First off, the Highline Trail is 51 miles; and that last mile counts.
As long as I've been aware of ultramarathons, Zane Grey has been a race that I've wanted to do. While I feel that its self-proclamation of being the hardest 50 miler in the country isn't quite accurate (San Juan's climbing and altitude trumps the rocks of ZG, I think) it is probably the 2nd hardest and it has an infamous and historic point-to-point course that has attracted a lot of the country's top ultrarunning talent over the years. So, with a classic course and plenty of previous time standards to test myself against, I was lured in.
About 10 days before the race, Kyle and I went down to Pine, AZ (the starting point) to check out some of the course. After doing an out and back 25 miler from the starting line my emotions ranged from, on the way out: "My God, this is some kind of sick joke to hold a race on this pathetic, sorry excuse for a trail" to, on the way back: "I don't know, this is actually kind of fun..." With that introduction, though, I'd decided I'd seen enough.
Zane Grey was under new directorship this year. Perry Edinger stepped in to keep the race alive, and--much to my appreciation--decided to do what he could to invite and accommodate some top runners to this year's race. As a result, I was looking forward to running with some of the East Coast's finest--Bradley Mongold and Eric Grossman--along with former race winner Josh Brimhall. As it turned out, though, Grossman wouldn't be able to make it out because of a re-aggravated hamstring injury.
After much debate, I decided to not wear a headlamp for the race and was glad I didn't. Even with a 5am start, Arizona doesn't follow daylight savings time, so the sky was already lightening when Perry sent us on our way. I took the lead from the first step with Josh, Bradley, and James Bonnett right on my heels. Strangely, there didn't seem to be any flagging at all the first 17 miles of the course, so in the first few miles I relied on Josh's prior course knowledge--and my small preview--to keep us on the right path.
After a mile or so, Josh took over the lead, but then I was on point as we began the first substantial climb of the course. I remembered it being steep the week before, but race adrenaline made it seem not so bad. However, I definitely think I was a bit too aggressive for such an early point in the race. On the entire run over to the Geronimo aid station at mile 8 I felt awkward and uncomfortable, even though I was leading and setting the pace. The extra bulky shoes (Brooks ST Racers) I was wearing to protect my bruised foot just plain sucked. The extra midsole height provided padding and protection but it also drastically reduced my proprioceptive feedback, responsiveness in my footstrike, and ankle stability. Plus, they were a half-size too big. So it goes.
Not only did the shoes feel awkward, but I just felt like I was kind of forcing the pace, which is not the way I like to run so early in such a long race. I had a (very) small gap on Josh and irrationally I kind of wanted to maintain it. I cruised the nice piney section downhill into Geronimo, splashed across the creek (almost running into a photographer because my head was down negotiating the water), skipped the aid (split of 1:10), and started up the switchbacks leading out of the valley. As I was winding up the hill I expected to see Josh and Bradley right behind me but I'd somehow already opened a minute or so gap on them. That would be the last time I would seen any other runner the whole race (which made for a pretty lonely day).
On the next section over to Washington Park (17 miles) I just focused on running smoothly, comfortably, and efficiently. I was trying to make up for what I thought had been a little bit too quick of a first hour of running. The trail in this section actually wasn't too bad for a while. And then came a completely washed out gulley followed by a bunch of burn and downfalls where I completely lost the trail and was literally running around in circles in frustration trying to get back on track. Eventually I picked it back up, though, and cruised to the Washington Park aid in 2:34.
I'd taken my fourth gel right before the station, refilled my bottles and took my first salt cap as I was heading out. It wasn't hot at all yet (the day would top out at only 80 degrees or so), but I was sweating pretty good and wanted to stay on top of my electrolytes. It was during this section that I also saw at least two dozen elk (very cool) and the first of two rattlesnakes that I spontaneously jumped over because it was laid all the way across the trail (not so cool).
The next 7 mile section over to the remote Hell's Gate aid station went surprisingly quickly (I think it's probably a touch short). I just kept doing my thing: enjoying the technical challenge of the rocks and running as quickly and efficiently as possible on the smooth sections of trail (yes, there were some smoother sections out there). I filled my bottles again at Hell's Gate (3:37) in anticipation of the long 9 mile stretch over to Tonto Creek and kept on my way.
I think it was this section of the course that had a fair amount of downhill long grass-concealing-rocks surface that proved to be some of the most frustrating terrain of the whole day. Other than that, I don't remember much except for the unrelenting up and down nature of the trail and the fact that I was pretty happy to get to Tonto Creek (33 miles in 5:06) because after that I could mentally start feeling like I was in the home stretch. It definitely also began to get a bit hot in this section. I stopped to dunk my head at most creek crossings to conserve the water in my bottles.
Coming into Tonto Creek my legs still felt pretty good. I consistently had to remind myself to take it easy on the uphills and not waste extra energy trying to run too fast over the extremely technical terrain. Additionally, any time the trail would smooth out a bit my legs would take off and turn over by themselves. At the station itself I was sure to prepare for the long next stretch by drinking a full bottle of water and filling both my bottles before taking off again.
