The following race recap of the 2023 Zion 100 ultramarathon was written by Hart Strength & Endurance Client Kate Metcalf.
The Zion 100 is one of the Zion Ultras trail races hosted by Vacation Races that takes place every April along the southern edge of Zion NP and through the Virgin Desert. It is a course known for its challenging slickrock segments, panoramic views, and multiple steep climbs and descents. The race route changed slightly in the late 2010s and now begins and ends outside of Apple Valley, Utah, at the Ruby Rider Ranch.
Between its remoteness, complex terrain, challenging climbs, and constant exposure, top finishers often take over 20 hours to complete the race (though perhaps unsurprisingly, Jeff Browning posted a jaw-dropping 17:44:24 in 2021!) and the overall cutoff for the race is a bit longer than a typical 100 at 36 hours.
After running the Javelina Jundred in October 2022, I knew within hours that I wanted to return and see just how far I could push that time. Aside from speed and more heat work, I also knew that one of the main things that would help me cut that time was simple experience – time on feet, time moving through aid stations, time being uncomfortable.
I also left Javelina with an immense amount of excitement and love for the 100 mile distance. Long enough to settle in to a singular, extended experience, long enough to find those walls within and chip away at them, and long enough to experience the lows give way to highs. I knew another 100 would be both a welcome goal to work toward again soon, and that an additional 100, or at least a 100k, before my next Javelina would only give me more opportunity to learn from my mistakes and hone my approach.
Once I had let the requisite week go by post-Javelina before letting myself look at Ultrasignup (thanks Geoff!), I started to browse around for a spring race option. I settled on the Zion 100 in the stunning red rock desert of southern Utah, so reminiscent of my first ultra, Behind the Rocks 50 mile, and the life-changing time spent crewing and pacing my friend Jake at the Moab 240. As an added bonus, it finished on my birthday this year! I genuinely could not think of a better way to celebrate another year of life with a long, through-the-night race experience.
However along with all the exciting new workouts and preparations came plenty of interruptions. Catastrophic weather battered California, shutting down parks and flooding neighborhoods for weeks. Each sloppy, rainy run was preparation for the unknown – given all the snow and rain that Utah was experiencing, who knew how wet the Zion course would be, and at each flooded stream as I pulled off shoes and waded, I would time myself and think ahead to the water crossings waiting for me in the middle of the night.
As months turned into weeks, a new stressor found its way into my training schedule. I started a new job in March after having been part of a mass layoff just after Javelina. It was good to be back to work and have that sense of security, but the stress of adjusting threw me off more than I expected.
As weeks turned into days, another blow – I learned of the death of a friend in a catastrophic climbing accident. Instead of focusing on visualization or packing or any of the other pre-race rituals that bring stability, I was off kilter and focusing on checking in with friends, grappling with sudden loss, and spending countless hours talking, analyzing, celebrating, and grieving her life and passing.
I thought a lot of Meg’s love for the Red Rocks desert and southern Utah climbing as I looked at photos and videos of the course and tried to prepare. I remembered her willingness to drop everything and come down to volunteer for a race once because they were low on help, even though she didn’t run, and her celebration with me of my Javelina finish. Her departure left a hole that cannot be filled in the rock and ice climbing world and I knew I would carry those memories and thoughts with me in a very heavy way.
Then finally, as days turned to hours, one last upset. My pacer Allie called the evening before the race to say that she was sick, very sick. Bad water or ceviche or some combination from her recent trip to Costa Rica meant she was barely able to leave her bed, let alone drive down to Zion and run 20-30 miles in the desert. We sent out the call on every platform we could think of for help and I sat on the floor of my rental room, surrounded by little baggies of electrolyte powder and potato chips, gluing gaiter velcro onto my shoes, and cried.
I had told Jackson, crew member and pacer, the day before that I was worried. The weight of new job stress, and catastrophic weather stress, and loss and grief stress had really piled up. “I just don’t know if I have the fight in me” I remember saying. I was tired already, even after taper, and knew I hadn’t been sleeping enough. “I should have dropped to the 100k or deferred. I just don’t feel the fight.”
