John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Monday, April 18, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Zion 100 - Quick and Dirty Hundo Running

The terrain around the Zion 100 is beautiful!
Zion 100, April 8th, 2016:  A fabulous race over incredibly beautiful, expansive sedimentary desert mesas, canyons, and washes.  It's also where I pretty much wrote the book on how not to race 100-miles.  In this race report, I may or may not attempt to convince myself that how I prepared and raced was entirely adequate and should be the blueprint for all future races, while simultaneously outlining why I done fucked up good.

1.  Preparation.  

100-milers deserve respect, nay, they DEMAND respect!  If you show up to race 100-miles without some respect for the distance, you're likely to, as Howie Stern says, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.  This respect means preparing: miles run, hills climbed, sleep gotten, and healthy food eaten.  Right.  So for Wasatch Front last year, I logged 100+ mile weeks, 25k+ weekly vert, diligently worked my core and flexibility, drank significantly less beer than I had previously, and entered the race feeling strong and ready to tackle one of the toughest 100-milers that the US has to offer.  For Zion this year, a number of things differed.  Allow me to elaborate:
  1. I ran LA Marathon, my A-race for the early year, just 7 weeks before Zion.  I worked the road and track extensively, and put in almost no vert.  I also didn't log more than 70 miles in a week and only did that once.
  2. After LA, I focused on recovery and rebuilding my languishing mountain legs.  I had planned this phase in before I signed up for these races.  7 weeks to get mountain legs hard could a hundo with only 10,000 ft. of vert be?
  3. I hit a couple of 30+ mile runs to prepare and thought, "I can survive on my base  miles...from LAST YEAR...totally."  No weeks over 70 miles...I'll just hike the climbs and coast on my LA Marathon flatland speed.  Sound plan, dude.
  4. I like beer, so I consumed a nominal amount.  Probably didn't help me achieve racing weight (see 'lack of miles', above).  My diet could have used work too.
  5. Sleep? Consistency? Work sent me to Florida like 3 times in 5 weeks.  Not only is that the fucking worst place outside the 7 circles of hell, but it's flat as shit to boot.  Even Sisyphus got hill training during his eternal damnation.  (note to self: Google around for Sisyphean training plan for hills)
  6. To ice the cake, my core and stability work (after completely destroying myself at LA) was lacking.  I was working long hours and making excuses why half workouts or no workouts were OK.  Nice job, asshole.
OK.  So my preparation was as good as it could have been (was it? Not really.) considering that Zion was not a priority for me (clearly), so why was I racing it anyway? I'll tell you:  I need more experience at the 100-mile distance.  With AC 100 coming up this summer, I wanted another hundo to have shit go wrong and learn lessons (foreshadowing: lessons were learned).  Additionally, I wanted some UTMB points, and last year Zion was awarded 6, so I'm hoping they get the same this year.  Finally, running some shitty loop course is fucking bullshit.  Zion's beauty is stark and majestic, and the race comes highly recommended by literally every runner that has ever set foot on the course.  This meets all of my criteria for a 100-mile race.

Next time: If possible, put in the miles.  70, 80, 90 mile weeks with workouts, vertical, and plenty of recovery.  Also, no plane flights or flat landing.  Florida blows.

2. Paying a-fucking-ttention.  

I showed up at the race with my buddy Pedro the day before the race.  Pedro was going to race, but was dealing with injury recovery, so instead of signing up/signing the death warrant for his hip, he decided to come out and just run Angel's Landing and enjoy the desert with some shorter miles.  I got my bib, prepared my gear, ate a shit-ton of ravioli and went to bed.  The sky is still light at 8:30pm in South-Western Utah at this time of year, but I eventually knocked out for ~7 hours of sleep around 9pm.  Coffee/Breakfast and I was at the start ready to go by 5:55am.  We camped at the start/finish which was amazingly convenient.  The weather report/copious emails from the race director that promised the rain apocalypse indicated that rain was in the forecast.  No rain as of the morning, so I was feeling good, but I packed a rain shell just in case.  

OK, so far I'm still paying attention.

