Zion 50K: My First Ultra

What: Zion 50K [Ultra Adventures]
Where: Virgin, UT
When: Saturday, April 11, 2015
Start: 6 a.m. 
Vertical Gain: 3,100'
Elevation: 3,500'-5,500'
Field Size/Finishers: 114 
Time/OA Place: 7:19.12 (66th)

Spontaneity. The Spice of Life. 

If you know me personally, you know that "planning" is not in my vocabulary. I am more apt to jump on a plane last minute than I am to plan where I'm having dinner tomorrow night. I'm not sure if spontaneous is the best word to describe me, perhaps the following are a little more fitting: scatterbrained, stubborn, stupid and impulsive. 

And just like a cat, if you dangle a new adventure or a new thrill in front of me, I'll be quick to pounce on it. 

Originally, I had honed in on the Zion 50K after spending 2014 dabbling in trail running after feeling disconnected and frankly bored with road races and the marathon distance. After spending a year "naked" and watch-free; I wanted to get back to my roots so-to-speak and reconnect with the reasons why I love to run in the first place; all of which do not involve holding my watch up like simba when it's not connecting or discussing race times. Instead, I wanted to explore more which I have always found more fun on my feet, admire new scenery, take photographs and make new friends. And after a decade of pavement, I wanted something new. I had mentioned this race to my best friend but it wasn't until some others convinced her and her wife to register that I followed suit. 

Fast Forward to April 3, 2015. 

Things weren't looking so great for Zion. Although we have more time off than we've ever had before on this tour, our schedule (unlike any tour in our previous four years) has been pretty non-existent and very last minute. Therefore, I didn't know if an event was going to be added on the weekend of the race or what city we were even going to be in to browse flights. My friends and I both fell off the wagon, didn't train and just thought of Zion as an after thought so we started contemplating our options; should we scratch the race altogether, rollover our race funds to another upcoming race or drop down to the 25K distance? Amie and Savannah chose to rollover their race funds and race the Grand Canyon 25K in May instead while I scrolled through flights while sitting in my hotel room in Greenville, SC. Airfare was ranging from $500-$750 and I was seriously doubting my ability to fly from Atlanta (our next city) to Las Vegas while remaining responsible to my job and my finances. 

Finally, I posed the question I always ask myself in these kinds of situations: 
"What will you regret more: running Zion? Or NOT running Zion?" - 9.99 times out of 10, it's always the latter. 

I hadn't run over 10 miles since CIM on December 7, and I was very ill equipped to run this race but I made a commitment and I'll be damned if I don't stick to it. So, there it went...

Just a few moments later, I placed a bid/purchased a flight via Priceline and got a round trip ticket to Sin City that wouldn't crash my bank account. I was going to Zion. 

What the hell am I doing? 

Obviously, I repeated this question to myself and out loud numerous times after I received my confirmation e-mail from Priceline/American Airlines. 

"I haven't run over 10 miles since the first week of December and I've only been averaging about 20-30 miles a week since being back on the road for work...

What the hell am I doing?

I'm flying from sea level on the opposite side of the country/time zone to run a race with 3,100' in gain and ranging in elevation/altitudes of 3,500'-5,500' for a distance of 31 miles which is completely foreign to me and these road legs."

Uh, what the hell am I doing? 

<< I told you I was bad at planning. >>

At the same time, this was not out of the ordinary (cue previous sentence). In ten years, I have yet to follow a training plan and I know deep down that the mind quits before the body. It may be slow as molasses and I may have to walk more than I'd like, but I knew I could finish. 


Thursday, April 9. Las Vegas, NV. 

Atlanta -> LAX (Kogi dashed my taco dreams when they were out of tofu, but it only made the reunion sweeter on the return trip) -> Las Vegas, NV. 

Sad side note: upon landing in LV, my mom called upset and in tears that she had to put down Kitty, our family pet and her companion/BFF/side kick of 14 years as she was slowing deteriorating and suffering from kidney failure. 

It was a rough start to the trip, but thanks to Amie and Savannah we hit the trails near their house and the heart was full again. How can you not be grateful for health, family, friendship and scenery like this?

Friday, April 10. Las Vegas -> St. George, UT. 

