Racing the Sun: Running the Zion Traverse

The Facts:

  • The Zion Traverse is a 48-mile linkup of trails between the East and West entrances of Zion National Park. It can be run either direction.
  • Matt Hart holds the Traverse record of 7:58, run East to West.
  • I ran the Traverse on March 30, 2012 in the same direction.
  • My time was roughly 8:15, or 8:20, or possibly much slower.
  • I didn’t take a watch.
  • I live in a truck, and couldn’t find a shower after my run. You can imagine how upsetting this was.
  • Zion means Jerusalem in Hebrew, and is often used to indicate sanctuary.

Knowledge is hard to come by. I attended college for two years because that’s what you do after high school, and I learned a lot. But I eventually lost interest in the steelbound learning environment and came to resent the obligatory jumping-through-hoops that is required to get a degree in America because I had no purpose for being there. I had no goal that required a degree; the degree itself was the goal and with no intended use for it I saw my time and money being wasted. Someday I will return to college to earn a degree that will allow me to do something I really want. Until then I’ll keep practicing what I’m good at. Right now that’s running.

So there I was, running across Zion National Park, when all of a sudden I got hungry. What a burden! So I found a Three Musketeers bar and took one bite which made me realize that this was too good to waste by running. You can’t truly appreciate food on the run. So I slowed to a walk and enjoyed my candy bar in full view of the Northwestern section of Zion. Rarely have I had such a fine candy bar experience. After that the run took on a different appeal.

Zion National Park - Dakota Jones

The landscape around Zion is vast and rugged. The canyons are deep, the plateaus cold and the vegetation dense. The water that has carved these canyons is swift and icy, while wind constantly rakes the high cliffs. Blue sky is torn by rapid cirrus clouds; sandstone peaks and grey vegetation extend to the horizon. Three days before my Traverse, I ran on the high elevation sections of the trail and found that early season snowmelt had transformed them into horrendous tracks of mud, denying purchase even to my nifty, trustworthy and I’m-not-being-paid-to-say-this Montrail Rogue Racers. On that run my pace was slowed to a crawl and I had few hopes of a quick passage through that section later in the week. But when I came upon the West Rim and Wildcat Canyon Trails during the Traverse I found that the hot sun had firmed up huge portions of what had previously been all but impassable. This would have been a huge boon had I been worried about the record. Instead, I sat down at a spring and drank deeply.

“If I had an orchard, I’d work til I’m raw. If I had an orchard I’d work til I’m sore,” I sang out, enjoying a totally-not-free-because-I’m-sponsored Clif Bar. I looked in my pack and pulled out my iPod – the only hope I’d had of a stopwatch, since my expensive-for-non-Garmin-athletes GPS watch does not hold a charge for any serious length of time. I found that the iPod had died, leaving me with no way to prove my time, even on the off chance that I pulled out a record. This made me feel….no different. I was just out running.

Zion National Park - Dakota Jones

My life is full of questions, and now all the more so because I’m not in school. I wonder what I’m doing with my life, how to be productive, if I’m doing the right thing and so on. I’m never sure, even writing this, if my life is of any benefit to anybody, even myself. But occasionally I have moments that seem to demonstrate that, despite all my doubts and misgivings, my path is good. For these few moments at least I know that I’m truly happy. Sometimes I’m in the middle of a rock climb, while others I’m reading in the sun, and one time I was running across a national park.

As I ran across the park, I had an overwhelming sense of how small we are. The world appeared as a globe – huge from our perspective but tiny to most others. Humans are tiny molecules compared to landscapes such as these, and even our planet is merely an atom in a vast universe; but for what we are, we have pretty good lives. The natural world lends itself to contemplation.

Zion National Park - Dakota Jones

I place certain expectations on myself to do well, and have trouble relinquishing the prospect of a record. The reasoning behind this is: “if I’m not in school then I better be kicking ass at whatever I AM doing.” So the hard part about running the Zion Traverse was to not let my desire for the record tarnish my long-term training schedule. Attempting a record right now would have reduced the quality of the experience for me, which may seem surprising given my record attempt at the Grand Canyon last fall, or my inherent competitiveness. But although still new, I have been in this sport long enough to reflect that trying to be the fastest isn’t always the most fun. Sometimes I like to take a walking break and eat a candy bar. This year holds many exciting races and challenges, so why rush the competition? I was just a little guy in a big place, trying not to act too big.

Of course, if anyone else breaks Matt’s record I’ll be headed right back to put the kibosh on it right away. That record is mine.

Sunday Conversation

Dakota: Hi, are you guys hiking the Traverse?

