Where do I even begin when trying to reflect on an adventure that was as amazing as the one I just had this past weekend? I guess I’ll start with a year ago. In May, 2011 I went down to Zion National Park to try the now popular Zion Traverse; a 48 mile adventure run crossing the entire park. Often done from east to west this diverse trail requires runners to climb nearly 10,000 vertical feet and travel at elevations ranging from 4200 to 7500. Temperatures can differ by up to 15 degrees and weather can change on a dime. On that trip I attempted to cross with three friends; Josh, Matt, and Scott. Unfortunately, due to poor weather we were turned back after only 18 miles and had to call it a day. However, on the drive home we started discussing our potential return trip a year later. It was then that I hatched the idea of possibly doing a double crossing.
I was uncertain whether anyone had ever tried it before, so I started doing a little research on the internet, but couldn’t find any proof. In September, while hanging out at the finish of the Wasatch 100 I came across Jared Campbell who is one of the modern pioneers of the Zion Traverse (while Bo Beck was the first to do a non-stop crossing, it was Jared and Karl Meltzer who went after the traverse with any speed interest). I asked if he had ever heard of anyone trying a double crossing of the park and he commented that he was pretty sure no one had tried. While my interest was now piqued I was worried that Jared would go and attempt it as I think he’s adopted Zion as his own personal playground. Yet, as time went by and I started to make more plans I didn’t hear of any attempts by anyone and my excitement started to grow. Dates were set, my crew was put together, and I even picked up a few sponsors (Altra Zero Drop footwear, UltrAspire hydration, and Goal Zero solar energy).
As the date approached I became more and more nervous. While I’ve successfully run 100 miles on three occasions before, all of them were at races with a bunch of support at frequent intervals. This run would only allow for crew support infrequently and in between support I would be deep in the Zion back country. I was also very nervous because for the first time ever there were other people who had a vested interest in what I was doing and I didn’t want to let anyone down. However, I was better trained than I’ve ever been, uninjured, and ready to try and run 96 miles fast. I set a goal of sub-24, but would also be happy with just getting it done if things didn’t go well.
My crew for this trip would be Matt Williams, Josh Greenwell, Scott Wesemann, and Matthew VanHorn, all experienced ultra runners. To my dismay, however, Matt had gotten violently ill just days prior to our trip and Josh and Matthew were nursing sore ITBS. Between the four of them though, I knew they would take care of me. We got to the Lee Pass trailhead in Kolob Canyons right at 6am on Friday 5/11 and were off and hitting the trail by 6:15am. We quickly settled into an easy pace in the cool morning air, trying not to trip as we would cast our eyes towards the glowing pink cliffs overhead. Even though I wanted to run quickly it was equally important to me that I enjoy the beauty of this spectacular land.
I quickly came to the realization that Matt was still not feeling well and would not be able to keep up. Without asking I knew he’d call it quits after this first 13 mile leg and act as support for the rest of the trip. Josh was continuing to stay pretty close though, with only dropping out of site a couple of times as we got closer to the Hopp Valley turn-off. When I made the turn up the hill I took a quick look back and couldn’t see Josh, but was confident he’d see the sign and make the turn. I continued over into Hopp Valley and started slogging through the sand and endless stream crossings. In this open valley I would take frequent looks back for Josh, but never saw him coming. I assumed then he had probably waited for Matt to make sure he was ok and so I pressed on. I enjoyed the next few miles and even the climb out of the valley and on towards the car, getting there in 2:21, almost 10 minutes faster than planned. Matthew and Scott helped me secure my gear for the next leg while I ate and I told Matthew that he should probably prep to go with me in case Josh didn’t show up in the next 10 minutes. After a full 20 minute stop I couldn’t wait any longer and I took Matthew with me onto the next 23 mile leg across the West Rim into the Zion park proper. I would learn later that Josh missed the turn up to Hopp Valley and spent 3 hours lost in the Laverkin Creek area of Kolob, accumulating at least 26 miles and lots of scratches. I feel really bad I didn’t wait for him.
