[Editor's note: Thanks to guest blogger and local ultra enthusiast, Meredith Barrett, for this awe-inspiring run report!]
Red Rocks. Steep canyon walls. 48 miles of trail. On your own. Who’s in?
A great friend of mine took me aside about a year ago and innocently inquired, “So what if I asked you to run an ultramarathon across Zion National Park with me? Would you think I was crazy?” Yes, I would, but somehow she convinced a few of us to do it with her—a 48 mile trail run across Zion, unsupported, just 5 women (four ecologists and 1 glaciologist-turned-medic). She had been completely sold on this run idea after seeing stunning pictures and videos from Andrew Skurka—an ultrarunner and outdoor adventurer extraordinaire—who is one of the few people to have finished this traverse before. Our team had all finished marathons in the past, but this was going to be the first big ultrarun for most of us. We picked a date, bought plane tickets and then we were locked in. No going back!
From December to April, each of us followed a training plan combined and modified from Runners World and Hal Higdon. We relied on the theory that if you run back-to-back days (e.g., 25 miles Saturday, 13 miles Sunday), then your body responds as though it’s running longer (>40 miles), but without all the injuries. We each battled with minor injuries during training (tight Achilles tendons, some knee pain, some hip pain), but when April arrived, we were all healthy enough and ready to go!
Vegas, baby, yeah!
Las Vegas served as our meeting and prepping point. No time for a “Thunder from Down Under” show, but we did appreciate the opportunity to stock up on enough food to feed an army. And then we were off to Zion!
You can see why Zion was protected as one of our country’s first National Parks. Its stunning canyons, slabs of open sandstone, distinctive red and white cliff bands and lush river corridors made for a fantastic distraction from the pain in our legs over the long miles of this run. We ran from the East Rim trailhead to Lee Pass—a route that crosses across some of the most dramatic Zion country, gaining 10,000 feet and then losing just about the same over 48.3 miles (see map—SE corner to NW corner).
Andrew Skurka’s website is a wonderful resource for anyone planning to do this run. Skurka recommends running this route in late April, when the snows have melted but before it gets too hot for those open, exposed stretches of trail. Thinking we were perfectly on target, we chose a weekend in late April to hit that peak time. Who knew it was also going to be an El Nino year? Nature had different ideas in store, and Zion had a heavy winter, getting hit with 170% more precipitation than normal. When we finally were able to talk with a backcountry ranger on the phone, he explained “Well, no one has actually been over that section of trail yet this season, so we have no idea how much snow is out there. Could be deep!” We battled with the decision of what to do with this new information–do we alter our route? Skip that section? Run with snowshoes? Get a heli drop? We had been training for so long, and had set our hearts on finishing this route, so we decided to do what probably many crazy ultrarunners would do—we decided to just go for it. If we had to turn back mid-route, so be it. So with that uncertainty and a bit more nervousness, we got ready for anything Zion might throw at us.
After several hours of last minute purchasing (what a good excuse to buy new gear!), food prepping (enough to feed an army) and carbo-loading (awesome local pasta shop), we were ready and nervous to start our big day. A sister of one of our team and her friend had very generously offered to be our support crew for the day—we could not have done it without them!
East Rim Trailhead to the Grotto (~Miles 1 – 12)
We drove to the East Rim trailhead early in the morning, playing energetic music all the way to pump ourselves up and ease those nerves. Still dark at the trailhead at 6am, we started our route happily at a slow jogging pace, wary of any hidden rocks along the trail unseen with our headlamps.
As the sun rose, we began to see more clearly the beauty of the landscape around us. A light dusting of snow and sparkling of ice on the vegetation gave it a magical quality. The first stretch was a bit cold, but enjoyable and beautiful in the misty clouds.
We emerged into red rock country and loved the chance to run right through a small slot canyon.
From here we looked down upon the Zion Canyon and the North Fork of the Virgin River, and then proceeded to switchback all the way down to the road to reach the Grotto, our first support stop, at about 12 miles in.
Don’t we still look energized and happy?
The Grotto to the Top of the West Rim (Miles 12 – 16)
After loading up on PB&J’s, water, bananas, oranges, sesame sticks (salty and delicious) and “speed balls” (aka chocolate covered espresso beans, our savior!) we started the steep ascent up to the top of the West Rim. After crossing the North Fork of the Virgin River, the trail—blasted into the rock and surprisingly paved in some parts—climbs quickly and then switchbacks up to the start of the famous Angel’s Landing climb.
Looking back down to Zion Canyon…
The trail and its endless switchbacks are blasted into the rock.
Along the West Rim (~Miles 16 – 35ish)
We happily reached the West Rim, but ran into what we feared, yet knew, would be there. Snow. For about 10 miles we ran through patches of the stuff, which made it difficult to follow the trail. The glaciologist/medic (what a great combo!) member of our team has spent most of her professional career in the backcountry, so she easily guided us through the covered sections.
Our strategy for the entire run had been to keep a steady, consistent pace on the flat and downhill sections and then to walk briskly up the steep hills. Walking uphill actually conserves more energy than running slowly, and we wanted to save every drop of energy that we had. This strategy worked really well until we hit these snowy parts, where it was impossible to keep up a consistent running pace even in the flat stretches.
The snow got deep in some sections and we post-holed our way through it. After several hours of this slow progress, and a bit of trail searching after we went off-trail, we reached a decision point. Do we continue to slog through the snow on hidden trails in the dark? The sunlight was waning, we were all drinking melted snow for water, and after 11 hours of hard work we decided to alter our route slightly and attempt to meet up with our support crew. We had two options—try to follow the faint trail that was covered in 3 feet of snow, or head out on a snow-covered road that would take us to the same point. The road would be much easier to spot and follow, so we decided to take the safer route.
We emerged into a beautiful snowy field and then headed down the road. Nine miles later (at a total of about 35-38 miles) we met up with our savior support crew, who hailed us with fresh water, warm clothes and beef jerky!
The tired, yet happy, crew at the end of a long day.
Coming back for more (~Miles 35 – 48)
We woke up the next morning feeling tired and happy, but not quite satisfied. We had dreamed for months about finishing this run across Zion, and our determination got the better of us. Instead of soaking our legs in the cold waters of the Virgin River, drinking well-deserved margaritas, we decided to polish off the last unfinished section of the run, from Hop Valley Trailhead to Lee’s Pass, which is about 13 miles. We feared snow, we feared mud, but decided to go for it anyways. What we found was one of the most beautiful and friendly stretches of trail that we had run all trip. We wound through small, intimate red rock canyons, crossed flowing streams and a rushing La Verkin River, passed through gorgeous private ranches and marveled at the stunning scenery all around us. THIS was what running across Zion was all about! It washed away any of the frustration from the difficult snow-slogging of the day before.
With the moon rising and the red color of the rocks coming into full flush, we made it to Lee Pass. It was an amazing and challenging trip, and we were all so happy to have been healthy enough to attempt it. It took a little longer than we planned, but we did it! I feel confident that all of us would have made it across the Park in one day had the conditions cooperated. And maybe we’ll get our chance—we’re raring to do it again!
Running an ultramarathon through such a stunning place, and with such great friends, was an experience of a lifetime. If you’re thinking about it, go for it!
A little post-run celebration in the hot tub (ahhh…..).
Thanks to Bull City Running Company for outfitting me for this race! The Body Glide was ESSENTIAL!
Great information about the route can be found on Andrew Skurka’s website:
Trip section maps (copied from an excellent trip report from one of the original runners of this route):