7 National Parks, 1 Night Sky & 14 Modern Day Explorers

When I was a growing up, I used to have camp outs with my friends in the back yard.  We had a field behind my house in the backwoods of Wisconsin and it got no better in the summer than a tent, friends, campfire and six pack of Jolt soda.  We would lay under the stars in the middle of night and talk about all the ridiculous things middle school boys talk about.  One by one my friends would eventually comment about how the vastness of the brilliant night sky made them feel small in an endless universe.  I never felt that way.  Yes, I was just some average AF, lower middle class kid from the middle of nowhere who had never been east of the Mississippi River.  But I was looking at the same stars that everyone who ever captured greatness in their life looked at when they were kids.  The same stars we all dream under.  Infinitely small, sure.  Infinite possibilities, absolutely. 

Hoover Dam from the plane

Hoover Dam from the plane

There was a wise business guru who once challenged his readers to ask themselves why they couldn’t do their one year plan in 3 months.  I loved that idea.  And I love that idea in a sense way beyond business.  What’s preventing me from doing my 5 year plan in one year?  So, I made a list of everything I wanted to do before turning 40 (I was 36) and decided to do it all in 2019.  I quit my cushy corporate job and started doing contract work, side hustles and my own businesses to free up time to travel and run more but also be more present for my 2 and 4 year old boys.  I went all-in on having the most adventurous year in running ever.  The result was a spreadsheet of 24 epic runs.  5 races (win an ultra in each calendar season and podium at my debut 100 miler), 7 adventure runs (most countries, states, national parks in a day, etc.) and 12 FKT’s (breaking existing speed records on long distance trails across the country). 

Me, Scott, Sam, Rachel, Lindsey, Robert, Crystal, Lori, Kelly, Kathy, Bob, Adam, Nick & Eric

Me, Scott, Sam, Rachel, Lindsey, Robert, Crystal, Lori, Kelly, Kathy, Bob, Adam, Nick & Eric

This weekend I attempted adventure record number 5 of the year.  The goal was to run a 5k in 7 National Parks in one day.  There is no known account of anyone visiting even 5 parks in a day, let alone running a 5k while there and doing 7.  I created a Facebook event and asked if any runners wanted to join me for an epic record run in the southwest.  We would fly into Vegas, rent a passenger van, drive to Zion National Park, hike all afternoon, get some sleep and head to the Grand Canyon for sunrise.  Our first 5k run would be while watching the sunrise on the Grand Canyon, we’d then head to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Park for sunset.  After a quick dinner in Moab, Utah we would head for the 7th and final park, Mesa Verde National Park and run under the dark night sky.  13 fellow adventurers signed up for a nearly 900 mile drive that would pack 5 years of family vacations into a single day.

Zion National Park’s West Rim Trail (Looking down on Angel’s Landing)

Zion National Park’s West Rim Trail (Looking down on Angel’s Landing)

 We all met up in the hotel lobby at 3:45am to start our drive.  Fueled by some epically terrible hotel coffee and the excited nervous energy of attempting the most ambitious national parks adventure ever seen.  We reached the first park and fueled up the van just as the very first glow of sunlight appeared on the horizon.  We had 30 minutes in each park and everyone in the group could run as far or as little as they liked.  A few of us opted to attempt a full 5k in each park and others decided to run a little less and soak up a little more. 

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Our Grand Canyon running trail was the bright angel point trail.  We reached the scenic vista before sunrise and watched the canyon walls appear in purple, brown and red as the sun rose.  We stayed a few minutes past our departure time because leaving the Grand Canyon at sunrise before you’ve had a few extra minutes to breath it in is a felony in Arizona (probably). 

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The drive from the Grand Canyon to Zion involved a quick call ahead coffee order to a mobile coffee trailer in Kanab, Utah.  The two lovely Mormon ladies working the coffee shack threw our latte’s together in record time so we could be on our way.  When we arrived at the Zion gate there was only one lane open and about 20 cars ahead of us.  Luckily, the trailhead to the East Rim Trail was immediately inside the gate, as was a much needed bathroom.  So, most of the van jumped out and used the facilities and got started on their runs while I got the vehicle in the park. 

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The East Rim Trail is the sandy, rocky and slightly uphill start to the Zion Traverse.  I’m attempting the FKT for this route next month and I was pumped to log a few miles on the trail.  We startled a mule deer, got some great photos in the early morning light, took a group photo and were on our way to Bryce Canyon.  Zion National Park remains my favorite place in the United States.

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The plan was to arrive in Bryce Canyon shortly before noon.  Everyone would run along the canyon Rim Trail and I’d run up to the Valhalla Pizzeria, place an order for 4 pizza’s, then quickly run to the rim and get my 5k in before running back to the pizza place to hustle the pizza’s back to the van before the clock strikes 30 minutes. 

