November 18, 2014
Written by Brenna Bozanic
Last October, a co-worker told me about the Zion Half Marathon. I’d been to Zion National Park years before, but only passed through and did a day hike. After poring over the website for the race, I began to feel a familiar itch: to get outdoors and accomplish something awesome. And a big reason why I signed up for this race is because of who hosted it–Vacation Races.
There were a lot of details about VR that made me want to try this 13.1-mile race, despite having never run more than about three miles at a time in my life. First, their whole premise is to get people outdoors, usually in the National Parks. Second, they have free training programs available to you once you register for the race. Third, they encourage you to push yourself by offering fun challenges after you cross the finish line. Fourth–and my biggest concern–there was a four-hour time limit on the race, enough time to walk it if needed.
I registered, signed up for the 16-week beginner running program, and started running. As race day approached, it became apparent I would be going alone, something I didn’t really want to do. So, naturally, I invited my dad, and on Friday the 13th we set out for Zion. A standard road trip ensued, but with the added game of “I bet *that* car’s going to Zion with us.” A few of them did.
We opted to camp near the finish line at Watchman Campground just inside the park, which meant catching a shuttle to the starting line on race morning. We woke at 5am, walked to the shuttle, and half an hour later we were at the starting area enjoying the music, hot drinks, and raffle prizes inside a huge warm-up tent. I couldn’t believe all the people who were dressed and ready to run. Some even wore costumes! At 7am, they began asking the fast people to go line up. Reluctant to leave the toasty tent, we left to line up at about 7:20. At 7:30, the race began.
Knowing my dad is way faster than I, I sent him on ahead of me and arranged to meet up at the finish line. I was surprised and pleased at all the different sorts of people I saw running the race alongside me. Two notable ones were a woman with three-year survivor pink ribbons pinned to her shirt, and a man in a kilt and t-shirt that read “I put the RUN in DRUNK.” A special thanks to Anne-Marie who gave me a lifesaving fruit leather at mile 5.
The uphill course was run on Highway 9 from Virgin to Springdale. The one-way route helped me get into a good mental space. The 5K races I ran as a kid were always out-and-back around barriers, so knowing I just had to keep going forward on this one really helped. I talked myself through a few hard times when the next aid station seemed so far away, and the hill only got bigger instead of smaller with every step. But best of all, it only took a glance around me at the giant red and orange walls to make it all worth it and give me the boost I needed.
After 3 hours 28 minutes, I reached the finish line. My dad was there cheering me on–he finished nearly an hour and a half before I did. He led me around the finish area to get my finisher medal, chocolate milk carton, banana, and photo. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to sit or stand, as neither felt comfortable. Overall, my legs were sore in a few weird spots, but not nearly as bad as I worried they might be.
We grabbed some lunch, then hopped in the car to drive through the park and up the scenic road. At almost every turnout we got out and did little 5-10 minute hikes. We found a slot and went farther down that, marveling at the patterns in the rock and how smooth the sand at the bottom was. There was even a snow patch in which I made one of my signature mini snowmen.
One of the VR after-race challenges was the Trifecta: do three short hikes in the park within 72 hours of the race, and take a photo of yourself with your bib and medal at trail’s end. We did the Canyon Lookout hike as our first of three. As we began the hike, some women warned us there were big-horned sheep on the trail. Just when we were giving up on seeing them, a man in front of me on the trail said, “He’s right there,” and pointed to our right. The sheep sure was there, looking down right at me, from five feet away!
Sunday, we did the second Trifecta hike, the Riverside Walk, a one-mile paved route to the start of the Narrows. The Narrows takes you up and into the Virgin River and the slot canyon it carved. We rented some canyoneering boots and bibs to keep mostly dry, and ventured forth. We took the required photo at the end of the walk, kept going up river for about 2.5 more miles, then came back. The water was cold and hip deep at a few points, but it felt so good on my legs! The third Trifecta hike ended up being an hour north, in a different section of the park, something we didn’t realize until it came time to do it.
All in all, it was a great weekend, and a great race. And now I’ve caught that bug; I’m already trying to work out how I can get to another Vacation Race event! Lake Powell, anyone?