One hundred miles is a daunting distance to walk. When you substitute the word “run” for “walk,” it starts to feel, well, just like a spin around Crazy Town. And that’s what a 100-mile run is — a very long, grueling, and unbearably beautiful funhouse ride on your own two legs.
At least, that’s what my race, the Zion 100, felt like to me — an all-night human-powered party in the Utah desert, complete with food, drink and a trailside vomit-fest.
When I first heard about ultrarunning (any race beyond the traditional 26.2-mile marathon distance), I was intrigued. A lifelong runner, I wanted to know how the race was physically feasible. And if it was physically possible, how does one train for it? Finally, how can the ambitious runner complete such an ordeal? As a journalist, I had been able to interview a few people who had ventured into Crazy-Town, and with their encouragement (some might call it a cult initiation) I decided to try my hand and legs at one.
I first dipped my toes in with a 50K in Moab, Utah in March 2022. I nearly died from heat stroke. Still, I finished, which gave me some confidence.
Then I continued to train for and complete the Dead Horse 50-Mile Ultra near Moab in November 2022. It felt exhilarating to be running in cooler temps. I was able to go further and run faster than I had in the 50K.
With two finish lines underneath my beltless shorts, I decided to sign up for the Zion 100 in March of this year. Why the hell not? What’s the worst that could happen?
I loved the training. I loved the thought of being able to cover more than 100-miles of ground on my own legs. When I had the opportunity to pace a friend for the last 40-miles of her 100-mile race in February, I got to see first-hand just how formidable of a task it would be. That only got me more excited.
I had to put together this giant physical, mental and tactical jigsaw puzzle. There was not only the day or days of the race to deal with. I had to learn about carrying a hydration vest and eating gels and chews. I would carry miniature waffles in my pack. I learned the hard-way I had to fully coat myself in an anti-chaffing body glide. I had to get a headlamp, backup batteries, and a portable charger for my watch and phone. I had to study maps and elevation and do hill strides and pickups and long runs and then back-to-back long runs.
Rest days were my favorite.
In most longer ultramarathons, the racers are allowed pacers and crew at a certain point. While I had assembled a world-class crew (my two childhood besties Amy and Kristen and my boyfriend Kip), none of them were runners. Though all three were adamant that they were not going to pace me for any length of the course, they did believe I needed a pacer for safety reasons in the night.
“We will clean the vomit from your hair and reapply the body glide underneath your armpits, but we’re not pacing,” said Kristen.
“We think you should have a pacer,” added Amy, who was busy listening up on the ultrarunning podcasts on how to be a good pacer and/or crew member, “but it’s not going to be us.”
What they didn’t realize was that knowing they were there when I was going to take on something this challenging was all that I needed from them. Yes, it was so helpful to have Kristen tracking me and telling me when I went off course (several times), and Amy mixing my electrolytes into my water bottles and refilling my pack. I wanted to hear all of them telling me how great I was doing and how good I looked.
Kip made sure that I had backup headlamps and batteries and knew how to hook everything up when I was too bleary-eyed to see straight. But it was way more than that. It was knowing that they were there with me on this wild journey.
A crew is a lot of things, and when it comes to ultrarunning they have a lot of specific duties. But the one that I can’t quantify is that these were my people, part of my tribe. Even when I was lost out there (tacking on bonus miles) and hurting, or tired or nauseous (sometimes all at once), I knew that if I kept moving forward I would eventually get back to them near some aid-station tent in the middle of the desert. That would make everything okay.
I’m not going to say that running a hundred miles is not hard. It is hard. It’s very hard. But it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
There are those marathons that we run that we do not have the ability to train for — like illness and loss, heartbreak or hopelessness. Those are things that have no clear start point or end point. You don’t know whether there will be aid stations or if there are when you’ll reach one. Will you make it?
As I hit Mile 60 and 70 and 80 and ventured into the unknown, I kept thinking that I had chosen this hard path. That was empowering. I had been able to go for a big adventure in the desert and bring some friends along with me. How cool is that?
Once everyone had landed and we were in our Quality Sleep Inn hotel, we all went to the Zion Ultra Expo the day before the race to get a lay of the land and pick up my race packet. There were so many interesting tattoos covering calves and forearms of very fit-looking individuals milling about that I felt kind of naked without one. We discovered that the Zion Ultra was not actually in Zion National Park but would begin at the Apple Valley Ranch near Zion, within a Bureau of Land Management parcel. They had a 100-mile, 100K, 50K and half-marathon all slated to go off one after another over a two-day period, with the 100-miler starting first.
