Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pure Bliss in Zion National Park

There are rare occasions in life where the right people come together in the right place for an adventure that turns out to be more than just the sum of its parts. When the parts themselves are amazing—consider the stunning Zion National Park, a small group of talented and intrepid ultra-runners, and an unmatchable host—you’re destined for the kind of magic that makes for a truly unforgettable weekend.

When the Wilderness Running Company announced its intention to host “Pure Zion”—a weekend of trail running in Zion National Park—there were a million reasons why it made no sense for me to go: I was just starting a new job and couldn’t imagine requesting time off; With my husband in school and the two of us surviving on just my salary, I certainly couldn’t justify the expense; It fell just a week after a hard 50 mile road race, and my legs surely would not be ready for another weekend of 40+ miles; And, as it turns out, Zion is a somewhat tricky place to get to, making a weekend visit feel rather impractical. Nevertheless, I blew off all the voices of reason in my head, and went with the little devil on my shoulder that told me to go for it. Turns out, that devil must have been an angel.

I first began working with the Wilderness Running Company last spring, writing a few gear reviews and a trail report for them. I’ve already explained how it was clear to me just from their website that I was very much in line with the mindset and philosophy of these folks. So, needless to say, I was pretty excited to finally meet Stacy and Lisa Young, the dauntless husband and wife duo behind WRC, in person.

I invited all the cool runner chicks I could think of that lived nearby, and luckily two of them enthusiastically jumped on-board with the plan. I only knew both Jamie and Jenny from having run several of the same races in the past several years. They are both talented runners, and as it turns out, fun and easy-going women, making them the perfect adventuring partners for the weekend. All of the airport and car-rental headaches were eased as we spent time swapping stories and getting to know each other, while Jenny initiated the ongoing joke of the weekend by teasing Jamie about passing her with three miles to go at Western States this year. We hadn’t even left Reno yet when I already found myself reveling in the pleasures of just being around other ultra-runners.

Bryon and Meghan made the trek out from Yosemite to round out what felt like the perfect running group for the weekend. I first encountered Meghan when reading her race report from Marathon de Sables last spring. If you want a little insight into her utter coolness, check out this post (among others) on her blog. I met and spent a little time hanging with both Meghan and Bryon at Michigan Bluff during Western States this year, and was stoked that they were with us for the Zion experience.

Jamie and Jenny and I arrived in Springdale Friday afternoon after the flight from Reno to Las Vegas, followed by a three-hour drive. Springdale is situated on the Virgin River, right at the mouth of Zion Canyon. It’s a somewhat eclectic collection of tourist shops, art galleries, and quaint, older houses where fence-posts of gnarled cottonwood branches brace lengths of wire, enclosing a handful of cows or horses in each miniature pasture. Mature trees, alive with the colors of autumn, shade the sidewalks, while hand-painted signs advertise local wares like cactus jelly and bumbleberry jam. After checking into our hotel, we browsed the stunning photos at several of the local galleries, getting excited for the adventure ahead. We joined Stacy, Lisa, Bryon and Meghan for dinner that night.

All weekend we were treated like rock stars, and it began at dinner on Friday with sweet gear packages from the WRC warehouse. After meeting Stacy and Lisa in person, I was not at all surprised to discover that they were kind, fun and easy people to be with. Stacy laid us out on our route options for the following day’s run, which included potential distances from 7 to 30+ miles. In the end, we all decided to run the same rim-to-rim route of about 26 miles.

The following morning, with Stacy piloting the 15-passenger van, we fueled-up on caffeine at the local coffee house, picked up two local runners, Bob and Mary Jo, and headed to the West Rim trailhead. There was a slight chill in the early-morning air, but it looked to be a perfect day weather-wise, and we set off in shorts and t-shirts, hydration packs full to the hilt, for what would be 15 miles of mostly easy downhill to the canyon floor.

The trail starts out up near the west rim with several miles of fairly flat running, and a few views into the nearby canyons. We kept a pretty mellow pace and spent plenty of time stopping for pictures. This was all perfect in my mind, since my legs were still in complaint-mode after the previous weekend’s effort at Helen Klien.

I really wanted a tour-guide to point out the names of the surrounding peaks, cliffs, mesas and canyons, so I was disappointed, although not surprised, to learn that Stacy wouldn’t be running with us on this day. As it turned out, Bob and Mary Jo filled in nicely in this regard. Although I’m not sure they were initially planning on staying with our group through the run (I think they got the idea that we were fast or something. Ha!), we all ended up touring along together. We didn’t see another soul on this trail all morning. We looked out upon the vast landscape and felt that it was ours alone.

