bit surprised at the pace as we were at a <5min/km or 8min/mi rate. I though fewer would begin that fast. Looking around, I didn’t think everyone would sustain the pace and some may have have had early race adrenaline pushing them. At 7km, we hit the giant climb and boy was it a kick to the mid section. To prepare for this climb, I practiced often by hiking up the staircase in my 24-story apartment building. I would do 4-7 repetitions and would skip a stair to simulate hiking up a mountain. It really helped condition my muscle groups for climbing and also gave me a true mental boost. At 8-9km, we reached the top and I crossed the timing mat at the first aid station (Goosebump) and headed towards the course markings in front of me. The aid station volunteers cheered me on and were a bit surprised I wasn’t stopping.
On top of this mesa the views were astonishing. The trail was single track and slightly technical with various rocks mixed in with the dirt. It was right up against the edge of the mesa which gave me views below that reminded me of photos I had seen of the Grand Canyon. It also freaked me out because one false step and I’d be falling to my demise 1500 feet below. About 6 or 7 minutes in I heard a motorbike approaching and some screaming. Hmm, what could be happening? I listened closer and I heard, “YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” I headed back to the guy on the bike. There was a group of four of us and he said we could go back or finish this loop and skip it later in the race. Another runner spoke up and said he wanted to go back because the timing would be all wrong and it would be hard to figure out the rankings throughout the race. Since I really didn’t know what to do and the fact I had just listened to the Ultrarunners Podcast with the race director of the Georgia Death Race regarding not following the proper course, I decided to head back with the pack.
As we were running back, I did remember seeing a runner headed back to the aid station from the beginning of this trail. I thought he forgot something at the aid station but he must have realized it was the wrong way. For the sake of ultrarunning and sportsmanship, it would have been nice if he said something but I chalk it up to focus and him trying to figure out what was going on. He may have been unsure and was trying to get verification. I think he ended up 2nd overall. Our pack arrived back to Goosebump aid station with a loss of 12-15 minutes. To add insult to injury, the race workers had installed a new barrier to prevent all other runners from going the wrong direction and they re-positioned the timing mat to face the correct direction. Instead of 5th or 6th place for me, I was now behind 100+ runners and quite perturbed. All this training I did and the fact I was going for the win to have this happen practically out of the gate—what the &$#% was I going to do now??!!
WWGD was the answer to my current plight. That means What Would Goggins Do? For those who are unfamiliar with David Goggins, he is an amazing story of perseverance, self-teaching, and mind discipline. He came from a devastating family situation and suffered terrible hardships only to figure ways to turn the situation on its head to achieve things everyone thought impossible. I implore you to look him up. The answer to the question WWGD was for me to shut the (blank) up, stop complaining, and figure what needed to be done to right the ship. Starting down the correct trail, I pushed the pedal to the metal and arrived at the next aid station over 10km away in less than 50 minutes! I was flying and worked my way up the field passing numerous people.
I arrived at Grafton Station to meet my super crew aka my wife. We worked out our plan before the race for her to have bottles and gels ready for quick exchanges to limit downtime. I got rid of my jacket, grabbed my grub, and sped out in roughly a minute or two. It was a 3km downhill to Wire Mesa aid station and I continued to push the pace. I still had no idea of my position but when I looked at the results after the race, I had climbed up to 55th. The Wire Mesa loop was a little more technical than the double track drive-able dirt roads between Goosebump to Wire but not super difficult. It had a lot of winding back on itself but I locked into a good groove. After completing this loop it was the same 3km but uphill to Grafton. This is where I started making some headway as well because I didn’t walk any of it and most of the other runners were taking walk breaks to rest during the inclines. For me, the grade was exactly like my daily run from work to home. It was my “bread and butter” so to speak. At Grafton I swapped bottles with my wife and did an 8km loop with a solid effort. Ending the loop, I saw my wife for the third time. I loaded up on gels since I wouldn’t see her for another 4-5 hours. Coincidentally, there was a nearby speaker playing music with another crew waiting for their runner and a Disney song began…I recognized this as a princess song for my daughters, the one, the only, “Let It Go”. It was as if the heavens were telling me to shut up and stop worrying about the misfortune of the extra 2km earlier in the race. And from then on, I put it behind me and just focused on my best race I could have.
