Like most ultra-distance running stories, this one begins with an alarm going off well before any intelligent person should be waking up on the weekend. In this case, it is my alarm and the time is 3:40 a.m. The goal of the day is to run across Zion National Park on an iconic, 48-mile route known as the Zion Traverse as fast as possible. Simple.
I slid out of my sleeping bag in the back of my car and fumbled with the stove to make coffee for the group. My three companions on this spontaneous trip to the desert include my friend and running partner for the day, Justin Yates, as well as Justin’s girlfriend, Paige, and our friend, Jeremy, who both came to crew for us.
Only 48 hours previous, we committed to this trip. Both Justin and I were looking for a fun adventure and set our sights on the Zion Traverse, a test piece of a route with an established FKT. In 2012, Luke Nelson had lowered the FKT for the East-to-West Route, our intended course, in a time of 7:48:47, though Travis Macy cut down the time significantly running the West-to-East Route in 7:27:46 this spring. With a little research and a lot of excitement for a quick trip to the land of sunshine and warmth, we loaded into my Subaru and headed south.
The night before our little jaunt, we camped just outside of the East entrance to Zion. Justin and I discussed what our goals were for the day ahead. We both agreed that finishing the traverse together while setting a new FKT would be the ideal outcome, though there would be no hard feelings if one of us was having a better day than the other. We both had our excuses ready in case. I had done a 37-mile run only five days prior and Justin was bouncing back from a rib injury that had limited his training volume recently. We both hoped not to have a reason to use these the next day.
After the wake up call, a little coffee, food, and a five-minute drive, we found ourselves at the East Rim Trailhead and the start line to our day’s journey. I had a sense of calm excitement looking forward to the adventure ahead. Being my first attempt at an FKT, it was quite a different feeling from any race start line I have experienced. I felt mentally calm and eager for a hard day in the hills. Maybe it was the straightforwardness of the goal that I really embraced: simply run as hard and smart as you can from point A to point B. That is it. No other racers dictating your pace. No hype or outside expectations. No spectators other than the lizards, deer, and hikers along the route. Simple.
East Rim to The Grotto (0-11.5 Miles):
And so at 5 a.m., with very little fanfare other than a quick photo and the obligatory 3… 2… 1… countdown to sync our watches, we loped off into the darkness with headlamps blasting. The air was cool and crisp on the rim and I reveled in it, knowing that we would not enjoy the reprieve from heat for much longer. The forecast was for 85 degrees and sunny and this Montana boy was excited to avoid as much of that as possible.
The first stretch of trail was a great warm up for the day ahead with small rises and gradual drops for the first handful of miles. Last spring I had actually completed the Zion Traverse as a training run so I felt confident in my knowledge of the route. This, however, didn’t stop me from missing a junction and taking us off course for a good three minutes in the first hour of our effort. Justin gracefully observed it was better to happen early on when we were still mentally sharp and had a higher tolerance for adversity. I agreed and that was that; we didn’t mention the mistake again.
Before long, we were able to make out the grand and dynamic scale of the terrain around us in the predawn light. Glimpses of the canyon below taunted us for some time before we began our descent towards the Virgin River. The trail went from a steep and technical singletrack to a concrete, six-foot wide path before spitting us out onto the road at the bottom of the canyon. We ran the mile or so stretch of pavement to The Grotto for our first refill of water. We had been moving for 1 hour and 35 minutes.
The Grotto to the West Rim Trailhead (11.5-26.5 Miles)
By 6:30 in the morning, there was only one busload of hikers who had embarked on the trail ahead of us. We passed a half dozen of them on the ascent up to Angels Landing and I could not help but think of the other factor of the day, besides the heat, which could slow our running significantly, the close to 40,000 people forecasted to visit the park on the same day. Luckily most of them were much more intelligent than Justin and I and had set their alarms for a more respectable time in the morning.
I settled into the climb feeling strong and appreciative of the rare solitude on such a high-traffic trail. The sun was still up on the rim somewhere and my thoughts traveled no further than the hope to hear a canyon wren or two greeting the day with their sweet song echoing off of the sandstone walls.
The climb from The Grotto to the West Rim Trailhead includes around 3,500 feet of vertical gain. I set the pace most of the ascent with Justin right behind me. We were both well within our limits, pacing ourselves with the hopes of a strong split the final third of the day. Both feeling good and lifted up by the incredible views to the west off the rim, we settled into the dry and sarcastic banter which has helped us pass many miles together in the hills. Today’s distraction was the where-would-Rob-Krar-be-by-now-game:
“Rob Krar would be icing in the creek by now.”
“Rob Krar wouldn’t even need to drink fluids.”
“Rob Krar’s beard alone could go sub-seven hours on this route.”
