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November 9, 2010

Zion Rim to Rim Run Report

“I can't believe that we would lie in our graves wondering if we had spent our living days well –
I can't believe that we would lie in our graves dreaming of things that we might have been.”
- Dave Matthews Band, “Lie in Our Graves” (video after post)

This really isn’t the kind of thing I normally do.

I mean … OK, yes – going on a long, crazy run somewhere and taking a bunch of pictures for a ridiculously lengthy report actually is something I’ve done with increasing frequency, but this particular case still managed to bend a lot of the rules. When it comes to traveling across three states, or leaving my family behind for a weekend just so I can have a childlike faraway adventure, that’s not something I typically (or for that matter, want to) make a habit of doing.

But this particular adventure was different. It was in Zion National Park, which I’ve heard about for years but never visited. All of the logistics, including transportation and course support, were arranged by Stacy at Wilderness Running Company, meaning I’d never have an easier opportunity to enjoy such an epic run; basically, all I had to do was get my butt to Southern Utah with a pair of running shoes, and he took care of everything else.

Finally – and this may be a symptom of my getting older – I’ve had this increasing notion recently that I shouldn’t let great opportunities like this pass me by. I don’t want to look back someday and wonder if I spent my living days appreciating the world around me, the blessings I’ve been given, or the people who shared the journey – and I don’t want to wistfully dream of things that might have been.

So that’s how I found myself in a rented van with five other people, driving in the dark to a remote trailhead on the western side of Zion National Park last Saturday morning. It’s also a good launching point for our photo report.

(And as usual, click to enlarge any of these pics - they're much better that way.)

The plan for four of us (two others were doing a shorter option) was to do a 32-mile “mini-traverse” of the park: climb to the West Rim, plunge down 3000’ to the valley floor, then drag ourselves up and over the East Rim to the park’s opposite boundary. It had the makings of a long day, which is why we started at first light. And when I mentioned all of the arrangements that Stacy made beforehand, I forgot to mention the killer sunrise he ordered for us. I thought that was a nice touch.

We set out from an area called Wildcat Canyon, which had a nice variety of rolling terrain …

… before starting a long steady climb toward the West Rim. The average elevation along this stretch was more than 7000’, which might have explained why I was getting a little bit short of breath …

… or maybe it was simply the breathtaking views we started seeing off to our right.

The geologic diversity of Zion is evident right off the bat: some landmarks are flattened, some are eroded into cones, others are jagged and irregular. Some are deep red, others are light brown or stark white. And whatever the variety, they’re all quite mesmerizing.

The landmarks also rise up quite steeply from the valley floor, as our occasional glimpses of the canyon below demonstrated clearly.

Our “Fab Four” group for the day consisted of me, Gretchen, Stacy, and Jamie. The girls are both outstanding ultrarunners, but thankfully this was a “no egos” run from the very first step, so they were happy to slow down to hang with the guys. In fact, calling our pace “casual” is something of an understatement; is there a term for “moving at a comfortable pace for everyone, taking walking breaks whenever the conversation gets really good, and stopping at every scenic spot for extended gawking and photo sessions”? If so … that’s the word to describe our group’s mentality on the run.

Continuing along the rim, we enjoyed some great views of Phantom Valley …

… before starting a very long descent down to Zion's floor.

This canyon is an almost acoustically perfect echo chamber; we probably spent more time than we needed to bouncing our “Woo-Hoo!”s off the rock walls on three sides of us, but it was a very cool effect. And, as I mentioned, it’s not like we were in a hurry or anything.

Much of the footing in Zion is significantly more challenging than what I’ve experienced in California; at various points we encountered sharply jagged lava rock, steeply sloped granite faces, or large, loosely packed rocks like the ones pictured here. It was a significant challenge with the minimalist footwear I wore (revealed shortly) – but aside from paying closer attention than usual to the irregularities underfoot, I didn’t have any shoe-related problems all day long …

… especially when the trail opened up to an exposed rock face that predictably turned into another goofing-around photo spot.

We still had a lot of downhill to cover, however, and it became harder and harder to keep our eyes on the trail …

… when we started getting glimpses of the Zion Valley floor in the distance below.

This is Angels Landing, a half-mile detour off the main trail, and one of the most ominous yet popular tourist destinations in Zion. You reach the top by climbing across the narrow spine of the rock …

… which, as this sign will inform you, has resulted in more than a few people falling to their deaths. The death sign didn’t seem to faze anybody, however, as this rock was literally crawling with hikers – by this point including Gretchen and me.

Your route up to the landing consists mainly of a length of chain set into the rock …

… and it’s up to you to make your way around the lollygaggers as you work your way up the narrow spine. The two-way traffic that shares a single chain along this stretch has the potential to get fairly congested …

… but the views at the top are definitely worth it, whether you’re sharing them with a good friend …

… or just contemplating the world while your feet dangle over the edge. Two other points are worth mentioning about this picture:

1) Those are my shoes, the VivoBarefoot Evo II, which I’ll be formally reviewing here in a few weeks. It’s a high compliment to say I had absolutely no hesitation in using them on what I knew would be a highly technical, extremely challenging, potentially dangerous outing like this – and a high endorsement to report that they performed wonderfully. Also …

2) Remember “Lie in Our Graves”, the DMB song that introduced this post? Another verse from it asks “Would you not like to be/ Sitting on top of the world with your legs hanging free?” So it’s not much of a surprise that it got stuck in my head for the rest of the run.