The next section is broken up into three different trails; the Connector, Wildcat, and West Rim trails. They each differ from each other in landscape and difficulty. I was feeling ok, but starting to have trouble with maintaining energy even though I was taking in plenty of gels, chia seeds, and other random snacks. I was drinking plenty, but it was now after 11am and starting to get hot. Matthew was with me most of the time, only running up ahead periodically so that he could stop and stretch his IT Band. The Connector trail is interesting in it’s changing dynamic. It can be grassy at one spot, then change to slickrock, and then rocky dirt trail. Once on the Wildcat trail the conditions worsened into rocky basalt strewn trail as it wound it’s way up and around Wildcat Canyon until it met up with the West Rim trail. At the confluence we took a short break to try and increase my energy before heading out onto the exposed west rim for the next 8 miles.
Matt climbing out of Wildcat canyon
At the top of Wildcat canyon
As we started onto the West Rim trail I just wasn’t feeling all that great. It wasn’t that I had stomach issues or any pain anywhere, I just didn’t have the energy I needed to be dealing with the now increasing heat. I was also starting to run low on water. I knew there was a spring at the top of the west rim climb above Angels Landing, but that seemed very far away and I was nervous and unable to push any faster. While I continued to struggle mentally I was also impressed with how beautiful the canyons that dropped below us were. I had only been on part of this trail before, 14 years earlier when I hiked in from Lava Point to descend Imlay Canyon. Little was familiar to me. Beyond Potato Hollow (the top of Imlay Canyon) the trail was all new to me, but I could see in the distance where we were supposed to drop down and where I knew the spring would be. With just a couple of ounces of water left in my last bottle we descended down to where the West Rim trail meets the east end of Telephone Canyon trail and the source of our spring. We refilled and I drank heavily, but didn’t quite feel the surge of energy and hydration I needed to push quickly down to the Grotto trailhead where we would meet our crew again. In the process of Matthew stowing his gear he must have lost sight of me because he ended up taking a wrong turn, which didn’t last long, but he did end up getting to the bottom of the canyon several minutes after me. Once back at the Grotto TH I collapsed on a rock and felt very nauseated. The boys fed me Pepsi and a banana and after a quick potty stop I felt a million times better and ready to push on.
The next section requires a quick mile on the paved road and then up the endless switchbacks beyond Weeping Rock. While I love that section of trail, we were unfortunately running it at the hottest part of the day. OK, ‘running’ isn’t the right word, ‘slowly hiking’ is more appropriate. It was more important that we conserve energy and heat reserves though as the climbing got steeper and harder the higher we went. Like on the West Rim, as we approached the top of the climb and by the time we got to Stave Spring I was nearly out of water. The spring, which is fed from a pipe, was cool and welcome. We cruised as fast as my failing body would allow me to go down to the East Entrance trailhead. Those last 5 miles were spotted with horribly deep sand and between that and diaphragm cramping I just couldn’t maintain a normal running pace. My goal was to hit the turn-around at 10 hours. We got there at 11:03. To make my 24 hour goal I would now have to make a quick stop and really push hard on the way back. However, I just didn’t have the energy and needed a longer break to eat real food and recover.
Cruising into the turn-around, mile 48
Once refueled and Scott on my hip I was ready to start pushing back towards the west end of the park. As Scott and I made our way through the sand I started feeling good, really good. When the sand relented I found I had legs and energy to spare and we absolutely flew up the long incline back to Stave Spring where we topped off our fluids and then literally flew down the trail all the way back to the Grotto in record time (for someone who was already over 50 miles of running). We were having a ton of fun, laughing while we ran, and Scott was snapping a bunch of pictures. At this time of the evening the glow of the canyon was just beautiful and we were soaking in the views. We ran that section of trail in 2:35, three minutes faster than our group ran it fresh the year before.
