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

AJW looks at the Zane Grey 50 Mile, a classic American ultramarathon.

By on April 3, 2020 | Comments

AJW's Taproom[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

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.