A journey across Zion National Park and why you might run your next race alone
“Balance, that’s the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds.”
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
As a younger athlete, I eschewed the idea of just about anything that did not involve competing in an organized race. Why train for something if I wasn’t going to test myself against the best? What was the point of traveling far away if a race wasn’t on? And previous, jobless, kidless life did cater well to organizing my existence around, well, organized races.
Enter a real job, two kids, the big 3-0 and a bit of maturity (I know, what I’m about to describe may not seem very mature), and I made a shift. All of a sudden I found myself dreaming all winter about a different kind of big “race,” one that did not involve other people, an official course or a marked starting line.
Ultrarunning for time and adventure on unofficial courses—Fastest Known Times (FKTs)—has taken off, and my first experience with the concept has convinced me why it’s here to stay. For working professionals, parents and other busy people, the flexibility of setting a “race” on your own time has great benefits, whether or not breaking a record is your goal. For techies, route trackers like Strava provide a forum for competitive, friendly and/or social comparison. For backcountry lovers, running alone or with a small group in the wilderness provides adventure. For elites, an FKT attempt on a new or previously established route run can bridge other events. For pros, an FKT might even mean cash bonuses from sponsors.
So, last December, I set a goal of breaking ultrarunner Luke Nelson’s record time of 7:48 for running 48 miles across Utah’s Zion National Park on a route known as the Zion Traverse, Trans-Zion or Zion Crossing. Logistics, mapping and other details were an adventure of their own, and Nelson, adventurer Andrew Skurka and others helped with my homework.
Running across Zion is a fairly simple concept, and a glance at a park map reveals a clear route of established trails connecting Lee Pass on the west side to the East Rim Trailhead on the east side. Like other such endeavors, however, the devil is in the details. The route climbs some 10,000 vertical feet. Gradients range from flat to super-steep, both uphill and down. Footing includes decent trails and pavement, but a good deal of it is sand, rock, mud, slickrock and riverbed. A few potential bail-out points exist, but much of the route is remote, not covered by cell service and bereft of people—as it should be.
I spent January, February and March hoping European FKT superstar, ultrarunner and speed mountaineer Kilian Jornet wouldn’t beat me to it, checking the FKT website incessantly.