We still had many miles to cover, however, so we made our way back down the steep slope of Angel’s Landing …

… and Walter’s Wiggles, perhaps the most famous set of switchbacks in America …

… and all the way down the serpentine plunge that looked more like a water park slide than a trail sometimes. This was probably the most enjoyable part of the run, because we were cruising smoothly downhill …

… into beautiful Zion Canyon, where the fall colors were just starting to pop …

… and directly to an enormous lunch spread that Stacy and his wife had set up for us. Since the day was all about being mellow, we didn't treat this as a typical ultra aid station stop; we made full sandwiches, had chips and drinks and other snacks, and sat around for at least a half-hour talking about all the sights we had seen thus far. It was one of those moments you wish could last forever, but we knew it couldn’t …

… because we still had to climb back up and over this thing before our run was finished.

So eventually we shuffled away from the lunch table and headed about 1 mile up the road …

… and began the long trek up the East Rim trail, which started with a solid five miles of steep uphill.

The colors in this area of the park were brilliant, which was a nice distraction …

… from the fact that this trail was pretty much kicking all of our butts.

About halfway up the climb, you take your last look into Zion Canyon …

… before entering a seriously narrow section of trail carved by a very thin but extremely determined creek in the depths below.

Once we exited the canyon, I was glad Gretchen and Stacy were in front of me, because I had no idea where the trail went from here. Long stretches were essentially a random scramble across the sandstone …

… which served a s brief reprieve from the lung-burning steepness of the top portion of the climb.

The final uphill miles took their toll on me, and by the time I reached the 3-mile downhill stretch towards the East Rim trailhead, my legs were feeling fairly beat up. I ran these miles alongside Gretchen, who earlier in the day had explained how she intentionally slows down in the final miles of long runs like this, just to make the experience last a little bit longer. She was running slow to stretch out the moment; I was running slow because I didn’t have any choice. We made a good team that way.

I have to say that I understood what Gretchen meant, though …

… because once I saw the trailhead marking the end of the run, I had this brief flash of disappointment – Wait - it’s over? – followed by a sudden urge to remember as many details of the last 10 hours as I could.

So of course, I kept taking pictures – such as this one of the happy group at trail’s end …

… or this gaggle of like-minded shutterbugs gathered at a bridge on the main road out of the park. They weren’t ultrarunners – just photography geeks setting up to capture the sights around them …

… such as the Virgin River bending through the valley below …

… or the rock called The Watchman soaking up the last beams of the sunset high above. Darkness eventually settled on him, as it did on us, and we had to be on our way.

The Watchman would wake up to another day in Zion tomorrow; the rest of us had to be content with the one that we just finished. Fortunately, it was a day spent as well as I could have possibly hoped from every standpoint: beautiful autumn weather, an amazing run in an incredible park, and a wonderful experience with people who could appreciate it all just as much as I did.

Whether it all happens again remains to be seen, but I’m more than happy that I grabbed this opportunity, so I don’t have to wonder anymore what might have been.

Dave Matthews Band, "Lie in Our Graves", live in Chicago (click to play):

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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Johann 11/10/10, 6:39 AM  

That is absolutely amazing! Thanks for sharing this fantastic adventure.

jen 11/10/10, 6:54 AM  

Wow. Breathtaking is right! What an amazing experience. I would love to run there someday!

Turi 11/10/10, 6:55 AM  

Inspiring pictures...

Kate 11/10/10, 8:05 AM  

Oh! Oh! That is my running song! When I step into the light. That's how I felt the first time I really ran. I had stepped into something incredible and I wanted to soak it all up. It's the perfect song for your trip, but it's my day to day running song. The one that reminds me to keep going and searching.

The Dude 11/10/10, 8:24 AM  

Awesome post and kind of reminds me of my R2R2R I did in May. I agree that when an opportunity like this comes up, you gotta jump on it. (Like me leaving my family and traveling over 2,000 miles with a friend for the 2011 Big Sur marathon!) The picture of your feet dangling made me nauseous though...

cheryl 11/10/10, 9:15 AM  

Stunning pics, Donald. I've always wanted to run there. Thanks for sharing. It's now on my list!

Andy 11/10/10, 11:49 AM  

You've recorded really well what makes Zion so beautiful. Just a shame the narrows isn't really "runnable".

Stacy,  11/10/10, 3:44 PM  

As usual, both your prose and photos really captured the day. I agree, the photo of your feet dangling off Angel's Landing is crazy. Anyway, thanks so much for coming out to run and for memorializing it so well afterward! Something tells me there will be other occasions for us to share a great day on the trail. Somewhere, sometime.

Peace, Karen 11/10/10, 5:22 PM  

That must have been an incredible experience. Thanks for sharing it!


Anne 11/11/10, 5:35 AM  

Haven't been to Zion in about 10 years and your post made me want to go back and explore the areas I haven't seen and maybe ... just maybe ... climb that chain for the views. Thanks, Donald.

Carrie 11/11/10, 8:06 AM  

Spectacular! Take me with you next time...you be the guide.

olga 11/11/10, 9:17 AM  

Absolutely totally wonderful that you took on this opportunity and din't let it pass by! Gorgeous run, I remember parts of it. Need to do again:)

Al D. 11/13/10, 7:58 PM  

Thank you so much for the incredible photos and amazing description of your run. But, most of all, thank you for including total strangers into your adventures. Can't wait to read the book.

chirunner 11/15/10, 9:44 AM  

What a great post and photos! I just visited Zion in early September and loved it. We toured it from the road and your photos of Angel's Landing shows a much scarier ascent than even the driver described. Thanks for showing me another beautiful view of Zion National Park.

Laurie 11/18/10, 9:04 PM  

My computer screen is quite tiny yet your pictures made me dizzy! What a beautiful run.

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