Back in my day, I ran 13.1 miles, uphill, into the wind, and in the snow! Ok, well, the snow was on the ground surrounding the race course, and it was just this past Saturday.
Let me tell you about Zion.
This past weekend, I participated in the Vacation Races Zion National Park half marathon. Both my husband and I had never been to Zion, but had decided at the end of last year that we wanted to visit every National Park as part of our travel goals. We love camping, used to hike a lot (pre-kids), and I’ve been bit by the trail running bug, so this seemed like a nice fit for lifetime goals. When I found the Vacation Race series and their runs that take place at various National Parks, I knew it was a match made in heaven. Seeing that this would be the centennial of the park made it an even more pressing reason to make the trip happen in 2019.
I trained for this race as part of my training for the Antelope Canyon 50 miler, so honestly, I wasn’t too concerned about the mileage or much else. But as the race date approached I realized something that I had not factored into this plan: the weather. The forecast leading up to the race was not promising. Snow and extra cold temperatures were forecasted (and happening) all week. Vacation Races was regularly posting updates on the Facebook event page and through emails to the participants. This trip would be our first vacation together since becoming parents 5 years ago, so nothing was going to keep us from going. Being in Raleigh, I had never run in temperatures much lower than 20 degrees, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and how the predicted forecast would actually feel. I packed a ton of layers and we left for Las Vegas on Thursday morning.
After arriving in snow-covered Vegas and spending some time with my sister (who lives there), we headed out to Zion first thing on Friday morning. We were worried that there would be road closures and other delays due to the weather, but we had a pretty smooth drive. Having grown up on the West Coast and visited Vegas many times, I realized that we had never really seen many of the natural wonders that are so close by. I saw the Grand Canyon as a child, but that was it! Driving into the mountains as we approached Utah was pretty incredible. I had never thought that the desert could be that beautiful but I was stunned by how amazing the landscapes were. Maybe it’s the huge contrast to tree covered North Carolina, but I was blown away.
We arrived in Zion just before 11am and were able to check into our hotel early. The Cable Mountain Lodge was beautiful and was both the location of the finish line and is at the base of the entrance to Zion National Park. We could enter the park directly from walking out of our hotel room and through the parking lot. We pulled up and passed the Vacation Race crew setting up the finish line and expo. We would be checking in for our volunteer shifts shortly, so we quickly set out to find a bite to eat.
When signing up for the race, there was an option to also volunteer for various positions in exchange for race credits with Vacation Races. As I am running Antelope Canyon in two weeks, plan on doing Smokey Mountains in September, and overall have my heart set on a few others, this seemed like a great idea. Having also participated in quite a few races at this point, I also liked the thought of being able to help out in the actual running of these events that I love so much. So we signed up for two roles: I would be supporting the registration process and James would be manning the s’mores station. The latter seemed like the perfect job for my social husband, who can also make a mean s’more.
We grabbed some food to-go from Cafe Soleil and checked into our positions. There was a little down-time before we got our instructions so we chatted with the other volunteers and did a little pre-race shopping. They had so many great designs for shirts, hoodies, hats, mugs, etc. to choose from, but I stuck with a Vacation Races hoodie with a rainbow print.
After that, we both settled into our roles and it was non-stop from there! The registration line seemed to move quickly though it was non-stop. I hadn’t realized how many participants the race had but it was so much fun taking part in that side of the experience. Meeting other runners and having quick conversations about where they were coming in from and those that were doing their first half or first visit to Zion (like myself!). The time flew by and aside from one small adventure where the portable heater behind me caught fire, it was uneventful. Side note: I don’t do well around uncontrolled fires.
Before I knew it, our shifts were over and we were eager to make a quick trip into the park. We weren’t going to have much time to explore as we were leaving first thing on Sunday morning, so I wanted to get every minute in there that we could. We quickly set off for one of the shorter hikes: Canyon Overlook Trail. We entered the park and paid the car admission fee; it was valid for 7 days so great to know if taking a longer trip! It was close to sunset when we started on the trail, and a few hikers warned us that the trail was very icy and slippery. We proceeded with caution in our newly acquired hiking boots. We had picked them up at the Columbia outlet when we arrived in Vegas and I’m so glad we did! We saw so many people slipping in their sneakers on some very icy trails and we only had a couple of minor slips.
