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Three days, three medium-distance trail races that sample the diverse terrain and superlative views of the “grand circle” of national parks: Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon.
That’s the premise that drew a sellout group of some 400 participants from 41 states plus four other countries to the first Grand Circle Trail Fest based in Kanab in Southern Utah, October 13 – 15. (The 2017 edition is Oct. 5 – 7, and registration opens January 20.)
I jumped at the opportunity to visit Kanab and run around the region’s red bluffs again. When I stayed in Kanab in 2012 and 2014 during the Grand to Grand Ultra, I developed an affinity for this resurgent retro town, made famous by Western films and now home to outdoor-rec enthusiasts who mix with cowboys and old-timers. The idea of racing a half-marathon to 30K distance for three consecutive days sounded appealing, for sure.
Plus, I was curious to see if the organizers could pull off their idea for a trail-running “festival” (see my past article on trend) with camping, entertainment and activities designed to occupy non-runner family and friends who accompany the runners. I also wondered how they’d handle the daunting logistics of transporting hundreds of runners for hours each day to trailheads on the edges of the national parks.
It turns out, the transportation became a part of the adventure.
The Back Story and Our Arrival
I traveled with my running buddy and coaching client Jami Sutter, who did the Grand to Grand Ultra in 2015 (related post). We flew to Vegas and had a hoot making the 3.5-hour drive east to Kanab. Two middle-aged girlfriends leaving our homes and hubbies on a Wednesday to drive and run wild around the West felt a little Thelma & Louise-ish.
Though Jami and I both are seasoned backcountry campers who don’t mind roughing it, we opted to share a room at a local motel rather than stay at the festival’s campground. I’m glad we popped for that extra expense, because the festival’s tightly packed tent sites made for noisy nights, according to those who camped, and all the campers had to share only eight showers at an adjacent rec center.
Overall, however, the layout of the camping and festival area at Jacob Hamblin Park looked cool and functioned well. Vendor tents, race management tables and a stage for live music ringed an open grassy area. Organizers set up propane fire pits and chairs for gathering spots. All the tents, camper vans and food vendors spread across a ball field above the main area.
One complaint (though I don’t blame the organizers, as I assume it’s a matter of Utah law): The “beer garden” was segregated to an area away from the main activities, on the edge of the park boundary, and the drinking of adult beverages was confined to that sad little fenced-in area. The beer garden earned the nickname “the beer prison,” but I willingly locked myself in there and enjoyed talking to others “trapped” with our craft brews.
Over the course of the festival days—while running on the trail, shuttling in vans or imbibing in the beer prison—I discovered that many participants were fairly inexperienced at trail running. Most identified as casual road runners or triathletes; a few said this was their first real race on a trail. It was great to see so many stoked by traversing tough terrain rather than smooth road.
I heard that the race director, Salem Stanley, deserves credit for promoting the event to this wider audience. I didn’t get the full story on how the Grand Circle Trail Fest developed, but from what I gather, the idea originated with race director Matt Gunn of Ultra Adventures, and he partnered with Trail And Ultra Running to make it happen. Ultra Adventures puts on a well-regarded series of trail races in the Southwest, and Matt has a solid reputation in the ultrarunning community as a nice guy and eco-conscious RD who strives for nearly zero-waste events. But some months ago, due to personal circumstances, Matt transferred his business to Salem, who owns Vacation Races, which puts on a series of half marathons near national parks. Matt stayed on in a principle position and was present as a leader throughout Trail Fest, but Salem took the helm and seemed to be in charge throughout the festival.
I met Salem on the first day, and his outgoing personality and desire to iron out wrinkles in the operations impressed me. When things went wrong (which we’ll get into below), he was quick to apologize and say, basically, “I know, it’s lame and I’m really sorry—we need to fix it next year.” That’s the right attitude for an inaugural event like this, when glitches are as inevitable as blisters.
Day One: Thunder Mountain near Bryce Canyon, approx 12.5 miles
Jami and I woke up early and got to the festival HQ by 5:45 a.m. because the schedule said shuttles would depart by 6 a.m. for the trail next to Bryce, nearly an hour and a half away, for a 7:30 a.m. start. That timeline seemed tight to me, but whatever. We queued up. The queue grew longer. Shivering runners waited and wondered as the clock ticked past 6 a.m. Someone announced the obvious: The shuttles were late.
Finally, a fleet of vans arrived from St. George. Many runners opted to drive, but seating in the vans was limited nonetheless. We got in a van with a dozen other runners and departed around 6:30.
Let me pause to interject an important fact here: The trail running in this festival doesn’t actually take place in the national parks, in spite of the impression given through promotional materials that you’re going to run around the parks. That’s because national parks don’t permit competitive group events like a trail race in park boundaries. Therefore, each day’s race uses a trail on the edge of the park. These are glorious, first-rate trails—just not in the heart of the famed national parks.
