The 48-mile Trans Zion route has been on my radar for the last few years. I was tempted to give it a go last fall, but decided to save it for later after having several friends highly recommend the spring months over the fall months due to an abundance of water along the trail. Upon moving to Telluride in early February I had two advantages for planning a trip to Zion: proximity (only ~7 hours away) and a potential running partner with a flexible schedule. So, it seemed that the stars aligned for a spring 2014 attempt at Trans Zion.
I bounced the idea off Ben and after some quick aligning of schedules we decided on March 4th as our running day. I’ve never actually done a run like this with a partner. To date, all of my non-race big days out (my 40+ mile day running the Chicago Basin 14ers from the Purgatory trailhead, as well as every 42 mile day in the Grand Canyon) have all been solo, self-supported affairs. Honestly, the thought of going out and covering close to fifty miles with a partner had me a bit unsettled. Sometimes it’s hard enough for one person to cover fifty miles without blowing up…
We talked about getting together prior to departure to talk logistics. This never happened. So, when Sunday, March 2nd rolled around and we had no plan I was prepared to throw in the towel and call off the trip. Contrary to what some people may think, I never go into runs like this without adequate preparation. Ben still wanted to go, though. So, I went figuring we could discuss logistics of the route with a park ranger upon arrival and all would be well. In a last minute effort at having some sort of safety net I emailed BTR for a .gpx file of the route and chatted with Chris Gerber and Travis Macy a little. It’s a funny feeling when all of the doubt in your mind comes from total lack of preparation rather than whether or not you can cover fifty miles.
Our planned departure from Telluride was 7am on Monday, March 3rd. After reorganizing the Defender, a BiT breakfast run, turning around to pick up the National Parks pass, and filling up with gas we finally left closer to 8am. Shortly into the drive we stopped at the Osprey office in Cortez for about an hour to pick up a few packs for the run. After this stop we finally started making some progress towards Zion National Park. Our last stop of any significance was in Kanab (about 30 miles from the park) to snag some food/snacks for the run.
|Driving out to Zion|
We got to the entrance around 4:30pm, but still had another ~12 miles to the visitor’s center. I was driving at this point and knew we needed to get to the visitor’s center by 5pm to get our logistical concerns addressed with a park ranger. After several stops for photos we arrived at 5:15pm. Fortunately, we spotted a ranger leaving. After expressing our desired route and estimated time of completion to her we could tell she was noticeably concerned. Maybe this was her first exposure to “crazy” runners? I think her concern for our planned itinerary is what kept her around to answer our questions versus blowing us off and leaving us to figure it out on our own. About fifteen minutes later we had enough information to put my mind at ease regarding our total lack of preparation.
|Stopping for photos on our way to the visitor's center|
From the visitor’s center, we drove a few minutes to set up camp in one of the park’s campgrounds. I had my tent up in a few minutes and my running shoes on immediately after that. Seven hours in a super uncomfortable vehicle had my legs begging for a quick shakeout run. At the beginning I could barely hit 11 minutes/mile, but I started approaching 7-minute pace towards the end. The easy two miles seemed to do just what I hoped.
I spent about an hour getting all of my food and gear ready for the morning. I wore an Osprey Rev 6 (6 liter running/fastpacking pack) for the run, which was way overkill considering we had crew access at miles 12 and 35. The Rev 6 is definitely one of the most comfortable packs I’ve ever used while running (maybe the most comfortable) and would have been perfect for a solo, self-supported effort a little longer than Zion or with more variable weather conditions that require additional clothing. However, with the two crew stops I could have got by in my typical minimalist fashion with two handhelds (maybe even one?), a few gels in my pockets, and my Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Anorak wind shell shoved in my shorts. Regardless, I guess it’s good practice to get out on longer efforts and use a pack even when it isn’t necessary.
An entire day of eating junk/fast food had me feeling pretty full, but I decided to down a little bit of pasta before heading off to bed. I slept surprisingly well in the MSR Hubba considering I hadn’t slept in a tent since September and I usually don’t sleep well the night before big runs. By 5:30am I was out of bed and had all of my stuff packed away. My hope was to be at the trailhead and starting by 6:30am at the absolute latest, but we didn’t get started until 6:40. Eh, close enough…
Things were pretty cool at the start; similar to starting a run at the Grand Canyon around daybreak in late October/early November. However, the route through Zion doesn’t begin with a 5,000’ descent into an increasing temperature gradient. So, rather than start shirtless like I would in the Canyon I took off with a t-shirt, arm warmers, Ghost Whisperer wind shell, and gloves. After 5-7 miles I had stripped down to just the t-shirt.