We ran, surrounded with views like this...

...through beautiful landscapes like this...

finding plenty of time for photos and goofing around...

Jamie, Bryon, Mary Jo and Bob enjoy beautiful and easy terrain.

Bryon and the ladies. From L to R: Me, Jamie, Bryon, Meghan, Jenny

Much of the trail was cut directly into the cliff face...

Eventually we came to the turn-off for Angel’s Landing, a half-mile journey that entails scrambling along a steep ridge-line trail, with abrupt drop-offs and unbelievable views. We’d been debating the pluses and minuses of making this short side-trip all morning, and in the end, a few waited at the trail junction, while the rest of us headed off toward the cliff. There were definitely some people on the trail now, but since this wasn’t exactly a runnable section anyway, the added traffic didn’t matter so much.

Meghan negotiates the trail to Angel's Landing

The view from the cliff edge was more than worth the journey, and we even witnessed a California Condor circling just below us.

After we rejoined the rest of the group, we headed down the section of trail known as Walter's Wiggles...

...21 short, but immensely fun switchbacks.

By this time, we had nearly completed the 15 miles to the canyon floor, where Stacy and Lisa awaited us with an incredible spread of picnic goodies. Craving anything in particular? They likely had it!

The dynamic duo behind WRC: Lisa and Stacy Young

We left the safety of fresh sandwiches and popsicles, along with Lisa, Stacy, Bob and Mary Jo, to reverse what we had just done by climbing up the opposite side of the canyon on the East Rim Trail.

Even on the short road section, running through the canyon was pure joy. The cottonwoods shaded us with gold, and steep orange walls parted, allowing us in to secret cracks in their expanse. We climbed upward, knowing we were fighting daylight, but still somehow supremely confident in the perfection of the day. We wouldn’t get caught out in the dark, not with the magic that was clearly present here.

Bryon's view for the day. (This, and all remaining photos courtesy of the awesome Bryon Powell.)

We continued climbing through narrow canyons...

still finding time for goofing and pictures...

and finally found our way to the east rim, and back into the junipers and pines...

By the last few miles we had spread out a bit, and I found myself bringing up the rear of our little group. We’d seen no one else for the last 5 or 6 miles, and it was surprisingly peaceful to find myself alone, on a sandy trail, somewhere in Utah. The sun sank low, casting long shadows and bathing the landscape in a burnished gold. My ears were alive with silence, and the soft shush-shush of my feet hitting the sand. My legs had been slowly tightening as I ran up the East Rim trail, and now they were crying out in protest, finally feeling every one of the post-race miles. But it didn’t matter; it just didn’t. I ran along, smiling stupidly to myself at the sheer beauty of being here and being alive.

I arrived at the trailhead to find Stacy waiting for us (with treats, of course). How could I possibly explain to him what an amazing day this had been? In the zeal of post-run ecstasy, we stuffed our faces and tried to tell each other about our favorite part of the day, and there were just too many. There was no favorite part for me because it seemed that each new section of trail brought something newly spectacular, yet uniquely different, than the previous. It was such a fantastic blur of awesome that my brain couldn’t sort through it. I was giddy. Totally giddy.

That night, Meghan, Bryon, Jamie, Jenny and I hit up a restaurant in Springdale for some fish tacos and a few pints of Polygamy Porter. I realized once again, how rarely in my life I spend time hanging out with other ultra-runners. It is such a wonderful thing, a soul-affirming thing, if that makes any sense. When you are with people in whom you see a bit of yourself reflected, you start to feel like you, yourself, might actually make some sense. Like maybe you’re not crazy, and maybe it’s everyone else. Like you kind of fit in.

Sunday morning we got a slightly earlier start so Jamie and Jenny and I would have time to shower after the run before checking out of our hotel. I walked stiffly out to the sidewalk to meet Stacy, with my legs in that post-ultra-race-tightness state. I knew they would hurt on the day’s 15-mile run, but I also knew it didn’t matter. They were strong enough to get me through the day, and the day was destined for more trail running greatness. I was all smiles as I climbed into the van and took what had become my standard shotgun seat next to Stacy.

After picking up Bryon and Meghan (and of course, coffee) we headed off to Kolob Canyon for an out and back down into the canyon and along La Verkin Creek. Even during the drive to the trailhead we kept letting out audible gasps, oohs and aahs at the scenery. It was such the pleasure of the entire weekend that we could declare beauty at every turn.

