2014 Zion 100 Mile Race Report: Laid Back

If there was any mantra for my 17th hundred miler, it was “Laid Back.” This was the most chill I’ve ever felt going into a 100. George, aka Surf Monkey, is definitely “my brutha from another mutha.” He also happens to be Patagonia Ultrarunning Team Manager. Surf Monkey was my crew man and I was stoked. He’s been with me for both San Diego 100 wins the past 2 years and we’re dialed. He even mentioned how chill I was acting. Part of it was the fact that I’m attempting to run four 100 milers this year — an adventure I’m coining The Bronco Billy Suffer Better Tour. (I’ve only done 2 in a year, so new territory for me this season). The other reason was that Karl had dropped back to the 100K so it was not stacking up to be a show down. Speedgoat and I are good bros and similar in racing styles — consistent, good closing old dudes. I guess the experience a decade of running 100s brings doesn’t hurt, but just the same, I was bummed he dropped back to the 100K. Who knows what we would have run, time-wise. Definitely would have upped the anty a bit. Karl always runs strong, as he proved by easily taking the 100K course record and win.

Monday before though, I did find out Michael Aish would be in the race. I met Mike at TRE (The Running Event) in Austin in December. Both being shoe geeks and runners, we talked styles and philosophies. Mike is quite the accomplished track and road runner. A New Zealander living in the states…he’s qualified for 3 New Zealand Olympic teams (the 10K in ’00, the 5K in ’04 and the marathon in ’08. With a PR of 13:22 for 5K and 2:13 for the marathon, he obviously has good leg speed. That lit a fire under me a few days before. It was shaping up to be a race. But, ultra mountain running is different than running flat and fast and Mike’s pretty new to 100s. I was hoping my experience could even it out in the later in the technical stuff. I was glad I’d been doing some speed work this spring though.

I figured Mike would take it out fast, but instead he took it out mellow. I didn’t know if he had started for sure until 16 miles into the race. A good reminder as to how running 100s tend to be weird and unpredictable. Gotta learn to roll with it.

Jonathan Byers Photography

The starting line in Virgin, Utah on Friday morning. Photo by Jonathan Byers / jonathanbyers.com

Friday, 6AM. With my Black Diamond headlamp shining in the pre-dawn dark, we headed out through the little town of Virgin and up a road. The course quickly picks up ATV trails winding through the desert on our way to the base of Smith Mesa, the first major climb. First mile or so, I was leap-frogging with the 2nd place 100K runner and Karl (in 100K). By the time we started climbing Smith Mesa, Karl quickly gapped us by a couple 100 meters. By the top, I was thinking Aish didn’t show up for the 100 miler, as I was alone up front with only 100K front runners.

The morning dawned cloudy right when we topped out Smith Mesa, I dropped my lights at the aid station at mile 7 and started the dirt road and old paved road descent off the mesa 2,000 feet below at Sheeps Bridge Aid Station at mile 14. This is where I would see crew (George) for the first time.

As I came into the aid, I grabbed my fresh bottles from George and headed out to run the rolling mountain bike trails that wind over to Virgin Dam. After a couple of miles, the 100K course went left and we continued snaking along the lip of the Virgin River canyon. Soon after that intersection, I saw a guy catching up at a good clip and figured it had to be Mike. And sure enough, he caught up to me and asked who was in front of us. I replied, “We’re it.” I explained that Karl was in the 100K (he was not aware as Karl’s name was still on the 100 mile entrants list online).

Virgin Dam

Mike and I arriving into Virgin Dam aid station at mile 23. Photo by Jonathan Byers / jonathanbyers.com

Virgin Dam trails

Mike and I leaving Virgin Dam aid station. Photo by Jonathan Byers / jonathanbyers.com

Mike and I talked training and experience for a bit. We came into Virgin Dam aid station at mile 23 together. I was in and out faster and he soon caught back up to me. We ran together chatting as we started the traverse over to the base of Gooseberry Mesa. The old dirt 4WD road was choked full of steep, winding rollers and we soon were having sporadic conversation as we power hiked up 30 yard grunt climbs only to top it out and roll another steep 30 yards off the back side into another roller.

We hit the intersection and the right turn up the canyon that looks like the scene from Star Wars when the Jawas attack Luke’s landspeeder. Luckily, we avoided Jawas and Sand People and started the steep singletrack climb up to Goosebump aid. A dainty little 1,200 foot climb in less than a mile.

I led up the steep climb mostly power hiking with my hands on my quads. We topped out the climb and right into Goosebump aid station where George was waiting with my fresh Ultraspire handheld bottles. We hiked through the aid station and exchanged bottles and I got a fresh Gu Roctane Gel flask and took off before Mike. I glanced a few times over my shoulder, expecting Mike to do another surge to catch up, but the sandstone trail is windy through low junipers and pines.