Hiker: Yes! We started at the West entrance and are on a five-day backpacking trip across the whole park!

D: Cool! Actually, I think I saw you guys on a run the other day.

H: Oh yeah? Were you running parts of the trail?

D: Yes. Several of them.

Dakota Jones home

My home.

There are 40 comments

  1. Nicole W

    So awesome…I didn't mind college, so I never wanted to drop out, but went immediately into the military and then become a responsible wife and now mom, never lived this dream. Good for you Dakota.

  2. Brendan

    That's just great Dakota, live the dream, work out what you want to do then do it, but all the while have fun and enjoy what the world throws at you.

  3. Speedgoatkarl

    I had the exact same college experience Dakota. Sure,it's the conveyer belt of life, and we are all expected to take that ride, but when you know you are only there because others expect you to be there, it's time to bug out and go run….or ski like I did. Life is to short, work to live, don't live to work.

    I"m headed to Zion tomorrow, not running the whole route, but I'm sure it'll be ok. :-)

  4. David

    The cost of college is just getting ridiculous, and while teaching some good things, it mainly teaches one to conform. Forge your own unique path, which you already seem to be doing quite nicely. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn't need a degree. Good luck and keep living the dream.

  5. diesel-san

    Dakota, You roll on. I'm a 55 year old "veteran" ultrarunner who has been fortunate and lucky with a career. I've hired hundreds of young talents and you are clearly mature beyond your years. Self reflection, courage to pursue your convictions, empathy, ability to slow down and appreciate what's going on around you, competitive, thoughtful – these are all exceptional traits of someone who will lead a meaningful life. When you feel it is time for a "formal" education, you will pursue it. In the meantime, you are living like it is meant to be – and you are to be commended. Live on, run on, take it one day and challenge at a time and let life unfold in front of you.

  6. John Wallace IIzi

    Next time take a photo when you set off and take one when you finish. Subtract the time stamps and you'll know how long it took. I'd advise against any 72 hour lose your arm adventures though. Oh and p.s. hope to see you at White River 50 again this year!

  7. Phil Jeremy

    Many,many years ago (I'm 57) I did something similar to you and someone said 'Do what you are doing but do it for no longer than 3 years'…..It was crap advice,I say do it your whole life if thats what you feel.Love your blogs, love the truck.

  8. Dvroes

    Dakota,

    You're living in luxury in that truck. I wish you could see the VW Rabbit that Geoff lived out of after dropping out of Syr. Univ. because it had no purpose. Best of luck with all that you do and continue to enjoy the ride.

  9. Rachel

    Dakota. I have been lucky (unlucky?) enough to get into law school, be a lawyer and earn the big bucks… And you know what? It kinda sucks. Look, don't get me wrong, money is important and it makes the world go round. And if you are lucky enough to find that special someone one day and have a family, you'll need more of it to support them. But people who have lots of money (presumably, after going to college) SPEND lots of money. The more they make, the more they spend. Before they know it- they're trapped in a cycle of expensive holidays to destress over their busy lives, spending ridiculous amounts of money of things they don't need and doing things they want to do.

    So right now- don't worry so much about college. You're clearly a bright kid. Take advantage of the opportunity and the captive audience you have. Live life with no regret.

    Most importantly, know that things change. d

  10. Dr. Thomas Redeker

    Hi Dakota,

    great story, you guys, I mean, Geoff, Killian, Tony are so awesome, I am looking forward to see and hear from you guys, extremly motivating.

    Take care. Thomas

  11. Steve Pero

    Nice truck!

    Yes, you are enjoying life, which many don't do. Deb and I are now living life large in a cabin at 8200' in the Jemez Mountains. You have a place to stay if you're ever in our area.

    Keep running the way you're running and it'll take you places where no degree ever would.

    degreeless Steve ;-)

  12. CraigR

    Dakota! I think what you are doing is something most of us only wish we'd have done. College certainly isn't for everyone. Sure, a degree opens a few doors, but those doors are becoming less and less these days.

    Go live your dream and run your A$$ while you can.

    Oh, and I echo Steve Pero's comment. If you are ever passing through Indiana along I-80, my wife and I have 2 extra bedrooms and a shower to boot that literally never get used :).

  13. Morgan Williams

    "I have been in this sport long enough to reflect that trying to be the fastest isn’t always the most fun"

    Dakota

    I enjoy reading your work more than anyone else who writes about trail running.

    It strikes me you have a bunch of degrees already, not least in fine writing, and a sense of humour that fits perfectly with many illustrious forbears who have written about endeavour in the mountains.