Stacy joined us for the day’s route, which began by heading down into the canyon for several miles along the spine of a small ridge. The surrounding walls of color provided constant distraction, but the precipitous drop-off on both sides of the trail meant I also had to keep an eye on my feet.

Soon we were at the bottom of the canyon, and picking our way alongside the river. The trail was as red as the canyon walls, and buttery leaves rained down gently from above, adding to the warm fall palette. Conversation seemed lighter than the previous day. I know I, for one, was simply trying to soak up every moment of my weekend, knowing that it was to be over soon. I kept craning my neck up at the scenery, and finally realized I needed to take off my visor because it was impeding my view.

We paused for a brief photo-op at our turn-around point, Kolob Arch, before heading back up the trail.

With Stacy, at Kolob Arch

Jamie, Jenny and I parted ways with the rest of the group back at our hotel. As we all exchanged hugs, I was less sad than I would have expected. I still felt imbued with appreciation for every minute of the weekend, and I was pretty confident that there would be future adventures with all of these friends.

I have to confess that this year, more than ever, I have learned the simple joys of being out for long days on trails with friends. While we were standing at the base of Kolob Arch, still chattering away about all things running, Meghan asked me what I think it was that made for such a successful season for me. How was I able to run so many races, so many personal bests, and continue racing for such a long season without burning out? At the time, I didn’t really have an answer. True, I trained harder that in previous ultra-running years, but it’s not that I didn’t already know how to do that. I just lacked the motivation for it. Now, I think I have the answer to Meghan’s question. As much as I love racing, and training hard, I think it was the adventures shared with other runners that sustained my enthusiasm throughout the season. And Zion turned out to be the absolute pinnacle in the range of this summer’s incredible runs.

I can't express enough gratitude to the Wilderness Running Company for dreaming up, and presenting, this event. What an opportunity! You can rest assured, when they disclose whatever their next adventure is, I'll be there.


  1. Wow, I'm glad you're good with a camera. What an amazing place! Sounds like a great group of people to share it with, too -

  2. Turi - Definitely amazing. You should really think about joining us next time!

  3. Wow. I was almost afraid to read this, knowing how much I'd be pulling my hair out for not going. Congratulations on making me almost completely bald.

    It truly looks and sounds like the perfect weekend, and I'm stoked to hear that Stacy and Lisa organized and pulled everything off so well. (And BIG kudos to WRC!) I love your observations about spending quality time on the trail with kindred souls. Next time I'll plan to be one of them, for sure.

    Thanks for such an awesome recap.

  4. Donald - Thanks for the kind words. We certainly missed your presence out there. Glad to hear you'll be along for the ride next time!

  5. How is it that I feel like I missed out...even though I was running in the Grand Canyon?!? What an absolutely perfect, blissfull, trail running weekend.
    I'm stoked that you got some quality trail time with a few of my favorite peeps!

  6. Leslie - It's so funny how we always have envy of each other! I guess that's because we're doing so many awesome things. Yay! We definitely thought of you out there, and it was kind of like you were with us in spirit because we knew you were in the GC. Like I said before, next time let's plan to all be in the same canyon at the same time, okay?

  7. These photos are AMAZING Gretchen! And you saw a rare and wonderful California Condor? I've wanted to see one of them my entire life (that's what I get for reading the Guinness Book of World Records as a kid!). Lucky lucky girl~

  8. Great recap Gretchen. I love reading your blog, you are a fantastic writer. I still cannot believe how lucky we were to have a such an incredible weekend. Thanks again for the invite and all the organizing that you did. Looking forward to another adventure...

  9. gahhh! Looks freakin' awesome I was so bummed to miss this after getting beaten up at 100 in the Hood.

    Stacey and Lisa are just such solid people and missing the chance to meet you and Byron as well...I am so not missing the next weekend and Zion is at the top of my list!

  10. Amber - Yeah, I was pretty excited to see the condor because I've always wanted to se one too! It was really cool because it was below us, so we could see the white markings on it's wings. My pictures of it were less than spectacular, but it was breathtaking to see.

    Jamie - Yay! Thank YOU so much for coming! It was awesome to have such a great group of people there. That really made it pretty darn cool. I'm definitely looking forward to the next one!

    Stuart - Okay, we're going to hold you to that. See you next time!

  11. I've been lurking here forever and thought I'd say hi. Now that winter's arrived - hard - I'll probably come back to these pictures of Zion each time the temps fall. So warm looking.... and looks like so much fun.

  12. Oh yeah, this is a funfunfun read!

    I'm finally doing my blog write-up, too!

    What a fun time there!