All of that pretty much ended after the 33 mile aid station. Pretty soon after the aid there were a couple of uphills that were such an incredible jumble of sandstone blocks that all I could do was laugh out loud as I picked my way up the hill. Even before I got to the biggest climb on the course at approximately the 35-36 mile point my legs were done. I had stopped trying to push it on the smooth sections and was mostly in "let's just get it done" mode.
Going up the ~1000' climb was actually nice at first because the trail was now completely back in the forest and out of the burn section, but it was also extremely frustrating for me because the trail was in much much better condition but I no longer had the reserves to really push the pace and take advantage of the improved footing. And then I actually had to walk the steeper sections of the climb. I know that walking is often an efficient mode of racing in mountain ultra events, but I hate to do it. I like running. I don't like walking.
But there really wasn't much else I could do at this point. I still ran the less steep sections of the ascent, but I was seriously losing momentum. In an attempt to get my energy back I took 3 gels within 45 minutes, an extra salt cap, and drank as much as possible. This all seemed to help and once the climb started descending things improved a bit.
I'd remembered someone saying at the pre-race briefing the night before that there would be some type of "emergency" aid at the 30, 37, and 40 mile marks, so I focused all of my energy on just getting to that supposed 40 mile mark. I ran everything up until I reached those folks at 6:17 where I filled one of my water bottles because I was almost out. From there it was just more of the same all the way to the Christopher Creek aid although I do remember there being a bunch of downfall trees in this section. Multiple, fully-branched trees would cover the course at times and I would waste time and energy bushwhacking around them and trying not to lose the always-sketchy path.
Finally, I saw the vehicles down at the 44 mile aid and that instantly put a little extra pep into my legs on the downhill leading into the station, which I reached in 7:00. I took a minute to refill both bottles at the station, grab a couple extra gels, hear that I had an hour lead, and then took off down the homestretch of trail.
I was relieved to hear that I had such a big lead, but that really did nothing to motivate me to try and push for a sub-8hr finish. I'd had Dave Mackey's 7:51:04 course record in mind when I left Tonto Creek, but the big climb and my subsequent rough spot of the day took most of my motivation away. Along with the fact that someone at the final aid told me it was actually 7 miles to the finish and not 6. Ugh.
Either way, I still thought I had a chance at a sub-8hr/2nd fastest time during this last stretch but it was incredibly difficult to motivate. Essentially, I wussed out and just settled into a survival ultra shuffle that I usually only break out during 100 mile races. I ran into Karsten Solheim with his chainsaw still clearing the last few miles of the course and almost immediately after that tripped for the first time all day but caught myself from face-planting by landing a water-bottled hand on a huge boulder and thereby emptying the bottle all over the trail.
Unfortunately, the last major climb adjacent to the creek bed really took some of the wind out of my sails and I was relegated to walk a couple more steep stretches as I downed another gel. I was really kind of out of it. Any time that I tried to motivate myself with the thought of a sub-8hr finish I could never come up with any other response than, "Man, I just really don't freakin' care." This is (obviously) pretty typical in the late stages of a long and arduous ultra, but it's disappointing to me because the one time I've had competition in the late stages of an ultra (Red Hot Moab 50K back in February) I was psyched to see how my body was able to respond surprisingly effectively even though I'd felt pretty cashed and complacent at that point, too. This is definitely a point on which either having a pacer or having some competition breathing down my neck would clearly make a big difference.
So. After what seemed like forever (and many miles of comparatively beautifully smooth trail) I finally heard cars on the highway and knew I would live to run another day. However, the night before Karsten had said that you still have 1 to 1.5 miles left when you can hear the highway so I just continued jogging along until all of a sudden, barely 50 yards away was the finish line banner. I immediately, instinctively kicked it into a respectable running pace and finished in 8:02:33.
Boy, I was done. I immediately plopped down in a chair in the shade, happy that was over with. This was a marked contrast to AR where I finished with tons of energy and had no problem at all getting in a 10 minute cooldown. Here, I just wanted to stop moving NOW. After a couple bottles of water, though, I felt a lot better and, of course, was able to start being (only a tiny bit) disappointed about not breaking 8 hours.
All in all, though, I was pretty psyched on my race. I'm now pretty confident in my technical skills as I rarely felt outmatched by the course's footing. I would've felt even more surefooted and comfortable in my New Balance 790s instead of the boats I was forced to wear.
Unfortunately, most of my competitors had less-than-stellar route-finding days. Josh dropped after getting off course for 20 or so minutes and 2nd place John Anderson (9:30ish overall time) and 3rd place Bradley Mongold (another 10-20 minutes back) both got off course for 15-20 minutes together much earlier on in the race. Josh--who was 2nd last year, and won the year before--said the course was by far in the worst condition he'd ever seen it and that there were way way more downed trees than in years past. I thought that was funny because I felt like some of the worst downed tree sections came after the 33 mile aid station where he dropped out. Either way, I'm happy with my race but would enjoy an opportunity to run the course under 2004 conditions (the year Dave and Nikki set the course records).
I can't say that I'll be back, but I definitely enjoyed running the race and was especially grateful for the aid station volunteers' wonderful assistance all day and race director Perry Edinger's gracious hospitality all weekend.
Finally, if anyone has any decent pictures from the race, I'd love to have a couple for posterity.