Amie and Savannah were so sweet and so supportive the entire trip. Despite pulling out of Zion, they assured me they would have still made the trip to cheer on their friends. However, I still felt bad that I originally thought I wasn't going to make it, they switched their race and now they were sucked back in and driving me to St. George/Virgin, UT. 

Savannah got off work early that day so we hit the grocery store for some road trip snacks. My quintessential item: beer. 

Once I confirmed the trip a week out from the race, I halted my drinking. No beer, no wine, nothing until that 31 miles was complete. I wanted something to work for and two ice cold beers waiting for me at the finish. 

I wanted a Utah beer for a Utah race, so I opted for Wasatch's Last One In Lager and packed a (new) Colorado fave - Slow Ride Session IPA just recently released from New Belgium in 2015. 

Once Amie arrived home, we set off for St. George, UT. Luckily, traveling pretty much full-time for work has its perks especially when it comes to accumulating and cashing in hotel points. Although about 30 minutes from the start line and the town of Virgin, UT we were able to stay for free at the Hilton Garden Inn St. George

Pizza is my usual pre-race meal so I had a wood-fired pizza place picked out courtesy of Yelp! located just over  2 miles from our hotel. Apparently, it's the most ordered 'za in town as our wait was about an hour. We weren't that hungry, so we placed our order, paid and decided to walk around the cute downtown until our pizza was ready. 

Amie had spotted an overlook point atop a cliff where we could make out the silhouettes of people, so we opted to keep walking towards them. Maybe not even a mile from the pizza place we came upon Brooks Nature Park and started to follow a trail. It lead us to the top of a hill with a beautiful overlook (across from the busy cliff where we spotted crowds of folks which you can apparently drive to). This trail took us to an isolated hill that we had all to ourselves to watch the sunset over St. George. It was truly breathtaking. Everything happens for a reason, and I'm so thankful we had such a long wait and went exploring in the meantime otherwise we may never have discovered this place or seen these spectacular views. 

While randomly looking up this park afterward, I saw that inside Brooks Nature Park is the Cox pond - talk about a sign! 

St. George, UT

St. George, UT

Let me tell you 'bout my best friend...

And just so you know, the pizza was well worth the wait. After scarfing my personal sized margherita pizza down - it was time to lay everything out, reassess my nutrition plan, and unpack/repack everything so we were ready to check out in the morning. 

Saturday, April 11. St. George, UT -> Virgin, UT -> Las Vegas, NV. 

T. Swift serenaded me bright and early at 4 a.m. I laid everything out in the bathroom so I could sneak in there and get ready while Amie and Savannah caught a few extra Zzzz's. 

Game plan was to depart around 4:30-4:45 a.m. to make it to Virgin Town Park so I could check in and be on time for the 6 a.m. start. Another reason why I love trail races? Race day packet pick up. If you've read my blog before, you've heard me harp on it already, but anytime I can just show up day of without the hassle of an expo is a great day/race in my book. 

Anyway, as we waited for the race to start Amie and Savannah introduced me to their friend Terra also running the 50K (the gal that originally convinced them to pull the trigger). 

She and I got to chatting and before I knew it, we were finishing all 31 miles together. Around mile 12-13, we picked up another gal, Margaret from New York City (also running her first 50K), and we all proceeded to run together, bond together and jump over the finish line together - finishing just over the 7-hour mark.

[L to R: Terra, Margaret and myself]

Savannah and Amie - the best cheerleaders!

Now that, THAT is what running is all about. Enjoying the scenery, enjoying the company, enjoying new friendships, enjoying the EXPERIENCE. 

Between the course, these newfound friendships and one helluva race director, I think I may have been spoiled rotten in regards to my first ultra experience. Whether for the previous reasons listed or the additional PBR tall boys waiting in an ice cold cooler at the end, consider me HOOKED. 

Speaking of the course...

Just take a look at these views. As RD Matt Gunn continues to acquire new permits and tweak the course, this year's 50K route was different than last year's - it was challenging (as expected) but the views were absolutely surreal. There were moments where I had to be reminded to turn around and take in the view. Multiple times I stopped in my tracks as all senses were engaged staring at the setting before me - it was almost so stunning that I couldn't comprehend it. 


