Driving north on Highway 87 from Phoenix aipport toward Payson, it again blew me away how quickly you were in the starkly beautiful, virtually uninhabitated desert. I think I was more aware of that this time, driving alone instead of with Richard and (cousin) Cheryl like two years ago. Giant organ cacti gave way to greener, denser high desert forests as the highway rose, with lots of steep rises and falls, up to 5,000 feet in Payson.
The next day it was up early and off to do some solo trail maintenance east of the Fish Hatchery on the Highline Trail, to meet part of my requirements for upcoming summer races. Crossing the stream that runs south from the Hatchery, you immediately encounter the rocky, twisty, up and down terrain that makes the Highline such a rugged trail and Zane Grey such a tough and wonderful event (the 50 milers that wants to be a 100K, I like to think of it!). Moving logs that had been chainsawed by an 80-some-year-old who still runs the race (!) but not moved off the trail proved to be taxing at times. Finding branches that could give leverage and not stress the back too much proved to be a key! Building cairns, moving brush off the trail, and putting up branch edges to mark off side trails proved to be easier tasks. The all-purpose gloves I got in the bike department of a sporting goods store before the trip came in handy! I was careful to kick rocks and logs first before moving, or probe them with sticks, duly fearful of rattlers (none seen!).
All in all, it was quite cool and relaxing to be out there solo on the trail on a pleasant day, in the 70s. Getting acclimated to the dry heat and the footing. I went about 4 miles out before returning. A highlight at the end was eating my lunch among the rocks in the middle of the stream, soaking my feet and calves in the cold rushing water! Saw one large fish jump, which must have been a trout that hatched at the Hatchery just a few hundred yards north!
Sometimes the second time through a difficult event is a lot smoother! I'm not sure if it was the milder temps (mostly 60s, partly cloudy, and breezy, versus 80s in '07). But I'd like to think it was in part at least the accumulated ultra experience and better preparation with footwear, socks, etc.. Or maybe it was just my first experiment in carrying double handheld bottles and leaving behind the Camelbak (the biceps can get sore, but I'm lovin' it!!
But, whatever it was, this one just went MUCH more smoothly than the ordeal of blisters, heat, and suffering through the stark, rugged beauty of two years ago. No dramas, no blowups, no extended aid station stops, no blister treatment, not even any shoe/socks changes...just fairly steady pacing (or so it seemed). The most measurable result: a respectable 15:27:13, about 56 minutes under my '07 time! And instead of DFLing (that's dead f....'in last!) I actually had four people finish behind me, and there were apparently up to 50 or so DNFs, based on the number who had registered. The usual amount of Zane Grey victims!
It was chilly, maybe the 40s, at the start at 5AM, but not as bad as some years, people were saying. The headlamp stayed on for maybe 30-40 minutes, as we steadily climbed up toward about 6,200 feet the first three miles or so. Hey, the air is thinner here, my sea-level lungs started reminding me! The first ridgeline views of the surrounding hills and valley in the early morning light were awesome, but no time to linger and admire! Then it was a generally descending stretch for a few miles, culminating in a nice, curvy descent into Camp Geronimo at mile 8, the first aid station, at around 5,400 feet, about the same elevation as the start. Scooted through that one quickly, feeling good. They had my drop bag waiting, and I just quickly shed my windbreaker which I'd taken off and the trash bag I'd worn at the start.
Shortly after that AS, I remember a tricky turn where I waited for the person behind me just to make sure I was on trail. It's a steady climb up to about 6,500 feet till around mile 12. As with most of the course, it seems like most stretches are rocks strewn on rocks strewn on rocks. But then you'll have some sandier or dirt-like footing for a while, sometimes with a soft bed of pine needles thrown in, just enough to break it up. But mostly rocks! I averaged about a 14:30 for the first section, which in retrospect was probably a little fast. The telltale sign should have been the more labored breathing, particularly on the climbs, though once again altitude is deceptive and sneaks up on me rather than simply banging you over the head (at least at this elevation)!
The trail yo-yo's up and down up to AS#2 at mile 17, Washington Park. A few miles into this section I could feel my energy level dropping, and I had that sort of lull that I often experience three or four hours into it. People were passing me, and folks with whom I'd been yo-yo'ing pulled away. I spent longer at this aid station, reloading food and swapping out bottles and eating some real food (mostly fruit as I recall). I averaged around 18:00 in this section, slowing down considerably (but to what was ultimately a more realistic and sustainable pace).