Apparently, most of the van drivers failed to receive this critical piece of information along with clear directions to the remote, lesser-known trail where the race was held. Consequently, a long string of vans full of antsy, queasy, desperate-to-pee runners drove straight to and through the main entrance to Bryce National Park, overshooting by many miles the turnoff to the trailhead where the race started. I happened to be in one of those vans.
Eventually the drivers pulled over, got out and consulted with each other. They looked to be mouthing, “Where the hell are we supposed to go?” Some probably blamed Obama and the media for the whole mess. Then they got back in and started driving the way we came, on the stretch of highway between Bryce and Zion.
I wasn’t too concerned, because I knew the organizers planned to start the race in waves anyway, and we would be chip-timed so it didn’t really matter when we started. I resigned myself to being on the desert equivalent of “island time” and enjoyed gazing at the landscape in the morning light, which made the earth tones glow warmer. The string of white vans looked incongruously sci-fi, like a scene from Stranger Things.
Long story short, everyone eventually got to the Thunder Mountain Trail in Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest. (The parking and shuttling of runners who drove their own cars proved to be another hiccup.) No matter, I was at the start line with a group ready to run! The starting-line setup was well organized with timing mats, music and drop bags for runners. At around 8:15 a.m., I took off fast.
Right away I fell in love with this trail, because of the way it curves and rolls, and also because of the soft, smooth footing made of crumbled sandstone and pine needles. And the views—even though it’s outside of Bryce, it rivals the best of Bryce! I rounded a corner and found myself mesmerized by a garden of hoodoos. I also loved the mix of fast, smooth singletrack and tough, steep switchbacks.
The trail put me in a good mood that allayed mounting frustration from having to pass scores—at least more than 100—of slower runners who started in earlier waves. Passing on the left-hand shoulder of the trail wasn’t too tough, but it did sap energy. I think it filled me with adrenaline, however, because I was running as if starting a 10K. I also felt speedy relative to others, because at 8000′ elevation, the thin air slowed people down, but I still reaped the benefits of high-altitude training from Colorado.
The course popped onto a paved bike path for about three-quarters of a mile, then climbed the rugged, steep, switchbacky Castle Bridge Trail. In the final three miles, we ran over a dramatic summit called Golden Wall. I unleashed all my downhill-running skill and pedaled down switchbacks toward the finish line maniacally whoo-hooing because it felt so ridiculously fun.
The route was advertised as 13 miles, but I think it was between 12 – 12.5. My GPS only measured 11.5, but all the switchbacks and vert would have made the GPS less accurate. I finished Day One’s race 2nd female in a time of 2:13, less than a minute behind the winner, out of a field of 195 women! To be sure, the majority of these runners came mainly to socialize and sightsee, not really to race; still, I faced some legit competition up front.
Hats off to the race organizers’ finish-line setup. An enthusiastic announcer read aloud each person’s name upon approach, and they treated us to a high-quality recovery drink, fruit, and boxes with better-than-average healthy snacks. (Side note: I got hooked on the recovery drink handed out each day at the finish, CytoSport Evolve protein shake. It’s all natural, non-dairy and made from pea protein. It’s my new favorite thing.)
I wish I could be as complimentary about the organization back at camp. Upon return after that long shuttle ride, hungry runners who had been promised a free meal from the food vendors were bummed to discover that many of the food trucks proved to be no-shows, and the one that showed up didn’t open until well after lunchtime. With food options scarce at camp, many left to eat out in town.
On this day, most runners received a wonderful handmade arrow as a finisher’s award, with the name of the event hand lettered on it. But supplies ran out, and we were supposed to receive these arrows each day. The woman who made them with her family, Carlotta (pictured below), ran out of time to make enough. That strikes me as short-sighted on the organizers’ part. But Salem the RD did another mea culpa and generously offered to mail these finishers’ awards to every participant in the coming weeks. (Yikes, I can only imagine the cost associated with that!) Carlotta also made the awards for the top finishers. The Trail Fest’s awards certainly are special and unique keepsakes, which I appreciate and will treasure.
Overall, most participants seemed to share my enthusiasm for the first day’s race. They also enjoyed that day’s speaker, nutritionist Sunny Blende, live music and a massage tent. A trail-running film fest capped off the night (but I didn’t go—I was too tired!).
Day Two: Gooseberry Mesa near Zion, approx. 12 miles
Jami and I opted to drive to the start line on Day Two. Which would have been fine if we were in a Jeep. Instead, I gripped the steering wheel white-knuckled in a cheap, low-clearance Kia rental car, praying the tires wouldn’t blow and the bottom wouldn’t spring a leak as we navigated sharp rocks, deep ruts and menacing cattle guards over 8 miles of dirt access roads to the trailhead.
