Old Habits Die Hard. 25 miles of the Trans-Zion Trek: Hop Valley to The Grotto

I was in Southern Utah for a family reunion, which is never a bad place to be in late November, especially if you live in snow country!  I had heard some talk about running across Zion National Park a few years earlier, and was mildly intrigued, but never really had much of an opportunity to make it a reality.  But here I was, only a stones throw from the park and very little actual responsibility except the hugging of relatives. (Which I actually enjoyed very much!)  Once those awesome responsibilities were dispatched, I started to explore possible adventures and Trans-Zion again appeared on the radar.  I didn’t talk much about it, as I figured certain people may discourage the attempt. (Sorry Honey)  I did do some quick internet searches and got the basic gist of what it would entail. However, a few major obstacles stood in my way, the chief of which was I hadn’t ran more than a few miles for several months.  But the odd thing about having done ultra distance running in the past is you feel invincible and think you can do more than you can!  It is easy to rationalize, “I have ran 60+ miles at a shot, 47 should be a piece of cake!”  Although in reality, anything over 15 is always challenging!!   The fact is, being fit 3 months earlier, doesn’t always translate to being fit in the present.  However, my biggest concern was, quite frankly, how to keep the family involved and happy while I was testing my meddle against the slickrock of the Colorado Plateau!  I thought about inviting my wife or older daughters to take a crack at it, but honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and knew that It would not be a wise decision to bring along any extra runners who were likely less prepared than myself!!  And although running a marathon at elevation is a challange, watching 9 kids in ZNP may actually be the more difficult scenario.  So, after looking at different options of logistics and mileage, I decided that running from the Hop Valley trail head to the Grotto, would strike the best balance between distance and convenience.  I could drive with the family to the park, and it would only be about a 12 mile scenic drive up the Kolob Terrace to insert me at the desired location along the route!  I would quickly knock-out a 20 something mile downhill run and meet the family a few hours later at the Grotto Picnic area and enjoy a leisurely peanut butter and jelly sandwich before embarking on the 45 minute drive back to our base camp in nearby St. George.  The family could enjoy a little time exploring the trails and canyons, they wouldn’t even miss me.


The Kids in Zion, while they were awaiting the return of their patriarch. 


Of course, with 9 children nothing ever goes quite as planned, but after a few hours delay we finally got on the road.  A beautiful drive took me to the trail head where they dropped me off at about 10 AM to start the days excitement.  I was typically underprepared, with 7 or 8 energy bars crammed in my cycling jersey, and a 24 oz water bottle in my hand.  I didn’t bring salt, or extra clothing, except for a pair of socks.  “It is only 25 miles” I reasoned, “what could go wrong!??  It was a beautiful late autumn day and my family watched me take the first few steps on a new trail before they headed down to the main canyon for a few hours of their own adventure.  When I said that I had a gist of what I was getting into, that is just what I meant.  I expected an 8 mile flat run to the top of the West Rim trail, and then a gradual 3000 foot descent to the floor of the main canyon.  I hadn’t really looked very closely at a map or seen an elevation profile, I never bothered to call the park and ask what the trail conditions were like.  I did however look out the window that morning, and checked the approximate elevation of the snowline, and with uncanny and expert intuition, I calculated that the run would be several hundred feet below the need to worry about the cold wet stuff.  And for the first few miles I was right as rain!!


                              The trail went from steep and dry…..

                           ……to steep and wet!!!


In the beginning, I thought it was enchanting to see a little early season snow along the side of the trail, but as the trail continued to climb, the novelty quickly wore off as I was sludging through 6-8 inches of melting snow that was making my shoes and socks wet and my toes cold!!  This was also causing a major miscalculation in my arrival time!!  I told them 2 PM at the earliest 4 PM at the latest, and judging from my current pace, I would be lucky to make it by 4!   I always feel horrible when my wife is waiting and I show up late, the imagination can go crazy waiting up for a child or irresponsible husband.  After a few minutes I could picture her resigned to the fact that I was cougar fodder at the base of a red rock cliff, and she would be raising the kids by herself!!


