X

Classic U.S. Ultras: The Zane Grey 50 Mile

[Author’s Note: This is the second article in a six-part monthly series on classic American ultramarathons. Each month between March and August, I profile a race and share a bit of its history. Here is part one on the Way Too Cool 50k. I hope you enjoy them!]

Later this month, the inaugural Zane Grey 100k was scheduled to take place in central Arizona. Unfortunately but understandably, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the race has been canceled.

The Zane Grey 100k has its roots in the Zane Grey Highline 50 Mile which was founded by ultrarunner Pat McKenzie in 1990. Traditionally, following the entirety of the 55-mile-long Highline Trail, the Zane Grey 50 Mile has long been considered one of the most difficult 50-mile races in North America. The trail, which snakes along the bench just below Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, is a rugged beast with steep rocky climbs and descents, long sections between aid stations, and broad exposed segments of trail which leave no protection from Arizona’s brutal sun, even in April.

In the first running of the Highline Trail 50 Mile in 1990, legendary Arizona ultrarunner and erstwhile underwear model Scott Modzelewski was the first across the line in 12:55. That first year there were 17 starters and six finishers, all male. The first female finishers arrived the following year in 1991 when Lorraine Gersitz and Leslie Mattingly crossed the finish line together in 10:54. That same year a wet-behind-the-ears 28 year old from Colorado named Kirk Apt who finished a bit behind the victorious women. The next year Apt, who today has the record for the most Hardrock 100 finishes at 25, was first across the line in 11:36.

For three years in the mid-’90s, the race was shortened to 50k but returned to the full 50 miles in 1996 when renowned Wasatch Front 100 Mile winner Dana “Mud and Guts” Miller won in 10:26. That same year, in a circumstance that would become all too familiar at Zane Grey, the first-place woman, Joanna Urioste, was the second-overall finisher.

In 1998, a young up-and-comer from Minnesota named Scott Jurek came down to brave the Arizona heat and won the race in a then record time of 8:48. That year’s race launched Zane Grey onto the national ultrarunning stage and for the next dozen or so years, Zane Grey was annually one of the most competitive 50 milers in the U.S.

In ’99, Ian Torrence notched the first of his two Zane Grey victories when he lowered the course record to 8:31. That same year Sherry Kae Mahieu and Valerie Caldwell set the women’s course record when they tied for the win in 11:01. It was 2001 when I first ran Zane Grey and my training partner Dennis Poolheco blazed to the victory in 8:47 while four minutes behind him a young, cocky runner from Utah, Karl Meltzer, closed hard for second. I finished a distant third that year a full hour and a half behind Meltzer and hot on my heels was Ruth Zollinger of Utah, the fourth-overall finisher and women’s winner in 10:25.

Over the next 10 years, the top finishers of Zane Grey reads like a who’s who of ultrarunning royalty of the era. Among the victors on the men’s side were such folks as Meltzer, Nate McDowell, Chad Ricklefs, Josh Brimhall, Kyle Skaggs, Jamil Coury, Anton Krupicka, and Geoff Roes. Topping all of those speedy men was Dave Mackey whose 2004 course-record time of 7:51 stands to this day. On the women’s side, the list is equally impressive with Petra Pirc, Diana Finkel, Emily Baer, Anita Ortiz, and course-record holder in an incredible time of 9:14 from 2004 which also still stands to this day, Nikki Kimball.

Over the past decade, the ultra calendar has become more crowded, the competition at the front of the pack has lessened a bit, and wildfires have necessitated some course adjustments. Despite all this, the history, challenge, and beauty of Zane Grey remains and, with any luck, the inaugural Zane Grey 100k, now scheduled to debut in 2021, will launch this iconic race back into the ultra spotlight.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from THAT Brewery in Pine, Arizona. While their beers are only available in Arizona, they have become well known throughout the region. Their flagship beer, Arizona Trail Ale, is a generously hopped, slightly sweet American Pale Ale that is wonderfully thirst quenching at the end of a long day on the Highline Trail, or any trail, really.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you run the Zane Grey 50 Mile?
  • What stories can you share about it?

Karl Meltzer on his way to taking third at the 2012 Zane Grey 50 Mile. All photos courtesy of Ian Torrence.

Ian Torrence at his 10th Zane Grey in 2012.

Diana Finkel running toward second place in 2012.

Andy Jones-Wilkins: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (8)

  • The t-shirt came in the mail after the race with finishers listed on the back and DNF's listed in the armpit. Instead of a race bib you got an cattle tag with your number on it. Linda and Geri were race directors when I ran it in the 90's. It was my first 50 mile and I was running with Frozen Ed and we went off course early. I panicked and ran hard to get back on course and not miss a cut-off -- did not want my name in the arm pit. I don't think Frozen Ed panicked and he finished as well.

    I went back last year after a long time away from running and Linda was at a remote water only aid station - I was last one through that aid station and missed the next cut-off. A shout out to Linda for running a great aid station at another classic race - sausage and egg burritos and hot coffee in the Telluride park! I was looking forward to going back for an attempt at the 100K -- registration rolls over to next year, so next year it is!

    Cancel reply

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

  • Has Kirk Apt really ever been wet behind the ears? I thought he was born a wise old soul. :-)

    Cancel reply

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

    • This is what happens when Meghan Hicks is too busy to fact check AJW! ;-)

      Cancel reply

      Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

  • Zane Grey is the race I tell people where I transitioned from someone who runs, into the noun and identity, ultrarunner. Its a trial of fire and dust and vert and I love it! Excited to be on the list for 2021

    Cancel reply

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

  • Ok, for this I'm going to briefly lift self-imposed vow of silence: when it comes to sub-100's ZG50 has got to be at the top of my list -- just tough, tough, tough!

    I remember seeing Ian there last year when he finished for what I believe is the CR 15th time (he worked for it), and I remember a couple years back at a finish line, maybe Chimera, a younger out-of-town guy was telling a story about the time he finished top 10 at Zane and how proud he was until his wife, not well versed in who's who among ultrarunners, said something like but honey, you finished behind some old man from Utah...

    My favorite part wasn't the swag -- the shirt, the printed out pic, the warm-up top -- what I liked best was when, in lieu of a medal or whatever, you got to reach into that bucket and pick out a rock from the course: perfect!

    2021 it is!

    Hope you all are well...

    Cancel reply

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

  • When I got into the ultra game Zane Grey was a must run. If you were a mountain ultra runner you knew about it and wanted to run it.

    My best memory of the race was just before the start I looked up at the sky was amazed at all of the stars. It was so beautiful. The rest of the day was pretty much pure torture. Ha

    Cancel reply

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

  • Hi Andy, You forgot to mention Scott Creel! Zane winner, and probably Montana’s best trail-ultra runner!

    Cancel reply

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

  • Great memories of the 2010 race. Fast Eddy for the win after Karl withdrew with a broken arm (not a great memory). I do remember suffering in the sun and sharing some miles with you AJW, and Ian Torrence.

    Cancel reply

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*