Pockets of dried mud from recent storms pitted the road. I kept thinking, thank God we have clear, perfect weather. I don’t know how the cars and vans could get through this stretch in a high-desert gully washer of a storm, which would turn the roads to wet, deep clay. Did the event organizers have a transportation contingency plan in case of inclement weather? Thankfully we didn’t have to find out.
Day Two’s race took place on Gooseberry Mesa, about 60 miles east of Kanab and southwest of Zion National Park. We got there just as the sun started coming up, illuminating towering rock formations in the distance. This day’s landscape looked markedly different from Day One, full of cacti and scraggly vegetation rather than taller trees, with vistas of vermillion cliffs and bluffs overlooking vast plateaus. Each day of this event provided the gift of seeing a different facet of the magnificent Colorado Plateau.
The race started only 15 minutes late today. I positioned myself in the front, in the pack of the lead men and women, and enjoyed meeting the half dozen or so female competitors—all friendly—who vied for top spots. Next to me stood Paul Braa of Petaluma, whom I recognized from Facebook and from finishing a few minutes behind him at Western States; and his friend, Steve Pletcher of Mill Valley. At ages 53 and 44 respectively, they both represented the Bay Area well and ultimately elbowed out younger guys to place in the top 10 overall. The fastest guy up front, Justin Ricks of Colorado Springs, was in a league of his own and left no doubt he’d win by a large margin. (After the three days were over, I did the math and realized that Justin averaged around a 6:42 pace on those trails! My average pace, meanwhile, was in the high 9’s.)
We all took off hard, and after a few miles of rocky and sandy trail, the 12-mile relatively flat route showcased slickrock—massive swaths of gray rock sculpted by wind and water. Smooth and curved in parts, ridged and wrinkled in others, the expanse of undulating slickrock made me feel like a bug crawling on a pachyderm’s hide.
The race route followed a zig-zaggy, circuitous mountain bike path marked by painted white dots on the rock. (I was surprised to realize these dots were painted, not temporary chalk, and surmised the dots are meant to reduce impact by keeping visitors on a single path rather than wandering all over the slickrock.) Even with the helpful dots, I found it quite difficult to follow the route. Fortunately, the event organizers did an exceptionally good job on all three days of marking the race course, so any time I felt doubt about which way to go, I looked up and spotted a reassuring course ribbon.
I focused so much on finding my footing, following the dots and pushing my pace that I barely looked up to appreciate the scenery. All of a sudden, around mile 6, I gasped with surprise to notice we were running near the edge of a 1000-foot dropoff. Pausing for a split second to look over my shoulder and survey the view, I took a mental snapshot of a colossal natural amphitheater, which dropped below the cliff, composed of a wall of layered, multihued rock.
On this Day Two, I struggled not only from physical exertion but also mental fatigue. I started hallucinating from the optic blur of connecting white dots on bulging slickrock that appeared to pulsate. But I tried my best and upped my pace to sub-8-minute miles in the final stretch, keeping the 3rd place woman in sight. Ultimately I earned the day’s 4th place finish in 1:51.
At day’s end, results showed I was 3rd overall in cumulative time, 5 minutes behind the lead woman, but the women in 4th through 6th all were only a couple of minutes behind me. I knew I’d have to work hard in the final day’s race to keep a podium spot.
I stuck around the finish to cheer on Jami and my other friend and client, Heather Sutherland, and I also hung out with my friend from the Grand to Grand Ultra, James Garner. After 48 hours in this landscape, running with these people, I savored the feeling of starting to go tribal again.
Back at camp, we all enjoyed a funny and inspirational talk by Utah ultrarunner Cory Reese, and more music and trail-running films. A couple more food vendors showed up and did a land-office business. I went to bed early for an extra-early wakeup on Day Three.
Day Three: North Rim of Grand Canyon, approx. 18.5 miles
The Trail Fest grand finale required two hours of shuttling each way to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, hence a 5 a.m. departure. Jami and I lucked out and picked a van with a good group and a competent driver who knew where he was going. We all oohed and ahhed over the full harvest moon setting on the horizon. Midway, the fleet of vans pulled over to a rest stop for a bathroom break—as if two restrooms could accommodate hundreds of runners all at once. Sizing up the situation, our group told the driver, “We don’t need to stop—please keep going!” and he obliged, so we were one of the first vans to arrive at the trailhead. I appreciated the no-stress start.
Quite simply, the morning felt perfect in terms of locale, weather and trail conditions. The route followed the point-to-point Rainbow Rim Trail, around 18.5 miles, through pine and aspen groves at about 7700′ elevation. The trail connects five points that each overlook this portion of the Grand Canyon.
I heard a few runners express disappointment afterward that they didn’t really get to see the Grand Canyon, as if they were expecting the iconic views from the South Rim. It’s true, this trail provides awesome canyon views of the North Rim, but it’s not as dramatic as visiting the South Rim or getting below the rim by rafting the Colorado.
