Zane Grey 50

» Posted by on Apr 29, 2012 in Blog | 15 comments

I need this wild life, this freedom. Zane Grey

I leave Hell's Gate at mile 23, excited in anticipation of the section to come. I'd heard the trail would get more technical at this point. My body is feeling great having picked up the saccadic rhythm of the choppy desert single track. I put my head down, push into the thick manzanita and engage in the exhilarating chase of Catlow, who is just over a minute ahead. I pass a cairn, then another, orange ribbon hangs at waist height, but soon the trail dissolves into a mess of brush and cacti. Fuck, I'm off course! It's OK, it's OK. At this race, it's not a matter of if you get lost but when. I backtrack down to the last cairn, stopping to assess my options. There are clearly more cairns to the east that appear to follow a trail that skirts the flank of the rim. Directionally, this makes sense. However, I can't see Catlow up ahead in the now wide open expanse. Still, I follow the flags and cairns for a short while longer until it dies again. I let out a loud cry of frustration which is absorbed, muted by the sand and heat. I backtrack again to the main cairn and ribbons and start over. This time I gain the rim. I know I'm not supposed to be on the rim. Perhaps this isn't it though? Just a false summit or something? No, it's it. Fuck! I sit for a moment to look back down the way I came. I see no one. The cool breeze that previously cut the heat has subsided. The stifling air now fills my mouth and lungs. I am sweating profusely and have drained the last of my water. For a moment, I contemplate wandering off in to the desert in search of the purple sage. I think of Caballo and wonder what his last thoughts must have been in such a harsh, unforgiving land. Run free, my friend. Run free.
I decide that the best course of action is to run back towards Hell's Gate aid station until someone comes my way. As I drop off the rim, my toe catches a low branch and I hit the ground with a thud. I pick myself up unharmed, but notice the top of my shoe has been ripped off clean. Seriously? 

Finally, I regain the trail. A faint unmarked intersection had lead me on the wrong path up what I later find out to be, the Myrtle trail. The cairns and ribbons had lead to further confusion. As I emerge back on course after an hour of circling, I bump into my friend Rachel White from Portland and Justin "The Lip" Lutick. The Lip in his usual über stoked, theatrical self tells me not to worry, to get back at it and that he has duck tape for my shoe at the next aid. Washington Park, mile 33, is 8 miles away. Both of them offer up some water and try to get me to rally. I appreciate the enthusiasm and support, but mentally I'm done. I tell them to go on without me. I walk really slowly with my flip flop shoe catching on rocks, stubbing my toes. For some reason, I'm hit by an overwhelming wave of disappointment. I don't ever get this way, typically just letting things unfold as they come. I feel partly frustrated, partly embarrassed at yet again getting lost. My foot has now started to hurt, I'm dehydrated and just don't want to put anymore effort into this. I hate that I'm whining and being so negative, which of course only makes things worse. I keep on rewinding the wrong turn in my mind trying to make it disappear. I start to dread the sound of foot steps coming behind me, necessitating a quick explanation of what happened. The wrong turn. The shoe. Running out of water. Bla bla excuses…But, no matter how negative I'm feeling, everyone that passes me is exceedingly nice. They show concern, provide encouragement and commiserate with me before pushing on and dealing with their own struggles with heat, cramps, rocks and anything else the desert throws at us. I meet a guy from my home town in France. Another from Romania with whom I try to exchange a few phrases I learned in high school. My selfish aspiration for doing well in the race and my negativity gradually wear off. I can't help but feel fortunate to be part of such a great community and to enjoy the freedom of running these trails.
The desert thrashed me, slowed me down, forced me to pause and appreciate what really matters. I think of Caballo again. This time it is not an image of pain and suffering, but I see him in clear light, softly passing on his message. Korima – sharing, communing, appreciation and respect for the land and the people who roam (free) on it. I pause for long moments to wet my bandana and splash water on my face and neck, soothing my sun burned skin. My stroll in the desert ends at the Washington Park where I'm welcomed by the high energy Surprise Running Club volunteers. They help me coordinate a ride to the finish where I catch friends already drinking brews and others coming in in need of one after a long day on the trail. Catlow held it strong through the end and ran a great race. Karl and Ian, who are both as old as the trail, each ticked off yet another strong finish. Matias Saari, fresh off a solid run at the Boston Marathon, cruised to his second 50 mile finish. The Lip came in just ahead of Rachel, despite have lost a bit of time freshening up with some talcum powder and cologne. Good people. Good times. I'll be back next year for another crack at it.






  1. A tangible grace, stripped bare to its humility. You've absorbed and integrated the greatest 
    teachings of the desert. Well done. 

  2. Very inspiring!  Nothing but respect.

  3. Saw the whole drama unfold on this post. Desert's got teeth, man. Glad you were able to convert frustration into levity, wing.

  4. True grit, true spirit.

  5. I knew you were freaking stompin' it before going off course. Well done JG.      

  6. dude that section gave everybody problems including myself for an extra 2 miles.  once back on course i still would have to do a 360 every quarter mile in search of trail.  good write up and tear it up in a couple weeks! good meeting you and hope you enjoyed the modelo!

    • Thanks Brian. The modelo hit the spot and came just at the right time 🙂 See you next year!

  7. Haha I love the ripped shoe… excellent writeup man.

  8. All I can say is wow.  Thanks for sharing.  I felt similar frustration during my last 50 miler and sat down and cried for an hour and I wasn't even lost.  I love that ultras, especially on difficult terrain seem to strip us bare and allow us to feel so deeply.  Hope to see you on the trails sometime.  

  9. Wow Joe – well done for finishing! It's amazing how sometimes almost insignificant events that in other runs and races would be unimportant can compound and take on such huge significance when you're close to the edge. Good job on finishing and finding your usual perspective by the end of it all.

  10. Joe, It was awesome meeting you last weekend. Thanks for chatting with me on the ride to See Creek, it was fun to hear your stories and you also kept me calm as I thought about my own runner getting lost on that trail. Fortunately, he returned at the next aide station. And even though he was completely trashed and decided to stop at that point, he had a glow about him that probably represents the joy you write about here.
    See you next year.

    • Aly – great meeting you as well! Thanks so much for the ride and so glad your runner had a worthwhile experience as well. Look forward to seeing you again next year.

  11. I FULLY understand your experience!  I did ZG in 2002 and did great (cool and wet year).  2003 spit me out at about mile 36ish…got to Horton Creek stumbling and throwing up, and threw in the towel and walked out of the woods going downhill to the Horton Creek trailhead.  2004 chewed me up, too.  Hot year, dehydrated by mile 33, couldn't breathe, and threw in the towel again.  Maybe I'll see you in 2013.  I plan to be there!

  12. Hi Joe -I agree entirely with Heidi! Such an interesting read too and it gave me food for thought. Keep on writing.

  13. Hi Joe,

    I ran ZG yesterday, took the Myrtle Tail up to the Rim for a little 2mi detour. Ran out of water and gels, but my shoes stayed together. Now I feel better about it. Thank you,



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