Zane Grey 50 Race Report

Burn Area, Highline Trail

Burn Area, Highline Trail

Payson, Arizona.

I’m always surprised by the the beauty of Arizona. What comes to mind when I think of the state are wide, flat, parched expanses of sand with the occasion shrub, saguaro cactus and Vermaland sign – in other words, the long stretch of nothing along the 10 freeway.

State Route 87

State Route 87

The first thing you notice upon entering Tonto National Forest is the complete absence of trees. The official forest boundary begins long before the forest does, down in the desert, saguaro cactus and sand held down by a few shrubs.

As you get further into the forest, the rocks become apparent. There are a lot of rocks. Rocks will be a theme this weekend.

Jogging on the side of the highway while semi trucks speed by at 70mph, a tough old guy in a flannel shirt and camo shorts. Road running doesn’t seem all that hardcore to me, but freeway running does, even more so when technical gear means camouflage. This is where survivalism meets jogging, I guess, and somehow this is a fusion that appeals to me.

Payson, Arizona doesn’t go far beyond the intersection of State Route 260 and State Route 87. It’s a town of fast food restaurants, motels, and western-wear shops. One of its two rodeos is the oldest continuously running rodeo in America (the oldest rodeo, in Prescott Arizona, went on haitus during World War II). It’s also home of the State Championship Old Time Fiddlers Contest. It’s very much a Western town.

The kid at the grocery store isn’t as enchanted with Payson as I am. He is impressed that I am from LA and seems desperate to talk to someone from the big city. He was born in Orange County and then moved to New Mexico and now he lives in Payson with his grandparents, so in his view he’s been headed backwards his whole life, into the woods. Soon he will be moving to Phoenix, and he can hardly wait.

The Mogollon Rim

Down around Globe I’d heard talk of that wall. On the maps I’d seen it was written Mogollon, but folks in the country around called it the Muggy-own… – Louis L’Amour, The Sackett Brand

The Mogollon Rim is an escarpment of heavily weathered limestone and sandstone that forms the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. It stretches from the northern edge of Yavapai County in the west nearly 200 miles eastward to the New Mexico border. Zane Grey runs the 51 mile length of the Highline Trail, more or less smack dab in the middle, rough, rocky, wild trail in a forest of ponderosa pine.

This is the real west, the land of legendary gunslingers like Commodore Perry Owens (Commodore was his name, not his rank) and Doc Holliday made names for themselves in this area. The Pleasant Valley War, an old fashioned feud between families of ranchers that ended up with everyone in each family dead, was one of the bloodiest of the western range wars, and the violence helped convince lawmakers in Washington that Arizona was not yet civilized enough to join the United States, postponing statehood for another decade. This feud took place just below the Rim in the Tonto Basin.

All of this old west gunslinger history deserves mention because the area, and the land itself, still retains an untamable, wild west feel. The reason Zane Grey 50 is by far one of the hardest 50 mile races in the country is not because of altitude or steep climbs but because the land is so rough.

Zane Grey, the race’s namesake, wrote a novel called “To The Last Man: A Story of the Pleasant Valley War”. Grey, who more or less invented the western novel, creating an almost mythical west, had a cabin along the Highline Trail that burned down during the Dude Fire of 1990. Western writer Louis L’Amour set a few of his novels on the Mogollon Rim, including The Sackett Brand, which is full of far better descriptions of the area than I can write.

The Race.

Knobs of craggy rock thrust up, with occasional ridges showing bare spines to the westward where the timber thinned out and the country finally became desert. In front of me, but miles away, a gigantic wall reared up. That wall was at least a thousand feet higher than where I now stood, though this was high ground. – Louis L’Amour, The Sackett Brand

The race began at 5am. I’d been out the day before to run the first few miles of the course because I wanted to see it in the daylight, so I knew what we were getting into, which was 180 runners starting out immediately on singletrack, grouped together, passing difficult, on a tight, rocky uphill that lasts for nearly 2 miles. Here’s your first Zane Grey tip: position yourself wisely at the start, because your pace for the first 45 minutes or so is going to be determined by the pace of the pack you’re sandwiched in.

The first few miles were the slowest miles of the race.

