Survived Zane Grey 50

Courtesy Deron Ruse

Courtesy Deron Ruse

Are you Ready – Zane Grey 50

“Oh wow, it’s hailing!” I expected rain, not hail. I took out my phone and took a picture because I figured it would disappear quickly and I wanted proof there was hail. As I continued running, the hail continued to fall at a more rapid rate. This was the beginning of the end.

Before I get to the juicy details let me lay the scenery. With just under 12,000 feet of total ascent and extremely rough terrain, Zane Grey 50 is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, 50 miler in the country. I have wanted to participate in Zane Grey ever since I first laid eyes on the course in the summer of 2012. Because of how grueling the race is, it did not align with my race calendar for 2013. This year, 2014, I wanted in on the action. I was so excited to be able to have the opportunity to participate in this epic race with some outstanding athletes.  On the heels of Phoenix Marathon and Ironman California 70.3, I felt very conditioned and prepared for the distance.  My coaches at Camelback Coaching helped prepare me, not only for what an ultra can do physically to you, but mentally as well.

IMG_2197Leading up to Zane Grey I felt very relaxed and ready. I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer to help course mark two weeks before the race. This helped with getting a lay of the land. It was going to be a tough day and reveal some things to me, I just didn’t know to what extent. Days before the race we were sent a weather update and warning from the race director to be aware of the possible severe weather warning. The day before the race we were informed of course adjustments due to possible flooding. There was going to be a 50K and 50M option with the possibility of the race being called due to severe enough weather. The weather was predicting 40-50’s for temperature and rain. That makes for a messy, muddy run but a very manageable and quite glorious one as well. Therefore, I was not getting all twisted up and nervous, I’ve run in the rain before and I love it. Not to mention, 50’s is great air temp. After all, we had been experiencing 90’s already here in the Phoenix valley. I was welcoming the weather, at the same time I was preparing for what could be a nasty day. Well, let me tell you know, I now have a whole new definition for nasty weather.

ZG50 Start

The Calm – Zane Grey 50

I arrived at the race start at 4:30am. When I got out of the car, the air was still and warmer than I anticipated. After dropping my drop bags and going to the bathroom, I decided to go with a lighter weight beanie and gloves. I had a feeling once the sun crested the mountain I was going to be shedding them. I have only done one other 50 miler and the start is nothing like a triathlon. It was very mellow, everyone meandered over to the start, the race director said “GO” into a megaphone and then we were off into the darkness. Even with all the headlamps, it was still very dark and with the single track it remained congested for a while. It was like we were all out on this journey together, there was a lot of chit chat about the day and how warm it was, how many times people have done Zanes, how long have you been doing ultras? One of the things I love most about ultra running or trail running is the chill nature that runners have. It is so incredibly enjoyable.

As the sun began to illuminate the sky the crowd began to thin out. As pretty as the sunrise was, it was also fraught with angst.  It was almost as if Mother Nature was waiting for us to get rolling before she unleashed herself.IMG_2272

There is a lot of climbing in the first eight miles of the race and I had built up some body heat, so, I shed a layer, my rain jacket and ditched my gloves in my pack. The sky would open up a bit, here and there, and sprinkle a bit but nothing ever significant and the temps were staying up. I continued to evaluate the weather as we ran but realized it will be what it’s going to be. I’ve started this race and I am going to go the distance so wasting energy on the weather was for not. Or so I thought. You’ve heard the saying hindsight is always 20/20. Well, I wish I would have continued to evaluate the weather and paid closer attention to the sky as it was definitely telling a story.

When I got to mile 8 aid station, Camp Geronimo, I felt awesome, I was on pace with where I wanted to be and the weather was not too bad. Here was the first sign I should have paid attention to. The dexterity in my hands was already diminishing, I had to ask for help in opening a ziploc bag…hhhmmmm. I should have changed my wet beanie cap for a dry one and put my jacket back on with my hood and put my gloves back on. Instead I loaded up my pack with my nutrition, filled my water bottle, hugged my sister and headed back out.

