Thursday, May 1, 2014

Zane Grey and Surrounding Events

I've barely posted anything noteworthy this year, mostly because I hadn't done much. This post is sort of personal, and long overdue. Not really a race report for those that seek information about the course or whatever. 

The trip I'd been looking forward to for half a year has finally come and gone. Not only did I survive, but I've come out with a new perspective on running, life, and myself. I hadn't had a really enlightening experience in while. This certainly qualifies, and ended up as one in a different way than expected.

As many of you know, I was more or less cajoled into registering for the Zane Grey 50 miler when Kelsey and I started seeing each other. She saw that Hal Koerner tweeted about registration opening up, and convinced me to sign up with the incentive that she'd go along to crew and pace. I've yet to turn down a jogging-related "wouldn't it be funny/stupid/awesome if you did this?" challenge, and I wasn't about to turn one down from a girl I admired. So, pretty much, it's Hal's fault.

I knew that the odds of me being financially, physically, and mentally able to make a 2000mile trip to a notoriously difficult 50 miler were long. I had no idea what life would be like 6 months from the night I sat up in bed, nervously tapping my credit card info into my phone. "Where the hell is Payson?" I asked myself after finalizing.
I'm not sure if life works in mysterious ways or if I'm just dumb
The next two semesters(That's how lifelong college students measure time) were some of the most memorable I've ever had, and not always in a positive way. My simple, cut-and-dry path to physical therapy school was blocked by one small detail: I'm terrible with numbers, and skipping over prerequisite math courses to get to PT school is easier said than done. This hampered my motivation, as did a ubiquitous notion that it just wasn't the career for me. Another life change. Scrap the plan. Think of a new one. My semester at GVSU was a bust, and my interests were far from the cow pasture campus of Allendale, Michigan.

The winter leading up to Zane was a tough one to train through. The weather was relentlessly cold as the "polar vortex" kept me inside with Netflix and ice cream. Along with the weather, it was one of the more challenging times in my life. Having minimal school obligations, no job, and feeling lost took its toll on me. If anyone ever finds themselves with excessive self esteem, I'd recommend being unemployed and crossing fingers for a temp job.

Spring sort of came with a few weeks to go before the race, and I finally dusted myself off to get training. A few 70 mile weeks, a lot of time in the weight room, and one flat 33 mile run. Good enough, right? On that singular long run, I gave myself a pretty good case of tendonitis of the Achilles'. Spending the next two weeks taping, icing, wrapping, and worrying about the race kept my mind off of the usual pre-race jitters and allowed for some rest.

The Race

The Zane Grey 50 is well-known for being one of the toughest(the RD claims it to be the toughest) 50 mile races in the country. I'm not alone when I say this intrigues and scares me. The promise of adventure is what draws people to ultrarunning. This is just a bit more of it. I stood there, ready to go, kind of wishing I had just stayed in bed and ate the Ben & Jerry's I left in the hotel freezer. Kelsey ran back to the car to get some shot blocks to stuff in the pockets of my untested new handheld bottles. I hadn't run in over a week, and had no idea if my Achilles' would ache in the very first steps of the race. I fiddled with my headlight. It was on upside down. My KT tape was already falling off. Time to go.

The first mile of the race is the usual conga line of people who don't know where they should be in the crowd. The rock-laden trail in the dark is tough without the addition of 130 people tripping over themselves. Thankfully, there is a a bit of flatness before the trail turns upward where we could even it out.

The first climb felt incredible and I settled into a groove pretty early on. Walking where I had to, jumping from rock to rock, running where I could. I knew I had a long day ahead, but was enjoying my first long, sustained, technical climb in quite a while. Other than being rockier, it reminded me of the local peaks in Boulder. I was treated to a sunrise I'll never forget as I crested the rim and turned my headlight off. The descent would carry me pretty much to the first AS(I think) It was technical and lined with sharp sagebrush, but it added to the weird, masochistic fun of running on rough terrain. Being on trails this technical made me glad I grew up on trails riding dirtbikes and snowmobiles. Letting your mind and eyes look 20-30 feet ahead of you while your body is over the terrain you saw a few seconds ago is the key to enjoying a run like this. I was having the time of my life, grinning all by myself.

I saw Kelsey at the next aid, and wanted to tell her how much fun I was having, that I loved our life, and that having her there meant the world to me. What I actually said was probably unintelligible nonsense. Time to start another climb.
Gracefully truffleshuffling into the first AS. 
The rhythm of this course just felt good. Feeling fresh enough to clear the rocks and logs in one jump made me glad I beat my legs up on the roads and in the gym. I felt like it was paying off. The rain started, and I welcomed it because my heat training was nonexistent. It couldn't have been over 45 degrees, and I felt hot, drinking two water bottles in 8 miles. I learned quickly not to touch any of the wooden erosion barriers with my feet as the slick surface would have me on my ass in no time. Jumping all the way over was the way to go. The second section of the course had less climbing and was a bit less technical, and gave me a good break before the hardest and longest part.

