Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Toughest 50 Mile: Zane Grey vs. Wapack and Back

Most ultrarunners haven't even heard of this race.  However, this still doesn't make it an easy event to get into.  You have to be waiting by the computer when registration opens and hope you're one of the first 30 to hit the proper key strokes.  The planets aligned this year and I was able to both register in time and make the trip east for the 10th running of the Wapack and Back 50 Mile.  This is an event that I've wanted to do for some time due to its acclaimed difficulty (more on that later), trail history and location.

The setting for the Zane Grey 50 Mile - The Mogollon Rim.

The setting for the Wapack and Back 50 Mile - The Wapack Range

The race course travels the length of the Wapack Trail (21.4 miles from north-central Massachusetts to southern New Hampshire) one of the oldest interstate hiking trails in the US.  The race does an out-and-back on the trail, then heads out for another "short" 7-mile out-and-back to collect the total mileage.  There's an accompanying one-way (21.4 miles) event held as well that has double the participant numbers.

I was really interested in how this race would stack up against another difficult 50 mile event that I enjoy participating in: the Zane Grey 50 Mile.  Zane follows the entire length of the Highline Trail #31, a National Recreation Trail, and a portion of the Arizona Trail.  The point-to-point race contours below a 200-mile long "cliff" called the Mogollon Rim in east-central Arizona from Pine to near Christopher Creek.  Two weeks before Wapack, I finished my 13th Zane, a race that's been held for 27 years.

I know of only two other runners (new update: three) who have completed both events.  Bret Sarnquist, who now hails from Silver City, New Mexico, ran and won Wapack (his first 50-mile race in 2008) in 9:57, still one of the 10 fastest times on the course.  He's run Zane five times. Deb Livingston, the race director of the Soapstone Mountain Trail Races, has run Wapack three times (including two victories and the second fastest time on the course) and has finished Zane once. You'll hear their voices occasionally in this piece.  In 2007 New Mexico's Sean Cunniff finished Zane and Wapack in back-to-back fashion and then went on to complete San Juan Solstice 50 Mile almost a month later.

Bret Sarnquist at the 2016 Zane Grey.

Debbie Livingston at Wapack (with family and the author).  Photos by her husband Scott Livingston.

So, for those of you who are interested, let's break down two of the most difficult 50 mile races in the US.

1) Environment:  These races happen on two different sides of the country.  Wapack in the northeast, Zane in the southwest.  Wapack runs through forests of yellow birch, eastern hemlock, american beech, white pine, sugar maple and red oak.  Schist and granite make up the steadfast rocks found on  the course. Zane passes though ponderosa pine, pinyon and juniper forest.  The rocks underfoot consist of loose and eroding limestone and sandstone. Wapack is mostly tree covered but occasionally passes over barren rock-covered 2000'+ summits.  The Zane course runs between 5000' and 6500' and though some of the course has canopy, wildfires like the Dude Fire have left many miles of the course treeless.  Weather can be a wild card.  Zane is most likely to have warmer temps -- 70's with sunny clear skies.  However, how can we forget the snow storm of 2014 that cut the race short?  Wapack typically experiences wet, cloudy conditions, which make the rock slabs underfoot (which make up most of the course) very slippery.  However, according to Trail Animals Running Club race director Jesse Veinette, 2015 saw temps in the mid-80's.

Typical scenery in the middle of the Zane course - The remains of the Dude Fire.

Common Wapack footing.

2) Rocks:  Both of these races score high with a sh@t ton of rocks.  If you're looking for a smooth, flowing trail course you will not find it at either Zane or Wapack.  There is little rhythm running to be had in either at these races. Wapack rocks are large, in-place slabs set at precarious angles.  You'll need your hands!  Add moisture to the moss and lichens that cover these boulders and they become "slicker than snot on a door knob."  Pad your tail bone for this race.

Wet rocks and roots on the Wapack Trail.

Imagine someone dumping a truck full of babyhead-sized rocks in your front yard and then running up and down that pile for 9+ hours.  You now have a visual of the footing for most of the Zane course.  Ankle twisters and knee benders.

The words erosion and Zane are synonymous.

3) Terrain:  Wapack weighs in with roughly 11,500' of gain.  Zane pounds you with about 9,700' of vert.  Wapack's climbs are steep and relentless.  Some are so rocky (see boulder field), that even on fresh legs you must hike and climb.  Zane's ascents are much longer and drawn out.  Runnable on fresh/strong legs, but breathtaking due to the high altitude and exposure to the dehydrating sun.

Wapack's elevation profile.

Zane's elevation profile.

"What makes Wapack harder is the relentless elevation change combined with the technicality of the trails," says Sarnquist. "Zane has plenty of climbing, but Wapack is constant up and down - there's no break from the short climbs and descents and those tend to be steep, meaning walking both up and down. The technicality of the trails at Wapack limits your top speed. The trails at Wapack are more technical overall with some steeper grades, worse footing and some scrambling." 

