Zion 100 Race Report: The Battle to Live to Fight Another Day

Sarah Johnson Zion 100 - Guacamole Loop - Run It Fast

Zion 100 Race Report (April 10, 2015)

While pregnant with baby #4, I signed up for a 100 mile race called Prescott Circle Trail. It would take place about 8months postpartum. I thought it would be a good goal and help motivate me to get into shape after having a baby.

I started exercising at about 3 weeks postpartum. I eased slowly into things and overall felt really good. I ran my first race at 8 weeks postpartum; an 8k. It felt like a celebration of sorts. 1k in honor of each week my wee one had been earthside.

At 10 weeks postpartum I decided my body was ready for some hard conditioning and training. I started cross training and upped my mileage.

I continued to run races increasing the distance each time. I did a few races in the 25ish kilometer range until I decided I was ready for ultra distance. I started doing races in the 50k+ range. While getting adequate training runs in was a bit of a challenge, for the most part I felt strong and capable.

About a month out from Prescott Circle Trail the event was canceled. I was crushed. I had been looking forward to it for months. Every.single.run over the past several months had been in preparation for Prescott Circle Trail. I started looking for alternative options.  I considered running the course self-supported. I contemplated a Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon. There was a 500krelay race in Tennessee that piqued my interest. All I knew is I was craving a physical challenge and had the support/resources in place to make one happen.

I got wind of another race called Zion 100. It happened to start on the very same day as Prescott Circle Trail. After reviewing the race information and course map, I was feeling pretty stoked. It was the exact kind of course I enjoy; technical trail with a decent amount of climbing. The race company is committed to putting on eco- friendly events. The race director has a very positive reputation in the ultra-running community. All the information on the website indicated it was a top quality event and very well organized. The location was easy to get to if I kept my travel itinerary exactly as planned. It would just include a few extra hours in the car to get there and back. It seemed like an ideal swap for Prescott Circle Trail! Now to make it happen.

A big piece of the puzzle for me was Baby M and who would care for him during the race. I had already made solid childcare arrangements for the older three boys but M had to come with me to the race. I checked in with my mother in law about potentially coming with me and hanging with M while I ran. Without any hesitation at all she replied, “Yeah. I can do that”. I am pretty sure that is her default reply to everything I ask of her; for which I am beyond grateful.  That was the green light for me to go ahead and register.

Shortly after I shared my ultrasignup registration I got a message from my friend Julie with a screenshot of the directions from her house to Zion.

My reply “Want to come with me?”

Her reply, “Yes.”

Done. I had a crew person.

A short while later I got a message from my friend Sarah, “Need a pacer?”

I replied, “Would it be you?”


“Then absofreakinglutely yes!”

Done.  I had a pacer; a pacer who had run Zion100 the year before with a strong finish. All the pieces were coming together super smoothly.

Five weeks out from Zion100 I had a75k trail race that was going to be my last long training run. While that race didn’t go quite as planned I ran with fierce determination and was quite pleased with my performance.

However my runs after that race were difficult. My left knee started to bug me about 15 miles into each run.  At first I ignored it. I was almost in denial. It was the worst possible timing to have something on my body not working optimally. I wasn’t 100% sure it was related to running since I was doing an ample amount of cross training. I thought maybe I had tweaked it at the gym or in ballet class. I remained hopeful it would heal quickly on its own. Two weeks out from Zion I did a 25mile training run on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Spa, Belgium. I was in so much pain at the end I could not run. I met my husband and kids at a restaurant post run. Hubby asked how my run went and while we ate, I confessed to him my knee had been bothering me for the past few weeks.  We discussed it as we ate and came up with some ideas of things to do that might help.

I also decided it would be good to give Julie a head’s up that my knee would probably be an issue during the race. She is a physical therapist which boosted my confidence some that her knowledge of body mechanics would be in my favor during the race.

