The Trail-Running Tribe: Running Zion

For any distance longer than a half-marathon, I hesitate to say I’m much of a “trail runner”. The few times we’ve tackled 15, 18, or 20+ miles through the hills and valleys of the Bay area, I categorize my execution as a speedy hike. I’m starting to wonder if this is the secret that keeps trail runners coming back for more — you climb hard, descend fast, and don’t mind taking a few extra moments here n’ there to pause in pure, often exhausted, awe. At the end of the run, none of it matters because you got yourself outside, you had incredible views, and you paid no attention to pace, time, or connected life, in general.

On a whim, hiking through Big Sur in July, we thought “why not?” try a DIY adventure run through Zion. Why not head back to a trail we’d covered once already, with packs full of camping gear and boots slowly falling apart, and see if we could do it in one day (carrying less weight and with running shoes)? Why not see if other people might be up for the same adventure?

Zion National Park Entrance

When you put that question out to the masses, only a select few will throw their chips in. It’s takes just the right mix of wanderlust, fitness, and trust in the tribe that will come together to think “Yep, I’m in!” and actually follow through. It also takes some faith in schedule-stars aligning and life generally being on board. All of this to say we got really effing lucky with our crew, people I’d join on another adventure without hesitation.

THE PLAN

Arrive in Springdale, UT Friday afternoon, check into hotels, eat, and pack up the aid boxes to be delivered to the two trailheads the Trans Zion Traverse passes (Hop Valley & West Rim). Drop off those boxes — stuffed with food, drinks, extra apparel, bandages, batteries, etc — Saturday morning, in shifts. Start at 6:30 and 8:30am, depending on the distance to run. Leave (2) cars at the trailhead Saturday morning, use the free Shuttle systems to get back to the hotel (one at The Grotto, one outside of the Park to the hotel areas), and then pick up the cars Saturday evening.

Zion National Park Virgin River

THE ROUTES

Mike & Jake: 6:30am start at the beginning, Lee Pass, and run to The Grotto, for a 38-ish mile run.

Hillary, Sarah, and Heather: 8:30am start at Hop Valley, eventually get caught by Mike & Jake, and run the group in to The Grotto for a 26-ish mile run.

Rob & Amy: 8:00am start at Hop Valley, speed-walking to The Grotto.

The Trans-Zion Traverse is made up of connecting trails: Lee Pass, Hop Valley, Connector, Wildcat Canyon, West Rim – split to Telephone Canyon or Canyon Rim – to Angel’s Landing and ending at The Grotto. You could keep going along the East Rim, for a full end-to-end trek.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED

There were only three things that went according to plan: everyone got up and out the door at their scheduled departure time, Mike & Jake started from Lee Pass at 6:28am, and us gals dropped off the second aid box at the West Rim trailhead.

Hop valley Trail Running

Can you spot Mike, running through Hop Valley in the early morning hours?

Otherwise, we learned pretty quickly that if nothing else, the trails will test your ability to just go with it…

Hillary, Sarah, and I tested the road conditions (see: snow-packed and icy) only to get stuck on the “dirt” road to the West Rim trailhead. Instead of dropping the aid box off and heading back to Hop Valley, we ended up having to leave the car “parked” (see: stuck) on the West Rim trailhead road, walked back about a mile to the trail, and started to run around 9:00am — backtracking (toward Hop Valley) from there. Good morning, adrenaline (see: stress)! But damn if we didn’t get that box where it was meant to be, ready for fueling us up later.

West Rim Trailhead Aid Box Girls Start West Rim Trailhead Zion Run

The other aid box was mistakenly left at the Wildcat trailhead, which meant the guys got to Hop Valley (their mile 12) and were greeted with…nothing. Only one option from there: keep running! So they did.

I knew the trails well enough to know that we could pretty easily backtrack from West Rim and catch up with them, probably still getting in our planned mileage for the day, just missing a few sections (Connector Trail). But, safety first! There’s no way that car was going to play fair, so we did the most important thing — deliver the aid box for miles 12-22 fuel — and then get going!

Success! Around our mile 6 and their mile 16, the tribe combined forces. These poor dudes were exhausted and a little demoralized by the nonexistent “aid”, but we were only about 5 miles out from the next stop, so on we went.

