Frölicking trails since 2010

Frölicking trails since 2010
Frölicking trails since 2010

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Dancing with Zane Grey - 50 miles along the Highline Trail - April 27, 2013

I can't remember having this much fun and misery at the same time.

Photo by Casey Plonczak.



This race is notorious for being one of the toughest 50 mile races in the country. Why? Because it's roughly 51 miles of rocks, mostly exposed under the Arizona sun, and constantly changing grade. The course is predominantly between 6,000' and 7,000' in altitude, and the elevation gain is over 11,000' of ascent. This is a course that wears you down, no matter who you are. You could be in the shape of your life, but it's the course that will ultimately decide the fate of your run. At least, that's what someone told me while I was waiting in the bathroom line.
Because there are very few photos of the Zane Grey trail (that I know about, or have permission to use), see the video below for a sample of the course:


Casey, one of my two brotherly cousins, lives in Arizona and agreed to crew my ass for the race. He was also my photographer with a camera large enough to make me feel like a legit male model. Run run run *STRIKE-A-POSE*. Thanks again, Casey! This race would have been a Reeba without you.

Cousin Alex, me, and Cousin Casey in 2012

My goals were simple, though I would've been satisfied with any of them:
  1. Top 3
  2. Break 9.5 hours
  3. Break 10 hours
  4. Break 11 hours (and qualify for Western States)
  5. Finish without breaking anything below the belt.
Hydrating the day before the race.



The alarm rang, and I quickly became wide awake with as much excitement as 3am would allow. With the help of JT, I started dancing across the room as I got ready for the long day. Mmm...Feelin' good! Feelin' fine! Okay, let's do this.



And with a final countdown, the race began with a stream of glowing headlamps. Since the sky was already beginning to fade from black to blue, I decided not to run with a headlamp. Rocks were here and there, but the glow from the headlamps in front of me lit up enough of the trail for me to plan my steps carefully. It also helped that James Bonnett had a 500 lumen flashlight, and we became running buddies for a bit. James also ran the Gorge Waterfalls 50k the previous month, and so we already kind of knew each other from that race. Nice guy! Hiking up the first climb, the sky soon lit the trail with a faint glow that was barely distinguishable with the rocky shadows. Shortly after the first climb ended, the trail already started providing spectacular views of the Tonto (jump on it!) National Forest with the moon centered above the horizon. Taking in the views was risky business on such a technical trail, so my glances were no more than a half second at a time.

Rolling along, the trail was ever-changing in terms of elevation and direction. This must be what Love feels like, and everything was lovey dovey. The Sun finally crested the hills in the distance, and both James and I greeted the sun with a F***-a-doodle-doo. For now, the temperature was comfortable. The temperature would continue to climb steadily until eventually reaching a dry breeze-less 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the heat of the day.

Photo by
Casey Plonczak.
Great minds think alike, and there were 5 or 6 of us who ran together for a few miles before the 1st Aid Station. After confessing to James that he was my only friend at the race, he began introducing me to everyone else in the people train. Then from nowhere, we all started hearing a woman's voice call out from a nearby ravine. When she emerged from the brush, it turned out to be fellow racer Kerrie Bruxvoort who had made an incredibly wrong turn. How she ended up in the ravine, we never really figured out. Throughout the day, seemingly everyone would make a wrong turn and get some kind of lost. The trail was well marked in some areas, and scarcely marked in others.


Photo by
Casey Plonczak.
This was the only Aid Station I rushed, since 8 miles is hardly enough to tax me to the point of nutritional depletion. Casey took some photos, I filled my bottle, threw a pretzel and strawberry in my mouth, and bolted. The rest of the train was still at the aid station as I began the trotting up the trail. James eventually caught up to me, and we ran together for a bit. After a mile or so, James started to pull away from me. At that time, I grabbed a GU from my pack and ingested it with digestive assertion. Putting the wrapper back into my pocket, I noticed some of my GUs had fallen out of my handheld pocket....CRAP! Littering is terrible Karma. Luckily, I only had to backtrack 100' to grab them. After this moment, I never saw James for the rest of the race, and that was a good thing since he was pushing me a little harder than I desired. With him out of sight, my focus turned to sustaining Jason's comfortable forever pace. It was this moment that my shirt fell off.

