How can something that you have been waiting to do for almost three years possibly live up to and even exceed expectations?
Well, let me tell you.
When I first heard about the Grand Circle Trailfest in 2018, I knew I wanted to do it. It just seemed like it would be fun.
Challenging, but fun.
Challenging because I’d never done any trail running or camping before. Challenging because it was three days in a row of both of these things.
But fun because it would be a different kind of event than I had ever done before and in a part of the United States that I had never been to.
I have always considered myself a road runner, but it was time to change it up a little bit.
I initially registered for this event in early 2019, but ended up deferring it that year (because I chickened out) and again in 2020 (Covid, of course).
Even though I deferred it twice, it remained at the top of my list of events to do.
Luckily, the event has a very good deferral/race transfer policy.
So, to say that this was much-anticipated would be an understatement.
What Did I Sign Up FOr?
The general gist of Trailfest is as follows: it’s a three-day trail running event held in southern Utah and northern Arizona. Each of the 3 days, you run a race between 10 and 13.5ish miles on trails close to Bryce Canyon, Zion and Horseshoe Bend.
Included in the registration is breakfast and dinner each day and, among many other things, a tent to sleep in for 4 nights at the event headquarters in Kanab, Utah.
After each race, you can explore the surrounding areas, which include the National Parks (Bryce Canyon or Zion) or go back to headquarters and relax.
While dinner is served, there are speakers, games, music and movies as well as a recap of the day (awards, etc.) and an overview of what to expect the following day.
Logistically-speaking, the event was really well run, from packet pick-up and the camp headquarters to the races themselves – courses, course markings, and aid stations.
I have to give a special shoutout here to Dehn (Race Director) and Colleen (Race Announcer and camp emcee), and the whole team of staff and volunteers, who kept things running smoothly and regularly provided updates and answers to questions when needed.
Also, Colleen has to be the best race announcer out there!
Now, let’s get to the really fun part – the running!
Day 1 – Bryce Canyon
To say that I slept well in the tent on the 1st night would be a lie, but as I drove to the start of the first race I was feeling excited to finally get everything underway.
In the course overview the night before, they told us over and over (and over and over) this course was tough. At about 13.5ish miles and with 2,000 feet of elevation gain, this definitely proved true. Especially to my road-running legs!
Because of all this and with very little (i.e. zero) trail running experience, this course definitely gave me a little more pre-race nerves than normal. The temperature at the start line was a chilly 21 degrees F (-6 C), which only added to my feeling of wanting to get started.
For the first several miles, the course was mostly singletrack trail, which meant there was very little room for the passing that I am used to at the beginning of road races. While this helped to warm me up and ease into the race, it was also difficult to get into a good rhythm.
With the frequent climbing followed by the downhill sections throughout the course, there was a feeling of déjà vu in the last half of the race as what I thought would be the last downhill section was followed by yet another difficult uphill climb.
This isn’t a criticism of the course. It’s just an observation of something that I had to adjust to and fight my way through to get the finish line.
After the final downhill, the course turns on to a bicycle path to the finish, which was my cue to pick up the pace and finish strong!
Finishing in just under 2:50, I wasn’t sure about how the time was, but it ended up being good enough for 55th overall out of 650 runners and 7th in my age group, which I was thrilled with for my 1st ever trail race!
Looking back on Day 1 now, it is the exact reason that I wanted to do Trailfest!
The course was very difficult as promised many times over, but that made it that much more memorable and gave me a even greater sense of accomplishment having completed it.
Now, with the presumed most difficult day complete, it was time to recover and get ready for Day 2!
Day 2 – Zion
After a much better night’s sleep, I began getting ready to start Day 2 and was pleasantly surprised that my legs were not as sore or tired as I expected from the previous day’s exertions.
I wasn’t quite sure why or how my legs weren’t sore, but I wasn’t about to start complaining!
A beautiful morning awaited us at the start line! With the sun coming up behind Smithsonian Butte, it was just about time to get Day 2 underway.
The race started with three miles of gentle downhill running on a dirt road before getting on the Wire Mesa Trail for the remainder of the race.
If I could use one word to describe running on this trail – FUN!
In comparison to Day 1, this course was relatively flat and considerably shorter at just over 10 miles. And just like Day 1, the views were incredible throughout – especially from the edge of the mesa.