The Group Zion National Park Run

THE FUEL + MUST-HAVES

We stocked the boxes full of pretty much anything we thought might be appetizing, with potential jet-fuel power, and easily digestible. In this mix: OSMO hydration mix powder, gallons of water, cans of soda, bags of pretzels and chips, trail mix, Skratch and Honeystinger Chews, Honeystinger waffles, gummy bears, pureed fruit packets, and bananas. We also had some just-in-case items: extra socks, pullovers, gloves, bandages, headlamps, batteries, and safety pins.

It did the job:

Fueling up at West Rim trailhead in Zion National park.

WHAT WE DIDN’T PLAN ON

For the first ~20 miles, the trail was a mix of snow, ice, or slippery melted-snow-mud. It made it pretty tricky to get our footing, and created a weighty shoe issue. Somehow we made it through these miles without any slips or falls, no injuries, no need for those bandages. But we moved a little slower than anticipated because of it. There were few sections that were entirely dry and perfect for running, which we took advantage of as long as our lungs cooperated. The altitude knocked us all down! Reminder: we live at sea level, actually staring at the ocean every single day. Fact: this does not train you well for 5-6,000ft of elevation.

West Rim Trail Running Zion National Park

Eventually we hit the Canyon Rim Trail (which is a West Rim Trail split — we took Telephone Canyon in March, against everyone’s recommendations). This was easily our favorite part of the day; the trails were clear and dry, with a slight uphill followed by a flat section followed by a slight downhill — all good for running things. We had incredible views of the canyon, and plenty of reminders why we chose to do this in the first place.

Canyon Rim Trail Views Zion National Park
When the trails come back together, you’re greeted with the first set of switchbacks and a little anxiety if you have any fear of heights whatsoever (hi)! Finally, we were heading down into Zion’s canyon and getting close to the base of Angel’s Landing.

West Rim Canyon Trail Zion National ParkWhat you can’t see: the switchbacking trails directly below and above this, literally carved into the side of the canyon wall. What I can’t adequately describe: the feeling of walking along a trail that’s next to a straight 1,000ft drop. 

This is where the group finally split up, as a few of us were having an easier time descending than others. By this point — mile 33-ish for the guys and 23-ish for the girls — knees, hips, backs, and egos were hurting just a bit. We only had about 4-5 miles left, but the temperature was dropping and we’ve all been awake and mostly active for a lot of hours. This is where you focus less on miles and more on one cautious step, a few fueling bites, staying hydrated, and looking around you because what you see on either side is just, whoa.

Zion Canyon View From the Top

Mike & Sarah climbed up to Angel’s Landing, while I foolishly made the decision to avoid a hefty dose of panic and instead sat shivering at the bottom (my box is checked — they’d have more fun without my anxious energy). In a record 45 minutes they were coming back down, and we finished the final stretch of steep switchbacks on a nicely paved trail down to The Grotto shuttle station.

The last mile (38 / 28) looked like this, which gives you our motivation in one shot:

The last mile of West Rim Trail Zion National Park

And just like that, we were done! Each group got in a few more miles than expected, we all survived without any major mishaps or injuries, and everyone was able to handle the fact that there were no seats left on the shuttle ride back (keep those legs working!).

—– 

Trail running brings a unique type of ego boost and endorphin rush, one along the lines of nature saying “I challenge you…” and the legs responding, “We’re in!” It draws you in with mystery — you never truly knowing what you’re in for — and grips you with the high of giving it a try anyway. It’s a sense of calm confidence, telling your mind and body that you’ll take care of them as long as they do their fair share to stick with you. It’s satisfying a need for adventure, an innate drive to be surrounded by nothing and everything, and the feeling that all you’re really doing is playing in the backyard and seeing how late you can stay out before the sun says the day is done.

There wasn’t a finish line to excitedly cross, a spread of treats and beer waiting for us (not that we would’ve turned either of those down), or anyone around to acknowledge our day’s work that was actually a few months of preparation. And I’m not sure anyone really noticed the difference. Maybe we’re not too far from a place where we go out and do this regularly, getting better at the planning and the actual running and the fuel-stashing. Maybe this is just a “normal” Saturday. There were people we met along the way who were doing the FULL Trans-Zion trek (~50 miles) still behind us, the stranger we had picked up on the snowy road who was doing the same thing and dropping off a similar aid box, and a shuttle full of people returning from their adventure du jour in the park. Up against the world of road races, it’s a different perspective, with the same amount of personal reward.

We rode back on that shuttle in pure exhausted silence, all thinking about one thing: What’s next?

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