Part of the climb up to Goosebump Aid Station (mile 5 and 17)

Even though the 1500' ascent and descent in the span of 1-1.5 miles to/from Goosebump Aid Station on top of Gooseberry Mesa kicked everyone's ass (my toes included) the variation in terrain sweetened the blow. We experienced everything from single track, to slick rock, fire roads to sand and a sunrise over the desert that couldn't be beat. I felt like a kid again. 

Climbing towards the top of that Mesa (miles 4-5.5)

Still climbing
...and trying not to fall off a cliff.

All the aid stations were equipped with organic produce, Tailwind Nutrition, cold water and so many snacks a convenient store would be jealous. Plus, each AS was equipped with the sweetest and most helpful volunteers. 

Gooseberry Point (around mile 10)

Terra at Gooseberry Point. 

I don't have a lot of trail running experience (yet) and certainly not any previous ultra experiences to compare this race to, but the RD and UA team had this course so well marked. I easily get lost, but between studying the course map, the elevation profile, the flyover video and following the color-coded flags and white dots (in case of course vandalism) it was pretty much impossible to get lost. It would have been more difficult at night for the 100 mile and 100K runners, but there was no reason and no way for us 50Kers to get turned around. 

And on top of impeccable views of Zion and the surrounding mesas in Southern Utah, this race also had a killer post-race vibe with build your own pizzas and stellar swag if you're into that sort of thing. 

The shirts: cute and comfy. You know the kind you might actually wear versus another tech tee at the bottom of your drawer. 

You had your choice of head gear: trucker hats, beanies, buffs - you name it. 

And lastly, each finisher received a handmade item depending on your race distance. Per usual, the 100 mile finishers were awarded a buckle of their choice by this incredibly talented Salt Lake City artist using materials collected from the race course. A handmade bracelet was given to the 100K finishers and the 50K finishers received a handcrafted pottery mug by Michael Bishop. 

I mean, c'mon- trails, climbs, views, beer, pizza, good people and handmade shit. What's not to love about trail/ultra running? 

Ladies looking back at Gooseberry Mesa and our mega climb.

Not pictured: the vibrant red flowers blooming from the cacti on the course.

Lessons Learned. 

What I feel like I did right during my first ultra: 

-Nutrition. Thanks to a few e-mail exchanges with fellow Oiselle Teammate (and badass trail runner) Becky Leung I feel like I nailed a nutrition plan prior to the race and it went extremely well during. I made sure I was consuming 100-300 calories an hour (usually around 150-200) whether it was actual food, fruit, gels or energy bars. Due to previous experiences/races, salt tabs do wonders for me and I made sure to down one of those suckers every hour as well. I had a side stitch that was being a side bitch (sorry, mom) around mile 18-19 (pretty standard for me) and went away almost immediately after popping an extra salt tab + breathing exercises. Note: make sure you do not exceed the recommended allotment for salt tabs. It is not recommended to go over 10, so I made sure to pack only 6-7. I also mixed in Nuun, water and Tailwind but more on that...

-Water: I nailed the water portion. I carried only what I needed and my bladder remained empty throughout the entire race as I just utilized the two 10 oz. bottles in my UD Jenny Ultra Vesta (and yes, it's really called the Jenny vest after Scott Jurek's wife who helped design it). I had my 70 oz. bladder (empty) in my pack just in case I felt like I was going through too much water between aid stations or if I needed a little more than 20 oz, but I ended up not needing it at all. For me, it was all about making my pack as light as possible and when it comes to water weight I feel like I carried just what I needed. 

-Research: I was proud of myself for studying the course, memorizing the aid stations and knowing what I was in for and when prior to the race. This also helped me to create a plan so I knew which aid stations to skip and which to hit. 

-Gear: I was happy with all my gear and only had a tiny spot on my collar bone from my vest chaffing but that was it. Every item I've had success with in the past which is even more reason to never wear anything new on race day. Here's a run down of what I wore: Altra Olympus 1.5 (my go-to shoe), Pro Compression socks, Oiselle Distance Shorts (the pockets/storage in these shorts are so clutch for any distances over the 13.1 mark), Oiselle strappy (never chafes), Oiselle Cross Top Mesh, cheap promo/free sunglasses (the only type of sunglasses I own or run in), and my stellar Coloradical hat (we've supported Adam and his designs since 2010). Wearing a backwards hat really helped to secure my head lamp and make it bareable for the hour or so I had to wear it, plus it helped to keep my neck covered from the sun. 

