Zane Grey 50 Mile: A Humbling Dose Of Rocks, Heat And Hills

Us At Mile Eight (Photo Credit: Kelly Gaines)
Us At Mile Eight (Photo Credit: Kelly Gaines)

Is it really the end of April already?!  It must be because last weekend was our trip to Arizona.

The planning for Zane Grey 50 Mile started with Brian mentioning we should do a run to celebrate his birthday.  It took all of two seconds to get on board, what a fine way to celebrate a milestone birthday (or any birthday for that matter).  He promptly went about finding a race and soon announced to us that he had picked ZG50, I knew very little about this race but what I did know was intimidating to say the least.  One thing about Brian is that nothing scares him, I admire that!

Our training went well, we did a decent number of miles, threw in some hill repeats, and worked a few flights of stairs.  What I didn’t do was all the other stuff I’d planned on, leg strengthening, core exercises, speed work, etc.  But, on the whole, I felt in decent shape heading into last weekend’s race.

A couple of days before the race, we got an email from the race director, it started like this:  Dear Zane Grey 50 Entrant, This weekend’s weather forecast is for exceedingly hot conditions on race day, 15 degrees hotter than the average high temperature.  Normally this race feels very hot to runners on a average day.  So with an added 15 degrees of hot Arizona sun, conditions will be BRUTAL.  Plan accordingly!” Oh boy!

When we touched down in Phoenix on Friday, it was hot.  As we left the airport, the car thermometer was reading 100 degrees but by the time we got to Payson, it was in the 80’s.  Saturday morning, the race got underway at 5AM, if it was going to be warm, it sure wasn’t evident at that moment.  Paige and I started toward the back of a relatively small group of starters (126 runners).  The beam of our headlamps cut through the dark exposing the large cloud of dust kicked up by the runners ahead of us.  We wound our way through the trees up a steady incline.  There was some chatter among the runners but we mostly ran silently in anticipation of the miles that awaited us.  It didn’t take long and we had run ourselves out of the cool valley and toward the edge of the trees where the early signs of a sunrise began to show and the temperature was also noticeably warmer.  We passed a few people before falling in with a couple of runners named Honey and Jon who seemed to be long standing friends with a lot to catch up on – it was a mesmerizing conversation to listen to with names of familiar people, places and races scattered throughout.  Time passed quickly and soon we were rolling into the Geronimo aid station at mile 8, Kelly and Caleb were there to greet us.  Brian was keeping with his plan to push hard early on to get some miles in before the heat got bad; he had been through the aid station 20 minutes before us.  We topped off our bottles and headed into the next section.

By now, the sun was up and it was starting to get warm.  We kept moving at a steady effort but the pace was slower than I would have anticipated.  The trail was tough with lots of rocks, some roots, and a perpetual up and down.  We were in pure unadulterated snake country and with the temperature now quite warm, I was on high alert.  Few things drum up the adrenaline like the potential for a snake spotting and this trail was 100% potential.  Every foot placement required some level of scan prior to landing, it was exhausting.

The course was strikingly beautiful and I often caught my glance wandering to the horizon, hung up on some feature of the landscape before catching myself and looking back to the trail in front of me, this trail wouldn’t be very forgiving if I drifted off for long.  The next AS was Washington Park (mile 17) and as we rolled in, I could see Kelly and Caleb sitting atop a small hill above the actual AS.  We waved as we passed to fill our bottles and as we started toward her, I could see Brian laying in the deep grass with Caleb.  The early push or the heat or the toughness of the trail or, more likely, a combo of all of these left him wondering how smart it was to continue on to the next section which was a long one through very hot and exposed terrain.  With very little convincing, he was on his feet and ready to roll – that’s what I’m talking about!

We spent much of the next 3+ hours trying to keep the pace up as much as possible but it was still slow going.  The footing combined with the steep and never-ending hills kept us hiking as much as running.  Several times we came across cool and fast moving streams which we fully took advantage of by rinsing off our faces, splashing water onto our arms and dipping our hats – it was really quite an amazing experience.  The heat was in full swing by now and when we hit the next stream crossing, Brian decided it was time for a plunge.  He laid himself down, right smack in the middle of the stream and started splashing around like a kid at the pool, it was hilarious!  Time was starting to get tight and we were keeping a close eye on the cutoffs.  Brian wasn’t feeling good at all and decided that the Hell’s Gate AS (mile 23) would be where he called it a day.  After a quick refuel, we said our goodbyes and got back on the trail, not wanting to waste any valuable time.

The next section was the hardest, hottest, and longest of the day – 10 miles of relentless hills, rocks, and sun.  We ran when we could, hiked when we needed to and tried to keep moving as best we could.  The streams kept coming and we never missed the chance to cool off.  Eventually, we made it to Hatchery (mile 33).  It was at this AS that one of my favorite memories of the day took place.  Paige, a normally quiet and gentle girl, has a most impressive ability to burp like a champ.  At the AS, she was drinking some warm soda and, as we were heading out of the AS, she let one rip which didn’t surprise me but it clearly took unsuspecting bystanders off guard.  One of those in range happened to be Joe Grant (an elite runner) whose head snapped toward us with a  look of shock.  Paige apologized but it was unnecessary, this chill ultra runner was more impressed than offended and replied with a chuckle and a “its all good.”  I just looked on with pride, that’s my wife.

The next section is a bit of a blur, very much like the last section except hotter, tougher and longer : )  Our pace was holding steady at something between slow and slower but, at this point, I was happy to be moving forward and making the cutoffs.  At home, we normally knock out 10 miles in 80 minutes, no problem.  It was a whole different story here, taking us more than double that amount of time.  I was trying to drink as much as possible and I ended up drinking all of the 90 ounces of water I was carrying with me by the time we got to the next AS.  When we did finally reach Canyon AS (mile 44), Brelly was there and full of energy – what a welcome sight!  We took a minute to sit down while volunteers helped get our bottles and packs filled.  It finally hit us, we were nearly done and no longer in danger of missing cutoffs so we could relax and enjoy the cooling temperatures and remaining daylight.  We put our headlamps on and got back on the trail.

It didn’t take long before I realized that my hopes to relax and take it easy over the last six miles were lost on Paige.  She is strong and when she gets focused on the finish, I know I just need to tuck in behind her and try to keep up.  As the final fingers of light faded, we reluctantly switched our headlamps on.  We were making pretty good progress and started passing a few groups of runners.  Soon, the “one mile to go” sign appeared and shortly thereafter, the sound of the finish line could be heard.  We had run the whole day together and finished side-by-side.

This is a classic, “old school” race that lives up to its reputation in every respect – well run, beautiful, and tough.  I love spending the whole day running through beautiful country and feel so fortunate to have such a compatible partner to share the experience with.  I’m happy to report that we didn’t see a single snake.  As is often the case, I can’t account for most of the day but the highlights were clearly coming into the aid stations and being welcomed by the friendly volunteers, seeing Kelly/Caleb (and eventually Brian too), and the contented feeling of having struggled through the ups and downs of the day to finish healthy and happy with my Paige by my side.  You can read her race report HERE, its got more pictures and is much more entertaining.

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