So there I was, feeling the last bit of fight drain away. I had less than an hour to get back to my drop bags at the start and turn my race from having pacers from at least mile 70 to potentially not counting on any pacers at all. The last thing I wanted to think about was how to re-work my logistics when I really needed to be winding down for bed if I wanted any chance at a decent amount of sleep before my 3 am alarm.
I pre-taped my feet and fielded texts and calls and tried not to think about just how much I suddenly didn’t want to do this race. Ultras can be like a very slow avalanche – chaos begetting chaos begetting even more chaos as you do all you can to stay one figurative and literal step ahead and try to pivot with each setback. How was I going to stay ahead of this chaos though, when I hadn’t even put on my shoes yet?
In a wild and overwhelmingly welcome twist, my pacer Alexei from Javelina was free and somehow willing to drive down to Zion for another weird fast walk with me in the dark and once confirmed I told myself enough now and went to bed to hope for a bit of sleep. I would be running long before he began his drive down but I couldn’t think about it any longer. It would be up to him and Jackson to work it all out.
Zion 100 – Race Day
Start to Goosebump 2 (17.7 miles)
Just like that it was 3 am. I ate breakfast, drove to the start, and took two sips of hot chocolate before the 5 am wave took off into the brisk pre-dawn darkness.
I settled into a gentle jog along the first few miles of gravel, exchanging greetings with other runners and chatting for about an hour with a friendly runner from New Brunswick. We joked about the logistics of group travel, discussed our race goals, and ventured a bit into philosophizing about the nature of change and returning to childhood homes. The usual long run chatter – we all become sages in the dark.
We arrived at the Goosebump aid station quickly and I stopped just long enough to put a little water into my flask before continuing onto a rolling slickrock trail. The edges of the sky began to take on definition and soon I was able to make out the edges of the cliff we were running along. The sun rose on an enormous vista, long ridges of red mesa and a sage green valley far below. It felt like running on the edge of the world, toward the distant point of the mesa that dropped off into nothingness. Runners around me pulled out cameras and phones to try to capture a bit of the beauty and I felt that whisper that I always look forward to during runs like this, “I can’t believe I get to do this. I can’t believe I get to be in this place right now.”
The sun continued to rise, warming the ground as I shed layers and trotted along with a small group of runners. The route finding was a constant challenge, despite the little pink ribbons marking the way. The complex terrain often gave very little indication of the next steps and more than one runner bolted off in the wrong direction and had to be called back by another. It was slower going than I had hoped but we were soon at the Gooseberry aid station, run by a very enthusiastic group of Boy Scouts, and after a pickle juice shot and a few packets of apple sauce, I rolled along for a few more miles of slickrock jungle.
The sun was well up and hot when I arrived back at the Goosebump aid station just under 18 miles in. I retrieved sun sleeves from my drop bag and a turkey sandwich from the volunteers before beginning the first major descent of the race.
Goosebump 2 to Virgin Desert (25.8 miles)
The Goosebump aid station sits perched on the mesa edge and immediately after leaving, runners dropped onto the Mondo Z descent, a frankly shitty, loose, and very steep trail that perfectly exemplifies Utah’s complete lack of belief in switchbacks. The trail narrowed at several points to little more than a foot’s width and it was slow-going picking our way along trying not to lose it and take out every runner ahead. Looking back, I averaged a 20 minute mile pace on this descent. Not my best work but at least I didn’t wipe out entirely.
After Mondo Z’s dusty chaos, I begin the rolling miles along river beds stained white with mineral deposits in the hot Virgin Desert sun. I spent some time talking with Bill, a Minnesota transplant to New Jersey. We bonded over our Midwestern roots and talked about dream Minnesota and Wisconsin races. I shared my hopes to run the Kekekabic at some point and he talked about the Superior trail. It was his first hundred and I wished him well but eventually let him pull ahead. My chest was feeling oddly tight and I wanted to walk for a bit. The lack of sleep and stress of the day before felt like it was settling in and I didn’t want to flame out this early.