Heading back via the 10km to the Goosebump aid station it was mainly uphill with some flats but it was completely runable for me. Again, these were hills very much like the ones I train on in Mexico City. It was through this section where I caught a couple runners that were in that original lead pack. I asked one if he knew where we were in the standings and he said he thought in the back half of the top ten. I thought HOLY MOLY, great recovery and we were only half way done. I played leap frog with these two all the way to the aid station. I made a very quick stop for a piece of watermelon and a boiled potato.
The next segment was an 18km loop around Goosebump mesa and it would prove to be the toughest part of the entire day for me. The vast majority was across the uneven slickrock which made any sort of rhythm practically impossible. My definite weakness is highly technical terrain. I found I had to stop running often and hike the tricky parts. Instead of my typical 5-5:30min/km pace I had most of the day, I was clocking 7min+ kms. It was frustrating me but I just put my head down to persevere. I knew once I completed this section, I would make some hay after I descended the mesa. Those two runners I was leapfrogging both passed me in this loop because of my tentativeness. And to top it all off, I caught a toe climbing a rock and smacked both of my palms extremely hard as I caught my fall. I ended up whacking my right elbow quite bad in the process—but at least it wasn’t a full out crash and burn fall. Fatigue was setting in and I wasn’t lifting my feet enough. My Altra Olympus shoes have a great grip and while they kept me upright in most situations, I found them almost too sticky for dry slickrock. Although, it was probably “user error” and not the shoe’s fault—haha! My annoyance of the near fall didn’t have a chance to dissipate because less than two minutes later I did the exact same thing but this time a full crash to the ground—taking the brunt of the force with my right shoulder and hip. The lovely part about this was that I experienced the exact same fall two weeks prior and still had bruises which were not completely healed. Mmm-hmmm, “That felt spectacular!”, I thought in between my choice vocabulary shouted.
With approximately 3km to go, the trail converted back to single and double track allowing me to open my stride up again. I laid down a few 5 min kilometers and passed one of the two runners again. My focus, when I hit the Gooseberry aid station for the third time, was to get some ibuprofen for my fall and pop the AirPods in to listen to a couple great mixes I had cued up for the final 2-3 hours of the race. The bad news was that my dexterity was a bit deteriorated from fatigue and I struggled getting the pills out of a pocket in my drop bag. When I put my AirPods in, only one worked which added a couple more minutes to my stop to reset them.
I headed to the huge descent with great music in place ready to close this race out. My head was in a great place—lots of smiling, singing out loud to myself, and a ton of positive self-talk. I did get held up by a volunteer for a minute or two as he was warning me not to miss a turn at the bottom of the descent. I suppose this was their attempt at making up for what happened earlier to us. I turned to go again and he stopped me again asking if I saw some girl behind me…I had no idea who but I just wanted to go! I wish I didn’t get so delayed on this stop, but it was the only bad aid station transition all day so I chalk it up to a lesson learned for my after action report on what to improve next time.
The descent itself was fun but difficult. I slipped a few times but never fell. I felt very inefficient yet I employed a technique of turning my feet diagonal to aid with shifting loose rock/scree. Once at the bottom, the turn this volunteer referenced was beyond obvious rendering all that lost time listening to the advice useless.
From this point, I thought it would be mostly flat but there were some real climbs that surprised me. On top of that, some of our course took us through recently wet riverbeds—meaning there was plenty of mud. The issue with mud was the added weight to my shoes. I tried to choose my steps carefully without losing too much time.
As this section of 6km progressed, I encountered both of the two runners I had been leapfrogging all day. The first one was an awesome guy from Canada and, unfortunately for him, his quads were locking up. I know EXACTLY how that feels and it is awful. I gave him true condolences and motored on. In the distance I spotted this other tall runner from Utah that was much better than me in the technical sections. Yet, I told myself that we were on double track and the end of the race. That meant we were in “My Area”!