Heading to the Rim

Heading to the Rim

Sunrise hit just as the climb ended. I’m sure that behind those thick grey clouds it was one of the most spectacular sunrises ever, but we didn’t see much more than cool light seeping out beneath the grey. Sunrise coincided with a long, rocky downhill. Vision is important at Zane Grey. Now that I could better see the ground, I could run.

With daylight came a view of the land around. It was impressive. The Mogollon Rim has a wild beauty.

There was long and rocky downhill to the first aid station, Camp Geronimo, at mile 8. Following that came five miles of mostly climbing, 1,000 feet of jagged trail.

The crowd of runners had started to thin, but not quite enough. Behind me were the Chatty Cathys, a pair of grown men who seemed incapable of shutting up. Their main topic of conversation: scouting. I now know more than I had any idea there was to know about Church of the Latter Day Saints Boy Scouts and how they compare to regular Boy Scouts. It seems the Latter Day Saints Scouts put a much greater emphasis on the “Duty To God” aspect of scouting, and they earn their badges at a much younger age, freeing them up for missionary work, I suppose.

I like my runs to be quiet, and by quiet I mean an absence of man-made sounds; the sounds of woodpeckers and wind and rain and nature in general are not unwelcome. These two were interfering with that. To make matters worse, one of them was running with little speaker attached to his hydration pack so that everyone could hear the sounds of modern Bro Country he loved so much.

Me at Geronimo

Me at Geronimo

I tried to put some distance between us, but that didn’t work. I tried to let them go ahead, but they weren’t fast enough. I tried to get ahead myself, but I wasn’t fast enough. With a little desperation and aided by some technical downhills, I slowly managed to pull away, and eventually they were left behind.

It’s five-and-a-half miles between the second aid station – Washington Park – and the third, at Hell’s Gate Canyon, mile 23.5, just short of the midway point in the race. Hell’s Gate is the one aid station that doesn’t allow a drop bag. Normally, drop bags at every aid station would be more than excessive for a 50 mile race, but the distance between aid stations and the difficulty of the course means runners will spend a long time between aid stations, and need to be more self sufficient than usual. The drop bags became important. In each of mine was a stash of gels that would be sufficient to get me to the next drop bag, which turned out to be crucial because the aid stations were not heavily stocked with food and had no gels at all. (This is not a complaint, and the volunteers were awesome). I also had rain gear stashed. The distance between Hell’s Gate and Fish Hatchery is 9 miles. The lead runner, we were told, took an hour and a half – 10 minute miles – a slow pace for an elite runner, and evidence of the difficulty of the course. This meant it was likely to take between two and two-and-a-half hours for me.

This middle section of the race is the burn area, a long, exposed stretch that in hot years is a real struggle. There’s no tree coverage here, but there’s a lot of tall grass, and the trail can get hard to see. Were it visible, it would mostly be very runnable, but even the front runners take to it cautiously, as third place finisher Erik Schulte explains in his race report.

It began to rain in earnest as I headed into the Fish Hatchery aid station, at mile 33. There was a long downhill to the aid station. I was looking forward to grabbing my rain shell out of my drop bag…but it wasn’t there. I’d left it at the next aid station – See Canyon – 11 long miles away. I was wet and cold and just a little miserable, but I’d done some good work on my head, and had decided I wasn’t going to let it get to me. The course was beautiful, I’d left the Chatty Cathys behind, and I was going to finish and enjoy myself doing so.

Rocks, rocks, rocks

Rocks, rocks, rocks

I left Fish Hatchery expecting a long climb that never materialized. I’d crowdsourced course info, and somehow I came to have mile 38 stuck in my head. Something serious would happen at mile 38. I was sure of it. What came at mile 38 was some jagged ups and downs, and those climbs, while short, were steep and intense. It was going to be a long 11 miles. The trail was in better shape than what we’d seen before, which means it was still technical but not as severely technical. Unfamiliar with the course and anticipating some monster climbs, I held back a little. The weather did the same.

At some point, I stopped to piss. I was alarmed at the color – rusty, iron red – until I looked upstream a bit and realized the color I was seeing was splashing back from the red, red dirt.

Sedona, just 50 miles away, is famous for its red rocks, sandstone glowing bright red and orange in the sunset, the setting for countless westerns and film noir, like Johnny Guitar, Angel and the Badman, Desert Fury, Blood on the Moon, and 3:10 to Yuma.

