Zion 100 Race Report
Here we go guys, an attempt to recap one of the greatest experiences of my life… It’s long, but so is 100 miles! All photos by Christopher Cecill
You know those ads that pop-up when you try to read an article or watch a video on youtube? We’re going to start with one of those as well, except this time it’s something worth paying attention to:
The Zion 100 is an absolutely incredible event! I know that this race will start drawing some huge numbers after the success of this year (and surely more reports gushing over it). Race director Matt Gunn deserves all the recognition and praise that is coming his way. He deserves 10x that. This man worked his tail off to make every runner feel like a personal Zion welcome mat had been rolled out for them. His team of volunteers deserve the same credit. Wonderful people, supportive, energetic and organized throughout. Decisions were made to support local businesses and artists every step of the way. Everything had a mind towards sustainability, right down to the amazing composting porta-potties by Eco- Commode. We’re talking wood fired pizza made to order at race package pickup, bountiful aid stations with burritos, pancakes, grilled cheese and… whiskey! Post race dutch-oven potatoes with scrambled eggs and bacon. Plentiful local micro-brew beer at the finish. Free burgers at the awards ceremony. Custom, 1-of-a-kind hand made belt buckles featuring flowers and foliage harvested on the course. Custom metal-work trophies for top 3 male/female finishers in both events. To top it all off, a complimentary tube rental for a float down the river! All of this plus the most well-marked course I’ve ever run, set in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
All I had to do for all of this was run 100 miles. This folks, is what I call a deal!
I want to thank eLoad for their support. I fueled 95% of this race with their Gels, Sport Drink and Carb Fly with zero stomach issues. The new berry gels are delish!
I am one lucky runner! As soon as I signed up for this race I had an all-star lineup of family and friends signed up for the adventure. My dad, brother and his girlfriend Jen were on board. It was very special for me to be able to share the experience with them. My brother is a wonderful photographer who captured some real stunners throughout the trip. My girlfriend Alex would pace me for 36km, an experience I will never forget. Sharing those miles with her was something so unique, yet felt so wonderfully normal in the moment. My good friend Myke would pace me out for the final 40 miles. He bit off a big chunk knowing this would be a demanding section of course, coupled with the possibility of dealing with a grumpy Matt Cecill! My dear friend Kyle (of Leadville crew fame) booked time off work as soon as he knew the dates. His presence and experience crewing 100 mile races are starting to become that of legend. Plain and simple, this guy knows how to get it done! Makes my life a whole lot easier knowing he’s running my crew. A heartfelt thank you to all of you for taking time out of your lives to help me achieve a goal, and for contributing to some wonderful memories and stories. Speaking of stories…
This race was a big one for me. I prepped my body with as many training miles as it would allow me. I heat acclimated my body via 10 days of Bikram Yoga and dry sauna sessions. I was disciplined with my nutrition and put in a good taper. I was determined to give myself the best possible chance of a strong 100 mile finish. I knew I was as ready as I could be. Still my Leadville death march lingered in my mind, reminding me of how sour things can turn in a race this long. Pre-race was smooth. The whole crew flew into Vegas on various flights. Incredibly, no one was delayed. We took the Vegas strip by storm in our rented mini-van before making the 2hr drive to Hurricane, Utah where we would set up shop for the week. We rented an old character home, saved a bunch of money. This worked out great, except for Kyle who drew the short straw and “slept” on the couch.
Before we knew it, race morning was upon us. I always find the early morning stir of the house quite special. Nervousness and excitement in the air. I had a good breakfast and went through the motions of getting prepared. Having done this once before really helped calm things down for me. I was quiet and confident, eager to get moving and execute my game plan.
This game plan involved running slow. I was going to over-exaggerate the relaxed start. I remember hearing Ms. Ellie Greenwood talk about about relaxing into the distance and letting the body naturally warm up. I liked all of these words. Since we could all benefit from being more like Ellie Greenwood, I decided to give it a try. I learned at Leadville just how much time there really is in a 100 mile race to “make a move”. The time to do this is certainly not in the first 10 to 15 hrs. These hours are better spent having fun, eating sugar and chatting with the good folks of the Ultra-Marathon world. I embraced this strategy wholeheartedly.
I worked my way through the first 10 miles, mesmerized by the sunrise and the beauty of the area. The temperature was brisk but not cold. I will never forget how peaceful it felt in those early miles. I met Mark Tanaka, great guy who’s Ultra resume is staggering. I met some good folks from Boston, Flagstaff, Las Vegas and a local runner, Justin Nelson. I was friggen happy. High on running life I rolled into the first aid station. There was my brother filming me, my dad and girlfriend cheering me on, and Kyle with the buffet spread all laid out on towel and some fold out chairs. A beautiful scene to be sure. I informed them that the old diesel engine was just getting fired up.