Running up towards Stave Spring
Scott running down towards Weeping Rock
I hated going up this section, but loved going down
Making the final turns into the switchbacks
We actually beat Matt, Matthew, and Josh to the Grotto. I guess they tried to drive up to meet us and got pulled over and received a strict lashing from a park ranger. The stop was 30 minutes, much longer than we wanted, but by now I figured my 24 hour goal was lost and would just be happy to finish strong. Besides, Scott and I were having a bunch of fun and were enjoying the time out on the trail more than we did trying to go fast. We ate a sandwich, some chips, and a Pepsi and were off up the Angels Landing trail back towards the west rim. Scott was shocked at how fast I was able to move up the switchbacks and before we knew it we were rounding towards the next set heading up to the West Rim proper and the spring. With the heavy dinner and aggressive pace both of our stomachs were turning circles. At the last turn, high up on the cliff before the spring, my stomach finally said stop and I asked if I could lay down for a second. Scott said he’d give me 2 min (he actually gave me about 5) and continued to pep-talk me back to life. I got back up and just moved slow. By the time we reached the top my stomach was back and I was feeling strong again. After refilling our reserves we started the last push to the rim and then Scott’s stomach turned. It was now his turn to sit on a log and try not to vomit. He was better than me though and only after a couple of minutes was ready to push on. Like me, within 10 minutes his stomach came back and we were back into a solid pace along the West Rim trail. Those 8 miles along the trail you have a constant view of two red lights that I thought were at Lava Point, but they never kept getting closer. We were so frustrated as we slogged along, hiking the steeper hills, and trying to keep a steady pace on the downhills, flats, and easy inclines. But we just never got any closer to the Wildcat turn-off. We did finally hit it though, but it took much longer than I had hoped. We sat down for a minute and ate and enjoyed looking at the stars.
The next 8 miles down Wildcat and onto the Connector trail were tough. We were both sleepy and with about 4 miles to go before Hopp Valley TH Scott ran out of water. I had plenty by filling up at a spring in Wildcat Canyon, but he only needed one drink from me. All we wanted to do was get off this very rocky trail, make it through the sparse Connector trail, get to the van, and enjoy a little rest before finishing out the last 13 miles. We finally made it, now 23 hours into our trip. I collapsed in the back of the van and tried to sleep for 5 min, but it never really came. I could hear talk up front about Matthew taking off several hours earlier, expecting us to have finished much earlier than we did and hoping we would catch him before completing that last section. Weird. Our stop was too long, almost 30 minutes, but it was just what I needed. Once back on the trail we mushed our way through the horrific beach sand until we could descend into Hopp Valley, but I was feeling really good and ready to push to the finish. Once down in the stream crossings I could see a person off in the distance wandering around and trying to talk into a radio. I knew immediately it was Matthew. Apparently, in the dark he had gotten confused with the directions and not gone far enough to meet up with the Lee Pass trail. He had been wandering around the Hopp Valley trail for 3 hours and was making his way back to meet us. Brutal. In the dark that place would feel like a maze. He stepped in behind us though and we all moved well across the stream and through the sand.
Once we got over the pass and onto the final trail to the finish we did what we could to press hard through the sand and then run what uphills we could. I was paying close attention to my watch and wondering if I could still go under 27 hours. With about 3 miles left I decided it was worth a try. I felt strong and fresh, so I asked Scott if I could step by and I turned on the gas. He tried to keep up for a while, but in the end I was just feeling too good and started my final burn to the finish. Those last few miles were tough, but fun. They wind around tiny canyons and must cross the creek 10 times. Then that final mile. And that final climb. It’s like a boxing match where you know you’ve just gone toe to toe for 12 rounds with the champ, only for him to step up in the final minutes with a sledge hammer to pound you into the ground. In the last half mile you have to climb several hundred feet up what might be the steepest climb of the whole run. Then, just as you are almost done it drops you back down 100 feet that you have to gain in the final .1 to the finish. However, I could hear the yelps and calls from Matt and Josh, yelling for me to finish strong. I sprinted those last steps to the top, slapped the sign, and stopped my watch. 26:55:03. I had done it.
This is the actual moment I finished
While I’ve run farther than this three other times, this was by far the most difficult. The sand and heat were relentless. The climbs were staggering. Yet, I always knew I would continue on. With the help of good friends my success was never in doubt. I can’t express enough my gratitude for my friends who were willing to come along and help me in this endeavor. Also, thank you to Altra for making the best shoes ever. To UltrAspire for making such a great hydration pack. And to Goal Zero for producing a really cool and ingenious product. Now that it’s done I hope someone goes out and crushes my time.