-Fun: I had so much fun really soaking in my surroundings, taking photos, being open to running with and meeting new people, letting go of a sense of time (I forgot to sync my watch and just had my clock running and even then I barely looked at it), I thanked every volunteer which is a must for road or trail races, indulged at the aid stations and all of this truly made the experience so much better and reignited my absolute undying love for the sport of running. 

What I could improve upon in the next race: 

Train: I could actually train for the damn thing. Wouldn't that be something? All jokes aside, I am excited to see what I can do if I'm able to discipline myself to actually train and get the proper mileage in beforehand. I do not advocate winging a 50K like I did, however I always think it's best to go into a race undertrained with fresh legs versus overtrained, burnt out or bordering injury. The mind quits before the body, but to have success you have to have both and that's something I definitely need to work on. 

Climbing/Descending: I need stronger quads to climb and a bigger ego/more confidence to feel comfortable bombing the descents. 

For the history of the ultramarathon distance(s), click here. 

Aid Stations: I didn't spend a lot of time at the aid stations, but I could definitely spend even less time at them. Something to work on in the future. 

Drop bags: I did not utilize drop bags and carried everything - food, water, headlamp, long sleeve, bladder, phone, GoPro, sunscreen, ziplock + toilet paper (which thankfully I did not use), etc. There is definitely some improvement to be had in what I'm carrying and although the idea of using drop bags isn't too appealing to me, depending on the race it could be beneficial to lighten the load and lose a few things here and there. 

Nutrition: Sure, I think I did a pretty decent job on my first 50K but there's always room for improvement. Towards the end of the race my sense of energy started to drop and I knew it. I knew I packed a Bonk Breaker Bar for this very moment but I couldn't find it and just kept going. I checked every pocket but my shorts pocket where it was located (idiot) and could have definitely used that extra 270 calories for a much needed boost. 

Beer: drink more afterward and enjoy the post race party longer. We were pooped and drove back to Vegas not long after the race and nearly passed out around 9 p.m. (we would have been out by 7 p.m. had we not enjoyed an incredible post-race Mexican dinner. YUM). Bottom line: increase race AND post-race endurance. 

Why Ultra Adventures?

Aside from all the reasons I listed above, UA and Matt Gunn's passion for the environment is admirable and undeniable. Each aid station has recycling and compost piles, are solar powered and even the pre/post race facilities are eco-friendly. 

Paragraph taken from Matt's pre-race e-mail to participants.

We even watched Matt walk around to various trash cans post-race eyeing if anything had been thrown away that could have been recycled or placed in its proper pile. 

How can you not have respect for an organization like that? A true class act as UA showcases Mother Nature's finest parts but is sure to leave her without a trace while going a step further to ensure she looks better tomorrow and for many future generations to come. 

You guys seriously rock! Thank you for all that you do!

So, that leads me to my next step (I know what you're thinking, you're still going?!)....

If UA sounds rad to you check out their upcoming races in The Grand Circle Trail Series (varying from 25K, 50K, 50M and 100M distances) here

I'm already contemplating the Grand Canyon 50K or the Tushars Sky Marathon. 

Questions: If you have any, please leave them in the comments, hit me up on IG/Twitter or e-mail me directly. 

Tips: Send them my way! If you have any ideas on how to make my next 50K even better/faster - don't leave me hanging. 

Special thanks to Amie and Savannah for their support, hospitality and friendship. Thank you to all my friends and family (especially you, Casey, and Mom + Nate) for your sweet messages of encouragement and congratulations. Thank you, Terra and Margaret for making this experience so great and a big thank you to Ultra Adventures and all of their amazing volunteers for making my first 50K so special. It will be hard to top this one. 

Random side note: if you have a loved one or friend accompany you to this race and they need some time to kill while you're running here are some great hikes...
-Angel's Landing (Amie and Savannah grabbed coffee at this nearby popular spot before the hike) 
-Or check out the trifecta challenge and recommendations directly on the Ultra Adventures website

We were on the West Coast for all of 2014 (besides one pit stop in D.C.) so this Kogi truck/display at LAX has to make this race recap because it was pretty much the best way to end the trip. Still some of the tastiest tacos I've ever had! 

Best tofu tacos. Ever.
The end. 

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