The next section involved some rolling dirt roads at the foot of a mesa that we all knew we had to climb. The course seemed to taunt us, drawing us near to the steep face before pulling back in the opposite direction. Inevitably we climbed. I knew I had prepared well for the short but intense climbs that this course offered. Gooseberry Mesa delivered. One of the steepest trails I’ve travelled. To my surprise though it was over sooner than I expected. I felt great on the climb and used the opportunity to engage some new muscles and further my warm up. At the top we moved through the aid station before heading out on a notorious loop around the top of Gooseberry Mesa. The views up here are world class. Much of the trail was right on the mesa’s ridge. The terrain up here is like nothing I’ve run before. Rolling rock that doesn’t really involve a trail. Runners follow white dots painted on the ground. Swooping, climbing, dropping and turning through rock formations. The footing is tricky as the surface is like sandpaper. Easy to catch a foot and tweak something. I had been warned about this section sucking the life out of runners. I now know why. These miles are hard-earned and somewhat labrynth-like, everything looks the same, is it the same? Am I going the wrong way? Finding a rhythm is nearly impossible. Again I focused on relaxing through it and holding no tension in my body. I had no idea what position I was running in, and I was happy about that. Though starting to work, I still felt like a kid on Christmas morning. Eventually we ended up at the far edge of the mesa. I can’t describe this view, it’s too much. Go to Gooseberry Mesa, run or hike or bike to the far edge of it and look around, 360 degrees. Then you will know. During my visit to this place there was an older cowboy-ish fellow standing on the rock at the edge. He marked my hand with a red sharpy and wished me well. I honestly took a moment here to make sure my alarm had gone off and I was indeed running the race. The route carried on along the other rim of the Mesa, winding it’s way back to the aid station to complete the loop. More of the same rock running, more of the same GREATEST VIEWS I’VE EVER SEEN. It was warming up when I came back to the aid station. I ditched my jacket and gloves and picked up my ipod. I was 50k in at this point. I knew I had a big flat dirt road section coming up. I genuinely like these types of sections. I was riding high and I wanted some music to cruise to.
Before I knew it I was coming into the 65k crew station where Alex would join me for some pacing. After running solo for a long stretch it was refreshing to have such great company to run with, I could tell she was excited and feeling good and that made me excited. We climbed up to Eagle Crags aid station, the legs were starting to get heavy at this point. I saw my buddy and fellow B.C. boy Jeff Hunter as he was flying down in the 100k race, always nice to see a friend. At the top I ate my first solid food in the form of canned peaches. They tasted good and digested well. I was fueling strong with Eload gels and drink mix, plus Coke to this point. We descended the dirt road from Eagle Crags surrounded by more spectacular rock formations. JB Benna (Unbreakable) was on course doing some filming, as a wanna-be aspiring filmmaker I thought that was pretty neat. The course leveled out into a few road miles. I was now starting to deteriorate somewhat. My controlled pace didn’t feel so controlled anymore. Things were getting tight. We passed the old Grafton Cemetery before starting the climb up Grafton Mesa. I felt hot for the first time. We kept moving steadily but climbing was a chore. Alex was amazing, offering unwavering support and encouragement, keeping me focused. We topped out on the climb, I hoped the aid station was near. It wasn’t. Instead it was more difficult moon-rock running with curves every which way. I kicked a cactus and had a spine lodged in my foot. Alex to the rescue! Pulled that sucker out in one fell swoop. I was no longer just a kid on Christmas morning, I was now a kid on Christmas morning with a scotch hangover who just realized Santa forgot his house. I was approximately halfway done and I was now officially running a 100 mile race.
Eventually the aid station came. I dumped a few cups of water over my head. This felt amazing. I really wanted Watermelon, but alas, none to be found. I ate more peaches. I sat down for the first time and took a moment to gather myself. The next section was the same long dirt road, but in reverse, back to Gooseberry Mesa. Alex and I started out on the road and before long we saw a sight for sore eyes coming the opposite direction. Lori and Randy from Victoria were running towards us! Ultra Marathoning’s Barbi and Ken, the king and queen in my eyes. These folks are a huge part of the why I’m even involved in this sport. Toughest people I know. We just stopped in the middle of the road, hugged and chatted. I love this sport. We’re in a “race” but just stood and had a chat. This was refreshing on many levels for me. Physically I probably needed the extra break, but mentally it got me back in the game and reminded me of all the amazing people I’m surrounded by. We continued on down the road and passed a few runners. I was coming back to life with more water and gels. We made our way through Goosebump aid station fairly quickly and were staring down the same steep Gooseberry climb I had ascended earlier in the race. As soon as I started down the climb something went wrong on the top of my left knee. It just locked up. I had never felt this tweak before. The trail was ruthlessly steep and took me about the same amount of time to descend as it had to climb it earlier that morning. Finally at the bottom I hoped flat ground would alleviate the pain but the mobility wasn’t there. It was time to suck it up and remember that everyone hurts during 100 mile races. The sweet and ever-supportive Alex assured me that it would let go if I stuck with it. She was right… eventually.