The miles fell away slowly and after a water station I dropped onto the JEM trail. This portion of the course should have been my chance to make up a lot of time – it was a gently rolling, largely packed dirt trail with very little vert through cow grazing areas and eventually hugging the Virgin River. Flowers were in bloom along the sides of the trail and the hot sun infused the air with the smell of trailside sage. I ate my potato chips and Swedish Fish and popped a couple of salt caps, jogging when I could between bites but backing off more often than I wanted. Even with the slower going, I soon spotted the Virgin Desert aid station rise out of the heat mirage ahead. This was the first potential crew meetup, though I wasn’t going to see my own crew until 50 miles at the earliest.
I shifted into a downhill trot and rolled into the aid station, and out of a rush of sound and supportive spectators heard someone call out “happy early birthday, twin!!” I swung around to see a face I barely recognized, only from pictures. Garrett, a friend of Allie, had reached out after hearing about my pacer woes and we’d discovered that we shared a birthday and would be celebrating it somewhere on course together. He had waited at the aid station for me after supporting his runners and jumped in to support me as well, filling bottles, retrieving my drop bag, and offering me a chair and a snack. It was a beautiful moment of trail magic, an unexpected connection and act of utter kindness to a stranger, to wait, support, and encourage another like that.
Virgin Desert to Smith Mesa (42.6 miles)
Refreshed, refilled, and smiling, I headed back onto the trail and let the gentle downhills pull me along. I ate and drank and pushed into a slow run when I could but before long started feeling the heat and tight chest creep back in. I was annoyed with how much slower I was moving and by the time I arrived at the Virgin Dam aid station was worried. I had some reception and called my crew, who encouraged me to sit and rest and then in no uncertain terms to get back out there. “Just 15 more miles until you get to the crew station and we can reassess then.”
I hated feeling this beat up this early but I also knew it was right – the best way out was through and I certainly could do another 15. Despite my slower than hoped for pace, I was well ahead of any cutoffs and despite the fatigue, I wasn’t in terrible shape. I dropped down from the Virgin Dam aid station through more sun-baked mineral-stained washes and poured water on myself to cut some of the heat at Sheep Crossing before facing down the big climb up Smith Mesa.
It was now the middle of the day and the climb up Smith Mesa followed an old road up the cliff side. The asphalt shimmered and pulsed under foot, reflecting intense midday heat, and the red cliff walls along the road turned the entire climb into a solar oven. I was glad I had poured that water over my head and sleeves, though it evaporated almost immediately. I slowed and focused on hydration and steps. One after another after another. I was alone for the majority of the climb, which felt like it took an eternity. Though I wasn’t moving quickly, I was moving steadily and tried to focus on my audiobook and on maintaining a conservative, steady, relentless pace.
Gradually, the ridge moved nearer and I began to hear the music and bustle of the Smith Mesa aid station. I poured more water on my head and downed a couple of pickle juice shots as soon as I arrived and filled a cup with salted potatoes to enjoy in the shade of the med tent. I had dreaded that climb, looking at it on paper in the months leading up to the race, and here I was. It was over. Not dramatically, just slowly, uncomfortably, and relentlessly. 8 or 9 miles to go and I would see my crew.
Smith Mesa to Virgin BMX 1 (51.8 miles)
Once I had cooled myself down and gotten in some food, I moved on to the Smith Mesa loop, which kicked off with a hands on the ground scramble and continued weaving through pine and juniper scrub. The trail had clearly been wet recently and dried into a chaotic tumble of cow prints, nonstop ankle-turners that at times broke through to fresh mud. From time to time I would see a cow crash through the trees away from me or watch a corvid take flight from the side of the trail, but I was otherwise completely alone.
Shadows lengthened and finally provided some relief from the sun and I ate the rest of my food and turned my audiobook back on – running through an otherworldly place as I listened to Shadow travel through the underworld in American Gods. The Smith Mesa loop felt endless at times and my feet were really starting to let me know how unhappy they were between the slick rock and the torn up cow paths, but eventually the trees opened up and I was able to see how close I was to the mesa edge and the water station at the end of the loop.
