Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Desert whining: Zane Grey 50 miler

I have tried to think of ways to turn this into a positive race report, but I am stuck on whining. Zane Grey just kicked my butt. There's no way to dress it up. Within an hour of starting I was sucking for air and I never felt that I really caught my breath the entire race. About two hours into the race I pulled out of the conga line I was in and forced myself to slow down by taking a pit stop and eating a snack. I thought this would help but it didn't really. I didn't feel terrible at this point, just out of breath. After mulling over the feeling, I realized the last time I had felt like this in an ultra was at Where's Waldo which covers a similar altitude range of 5-7,000 feet. I had been worried about overgrowth on the trail and about the forecast heat, but had not given much thought to the altitude. The discovery that I was wearing my Where's Waldo shirt seemed like a clear curse which I was unable to remedy until I reached the mile 33 aid station and unfortunately changing shirts didn't mitigate the problem at all. To cut a long day down to a few words, I felt on the edge of bonking all day. Slowing down to deal with the altitude may have helped, but then the heat kicked in with a high temperature of about 80 degrees, the rocks pounded my feet all day and I just never got into the zone that usually makes these events so fun. I don't know if was the combination of heat and altitude, or lack of recovery from Coyote Two Moon, or something else but I have decided to write it off as just one of those days.

I had been excited about this event ever since I realized it was held in the same Tonto National Forest that I run in when I visit my in-laws who live east of Phoenix in Gold Canyon at the Peralta Trailhead. I had visions of the Zane Grey trail overgrown with cacti similar to what I have experienced when running from the Peralta trailhead. On our two hour drive north to Payson, the nearest town to the Zane Grey trail, it became clear that those visions were misguided. Not surprisingly given the higher elevations, the cacti had disappeared and the vegetation was a mix of scrub, grass and trees. The trail was established in 1870 and follows along the south edge of the Mogollon rim which provided magnificent views throughout the day like the one below:

View of the Mogollon rim.

View away from the rim to the south.

The trail has the reputation of being difficult to run in part because it is frequently overgrown with manzanita and other scrub that bites back when runners attempt to go through it. An army of volunteers had really outdone themselves this year clearing the trail as you can see in the photo below. Previous finishers should be jealous at how much easier it was this year!

The organization of the event was very low key although very well executed. I was surprised at the low turnout for the pasta dinner the night before--are there excellent restaurants in Payson that no one told us about? The race was unusual in not having any kind of pre-race briefing either the night or morning before the race but the course was exceptionally well-marked which was particularly helpful given the difficulty of following the trail itself which frequently disappeared in dry gullies or grasslands with many overlapping false trails. Fortunately, Francine was able to drive me to the start and pick me up at the finish. The point to point nature of the course was definitely part of the appeal for me, but I was surprised that there was no organized transportation to help solo runners get back to the starting line after the race.

Double click to see detail.
Lots of short climbs.

I can't explain it any better than the FAQ page of the race website:
"No, race management does NOT provide transportation to or from the race. The race is a point-to-point run starting in the town of Pine, finishing in Christopher Creek. If you cannot manage the logistics of either getting there or getting home, do not run this race. There will not be transportation back to Pine provided from the finish."

The volunteers and radio operators kept my spirits up on a difficult day but I'm glad I experienced Zane Grey. I finished in 12hr19min but never felt comfortable running the entire day.