After around 4:45-4:50 or so, not far out from this AS, I remember taking the "double shot of meds" I usually do every 5 hours (2 Advil, one Vivarin). That put some pep in my step. After that I managed to pick it up enough to pass or at least pull even with a few folks. In this third section of about 7 miles, leading to Hell's Gate (gotta love the name!), at 24, there was a lot of steady climbing, then a fairly sharp descent, then back up and then down. We started to get into the "burn section" from the early 1990s fire, where it's more open grassland with lower trees and vegetation (but it struck me that this whole middle section of the course felt less open and exposed and hot than even two years ago--in part, it had grown up more, and in part I guess because of the "game of tag" the sun and clouds seemed to be playing). In the more open section, you could hear the winds howling, and feel the breeze, and I would roll my arm warmers back up for more warmth. Overall, I averaged about 17:35 in this section. It felt like I was getting things back together, and I got out of the fairly bare-bones AS at Hell's Gate quickly. I remember asking the volunteers, "So this is what Hell looks like?!" They didn't seem too amused, as I think they'd already heard similar lines for quite a while by that time!
The section from 24 to 33, to the Fish Hatchery, seemed pretty long. Out in the open it felt pretty warm at times. The rush from the caffeine and Advil had subsided a bit. I think it was around here where I started jockeying with the guy from Salt Lake City, a pattern which would go on till the last aid station. We talked occasionally. A big, tall, broud-shouldered guy, he was an efficient, strong hiker, and powered up hills, but I never once saw him run (he later told me that he had "only one gear," and wasn't a big fan of these technical trails due to some kind of chronic injuries). So, I would tend to pass him on downhills and pull away on more runable rolls, but he would inevitably power his way back up to me and past me. At least it was all good-spirited, as he would cheer me on, and provided good if sporadic company. Never did catch his name though. Anyway, I averaged a 20:46 pace on this section, based on the official mileage, which would make it my slowest-paced section. Could well be, but part of it may also be that it was a bit longer than advertised, or the aid station placement was a little off. Somehow, this course allegedly comes out to 53 or so, even if the organizers says it's more like 51! Those extra miles are thrown in there SOMEWHERE!
I left Fish Hatchery, the first cutoff, with about 13 minutes to spare. But given the distance between aid stations, I had been there maybe a good 3-5 minutes, swapping out drinks and nutrition from my small drop bag, eating some AS food, and filling up my handhelds.
After Fish Hatchery, you hit a really long section, about 11 miles, till the next aid. I think there was one little water-only unofficial AS in there a few miles from the next AS, however. At first I was covering the same miles of trail I had cleared the day before, enjoying the fruits of my labor! Hey, who moved those freshly cut logs anyway?! What a super job they did, whoever it was! It felt like familiar territory. I took care on that first big stream crossing come out of the station, which I knew to be tricky, and was happy I managed to rock hop efficiently, after getting wet coming back the day before! Fresh legs are over-rated!
But....this section sure felt like a lot more climbing than what I remembered from the feeling on my fresh legs the day before! The first two-thirds or so of this section trends upward, and you reach the highest point of the course at maybe mile 40 or so. 6,800 or so (hard to read the typeface on the maps on the race site!). I felt reasonably good on the climbs, but they were a struggle, and I had to make sure I continued to eat and hydrate so as to muster the strength. Probably the toughest climbs of the race, at least effort-wise because of where they came in the race. Then you trended downward a few miles, before a steep drop, and then a steep climb going into See Canyon AS.
Between 33 and 44, there was a lot of yo-yo'ing with the aforementioned "one-gear" guy, and also a woman and a guy running together whom I saw a lot. I finally passed the latter two at one somewhat tricky river crossing. It involved some walking across a couple of logs placed side by side. Managed to stay upright and dry! That was the last time I saw them. In this section from 33(ish) to 44(ish) I averaged an 18:57 pace (if the official mileage is correct),which was decent given the terrain and stage of the race.