Running around Flying Monkey Mesa
My nutrition plan was to use these new Ultimate Direction soft flasks filled with Fluid Performance Drink and supplement with Clif Shot gels (Vanilla, my favorite.  That shit tastes like frosting.  Not exaggerating, keep it away from your kids).  The math adds up: 100 cal per flask, plus 100 cal gel = 300 cal per hour.  19 aid stations means that I should average somewhere between 250 and 300 calories an hour depending how much I eat in the aid stations...perfect.  Right?  You guessed it, wrong.  I'm an idiot and though it seems reasonable to drink 29 oz. of water an hour, I was NOT EVEN CLOSE.  Normally, in the summer time, in the mountains, 29 oz. of water an hour is easy, but at Zion it was cool and I wasn't downing the drinks.  So now my drop bags are packed and distributed with a failed nutrition strategy.  Way to pay attention, self.  Idiot.  Additionally, it's fucking hard to guage how much of a soft flask I am drinking.  Is it half? Maybe? I dunno?  There was some chugging involved at almost every aid station.  My normally methodical in-race calorie counting was FUBAR before I realized it 30 miles in.  Fuck.  More on this later.
Cruising into Dalton Wash Aid @ Mile 30 w/ Matt Smith.  You can already see my hips are unstable! Photo: Pedro Martinez
OK, so I wasn't paying attention to nutrition.  I must have done other stuff right...right?

Rewind to the start.  We already know that my nutrition is soon-to-be out the window, so what about my racing?  Maybe if I'm being conservative, since my preparation was lackluster, I wouldn't be blowing through calories, so failed nutrition wouldn't be in issue.  Good theory, but obviously it's incorrect if you are sensing the foreshadowing of the title of this section.  Well done Sherlock, you've cracked the case!  At mile 0, I had heard there are massive conga lines that form between the 100-milers and 100k-ers who start together and climb Flying Monkey mesa within the first 4 miles.  Actual good idea (seriously): go out a bit hard for the first half mile or mile to line up at the front.  I started the climb in maybe 20th or 30th position and was not at all wasted (yet).  Maybe this was a good idea, or maybe a conga line would have forced me to control my pacing better, I dunno.
Sunrise from Flying Monkey Mesa
What I do know is that after the first mile, I settled into an effort level (judged by heart rate) that was similar to Wasatch Front last year.  This was a ridiculous idea for a couple of reasons.  1. Last year I was clocking weeks with hill repeats, intervals, tempo runs, long runs.  My lactate threshold was sky high, meaning that my lactate threshold heart rate was probably sky high too.  This means I could have been burning significantly more calories per hour at Zion than at Wasatch at the same heart rate (or maybe not...maybe the LA Marathon LT work carried over.  I dunno...physiologists, correct me).  2. A burly aerobic system does not strong legs make.  Just because my engine was spinning at low effort, doesn't mean my non-mountain legs were ready to support this effort on steep mesa climbs and descents.  Damn.  No attention being paid.

OK, so I'm a mild disaster zone in the first 30 miles, compared to what I'd like to feel like (except for that one dude we passed on the way down who was at mile 15 going up and looked like death) did I completely blow it, or just blow it in those 2 areas?

Let's find out.

I get up onto Guacamole Mesa around mile 17 or so and do a 7.5 mile loop on single track and slickrock.  The expansive vistas rose above the marbled, rolling rock and dominated the view in most directions.  Breathtaking!  Unfortunately, slickrock is hard and not-ever-level, and I could not find a rhythm.  Accelerate, turn, wobble, step, spot for a marker, decelerate, turn, step...and on on on on on.  Does this sound like I could have used a strong core and hips?  Yes.  Did I have these things? No.  I focused on hip positioning, cadence, and form, but that only goes so far with weak muscles and structure.
Matt Smith, Nick Budzyn, and Debbie (Livingston?) running by a slickrock pool of water on Guacamole Mesa
By the time I hit the aid station before the descent, I could feel my back tightening up and my legs feeling worked.  Fuck dude.  This is like, 25 miles in.

