2019 Running Trip – Day 1 – Zion National Park

The anticipation for the eighth annual Iron Phi charity running trip has been building for months. As I researched Utah leading up to the trip, I was mesmerized by what I was seeing online and on Instagram specifically. The more I planned, the more I became excited about what we would experience. The week’s itinerary includes five National Parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonland) along with Park City and Salt Lake in the northern part of the state.

Along with me this year is my great friend Bret “Zim” Zimmerman. Brett and I were in the same Phi Delt pledge class way back in 2000 and have remained close since. I knew that by having Zim by my side, I would be challenged in many ways that are different from previous running trips. Zim is an outdoors man, so our decision to “rough it” out of a van and a tent was a natural decision. I’m not much of a camper, so I was one part nervous and one part excited. Zim also brings great energy to everything he does, so I know he’ll keep us positive throughout the trip.

Leading up to the trip I was able to raise $4,000 for Iron Phi, and I have 105 donors to thank this week. As always, the generosity of others and their support of these trips has once again left me humbled.

We decided to fly in and out of Las Vegas in order to hit Southern Utah first. Upon landing, we were instantly excited to get out of the hustle and bustle of Vegas and into the parks. But first, we had to pick up the trusty minivan, hit up Sam’s Club to grab our supplies for the week, and get a bite to eat. There was only one place – The famous In-N-Out burger. In front of In-N-Out, I thanked my nephew Gavin Jensen. Middle schooler Gavin is set to surpass me in height very soon, and he’s in his “I can eat the fridge” stage of his life. I’ve seen him house a number of big burgers over the years. It only seemed appropriate.

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I always look for good omens during these trip, and I received one out of the gate. I was order #4 of the day in this Las Vegas In-N-Out. If you’re a baseball fan, you’ll know that Lou Gehrig wore #4. It was a fun (and delicious) reminder of what this trip is all about.

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We traveled northeast to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. I discovered this hidden gem during a trip to Vegas last year with friends. It is an INCREDIBLE state park with 40,000 acres of bright red Aztec sandstone outcrops nestled in gray and tan limestone. I had to get a shot at one of its iconic views and thanked Jennifer Morrow. Jennifer is on my communications team at work and is one of most trustworthy and talented people with whom I’ve worked.

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We wanted to get the blood flowing a bit, so we took off on a short run. Starting on loose sand and rocks will definitely get the blood moving.

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We continued north and entered Utah – St. George to be exact. St. George was named in honor of Mormon apostle George A. Smith, also known as the “Potato Saint” because he urged early settlers to eat raw, unpeeled potatoes to cure scurvy. What a guy. Like any good Mormon village, we knew we could find a stately temple in the center of town. I thanked Brad & Kelly Becker for their donation at the temple. Brad is a fellow Iowa State Phi Delt with whom I frequently share a great laugh. I’ve always appreciated Brad’s lighthearted nature, and it’s been fun to watch he and Kelly rock the parenthood thing. The friendly folks at the St. George Marathon equipped the two of us with a fun race shirt for the day. Thanks Michelle!

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We were quite excited to get Zion National Park. People rave about this place, and I officially fell in love with it right away. On November 19, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill into law establishing Zion National Park. The park encompasses some of the most scenic canyon country in the United States, featuring high plateaus, a maze of sandstone canyons and waterfalls with colorful hanging gardens. IT IS MAJESTIC. What many do not realize is that Zion National Park isn’t that big. You’d never guess this from its presence.

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Our first stop was Watchman Campground to setup camp. We secured one of the last camping spots in the park months back. Zion, you see, is a very popular place. My tent building skills are not great, so I did what I could to help Zim erect our home for the night. Quite the view!

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We got settled in the tent, visited Moab Brewery for dinner, just a few minute walk from our campsite, and turned in for the night. We had a 5:30am wake up call the next morning to get on the first shuttle to the world-renowned Angel’s Landing hike.

Being late October, the temperature will get into the 20s/30s each night. Thankfully, night one went well, and I actually got hot overnight. We were awaken by coyote and elk calls throughout the night, but it was kind of tough to be mad about it.

