48 Miles Until the Sanctuary Runs Out

Weighing Risk and Reward on Utah’s Zion Traverse

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The buzzwords were there from the beginning: “Crazy.” “Stupid.” As in: “Time for a crazy stupid adventure,” Instagrammed into cyberspace by my friend Anders in a nonchalant manner. The ‘Gram was before he and three other runners, Matt, Steve, and Tyler, drove from Colorado to Utah and indeed, the goal of running across Zion National Park in one day is not an “intelligent” ambition. It is not teaching, medicine, or engineering. But, it meets the requirements of an “adventure.” Exploring terrain with the gusto of a high school athlete? Check. (Matt teaches math and runs the bike program at a high school.) Selfishly risking our everyday wellbeing in what can be a lonely pursuit? Check. (I had hit the wall in Boston eleven days prior.) Making friends along the way? (Check—more on that later.)

As for the pre-run ‘Gram, it was a “knolling” one. “To knoll”—as Wikipedia defines the verb—is to organize by arranging like objects in parallel or 90-degree angles. All of Anders’ belongings for the run were laid out in this way on a hardwood floor, including the one that most concerned me for this trip: a blue 10-gallon water jug. While the four Colorado-based runners would be driving to Zion, I’d be flying from my home outside of Boston—where I was taking the pre-requisites for physical therapy school, writing, and training for this run—into Las Vegas and driving two hours northeast. Before flying out, I asked every friend who’s traveled from sea level to elevation over the course of a day for advice, and the response was the same. I quote: “hydrate.”

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With a fourth buzzword in tow, Anders texted his travel update (“Sweet! We are on the road! So stoked!”) as I arrived for a layover in Minneapolis and happily realized that the water fountains there are in a prime spot. Indeed, unlike in Boston, “hydration” in Minneapolis is right next to the gates, practically asking all trail-runner-traveler traffic to stay in one area. (In Boston, only one fellow traveler seemed to appreciate me strolling from the security area to the gate to the fountain and back to the gate to drink and stay loose. “You look like you’re going to climb a mountain,” remarked a mid-20s businesswoman in line at security.) By the time I landed in Las Vegas that evening and drove northeast to meet up with Anders, Matt, Steve, and Tyler at South Campground in Zion, I had drunk 6 liters of water, shared a laugh (an encouraging laugh) with fellow travelers about our traverse plan, and rested on the plane. I felt fresh for an early start the next morning.

Packing up for the day at 5 a.m. was still a groggily done process, however, even with the “apparent” 7 a.m. timeframe for this New Englander. Fortunately Steve, an accomplished rock climber, was keeping us all alert by pointing out the big walls we could see from our campsite. “That’s The Watchman,” he’d say, pointing south of the Zion Mount Carmel Highway, the road leading to where we’d start our run. “Alpine style to chimney at the top.” Chimney was a great word for the morning, for Zion has this smoky smell that reminds me of childhood trips to Little Cottonwood Canyon in northern Utah, the smell of sagebrush and ponderosa pine that mixes together in the dry air and settles there lightly, as if at any second the next gust of wind would blow it away. And, being the only souls awake at South Campground and shuffling around beneath thousands of leaves waking up to the breeze, it very may well have in a self-forgetful moment, as if to reinforce its stage-dressing quality for the 48-mile run ahead.

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An hour and a half later, we were on the trail, following the same route that Mike Foote and Justin Yates took to set the Zion Traverse’s current Fastest Known Time in June 2013, running from the East Entrance down to The Grotto, up to the West Rim Trailhead past Angel’s Landing, from the West Rim to Hop Valley Trailhead, and from Hop Valley to Lee Pass Trailhead. Having read their report on iRunFar, I knew that the route’s first section would feature gradual ascents and descents before merging into steep technical single-track and, sure enough, the first five-mile stretch was a mellow warm-up with slight pitch changes at each turn. I was steadily drinking from my bladder and generally catching up on life in Colorado before Anders, the director of a film festival with a keen cinematic and storytelling eye, brought up coincidences, based on a recent episode of “This American Life.”

“Yeah, the photo?”

“With Grandma in it?”

“Craaaaaaaaazy!!!”

As if to add to the topic at hand, we turned into the path of an oncoming runner around five miles in. Seamus, we learned, was planning on running 20 miles today and 28 the next as training for the Squaw Peak 50-miler in Utah in June. He was two miles into his run for the day when we shared our plans.

“You guys have support?” he asked.

“Yes, at miles 26, 35, and 48.”

“Can I join?”

Two more miles and 1:24 in, with the path transitioning into wider stretches of rock alongside Dr. Seuss-like rock formations, the early warm-up section had given into that zone of running where any goal for the day—in this case finishing—seemed easily attainable. Intent on carrying this momentum through the climb up Angel’s Landing, we stopped briefly at The Grotto to refill on water before setting off again.

Finally, with the first few steps of ascending out of the canyon, the “real” Zion Traverse began. Indeed, by now it was 8:30 a.m., and the mix of dry air, sun, and vertical had slowed our pace to a speed-walk as we tacked back and forth up “The Wiggles.” Alternating between running and walking, and draining my second 3L supply of water within an hour, Anders and I hung back while Seamus, Matt, and Steve steamed on ahead. After carefully planning and partitioning hydration to what I thought was a tee, here I was, doing mental math on paces as we shuffled through sagebrush on our way to the first checkpoint—coming in at just under seven hours. Angry with myself, I elected to call it a day; pushing through another 22 miles was not sound strategy at 7000 feet.

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The next two checkpoints went smoothly on the whole. Steve joined Tyler and I in the shuttle after 35 miles nursing a tight ITB, but Seamus, Matt, and Anders all finished in just over 13 hours total, with Seamus running strong to the finish. In hindsight this made sense; you wouldn’t elect to tag along if you didn’t think you’d fly through, and as we enjoyed celebratory chocolate milks and beers at Lee Pass, the three 48ers told stories of rattlesnakes by the trail and the lack of footing on the sand in Hop Valley. After all our preparation, the Zion Traverse had held its status as an adventure run. Indeed the obvious risks—hydration, footing, or fatigue—often lie in the open, while the subtle rewards—running the stretch from miles seven to the top of Angel’s Landing, joining the support crew at remote trailheads on a beautiful Southwestern day, or hearing stories of your buddies testing their limits—can only come from miles logged in the canyon.