I suppose this is a good time to mention that in addition to my poor decisions, as mentioned above, I had also found my buddy Matt Smith, the Kodiak 100 RD and overall awesome dude.  We were cracking jokes and having a good time sharing miles and I didn't want to let the knowledge that he's way faster than me plus my ever-growing-more-beaten-up legs get the best of my totally-reasonable heart rate data that was encouraging me to continue at this pace. So I stayed with him all the way down from Guacamole, through Dalton Wash aid at mile 30, until mile 34 where he smoked me up the last half of the Gooseberry climb.  On the descent from Guacamole, we talked about how we both felt worked, but I'll be honest in that I think he was less worked than me.  Or maybe that's wishful thinking.
Cool formation from the Gooseberry climb.  I think this is where Redbull Rampage is held!
Can it get any worse?  Maybe, but they say it gets worse before it gets better, right?

I clock into Gooseberry Aid #1 and am realizing my calorie mistakes.  It is now becoming tough to take gels with Fluid to wash them down, so I switch over to Fluid in 1 flask and water in the other and 2 gels per hour.  This worked great.  Fluid is amazing and easy on the stomach, so I enjoyed getting as much calorie from that as possible while still being able to take down gels.  This means that every one of my drop bags is heavy on Fluid and light on gel.  Luckily, I made it work with aid station food and gels.  The Zion 100 aid stations are STOCKED! Pickles, bacon, and quesadillas were my new best friends!

I set out to get the 4.5 miles to the Gooseberry Point Aid.  I thought I was done with slickrock, but NOPE! Sadly there was a metric fuckton more.  My back was getting worse and worse and I was stopping to stretch regularly.  Nothing was working, I had a dehydration headache from my nutritional disasters of the first 30 miles, and my mind began to wander into the darkness of how I was going to finish the race with a weak back, worsening form and impending pain.  I got into the aid station, ate more pickle and 'dilla, and headed into the 1-mile out and back to Gooseberry Point where we punch our bibs to signify completion of the section.  I saw Matt almost a mile ahead of me, and after hitting the aid station for a second time, headed back out onto the 6.5 mile section to get back to Gooseberry Aid #2.  More fucking slickrock, flag spotting, and white dots (the slickrock, thankfully, is marked with white dots for the mountain bikers to follow to get from single track to single track).

I'm worried.  Really worried.  I'm feeling better by the moment, but my back is still wrecked at only 47 miles in.  My girlfriend recommended childs pose stretching n(via text, yep, was texting updates to my buddies while I climbed), so I tried that and some cat/cow stretching in the aid station...and it worked!  My back released I and I finally felt better!  I don't know if it was getting my hydration and nutrition back on track, as well as the stretching that worked, but things were clicking again...20 miles later.

Next Time: Retain my methodical approach to calorie counting.  I like the soft flasks, but I think I will have to use bottles at AC.  Not just because of the counting difficulties, but I will need the extra water at a race as hot as AC.  Be smarter about pacing for my current fitness.  Be diligent about core work to support working hard over rough terrain.

3. Planning.  

Meadow/Farmland on Gooseberry Mesa.
Grafton Aid Photo: Nancy Kaplan

I actually put a lot of thought into my drop bags.  I tried to estimate course pacing, make good use of multiple-pass drop bags, and plan adequate gear for the expected temperatures.  I left Goosebump Aid #2 with my nighttime gear: In addition to my rain shell, which I carried all day, I brought arm warmers, gloves, a buff, and my headlamp in my vest and set out for Grafton Mesa Aid, 6 miles of wide-open fire road away.  I was clicking off 12 minute miles on average through this section and got into Grafton feeling great!

Leaving Grafton w/ Pedro.  Photo: Nancy Kaplan

My buddy Pedro had showed up at mile 30 aid (Dalton Wash) and was also at Grafton Mesa...but this time, he was wearing his running gear!  He said he was going to jump in for the out-and-back to Cemetery Aid and after filling up on Fluid and Clif Shots, we were off!

We rocked the descent to Cemetery...rolling, annoyingly curvy mountain bike single track with breathtaking views of the Zion National Park canyon entrances that eventually dump into a really cool, steep descent down a grass-lined trail of dirt and blackrock.