“Rob Krar would just run back to Missoula after this.”
…and on and on.
This distraction took us along the West Rim and through the slightly underwhelming terrain of Potato Hollow to the West Rim Trailhead. There we met up with Jeremy and Paige for some fluids and fuel. Our total time was 3 hours and 55 minutes.
West Rim Trail Head to Hop Valley Trailhead (26.5-35 Miles):
The next nine miles of trail were perhaps some of the most runnable of the day and Justin was pressing a strong pace along this portion. I was battling a little stomach distress and relegated myself to holding on for the ride until I could turn things around. The banter had dropped off and the most remarkable part of this section was how significantly the terrain and vistas had changed in such a short time. We were out of the canyon with its towering, red, vertical walls and off the slickrock near the edge of the rim and now passing through a mixture of high pine forests and sandy plateaus. Intently focused on keeping up with Justin, I was surprised to be at the Hop Valley Trailhead to receive our final support 5 hours and 11 minutes after we had begun the day.
Hop Valley Trailhead to Lee Pass (35-48 Miles):
We made a quick stop for a bladder refill and grabbed a few hundred more calories each before setting off on the most challenging slice of the day’s itinerary. Yes, it is the last stretch of trail, but it is what happens to the trail that is the real issue. It turns to sand! Soft. Slippery. S*%tty. Soul. Sucking. Sand. It felt knee deep at times, though I doubt I ever sank in past the midsole of my shoes. Yes, Hop Valley is beautiful I am sure. I’d love to see it some day. Justin and I were, however, both transfixed on the objective at hand. We struggled to stay both positive and efficient searching for that perfect balance with each foot strike requiring the least amount of energy. Accepting it with grace, not energy-wasting frustration, when we stumbled or faltered.
Finally, we made it to La Verkin Creek and saw a sign for Lee Pass, our terminus, just six miles ahead I was starting to smell the barn and feeling like it was time to use the little energy I had left. Justin, after leading almost the entire middle third of the route, settled in behind me wordlessly. We battled with the sand a bit longer before it gave way to firmer, red-dirt trails. After an hour of perpetual bad footing, I was surprised to have decent leg turnover on the more accommodating surface. We clipped away a couple miles, getting closer to our goal. We chased lizards off of the trail with our footsteps. We passed numerous backpackers and day hikers with a, “Hi there! Thanks so much!” I grunted and yelled, which has always helped me to crawl deeper into the cave while Justin kept to his quiet intensity. Only a few miles from the finish I turned back to see Justin grinding away. “Well, we’ve come this far. There is no way in hell we aren’t going to finish it together,” I said between labored breaths.
With that I tried pushing the pace even more, hoping Justin would latch on for the ride like I did with him through my low points of the day. I settled into my highest gear and focused on running the short bit of trail ahead of me as well as I could, stringing 50 meter by 50 meter sections together one by one, getting closer and closer to the finish. Suddenly, I could see the parking lot and shortly thereafter, I could hear the hoots and hollers of Jeremy and Paige. I had climbed the last ascent well and turned back to see Justin.
He wasn’t there, so I stopped. And then I yelled, “YATES!” at the top of my lungs. After he dragged me along for miles today and we managed to stay together for 99 percent of the route, climbing the final steps to Lee Pass a mere minute or two ahead of him was not an option. Before too long, I saw his red trucker’s hat coming up over the rise. I’m sure I let out a “WOOOO-EEEE!” as I settled into stride right next to him. We ran side-by-side up the stairs to the Lee Pass Trailhead signboard where Jeremy and Paige were waiting. And then we stopped. Our watches read 7 hours, 22 minutes, and 6 seconds. Simple.
Every time I take a trip to the desert I am obsessed with the colors of the landscape. I swear I have never seen a sky so blue or a rock wall so red as I have in the American southwest. More than anything, it is the stark contrast of the colors which reaches a level of aesthetic I still have trouble grasping. Would the sky appear so blue without the sandstone wall’s red hues to compare? Would the indescribably green leaves of the cottonwoods draw the eye without the deep and cloudless sky as a backdrop? I don’t think so.
Both Justin and I made small sacrifices in the day to stick together along the route. The thought crossed my mind that either of us may have run the traverse faster had we embarked on the mission alone. However, the optimist in me would argue that our slight compromises brought out the best in each other two Sundays ago. Our individual experiences had sharper lines and cleaner edges contrasted against one another. Justin and I have dozens of long runs in the bag together and a handful of true quality adventures in the mountains pushing each other. This foundation set the stage for a great push and pull chemistry all day long. In the end I will never know what the outcome would have been had we gone at it solo. And in the end it doesn’t matter. We accomplished our goal to have a good long day of running together in Zion and setting a new FKT along the way. I couldn’t be happier.