Fast forward 2 weeks, an international flight (I live in the Netherlands), and a 6 hour road trip later and I was at the start line of Zion100.  I felt pretty good although I was operating on pure adrenaline and nerves at the point as the night before the race I had only gotten 1.5hours sleep. (jet lag + nursing baby + early race start).

The first part of the course was amazing. I moved swiftly and steady. I arrived at the first crew point (mile 15) well ahead of schedule. I needed to nurse M so I had to wait for my crew to arrive even though I was eager to go on. At that point I was aware of my left knee but it wasn’t painful. More or less I felt a little nudging sensation…almost as if it had a “Fragile. Hand with care” sticker on it.

Zion 100 Course Photo 2015 - Run It Fast

The next stretch was really tough on me. By mile 20 my knee was throbbing. The downhills were hard. I cussed a bunch on them. And loudly. (My apologies to other runners for my frequent Fbombs from miles 26 to 30). I already had thoughts of dropping in my head. I put on my headphones and cranked my music loud to serve as a distraction. I also apologize to other runners for my terrible singing. Somehow belting out Tesla, Guns N’ Roses, and Alice in Chains helped.  I arrived at the 30 mile crew point still a bit ahead of schedule however I was moving very slowly at that point. When I arrived my crew knew I was in rough shape. I said to them, “Right now I need logic and wisdom. No emotion. Ok? I have two options here.  I can drop. The consequence of that is regret. Or I can change shoes, roll/massage my leg, take an advil, put on my knee brace and assess pace at the next aid station. As long as I can keep moving and stay ahead of cutoffs, I should be ok”.  They said, “Option two!” and immediately started taking care of me while I nursed M. I left the 30 mile mark feeling renewed and hopeful.  Even with the BIG climb ahead I felt a surge of confidence after seeing my crew. Since my knee screamed hard on the downhills, I figured the next section would be ok considering it was flat or uphill.  Plus I am a hella good climber; it’s generally where I thrive on a course. The advil kicked in and the knee brace helped so I started picking up pace again. However, my gait was crazy awkward as I was compensating for my left knee and running in different shoes than usual. I started passing a bunch of runners who had previously passed me. Many asked me if I was feeling better and/or commented that I looked strong.  The comradery on the course was encouraging and reminded me why I love trail ultra runners.

I arrived at the next aid station ahead of schedule again and before my crew was even there. I wanted to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. I didn’t need to nurse at that aid station so I just wanted to check in briefly with my crew, refuel, and go. Sarah reminded me I had 12.5 miles before I would see them again and that she would start pacing me at that point (mile 47.5). Again I left that aid station feeling hopeful.

The next section of the course was called Slick Rock. It wasn’t very runnable for me and involved stepping up and down off large rocks. As the advil wore off my knee started to hurt again. I winced, clenched, and/or grunted every time I had to step down off a rock. Audible expressions of pain seemed to help. It reminded me of being in labor and grunting through contractions. (Not that the pain was on the same scale as labor, but I found myself instinctively using similar coping mechanisms). I had some advil with me and against my better judgement decided to take some more.

I didn’t see many other runners during this section so most of the miles were spent in my own head. I kept asking myself if I wanted to run a hundred miles on advil. It just felt very wrong to me. It felt as though I was ignoring my body’s natural feedback system. Was I comprising my body’s well-being for pride and stubbornness? It sure felt like it.

The last 3 or so miles of that stretch were pretty runnable (ie- flat) so I moved along at a good pace eager to see my crew. The temperature was also starting to drop and I welcomed the cooler air. I arrived at the 47.5 mile mark greeted by my crew. As usual they took awesome care of me. I nursed M, put on my night running gear, and off I went. This time with a pacer.