Cemetery Aid Descent.
It was about this time that the skies opened up and DUMPED.  The rain felt great, but I put on my arm warmers and we continued down the hill and into the aid feeling refreshed and then a little wary of the continuing downpour.  I filled up at Cemetery and headed back up the hill in my rain was cold on the steep climb!  Solid working on the hill and talking with Pedro, we rolled into Grafton #2 and I bid him adieu to start the 6 mile journey back to Goosebump Aid #3 under clearing skies.  I was actually running the 'hills' and 'descents', and feeling pretty good about things.  I was still feeling beat up, but at 60+ miles in, I was gaining confidence that I could make it in my current condition, and the beat up feeling of my legs was not dragging me down.  I had changed shirts twice in this section with another change planned at Goosebump to ditch the final wet shirt before night.  My rain pants were in my Goosebump drop bag, and I decided to leave them since the weather report indicated a decreasing chance of rain, and it was currently not raining.
The road to/from Grafton Mesa Aid Station.
Sunset on the way back to Goosebump #3
Well, after immediately descending the Gooseberry Climb (a face into the ground, chinscraping climb), my legs were again toast and I still had what I thought was 5 miles in the dark to the next aid station.  The relentlessly rolling fire road wound through washes and over ridges, seemingly traveling further and further into the desolate desert with no lights in sight.  I hit 5 miles later, where I thought the aid should have been, and it was pitch black.  The aid stations have these lights that are on 12 foot poles and show light for miles in each direction.  I could see the Goosebump Aid station light on the edge of the mesa for the remainder of the race, that's how bright it was!  But in my current position at mile 74.5, I was in the dark.  I didn't realize that it was 8 miles from Goosebump #3 to the next aid.  Fuck.  So I pretty much lost my shit for 2 miles: I ran out of water, struggled with stability, and silently cursed the world for the lack of an aid station.  It's somewhere around 9 or 9:30pm, so I've been running for 15ish hours on poor decisions, fucked up nutrition, and climbs/descents that my legs haven't seen for 6+ months.  I'm at a low say the least.  I finally hit red flags (flags indicating the first of 3 loops that I would soon have to complete) and knew I was at least within striking distance of the aid station.  1.5 miles later, I made it and sat down, exhausted and determined to keep my bad attitude to myself.  As soon as I cruised in, Pedro shows up, wearing full night running gear, ready to help fill bottles.  I packed up my vest, ate some food, and started violently shivering.  It was only 50+ degrees out, but as most 100-miler runners know, thermo-regulation goes out the window at this stage.  I drank some broth and headed out with Pedro to tackle the Red Loop: 4.7 miles.  I put on my rain shell to warm up (was already wearing all my other night gear) and within a half mile was warm again and hiking well up a very runnable climb (for someone who is not a broken shell of a 100-mile running man).  3.2 miles of climbing, and 1.5 miles of descending later, we were back at the aid.  I felt pretty good and was running the descent well.  I was in great shape for running sub 24!

White Loop.  Oh fuck.  We did a sub 1-minute aid to avoid the shivers and set out on the 6-mile white loop.  Wind started blowing.  Rain started falling.  My rain shell over arm warmers and wet shirt, even with hood up, gloves on and buff on, was not keeping my core warm.  I was fucking freezing.  My hips started to hurt and IT bands started to get tight.  Pain seared into my right leg as I kept my head down to keep the rain out of my face while I zoned into the headlamp circle to keep hiking.  50 degrees with wind and rain is nothing if you can move well and have sufficient caloric intake/thermo-regulation, but in my state, I was a shit show.  No words were spoken.  I just kept my head down and got passed by at least 3 runners as I took a 2 hour, 6-mile loop.  On the 2 mile descent back to the aid station, the pain got bad enough that I started limping until I found a weird walk-stride-turkey-gobble-something to move downhill faster than a walk but slower than a run.  This may have been the worst I've ever felt in a race.

With all that being said, race management is, I think, my strong suit.  Adapting to challenges and creating new plans to overcome adversities, so I created a plan in my mind of things that I needed at the aid station, and related it to Pedro who was patiently plodding behind me.  I always feel bad for a pacer who is dealing with a fucked up runner...pacers generally love running but are forced to walk at a snails pace on what is ostensibly great trail.  He even chose to pace AND crew me out of his own accord...I had planned on solo running the whole thing.  I was and am immensely grateful that he decided to show up because it helped me out of a really tough spot into a lot more comfort.  Here's how:

At the aid station, I headed into the warming tent (yes, they had an enclosed tent with chairs and heaters in it!) and took 4 Tylenol.  Then I stretched...everything.  Anything I could think of.  I dumped my trash, changed my headlamp battery, reloaded gel (not just for the next loop, but for the entire race, including Fluid as well).  Then Pedro came in from the the car, where he had grabbed my fleece pants and synthetic mid-layer jacket.  No rain pants to be found, since I left them at Goosebump like an idiot.  Idiot.  He also brought my hiking poles.  I knew that if I was going to be stuck at a hike again, poles would help a ton.

