The Zane Grey Highline Trail 50-Mile Race might be the Rim Country’s best-kept secret, even though it’s one of the most legendary events on the nation’s ultra run calendar.
Martin Szekeresh is probably the only local who knows much about the race, having previously entered it. He’s also worked as a volunteer host for several years.
Szekeresh says runners describe the Zane Grey Highline Trail as the “toughest 50-mile trail race in the country” and claim it’s more demanding than most 100-mile ultra marathons.
The 23rd annual race begins at 5 a.m. tomorrow, Saturday, April 21 at the Pine Trailhead north of the Beeline Highway and winds over rugged Mogollon trails and through canyons to the finish line at the 260 Trailhead east of Christopher Creek.
“The trail is very rocky in long stretches,” Szekeresh said. “There are several water crossings and a lot of downed trees to climb over.”
The trail is marked with metal diamonds nailed to trees, but more than one runner has lost his way and been re-directed by rescue volunteers.
One of Szekeresh’s responsibilities during past races was is to help set up aid stations at points 8, 17, 25, 33 and 44 miles into the race.
The aid stations are stocked with water, electrolyte replacement fluid, fruits and other foods.
Prior to the race, some of the runners place “drop bags” at the aid stations and other locations along the course. The drop bags often contain first-aid kits, clean socks, flashlights and food. Well-supplied drop bags often are the difference in runners calling it quits and finishing the grueling run, Szekeresh said.
One of the toughest obstacles runners must overcome in the rugged journey is “avulsions” or tearing of the skin on feet and legs.
“When it comes to those, the motto is ‘if the bone ain’t showing, you got to keep going.’” Szekeresh said.
A certainty about the Zane Grey 50, is that it’s not a fun run or for beginners.
“It is an endurance contest between your body and the mountain trail,” said Szekeresh. “No matter who you are or how good your running credentials, sometimes it just isn’t your day and you DNF (Did Not Finish).”
He cites 20-year-old Dakota Jones of Colorado as a runner who has suffered the heartbreak of Zane Grey.
During last year’s race, he dropped out after 33 miles.
“Later in the year he finished second in the Hard Rock Hundred at an average elevation of 11,200 feet, then set a new Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to rim unofficial record in a time of 6 hours and 53 minutes,” Szekeresh said.
Which means, the Zane Grey run took it’s toll on a darn good long distance runner who went on to prove his mettle in some other of the sport’s toughest races.
Szekeresh points to a bit of advice ultra runners give to newcomers as a testament to how tough the event is, “If you feel good during an ultra, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.”
Last year, 128 ultra-runners representing more than 18 states, Canada and Ireland turned out for the race.
Geoffrey Roes, 34, of Nederland, Colo., was the first man to cross the finish line eight hours and 13 minutes after he began. A field of 91 men participated.
Roes was no stranger to long distance running, having won the 2010 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Race in 15 hours, 7 minutes.
Among the 31 women to enter the Zane Grey, Andi Felton of Scottsdale was first in 10 hours, 36 minutes. She was also eighth overall.
Hal Koenner, 35, of Oregon was the second male finisher in 8 hours, 36 minutes.
For tomorrow’s race, a field of 165 runners ranging in age from 18 to 7 representing 19 states, including four from Alaska, has entered.
Szekeresh is anticipating tomorrow’s high temperatures, which could exceed 80 degrees, will render the race even more demanding and take its toll on the runners.
Heat, he added, is an ultra marathoners worst enemy.