I skipped the water drop altogether and turned left to start the Flying Monkey descent. It was an immediate drop off through a loose, rocky chute and stayed a relentlessly technical scramble down over loose rocks and dusty boulders. The drop-off immediately on the right of the trail kept any hopes of speed in check as one misplaced foot or slip could send a person tumbling off of the trail and down for hundreds of feet. I was grateful for my poles and very glad for the hand-line at one point to lower down over a large drop-off quite a bit taller than I am.
I was able to pass a couple of parties and felt my spirits rise as I realized just how close I was to the half-way point and my crew. I was also shocked at just how destroyed I felt at only the halfway mark. I was hot and tired and my feet were screaming. I also knew I was now pretty well behind my 30 hour hopes and frustrated with myself for my slow going. I ran my way into the Virgin BMX station as the sun set and laughed to myself as I looked across the valley to see the lights of the Goosebump aid station at the top of that Mondo Z climb shining on the mesa rim.
That climb is going to be brutal.
Guacamole Loop to Virgin BMX 2 (70 miles)
Jackson and Alexei swept me up and into Alexei’s van. Hot mac and cheese with avocado, a hot cup of coffee, fresh clothes, ice cold lemonade… I took off my shoes and socks and Jackson worked on my feet while I ate. I began to shiver wildly and wrapped up in multiple layers while he worked to stretch out my swollen feet and calves.
“This is way harder than I was expecting. I don’t know how I’m going to do another 50 of this.”
“Eat your mac and cheese”
“This is really brutal”
So I shut up and ate and after stretching for a while laid down on the floor of the van with my feet up against the bed and let the pain melt a bit. After another coffee and some CBD and a fresh pair of shoes, a half size larger, I began to feel that I could move again. Just twenty more miles before I would be back at the same aid station if I left on the Guacamole loop. How hard could that be?
I added another layer and my waist light and set out into the night.
The trail had been diverted due to high water and after some tricky navigation I found my way to the gravel road that wraps up to the Guacamole loop. Lights bobbed ahead of me and the cool night breeze felt amazing after the hot sun. I turned on some music and found myself running much more frequently and easily, despite the incline. As I neared the Guacamole aid station, a familiar voice called out “Happy birthday, twin!”
Garrett and his runner materialized out of the darkness. “5 minutes until midnight!” We laughed, chatted, sang a silly happy birthday rendition, and cheered on, I set out again to enjoy the last few minutes of this year of life. A few minutes after midnight I arrived at the Guacamole aid station and was thrilled to find hot food waiting. My first meal of my new year was several strips of bacon wrapped in a pancake and a cup of coca cola – heaven.
After the easy roads, the Guacamole lollipop loop was a challenge as I had to shift back to cryptic route-finding. More slick rock meant more truly labyrinthine paths and it took care and time to spot the next flag in the dark. More than a few times, I was saved by the map I had saved on my phone, and I was again able to pass a few people as they struggled to find the route as well.
The night sky was brilliant and clear. With almost no light pollution, I took the opportunity to switch off my waist light a couple of times and just stop to look up and stare. The milky way was bright and wide and the sky more full of stars than I had seen in a long time. The memories of a challenging day melted away and I felt that welcome feeling again at last. “I can’t believe I get to do this”
Back through the aid station for another pancake full of bacon and a cup of hot broth, and I jogged back down the road to Virgin BMX for the second time. I had been running alone for 70 miles and I was finally picking up a pacer.
Virgin BMX 2 to Crew Access (80.1 miles)
Alexei was asleep in his van when I arrived and after rousing and pulling on his vest, he made coffee while I changed into day clothes and took another caffeine pill. Though it was still the middle of the night, I knew the sun would be up before I had a chance to change again.
We moved through the dark out of camp and across the valley floor, following the Goosebump aid station light burning on the mesa rim like our north star. Tiny headlamp lights formed a chain leading up to it and we chatted for the few miles it took to reach the water drop at the base.
The Mondo Z climb starts abruptly and does not stop. I leaned into my poles and pulled step after step out of the loose dust and rock. We talked and then fell silent. I began counting steps, 1-100 over and over to mark our progress in the dark. Somehow the climb itself wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be – between the caffeine and the fruit snacks, I was feeling more energy than I expected. I was tired but it was progress and each step up was one less that I had to take. We turned a corner and the chute to the top was there, bright lights of the aid station marking the finish.
