It’s all Scott’s fault, really.
Months ago we were talking and he informed me that he and Matt were going to try a Zion Double Crossing and asked if I wanted to come along. Always up for a good adventure, I quickly replied that I would love to join. And then he said those fateful words: “hey, you should do a triple”. Dammit Scott, now the idea was in my head and within minutes I was mentally committed. And by the end of the weekend we had it planned.
Like I said, it’s all Scott’s fault.
So here’s how it was meant to play out. On Friday, May 1st, I would begin a solo crossing starting at 5am (which really turned out to be more like 6:20am). That crossing would potentially be unsupported or at least have only support at Hopp Valley. I would try and complete that crossing in roughly 11.5 hours, at which point I would begin heading back with Scott and Matt starting at 5pm as they begin the first leg of their double crossing. Finally, with roughly a 12 hour timeframe set for that crossing, we’d hit the east entrance at about 5am on Saturday and potentially fall in line with a larger group of Wasatch Mountain Wranglers who were doing a single crossing the same weekend. That would equate to 146 miles and about 26,000 feet of vert for me. Seems simple, right?
For all of that to pan out each crossing would have to go like clock-work; no mistakes, no low points, no issues. We left Salt Lake City at 9pm on the Thursday evening prior to starting, which meant I would have little access to sleep prior to starting my run. Although I had an opportunity to sleep in the van, little came, thanks to the stress of my upcoming endeavor. When we did arrive at a camp spot at 2:30am it was all-hands on deck to get a tent up and get whatever sleep I could before having to run only four hours later.
Three hours later I woke surprisingly refreshed and ready to run. With a quick countdown at 6:20am I was off from the East Rim trailhead. Late enough I didn’t need a headlamp I had the please of watching the rising sun paint the sky pink, then pale blue. Then, as the sun crested the horizon the alpenglow of the morning warmed the red and white cliffs of Zion’s east side. Only three miles in and I was in my element, truly at home being alone in the park. The only problem was that my legs didn’t have the energy I would have expected, considering the rest and taper I had taken before the run. I brushed it off as just needing to warm up and pushed on.
I have a knack for running downhill. Even at the worst of times things just come together. My legs loosen up and I begin to feel a freedom and flow that I can’t get anywhere else. So it was as I descended into the Echo Canyon. My mind opened up to my surroundings and I got lost in thought. If I didn’t know the trail so well I’m afraid that I may have gotten physically lost, so buried in my euphoria was I that I was oblivious to where my body was going. Except my legs. Now 8 miles in and what should should be now fully worked and light as a bird, my legs were still heavy and ran on hard dirt and slickrock like it was sand. My will and good mood were all that kept them moving forward at any reasonable pace.
My initial split goal was to get to the Grotto, mile 12, in 2:30. I arrived in 2:03. With my heavy legs and multitude of stops to take pictures and video, I would have thought I’d need to run much faster to get there in 2:30, so to be there a half hour early was a real surprise. What I then realized was that when you’re not slowed down by having additional people to run with (not that the people I run with are slow, instead running in a group inherently slows the pace for a multitude of reasons) the simple consistency of pace allows you to move for efficiently and faster. Humored by speed I attempted to take a little extra time to prepare for the climb ahead. I took less than 5 minutes and I was gone.
On the way up to Angel’s Landing I was vocally telling myself to slow down. With my heavy legs I wasn’t about to wear them out on the climb. But I still kept passing people and with being in such a good mood I still made it to Scout Overlook in a very quick time. I approached at a job to the clapping of a group of hikers above. I turned up towards the West Rim and continued on my journey. If they only knew how far I had to go still.
I love switchbacks. Most people detest them. But there is something about the constant return, seeing the same sights in a new light, then doing it again and again, always knowing how far you’ve gone and how far you have yet to go. The climb to Cabin Springs is one of these places where I find exceptional joy and peace. By this point in the run it is unlikely that you will see more than one or two people within any given mile, so it felt as though the trail and canyon were my own. Arriving at Cabin Springs I noticed the normally small flow was just now a trickle, with only a small pool under it held in place by carefully lodged rocks. I had told everyone else running that weekend that they need to make sure they took along a water bottle to fill their hydration reservoirs since it was likely they wouldn’t be able to get the reservoir placed properly enough to draw water without getting dirt in it. So was the case of Cabin Springs. It was at this moment that I realized I had forgotten a water bottle. I attempted to refill my reservoir by dipping it in the small pool, but all this did was take my already 40oz of warm water and reduce it down to 20oz of cool water, not nearly enough to get me to Wildcat Springs, nearly 10 miles away. Scrambling for options I remembered the waterproof case I had for my Sony Action Cam. Dip by dip, 4oz at a time, I filled my reservoir until I was comfortable that I had enough to make it the nearly 10 miles to Wildcat Springs.
The West Rim Trail is long and exposed. Other than a couple of small and steeper climbs it is the easiest section of trail along the route, with mostly buffed out rollers until you get to Lava Point. However, it also tends to be quite hot with little shade. The little bit of wind tends to dry up sweat, creating more dehydration, instead of cooling and providing any real support. My heavy legs along this section reached a whole new weight, something I can only relate to in astronomical figures. My focus zeros in on nothing but my form and making sure I don’t start risking injury. Underlying it all is a sense of optimism that it will get better. That if I can just get to Lee Pass and turn around with my friends in the cooler evening air it will all come back. This focus draws me away from my actual awareness of what’s really happening to me, an escalating wave of heat exhaustion. As I make the turn onto the Wildcat Trail I can feel the coolness of the spring getting close, although still 2 miles away. My vision begins to narrow and even though I can tell I’m getting delirious I’m making little to no effort to address. I’ve lost the conscious ability to make that decision. Instead, I laugh at myself and my predicament, knowing exactly where I am and unwilling to correct it. Just before getting to the spring I pass several hikers who had stopped to filter water in a lower pool (an intermittent spring that fills there). We chat about what they are doing and what I’m doing. I become aware that my words don’t come easily and they are a bit slurred. How could I have let myself get to this point?