Goosebump Aid Station

Arriving Goosebump aid station at mile 31. Photo by Jonathan Byers / jonathanbyers.com

Running along the top of Gooseberry Mesa, mile 31. Photo by Jonathan Byers / jonathanbyers.com

Running along the top of Gooseberry Mesa, mile 31. Photo by Jonathan Byers / jonathanbyers.com

The next 11 mile loop is out to Gooseberry Point and around the top of Gooseberry Mesa on a Sandstone mountain bike trail. If you’ve ever been to the Slickrock Trail in Moab, this is essentially what the loop is kinda like. Almost entirely on solid, gritty sandstone rock (aka slickrock) following white paint blazes on the rock. Running on slickrock is challenging since it’s built for the rolling rhythm of a mountain bike. The running rhythm of sandstone is kind of an anti-rhythm.

Four miles later I was at the ½ mile out and back to Gooseberry Point. There was supposed to be a remote aid station at the point, but later we found out a few of us up front beat the aid station staff to it and it wasn’t set up yet. When I reached the sheer cliff face turnaround at the point (literally no where else to go), I glanced at my watch to see how far back Mike was. I soon passed him about 4 minutes back on this little out and back section of trail.

Since the aid station wasn’t set up, I spent the next 7 miles conserving water. I had scouted this portion the day before and knew that once I saw an old windmill, I was within a few minutes of the aid station. I soon had the windmill in sight and was into the aid and out with new bottles and Gu flask from George and running the slightly rolling 7 mile dirt road to Grafton Mesa.

Since Mike is a very fast track and road runner, I was trying to keep pushing my pace on this section, as I figured he’d be able to make up that 4 minute gap quickly on this runnable section. I was a few miles down the road when George drove by and leaned out the window and said he stayed 20 minutes at the aid after I left and Mike hadn’t shown up yet. Wasn’t sure what to make of that, but kept plugging away. I got in and out of Grafton Mesa at mile 49 and around the 5 mile technical singletrack loop on top of the mesa and back to the same aid station at mile 54 to find out that Mike had dropped from the race at mile 43.

At this point, I had at least an 1 hour and 20 minute lead on the new 2nd place and I was ahead of course record pace. So, I decided to keep pushing for the record.

I took off down Grafton Road’s steep gravel road descent to meet George at the Grafton Road intersection. I got to the crew-only spot to find George kicking a soccer ball around in the middle of the road by himself. I had a big enough lead all day that he ended up by himself most of the time. He’s a trooper.

After a quick bottle swap, I was off to Eagle Crag and the turnaround at mile 60. I tried to pump this section out. Soon enough I was heading up the climb to the radio towers at Eagle Crag where I downed some broth (thanks Turd’l Miller). Turd’l and I had a quick chat and I was off.

There was a mom with her young son and daughter walking along the dirt road when I got to the aid station and I met them on my way back out. They cheered and I held out my hand for a high five and said, “Don’t leave me hangin’!” They both slapped my hand, even the mom. The kids were stoked and it gave me a little boost.

I was soon bombing down off the ridge and back the paved road toward the historic old west cemetery of Grafton before the long steep singletrack climb up the north side of Grafton Mesa.

I topped the climb out and made the double track route back to Grafton Mesa aid station at mile 68 an hour and a half ahead of course record pace. George was pumped and reminded me I could PR for 100 miles. I said I’d try, but my stomach was acting a little squirrely at this point.

It had been off and on all day and I think the culprit was the meal the day before. My son and I both have a subtle soy allergy and I suspect the soup I had at the pub the night before had some soy in it. I forgot to ask (I tend to get lazy about it sometimes), but I had all the usual symptoms. Whatcha gonna do. Roll with it.

I climbed up the Grafton Mesa Road and just as I arrived at the intersection to turn west to head the last 4 miles toward Gooseberry Mesa, a car stopped and Jesse Haynes jumped out to say good job. Jesse paced me the last 20 mile of San Diego 100 last year.

He was crewing Keira Henninger, a Patagonia Ultrarunning Teammate, who fell on sandstone and dislocated her hip! (She’s okay and will make a full recovery).

After seeing Jesse, I turned west and headed back up the gravel road to Goosebump aid. This was a tough 4-mile section that’s slightly uphill with a headwind. This part of a 100 is always slightly tough. It’s kind of no-man’s land. I still had over a marathon to go, evening was fast approaching and my stomach was a little off. It’s also probably one of the least scenic portions of the course. You’re up on top of a wide rolling mesa with just shrubs and a dusty gravel road with crew cars going by and kicking up dust. It’s only a 4 mile section but it seems to take FOREVER.

Also, I started meeting 100 mile back of the packers at this point too. This is always a bittersweet aspect of being up front. I was 70+ miles into the race and these folks were not even halfway yet. I feel for them, they’re so dang tough. That’s a long time to be out there. Much respect.

I finally got to Goosebump to find Geof Hasegawa, a local Bend runner who was running the 50K on Saturday but crewing his wife for the 100K. He helped me locate my drop bag, I grabbed my Ultraspire Alpha Vest and dropped off the steep descent from Goosebump to the valley floor. A section we had come up 43 miles earlier.