The course had some "decent" sections of trail, but the rest of the course was super technical and rocky. And if the rocks didn't get you, the plants probably would. Having spent the past 3 years running in the lush and friendly forests of the Pacific Northwest, it was shocking to find such hostile plants along this already brutal course. After the first 15 miles of the race, I found out which plants were making me bleed, and I added a new move to my rock dancing - the bushwack shimmy. I'm really glad I didn't have to take a crap during this race.


Bottle Face. Photo by Casey Plonczak.
Coming into Aid Station 2, Casey handed me a coconut water to chug and Trailbutter to munch. My bottles were then filled with water, and I shoved pretzels and a banana into my mouth for me to chew over the next mile. Each of the Aid Stations were followed by some sort of long hill climb, and my legs were hiking most of the hills at this point in the race. Some of the gradual inclines were runnable, but my uphill pace was hardly ambitious. It was still early in the race, and my running strategy became somewhat similar to running a 100 mile race. Finding that balance of efficiency was tough since the climbs were getting steeper and steeper, but relentless forward progress was the key (Not to mention maintaining proper nutrition & hydration).

Hiking along, I passed Dominic Grossman, who was having somewhat of a bad day. Hiking...running...hiking...bushwacking...pathfinding...shit! Wrong turn! Backtracking, I re-discovered the trail and passed Dominic a second time (he would later drop out of the race due to the aggravation of a knee injury).

Jamil Coury (Mogollon Monster 100 winner) passed me effortlessly, and he was running strong and steady. I blamed his long legs.


Screw efficiency, I wanted a damn liter a cola! The seconds gained on a fast Aid Station transition in this race can easily be for nothing if you don't fuel the body right. Taking a couple minutes to make sure I was hydrated, settled, and full of fuel was extremely important for me to feel comfortable and confident to tackle the next 8 miles...cough*cough*bullshit*, I mean 10 miles. (At least someone at the Aid Station told me it was 10 miles, not that it really mattered). Going into the race, I knew it was "officially" longer than 50 miles, I expected the distance between aid stations to at least seem long, and I wasn't surprised that the race met my expectations in that regard.  Mike Carson soon showed up, and we essentially left the aid station together.

Hiking...running...hiking...after a few miles, I found myself pulling away from Mike, as he seemed to be suffering a little bit. It would have been nice to run with him, but it's hard to uphold the buddy system when running with competitive people (myself included). Ah, the loneliness of the long distance runner...such is life. At least I enjoy my own company. Nothing but me, the rocks, and the comforting rustling of lizards scattering into the brush (comforting, in that it kept reminding me to look out for rattle snakes).

About 2 miles before the Aid station, there was a 'water only' aid station with limited resources. He topped off one of my bottles, and I coasted for the next two miles.

AID STATION 4 - MILE 33 my ass!

Photo by Casey Plonczak.
The Fish Hatchery Aid Station greeted me with a hero's welcome, filled with gaggles of volunteers, crews, and pacers just waiting for their runners to arrive. As soon as I reached the pavement, a volunteer handed me my drop bag before I even remembered to look for it. Before putting on my race vest (Mountain Hardware Fluid 6 pack with a full 1.5 liter reservoir), I had Casey throw some ice in my bladder (hehehe). Both my handheld bottles were topped off, and I munched on some fruit and pretzels while singing along to the boom box blasting “Guantanamera”. With a chug of some coconut water, I began the longest, most difficult, and most scarcely marked section of the course.

The night before the race, I drew the course profile on my arm with a blue pen. Though it was partially smeared from sweat, it was still reasonably legible. I took a quick break from counting rocks and glanced at my arm. The course profile looked like a rapid heart rate monitor jacked on adrenaline (at least that’s how I drew it). Not that I expected the course to get any flatter, but it was nice to know that the steepest climbs were coming soon. Combined with the fact that I was now running in 4th place after passing a suffering Scott Jaime, my attitude was very positive.

