Race Preview: Zion 100 Mile/100K/50K
Location: Virgin, Utah (near Zion National Park)
Website: zion100.wordpress.com (or Facebook)
If you’ve ever seen an episode of the Lone Ranger, Have Gun Will Travel, Death Valley Days, or Gunsmoke, you know this area. If you’ve ever sat in a dark movie theater and watched the camera pan over a series of red-rocked, striated mesas rising thousands of feet off the desert floor in the opening scenes of a dozen classic Westerns, you know this area, the mesa lands of southern Utah.
Now imagine local ultrarunners tasked with laying out a hundred miles of trail that will best showcase the area, taking in world famous hiking/mountain biking terrain, scrambling thousands of feet up and down the sides of the mesas, ranging out through the desert along the canyon formed by the Virgin River. Then imagine first class planning, organization, and execution, and you’ve got the Zion 100.
Among the highlights of the course is the slickrock hiking/mountain biking trail that stretches for 12 miles on top of Gooseberry Mesa. Running this trail is a wholly unique experience. The trail twists and turns through a maze of rock formations and scattered pinion and juniper trees. You follow white dots painted on the rock through “bowls and ledges,” dodge cactus and yucca plants, and jump up and down over a thousand boulders. Suddenly the trail sweeps by the knife edge of the mesa and you’re looking out over miles of the Zion National Park, then it’s a quick turn and you’re back in the maze.
You traverse a similar slickrock area at night on yet a different mesa top called the Guacamole Trail. You can take comfort in the food and fire provided at the aid station at the beginning and end of this nine mile loop, but the topsy-turvy run around the edge of the mesa is a bewildering maze of lights, rock cairns, white dots, and sharp turns. Only the excellent course markings get you through it. The climbs to reach these mesa tops are epic, and you will not believe the final drop to the finish off Smith’s Mesa into a vast desert valley with the tiny town of Virgin below and all the mesas you’ve visited crowding the horizon.
Attention to the experience of the runner at this race is remarkable. There are the accommodating three distances: 100 mile, 100K, and 50K. There are early start waves at 4 and 5 o’clock for the 100, which effectively extends the cutoff to 34 hours (although early starters are not eligible for awards). Runners can chose from several items for their race swag. The colors and graphics on the clothes are elegant and reflect the desert setting of the race. Special care has been taken to craft unique finishers’ buckles that artfully incorporate materials from the trail into the resin of the buckle. Even the event website is a full bore experience, complete with video, pics, forums, blogs and a lot of thoughtful commentary from Race Director Matt Gunn about his quest to make the Zion 100 as epic as possible.
Travel: It’s possible to fly directly into St. George but the small airport there has limited connections. Try McCarran International in Las Vegas, a full service airport with connections to everywhere and bargain flights. The drive up to the race is only 2 ½ hours and you pass through the dramatic Virgin River Gorge on your way. On your way home, you can do things in Vegas that stay in Vegas, and reup your carbo stores in the first-class restaurants on the Strip.
Where to Stay: St. George is a half hour west of Virgin and offers the widest selection of standard, low cost hotels. Springdale, fifteen minutes east of Virgin, is just outside the entrance to Zion National Park and boasts some fancier and pricier accommodations, including the Cable Mountain Lodge, which is a short walk from the park entrance and the shuttle ride into the park. Packet pick up will be at the IMAX Theater near the park entrance this year, another reason to consider the costlier charms of Springdale.
Area Attractions: Gunn writes, “The highlights of Zion National Park can easily be seen in one day. There are plenty of easy hikes that could be done before the race (Emerald Pools, Canyon Overlook on the east side of the tunnel, Riverside Walk, etc.).” Also, “…make sure to a) ride the canyon shuttle all of the way to the end of the road, b) get out of the shuttle and make the mile journey up the walking path to “the Narrows” slot canyon…and c) drive up to the east entrance of the park through the tunnel.” If you’re still hungry for more after taking in Zion, Bryce Canyon National Park, also well worth seeing, is only a 1 ½ hour drive away.
Bottom Line: Seriously, this is one hundred mile trail running at its best. Visually stunning the whole way, the course mixes respectable sections of technical trail with some easy running fire roads and smooth trails so you’re challenged but not totally beat up at the end. An army of enthusiastic volunteers make the aid stations pop. A total, unforgettable running experience.