The trail mainly consisted of slick rock and dirt, which was a welcome change from Day 1’s terrain. Because of it being a flat course, that definitely provided the opportunity to speed things up considerably after yesterday’s climbing.
While this course definitely wasn’t as difficult as Day 1, it still provided some challenges for me due to the increase in speed. A lot of quick, short steps required a good amount of concentration on your foot placement.
Just as I was thinking things were going smoothly, I twisted my ankle about five miles in to the race. This was definitely a cause for concern but, as I was still able to run without much discomfort, I decided to keep going and worry about it later if it became a problem.
Then a few minutes later, I hit my head on a low tree branch! Both of these incidents served as quite literal reminders to watch my step and be aware of where I was running.
A quick stop at the well-stocked and well-placed aid station allowed me to quickly get some watermelon and then get back on the trail to finish the last three miles or so!
Knowing that the finish line was approaching gave me all the motivation I needed to pick up the pace and really enjoy these last few miles!
Again, I was thrilled with my finishing position of 38th overall out of 659 runners and 5th in my age group!
After returning to the headquarters and showering, I really started to notice how sore my legs had become after these first two days of racing. However, with just the final day ahead of me, I felt confident of powering through the tired legs on Day 3.
That is, until the course overview for Day 3…
Day 3 – Horseshoe Bend
Waking up for the 3rd and final day of racing confirmed that yes my legs were still very sore.
However, even with the promise of a lot of deep sand on the course today, I still felt like I could finish the event strong.
This course was run completely on Navajo Nation land and, due to Covid restrictions, we were all very fortunate and grateful to be able to run on this course this year!
And it certainly did not disappoint!
From the very beginning, the mood was good among the runners around me. Due to the restrictions on Navajo Land, there was a staggered start, which meant that runners were quickly very spread out.
Less than a mile in, came the first of two incredibly spectacular experiences on this course – Horseshoe Bend (see below)!
After stopping for a couple of minutes to enjoy the view and take a few pictures, I got moving again.
Following a couple of miles running on sandstone, it was time to run through the desert as most of the next few miles consisted of deep sand. It felt great to get through that section and get some refreshment at the aid station.
Shortly after the aid station, it was time to drop down into the slot canyon to run what has to be one of the coolest miles of any race. Running through the slot canyon was like running in a different world. In certain spots, the walls of the canyon were only wide enough for one person to fit through!
After coming up out of the slot canyon, we were faced with one last uphill climb through deep sand. Once at the top though, it was only 2.5 miles of gently downhill running. Yes – it was still sand but not nearly as deep as other sections of the course and, with the finish line getting closer with each step, it was time to finish the race and the event strong.
I was a little surprised, but really happy to finish this race in 14th overall out of 645 runners and 4th in my age group!
Some of the sections on this course especially through the sand might have been the most difficult miles of the three days – to me and my tired legs. But running through the sand was more than worth it for the opportunity to run this beautiful course – an opportunity that not many people get to experience.
When I first registered for Trailfest, I was expecting it to be tough, but that’s why I registered for it!
Trying new things, in this case trail running and camping, as difficult as they might seem, can turn out to be great experiences. And that’s exactly what happened in my time at Trailfest.
In terms of cumulative time for all three days, I was shocked to find out I finished 29th overall out of over 600 runners, but even that wasn’t my biggest takeaway from Trailfest!
Neither were the awesome set of medals (pictured below).
My biggest takeaway from Trailfest was the overall experience. Being able to run on three completely different trails, each spectacular in their own way was incredible!
But even more importantly, knowing that I pushed myself on each day and finished as strong as I possibly could, makes me confident that I am still heading in the right direction and continuing to progress towards my goals.
Of the many memorable moments from Trailfest, the one that I keep thinking about occurred in the last 2 miles of Day 3. As I was running my 33rd or 34th mile in three days, with my legs and body sore and aching and enjoying the view back over the course, all I could think about was that I didn’t want it to end yet.
It’s that feeling that will have me back at Trailfest in the future to do it all over again!
*For more information on Trailfest visit: https://vacationraces.com/trailfest/grand-circle-trailfest/. Also, take a look at the other races put on by Vacation Races: https://vacationraces.com/.