Zim and I were rearing to go in the morning. We knew that we would experience one of the highlights of the trip on day one. To be very honest, I was very nervous about the Angel’s Landing hike. I did way too much research on this trail, and I watched WAY too many Instagram videos in preparation. This 5.5 round trip hike has a reputation for being one of the most spectacular (and dangerous) in the world. The signs throughout the hike did nothing to ease my nerves as we got started, but the juices were flowing.

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The beginning of the hike is smooth and easy, but you soon enter the Walter’s Wiggles portion of the hike. Walter’s Wiggles are 21 sharp turns carved into the face of the cliff to get to the top of Angel’s Landing. Along the way, you are presented with incredible views of the canyon and an increased heart rate to go along with them.

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I stopped to thank my wonderful colleague Myra Duritsch at one of the curves. How about this view! I know Myra could get to the top of this hike in probably half the time we took. I also need to thank the people at VacationRaces.com. If you love National Parks and running, you have to check out their collection of amazing races. The company was very kind to equip me last year as I tackled Arizona, and they completely shocked us this week with a collection of shirts to wear throughout the week. Southern Utah is home to many of their races. I love this Zion Half Marathon shirt!

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Once you get near the top of Angel’s Landing, these fun chains appear. They aren’t just for looks! They are to help guide the way and keep you on the cliff. In all seriousness, what I learned about Angel’s Landing is that many times the pictures look a lot scarier than it actually is.

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It was important for us to get on the first shuttle of the day, because Angel’s Landing is one of the top attractions at Zion. People line up very early to hike it. The trick with a crowd on this hike is that you have to negotiate space with said crowd, and space is tough to come by on this hike.

Scout’s Lookout is the point in the hike when you have to decide whether or not you’re brave enough to climb the narrow spine in front of you to reach the Landing. It’s quite intimidating. I knew that thanking one specific person at this juncture would give me the confidence I needed to proceed. Colonel Stephen Bloomer is a colleague and proud military man. I could hear him in the back of my mind telling us to push forward. Thanks Colonel!

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If Scout’s Lookout is the go or no-go decision point, this next picture is what most people consider the most frightening section of the hike. Guided by a chain, this short section has thousand foot drops on both sides. This is the part that scared me in my research, but honestly I felt quite safe trekking onward. I had no idea that Zim was going to capture this on camera, but he nailed it.

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The remainder of the hike is a climb. Once again guided by chains, you have to scamper up and alongside rocks to reach the top. During one of these climbs, I thanked my long-time mentor Sparky Reardon for his donation. Sparky has always been a generous supporter of my trips, and these days, I’m always excited to see social posts of the lean and mean Sparky. Keep it rollin’ Dean!

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We made it to the top, and you’ll now see why this hike is so popular. The view of the canyon is out of this world. We stopped to have a snack and some water and take in the views. I also thanked Suzanne Alexander here. Suzanne and I work together each day to build LiveLikeLou.org, a national non-profit that is focused on supporting ALS families and important ALS research. Suzanne and her husband Neil founded LiveLikeLou in Pittsburgh when Neil was diagnosed with ALS. The Alexanders are an inspiring crew, and I’ve never been so excited to go to work each day working on LiveLikeLou. Suzanne recently took a trip to Southern Utah, so I have a number of “Suzanne approved” stops to hit along the way.

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Zim and I had to get a good shot near the top. I already have phone-envy of Zim’s new iPhone 11. He’ll definitely be the photographer of the trip! What a phone!

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Another view from the top.

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We ran much of the way down and endured a number of weird looks from people climbing up. Sorry people, we have stuff to see. On the way back to our campsite, we stopped at the Zion welcome sign so I could thank Tom & Colleen Good, my aunt and uncle. Tom & Colleen have been amazing supporters of my trips, and I’m always excited to say thanks to them!

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Back at the campsite, we relaxed for a little bit, and I wanted to show off our campsite again with a thank you to my good friends Ross & Megan Roti. I think Ross probably wanted something a little more random than our tent, so I’m going to have to find another moment for him later in the trip. Ross joined me a few years back as we traversed the Northeast states. We had a blast, as we always do.

