TRC Featured Trail Race

Zane Grey 50M – An Interview with Race Director Joe Galope

Zane Grey 50M – An Interview with Race Director Joe Galope

The Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Race is entering its 23rd running on April 21st in northeastern Arizona.  Renowned, notorious, infamous, no matter what you call it, the race has earned its title as one of the toughest 50 Mile races in the country.  With the race kicking off with another stellar field we wanted to sit down with Race Director Joe Galope regarding the race, it’s reputation and where he sees the race going in years to come.

TRC: Joe, thank you so much for sitting down to talk with us about your race!  For those that have never ran Zane Grey, is it really one of the toughest 50 mile races in the country?  What makes it so tough?

Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Run

Ponderosa Pines on the Highline Trail. Photo Courtesy of Megan Powers

Joe: The course runs along the base of the Mogollon Rim, constantly dropping in and out of the little canyons and crossing multiple creeks and streams.  The route is entirely single track trail and is extremely rugged.  Despite a ton of work our volunteers have done on the course, entrants will have to navigate over or under fallen trees, through thick wickets of Manzanita bushes, and over very rocky terrain.  There are also sections where the trail just disappears and route finding can be challenging.  The middle section of the course, known as the “burn area” had the trees burned down from the Dude Fire in the early 90’s. Runners are exposed to the heat of the Arizona sun and have to travel as far as 11 miles between some aid stations.  An unprepared runner can sometimes run out of fluids in these long hot stretches.

Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Run

Not easy terrain down there. The Mogollon Rim is rough, tough and relentlessly difficult.

TRC: You’ve had some competitive fields over the years with Anton “Tony” Krupicka, Karl Meltzer, Scott Jurek, Eric Clifton, Ian Torrence, Geoff Roes, Scott Jaime, Dakota Jones, Hal Koerner, among so many others toeing the starting line.  The field took 9 years to even break the 10 hour mark, something finally accomplished in 24 year old Scott Jurek’s first attempt at the course, putting down a 8:48 and setting the new course record.  That alone should stand as a testament to the course difficulty.  Last year you had Roes, Koerner, and Dakota, three elites pushing for Dave Mackey’s 2004 7:51 CR.  This year you have a similarly stellar lineup.  Tell us a little about the upcoming Men’s and Women’s field and your thoughts on the chances Mackey’s record is going to be broken.

Joe: I think Dave Mackey’s course record may never be broken.  Not unless a significant amount of work is done on the trail to improve its condition.  When Mackey and Nikki Kimball set the current course record times in 2004, the trail condition was much better than it is today.  Just compare Nikki’s time in 2004 versus her 2009 time, there’s a 20+ minute difference.  And I attribute that to the course.  That being said however, I look at Anton Krupika’s time of 8:02 in 2008 and think that was an exceptional performance for a few reasons.  Very little work was done on the course prior to the 2008 event, and some runners counted over 100+ fallen trees.  And there were sections of the course that were not marked that year resulting in runners getting lost.  Despite all those obstacles, Anton ran the third fastest time in race history (the second fastest time was also in 2004 by Scott Creel).  The stars would definitely have to align right for anyone to break 7:51.

Zane Grey 50  Mile Endurance Run

This doesn't exactly help CR attempts...

TRC: As the Race Director, what is your biggest challenge for this particular race as far as logistics?

Joe: There are a number of factors that make this a challenging event to put on.  The race is a point-to-point course.  It’s in a remote location.  The 25-mile aid station at Hell’s Gate Canyon requires 4×4 vehicle to access.  In the event a runner has an issue out on the course in between aid stations, or gets lost, sending search and rescue out to get them is a nightmare.  This is always my biggest fear.  This is why we try and screen entrants from getting in over their head at this race.

TRC: In the early years of the race there was a 50K distance that was ran on Friday and then again runners could compete on Saturday for another 50K of the course.  Any future in seeing that 50K distance return or a East to West running of the Highline in the 50M distance?

Joe: I had entertained thoughts of staging a separate 50K event, but in a different time of year, perhaps the Fall.  Who knows.  I doubt I would ever host two separate events (a 50 mile and 50K) on the same day like the race director of that time did in 2008.  Staging one finish line is hard enough.  I had considered running the reverse route again like they did in 2007.  Perhaps in 2014 for the 25th anniversary.  I do want to make the 25th running of the event very special.  This might be one of the things we do that year.

TRC: Twenty five years is impressive considering the number of races currently in the circuit that are just a couple years old.  This race definitely has a lot of history and we’ll be looking forward to this year’s race!

I know a lot of people are really looking forward to this race, many people train specifically for this race as almost a “Rite of Passage” in ultrarunning.  Your website touts the race as one to almost avoid for first time runners of the 50M distance or ultras in general.  Any first time attempts that stand out over the years that trumped that warning?

Diana Finkel leading the way through the Burn Section

Diana Finkel leading the way through the "Burn Section"

Joe: Oh yes.  I’m getting better about screening rookie runners from entering, but it seems there’s always one or two that ‘slip in’.  I’ve been lucky in my tenure as race director as we haven’t had any exceptionally ‘serious’ incidents.  There was this guy who tried to run the race in sweat pants and no water bottle.  Fortunately, we have very experienced volunteers as aid station captains who identify issues and try to rectify problems before they turn into major ordeals.  In years past (before I was the race director), there was the entrant running the last section in the dark who dropped their flash light off the trail, went to retrieve it, couldn’t find it, then couldn’t find their way back onto the trail.  I believe race management was out until 2 am before they finally found him.

TRC: Wait…sweat pants and no water bottle???  Not sure which part is more surprising…

I’ve heard some really gutsy stories about runners toughing it out at Zane Grey .  Last year I watched a New Mexico runner leave mile 44 aid station looking like the Walking Dead, vomit on the trail after the river crossing and then start running up the mountain.  Seems to be par for the course out there with the level of runners that routinely toe the line.  Do you have any great stories of perseverance you’d like to share with our readers?

Joe: What comes to mind immediately is Sean Andrish who fell before the first aid station and dislocated his thumb.  He ran the race with a makeshift splint and finished 5th overall.

Sean Andrish's X-Ray image

Sean Andrish's X-Ray image

TRC: Yes, Sean’s thumb probably takes the cake from his fall last year, hard to top that one.  Pretty incredible that he did that before the first aid station and still put in a 10 hour race!

Joe, we really appreciate you taking the time to meet with us.  We all look forward to this race all year.  Thank you for all your hard work in bringing this race to fruition each year.  We certainly appreciate it and look forward to seeing how this year’s field plays out this weekend!

In addition to this interview Joe has agreed to have Trail Running Club writer Jeremy Dougherty shadow his Race Directing operation of Zane Grey throughout the weekend for an in depth look at what it takes to put on a wilderness 50 Mile ultra.  Stay tuned for that Part 2 report in the weeks following the Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance race on April 21st, 2012.  The logistics, planning, volunteer coordination, HAM Radio support, safety considerations and everything in between…Race Directing is something that is a huge time commitment and we’ll dive into exactly how much it takes to make these events we all love happen.   Stay tuned to for more!

Check out some of the top names in this year’s race and vote in the poll on Jay Danek’s personal blog for who you think will win the Men’s and Women’s race at ZG 50.


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