I jogged into the next AS, and there stood Kelsey with my rain jacket. I wasn't sure if I would even see her at this spot, and I was cold. She was a sight for sore eyes. I put  the rain jacket on and she stuffed handfuls of Swedish fish in the pockets. As we stood under the tent and I stuffed my mouth with everything in sight, hail started bouncing off the roof and making a hellacious noise that drowned out everything else. I looked at her and laughed, and she pulled my hood up over my head while, in her own way, telling me to get going. I obliged, and headed out into the best run I'd ever had.

The hood of my synthetic Columbia Peak2Peak Jacket(Columbia sent it for review 3 years ago and I still love it) amplified the sound of the hail hitting me. The absence of hair on my legs(so the tape would stick, is my excuse) amplified the stinging. I felt like I was running to get out of a storm, but I was actually running right into one. I kept running up the unending hill, and the mud kept getting deeper. I made it up to the rim, and started running an actual running gait. I contemplated the importance of challenge in our lives, and realized that something else was just as important- being in one's element. I was on an exposed ridgeline in a hailstorm, running a boulder-covered trail with frozen skin and tiny shorts over my ass. I couldn't see very far in front of me when the wind picked up. Ice pulled on the hair of my face as I smiled to myself.  All was right with my world for the first time in a while. The howling wind and driving hail extinguished my own negativity. Sometimes I can't stop talking myself down in my head, but not then. I felt like I deserved to be where I was. It's hard to love the world when you've got no love for yourself, and for some reason I found some up there.
Coming in for the "finish." I loved this run. 
The race was called off by management at mile 33 or so at the Fish Hatchery AS. The flooding of the creeks, coupled with the unseasonably cold weather, presented some real danger for participants and staff. I felt great, right down to my puffy ankle, but had nothing to prove. I respected the decision of race management, and would hate to see anyone die because of some egotistical ultrarunners(myself included) who demand the full course. I was 17th overall, but I guess that's unimportant since we were all "just about to start pushing it." Having Kelsey as a pacer to push me for the final miles would have been ideal, but I wanted to hop in the car with her and go check out more of our new home.
Without her crewing, I'd have been half-naked, hungry, and frozen. 
In Other News

Though we didn't know it when we started planning this trip, it had far more purpose than a remote race in the Tonto National Forest. It was perfectly timed for some exploring, seeing the city of Flagstaff, exploring the campus at NAU, and doing some apartment hunting. In August, it will be our home. Kelsey and I will be attending Northern Arizona University in the fall. I can't express how excited and grateful I am for this opportunity, and for it working out the way it did.

What's a trip to Arizona without a visit to the Grand Canyon? I only ran for 6.5 hours, so I wasn't too beat up and we wanted to run in warm weather. It's been said over and over, but it needs to be seen in person to appreciate. I think this run rivaled the Zane Grey experience in many ways and surpassed it in others. Amazing sights, sunshine, that cool jelly-legged post race feeling, and an easy run on a trail the likes of which I've never seen. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go for a day, and we were here. I'm thankful for everything and everyone that led me here.

Look. It's me. In person. Appreciating it.
Photo Credit: Kelsey Gray
Another Kelsey iPhone photo.

Photo courtesy: wise old man


  1. It's funny how the best runs can happen during the worst conditions. I've had a blast scampering through mud or snow, though I can't say ice ever run in a hail storm!

    I've never been to Flagstaff, but hear all kinds of good things about the place and is starting to siphon running talent away from Boulder. Beautiful pics. I think the two of you are making a good move. Maybe the change of scenery will help you find that "One Thing".

    Or not. I'm not sure I ever found it, and I'm not sure I ever really looked that hard. But I'm happy because of the people I've decided to share my life with (cue Hallmark outro). Maybe that's all you need. The rest is just details.

    1. Something about shitty weather, right?

      I was really impressed with Flagstaff. I have fond memories of people and things in Boulder, and if CU had a Nursing School in Boulder(and not Denver), we may have ended up there(They have an English program that Kelsey could have applied to). This just so happened to work in our favor. Its a 3 day drive from parents, friends, and Lake Michigan, but I'm really happy with the decision.

      I couldn't agree more with the last sentiment. The athletes I aspire to emulate these days are the ones that put in hours while making a difference in the world. Their place on the results page is far less relevant.

  2. duder, just letting you know i'm still checking in on ya. your running bossy and your style is flossy. got any races planned this summer over on the east side of the mitten? let me know and i'll totally sign up and bring a case or three of oberon for the post-race recovery.

    1. Yo. No plans for the east side as of yet, but beer and some recovery time does sweeten the pot, my man. I'll be in touch if anything changes. Does the Yankee Springs Double Marathon count as the East side? It's, like, the East side of the West side, isn't it?