I set off at 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning. I had a 36-hour cutoff to make it back.
I waved goodbye to my crew and headed out into the cool morning desert air with a headlamp on. That first 20 miles went by in a blur. There was a beautiful dirt road that rolled through desert floor for a few miles. We then hit a trail that started to really climb. The sunrise took place on a section of trail that was on top of a gooseberry mesa with tons of slick rock, sand and tenacious little juniper trees. We saw sweeping vistas of desert below and the other mesas we would eventually climb.
As the sun mounted, the sky turned from a pale violet to a silky blue. The red-saturated canyons and the seagreen and blue of the grasses made me feel like I was snorkeling on land. I felt like I was diving in and out of dry water. My eyes were trying to adjust to the way the light seemed to bounce off the edge of the earth. The striations of the mesas each formed such a unique pattern that reminded me of fingerprints. The junipers and cottonwoods looked stoic and lonely.
Mile 25 was the first time I was able to see my crew. They were ready for me with a baseball hat and sunscreen — both of which I had forgotten — as the sun was starting to sink its teeth into my skin. My left foot kept going numb. I had to lean on a split-rail fence and swing my leg from side to side to try to relieve whatever nerve was being pinched.
It was exciting to see my crew. I felt the temptation to stay, but all the podcasts I’d listened to had warned of staying too long in an aid station. I needed to get in and get out. My people helped me refill bottles, covered me in sunscreen, and hugged me. Off I went, running across the desert floor in the heat of the day, feeling like the luckiest girl in the world.
After that 50-mile mark
Because I had done the 50-miler, I kept telling myself that this race really didn’t start until mile 51. Well, at Mile 51 I got to the Flying Monkey. Kristen, who along with Amy had memorized the Runner, Pacer and Crew Manual, had watched videos of mountain bikers going down the Flying Monkey. They said that it looked absolutely terrifying. Some race reports alluded to this section as “downright irresponsible.” I kept thinking that it couldn’t be all that bad.
We dropped more than a thousand feet in less than a mile on a path that wasn’t a path, but more a blurred line in the sand that someone had traced from the top to the bottom of the canyon. My heart rate was spiked so high trying to navigate my way down this precarious descent that at first I didn’t hear the three mountain bikers with go-pros on letting me know that they were coming behind me.
Where did they want me to go? To the right was a deadly dropoff into the abyss. To the left was crumbling sandstone and loose rock. We had less than six inches to navigate our feet or wheels.
I pressed myself into the side of the canyon and just started praying as they passed me. When I turned back around, a rope appeared. I grabbed it and started rappelling down. Just as I got the hang of bouncing on and off the canyon wall, the rope ended. I was again left with nothing securing my body to the planet.
Finally, the pitch started to level out to a manageable degree. I could hear the cowbells and chatter from the upcoming aid station.
Not only my friends but an entire group of strangers were cheering me on. One man said they’d heard so much about me. “Kristen’s been making friends,” explained d Amy as she guided me towards a bag chair they had set up.
“That should be illegal!” I replied, pointing in the direction of the Flying Monkey as my crew helped me get cleaned up, restocked and ready for the nighttime section. I wouldn’t see them again for another 25 miles. “Someone’s going to die going down that thing!”
I knew when I left that I wasn’t sure what to expect next, but I was going to find out.
The night was both ethereal and stressful. The little pink course ribbon markers were so minimally placed that I kept thinking I would go off course and have to backtrack. I had just the cone-shaped light from my headlamp on the slick rock, the sight of my own sneakers, and the sound of my own breath to carry me forward. I was mostly alone in the night.
I would see an occasional runner and their pacer, but the greater the distance the more all 170 of us were spread out. Trails and roads wove through the desert night. I ran and shuffled, moving as quickly as I could, thanking the universe for carrying me this far.
I tried to follow the basic ultra-rule-of-thumb to keep eating 200 to 300 calories an hour and drinking several ounces of fluid. It had worked for my previous runs and training runs, but the longer you go the more your stomach starts to revolt. I was so nauseous on a seven-mile stretch that I had to force myself to take tiny sips of water.
I was powering up a steep hillside when everything I’d been taking in suddenly came up, and I stood bent-over on the side of the trail heaving until there was no vomit left. I was clammy, sweaty and teary.
Though I didn’t feel great after that, at least I wasn’t nauseous any more. I wiped my brow with my forearm and looked up at this veil of stars that swept over me like a cool compress.