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The Rim Trail from Sunset Point to Sunrise Point is one of the more epic miles of trail in the country.  The burnt orange hoodoos spiking up from the canyon walls is other worldly.  We met back at the van for our group photos, grabbed the pizza’s and had a van pizza party on the way to Capitol Reef.

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Most of the parks are fairly close together.  Zion and Bryce as well as Canyonlands and Arches are only a 60-90 minute drive.  Capitol Reef was the one longer drive in the middle of the day as it’s about 2.5 hours after Bryce and 2.5 hours before Canyonlands.  The trail we ran in Capitol Reef was the Hickman Arch Trail. 

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The arch trail gains 400 feet in the 1 mile up to the arch.  It felt great to get out of the van and run, even if it was hot and hilly.  The jog up to the arch was slow and we still needed to get in another mile and half to reach the 5k distance, so we ran down the road as it cut through the canyon.  The warm fall breeze seemed to push me up the road.  We snapped our group photo, over halfway to our goal of 7 parks, and raced the sunset to Canyonlands and Arches.

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Halfway between Capitol and Canyonlands we stopped to get gas, snacks and restrooms.  Stops are always a wild card when you have 14 folks in a van.  You want to keep on schedule but you also need time for everyone to take care of their business.  I requested everyone try and be back in the van within 10 minutes.  They made it 9 minutes.  Efficiency is my love language and I’ve never loved a passenger van of 14 folks more. 

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We arrived in Canyonlands National Park as the sun was getting lower and started the run up the canyon road.  To the left the magnificent canyons appeared purple and maroon in the light.  To the right the deep slot canyons shone a brilliant shades of brown and cream in the direct sunlight. 

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I was a little bummed we didn’t have time to make it to Mesa Arch and still get to Arches before nightfall but the magnitude and scale of the canyons on our running routes as the sun was setting was nothing short of spectacular.  We took our 5th group park photo of the day and raced the sun to Arches National Park, just a 35 minute drive away.

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We pulled into Arches National Park at twilight and took our group photo first while we still had light.  There is a 10 minute drive up the canyon wall to reach the towering rock formations above.  We ran the trails and roads as darkness fell upon the park.  The giant rock formations cut the twilight as the stars and crescent moon appeared. 

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It was about as magically stereotypical as a southwest sunset could get.  The night air cooled as we finished our 5k in the park and it felt amazing.  All we had left to fully realize our dream of running in 7 national parks in one day was a quick dinner stop in Moab and drive to Mesa Verde for a night run under the stars before midnight.

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We pulled into Mesa Verde just after 11pm and began our run up the point lookout trail.  I had run over 20 miles with 2,500’ feet of elevation gain while driving nearly 15 hours at this point.  As the trail got steeper, I decided to take it easy, head back to the road and finish my 5k there.  There are almost no lights in Mesa Verde as they try and keep the night sky as bright as possible.  Being on the road allowed me to turn off my headlamp and just run under the stars.  The rest of the group continued up to the point a little longer and it gave me a few minutes alone. 

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As my eyes started to adjust to the total darkness, the stars started getting brighter.  The milky way became visible and brighter than I had ever seen it.  The stars were so bright that constellations I had never seen before started to appear.  The entire universe opened up in front me, the heavens burned bright and I remembered… I remembered that little kid laying in that Wisconsin field over 20 years ago.  I turned and saw the flicker of 13 headlamps high on the ridge above me.  13 modern day Magellan’s, the new wave of explorers who dared to seek out greatness.  I was gripped by the moment.  I had the conscience realization that I was living out in the moment one of the greatest moments of my life. 

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We were under the same stars that everyone who ever captured greatness in their life looked at when they captured it.  The same stars we all dream under.  I once wrote a song lyric “the stars are the brightest when they fall”.  I watched as several shooting stars flashed across the sky.  I was wrong.  The stars are the brightest when you seek out their light.  I spread my arms out like wings and flew down the canyon road.  Running has taken me places that even that little boy in a Wisconsin field could have never dreamed up.  Sure, I’ll never win a medal in the Olympics but I can tell you exactly how it feels. 

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Capturing greatness means drastically different things to different people.  For me, it was running a 5k in 7 National Parks in one day with 13 of my closest friends.  We didn’t do anything that 99% of people aren’t capable of.  But we did it.  That moment in this infinite universe was ours.  If I could tell my 2 and 4 year old boys one thing it would be this:  Whatever greatness means to you, seek it out.  Worse case scenario, you become a falling star and burn with a brilliance most will never know.  Best case scenario, the entire galaxy appears before you, and in that moment, it’s all for you.

“we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” – Oscar Wilde