"Zane Grey was challenging for me in 2012 due to the altitude and the heat," says Livingston. "The many rocky sections can be a pain but I don't think they slow you down as much as the boulders in Wapack and Back."

3)  Course Marking/Navigation:  Both courses meander ruthlessly with sharp twists and turns.  Lush vegetation along the routes can, at times, obscure proper footing and the trail itself.  Both events will leave vegetative cuts and scrapes on your legs and arms.  Because they are both historic trails they are marked with permanent markers: Zane with metal silver diamonds and Wapack with painted yellow triangles.  However, if you look down too long you'll quickly find yourself off course on either course.  Zane's race management flags the course.  At Wapack, they do not.

Wapack's yellow blaze.

Some of the tough trails to follow at Zane.

"I find the out-and-back format of Wapack to be mentally challenging, since you have to do everything again," laments Sarnquist.  "Every steep climb, mud pit, and overgrown section is something you'll have to deal with again."  

4) Distance:  Garmins aren't always accurate.  However, Wapack has always been the same course.  The trail hasn't changed significantly, except for a detour around the Windblown Ski Area, for 10 years.  On the other hand, Zane's course, even though the start and finish line haven't changed, (with the exception of one "reverse" year) is in a state of constant upheaval.  Erosion, vegetation growth and downed trees have added mileage to the course through the years.  Today, funding has been allocated to repair the Highline Trail.  Work parties with heavy equipment are making headway in realigning/rerouting the trail.  Great news, but this has added significant mileage to the course.  The Zane course now spans an additional 2-3 miles.  Expect this to grow in the next two years as trail repairs are completed.

Views from a bald Wapack summit.

Trails like this are quickly being replaced with new improved tread on the Zane course.

5) Aid:  Both courses rock in the support category.  Teams of dedicated volunteers at Wapack and Zane work tirelessly to keep all runners happy and moving forward.  However, Zane sports only five well-stocked aid stations (not including start and finish).  Wapack is able to provide welcomed assistance at nine locations.

Aid at mile 24 at Zane Grey.

A look at the tents that protect the aid stations at Wapack.

6)  Participation/Competition:  Zane has been around much longer than Wapack, and it was, at one time, part of the old Montrail Cup Series. This designation brought some of the most competitive ultrarunners to the venue for several years.  Runners like Dave Mackey (current course record holder at 7:51), Nikki Kimball (current record holder at 9:14), Geoff Roes (Western States 100 Mile winner), Darcy Piceu (Hardrock 100 mile winner), Kyle Skaggs (Hardrock 100 mile winner), Petra Pirc (Tahoe Rim Trail 50 Mile and San Juan Solstice 50 Mile winner), Karl Meltzer (Hardrock 100 mile winner), Kerrie Bruxvoort (Quad Rock 50 Mile and San Juan Solstice 50 Mile winner), Hal Koerner (Western States 100 Mile winner), Diana Finkel (Hardrock 100 Mile winner), Anton Krupicka (Leadville Trail 100 Mile winner) and Scott Creel (Tamalpa Headlands 50K winner) among others.  Now-a-days, Zane has nearly 150 starters.

Wapack, a younger race, a much less publicized event and local favorite, has a very small starting field due to the constraints of the Wapack Trail.  Josh Katzman (a top 20 finisher at Western States and PR of 15:35 for the 100-mile distance) holds the men's course record at 8:51 and Kristina Folcik (winner of Traprock 50K and 3rd at Leona Divide 50 Mile) holds the women's record at 10:53.  Other notable finishers include both Debbie Livingston and Bret Sarnquist.  Wapack has less than 30 starters each year.

7)  Entering: Entry to Zane is via a lottery that opens on October 1, 2016.  Wapack will, most likely, be on a first-come first-serve basis that might be opening on February 1st, 2017.  Better mark your calendars.

A lucky 13th finish at Zane.

My 1st Wapack finish and what I look like after two gnarly 50 mile finishes in 13 days.

In the end Sarnquist picks Wapack over Zane in terms of difficulty.  "People tend to underestimate the difficulty of races back east," he explains.  "Expectation is everything, as they say, and if you expect it to be not so bad some of those eastern ultras will be a real surprise."  But let's be honest, if we search hard enough we'll always find something bigger and harder. "Word on the street, or trail, is that the Tushars 93k is one of the hardest races around," points out Sarnquist. "Also up there, by reputation, are the San Juan Solstice 50 and anything in the Marin Headlands." 

Livingston also picked Wapack over Zane.   "In some respects Wapack and Back is a more challenging race due to the large rocks on many steep climbs along with lots of exposed roots," explains Livingston. "Add rain into the mix and that compounds that toughness. The other aspect that makes it hard to even complete is arriving at the finish with 7 miles to go. That makes the race mentally challenging and keeps many people from continuing on."

Cunniff, however, went with Zane as the tougher. "It was Zane for me, mostly because of the heat and exposure," he says. "But that nasty out-and-back at the end of Wapack definitely tested my mental toughness."

So, which race do I think is more difficult?  I'm not sure. As I recover from these two beastly courses I'm still trying to make up my mind.  What do you think?