Mother Nature’s Joke – Zane Grey 50

Less than a mile out from the aid station Mother Nature decided it was time to unleash. Instead of light rain mist it was now falling hard. I stopped to pull off my wet base layer (mistake #1), because it was wet and put on my rain jacket and gloves. All of a sudden the temperature started dropping quite rapidly. Cold was beginning to set in and I know how my body burns calories to stay warm, so I pulled a peanut butter and honey sandwich from my pack and I carried it for a while before I forced myself to eat half of it. I was not hungry and I did not want my hands exposed any more because now I realized how cold I was getting and I needed to keep moving. My shoes were collecting mud and becoming heavy. The rain at this point has turned to freezing rain and then hail. With 40mph gusts, hail hurts. It really hurts when it hits exposed skin. I was having an internal battle because I knew I needed to put my base layer back on but it was wet and I did not want to take my jacket off nor did I want to stop. So I forged on. At about mile 11, I knew I could be in trouble. The ground was getting very slick and it was difficult to run. I took my gloves off because, stupid me, I brought knit ones and they were soaked and frozen (mistake #2). My fingers started to swell and get that soggy white look to them because they were so wet. I finished my sandwich so I could use the ziploc to cover my hand from the elements. I switched the baggy back and forth to get whatever relief I could. The pain in my hands began to consume me.

Staying Focused – Zane Grey 50

picstitch (1)As if the terrain is not tough enough, the rain and hail made it very slippery and hard to maintain any traction. Before I knew it, I was at mile 14 and knew I could squeeze out 3 more miles to make it to Washington Park, the next aid station. My sister would be there with a warm truck, dry clothes and gloves. The next three miles, were very interesting, the crowd at this point had really thinned out and the pleasantries were gone. All I could think about was getting to the aid station and warming up. My hands at this point were the only thing that really hurt and they hurt pretty bad. I am sure my body was having other effects from the cold but the ice blocks that were once my hands was all too consuming. As I came into the aid station, my awesome sister was there ready to do whatever I needed. I am usually very succinct about what I want and how I want it. Here is clue #2, I could not verbalize what I wanted. I just kept stating my hands are frozen and I need to get them dry. A perfect stranger allowed me to use his shirt to try and dry my hands but I could not even feel them. Then my glorious sister looked at me and said do you want to get in the truck and I exclaimed yes. Thank goodness she asked because I would have stood there trying to do something…nothing.

My mom and other sister were in the truck and moved so I could sit in the front seat. I peeled my wet clothes off and jacked the heater up. I wasted a few minutes trying to figure out my my heater was not getting hot. Oh, the car was not on, just the battery was on…clue #3 of disorientation. I sat there focused on what I needed to do to get out of the car so I could be on my way. The longer I sat there, the harder it was going to be to get out. My family was legitimately concerned for me but knew better than to simply encourage me. I forced myself to eat a bonk breaker bar and drink some water. My body was starting to shake uncontrollably and I knew I needed to start running to generate some core heat or call it a day and go lie in a hot tub. Well, if you don’t know me, know that it will take extreme circumstances for me to DNF. I sat there taking deep breaths trying to control my central nervous system, telling myself to relax. Thoughts were rolling through my head, I knew once I stepped out on that course, I had to make it the next 16 miles to mile 33. The truck was parked facing the trail where people were leaving the aid station and unsurprisingly there were not many people leaving the aid station. The snow was coming down really hard and my truck read 31 degrees. The logical side of my brain was telling me I was crazy and the other side, the adventurous side, was saying, go for it, see what you are made of. You know you can do it, it will hurt but who cares, go for it. I clearly have an addictive personality, I like goals and I like things that are hard.

Am I Crazy – Zane Grey 50

I loaded my pack with nutrition, put on my base layer, dry beanie, dry gloves, and my rain jacket. I also put ziplocs over my gloves to keep them dry and try to insulate what ever heat I could. The first mile out of the aid station was so painful, my body was tense and I was trying to warm up. Pretty soon I could feel my core warm a bit and I was feeling okay. There was no one in sight, I now realized I might be running the rest of this race solo. After about another mile there was a man running towards me and I asked if he was okay, he replied that this was crazy and he was going back. Well, what does that say about me? Uummm, I think we’ve already answered that.

ZG50 mud

Check out the slide marks.

The next 6.5 miles to the next aid station, which is ironically called Hell’s Gate, was rough. The air temperature was freezing, the wind was blowing and the terrain was treacherous. In some sections it was so muddy that I could not run for fear of falling on my ass and falling hard. On steep sections I would take a 12inch step and slide 6-9 inches. It was so debilitating and exhausting but I just kept putting my feet one in front of the other. There was even a section of the trail that was extremely slippery with a double high barb wired fence on one side. Now, that would be a treat to fall into, it’d definitely make you feel alive. Fortunately, I did see 2 gentlemen on the course that were running together and I stuck with them for a bit but they were moving slower than I could handle. I had to keep moving as fast as the elements would allow me to generate as much heat as possible. Before I knew it, I could hear voices and knew I made it to the aid station at Hell’s Gate. There were 3 runners there, one warming in the jeep and the other two were getting ready to head out. I was secretly hoping they would stick around so I had people to run with. As much as I wanted to be able to have other humans with me on the trail, the warm chicken noodle soup was soothing my hands, mouth, and tummy and I was not about to rush that moment.

