We made it west again. The main reason for the trip was so that Debbie could run the Zion 100, a very popular ultra marathon in southwestern Utah. The race came right at the start of our trip, and didn’t give her much time to acclimate. We flew to Las Vegas, Nevada on Thursday, and then drove to St. George, Utah. The race was east of there in Virgin.
The start/finish was on Kolob Terrace Road. We got there in time for registration and the pre-race meeting on Thursday night. Once again, my cousin, Danny Roy, joined our crew for the race. He met us in Las Vegas after driving from San Francisco.
We were fortunate to stay with friends in Washington, a suburb of St. George. The drive to Virgin was about 45 minutes long, so after the meeting, we returned to the house. The Friday morning start was at 6:00 A.M., so I drove Debbie there while Danny stayed with our children. It was cool and dry at the start. The 100 mile and 100 kilometer started at the same time and shared the course until they split at the 47.5 mile mark. 55 kilometer and 1/2 marathon trail runs were on Saturday, so it was a weekend of running in the desert.
The Zion course has a modest amount of climbing, but nothing compared to Debbie’s last big race, ULTRA-TRAIL Mt. FUJI. That was last September, so she had a long layoff in between ultras. I watched her run off in the dark with several hundred other runners, and then returned to Washington to meet up with Danny and the kids.
We returned to Virgin all packed for a day of crewing adventure. Our first aid station was Dalton at the 15 mile mark. We thought we got there in adequate time based on her projections, but we missed her by 15 minutes. She is a self-sufficient runner, but we were bummed to miss her at the first crew permissible aid station of the day. We couldn’t see her again until she returned to Dalton at the 30.5 mile mark, so we drove up the road to Zion National Park. We got our park pass, walked around the Visitor Center, and then stopped for a late breakfast in Springville.
After eating, we returned to Dalton. She came through the 30.5 mile mark in about six hours. I walked up the trail a ways and was joined by our son. We eventually saw her descending a steep and rocky mesa. By noon, the weather had warmed up and it was in the low-70’s Fahrenheit with a strong sun shining between intermittent clouds. For the week prior to the race, rain had been in the forecast for Friday and Saturday.
There was some pre-race discussion about the prospect of rain. We had been told that the soft and dusty trails would turn to mush with any rain. Debbie looked good coming in to Dalton and she was leading the 100 mile women, but as she exited the aid station, she told me that she was feeling a bit low. Still, she seemed to be in good spirits. We weren’t going to be able to see her for another 23 miles, so it was going to be a long afternoon without a crew. She was stocked up after taking a fresh UltraSpire pack from us and she was ready for the challenge.
We knew it was going to be five to six hours before we saw her again, so we returned to Washington so the kids could go swimming in the pool at the house where we were staying. While I hung out with the kids, Danny went for a run. There was no race tracker, so we were left to wonder and worry about Debbie. I’ve spent 17 years following her ultra exploits and I never stop worrying.
We packed up again and then drove over to the St. George Running Center so that Danny could pick up a new headlamp. It’s a neat specialty store. On Monday, we are returning so that Debbie can do an evening talk at the store. After the brief visit, we headed back towards Virgin and then towards the Grafton Mesa Aid Station. On our way up towards the aid station, we got a message from our friend, Melanie Thatcher. She was cheering for runners at the Goosebump Aid Station high on a mesa at the 47.5 mile mark.
Debbie had just arrived, and quite a bit behind schedule. It was nearly 5:00 P.M. and she had been running for 11 hours. Melanie reported via text that Debbie was going to cut her race short and drop down to the 100 kilometer race. Pre-race, they had warned that this was the time to make that decision, otherwise, there was no good option to turn back. She and I have often discussed the ramifications of 100 kilometer options. They often give runners an “out” should they lack the confidence to finish the full 100 miler. We both agree that when you start a race and then drop down to a lower distance, that you are really a DNF. I’m not a fan of races that allow runners to conveniently shorten their race and then get credit in the results.
Regardless, she says that she made the right decision. We had pulled off the side of the road to confirm with Melanie what Debbie decided to do. Thanks to modern technology, we had video proof of her arrival at Goosebump. Then we got a report via text that she changed her mind again and was heading back out on the 100 mile course with our Shenipsit Striders club mate, Steve LaBranche. Steve had been running strong, only a handful of minutes behind Debbie and apparently, had shared some miles with her running into the aid station.
