Zion 50K 2017 Race Report

It is hard to believe that a year has passed since I was last in the desert, to run 50k. And yet, so much has happened this past year that the Grand Canyon Ultra feels like an eternity away. A year ago, I was just beginning to recover from my crash and whiplash and the timing just wasn’t right for a 50k run. I spontaneously combusted and dropped at the first aid station after running only 5kms and then limping on one leg another 15kms, to get myself out. First time for everything, including a DNF.

I wanted redemption. Well, ok, really, I just wanted a chance to run through the desert and actually see that ribbon of single track winding through those beautiful copper colours. After a long year of recovery and a gradual return to full training, I was finally able to start adding intensity, hills and speed back into the mix last fall. Thanks to my awesome team (Chiro's Debbie Wright and Derek Vinge, Physio Kendra Mulligan, Acupuncture Michelle Hughes, Osteopath Annette Stark, Massage Marita Sanchez and Hypnotherapist Jeanie Spencer) I was able to rebuild my body (and mind) while continuing to experience a decrease in my symptoms. And this winter, after a few weeks of good long runs, I was finally feeling confident that I would reach the start (and finish) line without imploding. Then, about a month ago, life took me on a wild ride through the very hardest places and it triggered ‘emotional whiplash’ (my new term;) and I felt like I was nearly right back where I started. I lost my dear friend Lene and then a couple of weeks later, my Dad had a stroke, emergency surgery and a very close call. It has been a heavy, hard and very intense time. It is amazing how emotions can appear in your tissues, nearly over night. My body and mind were done, I was beyond exhausted and going to Zion for a race was the furthest thing from my mind even last week. But when my Dad got the all clear and checked out of the hospital last Monday, I could finally relax and look to the future. Once I knew he was safe and sound I decided that I would still head to Utah for the Grand Circle Trail Series to run the Zion 50k.

And I am so glad I did:)

There is nothing like a good long, hard run in the wilderness to reset your mind. Getting away to Zion gave me a break from the heavy things and a chance to remember the beautiful lightness of life. Kim was tackling her first 100 mile run and I was grateful to be there to support her and watch her reach her dream of earning her buckle. She went on an unbelievable mental and physical journey…watch for her epic blog post coming soon:). As for my race…let’s get to that…

Although I did get some solid training in leading up to Zion, I can’t say I was prepared logistically for the race. I left my brain somewhere back in Canada, along with half of my gear (oops) but thanks to my friends Kim, Iz, Jen and Todd, I managed to make it to the start line on time! I learned the day before that the Zion 50k was actually a 55km run…details! I finally had a good look over the course profile, the night before and discovered a much bigger climb than I had bargained for- 1000 feet over 1 mile. That’s steep! I went to bed debating taking or leaving my poles…

Zion 50k Race Report:

*Warning...it's long... Get a snack and get comfy.

6am start- dark, wind storm, dusty and about 17 degrees. Zion was in the middle of a wind event, but after last years mudfest horror stories I was beyond grateful for a little wind. Standing in the start chute I was still waffling on the pole decision so I went with my new ‘simplify’ motto and decided to ditch them just before the countdown began. 3-2-1! 

Leg 1: 6 miles and one mofo of a climb.  Off we went into the dark and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my race started with a lovey road run, mostly downhill (winging it means you get to enjoy surprises!  I like surprises:).   I was running just behind the front pack (they must have been taking the start very easy!) and the first woman.  It was a very relaxed effort and a very low heart rate but a quick pace (I saw 4:15/km on my watch at one point - eeek!).  But I stuck to my plan of running the first 1/3 ‘too easy’ and let the dust settle based on perceived exertion. It was a very kind start.  Soon enough, the road turned to dirt and the route began to climb upward…the beginning of the big climb of the day. A ribbon of twinkling lights bobbed behind me and a few single lights peeked in an out high above as the leaders broke away and pushed up the steepest part of the climb. 

The first leg was 6 miles (9.6kms) and the trail begin creeping uphill at about 2.5 miles in…a nice gradual and very runnable climb, before suddenly pitching straight bloody up for those 1000 feet of vertical over less than a mile to the top of the Mesa. After about 45minutes, it was hands on knees to share the load and patience to stick with my 'first third too easy plan' and save my legs for the fun stuff- going back down and finishing strong. Before I knew it I was at the top and already had the only big climb behind me. I was SO glad I didn’t pack the poles! 

Leg 2: 4.5 miles out to the end and highpoint of the Mesa.  There was a big loop at the top that took us right along the rim for some of the most spectacular views I have seen in a race (1500 feet down!). I was feeling serious gratitude for finally getting to run here this time!  Only about 70 minutes in, I had barely touched my water, so I decided to push on through aid and reload at the next spot - at the far side of the Mesa loop. The sun was up (but overcast) by now and our lights were packed away and we got to work exploring the alien landscape on top of the Mesa.