My legs talked back to me with fatigue from the first two days’ races, and I knew I’d have to start with a more conservative pace to run steadily the whole way. And that was my goal: to run hard and steady, with as few hiking breaks as possible, and finish under 3 hours. From research, I knew the trail was relatively easy and almost entirely runnable, which was both a blessing and a curse. Part of me wished for technical switchbacks to have a reason to downshift to hiking.
At the start, I tucked in behind the lead two women—Lauri Thompson, 41, of Idaho; and Genevieve Arnaud, 27, of British Columbia. I was grateful they set a manageable pace, and as I followed closely behind them for the first couple of miles, I savored the feeling that trail racing tends to foster of making collaborators out of competitors, as if we’re working together to do our best.
After a few miles, however, they pulled ahead and I stuck to my pace, not wanting to blow up by working too hard, too early. Another woman passed me, so I knew I was in 4th. I kept running steadily on this runnable ribbon of a trail as the pack spread out. About a third of the way through, I found myself solo. At this point, motivation waned, because I knew I’d finish 4th for the day, since the women ahead were out of sight and I couldn’t spot anyone behind me. But I kicked my rear into higher gear by remembering that cumulative time ultimately matters most in a stage race, so I should push to get the best possible time for the combined three days.
Only a few spikes in the elevation profile with switchbacks interrupted the otherwise smooth, straight forested trail. I got into a zone of “flow” and felt gratitude for another run through the Southwest and for feeling totally free from injury. I ran up the last bump of a hill to the finish and crossed in a time of 2:58, 4th for the day.
Nobody was sure of the cumulative placing (the three races combined) at that point. I was pretty certain Lauri and Genevieve earned 1st and 2nd, but I had no clue whether I hung onto 3rd overall. I celebrated with the front runners and then hopped in a van ASAP for the long drive back to Kanab.
And then the day’s real adventure began.
Our driver, a placid gray-haired man who could be Ken Bone’s uncle, must have been late to Saturday bingo at the Elks lodge. He seemed determined to set a record for drive time from the North Rim to Kanab. He pushed the extra-long passenger van to 60 mph on a narrow, winding forest road with a gravely washboard surface. The van fishtailed wildly, avoiding the roadside ditch and oncoming traffic by mere inches. Blinded by a cloud of dust, we nearly rear-ended a slower van. But the driver acted as unruffled as Mike Pence, and as divorced from reality. When we finally reached the paved highway, he accelerated past 75 and took curves so fast that I could feel the top-heavy vehicle start to tip.
I may be a hardcore ultrarunner, but as the only woman in this runaway van, I felt like a damsel in distress while suppressing screams and clutching my brawny new friends, Steve the surgeon and Paul the firefighter. In hindsight the scene feels melodramatic, but at the time I really thought we might die. Instead, we made it to Kanab, and the driver from St. George zoomed off. I bet he couldn’t wait to tell his brethren about the wacko heathen runners.
I got a late lunch and made a beeline for the beer prison. The remainder of the afternoon and evening unfolded in a happy, beery haze. I sat around a fire pit with Jami and Heather while Ray Zahab gave a motivational talk about ultrarunning and his odyssey across the Sahara.
The results came out, and during the awards ceremony I joyously took my place next to Lauri and Genevieve as the 3rd place female. My cumulative time of 7:03 was only two minutes faster than the 4th place finisher, so I’m glad I kept pushing on that Rainbow Rim Trail! (Results here.) Then, to top things off, an emotional Matt Gunn got on one knee and publicly proposed to his girlfriend. What a memorable way to end the festival!
If you visit Kanab, I recommend these restaurants: Rocking V Cafe, Peekabo Canyon Woodfired Kitchen, and Sego.
If you care about protecting the open space and environment in this region, then please join me in supporting two organizations that protect and advocate on behalf of public lands there: the Conservation Lands Foundation and the Grand Canyon Trust.
Disclaimer: I received comp’ed entry as a media rep. The full-access pass for the festival cost $530, which included: registration and transportation to each day’s race, a tent at the campsite (optional), free breakfast and meal tickets to food vendors, finish-line food, and a nice-quality jacket with the event logo. The price tag strikes me as a really good deal—perhaps too good, as I heard the organizers want to increase the number of participants, implying the event isn’t economically viable as is. I’d encourage them to raise prices instead and keep the number of participants close to the same, as it felt like we reached max capacity for the trails and the transportation. More runners on those trails would detract from the experience, in my view, and I wince at the impact of all the vans and cars driving long distances to squeeze into those trailheads.
Many thanks to all the event staff and volunteers (with a special shoutout of gratitude to my friends Tana McTeer, who worked tirelessly as an organizer, and Mike McTeer, who volunteered). I hope the second annual Grand Circle Trail Fest is a great success.
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