I’m not usually one for putting lots of quotes in my blogs, but I think the things I want to say have already been said, more elegantly, by others, so we’ll start there:
“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” said Dostoevsky. It seemed very noble when I read that from the comforts of my sofa, and I memorized it. But on the muddy trail all the suffering and hurting sometimes seems not worth it. I’m not in it for the pain. In fact, I don’t like pain and I want it to stop. But I do believe that through encountering pain, you can learn and really expand yourself. So I am willing to confront it, even if, in the moment, I really question why I am putting myself through the pain.
Why do thousands of people return year after year to some of the hardest footraces on the planet? The reason is simple: because people like to challenge themselves. We have chosen to do so through the venue of mountain running, and that venue has provided incredible rewards to its practitioners for as long as people have been doing it. Long-distance running makes us happy, so we want to do it as much as possible. Simple as that. We can be confident that we’re doing the right thing because we love what we’re doing. I don’t believe any other reason to be so powerful.
It’s not like my first ultra experiences didn’t involve suffering… I was totally under-prepared for Tahoe, my feet were riddled with blisters after the High Sierra Camps, and Evolution was… epic to say the least. But by TNF San Francisco last December, I had begun to get the 50k distance dialed and I was able to do the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail (about 25 miles) casually a couple weeks ago. In fact, the first 50k or so of the Zion Traverse was really not that bad.
The rest of the Zoom Loco crew hadn’t showed up at the East Rim Trailhead yet by 5am, but we were worried about trying to finish not in the dark, so we started at 5:01. Julie and I made great time on the first 12 miles on the East Rim Trail, avoiding taking any wrong turns and turning our headlamps off as we were cresting the top of the first climb. The descent to Weeping Rock via Echo Canyon was fun, steep, and technical. I’m definitely impressed by those who do the traverse the other direction (West to East) and have to go up this late in their day. The road between Weeping Rock and the Grotto sped by and we met up with Luke to refill water and set off up the West Rim Trail.
The crazy switchbacks up to the Angel’s Landing junction went by super fast and we were soon in new territory (we had all hiked Angel’s Landing on a previous trips). After Wilson’s Wiggles you get a brief respite of flat and downhill before beginning the second half of the climb to the true West Rim. We passed some backpackers (including a pretty young kid, maybe 8-10 years old?) going the other direction looking remarkably peppy and relaxed. This is the point at which you start to wonder who has the better idea – we get to carry less stuff, but they can stop and rest however much they want.
We stopped to refill water at the West Rim Spring and it was good we did because we never saw the Potato Hollow Spring and apparently the Sawmill Spring was dry. Luke handled the SteriPen while Julie and I just sat and ate food. He was an awesome pacer on the 15-mile section he ran with us – taking videos, keeping up the conversation, and generally not annoying us too much. I ran out of water (but still had some Roctane) a mile or so before our “aid station” at the West Rim Trailhead, so I was definitely psyched that we’d stashed a ton of water, food, and other resupply items there on Friday. It sounded like this aid station saved a lot of other people too, including our New York trail acquaintances, who hadn’t filled water at the West Rim Spring.
At this point we had 27-28 miles under our belts and two main sections left: 9 miles on the Wildcat Canyon and Connector Trails to the Hop Valley Trailhead, then 13 miles on the Hop Valley and La Verkin Creek Trails to the finish at Lee Pass. Those sounded pretty manageable to us at the time, but we were definitely dragging by the last mile to the Hop Valley Trailhead (and bathroom!). That section of trail seemed to stay largely within a basalt layer, resulting in trail littered with sharp, pokey volcanic rocks. Normally, this is not a big deal, but once your legs have started to get tired, it gets much harder to hop over or around all these obstacles. Well I showed them (I walked around all of the stupid, stupid rocks).
I had not been expecting to see Luke again, but everyone had made it through the aid station and he had just moved the water stash to the Hop Valley Trailhead when we got there. The bathroom and the bottle of Coke Luke gave me were awesome. As were the hugs when I cried a little about how tired I was. But Julie and I had some sort of conversation here that went something like: “Well, we’re not technically injured and we’re not literally dead, so we don’t really have a good reason to stop here. I guess we should go ahead and finish.” I may also have reminded myself of one of my mantras, which is that “anyone can do a half marathon.”