Goosebump Return

Dropping off Gooseberry Mesa in the late afternoon, mile 74. Photo by Jonathan Byers / jonathanbyers.com

I was soon hitting the dead-straight dirt road back toward the Virgin River. I was still trying to run strong but could feel the early season lack of volume training in my legs. I soon was running the ¼ mile highway section up to Dalton Wash where I’d see George again.

About a ¼ mile up the gravel road of Dalton Wash, I came running up to George and Jesse Haynes, who had a bouldering crash pad they were lounging on with cold beers in their hands. Oh man did those look good.

We had a quick bottle swap and I chugged some water as the 3 of us started hiking. My kiddos all had cold in the month before the race and of course it made it’s way through my wife and I too. I had just quit hacking a week before the race. The 2nd half of the race, I kept hacking up a little junk every once in a while when all the breathing was loosening up the leftover cold in my lungs. Well, I started a coughing spell and some junk came up and evoked my gag reflex and I puked up all the broth and water I’d downed in the last hour or two in 3 quick ralphs.

After it passed, I started hiking again, sipping water and my stomach felt a lot better. Within 5 minutes I downed a electrolyte pill and a Gu and felt good. I gave George and Jesse a Giddyup and took off up the gravel road climb to do the final lollipop loop on top of the last mesa (82 to 91 miles). When I got to Guacamole aid station, I downed some orange wedges and got my bottles refilled and took off into the sandstone formations.

The section is extremely winding and hard to get a rhythm. It was still light so I pushed on and made it almost halfway around the 9 mile loop before I turned on my lights. That’s when I slowed down a ton. Route finding in the winding sandstone was hard in the dark. I ended up running 20-40 yards at a time and then hiking and scanning the terrain for find the next course marker. This section went forever.

I soon got back to the lollipop and saw a headlamp coming my way. It ended up being Jason Koop in 2nd place just heading out onto the loop I was just ending. He was having a solid, steady race. His good pacing and patience were paying off. We chatted for a second about the day and Hardrock 100. He was in and I was #1 on the waitlist (I just found out I got in officially!). Anyway, we parted ways and I soon was in and out of Guacamole aid again and heading down the road off the mesa to run the last 9 miles.

The road drops steeply off the mesa to an upper pretty flat basin, then drops another pitch down Dalton Wash to the highway below. I was just starting down the final pitch when I caught glowing eyes about 70 meters off the road in a rock outcropping. Golden eyes blinking at me in a little alcove in the rock formation that jutted out to my left. I had my Black Diamond Icon headlamp on high beam and couldn’t quite pick up what it was.

That’s when it jumped up onto the rock and slinked along the top of the rock formation paralleling my movement. That’s when I realized it was a cougar! I stopped and yelled and grunted like a maniac and yelled, “You don’t want any piece of me!” It just stood there crouching and staring at me.

So, I started walking down the road with my light on it and the road quickly dropped away steeply and the left side of the road become a steep hillside into the canyon below. Once it was out of sight I took off with a good adrenaline rush.

I came back down to George and Jesse in the dark and we swapped bottles. They hiked with me for a minute or two and I took off for the last 3.5 miles to the finish.

The course from Dalton Wash Road heads up an old ATV trail along a little canyon a short ways, then bushwacks straight up a hillside off trail. The route gains the hillside above the highway and picks up a faint trail along some power lines. Soon you drop down off the hill and jump on an ATV trail. This soon spits you out north of Virgin on a paved road I was heading back into town on the road and finally was winding my way a few blocks through town and into Virgin’s city park and the finish line.

I crossed the finish line in 16 hours, 49 minutes — setting a new course record by 1 hour and 3 minutes. And did the first thing I wanted to do all day — sit down. Stoked to win my 11th 100 miler. Can’t believe I’ve been running these crazy things for 14 years now. Giddyup.

Race Gear: Patagonia Duck Bill Cap, Patagonia Cap 1 Sleeveless Jersey, Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, Patagonia EVERlong shoes, Ultraspire handhelds (new lids!) and the Alpha Pack, Rudy Project Zyon Frame with Rx UV Sensitive Lenses, Black Diamond Icon Headlamp. Nutrition was mainly Gu Gels and a little Roctane Energy Drink.

Post Race: Barlean’s Organic Greens and Omega 3-6-9 blend, Gu Recovery Brew (oh, chocolate), Patagonia Stretch Board Shorts, Injinji compression toesocks coupled with Patagonia flip flops — my must-have uniform for days after a 100.

Thanks: Shout out to Surf Monkey for putting up with me and being THE crew man. He’s a stud. Also to my wife and kids for their unwavering support of my little running “hobby.” I love you guys. Also my stellar sponsors — Patagonia, Ultraspire, Rudy Project, Gu Energy Labs, Black Diamond, Barlean’s and my peeps at FootZone in Bend. Special thanks to G5, the tech company I work for. They give me a long leash with my schedule for both training and racing. Work hard. Play hard. Also Mark DeJohn for the last minute ART bodywork sessions before I left town for the race (highly recommended technique for problem spots). Last but not least, the Big Man upstairs for keeping my steps safe out there, especially with a big cat lurking in the sandstone.


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