We stumbled into Goosebump for the third and last time, collapsed into chairs, and then filled our bottles before stepping out into the sharp wind that ripped across the mesa top. Jogging at first to stay warm and then fueled by the pink sunrise, we talked about the magic of a good alpenglow, the fact that I wasn’t throwing up this time with Alexei (see Javelina 100, 2022), and how completely unpredictable this whole experience had been.
The 50k and half marathon runners had started and were running the opposite direction along the same gravel road, cheering us on as we passed. We met up with Jackson at the mile 80 crew access spot and after a quick change and some sunblock, moved on to the last 20 miles of the race.
Crew Access to Finish!
After gradual downhill past two aid stations, Jackson and I moved onto the Wire Mesa loop, an almost 8 mile long cross-country slick rock cycling path that weaves along the mesa rim. We talked about the race so far and admired the scenery but my energy from the past 10 miles began to fade quickly as the slick rock pounding started up again. My feet were incredibly sore, and at one point I began to wonder if I was developing a stress fracture, the pain was so intense. The trail itself was also a real mind bender as it turned in and out over and over again along the mesa but never seemed to go anywhere. I tried to eat more and stay on top of hydration to keep my spirits up but the throbbing at every step wore me down until I started to feel tears in my eyes.
I was reminded of a quote from Brendan Leonard’s wonderful book “I Hate Running and You Can Too”. The exact details were foggy in my exhausted brain, but the line “you can cry and keep walking” turned into a mantra.
I am so tired, my feet ache and throb, I am deep in a low, but I can keep walking. Acknowledge the feelings and keep walking. This trail may feel never ending but it absolutely will end if I just keep walking. The only way out is through.
Jackson ran along behind me, encouraging me from time to time and handing up apple sauce packets as I dragged myself through mile after endless mile.
Javelina had been a little too smooth, I thought. It was truly an amazing experience, joy filled and surreal, but one of the things I love about the long long run is the hard stuff, the parts where you’re truly not sure how this will all happen and the places where you get to move deep within yourself and start to ask the big why. Starting this race, I was much less certain, and I hit the hard parts much earlier on. I had cycled through lows and highs, felt the familiar “I can’t believe I get to do this” move in as it does after the “I don’t know if I can do this” fades. And finally, 50 full miles after I first felt that “I don’t know if this is going to happen”, it was happening, and I was having to dig deep, deep into that cave to continue.
After a lifetime, we were back at the Wire Mesa aid station. I pulled off my shoes and socks and did all I could to massage and stretch my feet, which felt like they’d been run over by a truck. Jackson found a tub of CBD cream and worked it into my feet and calves while I ate a sandwich and worked to dry tears. 10 more miles.
I pulled on my shoes, somehow fitting my very angry feet back in, and we moved on, up to the last slick rock loop. 9 more miles.
I poured water on myself at the next aid station and filled up my bag with apple sauce packets and we set out on the rugged Grafton Mesa. Mercifully, short patches of sand broke up the slick rock monotony. 8 more miles.
I ate more apple juice and was grateful for the uphills as we came to them. My muscles were tired but my feet needed the break. 7 more miles.
I started to run short bursts and was happy to feel my feet, between the CBD and the varied terrain, quiet down. Or maybe I was just so tired I wasn’t feeling the pain anymore? I passed a small pack of 50k runners. How am I passing people? 6 more miles.
The heat was intense and the ground shimmered around me as the sun reflected off of rocks and sand. Deep tiredness settled in. I passed another runner and another. 5 more miles. 5 more miles! No question now, I am finishing this. Was there ever a question though?
All my doubts I had voiced were more talk than anything, I thought. I wasn’t ever going to not finish this race, despite my tearful calls to crew at miles 30, 40, my tears at mile 85. We rounded the tip of the mesa and scrambled over boulders and along technical rock gardens. 4 more miles!