No straight lines here!

Mesa’s are like mountains without tops. Their slopes pitch up but then end suddenly and instead of a peak they are topped with grey, course, granite ‘slick rock’. A mountain bikers dream, slick rock quite literally grabs tread and sticks to tires and rubber like velcro, allowing for rock star roll overs and impossible punchy climbs. I had never experienced a real slick rock trail until this weekends race (Moab is still on my list;) and I honestly had no idea it would even be under foot on the top of the Mesa. I envisioned a dirt track winding its way along the top and was pleasantly surprised to have my first ‘moon walk’ through this alien, but oh so grippy, landscape. The trick is…it’s like running on concrete. But, like in a skate park with curves and walls. I had pictured a mild climb up to the summit and then getting into race mode and running hard downhill on the way back. Not so! That rock 'trail' goes everywhere except for straight and the ‘trail’ (marked with white spray painted dots for the mountain bikers) rolled up and down relentlessly all the way out…and all the way back. Ha! 

On the way out to the point, I got my kicks following behind an exceptionally enthusiastic Kilian Jornet impersonator who would continuously flap his arms just like he had wings.   If you know Kilian, you know his downhill arm moves which allow him to fly down technical terrain with stability and effortless effort. But this Kilian clone didn’t discriminate against any arm flapping terrain. Every 20 seconds or so, no matter if he was running on the flats or the rollers, those wings were a flapping wide and high. Dressed head to toe in the red and white Kilian Salomon uniform, this guy was having a blast. He would sprint ahead and run up the sides of the slick rock walls, flapping those wings and then go directly off course, missing the white dot trail markers and running into the bushes in his Kilian dream state. We would call him back and he would sprint back to the front for more, tripping on rocks and saving himself from near superman landings on the cheese grater slick rock, many a time. He was a train wreck waiting to happen but he had a big old smile on his face and he absolutely made my day. Eventually, he stopped to enjoy one of the epic view points and I never got to see his moves again. If you are reading this, young Kilian fan, thank you, you rocked that slick rock, made me giggle out loud and reminded me of why I was out there in the first place- to feel the joy.

It was a spectacular rim trail on top of the Mesa, and now I can finally understand what all of the fuss is about!  Gooseberry Mesa- go check it out when you are in Virgin, Utah next time. Kim 'got to' go up 2 others during her 100 miler - Flying Monkey (google the story on that one!) and Guacamole. Triple the fun, lucky girl;).  I can't wait to go back.

Leg 3: 1 mile out and back to Goosebump (amazing view point!).  On the way around the loop we had a short out and back section which was a great chance to see how far off the first woman I was- just a few minutes and it looked like 4 other ladies between myself and first. Looking at my split time after the race, I must have had a nap out there at the viewpoint.  But, man, it was SO beautiful!

Leg 4: 6.5miles finishing the loop.  My plan of pushing my pace back down from the top went entirely out the window once I found myself locked into the continuous 'up and down and up and down' of the slick rock bumps (uphill both ways?;).  So,  I switched back to 'pace, patience and play' mode (not quite Kilian style;), enjoying the scenery, trying to stay light on my feet (ouch-that concrete hurts!) and testing the limits of my tread on the slick rock as I navigated what seemed like a thousand mini up and downs. My optimistic target paces started to slip away but I stuck to my plan of running within my strengths and saving myself for the downhills. 

On the way back I worked my way up to 4th and arrived into aid right behind the 3rd place female (or so I thought!). Next thing I hear from the crew is ‘She is the first woman and…you are the second’. ‘Say wha?. What happened to the other two?' I asked him. ‘No idea. You are the first two women through*.’ And with that, number one perked up and sprinted off through aid, disappeared off the edge of the Mesa and ripped back down the steep track we had trekked up. ‘That is why she ran through aid so fast! I better get going!’ But first I had a much needed bathroom stop to make and headed for the loo... right when number three rolled in and passed me! ‘Nooooo! Passed during a bathroom break!’ the crew thought that was REAL funny (but it really was lol;). Man oh man timing is everything but I seriously had no choice. I was back on the trail as quick as possible and had a good laugh about the situation- and suddenly I was in a cat and mouse race! Fun! And right at the start of the steepest descent— my favourite:). 

*Note: I never did find out what happened to those 2 girls...Zion Triangle?