I let Ben lead the way since he had expressed some concerns regarding his lack of running volume heading into the day. I didn’t really care how fast we ran since I planned to take photos and enjoy the scenery on my first trip through Zion. We took off at a casual pace from the East Rim trailhead and continued this approach for the rest of the day. Portions of the first ascent from the East Rim are a little sandy, which helped keep the effort in check.
|Letting Ben lead the way through some sort-of sandy terrain|
Eventually, we topped out and were treated to a nice, moderately technical descent to The Grotto with a few short sections of typical slickrock trail. After running on snow/ice-covered trails and roads all winter it was a real treat to descend some dry, rocky trails that demanded a little thought to my footwork. This is probably the aspect of running I miss most during the winter months.
|Part of the fun descent into The Grotto|
|More of the descent|
The views along the ~12 mile stretch of trail from the East Rim trailhead to our crew stop at The Grotto parking area were pretty jaw-dropping. If you’re at the point with running where a 24’ish mile day is doable, but a 48 mile day is just a bit too much, then I would suggest running an out-and-back on this stretch. Stunning to say the least.
|Some of the sweet views along the first twelve miles|
|Running along a nice slot canyon (Photo: Ben C)|
|More slot canyon action|
Reaching our crew spot at The Grotto was a great sign of our progress. We reached Sarah in the Defender around 2:30 hours into our day, slow and steady. To this point everything felt effortless. The only negative was that we spent WAY too long here—nearly 20 minutes to refill water, get some calories, and use the bathroom. Ideally, this would have been closer to five minutes.
|Running about a mile on paved road to The Grotto|
When we finally got back to running we were greeted with the biggest climb of the day—a long, gradual 3,000’ climb. After running for a little bit we fell into a pretty good power hike for the remainder of the ascent. Even after topping out the moving wasn’t terribly quick. This section of the route had a few sections of snowy/icy trails (not much, though) and was considerably muddy for long stretches. Neither of these really affected me much. I was able to avoid the mud for the most part by running off trail. Ben seemed to be increasingly frustrated with the continuous mud, but maybe that was just my perception.
|The 3,000' ascent out of The Grotto|
|One of the few stretches with snow/ice|
This segment from The Grotto to the Hop Valley trailhead had us in the woods most of the time. After talking to Chris Gerber and Basit Mustafa it seems there’s another trail we could have used that would have taken us along the rim of the canyon rather than into the muddy forest. Guess I’ll have to check that one out next time.
|Running along near the Potato Hollow area...I think? (Photo: Ben C)|
|The last mile or two leading into the Hop Valley trailhead|
|Getting closer to the Hop Valley trailhead (Photo: Ben C)|
Heading into the Hop Valley trailhead we had discussed minimizing our time for the 35-mile crew stop. We still had 13 miles to cover and I certainly wanted to finish in daylight. However, we spent 21 minutes at this stop. My frustration was starting to build-up a little with these unnecessarily long stops just to refill water and down a few calories. During that time we could have covered about a mile and a half, give or take. Before getting back on the trail Ben and Sarah both mentioned the rain clouds off in the distance where we would be running. As soon as they expressed their concern I had a feeling the day would be over…
We decided to take off down the Hop Valley trail about two miles to get a better look at the clouds. I was rather surprised at the doomsday scenario he presented over a few rain clouds. I told him that if I were running this solo the thought of quitting wouldn’t even cross my mind. I could tell that he wasn’t going to continue, but it seemed like he was waiting for me to agree that the potential weather was too much for us to push on. That was something I just couldn’t bring myself to agree on. Sometimes people see things differently.
Eventually, he explicitly stated that he wasn’t comfortable with the weather outlook and wanted to call it a day. A few minutes passed before he said that I could finish solo and that he and Sarah would drive to Lee Pass to pick me up. Rather than complicate things I decided to call it a day, too. Since we were calling it quits because we didn’t want to get wet I decided to turn around and book it back to the car before the rain rolled in. I was pleased to discover that my legs still had plenty of pep in them after taking the entire day super mellow.
|A photo op scramble after calling it quits (Photo: Ben C)|
It’s been a week since running in Zion and I’m still frustrated when I think of how that day ended. I’m not frustrated THAT we quit. I’m frustrated with WHY we quit. Maybe I was right? Maybe Ben was right? There’s no way to tell… His decisions are based on his past experiences as are mine. All I know is that I’ve bailed on 14er summits and other routes before due to potential dangers from weather. My biggest fear in the mountains is weather, specifically lightning. So, I’m usually overly cautious when it comes to decisions involving weather. That being said, I think our decision to quit in Zion was unwarranted. That’s just my opinion, though. Rain has never deterred me from running. One of my favorite runs ever was a nearly eight-hour effort in the mountains around El Chalten, Argentina with frigid temperatures and pouring rain the entire time. I did that run with even less clothing than I had on for Zion…
I’m currently planning another double-crossing of the Grand Canyon for April 5th (hoping to break 9 hours!). There’s the possibility that I’ll sneak up to Zion for another go at the traverse through the park after running in the Canyon. At the very least I hope to head up and cover that last 13-mile stretch to see what I missed. I have a feeling that Zion will still be around for quite some time. So, it’s not that big of a deal that I get back and finish the route this year. I’ll get to it eventually…
|Next time I'm in Zion I'll finish the route and eat a "Ho Made" pie after...|