    Don't stop anytime soon.

    Thanks.

    Morgan

  14. Gilbert

    Dakota/Karl,

    What timing! I'm headed to Zion tomorrow for a long weekend, and was hoping to run some sections of the traverse. How's the trail from the Grotto up to the West Rim trailhead? I know most people run the opposite direction, but I want to get the vert (I need all the help I can get for Speedgoat!). I was also thinking of doing Observation Point and the East Rim, are the trails ok? I'd rather not slog through mud the entire time. Thanks for any beta you have.

    Gilbert

  15. JeremyJ

    Well, if you want to get one of those records, you are going to need a better watch.

    To get a better watch you will need some money, which you can get from getting a job.

    If you are going to get a job, you might as well get a good one, which will require college.

    If you are going to go to college, you would have to grow up and stop being a bum.

    But then again, maybe you don't need the watch.

  16. adam

    Fully support you squandering your youth! However, as a 7 year road tripping dirtbag climbing bum veteran….I have to scold you on your truck set up!!!!! You gota get that rig hooked up! A quick search on supertopo should get you all the ideas you need.

    Adam w

    PS gota agree with dvroes, you do have a plush rig.

  17. Ron

    The story is a good one and many of the comments, too. I'm happy that it has worked out for some of the commenters and for the writer, so far, as well. But the statistical fact is that for most people a college education is necessary for a good job and it more than pays back the investment over a lifetime. And a good career can allow you time to run, as well. And a good education can help give a young person historical and critical understanding of what they encounter in the everyday world. An education is what you make of it. And yes, it does cost too much, especially in the U.S.. But, looking at all the gear in that truck I think of the Chinese workers that made it, giving up their lives to work so that their sons and daughters, whom they may not even see most of their lives, can get an education and have a good job and career. Some of the commenters seem to offer silly narratives of Bill Gates or 'On the Road with Running Shoes' as an answer to these things, and as an old goat I have to state my disagreement; statistics and experience with other cultures not as well off as our own bears out that such is a disservice to the young who are reading this blog. It isn't running versus education, but rather education, and running. Further, the ancient ideal was in strength and intelligence and morals for a person. The anti-educational rant of some of these comments is naive and embarrassing to me. Runners used to be among the best educated athletes, and if one looks at the demographics, mature athletes who run occupy the highest education and income levels of any fitness type.

    1. olga

      Is there a "like" button?

      That's the old school. And I am it:)

      A summer on the back of a car, a year off school to explore…sure. Stating the school doesn't provide any meaning? Questionable. May be you are in a wrong school, or taking wrong classes, or don't have a vision. Hopefully this trip will help you out. Enjoy youth and responsibility-less-ness. It doesn't last:)

  18. Carson Lindbeck

    Hey Dakota,

    That was a fun article to read. We met while I was on a hike in Canyonlands last year, and you were training for hardrock. I then saw you on campus a couple of times, and at the rock wall. Well, i'm still at CSU, getting my second degree, and I wanted to say this:

    Follow your heart. What all these people are saying is true. I say this because it comes from experience. Before college, I hitchhiked for 8 years, never owning more than would fit on my back. I also rode the freight trains to get from point A to B, and I did all this because I knew that I didn't know what I wanted to "make" of my life. I followed my heart, which led me to all my favorite national parks, and mountains and beautiful places. I wouldn't ever trade it. With patience, it came to me, and I have followed the path ever since, and I have a feeling that it may work out in a similar way for you. However, that doesn't mean that you need to wait until you get the signal to go back to school, because your life may take you somewhere different. I'm just saying that following your intuition at this moment will not lead you astray, and it will lead you naturally to the crossroads you will encounter, whether they be academic or otherwise. For me, it was to be a veterinarian, and I am totally happy with that. The story for you, and all of us remains to be written until the book is closed.

    Although it may be hard at times, enjoy the ride, because you never know when it will end!

  19. James @reddirtrunner

    Great write up as always. I enjoyed reading it.

    I tell folks that graduating college was among the greatest let downs in my life. I wish I knew now what I thought I knew back then. I would have done things very differently. I believe you have a good idea to live some life, gain some experience and then consider returning.

    Regardless, good for you. Keep the adventures going and the articles coming.

    Cheers.

  20. Jeff

    Ron,

    Thanks for that lecture Ron, didn't realize you were Dakota's father and God. You just keep on drinking that Kool-Aid dude, there's plenty to go around.

    Dakota,

    Live it up brother! Hope you're having the time of your life. Thanks for sharing.

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