My name is Greg Russell and I’m a 2018 Headsweats Ambassador. This year, Headsweats has a team of ambassadors who are talented beyond words, pushing their limits in every way possible. I wish I were one of them! I’m just a normal guy who likes to run. In late April I ran my first 50k race at the Zion Ultras, and this blog post is partially a report on that race.
I also want to share some thoughts on a topic that is near and dear to my heart: public lands. I think trail runners can be great advocates for public lands, and in this blog post I’ll share some thoughts about these awesome places with you. I will also suggest some ways to be a spokesperson for the places many of us love to run.
On Friday April 20th, my fiancé and I left our home in southern California to drive to Virgin, Utah for the Zion Ultras. Salem Stanley, the owner of Ultra Adventures and Vacation Races, always puts on great events and although it was our first trip to the Zion Ultras, we knew it would be good.
The 100-milers and 100k runners had started early on Friday morning, and I began getting text alerts about a rainstorm that was much worse than expected, leaving extraordinarily muddy conditions for the racers. Even though I had prepared for the race, I was a little nervous about the course conditions.
We arrived in Virgin to the race expo about 4pm. We picked up our bibs and had registered to volunteer at the expo for a few hours. Ultra Adventures has a great volunteer program that offers discounts on future races so there’s a double benefit: cheaper racing and the opportunity to give back to the running community.
Even by the time we arrived at the expo the weather was significantly better, and the 100k runners who were starting to finish the race didn’t look too muddy. Whew! Now all I had to worry about was getting my butt through the course! We left the expo around 8pm to set up camp and get some sleep; we left before the 100-milers would start to finish.
As we were at the race expo, many of the 100-mile runners were probably still on top of Smith Mesa, one of the many loops they ran on their jaunt through the greater Zion area. Smith Mesa is flanked on three sides by federally-designated Wilderness: Black Ridge, Red Butte, and the Zion Wilderness; the last of these is part of Zion National Park. Most of the remaining non-wilderness part of Smith Mesa is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The beauty of all of Smith Mesa, plus much of the rest of the race course, is that it’s public land. Although the federal government is tasked with its management, public land is land that all tax paying US citizens can claim ownership to. We get a say in how it is managed and—best of all—we can visit it any time we want. How lovely of a notion is that?
Perhaps the best-known of our public lands are our national parks. However, national forest, wilderness, and BLM lands are all part of our public land system. The types of activities and extent of “use” is determined by each type of designation and management agency, but the bottom line remains the same: public lands are entrusted to the people.
Race morning came too early. I would have liked a little more sleep, but woke up excited to run. After a small breakfast of oatmeal and some coffee, we headed to the starting line. It seemed like I barely had time to put on my sunscreen and we were off!
The course ran along a well-developed two track dirt road towards Gooseberry Mesa, which loomed large to the south. After about 5 miles of gentle climbing we started the one mile, 1,500’ climb up the Mesa in earnest. At this point, everyone slowed to a walk, however we seemed to make it to the top of the Mesa—and the first aid station—quickly.
Only 5 miles in, I felt great and had a few M&Ms and filled my hand-held bottle with electrolyte before heading out along the northern rim of Gooseberry Mesa. We would run an approximate 12-mile loop on top of the Mesa before heading back down. I had spent time in training preparing both mentally and physically for the climb up the Mesa, but the 100 or so small climbs on top of the Mesa were something I hadn’t counted on. At first they were fun, but they quickly became very tiring.
Along the loop we had constant views to the south and north, from Smith Mesa to the Navajo Sandstone towers in Zion National Park to the Canaan Mountain Wilderness to the south.
One of the key characteristics of our public lands is that the public offers input on their management. In 2017, the BLM identified several parcels of land for oil and gas leases, however due to public input, they withdrew the parcels. Because of that the trails on Smith Mesa are not bisected by oilfield roads and drilling pads.
By contrast, sometimes public input doesn’t have as strong as an effect. In early 2018, two of Utah’s national monuments had their borders cut drastically despite overwhelming public opinion to the contrary. This loss was devastating to outdoor recreationists, activists, and scientists.
At mile 17, we were more than halfway through the race, and we descended the steep road from Gooseberry Mesa back into the desert below. On my long runs leading up to the race I was very careful to take enough salt as well as “real food,” and I put this training into play on race day as well. As a result, I felt really good almost 20 miles into the race, but the descent down Gooseberry Mesa really put my thighs into what I called “nope” mode, making the next seven or so miles to the Virgin Desert Aid Station a real slog. I interspersed a lot of walking with slow running, and a conversation with another runner really helped to pass the time. Eventually we made it to mile 25 and our final aid station.
The last stretch of the course was really pretty, but the day had heated up to nearly 75 degrees; with one mile to go, my fiancé met me and ran in with me. I was exhausted, and couldn’t have been happier to see the finish line.
Less than a week after the race, I seem to have forgotten how tired I was and have signed up for my second 50k. With several months to train, I can reevaluate my workouts, knowing that I need to work some speed training into my routine, as well as build up core strength. My nutrition and hydration can also use some tweaking. Despite being exhausted as I crossed the finish line, the Zion Ultras was the perfect race to experience my first ultramarathon, and I’m so happy I did it.
I am also thinking about how many trail runners use our public lands and how they can be great advocates for them. Although these places are some of our greatest natural treasures, they are also not inviolable to threats. What can trail runners do to help protect these places from threats?
First, as they say, you have to educate yo’ self. Know what the issues are where you live. Understand the history of public lands, and that many of the conflicts have very deep roots. Make sure you read multiple sources (feel free to contact me directly if you’d like specific recommendations), because—as you may have guessed—all “sides” tend to distort the truth, at least a little bit. Understanding the history of these places and what the real threats are can keep us from doing heartfelt, but misguided, things.
Second, challenge yourself to put your money where your mouth is. Invest in your local public lands. More and more often, trail running groups are offering service days for trail maintenance, etc. However, one day a year is only a start. How can you become involved every day in the maintenance and health of your local trails? Get creative, and think outside of the box. And, honestly, often times a simple donation—the price of a new pair of trail shoes—to an established group already doing work goes a long way.
It’s also worth noting that trail runners should not discount aligning themselves with other sportsmen, hunters and anglers specifically. At the end of the day they have just as much vested in the health of the land as we do, but they also have the infrastructure and money to do great things. There are great partnerships to be made with these groups, even if they may not be the most obvious.
Finally, as Edward Abbey said, “it is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.” Indeed. But—again—education is paramount. Visit sensitive areas with respect, and know that your Instagram posts have a greater impact than you can imagine. Think twice before posting photos of sensitive places, however epic they may be. Don’t let your recreation turn into wreck-reation.
Can you think of anything else? Feel free to add them in the comments!