Plenty of crazy rock cliffs and a labyrinth of canyons


I reckoned that I would soon plateau out, and start my descent, so I figured the best plan was to redouble my effort and keep moving forward.  And of course, with no cell phone reception, that was really the only plan available!!!  When I finally reached the West Rim trail head, I had ascended more than 1000 feet, my feet were cold, and I was pretty darned tired!!  I still had 15 miles to go, but I was confident that it was all downhill from there so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other!  It wasn’t.  The next 10 miles were mostly flat and the snow was now interspersed with lots of mud and large puddles, quite honestly I preferred the snow because the trail had become crazy slippery!!  I was all over the place trying to keep my momentum going forward and my 6 foot frame upright!  Every step was challenging my already challenged balancing skills!  Any downhill was followed by an equally aggressive uphill!  This run had already been way more than I had bargained for,  I kept thinking how thankful I was that I hadn’t decided to try the longer options!  This was already going to be one for the Archives of Epic Runs!  My pace continued to slow until I was barely keeping a 15 min/mile pace, but that still should have been just enough to get me in close to the 4 PM deadline.  I am always embarrassed when my wife calls Search and Rescue because of a minor miscalculation in my estimated arrival time, and I show up a few minutes (or hours, or days) late.  Just when I thought I could push a little harder…WHAAP….my feet went one way and my body went the other….CRACK….my left elbow found a sharp rock barely submerged in the slush!  OOOWWW!!  I was wet, cold, and my left arm was somewhere between numb and excruciatingly painful, not to mention that I felt a sudden urge to make a Chiropractic appointment!!  I only had about 6 miles to go and knew I would still cross the finish line, but the fall had sucked out a little battery life, and I was already in power-saving mode!  I crawled up out of the snow and mud and continued on, trying to shake out the throbbing in my left arm and kink in my back, fortunately the pain in my legs, feet, and toes were enough to drown out most of anything else I felt!  And then it happened, the trail began to drop downhill….fast.  I was already passed the point of being able to let my body relax and let gravity do the work for me.  Each step was difficult and I felt that my feet were being smacked with concrete every step of the way.  My quads were not fairing much better!  But I knew the only way to bring this misery to a joyous end was to keep going, so going I did!  Down the canyon wincing with pain!


                       Looking off a cliff at the trail below….I knew I had a 3000 foot descent, I didn’t realize it was all at once!!


My daughter Eliza, has a pretty little yell she does,  a little like the attack cry of Xena, the Warrior Princess, but with a lot more tongue rolling and volume.


I know that it originated somewhere on the ski slopes of Utah as a cry of approbation for a particularly death defying trick in the early days of freestyle skiing.  I am not sure how it became my daughters personal identifier, but when I hear it while running, at the park, or in the grocery store, my daughter is letting me know she is there, she loves me,  and is encouraging me to do my best!  I was hoping to hear her call for the last several miles, I thought that there was a reasonable chance that a few of the kids and my wife would start up the trail looking for me as it got closer to 4.  I was not disappointed.


I heard echoing from somewhere down the valley.


I answered with as much gusto as possible and picked up the pace a notch or two as I continued my descent.  It wasn’t long before Eliza, Charity, and my wife Kristen were within sight and running up the trail toward me.


The rescue party,  Eliza and Kristen.  Charity was still working her way up the 3000 foot ascent!!


I still had a couple of miles to go, but I was no longer concerned about my wife worrying and I got a much needed kiss on my left elbow (and one for my cold lips as well!!)  I had people to listen to my stories of bravery and fortitude, pushing my way to the end, against all odds!!  They smiled knowingly as they slowly jogged down the steep trail, trying to keep my mind off the obvious pain, and also worrying slightly about the oncoming delirium!  Whatever they did, it worked!  I found the van in the parking lot and rounded up the rest of the kids that were loitering about waiting for their long lost father to return!  My Strava had me at about 25 miles taking into account a few side trails to check out the viewpoints and zigzags as I became fuzzy near the end!  Overall, I would consider the day wildly successful!!

This really was an epic run!!  You don’t have to do a lot of mileage to make it that way, I think you know what I mean.  If the trail conditions were perfect, and I was fit, this may not have been quite this remarkable, although running in Zion may always pass as epic.  I have had much shorter runs on the beach, in the rain, or with someone I love that would qualify.  Sometimes you can plan an epic run,  and sometimes you can’t.  Challenging yourself is always a good idea!  You will be surprised what you can do!  So next time I access the Archives of Epic Runs,  I expect to see your name included!!


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