My hands were frozen. Alarmingly so in fact. I tried to move my pinky and it wouldn’t respond. I prodded it with the other hand and there was no sensation. The rain had turned into stinging hail now and there was no shelter from the howling winds. Things were definitely getting spicy in the desert!
Just the week before I had been very nervous about the conditions we would encounter at Zane Grey. My preparation had involved several trips to the sauna room at the local community center and one particularly toasty race in the Utah desert. The Scottish are not known for their tolerance to heat and the reputation of Zane Grey was legendary. I fully expected to be baked to death in the sunny and arid Arizona desert. Weather reports however were calling for a cold front sweeping in on Saturday bringing unusually cooler temperatures and rain. Perfect I thought. Good old British style racing weather.
Zane Grey however, doesn’t do anything halfheartedly it would seem.
We arrived late on Friday night after a quick flight down to Phoenix and a short drive up to Payson, stopping for obligatory cactus photos on route.
After a rubbish nights sleep, we dragged ourselves to the start line for the 5am start in what seemed like quite pleasant temperatures. Running in the rain is one thing, but hanging around at the start in the rain is another and I was certainly glad it had held off so far. Reports claimed that we would hit rain shortly after the start. They were not wrong.
The toughest, roughest, most beautiful 50 mile trail run in the country.
That’s how Zane Grey pitches itself.
Well this was the 25th running of Zane Grey which in my book basically guaranteed its toughness. 25 years ago there were no ergonomically designed backpacks, sports gels or fancy GPS watches. If you wanted to carry stuff, you brought a plastic bag. If you wanted to eat something you brought a sandwich. If you wanted to know how far you you’d run, the answer was simple, not far enough.
As far as roughest, well it certainly lived up to that too. I imagine there must be some kind of mountain troll living out there in Arizona, wandering around vomiting rocks and generally taking a perfectly nice and tidy trail and messing it all up for their personal amusement.
As for the beauty, I did see one of the more impressive sunrises in my life out there. Despite the thick layer of fog covering the Mogollon Rim, it provided an eerily stunning setting in which the rising sun glowed an incredible orange, the likes of which I’ll remember for some time. This was a time for that thing that was invented before the iPhone; your memory. No filters, comments or hashtags would do it justice. You really had to be there in the moment to truly appreciate it. Definitely a big highlight of the day for me.
As far as running goes, it was certainly a roller coaster of a day for me. I wouldn’t say I ever felt particularly great expect maybe on the uphills. The only problem was there weren’t enough of them and they weren’t big enough, which certainly sounds crazy given Zane’s reputation but trust me, if you live and train in Boulder, we run uphill…a lot.
My knees were taking a beating on the terrain as well, which kind of took me by surprise as I’ve not had any issues with that lately. Luckily they seemed to get better as the day went on. Unluckily the weather did the exact opposite.
It started as rain shortly after the start. When we were thoroughly soaked, it turned to sleet. When that got tiresome it moved onto hail. Throw in some escalating wind and things were really starting to get fun. Finally the weather gods said screw it and just opened the whole can of whoop ass on us with a full on snow blizzard. This was legit.
I genuinely was worried about my hands. After about 20 miles I could no longer use or in fact feel them. Luckily I was able to tuck both my Simple Hydration bottles into my shorts to free up my hands. I then tried in vein to reheat them by tucking them under my armpits or hitting them against my legs. At the 23.5 mile aid station the volunteers offered me some surgical gloves to put over my soaking wet racing gloves. My hands were so immobile that we couldn’t get them on however. I then tried to place them on a pot of soup that they were making. No joy. These suckers were toast. Luckily I only needed feet to get me to the end and they were still cooperating. I set off for the next 10 mile stretch with two frozen blocks on the end of my arms.
Even though my hands were toast I was starting to feel better overall and was moving along pretty well given the conditions. Perhaps too well at one point were I took a wrong turn and had to back track which cost me about 3 minutes or so. Nevertheless I plowed on-wards trying not to take too much of the trail with me with every stride. Seriously, the mud was intense. Every footstep seemed to grab a whole section of trail and relocate it several yards further down the trail. Maybe I was the troll? It really was a sloppy, wet, muddy, freezing mess. Proper trail running!
Finally after seeing a few volunteers out on the course I knew I was getting close to the aid station. I turned a corner and there below me I could see it.
Now, I’m pretty sure this is the only time in my racing career where this is going to happen but I came flying into the aid station to be told that this was the finish and I had won. Really? Seriously? I can stop!?
They had in fact informed us prior to the start that if things got nasty and the river crossings were dangerous then they would call it at the 33 mile mark instead of sending us along the modified and slightly shortened (46 miles) course down river. But I hadn’t seen any evidence of swollen rivers out there and given the rain had turned to snow I was fairly certain I’d have to carry my cold useless hands the extra distance. After stopping for a few mins however I could see that things were certainly getting worse. The wind was picking up the aid station tent and tossing it round like a plastic bag. The snow was getting worse and the temperatures continued to fall. It was absolutely the right call to make this the finish. I was actually pretty happy given the state of my hands but also because I was never really that excited to run the modified section which ended along a paved road. At least this way I got a real taste of the Zane Grey course and the distance came in at a respectable 33 miles. We could call it a 50K I guess.
The Zane Grey 50K.
Sounds almost like it was meant to be!
This race certainly lived up to its reputation. I can see why they dissuade beginners from attempting this race. It will eat you up and spit you out if you don’t give it the respect it deserves. The organization was flawless, especially given the forecast ahead of time and the escalating conditions on the day. The volunteers throughout were exceptional and some of the best aid stations I’ve been though. I hung out at the finish line afterwards and everyone was in great spirits. Coffee and soup was consumed by the bucket load, war stories were swapped and much laughing and self-flagellation was had by all. Definitely Type 2 kinda fun.
For more whimsical musings on the race, check out this great write up too.
As far as gear/stuff goes I used a new pair of Inov-8 Roclite 295’s. This was only the second time I’ve deviated from the 315’s in a trail race in several years (the first was a few weeks ago at the Behind the Rocks Ultra were I used the 245 Trailrocs). Overall the shoes were perfect which is what I’d expect from the Roclites. They really are the perfect trail running shoe. However, Inov-8 seem to have changed their laces in recent models and the new ones are terrible. I struggled all week trying to get them to work for me but I had major pain on the top of my foot and eventually switched to a wider and more cushioned lace which solved the problem immediately.
I used two Simple Hydration bottles which was actually overkill given the conditions. One would have been fine. If the weather had been the usual toasty temperatures then I was planning to pickup a pack at mile 17 to carry extra water for the longer stretches. I just bought the new Inov-8 Ultra Race Vest which I’m keen to test out. I noticed Nickademus Hollon was wearing it for the race but forgot to ask him what he thought of it.
I, of course, wore the outstanding and some would say, most beautiful race top ever crafted. Given the forecast I opted for the long sleeve edition which was actually enough for me as far as warmth. I opted for fairly light gloves which was my biggest mistake in terms of gear. I also listened to all the professionals and decided to road test a new pair of shorts which I had bought the day before. The Patagonia Strider Pro. Luckily these boy’s were legit. Maybe the best shorts I’ve ever used. Could always do with being slightly shorter though. With all these beards turning up at races these days I need really short shorts in order to compete.
Lastly, as far as nutrition goes, there wasn’t a lot of that happening unless you count snow. I had one gel early on before my hands went lame then had a a few pickings at the aid stations but nothing really to speak of. Luckily I made up for that after the race with some serious taco action followed by copious milkshake consumption. Sure beats a sports gel!