Along the path we saw a herd of big horned sheep. It was so neat seeing them up close as they gracefully made their way along the edge of the mountain. Then, we approached the overlook. It was breathtaking! I hadn’t know. What to expect with Zion but it far surpassed every expectation in that moment. We took it all in and then slowly made our way back to the car, talking about how incredible this park was.
After our hike, we went to pick up an early dinner at the Whiptail Grill and went straight to bed. I was going to be waking up at 4am for a 5am shuttle pickup time!
The next morning, I bundled up in my fleece lined pants, Athleta scuba shirt, BibRave tank, and a windbreaker type jacket. I knew I’d get hot once I started moving but warnings about windchill made me want to keep out as much of that cold before I got warmed up. I also had gloves, Hot Hands, a beanie, and a buff. All of these items would be invaluable! Once I was assembled and with my hydration pack worn under my jacket (a tip I had read to keep it from freezing), I headed to the hotel lobby to await the shuttle.
A crowd of us were gathered in the lobby a quarter till 5 and one of the organizers from Vacation Races started to direct us to the shuttles. I had missed the directions about picking up a shuttle wristband but they were prepared and had a list for those of us that had pre-purchased the shuttles but weren’t able to pick them up at packet pickup. I boarded the warm bus and chatted with a lady from Wisconsin about our excitement over the race.
Our drive to the start line took us about 20 minutes and was essentially the entire race course; the highway that goes from Virgin, Utah into Springdale and the park entrance. We instantly made our way to the giant warming tents with a stop to grab some hot chocolate being served just outside. Once inside the tent, it was considerably warmer and they kept us entertained with music and a steady raffle of items for race participants. Sadly, no winnings for me but it was a nice way to kill time before being ushered out by corral into the starting area.
The weather at the start line was around 11 degrees but what I hadn’t factored in was windchill. Our announcer was greeted with a groan as she explained that not only is this a 13.1 mile race of pretty much all incline, but that we would be running into the headwind for the entirety of the race. She wasn’t kidding. Alright, let’s just do this!
Once my corral set loose, I could finally start to warm up my limbs. I was most concerned about my feet which were not happy with all of the standing around I had been doing non those freezing temps. They warmed up pretty quickly and by mile five I was finally able to take off my windbreaker. But I was torn about my buff. The wind was definitely biting and I was constantly in a state of being too cold on my face, to not being able to breathe with my buff because of the stark contrast in my temps. The constant incline also wasn’t too horrible. Living in a hilly city like Raleigh was definitely an advantage, but at mile seven there was a bigger incline to tackle and my legs and upper body were having a hard time with the cold and wind. I felt like I was leaning forward the entire time as I pushed into it and my lower back was aching by the second half of the race. I was slowing down, a lot, and couldn’t get past the mental hurdle of being so cold and moving my heavy limbs.
The thing that kept me going? Well mainly it was knowing that there would be nothing but warmth when i crossed that finish line. But I also went into this race knowing that:
1. This was never going to be a PR. I was here for the experience so I was just going to enjoy the beauty of my surroundings. Whenever it got so tough, I made sure to look up and absorb where I was. I was in Zion and the views for the entire race were ridiculous!
2. This is my taper week. Just like in training for an ultra, this was about time on my feet and being mentally tough. So I repeated my mantra for this race of ‘its just 13.1 miles, you can do this!’ and ‘you’re in Zion for godsakes!’ and just kept moving forward.
Soon enough, we were in Springdale and I was recognizing all of the local hotels and restaurants that we had driven past the day before. Less than 2 miles to go! Of course I had that dreaded moment of seeing the mile 12 marker and saying ‘wait, wasn’t the last one the mile 12 marker?!’ but again, it meant just a few minutes were between me and the finish line.