Sarah and I developed a smooth rhythm together.  At 14 hours I hit the 50 mile mark which meant I was still on pace for a 28 hour finish.  I asked her to try to keep me averaging at least 15 minute miles including aid station stops. I wanted to run all the runnable sections and fast hike the rest. At one point I even asked her to go faster. She said “we are doing 10 minute miles. Are you sure you want to be running this pace?”.  I did. I felt pressure to bank time as I knew going into the wee hours of the night exhaustion would set in and I would slow down significantly. We moved along mostly in silence (just like at Chimera100 where I had paced her). We long ago decided that few words were need between us to understand each other. She stayed a couple beats ahead of me, navigating the course, deciding on our pace and keeping me going. I liked how we worked together and I was very happy to have her with me. It also served as a good distraction from my knee.

At this point my feet were hurting. I could feel them blistering. I never ever blister. However I was running really differently than normal because of my knee. We were close to the next aid station but I felt like I had to take my shoes off right there. I plopped down on the trail and started working on popping blisters, all on my right foot. They were huge and ugly. I immediately had genuine empathy for people who regularly deal with blistering issues. Those bastards hurt! Many people who passed me asked if I was ok or needed anything. Again a reminder of what a generous heart many trail runners hold.

Sarah encouraged me to focus on getting to the aid station so we could tend to my feet properly. We worked our way down and once I saw how close we actually were to the aid station I felt silly that I had stopped mid trail. Sitting there in that chair at mile 57.5 I decided I did not like what I was doing to my body. I feared I was destroying my relationship with running by continuing on.  I said little during this time and was mostly in my own head. Sarah knew I was trying to figure out what to do. She seemed unsure of what to do or say to me. I asked her to tape my feet to give her something to do and buy me some time to think. I really wanted to talk to my husband but couldn’t get a hold of him on my cell phone. Sarah called Julie and asked her to come to the aid station. I didn’t know exactly what would be the outcome of her coming. Was I dropping and she was picking us up? Or was I going to figure out what I needed to do to keep going? When Julie arrived I took off my knee brace so she could massage/roll my leg. When I saw how swollen and misshapen my knee looked at that point I said with full confidence “I am done”.

Maybe I could have continued, but at what cost? I did not like that I was straying so far from my principles (to respect and honor my body) for a finish. It was not worth it to me at that point. I vocalized, “I feel like this is changing my relationship with running”.  That phrase struck a chord with Sarah and it’s as if she suddenly knew exactly what her role there was for me.

She looked at me directly and said “Will you do this again?” (meaning would I attempt another hundred miler). Without a moment’s hesitation I said “yes”. She replied in a gentle but firm voice “then stopping now is the right decision”.  She went on to say a bunch more and even though I only half heard her, I understood what she was getting at: Preservation of the passion for distance running trumps a finish.

Of course a DNF involves a lot of self-doubt and questioning of our ability as an athlete. But it also involves the opportunity for deep reflection and growth. The decision to stop running had been a hard one. I had basically been wrestling with it in my head from about mile 20. That in itself is draining.  And while I don’t expect a hundred mile race to be easy, my experience at Stagecoach100 had been positive and enjoyable thus showing me I didn’t need to “disrespect” my body to complete an ultra.

Rightfully so I was pretty down the next several hours (plus tired as heck). My usual smile, chatty, and happy demeanor was replaced with a grumpy ass version of myself. Instead of going to back to the rental house and going to sleep, I decided I want to help crew for my friend Josh. In part because I wanted to support him, but also I wanted to see the event from start to finish (ya know in case I ever decided to run it again). Josh went on to finish strong and I enjoyed watching the others runners came through the various aid stations.

The next day while I was still in a bit of a funk about the race and feeling pretty low, Josh sent me a picture he took of me as we passed each other at mile 22. When I looked at the picture my reaction was “Wow. That’s me! On the Zion100 course.  And even though I didn’t finish, my feet touched that piece of earth. I need to see value in that experience”.

Seeing myself in that pictured allowed a fresh perspective; one from the outside in. So much of an ultra (and running in general) is from the inside out. A change in perspective proved to be powerfully healing and exactly what I needed to find peace with my decision.

– Sarah Johnson



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