Crossing every stream, I used my hat to shovel scoops of water over my head until my hair couldn’t get any wetter. The water also felt great on my feet, despite creating heavy shoes. Ducking under a barbed wire fence, the trail took a hairpin turn and shot straight up the hillside for the steepest climb of the course. This climb was a real grind, shaded but steep. With hands on my thighs, my mind was concentrating on efficient hiking with a strong pace. Scott Jaime and Mike Carson were behind me somewhere, and my competitiveness wanted to make sure they stayed there. Course markers were rare, and confidence markers seemed spaced a mile apart. The ice in my pack kept my the water relatively cool for a while, but eventually all my water sources turned mildly warm yet again. This heat was a strong dry 80 degrees, indeed, and despite drinking constantly throughout the race, I peed only once at mile 40 (despite several earlier attempts).

At this point, the quads were getting tired and my feet were starting to chafe, but the downhills were still fun as hell. Also, running downhill was the only way I could get a damn breeze to cool off.

As I write this blog, remembering the course is such a blur. So much of the trail was covered in rocks, it’s hard to mentally distinguish one trail section from another. However, I do remember that this section was scarcely marked. The trail was fairly easy to recognize, but there were several spots where it would be easy to whoops, where the hell am I? Despite the warming sun, my mind remained sharp and always planning my next 2 steps. Some would call this tiring, but this kind of running brings so much focus into the present moment. Really, there was nothing else to think about, and it really brings out the 'Zen' in Zane.


Photo by Casey Plonczak.

Arriving at the final aid station, I drank 3 cups of coke, a coconut water, squeezed some Trailbutter into my mouth, filled my bottles, and ditched my pack with Casey. Bret Sarnquist ran into the aid station as I was slowly leaving, and he quickly caught up to me. With only 7 miles to go, I really didn't care about how I placed. My body was worn down, and it was nice to run with company again. I asked Bret if he wanted to run the last section together, but he politely declined as he felt more comfortable just doing his own thing. That said, my hiking was slightly stronger than his, and after a couple miles I was alone yet again. My downhill legs lost all enthusiasm at this point, and my feet simply danced with my momentum. Even the gradual uphills brought me to a hike, since it seemed like all I could do at the time. Then with 2 miles left, Chris Price comes blasting down the trail and passes the shit out of me. There was no way I could keep his pace, and it didn't matter much to me at the time. It was just impressive.

With a mile left, it was difficult to run even the most gradual incline, my right foot started to feel some rock bruising, my lips desired an ice cold coke, and I couldn't stop thinking about that nice cool bed waiting for me in my air-conditioned hotel room. It seemed like a longest f*ing mile of my life.

RESULTS: 9:43:07, 5th out of 95 Finishers (124 starters)
PACE: ~11:40 min/mile

Photo by Casey Plonczak.

Casey and me! Photo by Map Photography
Rocky buddy! I ran 50 miles and got Charlie Browned.

This race was tough. To finish this race with a respectable time without hardly a stumble, I'm super proud of this accomplishment. There were lessons learned for sure, but overall I can come away from this race with confidence that I'm slowly becoming the runner I want to be.

Congrats to James Bonnett for the win!


Thank you to the race directors and organizers, the race was well run and provided a unique experience that I'll never forget.

Thank you volunteers, your enthusiasm and energy got me pumped up at every aid station.

Thank you NSPiRE, as always, for your endless support.

Thank you Float Shoppe for the recovery, relaxation, and mental focus that has helped me both in training and racing.

Thank you Casey!


The past December, I was debating dropping out of this race (and other races) to give my foot time to heal its plantar fasciitis. Last year, my left foot was painfully inflicted by it, but in focusing on healing my left foot, my right foot came down with a less aggravated form of plantar. Though I still suffer from occasional bouts of plantar in my right foot, it's relatively under control. I'm grateful for all the help my sports chiropractor Brad Farra has been in helping me not only heal, but also become a stronger & healthier runner. Thanks Brad, I really appreciate all the help you've been over the past year!



My roommates have become like brothers, especially through all that's happened the past few years. I Love you guys, and I appreciate having you all in my life. This race is dedicated to Shiloh, who passed away from a heart attack the week before Zane Grey. He was a sincere and kind person, and he had an infectious laugh and smile. Although his habits never sat well with me, he was a good man. My roommate Andrew wrote a blog of sincere reflection, and you can read it here if you'd like.

Much Love,