Ragnar Trail - Zion

If you are looking for a whirlwind of a weekend that involves seeing a variety of Western terrain, running, camping, running, laughing, and some more running, try driving from Montana to just outside Zion National Park for a Ragnar Trail Relay.

Ragnar Relays are typically a 200ish mile road relay with 12 people, two vans, and three legs a piece. It involves a lot of overnight, delirious driving and not seeing one half of your team since they are in the other van. Sara and I actually met at a Ragnar Relay, but she was in the other van for so didn't have to smell me mid-relay, which is probably why this all worked out. 

The Ragnar Trail Relay setup is a bit different. Instead of being point-to-point, all the teams camp in a common area and run three different trail loops originating from a common origin. All eight people on each team must run each loop at some point throughout the day and night. 
Trail Running wasn't an option last time I was in Zion

The last couple years the Zion race has had horrendous weather. Either late season snow caused near hypothermia, or rain cause awful mud making running the least desirable activity. Weather this year was perfect, although a touch on the warm side during the day. Fortunately for us we only had a few people run in the heat.

Like all Ragnar events start times were staggered at Zion. Some teams start around 9:00am on Friday, while the faster teams start later and later in the day with the fastest starting at 5:30. We started at 5:30pm with six other teams, which meant most of us only ran one leg in the daylight. 

The three loops were designated green, yellow, and red supposedly corresponding to their difficulty rating, although it was probably just distance: approximately 3.6, 3.8, and 7.9 miles respectively. Overall there wasn't much climbing by Montana standards, but it was desert-like terrain so a lot of dropping in and out of gullies, gulches, and glens, which made for some technical running and an appropriate level of respect for the trail. 

I started us out with the green loop and quickly ended up in the lead. After a day and a half in the car my legs felt sluggish and slow, but I wasn't too concerned. I was so excited to be running on a twisting, turning, roller coaster of a trail that I quickly forgot the sluggishness and focused on the course.

Because teams had been starting all day there were other runners spread out over the entire trail. Typically at a Ragnar we keep track of how many people we pass and create a scoreboard (two of my college teammates and I get a touch competitive with each other at these races, all healthy competition of course) but after two or three people I forgot to keep track. I was devoting all my focus to the trail and yelling "on your left" in increasingly louder sequences in order to be heard above other runners' blasting headphones. Sidenote, don't wear headphones in trail races! The green loop ended up being surprisingly challenging because of how much of a roller coaster it was. I could never find a rhythm and had to constantly re-engage after every little dip and turn. I ended up averaging 7:34 for that run and felt like it was 5:30 effort.

I opted not to carry water since it was a short course, even though it was above 80 degrees, so by the end I was tasting a bit of cotton in my mouth. Overall I remained cool though in the Saucony Endorphin race kit, lucky Stance socks, and a pre-soaked running hat. Fortunately the relay was only going to get cooler for us for the next 11 hours as we entered night time hours.

Jack and Justin, my college buddies, as well as Patrick, a previous generation college teammate, took the next few legs and absolutely crushed it. After the first few of us had finished we had a substantial lead and all just focused on having fun. Sara ran very well on her first couple loops as well and got to show off some of the Montana trail legs that made the steep pitches at Zion seem like a playground. The other women on our team all ran strong and it was clear that we did not have a weak link on our team so there no making up of time was required.

Fellow teammate, Alexis, crushing an early morning red loop
I started my second leg, the long red loop, around 10:30 pm. This course had the biggest climb and it arrived early in the loop so I started out pretty conservative. I don't have much experience racing single track in the dark so I was pretty nervous about seeing the terrain at relatively high speeds, especially with a good section of winding descent. I spent the first few minutes getting used to the light and what it did and did not illuminate. Only a few early mishaps on an ATV trail were required for me to get the hang of running with the headlamp and then it was off to the races.

The red loop for me was all about finding rhythm. At night I also have difficulty judging my pace so I tried to engage with the trail just inside the far edge of my comfort zone. The climb went by quickly and I found myself descending in the cool night air earlier than expected. I wish I had seen the trail in the day light because it felt like an extremely fun snake of a trail. I was able to get moving in a couple sections, but stayed very relaxed.

This loop alternated between single track, ATV trail, and larger dirt roads so it made for a wide variety of paces. The dirt roads were my least favorite so it was always a relief to hit the single track again, and I actually felt like I accelerated on the single track, which is opposite of how it should be I think. Only a couple brief pauses to double check course markings, a minor crash in the dust on a sharp turn, and a quick dive into the trees to deal with a return of pulled pork dinner slowed me down on that section. I ended up finishing under a minute off of Justin's blazing daylight red loop time, so I think he and I actually had the top two times on that course from the whole race.

Throughout the night we all took turns trying to sleep while awaiting our next turn on the course. We had rough estimates on finish times for each other so we could form approximate start times. A timing mat 1/4 mile out from the finish caused an alert to pop up on the "entering transition" screens so we had a few minutes to get into the start area. We would show up for a few raucous cheers during the exchanges and then go lay down again to try and get a few more minutes of sleep.

By my third leg, which I started around 4:00 or 4:30 am, I had only been horizontal for two hours or so. Needless to say I was not in my ideal race state of mind, but I still had a blast. By this point I was comfortable with the headlamp, the temperatures had dropped to the point where I opted for my Saucony Freedom Short Sleeve, and it was my last leg, so I tried to get out a little quicker. The climb in the yellow loop was similar to that of the red loop, but with a few more rocks thrown in. The technical aspect forced a bit more focus, which meant less time to let the mind wander. So I was surprised when I hit the ridgeline and started to descend. This descent was on more of an ATV trail so it was bit steeper and harder packed. My slapping Peregrines sounded loud in the still, predawn air, and I almost regretted going with them for this loop, but the extra tread came in handy on the sandy sections at the bottom.
We don't look that bad after a night of racing and no sleep

The lowest point in the yellow course was a single track trail submerged below the ground around it. This meant footsteps were blind and often sandy. I loved it! Like a Hot Wheels car stuck to a track I zoomed in and out of bends and turns, but again, I'm not good at judging night paces so I was probably going the same speed as a daylight jog. But in the dark it was awesome!

Sara was our last leg and she brought us into the finish line around 11:40 am. Of over 300 teams, nearly all of which started much early than us, we were the fourth or so to finish. We ended up winning the mixed division, overall division, and weren't too far off the course record.

After camp we quickly packed up camp and headed back north to Salt Lake and ultimately Missoula. A few late/early flights necessitated the quick departure and squashed any hope of a nap before driving. By 11:00 pm though I was able to crawl into a soft bed in Salt Lake and pass out before making the last drive of the trip the following morning.

Ultimately we didn't see much of Zion, didn't run much in the daylight, and didn't spend much time out of the car. But the time out of the car was spent with great friends, old and new, and on incredible single track trails in the desert. I'd say it was a successful weekend.

Up next for Sara is a month of river guiding in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, while I will be hanging out in Missoula racing the Pengelly Double Dip and Bangtail Divide 38k.

What fun trail races do you have coming up?

Happy trails,