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Racing the Sun: Running the Zion Traverse

Dakota Jones’ account of running the Zion Traverse across Zion National Park.

By on April 3, 2012 | Comments

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 running 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.

Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.