Zion 100 Mile | Utah | April 19, 2013
The Spiritual Point from which Reality Emerges
By Gary Dudney
Just the name, ZION 100, has an epic quality to it, biblical, awe-inspiring, monumental. Driving up from Vegas, you pass through the stone symphony of the Virgin River Gorge on your way to the tiny town of Virgin, Utah, set in a desert valley. Great mesas rise up all around. The different colored layers of rock reveal their geology.
Race registration takes place up the side of Smith’s Mesa at a luxury rental home that suggests Native American spiritualism blended with New Age vibes. It is not a bad idea to seek out some inner strength as you contemplate running a 100 miles in this weird, thoroughly rugged, western landscape. The award buckles are on display, wood fired pizza is free, and the race hoodies are very attractive, actually worth the price of admission right there.
Virgin, where the race begins, is hardly a flea speck in this vast land, a one-horse town with a few souvenir shops, a few houses, a book store and post office, but it has a pleasant little town park, an open shelter with some ball fields and a basketball court that serves as the race Start/Finish. Besides being the epicenter for some incredible mountain biking runs, Virgin is noted for passing a law that requires every homeowner to keep a firearm.
From the outset, the course is fast, actually over ten miles of running before you see anything like a hill. It’s very easy to lose your head and burn up too much energy early on, especially since you’re mixed in with the 100K runners. An initial flat mile of blacktop gives way to a jeep road that in turn takes you to single track that hugs the edge of a picturesque canyon cut by the Virgin River. You wind along the river with desert stretching all around, the solemn mesas and plateaus in the distance emerge out of the growing light.
Trouble begins when the rolling double track you follow after the Virgin Dam Aid station brings you to the bottom of Gooseberry Mesa. The climb up the mesa to the Goosebump aid station is a revelation: steep, long and rocky. Now you know you’re in for a fight with this course. Even with fresh legs, it is a tough slog enlivened by the tiny people at the top cheering you on.
After Goosebump, you encounter one of the truly unique aspects of this race, a slickrock hiking/mountain biking trail on the top of the mesa that is like nothing else you’ve ever run. You follow short sections of discernible trail, white dots that take you over mazes of slickrock, rock cairns, and trail markers through a maze of rock, scrub, cliff edges, scraggly conifers, yuccas, cactus, rock corridors, “bowls and ledges,” and an infinite number of twists and turns. There’s a million little ups and downs but no general uphill or downhill. You’re constantly searching out the route, changing up your stride, turning, jumping up or down. There’s nowhere to hide, no way to get into a rhythm, no rest, and this particular section of trail goes on for 12 miles.
The marking on this part of the trail and elsewhere was superb, by the way. The little lights used for the night time sections were fabulous as were the many clarifying signs out on the course. Kudos to the race director and all his volunteers for slam dunking this critical aspect of the race.
The course markings play an especially crucial role later in the race when you hit another mesa top slickrock bike trail at mile 68 in the middle of the night, a nine-mile loop called Guacomole. You venture out from the aid station into a maze of lights, trails, edgy rock formations, white dots, and waves of slickrock. You can’t help but feel you’re turning in circles, yet a lot of patience and those terrific trail markings get you through.
But the real test comes at about mile 85 in the morning when you start the climb up Smith’s Mesa. The mountain bike trail coming down is called Flying Monkey and the steep, boulder blocked, edge hugging trail does indeed make a monkey out of you. One spot even required a rope to navigate, a hairy proposition when you’re fatigued from running all night. But this challenge sort of caps the experience at the Zion 100, a spectacular race in all respects: scenery, challenge, unique course, great organization.
The final four miles bring you off Smith’s Mesa back to Virgin, much of it on an open asphalt road that cuts down the side of the mesa with the whole valley, the tiny town, and the distant mesas you’ve conquered in full view. It’s a steep, quad aching, and totally exhilarating finish, yet another reason to be sure to include this race in your plans in the future.
The Kabbalah defines Zion as “the spiritual point from which reality emerges.” Precisely!