The red, red sandstone is everywhere on the Highline Trail. The Mogollon Rim seems to be made of it, although there are thick, impressive bands of white sandstone stretching for miles across the cliff faces.

A few times in these long stretches I’d come upon ham radio guys. These weren’t aid stations, (although they offered me water) but it was nice to happen upon them. It broke the long stretches into more manageable chunks. This was psychological only, but psychology is an important of these races.

The downpour began as I approached See Canyon, mile 44, the last aid station before the finish.

My recollection of the course was all wrong. I was looking forward to 6 miles of relatively flat, but what was ahead was the hard climb I’d been expecting miles earlier. This was not the news I wanted to hear. I grabbed a rain shell and headed up.

As I crested the two mile climb, the downpour turned into a hail storm. I started pushing it. Visibility was not so great. The sky was dark enough that it seemed as though twilight hit 2 hours early. I was tripping over stuff, so I slowed down and started running more carefully. Then came thunder, and lightening, and torrential rain. I’d been steadily passing runners the entire second half of the race. My race strategy seems to have developed into starting at the back and gradually pushing my way into the middle. It’s not the most ambitious strategy, and I probably need to get a little more aggressive with my starts. The last runner I’d passed was miles back. She’d been squatting in the bushes, her pacer standing guard. I came upon a couple of hikers who shrieked in fear when I called out from behind them. It seemed as though there weren’t many runners on this stretch of course.

At See Canyon I was told there were 7 miles left. I reckoned I had a mile and a half to go. I slowed down for a hill, turned the corner, and there, just above me, was the finish, less than 20 yards away, anticlimactic, but I was grateful not to have to run that extra mile in the downpour.

Plan on being three hours slower (and other fun facts).

Now, this Mogollon country was wild. Over here where I was now, over half the country stood on end, and it was crags and boulders, brush and fallen trees. It was really rough, and no place a body would be likely to find a hot-house flower… – Louis L’Amour, The Sackett Brand

Here are a few tips. Technical is a relative term, it seems. Don’t just train on what you think is technical. Train on loose rocks. If you can’t run rocky trails, you can’t run Zane Grey. That’s pretty much all there is to that. The race has a lot of climbing, but it doesn’t have any huge climbs. It might have more elevation gain than a lot of mountain races, but there’s none of the relentless climbing of mountain races. Instead, you are always going up or down, and some of the climbs, while short, are really steep. The aid stations are stretched further apart than you might be used to, and this year at least, none had any gels or any of the technical fare you might expect. If you use gels, make sure you carry them with you, and resupply out of your drop bags.

Every aid station is located in a canyon. That means you climb back up to the rim out of every one. There will always be a climb. Get used to it. A point-to-point course, Zane Grey has nearly 10,000 feet of climbing, and a net elevation gain. It’s a jagged profile.

Finally, while it’s known as a hot course, weather can be extreme in either direction. In 2014, it was shortened mid race to a 50K, because a blizzard blew in and conditions were considered too dangerous. This year, it was wet, cold and overcast all day, raining periodically, with hail, downpour, thunder and lightening in the last 15 miles. This is wild country, and you are going to get wild weather. What you probably won’t get is balmy and mild. It was suggested that I “channel my inner Mt. Hillyer” and also make sure that I availed myself of the cool water in the frequent stream crossings so as to not overheat. I will save that advice for next year. This year, I never took off my jacket.

A suggestion I heard was to plan on taking 2-3 hours longer on this course than on whatever might be your typical 50 miler. My 2012 Leona Divide was a strong race for me. I can get excited about numbers, so I checked out RealEndurance.com, which is an ultra running math geek’s paradise, and compared the overall numbers. The Zane Grey course record of 7:51:07 is two hours slower than the Leona Divide course record of 5:53:51, and it’s considered an almost untouchable record – the trail was in much better condition when it was set. The average winning time is 9:05:56, two and a half hours slower than the Leona Divide’s average of 6:40:20. The average finish times are three hours apart.

True to prediction, I ran Zane Grey almost exactly 3 hours slower than I ran Leona Divide.

I guess that makes me average.

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