To make sure we understood, and to make sure we were headed for the right aid station, we called Melanie. She reported that Debbie had indeed changed her mind again, and was not continuing on to Grafton Mesa, but rather was in fact cutting the race short and doing the 100 kilometer course instead. This meant that she was heading for Virgin Desert Aid Station and not Grafton Mesa.
Based on her schedule, she had 7.5 miles to go before reaching Virgin Desert at the 55 mile mark. That gave us time to get some dinner, so we went back down the hill to the town of Hurricane and found a place to eat. After dinner, we drove back up the hill and straight to the aid station. It was two miles down a dirt road and hands down, is the most beautiful aid station I’ve ever been to. The setting, high on a plateau had the most amazing views in all directions. The view of Gooseberry Mesa with a building storm on the horizon was simply spectacular. The promised rain was coming.
We had time to set up and then hang out at the aid station. We were the first ones there and saw all the lead runners come through. We even saw the lead 100-miler runner, who was more than an hour ahead of second place. We knew she had slowed, so Danny decided to run backwards on the course and intercept her. The kids and I stayed back and took photos of the storm. It was more than one storm. We could see heavy rain falling to the west and to the northeast. In the east, there was a wonderful rainbow that lasted for more than an hour as the sun was setting behind us in the west. Eventually, the eastern clouds worked their way south and then west. It basically wrapped around the desert plateau and enveloped us.
Debbie arrived, accompanied by Danny, around 6:50 P.M. after being on her feet for more than 12 hours and 45 minutes. Just as she arrived, it was starting to sprinkle, but we knew the storm was coming. We had watch the sky darken gradually. She was feeling really low, but was happy to see us. Danny was a superstar again. He has crewed and paced her at some big races in recent years, including Vermont 100, Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run 100, and Miwok 100K. A week from Monday, he is running in his second Boston Marathon. Last year, he had a nice debut, and this year, his goal is to crush it with a marathon personal record.
She donned her rain jacket, switched packs, and put on her headlamp. She also donned her new UltraSpire Lumen 600 waist pack light, which is super-bright. She wishes she had that at UTMF where her light setup was woefully inadequate. Just as she and Danny ran off, it started to rain steadily. I gathered the kids and as much gear as I could carry and ran back to the rented truck. I loaded them in and then the sky just opened up. The thunderstorm that we had been watching for two hours had arrived, and with a fury. I had to get more of our stuff back at the aid station and by the time I ran the 200 meters from where we were parked, I was soaked to the bone. The desert had turned into a mud pit.
When I finally got inside the truck, the kids were wild-eyed with excitement. The storm was amazing and the rain came down in torrents. It was reminiscent of the thunderstorm we rode out (also from inside a rental vehicle) at the 2014 Tahoe Rim Trail 100, but this time, there were no trees. It rained non-stop for 30 minutes. After it stopped, there was a brief clearing, and a wonderful sunset as the mesa’s were lit in a golden glow. I was happy that Danny was with Debbie for this final stretch. After the race, she reported that the trail turned in to a stream as the water rushed downhill carving a steep gully.
The kids and I returned to Hurricane, and then drove back up to the start/finish in Virgin. We experience the occasional sprinkle, but for the most part it was dry. Of course, after the rain, the temperature had dropped and it was quite chilly. I bought them some pizza at the finish line and we hung out around the barrel fires to stay warm. Debbie arrived after 14 hours and 31 minutes of running. She had a solid final seven miles, running a 102 minute split. Though it was an unofficial 100 kilometer finish, she was satisfied with her decision and happy that she wouldn’t be hiking another 38 miles overnight.
After getting some food for Debbie and Danny, we made our way back to our vehicle. All five of us piled inside and were thrilled to get back to Washington after the 45 minute drive back to the house. By then, the rain had started again, which further convinced Debbie that she had made the right decision. It had been a long day for all of us. She didn’t reach the goal that she set out to achieve, but she made an adjustment and was happy with that.
In the morning, we got word that Steve LaBranche successfully finished the 100-miler, so we are proud of him. Congratulations to all the runners. I’m sure there were quite a few DNF’s. We also heard that some runners were forced to cut their race short because of the rain and deteriorating trail conditions. It rained all night, which also caused a delay to the start of the 55 kilometer and 1/2 marathon races.
Of course, I’m always proud of Debbie. It’s always tough to watch her suffer, and the waiting can be nerve-wracking. I always want her to perform at a high level. We both realize that after doing this for 17 years, her super-fast days are behind her. Nowadays, the running is more about the adventure, the experiences, the travel, the community, and the views. The Zion 100 had it all, especially the views.