We headed out onto the trail for the final Blue Loop of the Virgin Desert section of the race.  6 miles and then another 6 to get to the finish.  It was 2:20am.  I knew that if I was going to hit 24 hours (6am) I needed to hike HARD.  So I started hiking fast.  I moved along downhill away from the aid station, waiting for the Tylenol to kick in so I could try to run.  About 10 minutes in, Pedro stopped to change flashlight batteries, and I kept on moving.  The trail steepened, and I decided to try and run it.  I picked up my poles and holy shit I could run again!  No pain!  I ran.  I have no idea what pace, not incredibly fast, but at least I could stomp some trail.  Curve after curve, I descended down to the Hurricane Canal.  Still no sign of Pedro, so I kept moving as the trail started to climb next to the Canal.  Pedro finally caught me with an exclamation of relief, thinking he had lost me because I had started running and he didn't expect me so far ahead.  We threaded and wound our way through the desert and light rain back up to the aid station by 4am.

Next Time: Plan for contingencies.  At least a long sleeve, if not a jacket to go under the shell at night.  Don't leave the rain pants at the last aid.  Just run them down and stuff them in the next drop bag.  Have everything I need in drop bags, not in the car.

4. The Finish

I really thought that I would need 2 hours to give myself some buffer space to finish the race in under 24 hours.  A runner told me I should ditch the poles, so I gave them to Pedro and took off by 4:01am.  I hammered the first 3 miles downhill to the road.  I think I covered this section in 35 minutes at which point I knew I had it in the bag.  Only 3 miles to go in 1.5 hours.  I can do this, especially feeling this good!  I took down my Fluid, and continued eating gels to keep my energy up.  My legs were holding up surprisingly well, and I reached the culvert at SR-9 ready to climb.  Unfortunately, the rain had started to fall heavily as I descended, and by the time I crossed under the road, the trail was a slip-n-slide!  I navigated upwards, attempting to pick the least slippery lines up climbs and skate/ski down the descents to traverse the terrain from the highway back around to the finish.  I lost a ton of time on these sections, but my watch kept me confident that I wouldn't be out of luck.  I wasn't, and after a slippery last 2 miles, I crossed the finish line with a time of 23:32.
It was a poorly executed race on my part, but I managed my self-made difficulties well to get to a sub-24 hour finish.  I think on a good day, I could approach 20 hours on this course, but not this day.

Pedro was at the finish, and after a cup of water, we headed back to camp and I crawled into my car to get into dry clothes and sleep.

The Aftermath

I've thought a lot about the race and what I could do better for AC.
  1. Consistency in the mountains.  It's tough to replace mountain running and be fast and comfortable in the mountains. Especially over 100 miles.
  2. Core & stability cannot be neglected.  I have a herniated L5/S1 disc from my college rugby days, and I think I have a wonky gait, because no matter how much PT I do, I have to be diligent with my stability and core work to support mileage and vert.
  3. Nutritional consistency.  Keep on with the tried and true nutrition plans.  Take that out of the equation as something that is likely to go wrong.  I'm adding pickles and sweet potato/salt to my AC100 list.
I think with a focus on these items, I should be able to eliminate some of the unnecessary suffering of my Zion experience so that I can fully focus on the necessary suffering.

The Main Gear

  1. New Balance 1210v2 Leadville - 1 pair of shoes the whole way.  No issues.
  2. Injinji Trail 2.0 Socks
  3. North Face Better Than Naked Long Haul Shorts
  4. Ultimate Direction AK Mountain Vest 3.0 w/ Soft Flasks
  5. Julbo Aero Photochromic Glasses
  6. Clif Shot Gels (Some Shot Bloks) and Fluid Performance Drink
  7. Garmin FR310XT w/ HR Monitor
Photo: Pedro Martinez

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