I started to see shimmery shadows of, were those photographers waiting under trees to snap race photos? I must look like a total mess! But no, just my mind playing tricks on me. Cactuses looked fuzzy and soft, I told Jackson and passed another runner, and another. One woman I had been leap-frogging since mile 10 came into view ahead. It wasn’t a race but it was motivation – I found another gear and caught up to pass her on a rocky climb. “Make it count” I thought and continued pushing to put some space between us. In the end, I found out that push pulled me into 5th place in my category. 3 more miles!
The trail leveled, I could hear the aid station, 2 more miles, and we were there.
“Don’t stop!” Jackson waved me through after pouring water down my back. “I’m gonna finish this thing!” I remember saying to a volunteer at the check point who saw my bib and called back “Hell yes, finish that hundred!” I was back on the gravel road, running the world’s slowest run, but not stopping until I was done. 1 mile.
Alexei and his girlfriend Grace materialized out of a mirage ahead and joined Jackson and I as I run-shuffled up the last hill. Don’t stop running, won’t stop running. Spectators dotted the sides of the road as we rounded the last corner and I heard the finish line ahead. Jackson pulled my poles out of my hands and told me to run through to the end, finish this well.
In a moment I was in the chute and then leaping through the finish arch. In the chaos and confusion, someone handed me a mallet and I got to take a huge swing at the finish gong. Take that, Zion!! – I felt like I was driving a stake into the heart of that course.
Finishing off the long and brutal desert path that had taken me down further into the edges of myself than I had gone before and here I was, coming through, raw and tender and wrung out completely, awash in sound.
I chose my buckle – a sage background and two leaves crossed under a Zion 100 woodcut.
Heavy silver in my hands, green like the mid-day valleys and the trees that grew scattered along the edges of the Virgin river. Alexei and Grace had made me a birthday cake and I washed my feet and ate cake and pickles in the shade of the van before we left. What a way to start a new year, filthy, dazed, exhausted, and pulled apart into a thousand pieces in such a beautiful place.
Between a massive burrito, an ice bath back at the BnB, and an hour in my compression boots, despite the complete pounding my feet and legs took throughout the race, I was much less stiff and sore the morning after Zion than I was after Javelina. The soles of my feet continued to be pretty sore for 4 or 5 days and it took a couple of days for the swelling in my feet and ankles to go down, but committed time to ice baths and compression boots as I recovered seemed to make a big difference.
For the week after Zion, I focused on rest and eating all the things. I had dinner with Allie, who is finally recovered from her health ordeal and made the most amazing steaks for us. I caught up with friends, spent plenty of time admiring that new buckle, and took a nap pretty much every afternoon as my schedule allowed. I was walking well by Tuesday morning and doing some gentle running within a week.
After Javelina, I told friends that though it was a challenge, it was almost too easy (dare I say?) and I wanted a bigger goal. Zion was that and more. 100 miles is 100 miles but the technical nature and unrelenting challenges of this race compared to the forgiving and welcoming flow-y dirt trails at Javelina kept me on my toes and digging to continue finding that fight. I had thought before starting that I might not have it in me, but across the miles came to realize that there is more fight to be found in the thick of it.
Energy and excitement comes and goes in such a long race many times over. In the end the thing that makes the difference is not the surplus at the start but the ability to find it, create it, or straight up fake it along the way.
I think Clare Gallagher said it best in her article “Don’t Forget to Pack the ‘Why’”:
“…the most common why to the many ultras I’ve run, aside from the fact I’m a little sick in the head, is that I really love running long across mountainous terrain knowing that it will never get any easier… It’s always going to suck somehow. And I love it…
“Maybe within all of the sucking, all of the suffering, there’s magic that we tap into during ultras. I keep coming back for the moments of utter serenity, deep in a forest or high on an alpine trail, or even just grinding away on a godforsaken fire road. I live for the quietness. Where it’s just me, a little human creature moving by her own power somewhere on this beautiful planet. I patter along far enough that maybe, using a powerful telescope, an alien from another world could see the route I traveled across Earth that day. And the alien doesn’t have to know about the anguish… that’s mine to cherish.”