On the European cycling circuit the highlight of the early season are a series of one-day races known affectionately as the “Spring Classics.” These races; Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Flaanderan, Paris-Robaix, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, are typically characterized by rough terrain, inclement weather, and maniacal crowds of spectators along the racecourses. In addition, these races are most often won by the toughest one-day riders in the world, as they began their build-ups to the Grand Tours (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the Vuelta de Espana) of the Summer.
The world of ultramarathon trail running has its own set of “Spring Classics” that also tend to bring out the best in their competitors. The best ones, in my humble opinion, are those that, like their European cycling counterparts, have been around the longest. Among some of the most notable of the ultrarunning spring classics are Way Too Cool, American River, Miwok, Bull Run, Leona Divide, and, the one I ran yesterday, the Zane Grey 50 outside of Payson, AZ.
Zane Grey has been around for 21 years and has undergone a series of changes over the years. However, the essence of the race has remained constant. Running the entire length of the Highline Trail from west to east, this 50 miler is tough. The climbs and descents are short and steep but what makes the course so unique (and so brutal) are the rocks.
I was pretty psyched going into this year’s event. I had not run Zane Grey in nine years and this year’s edition featured one of the most competitive fields in recent history. From the start Karl Meltzer and Scott Jaime took off into the darkness and I settled into a small chase group of Steven Moore, Dave Hunt, Jamil Coury, Nick Coury, Ian Torrence, and Larry O’Neill. Diana Finkel, defending women’s champ at Hardrock, was also lurking not far behind.
The nature of the course is such that it is difficult to maintain any sort of rhythm and staying with a group is virtually impossible. In recent years, fire, erosion, overgrowth and USFS budget cuts have all left this iconic course somewhat worse for wear. In addition, since its inception, Zane Grey has been a great place to go if you want to get lost.
I survived the first 8 miles intact but found myself hopelessly lost several times in the brutally exhausting section between Miles 8 and 17. I am not sure what it is that makes this part so tough but it turned out to be the most tired I was all day as I battled missed turns, huge moving rocks, and branches that literally tore my legs to shreds. I was, therefore, a bit happier when I settled into a group with Ian, the Coury brothers, and Larry for the long slog to Mile 25.
One thing that made this year’s running so interesting was the stream crossings. We spent most of the day with wet feet and two of the crossings were running so high that race management installed fixed ropes to help us across. The deepest of these crossings was immediately after the 25-mile aid station and at this point the race began to take shape. With Karl and Scott off the front by 18 and 10 minutes respectively, a three-man group of Ian, Steven and I pushed on. The temperature was warming up and the course loosened up slightly. The three of us took turns in the lead through this 90-minute stretch and arrived at Mile 33 (Fish Hatchery) together. After a quick re-group, Steven left first followed by me, and then Ian. We had all picked up an additional bottle and some nutrition at the Fish Hatchery as we knew the next 11-mile stretch would likely take us over two hours in the heat of the day.
With about three miles to go before the 44-mile aid station we had a funny exchange. Running together, with Ian in the front, Steven in the back and me in the middle Steven asked,
“Anyone need an S! Cap?”
“No, I’m good.” Ian replied.
“Thanks bro, I’m good.” I puffed.
“You don’t sound good.” Steven joked.
And, within about five minutes Steven had moved to the front and had put a gap on Ian and I. It was the last we would see of him until the Finish Line.
I realized here that I was experiencing a classic early season “yo-yo” effect. You see, I have found over the past couple of years that early in my training cycle, when I am building up volume, I tend to burn energy more quickly than I do later in the season. I have no idea why this is but after about 7 hours on the trail I was taking a gel about every 15 minutes and the energy seemed to wear off in about 10. It’s funny, because usually by the time WS rolls around I can go 45 minutes to an hour between gels and rely a lot more on fat for fuel but on this day that was not the case. Fortunately, at least from a competitive standpoint, it appeared to me that Ian, too, was “yo-yoing.”
The biggest surprise of the day came when Ian and I rolled into the Mile 44 Aid Station together. Steven had already been through and we learned that Scott had about 12 minutes on us. But, what surprised us the most was seeing Karl in the Aid Station, smiling and carrying on with a sling and a large brace on his left arm.
I asked him what happened and he said, as only Karl can,
“I was climbing through one of those big trees back there and I fell, I think I broke my arm.” Evidently, x-rays taken later proved he was right. Here’s hoping for a quick recovery! I am, quite simply, amazed he ran the four miles from the downed tree to the Aid Station with a broken arm!
Back to the race, we now had six miles to go on the best section of trail all day. I tried to hang with Ian as he pushed to try to catch Steven but I didn’t have the foot-speed on the rolling terrain. I caught glimpses of him now and then but also knew I should not empty the tank with nine weeks to go until Western States as every little bit of depletion can be harmful. So, I settled into a nice rhythm and finished comfortably in 9:52, good enough for 4th place
Scott won in 9:40 and joined an illustrious group of Zane Grey champions with names like Jurek, Torrence, Meltzer, Brimhall, Skaggs, Krupicka and Creel. Not bad company, if you ask me!
All in all, I was quite happy with my day on the Mogollon Rim. Sharing the trail (and the post-race fun) with good friends Scott and Ian made it all worthwhile and for those of you out there looking for one of the best “Spring Classics” around, make the trip to Zane Grey. You’ll be in for a treat.