Leg 5: 8 miles with a 1500 foot descent then rolling double track through the desolate 'Virgin Desert'.  Coming from the wild island, I am a downhill lover and the more technical the better, which, I have learned, does not apply for all racers. And so, I ran my legs out and let it go down the dusty, rocky trail (there might have been some arm flapping;), passing a few boys and the second place gal on the way down. The single track ended and the hard packed clay-dirt road continued downward at a good steep grade, with a few rolling climbs thrown in just to tease you (and give you a sneak peek at how toast your legs were going to be once the downhill ended;). We ran close together until the road veered left and began a mild climb. What came next completely surprised me (and my legs). At the first sign of incline my legs were dead. Like done. Fried.  Pooched.  Zapped.  Absolutely dead. My tibialis anteriors (shins) were fried and my quads were quivering, turning my legs to stumps filled completely with lead. 'Oh shit.  Well, that’s sad, I thought. That wasn’t part of the plan';). I have never experienced completely dead legs like that, after running down a descent that short. My quads eat that action up- in fact I think they LOVE it. Downhill hammering is pretty much my only running strength lol!  But there is a first time for everything and sometimes reality hurts.  I had to walk the first tiny rolling climb and watch number 3 take off - trading me again for number 2. It was the slick rock. I am sure of it. Running 11 miles on concrete, then letting her rip on the steeps, pissed my legs right off and they pretty much went on strike. That was my low point. I had gone for it on the descent and paid the price.  I knew I would need some time to recover and I figured I might even die a slow death and come in last doing the ultra death march. I thought it would be a good time to put my music on, but I was feeling too lame to even dig out my tunes.  However, after being forced to walk up a few more tiny hills climbs I knew music was my only way out.

I shoved in my ear buds, cranked the volume and hit shuffle on my favourite playlist.  And  the light suddenly returned!  I was instantly able to hold a shuffle up the hills and focus my energy on pushing my pace on the flats and descents.  My music is like medicine for me.  My anti-dote for low anything.  My legs started loosening up and before I knew it I was dancing in the streets.

Then a strange thought came into my mind.  I decided I wanted take a gamble.  I wanted to try and catch first place.  I decided that I would either catch her and get the fairy tale finish or I would crash and burn trying.  The thought of this sounded quite fun and got me all excited to push the pace.  Why not?  I had nothing to lose!  This was an entirely novel perspective for me in racing (and in life-I am NOT a risk taker by nature;) and I know that it had cultivated in my heart and mind over the past month...while I was living in heavy land.  A brand new idea had entered into my mind... 'Life is too short to play it safe.'  This is just a game- why not go for broke?  

And so I ran...as hard as my legs would allow...knowing I still had about 20kms left...gradually pressing on the gas and trying to drain the tank...at precisely the right time.  When the track started dropping down I leaned forward and my pace inched faster and faster...

The rolling terrain of the Virgin Desert hid the aid station until the very last 100metres and then - boom- there it was!  And there she was- number 1!  I could see first place running out of aid (maybe looking over her shoulder? hahaha;) and down the next ribbon of single track.  At this point I truly believed catching her was possible and I was going for broke.

At aid I made a mistake.  Actually, I must confess, that I had made a series of small mistakes leading up to that Aid station.  Back it up to that first leg, and I had been consistently under hydrating due to excitement, pace and rushing through aid stations on my chase.  If the other girls didn't stop, I didn't stop.  Bad hydration strategy folks!   I had been drinking less than a cup of water per hour and insufficient salt (it is so dry there you don't even know you are sweating!) and I was behind the 8 ball when I reached that final aid station.  I had been out of water for about 7kms of hard running and dreaming of rewarding myself with 'as much water as I wanted at the next aid'... But...while filling up my flask, I found out number two was 2 minutes ahead and number one was just 4 minutes ahead.  I had 13kms left!  I could still catch them if I found another gear!  So, I ran off with only one 500ml flask and proceeded to drink it before I was even 30 meters out of aid.  I stopped in my tracks when I realized my mistake.  I should go back and fill this up.  But they are getting away.  It's only 13kms!  And so I ran.  Whoops.;)  Bad Coach.  Don't do that.

If I could only go back in time to this aid station...;). I think I am smiling here but I might be grimacing;)   There is my 'carrot' Alex, leaving aid...read on...

Leg 6: 8 miles.  It was a lovely downhill grade and I took advantage of gravity while I could, as I knew the trail would climb again just before the finish line.  I had been working my tail off to keep up with a guy in front of me for the past 8kms and little did he know that he was my 'carrot' dangling up ahead.  'Alex', who I met after the race, was going to take me to first place, but he didn't even know it.  We were running sub 5minute kms and passing more and more peeps who had already drained their tanks.  We caught and passed the 2nd place female within a few minutes and I knew that it was now or never.   I had to keep pushing the pace to get out of her sight and hopefully encourage her to 'give up' the chase;).  It was pretty fun:)  And then, the inevitable climb began and I switched from the physical to the mental tank to keep pace with my bunny ahead of me.  The kms went by in slow motion- I checked my watch obsessively - on the one hand I wanted more distance so that I could catch number 1.  But on the other hand, I wanted the finish line to appear so that number 3 couldn't catch me!  But there she was, every time I turned a bend and peeked back over my shoulder- she was there!  Hanging on for the ride!  Man it was intense.  And then, suddenly, Alex stopped dead in his tracks ahead of me.