I was going to be okay. I just had to keep going. I turned and ran down the hill towards the aid station — the oasis in the desert where my crew would be.
Mile 78 and the Mondo Z
After I took a few minutes to clean up, I hugged them and headed back out into the night. Mondo Z was waiting for me, as I knew it would be. I enjoyed my run/shuffle as long as I could until I hit the bottom of that climb, which appeared to be more an Alpine ski slope than a hill one could run up. All I could see was a long trail of headlights slowly bobbing up the mountain for what seemed like miles. “Don’t look up,” I cautioned myself. “Focus on each step. Left foot, right foot…”
I kept repeating that mantra. I would give myself five seconds to pause, put my head between my knees, and then keep pushing up. It wasn’t a question if I would get up the hill, but how. Gravity was pulling me backwards. I had no poles.
There was nothing to hold on to. The rocks and sand would slip beneath my feet as I tried to gain traction. I sidestepped for a while, and then tried to walk backwards. I tripped and fell. Then I scooted on my butt for a while then back up to the left-foot, right-foot routine. I asked God to help me find my way to the top of this hill. I said “thank you” every ten steps because that was ten steps more than I thought I could go.
Eventually I made it up. It had taken a long time. But here’s what I learned: In an ultra; every step is closer to the finish. You try to persuade yourself it will get better. You’re just not sure when, so you keep moving the best that you can.
There was an aid-station at the top. I loaded my water bottles with Coke. It was the middle of the night. I had 22 miles to go and I wanted to be firing on all cylinders. I hadn’t pulled an all-nighter in quite a while, but having been a mom of three kids four years old and under, plus being a reporter constantly on deadline, I was no stranger to sleep deprivation. I felt some energy return as I made my way to Mile 80, where I could give my crew one last hug before the finish line.
Amy calmed me, telling me I was well ahead of my time goal and had seven hours ahead of the grim-reaper cutoff time. I headed out towards the Wire Mesa and just kept repeating to myself, “Run when you can and walk when you have to.” At this point, I couldn’t really run anything that even hinted at an uphill. I could run flats and gentle downhills, but there wasn’t much that was gentle about Wire Mesa except the views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance and the silhouette of Zion canyons as the sun rose.
Smelling the barn
Time slowed here. The sunrise was so stunning that I was tempted to sit down and watch it, though I knew that I had to keep going. The wind was whipping on top of the mesa, and all I had was a thin shell that I could put on over my vest and hold it together with my hands. I hadn’t eaten in at least three hours and knew that I needed to. I could not bear to look at, smell or ingest anything in my pack. I was even beyond my love of Coke, and what existed after Coke?
I didn’t see a soul for at least eight miles on this mesa, and I started wondering whether I might not be going around in circles. I started to panic. I had no one to ask, so I just kept pressing forward. Okay, I told myself. You’ve already run an extra two miles from going off course, what’s another eight miles?
I was trying to work my mind around tacking on another ten miles to a hundred-mile race. When I finally heard some aid-station banter, I was happy and so relieved. I accepted a shot of pickle juice they were peddling. Though it felt like battery acid going down, I soon perked up. I only had nine more miles to go.
Nine miles! That was less than ten! I could smell the metaphorical hay in the barn. I started to realize as I looped back that I was alone because I had passed a lot of people just heading towards Wire Mesa as I was heading towards the Grafton Mesa, the last loop of the course.
This was such a stunning trail that I tried to inhale every bit of it. I was running along the edge of the mesa rim looking down at the Colorado River’s huge boulders worn down by water. They looked like free-standing sculptures.
My phone had hit service. I could feel it vibrating. I knew that my kids, friends and other loved ones were sending me messages of encouragement. I felt some life come back to my legs. At that point I knew that that barring some sort of catastrophic mishap or injury I was going to finish. I’m not going to say that the last few miles were easy on body or mind, but I knew this party was about to reach its crescendo.
As I got closer to the finish, I could feel all the miles in my legs start to throb and the blisters start to scream. None of it mattered. I knew I had been on this pilgrimage where all of life happened in one day, and that one day happened in all of life.
I was able to run in that last couple of hundred feet. I collapsed into my crew’s arms and started to cry. Yes, I was proud and relieved that I had crossed that finish line. I was also steeped in gratitude for the opportunity to go on this adventure and to have some of the people I loved most be able to share it with me.
I believe that we all have epic adventures inside us. We just need to listen and find out what they could be.