By Cory Reese
Mormon pioneers named the canyon and surrounding areas “Zion”, meaning “a place of refuge”. Those pioneers undoubtedly were not referring to the soul-destroying climb up Gooseberry Mesa, Smith Mesa, or Grafton Mesa during the Zion 100 when they considered this supposed refuge.
The Zion 100 (there are 100 mile, 100k, and 50k distances) leads runners along the outskirts of Zion National Park with breathtaking scenery around every corner. Most often it is the views that are breathtaking. Although sometimes it is the aforementioned climbs to the top of mesas that literally take your breath away. The kind of hands-on-knees climbs that induce cursing and crying (it’s okay; you can say it’s sweat). The kind of climbs that ascend 1,200 feet in less than a mile. Where the only thing worse than going up is going back down at mile 75.
Runners were favored with ideal weather this year, high temperatures getting into the 60’s. Racer Matt Watts described it as “no excuse weather”. Holding the race in April is a drastic improvement from the first year when the race was in May and temperatures touched 100 degrees.
Aid stations and support were top notch, with the usual ultra fare of fruit, sandwiches, gels, and my personal favorite – chocolate cake which tested my self-control to not overindulge mid race. The aid station highlight was the presence of Turd’l Miller who I’ve come to believe is the Julia Child of ultramarathons. Last year’s treat was pancakes served with raspberry Hammer Gel as syrup. This year Turd’l stepped up his game by serving tortillas smeared with Nutella and a sugar wafer cookie wrapped inside. I’ve come up with a name for his concoction: Heaven.
The Zion course treats runners to a variety of terrains. There is a dash of dirt roads. There is a heaping dose of highly technical trail. There is a serving of rolling, pounding slick rock that leaves your quads feeling like they have been slowly picked apart by a hungry ostrich. And there is a helping of sublime, smooth single track that feels like a big hug from Oprah.
The crown jewel of the Zion Ultras is the unmatched scenery. At mile 98 I felt a few tears, I mean sweat rolling down my face as I crested a hill and saw the entire course surrounding me. I saw all the mesas I had climbed and descended. The enormity of accomplishment to run 100 miles unfolded in front of me.
And then, as much as I’d fought the idea for the previous 28 hours, I had to admit that those old Mormon pioneers were right. This was my refuge.