Nooooo!  I caught him and we walked up the next little hill together.  'You can't stop!  You are pulling me to first place!  And look- third place is coming for me!', I gasped.  He must have thought I was a total crazy person.  I probably had a look of terror on my face. He had no idea that he had been wrapped up in my little cat and mouse game and that, in my mind, he was my ticket to win this thing.  He didn't look so good.  He said his belly was off.  He asked me how much further to the finish and I told him what my watch said - 5.5kms.  I swear he asked me to repeat myself 5 times.  'What?? What?? I thought this was a 50k?'  Sorry, buddy.  It's 55k.  Surprise?  He had timed his pace to drain the tank at 50k and that was why he was hauling my ass.  He was done.  And I was frantic.  She was coming!  Now only about 20-40 metres behind me, 3rd place was hunting me down.  

There were more (effing) hills on that last 5kms than I bargained for.  I push and pushed.  In my dehydrated delirium, I still believed I could catch first in those final 5kms. After all of my years of endurance racing, I do know that ANYthing is possible and that it really aint ever over until that big lady sings;0.  I willed myself to run the uphills and push off as hard as I could - even if it looked like I was running backwards. There was one big hill ahead, I didn't know how far the finish line was, but I knew I was within a km or two...and I ran as hard up it as I could...suddenly I got dizzy and then the walls came in. Oh boy.  I got to the top of the climb and nearly hit the deck.  I caught myself with hands on knees and the world went wobbly.  Number 3 came up from behind...

She stopped to ask what I needed and how she could help me!  'Water...water...I've been out of water...I feel like I'm gonna pass out...' (OK a word from Coach Sarah: Do NOT try this at home.  I am sharing my mistakes so that you can avoid making them too!  Ack- Coaches are humans too!).  This kind human being stopped her race, opened her pack, dug out her bladder and poured life giving liquid into my bottle.  Wow.  She was a couple of minutes off first place and she stopped to help me.  My body was drained but my heart was full beyond belief.  She made sure I wasn't going to tip over, then I sent her on her way to get her finish.  I was so happy for her. Not an ounce of pity for myself.  I drank that sweet nectar and walked for a minute, while I came back to reality.  When I looked up, the finish line was literally right there, less than 200 metres away.  No way.  I couldn't believe it!  I was so close!  It was all downhill to the finish, and I rolled in with a big old smile on my face and a pathetic leprechaun jump (maybe 1 inch off the ground), 5:45ish, 3rd woman, 21st human across the line and a winner in my own mind;).  

Congratulations and big high fives go out to Amanda Basham, 1st woman, Alina Edwards, 2nd woman, and to all of the racers who took on that challenging course.  A huge thank you to the race directors and volunteers for doing what you do so that we can get our kicks and have some fun!

That was fun.  Thanks girls.  And Alex:)

Run done, wine now.

Lessons from the trail...

  • The desert is dry- you need to drink more, even if you can't tell you are sweating.

  • The desert is not flat- there are endless, relentless, little, taunting, rolling hills everywhere.  

  • Slick rock is like concrete- road runners rejoice! Dirt lovers be warned!

  • 50kms is a sprint race (for real!) when you are used to running 80-125kms or are watching your friend run 100 miles!  Perspective is a magic thing.

  • Gambling is fun!  I should have listened to my Grandpa years ago...

  • Life is too short to play it safe.  The only way to find out if you can do it - is to go for it! Who really cares if you fail?  Man...that is a big one for me... 

  • Humans are great.  I have new race friends and fresh hope for the human race.  Thanks Alina:)

  • Belief is one of the most powerful tools we have.  I teach this stuff...but I am always learning.  

  • Life is good.  There is still light.

Woot-Zion mug- my new fave!


  • 5 Huma Gels - yup. That's it that's all!  Running too hard to eat real food- these are my back up and they worked like a charm (natural gels with chia!).  

  • Not enough water and not enough salt tabs.  Bad Coach.

  • Salomon Skin 5 Vest

  • Salomon Sense Pro's

  • ELM Trucker Hat and Team Tee of course!

Well that blog post killed my 4 hour lay over at the airport in Vancouver.  Sweet...thanks for reading!  But you will never get that hour back...heehee.  You must be seriously procrastinating chores or a project at work to get this far!

Now...I'm headed home for a rest!

Happy Trails!