That last section may have been “just a half marathon” and included a lot of flat and downhill, but it was not easy. Most of the Hop Valley Trail was either deep sand or mud or a creek crossing. Running on sand is one of my weaknesses and I was not able to muster much speed once we got down into the flat valley and didn’t have gravity helping us out as much. Near the La Verkin Trail junction, I made a pit stop in the bushes and ran into a snake in the first spot I tried. I didn’t stick around long enough to see what kind of snake it was, but it reminded me of the rattlesnakes I’ve seen in California. Disaster (narrowly) averted.
We finally reached the La Verkin trail and followed it up and down some more technical sections (poor little legs were not happy about this). We came to a sign that said 6.5 miles to Lee Pass and I groaned aloud “it’s so far”. These last 6.5 miles were not going to go by as easily as the first 6.5 in the morning. On fresher legs, this section of trail would be totally cruiser. There were 2ish more miles of gently downhill and flat along La Verkin Creek before the final climb, and even the final climb was not that steep (until the last mile…). At this point my body had gone into safe mode (like when your computer doesn’t start up right) and only had a few basic functionalities:
- Move forward. Sometimes running, mostly walking. Part of your brain begs you to stop, but if you do you receive an error message and you start moving again.
- Drink water (difficult).
- Eat gel or apple sauce (more difficult).
- Calculate how much longer it will take to go the x miles remaining. This becomes increasingly alarming when a distance I normally cover in about an hour (6 miles) on our local Rancho trails could feasibly take up to three hours. THREE HOURS! I can easily run twice this distance in less time than that! I need to learn how to turn this functionality off. It is not useful.
- Play the “avoid looking at my watch for as long as possible” game so that more distance will have gone by in between glances.
Advanced functions like taking pictures or carrying on a conversation were not feasible. We degraded further the closer we got to the finish. Julie’s asthma acted up and she started sounding like when we were on the final climb to Bishop Pass on the Evolution Loop (~12,000 ft). A hotspot on my heal had become a blister and popped with about 2 miles to go, which exponentially increased the pain it caused (which I never understand, shouldn’t it help to release the pressure?). My mental math had been off and it was 0.75 miles farther to the parking lot than I had thought. To add insult to injury, you can see the parking lot from at least a mile away. Then you go up a steep hill you think MUST lead to the parking lot, but is in fact a false summit and you still have another steep hill (which I’m sure is tiny on fresh legs) to go. We were not happy. I cried. I told Luke I wanted to die. I sat down in the car and took my shoes off and propped my throbbing feet up on the dashboard. I did not want beer, I did not want pizza. I did not have space at the moment to celebrate my achievement, I was totally wrecked.
However, as soon as the pain in my feet faded, it created room to appreciate all the successes, large and small, of this incredible day. Here are just a few:
- We finished in 15 hours and 17 minutes. This is, in fact, almost TWO HOURS shorter than it took us to do the Evolution Loop, which was 14 less miles. This is an unqualified success. Our time works out to an average pace of 18:39/mile, including stoppage time and Garmin calculates our average moving pace was closer to 14:21/mile. We also finished in less than 16 hours, the time cutoff for Squamish 50. This is huge for me!
- We finished in the light, without having to put our headlamps back on. We also made it back to Springdale in time to get burritos (even if we didn’t eat much of them that night).
- I had fewer blisters than at the High Sierra Camps. I think if I had worn my trail gaiters, I might not have gotten any. I had a ton of sand in my shoes and socks that I think was probably directly related to the blistering.
- My knees didn’t hurt! I’ve had huge issues with IT band and Runner’s Knee recently and to complete something like this and my major complaint at the end was that my feet ached is pretty huge.
I also learned a few more key things, which are that maybe I should try Hokas (could reduce foot pain for the latter part of Squamish 50) and that I should just not carry my camera in my front backpack pocket after the first 20 miles because I won’t use it anyways. That way I can have food up there instead.
The whole day was huge learning experience for me, but also an affirmation of my abilities. And as the moments of suffering fade into the past (even if it’s just a few days past), I realized that the suffering didn’t take away from the experience, but added to it. If we didn’t have to suffer to get to the end of our first 50 mile, would we feel like we had earned it? Would we have realized how much we are truly capable of, if we can do a tough, adventurous mountain 50 with non-ideal training?
It’s funny, because right after we finished, Julie and I both said that we would never, ever do a 100 or UTMB. They were just too hard and too far and too much suffering. But once I found some emotional distance, I realized that what I went through in Zion gives me more confidence that I could run 100 miles and even the UTMB. Some day. With much more training. Doing the Zion Traverse was a magnified version of my experience so far with the 50k distance. Yes, each step requires more time and experience to master, but I have not met my limit yet. I am not even close.