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Also at the campsite, I had to show off the van life a bit. This fairly basic, you get what you get, navy blue Dodge Caravan is our home base for the week. I’m currently typing this post from the back of the van as Zim snores just feet away from me. We had to move campsites for night two here, and the new location doesn’t allow tents, so we’re sleeping the van. Brotherhood my friends. I thanked Scott Lynch in front of the trusty van. I was with Scott last week in Cincinnati for a Phi Delt volunteer conference, and we had a great time. I’ll be thanking him with our van a few times this week!

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The second half of our day would be spent in Zion’s other main attraction – The Narrows! After a 40 minute shuttle ride up the canyon, we exited and hiked a mile to the start of The Narrows. Along the way, I stopped to thank my little girl – Tessa Mae. Having a daughter is the absolute best thing in the world, and I adore her. She is 100% firecracker, 100% Tillie, and I love it. Tess started playing soccer this fall, and it’s been awesome to see her have great success. Move over boys, Tess coming through. We think we’re going to have a little athlete on our hands. I wish I had one-third her energy.

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Ironically enough, my mom sent over a picture of the kids about the same time I thanked Tess. Classic Tess. She’s the best.

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The Narrows are like nothing I’ve ever experienced. One thing that you need to know about The Narrows is a 100% chance you will get wet, simply because you’re hiking in a canyon river. The Virgin River is what made Zion what it is. It flows through the entire park and has carved out the amazing canyon that you see today. In the park, you see people walking everywhere in waterproof pants, waterproof boots, and walking sticks. They’re heading to The Narrows. Because Zim and I are both really frugal, we weren’t excited about shelling out $40 to get “equipped.” So we just showed up. What harm can wading through 40 degree water in a shady canyon for 45 minutes do? My first thank you was to Linda Carlson, the mother of my great friend Brad Carlson. I have a number of Carlsons to thank on this trip, but why not start with the most important one? Thanks Linda!

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Yeah, the water was cold. Very cold. But honestly, there’s no better way to nurse sore muscles than to hike through a freezing river. I found a rock to “warm up” on and thanked Josh Ehlen. I’ve always been amazed by Josh’s athletic prowess. In our undergraduate days, Josh would be the guy training for marathons while the rest of us were simply looking for our next pizza. I also love living vicariously through Josh and few other Phi Delts who travel together each year in amazing locations. Their camping skills dwarf what we’re doing this week.

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As you continue to hike, the water gets deeper, and your decision making gets cloudier. “Oh, there has to be something cooler around that bend!” Never mind that the water is getting higher and higher on your body. Fun fact about The Narrows – You have to check each day to see if it’s even open, because it can be a major risk if there is rain in the area. Flash floods through the canyon turn it into a danger zone. Speaking of danger zones, I misspelled my very own sister’s first name on this next sign. I didn’t even notice until I sent her the picture, and she basically responded with “Who is Ann?” WHOOPS! Love you Anne. I had no trouble spelling my brother-in-law Don’s name. I have to give a special shout to my sister. Tillie and I recently endured the death of our first dog Lex. My sister was in town the day Lex died and provided amazing comfort to us.

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This is about as far as we got, but we were waist high in cold water. Fun! I call this a free shower/bath during a week where showers will be limited.

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Zim was all about it. Also, if you’re wondering, Zim is still snoring in the van.

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We returned to the shuttle and stopped at one more spot to get a picture of one of Zion’s most recognizable landmarks – The Great White Throne. I thanked Rich and Nancy Hansen at the stop. I had the opportunity to have lunch with Rich and Nancy on last year’s trip when we were in Scottsdale. Rich is always on the lookout for fun Lou Gehrig reads for me and sends them my way. As a reader, I love this!

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We ended the day with a $5 shower at the Zion Outfitters and pizza in Sprindale, the small town that serves as the entry point to Zion National Park. My friends, get to Zion National Park. It’s like no other. Onward to Bryce Canyon National Park in the morning.

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