A minute later and I’m refilling at Wildcat Spring. I cover my head in water and refill my reservoir. I force myself to drink and eat until I feel almost sick from the amount, then press on. I walk to the top of the hill and begin to make my way down towards the Connector Trail. I love this section. Normally, even when extremely tired, I enjoy opening it up and allowing my legs to push the pace. Not today though. There is no ‘push’ in regards to my pace. The effort it takes to move my lead-lined legs is equivalent to running faster. That day, all day, it was just about moving forward.
The connector trail is a frequently overlooked section of the Traverse that rarely gets any press. However, in my opinion, it is some of the best single single track running along the whole course. Rolling over grasses and through trees, down slickrock and then across the vast field toward the pavement with the amazing aspect of Zion to the east is nothing short of breathtaking. It is also the first real place along the course where you get cell service again. I made a couple of calls to people for motivation and got just what I needed. I rolled into the Hopp Valley parking lot feeling mentally strong and ready to push to the finish of my first crossing. My stomach was a little off because of the dehydration and I was tired of water so I asked Matt if I could pilfer some of his Tailwind. After several minutes of eating and drinking I took off in good spirits.
But it wasn’t long before I could feel the awkwardness of the tailwind in my stomach. I’ve run with it on many occasions and never had any issues, but this was different. Due to the sourness of my stomach stopped eating gels or real food of any kind. I was still getting my calories through the Tailwind, but it wasn’t enough and I got to the point where every swallow nearly caused vomiting, which meant I was lacking in calories and water. I dropped in to LaVerkin Creek feeling hot and sat in the cool stream. My legs, while still heavy, felt better than they had all day. I continued for another two miles, hot and lacking energy. I told myself that I would soak my whole body in the water before turning up the trail toward Lee Pass.
As I approached the turn I removed my vest and walked to the waters edge. There were hikers there eating and relaxing. I asked if I could join them and then preceded to drop to my knees and literally crawl into a pool of water. I laid in it, face down, until I needed to breath, at which point I rolled to my back and just soaked. The hikers looked confused and humored, so I obliged their curiosity with an explanation, to which they sat in awe.
When I got up the strength to continue I finally felt cooled and ready to move. I knew I sill had a good cushion on my goal time, so I took it easy all the way to the finish. Jennilyn met me on the trail with about a quarter mile left. It was nice to see a close friend to come out to meet me. We continued to the parking lot together where I told the crew I needed a proper rest and sat and tried to eat. Feeling as beat up as I was only a third of the way in concerned me, but I was also confident that if I could just take some extra time to rest I’d be able to leave and hopefully start feeling better.
After about 40 minutes Matt, Jennilyn, Scott, and I took off. Tara would drive the van and meet us at Hopp Valley. Immediately, I had a stitch in my side and I found myself falling back. Then my stomach turned sour again (and the stitch was still there). They would wait, then I would fall back. Finally, the lingering heat of the day started to set in once again. They would wait, then I would fall back. This started to get into my head. All I really wanted was to be alone. But now I was feeling like I was holding Scott and Matt back on their double crossing. I started to feel responsible for our pace and the weight of that and the physical condition I was in was reeking havoc on my psyche. By the time we made the climb out of LaVerkin Creek I had completely withdrawn and was on the verge of a mental break. We stopped to rest and I stood bent over, hands on knees. Scott tried to cheer me up and that was the trigger for the breakdown. I pushed the boys away and walked over to a boulder where I proceeded to have a complete meltdown. Jennilyn stayed to support me and eventually she was able to get me stabilized and moving.
A mile or so into Hopp Valley we caught up with the boys. I was sufficiently wrecked. I couldn’t run anything with an incline and the parts I could run resulted with me having a debilitating cramp in my side, forcing me to a walk again. The climb out of the valley seemed like it went on forever. The lack of calories and heat exhaustion had reduced me to a pile of rubble. With a mile to go before getting to the parking lot my stomach gave up and I started retching. But I didn’t actually throw up, regardless of how hard I tried. We had been walking for more than an hour and I couldn’t do anything but walk it into the car. In my head I was done. Unless I could rebound, I was done.
Scott had been complaining of shin splints the last few miles and was leaning towards quitting too. I was beating myself up for knowing I had contributed to Matt and Scott’s slow pace and potential stopping. Ultimately, Scott made his own decision, one that would mean he could go on running injury free for the foreseeable future. But Matt was ready to run; he was trained and rested and strong and it crushed me that he was going to have to stop without me and Scott able to continue on.
Ultimately, we make decisions that will preserve our own safety and health. I made a decision that I thought was best at the time. That decision allowed me to rest and recover quickly, which meant we were able to spend the whole next day playing in the park. It turned out to be a great weekend with friends, one I’ll remember for a very long time. Thanks to everyone who supported me through it and to my friends who were willing to endure my constant whining after I gave up.