The crowd started to gather as the finishers approached the chute and it was such a welcome sight! I crossed the timing mats and was handed my gorgeous medal. James was waiting for me at the finish line and i picked up my snack box, banana, and chocolate milk and then met up with him. We took a quick sweep of the finish area and grabbed a photo by the park entrance but then it was back to the room for the best hot shower of my life. Wow, amazing what warmth could do! Once I could feel my face and toes again, I was a happy camper. I perked right up and we set off to grab an early lunch at Oscars Cafe in Springdale.
The food at Oscars was tasty and the post-race local beer hit the spot. Once again, we headed back to the hotel and prepped to head into the park. We showed our car entry receipt to the ranger station and were waved in to catch the shuttle. We knew we didn’t have a ton of time for a super long hike so after chatting with the ranger we picked a couple of shorter options. I was disappointed to hear that the Narrows were closed but with all of the snow and ice, it just wasn’t safe to go in. So we took the shuttle to the Riverwalk Trail and made it to the ‘closed’ gate. The views were still incredible and a few people were jumping the gate… but we were watching as icicles and mini avalanches happened on the steep, snow covered cliffs and decided that we didn’t need to be on the news later should something go horribly wrong. So we made our way to our next trail, the Emerald Pools. Similar situation with the longer trails being closed due to treacherous trails, but the Lower Pools were still really amazing to see. Especially considering the park so rarely experiences these type of weather conditions.
After a bit more hiking, we made our way back to town for an early dinner. Amazing how famished you can be after a half and hiking a few hours! But we stopped at MeMe’s Cafe for another delicious meal, and then headed back to our hotel to pack. We were going to have another 4am wake up call. Thank goodness for staying on East Coast time for this trip!
The drive back to Las Vegas was uneventful and we were able to arrive back in Raleigh before dinner. It was a whirlwind weekend but it left us eager to get out to experience other National Parks and get the family out to hike our own local trails. Less than two weeks now before the Antelope Canyon 50 miler and this trip has only built my excitement about getting back out to Utah and Arizona. I don’t know how much hiking we will want to do after that race but I hope we can at least see a little bit more of the area when we are driving through it.
After Antelope Canyon, I’ll have a very brief break before I participate in my next race: the Blue Ridge Mountain Half Marathon! This was an unexpected race to pop up on my calendar but I couldn’t pass up the chance to check out a new place (Roanoake, VA), especially when I won an entry! I’ll post some more about that race soon.
Some prep that paid off:
Running in lower temps that were so cold that my Garmin recorded the race as 2 degrees (I imagine mostly due to windchill), there were a couple of clear winners in my prep.
1. Wearing my hydration pack and tube under my jacket. I actually had a woman ask me about 10 miles in if my tube had frozen. My pack had been covered by my windbreaker for the first half of the race so it had actually never frozen like hers had. She was wearing the same pack and said hers had been frozen before we even started running! I had also blown the water our of my tube before we began so between those two things, I thankfully had access to my water pack the entire time.
2. Hot Hands! This was an after thought but even with my warmest gloves, I’ve had my fingers get a little chilly on some of my 20-30 degree runs. The hot hands stayed in my gloves the entire race. As long as my hands were happy, I was generally happy!
3. Layers! And a place to store them. The windbreaker was another winner in my book and it packed down easily to fit in my hydration pack halfway through the race. The race was great about having a drop spot 3 miles in to shed your starting layers, but at about mile 4, I was still cold as we rounded a corner that brought on big gusts of wind. I was glad to have my jacket still on at that time and would have been bummed to have shed it a mile before. I know some people aren’t a fan or running with packs but I find it’s most useful in extreme weather situations. I can use it to store layers or extra fuel, even if I decide not to carry water on a run.
I hope you enjoyed this recap of both the race and our trip. Let me know if there’s anything else that you’d like to know about this race or the trip to Zion.
You can read my race specific review of the Vacation Races Zion Half Marathon on BibRave.com.