It was at Hell’s Gate where I learned the race was being called and the finish was the next aid station at mile 33. It was no longer an option to continue past that aid station. Candidly, I was so disappointed. I knew I was suffering but I wanted to do the full 50 miles and had they let us I would have, no matter how much I would have suffered. With this news, my mindset shifted a bit, I figured I did not need to really watch my nutrition or energy expenditure over the next 9.5 miles, I was headed to the finish. Mistake #?, I’ve lost count. At this point I have covered 23.5 miles of very rough terrain in extreme elements in about 6 hours and have only consumed about 36oz. of water and about 500 calories. I had no desire to eat, but knew better. Early on I forced myself to eat but I was over that at this point. Not smart. I thought, all I have to do is go 9.5 miles, that is easy, until the park ranger said, “Yep, 9.5 miles to the finish, it should take you about 2 hrs.” What?! At this point I had no concept of time, just miles. As I was leaving the aid station one guy was approaching. The more human life I saw out there the more comforting it was to brave the elements.

Hell’s Gate, Literally – Zane Grey 50

Here is where it gets real for me. I am pretty tough, I like to push the limits and see what I am made of. I have a lot of confidence in my ability to endure and I knew I was going to be fine to make it to mile 33, after all, I wanted to do the full 50 miles. The next 2-3 miles was mentally draining. I was completely exposed to the elements, the wind was blowing the hail sideways. In case you are unaware and have never experienced it, when hail hits your bare skin, it hurts and stings. My cheeks were taking a beating, I had no way to cover them. I tried to keep the ziplocs on my hands as long as possible but after I fell in the mud and then almost fell in the creek the bags were falling off and my hands were wet now anyhow. At about mile 27 I had had it with slip sliding in the mud, the traction was terrible, my hands were frozen again, I mean painfully frozen, there were swollen and I was just hoping there were going to be okay. I was seriously questioning my drive to do this crazy shit. I wanted to lie down and curl up in a fetal position. This was not the day I was supposed to have, I was pissed and mentally exhausted. All of a sudden I realized I needed sugar and needed it fast. Except the dexterity in my hands was extremely uncooperative, it took me about 10 tries to get a PowerGel out of the pouch on my pack. I had to use my teeth to tear it open and I could barely stomach it but knew I needed it. I washed it down with some water and kept forging on. My dark place lasted about 1.5 miles, there was a lot of self talk in that time. Then as quickly as I entered that dark place I emerged from it, I turned the corner and was my normal self again. It’s amazing what sugar can do for you.

picstitch (2)My watched buzzed and I knew I had 4 miles to go. Awesome! I am on the home stretch. Soon after my mood turned around, so did the weather. The clouds broke and the sun began to warm the air. The last three miles were still difficult because of all the mud but it was so glorious to be able to feel the sun on my face. I could finally look around and take in the beauty of this course. As I approached the new finish line I was still slightly disappointed that we could not continue, I even asked as well as other runners if we could and the answer was no.  One of my sisters even said it is a good thing they called the race, for runners like me, because I would have kept going regardless of the suffering that I might have endured. I am so incredibly grateful my mom and sisters were there to support me and witness such a great day.

So my hopes for a 50 miler turned into a 53K, 33 miles. 132 started the race and 93 finished. I finished in 8:16, 6th female and 57th overall. Not too shabby.

Take Away – Zane Grey 50

My biggest take away from that day was to be better prepared for whatever might happen. And I mean WHATEVER. I should have never taken off my base layer and brought my winter running mittens. Secondly, I should have had another layer stashed in my pack in a waterproof bag. Oh well, live, endure and learn. Seeing where my breaking point could be was a huge confidence booster because I learned what I am capable of. I know it sounds crazy but facing misery that day gave me the confidence to handle difficult conditions in the future. Lastly, never underestimate yourself and what you think you can handle. If you want to grow as a person and as an athlete, go big and push the limits.

Now, what is next…

About sherianne

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is SheriAnne Nelson and I am happily married to my husband Mike. I’m a mother of three beautiful children ages 9, almost 6, and 3, am a passionate fitness professional, and a Star Diamond Level fitness coach within the Team Beachbody program in Scottsdale, Arizona.



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