So, at See Canyon aid at 44, the last AS, I swapped out little bottles of Heed and Perpeteum and gels/shot blocks, put on a long sleeve and a vest (darkness wasn't too far off), and picked up my headlamp and back-up flashlight. A guy came up and asked if he could pace me to the finish. I said sure, why not? I left this last station with 14 minutes to spare on the last cutoff, having spent maybe 6-7 minutes getting my stuff together, and comforted by the thought that I was home-free, since past here there was no finish cutoff! (I like that system, and wish more races used it.)
I confess now that I can't remember my pacer's name (I'm finishing this post almost a month later!). But he was a real nice guy, triathlete/Ironman/3:01 marathoner, teaches phys ed in Phoenix, originally from Cleveland and a huge Cleveland sports fan. We had a great time running through the night. His friends who were running had either backed out or dropped out, so he was left with no one to pace, and apparently had been trying for a while to find someone who would let him! But I was sure happy to have the company after what had been some pretty lonely miles. We talked about how I got into ultras, his triathlon and marathon experiences, his plans for trying to get under 3 hours for the marathon, the Ironman he planned to do the next fall, and Cleveland sports, especially the Cavs and their playoff prospects! He seemed to love the outdoor lifestyle that living year-round in Arizona enabled him to live. Just two native Ohio boys in their 40s happily strolling through the night. But running at night on trails was fairly new to him, though he'd apparently paced before, and when I saw some animal run across the path in front of us (fairly large it seemed) and asked what it was, he said he was happy he hadn't seen or heard it as we'd been gabbing! Hmmm..what could it have been?!
I was thinking in this section how much I'd suffered alone, and with those horrible blisters on those jagged rocks on the descents, toward the last miles of the race in '07. And how much more under-control and smooth I felt this time! Having the company helped a lot. We neither passed or were passed at all in this last seven miles (where we averaged 18:42 by official mileage). The pair of runners never caught us, and the Salt Lake City guy, who had left the last aid just before me, stayed in front. We kept a steady pace.
I thought maybe we were slowing, and started wondering how far the finish was, and thought we would see sweeps out, but we saw no one going either direction. But then all of a sudden we could see lights and hear voices, and there we were, at the finish! A small crew of volunteers and race officials were on hand to clap and yell from the time they heard the cry "runner up". And it felt good to be able to run it in, after what had mostly been a "shuffling" section. Then they gave me my official hooded finisher's sweatshirt, I collected some food, filled my recovery bottle, gathered my drop bags, quickly changed, and hopped in the van waiting to take us back to Payson. A very low-key scene, but I felt a very nice sense of satisfaction in the cool Arizona night. Satifaction of a tough 50 miler that had felt almost...routine? Could these things EVER be routine? Well, maybe after 8 or so, and on a course you know and were mentally and physically prepared for, just maybe! I think it's mostly more confidence, and knowing what to expect, and being better able to work through those tough moments.
I've been wondering for a while how Zane Grey compares to that other off-the-charts-difficult southwestern 50 miler held in the spring, which is Jemez Mountain. And had been talking about that at the pre-race dinner with the nice grad student from U. AZ whom I'd been sitting with, as she had also done the race the year before, it turned out, and had DNF'd ZG (this year she passed me somewhere in the 15-20 mile range and I never saw her again, so she redeemed herself big time--she looked very strong!). Unfortunately never caught her name, and she was gone by the time I finished. Moving soon to PA to do more grad school, and she was curious about Eastern trail races and I was filling her in.
I guess now my perspective is that, while ZG is more technical, JM (which took me even longer than my '07 ZG time) is just a bit tougher, given the longer climbs (three above 10,000 feet) and higher average and peak elevation. To be clear, I love Zane, and will definitely be back! It just keeps beating you up, but you're just soaking up the streams, the rocks, the views down over the valleys, the occasional views of the spectacular Mogollon Rim above you, and that somehow makes it that much more bearable. Next time I want to have a day to drive the dirt road that runs at the tops of the Rim, and see the views from the top! I think maybe, though, next year I will go back to Jemez and see if I can lower my time, or see if I can get in the Miwok lottery. For variety's sake, if nothing else. But I'll definitely be back at Zane one of these years soon! Too awesome and too special a race NOT to go back too!
I'll save the rest of the Arizona adventure for the next post....