Sidebar: I am not a lifelong runner. I only got into it at age 37. I started ultras in 2013. I’ve never been a fast runner based on times I see from others. However, I have seen that I am a strong runner late in ultras which means I don’t slow as much as others. Maybe it’s my natural stubbornness, maybe it’s talent, but I lean towards my stubbornness that keeps me going late in the event.
Seeing him in front of me gave me a target. I was achieving nearly 5 min/km in this section. I truly attribute it to having a purpose. Had he not been there, I’m sure I would have fallen into a more casual pace. After 15-20 minutes, I reeled him in on an uphill where he was walking and I wasn’t. I gave him encouragement but also tried to pass with confidence to show him I was serious. I had read that from a psychologically standpoint, if you pass someone extremely hard that it would demotivate them and reduce the possibility they would try to keep pace. One year ago in the Massannuten 100, it worked for me in the final 5km. I passed at least three runners who had reached their limit. My passing velocity was so much faster than theirs that they never considered running with me. Little did they know, I was quite fatigued, too, but I wanted to move up in the standings.
From this point, I wanted to keep my position and not lose ground. I arrived at the Virgin River aid station strong. Many were cheering and my wife was expressing how proud she was. I found out that I was 5th overall and 4th male! All I could think about was to not let those behind to pass me. I was in and out fast thanks to the expediency of my fabulous wife. For the final 15-16km, I looked over my shoulder many times but only saw a runner once in the distance.
The majority of the final two sections was single track but runable. Yet, some of it was the dreaded slickrock. The other frustrating thing was that we were skirting a river to eventually run on both sides. This meant I could see future parts of the course but it would take me 15-30 minutes to arrive. Around 6km later I arrived at the final station which was water only. I decided I wouldn’t fill my bottles and use what I had left to survive until the end. I tried to drink from the tap but did not anticipate how low the tank actually sat. As I began to drink my legs started to cramp in multiple places…PAIN!!
Leaving this place, I knew I was practically home. I pushed as hard as I could. It wasn’t a noteworthy pace but it was a <6 min/km. That made me very proud considering we were ending a 100km. I came off the dirt/rock road to the main road of the town and tried to run even faster. I turned to the finish line around 10 min later and had a huge smile on my face. I crossed a champion—not of the race, but of my own challenges!
10:24 was my time…how to process this? I missed my goal of sub-10 hours. I missed the podium by one place finishing as the 4th male. I was sent the wrong way for 12-15 minutes in error. Then it hit me–I set a new PR for 100km in the Utah mountains. My previous best was in the flat desert of Arizona. Quite an improvement if I do say so myself! In any of the past 3-4 races Zion 100km results, my time would have been first or second. And to top it all off, my wife pointed I out that I was the top masters (40+) runner.
When I finally let it all sink in, I realized I had actually achieved the best race in my life and felt I could even do better!!! The net-net of it all was that I had put myself in the best shape of my adult life, finished 4th in a Western States qualifier, and had an amazing experience!!! Not bad for an old man.
I hung out at the finish line to cheer on the others. I found out the winner didn’t take the wrong route but males 2 and 3 did. This meant my wrong turn didn’t matter. However, I do think if I were around the front pack it might have pushed me harder to catch the competition. I could be wrong but I do believe it.
This was the best I have ever felt in all the years I’ve raced. The next day, I actually went out for a run and maintained a very respectable pace for 30 min. As I write this report, my running streak has grown to 106 days. I have set bigger goals than the Zion 100km in the hopes of continuous forward progress. My fitness is the best of my life and my near miss of a podium finish had only focused me more. What is certain is someday I will run and COMPETE in both the WSER and UTMB. My mindset is that I’m not just a casual ultra-runner. I may not be a professional/elite but I can compete out there on the trails—even as a someone who became a runner later in life.