Friday, May 2, 2014

The 25th annual Zane Grey Experience: A view from the back of the pack.

The Race

Checking out the the finish just before we saw the email that the course would end at Fish Hatchery.

The Famous Zane Grey Rocks (all trail photos from the day before the race).

Tonto Creek. Guess we'll have to cross this next year...

 The hail, rain and snow had kicked in with the wind. I was freezing, starting to shiver and it was still early in the race. I fantasized about the fleece pull over I had in my drop bag at Washington Park, mile 17. Usually, when things get tough late in a race, my mantra is ¨this is what you came for.¨ For this race it was ¨fleece pull over, dry gloves.”  If I could just get there and get some warm clothes on, I’d be ok.

  The way this race turned out is yet another reminder that we always worry about the wrong things. Hydration and heat management were my big concerns coming into Zane Grey. And rocks.

  Shivering, I finally pulled into Washington Park. I opened my drop bag and ripped out my pull over. It was dripping wet and cold. Everything in the bag was an icy mess.  

I stood there and stared at the ground for a moment, enjoying a bit of quality time with my stupidity. 

Hey DUMBASS: waterproof your drop bags
My dream of warmth imploded and I was crushed. Patricia, a volunteer was helping me with my stuff as my fine motor skills were shot. I couldn’t open the zipper on my pack. I couldn’t pull off my wet shirt. I was afraid to go back out there as wet and cold as I was, and I suggested that I hang out and get warm first, but Patricia told me that was the worst thing I could do.
  Then the race director told me two things:
1.     You’ve got three minutes (shit, I was running without a watch but I thought I was 30 minutes ahead of the cut off…)
2.     I’ve got nice warm car that’s going up to the finish at Fish Hatchery now.

He looked me over and I wondered if he was deciding to pull me from the race. It would have been a difficult decision to argue with, as I needed help to do simple tasks like putting on a shirt and opening my pack. There was certainly a part of me that wished to be put out of my misery.

The pull of that warm car offer was strong. My brain was working overtime to give me reasons to drop. I wasn’t sure it was even safe for me to keep going. What if I twisted an ankle and couldn’t move fast enough to keep warm? There were no drop bags at the next aid station (Hell’s Gate), and even though I had just been informed the race was ending at Mile 33 the thought of arriving at Hell’s Gate in the state I had arrived at mile 17 was frightening.  

  The race director’s voice again: “You’ve got two minutes! If you drop at Hell’s Gate you will have to stay there until the end of the race!”

I was looking down at my wet stuff, wondering why I hadn’t stuffed it into the garbage bags I had so cleverly packed in each of my drop bags.

I wanted to get a little angry or maybe feel sorry for myself, but I remembered rule number one: no whining. I also remembered that I had 30 seconds to make a decision. I stared at the puddles on the ground, searching for some answers there, I guess.

 And then Patricia, the aid station volunteer, took off her jacket and gave me one of the shirts off her back.

 An old- school Leadville 100 long sleeve tech shirt that was bone dry. I asked her where I could return the shirt at the end of the race, and she told me not to worry about it, that she would be long gone and I should just pass the favor on one day.

  If you happen to read this, thank you Patricia. That saved my race.  I hope I can return to favor to another runner some day.

  I pulled the garbage bag over the dry shirt (with Patricia’s help) and put on my wet Patagonia Houdini. Garbage bag never felt so good.

“One Minute!”

 I grabbed a handful of Gu and peanut butter bars, still not sure I was making the right decision, and started out of the aid station.

  “Just keep moving, keep eating. If you have to walk, swing the arms.” These were my thoughts as I left the aid station with less than a minute before the cut off.

A few minutes later I saw a runner going back to the aid station. Was that the smart decision? Would I be thinking about him in a few hours when I was lost and frozen, praying to God or search and rescue a few hours from now?
  I had left the aid station, but I wasn´t 100% committed. If it gets worse, you can always turn around and go back, I told myself.

 I kept moving as much as the mud would allow. Zane Grey is famous for it’s rocks, but today the rocks were the runner’s friend: at least when one stepped on a rock the foot didn’t come back up with a Frisbee-sized platter of mud.

  After a while the snow seemed to let up a bit, and the silver lining was that there would be no getting lost today with the clear trail of footprints… (also, the course was marked superbly, blue ribbons blocking many possible wrong ways).

  Hell’s gate appeared by surprise: my first thought was that it was an impromptu aid station. The rain had stopped. They had hot noodle soup. Life was good. Running was suddenly “fun” again. I was going to finish.
  I was there with about 4 other runners, checked in, started drinking my soup, feeling relieved I hadn’t dropped back at Washington Park.

Aid station volunteer on the walkie talkie: “Ok, they are telling us to start pulling everybody.”

 We didn’t wait around to see if that meant us.

The sun came out after Hell’s gate, and a mist was rising off the ground. It was sublime. I sort of forgot that I was racing, or maybe I didn´t care as I took in the incredible views of the rim. I started congratulating myself prematurely on my finish and then slipped and found myself on the ground.
   Ok, time to focus and get this done. I did, slowly. I was pretty sure I was last, which I found amusing, but I was going to finish. That would have to be enough. (One runner finished behind  me, as it turned out.)
  I’ve only seen 33 miles of the Highline Trail, but it’s the most incredible single track I’ve been on. The views of the Mogollon Rim to the north need to be experienced. I didn’t bring the phone, which was the right call: my fingers were too cold to operate it, and the time I would have lost taking pictures would have cost me a finish. So you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.

  The trail is no joke. Even after recovering I hit a bit of a low in the final miles and finished at Fish Hatchery at 10:09, which would have missed the cut off had the race continued. Folks say the toughest section of the trail is 33-44.

That’s a sobering thought.

 I’ve got unfinished business on this trail, and I definitely want to run between the rocks at Trailhead 260 and see all 51 miles that this spectacular trail has to offer.  I hope to be back next year. I would also love to run the Mogollon Monster 106, but I need to up my game for that beast or I won’t make the cut offs.

The real finish...will have to wait for next year.

Congratulations to my brother-in-law Jeremy Hardy, who finished in 8 hours. Jeremy, a native Californian, had this to the say: “that was the coldest I’ve ever been.”

Doing a really bad job pretending to be disappointed that the race was shortened to 33 miles because of the storm. Off-brand garbage bag courtesy of WalMart.

It felt THIS good to be done (and warm).

Some thoughts about Zane Grey

•The course profile is misleading. I thought it would be hands on knees climbing for the first climb. There are no big, steep climbs (between miles 1-33). There are endless ups and downs.
•This is not the course to go minimalist. And I’m not talking about shoes. Bring more than you think you will need. I haven’t run my previous 50 milers with a pack (Jemez, Sean O’ Brien, Oaxaca), but slower runners should pick up a pack at 17 and still keep a bottle.
•Yes, they have GU at the aid stations, but pack your own flavor in your drop bags. Nothing like a choice between strawberry-banana and tri-Berry
•The area is worth checking out, try and stay an extra day or two:

    ••Check out THAT brewery which is on your left shortly after you pass the Pine trailhead. Great brews, good food, friendly.

   ••The Runner’s Den in Phoenix is 10 minutes from the airport and is a great local running store.

  ••Diamondback tickets are relatively cheap by major league standards and you can buy them at the door.

Baseball game! It was warm here, too!

••Angel’s Trumpet Ale House in Phoenix has a nice outdoor patio, good food and a good selection (30+?) of beers from brewers all over the country.

   ••I won’t lie: unless you are shopping for guns, “downtown” Payson leaves a bit to be desired. Camping or checking out a house or cabin in Pine might be the way to go.

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