We rolled into the Dalton Wash Crew Station. This was where Alex would bow out and Myke would come on to pace me for the remainder of the race. It was emotional leaving Alex as we had such an awesome run together. I was excited though to start a new adventure with Mr. Labelle. I knew he was like a dog waiting to get off the leash. I picked up half a PBnJ and we started off hiking up the dirt road to Guacamole Mesa. The sandwich did not sit right. It took me about an hr to get my stomach in check after eating it. Back to straight sugar calories for me. My knee was getting worse as the climb went on. We traded off between running and hiking all the way up. Myke did a good job of keeping me calm and focused. Just before the Guacamole aid station I felt my legs starting to cramp. I saw a big jar of pickles at the aid station and decided to give the old pickle juice remedy a try. Within 5 minutes my cramps were gone and never returned. I’m now a believer. The next section was a 9 mile loop of Guacamole Mesa before returning to the same aid station. I felt like hot garbage. The sun was getting low and the views were again spectacular, I was having a hard time appreciating them. I was a mess and the knee was still stinging. Myke was a huge help at this point. He was incredibly positive and motivating. We were now walking large sections of run-able terrain, I felt terrible about this. He told me I was being stupid and to shut up. This man knows how to pace! 3 runners passed by including lead female Jennifer Benna, who compared to me, looked like she was running a 10k race. Guacamole felt never-ending and I thought at numerous points that we had doubled back and were going the wrong direction. An amazingly intricate and beautiful section of trail… that I desperately wanted to be done with. Gradually we started running in longer bursts and moving faster. After 5+ hours I was finally feeling the knee start to loosen up. I rode this wave by upping my gel and water intake. I was coming back to life, again. We rolled back through Guacamole aid station and gunned it down the road back to the crew. The Sun was setting, the mood was amazing. We were having a blast
Back with the crew, I had been eyeing a can of Starbucks Double-Shot Espresso all day in my buffet spread. To this point I had avoided caffeine (minus the odd cup of Coke) in fear of stomach problems. I decided now was the time. I pounded the can of coffee drink and it tasted GOOD. Myke suggested we trade our hand bottles for hydration packs. Great advice. It was now dark, we stashed cold weather gear in the packs and turned on our headlamps. I now had tons of calories and water on board and felt my confidence soar. My crew informed me I was in 9th place. We took off running. I was experiencing the famous: paced-first-half-of-race-responsibly / knee-finally-stopped-hurting / just-drank-a-s#$!-tonne-of-caffeine trifecta! Armed and dangerous. Soon we arrived at the mile 83 aid-station. I checked in and this place looked like a party, complete with whiskey and jello shooters. No time to party! We passed a runner in the aid station and started out towards the infamous Flying Monkey climb to the top of Smith Mesa. The biggest climb of the day, a nice little 2200ft dinger situated at mile 85. We saw headlamps ahead in the distance, this got me even more fired up. It was finally time to race. We passed 5 runners on the climb in a span of about 30 minutes. I’ve never experienced anything like it. My legs and energy level quite honestly felt like I was back at the 50k point in the race. The feeling was magic. Myke did a good job of keeping things in perspective and not allowing me to blow myself out too early. We climbed hard but controlled.
I was determined to hold on to 3rd place. Not for myself, but solely for the thought of coming into the final crew station (mile 98) and catching my crew completely off guard. As far as they knew I was still in 9th place. I wanted to give them something back after all they had given me throughout the long day. The 6 mile downhill road section was a tough slog. My quads were beyond shot and my knee was angry again. We held a decent pace and saw no headlamps emerge in the distance behind us. Kyle let out a very satisfying “HOLY S*%$ IT’S YOU GUYS!!!” when we arrived at the crew station. We ditched our packs and Myke grabbed a handbottle. 2 Miles of desert running and I could finally sit down. Eventually we crossed the highway and the crew was waiting. What a feeling to run down the road to the finish with everyone. Huge smiles all around. I think I yelled quite a bit. I crossed the finish line in 3rd place in 18:42:22. A time beyond my wildest dreams or expectations. Everything I had was left on the course. Jubilation soon turned to nausea, shivering and full body cramping, I could barely choose my belt buckle. Apparently this is how I roll when it comes to finishing 100 milers. Once again my amazing crew to the rescue. Got me home safe, took off my shoes and socks to reveal some of the most horrendous smelling feet imaginable, plus a dead big toenail complete with blister that looked like a super-sized red jelly bean. The dedication of these people! An incredibly awkard bath later and it was off to bed with a protein shake and banana in my belly. Seemingly this is just another day at the office for 100 mile Ultra Runners. A group with whom I’m honoured to be counted.
The day after: It didn’t take long for me to fall in