Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Antelope Canyon 100

With an almost 10 hour drive ahead of me, I decided to split it up and go half-way Thursday evening, right after work.  This way, I would also have extra time to hit at least one of Matt’s trifecta challenges on Friday.  So when the clock hit 5:00, I jumped in the car (which was very fully loaded) and hit the road.  The drive was pretty boring, other than having to stop twice to pee (shouldn’t have drunk so much tea in the afternoon).  I planned on making out to the Moab exit on I-70.  I checked it out on Google Earth and there’s a gas station right at the exit with a large dirt area that’s clearly used by truckers.  Despite the bathroom breaks, I got there right at 10:00.  I drove to the far western end of the dirt field, set up my sleeping gear in the back of the Subaru and turned in for the night.

Being a bit off off the highway, the distant headlights were occasionally visible, but not enough to be bothersome.  After a few hours, my undersized bladder woke me.  At the time, I noticed that there was a police car at the gas station a couple of hundred yards away. Not thinking much of it, I quickly went back to sleep.

A short bit later, at exactly 1:58 AM, I woke again and looked up to see some lights shining, which seemed closer and brighter than the far off highway traffic.  Just as I groggily sat up, I was greeted with “SHOW US YOUR HANDS! OPEN THE DOOR”  (Luckily, I had emptied my bladder recently, so I didn’t mess up my bedding)
I responded very clearly with “Doors are locked.  I need to reach for my keys”
“DO IT!”
I found the key fob, opened the rear passenger side door and was greeted by a police officer with a flashlight and shotgun pointed at me, while his partner was doing the same from the other side of the car.
“Adrian Stanciu, from Colorado. This is my car.”  Given the recent pot legalization in our state, I probably should have left that information out, but they had probably seen my plates anyway.  They never asked for ID as they were eager to continue their search, though they did suggest that I might not want to spend the rest of the night there.  Upon noticing the number of other police cars in the area, I quickly jumped into the front seat, put the key into the ignition and hit the road towards Moab.  As I passed under the I-70 overpass, I noticed that additional police cars were blocking off the on-ramps.  There must have been at least 10 cars!

On the wide-eyed, adrenaline fueled drive south on 191 towards Moab, another 10 police cars came flying up in ones and twos with lights blazing.  I didn’t know they had that many police cars in all of Utah.  Clearly, whoever they were looking for was guilty of more than just an unpaid parking ticket.

I got into Moab and looked around for a “safe” place to park and resume my sleep for a few more hours.  I pulled off onto one of the side street, just a block off the main drag and crawled into the back of the car, again.  The adrenaline was starting to wear off and soon enough I was asleep again.  I woke up around dawn and made a quick stop at the Golden Arches before resuming the drive.

Matt Gunn (Ultra Adventures’ race director) has set up this crazy Trifecta thing for every race. Basically, he picked out incredible destinations in the vicinity of the races and for each one that you do (and post a selfie with your race number) within 1 week prior to or after the event, you get 10% off the next race, up to 3 per race, and they can be accumulated, so if you’re serious, you could save some serious money.  As a UA ambassador I have committed to doing at least one per race.  Some of the locations are just not doable with my extremely tight schedule, but there were two that I could hit for Antelope Canyon.  The first, and easiest was Navajo National Monument, with less than a 10 mile drive out of the way, and a short ½ mile hike.  It was still chilly when I got there by mid-morning, and there were only 2 other vehicles present.  It’s a beautiful spot, but being so remote, in a state that is tightly packed national treasures, this one doesn’t get nearly as much visitation, especially in mid-February.

I packed on my selfie stick and three cameras as I headed on down the trail.  It’s a short, easy stroll along the top of the mesa, overlooking a beautiful valley.  From the viewpoint at the end of the trail, the vistas of the distant landscapes were beautiful, in addition to the cool cliff dwellings just on the other side of the valley.  I snapped a number of pictures and the requisite selfie.  I’m glad there were no there tourists around at that particular moment, as I would have appeared to be even more self centered than usual.

I drove on and got to the start area in Page right around noon.  After brief chats with some of the others gathered around, I headed off to attempt the Cable Trail, another one of Matt’s trifecta’s.  I was a bit concerned about this one.  First of all, it was supposed to be tricky to find.  Secondly, the trail description made it sound rather scary.  On the way, I stopped off at the Hoover Dam visitor Center and asked if they had any good maps or directions.  The older gentleman behind the volunteer desk did his best to discourage me from attempting something so dangerous.  Nothing was going to stop me now.

I found the general area, parked next to the only other car there, and headed out.  I soon saw two ladies finishing up their lunch.  Turns out they were also runners and were about to attempt to find the Cables.  The three of us headed off together and eventually made our way to the edge of the plateau, overlooking the mighty Colorado River.  We peered over the sheer, vertical edge, and gulped, wondering how the heck anyone would get down that without a wing suit.  We decided that we must have come out to far down canyon, so we made our way north along the rim.  After a while, my companions decided to give up, but I was determined to find it.  A few minutes after parting, I saw the cable posts part way down, marked with pink flagging (which Matt had placed to help us find it).  Unfortunately the ladies were out of range for me to call back, so I continued on my own.

The top part of the route was pretty tame.  Beautiful, but in no way scary.  Part way down, there was 10’ drop through a narrow crack that would have been a bit tricky if someone hadn’t left a rope tied to one of the old cable posts.  This wasn’t a climbing rope.  Just a ⅜” white nylon rope you’d get from the hardware store, but it felt sturdy enough and the height was manageable.  It really just served as an easy and convenient hand-hold.

A bit further down, there was another, similar obstacle with a length of webbing as an aid.  A bit more scrambling and I came down to the actual cable section.  The two cables probably weren’t a hundred feet and the slope such that with a bit of care, the cables weren’t even necessary, but quite helpful.  I had packed work gloves as Matt had suggested, and wished they were thicker leather.  Most of the cables were in decent shape, but in a couple of spots, the outer strands frayed enough to provide some unwelcomed acupuncture to the palms.

I made it down to the river and wished that I could take a dip, but that would have required sliding, or jumping the last few feet into the water.  There probably was some better access, if I had explored a bit more, but I had been out way longer than anticipated and didn’t even bring a snack.  I took a bunch of pictures and marveled at beauty of the river and the surrounding sandstone walls.  Trifecta number 2 done.

It may seem a bit odd for a race director to give discounts like this.  Matt is obviously not making money off these side trips.  If anything, he’s losing it.  But honestly, I would have never done either one of the trifectas without Matt’s encouragement.  The Cable Trail was absolutely magnificent!  I would highly recommend it to anyone who can handle some moderate scrambling.

By the time I got back to the start area, there were many more people around.  I checked in and ordered myself a Navajo taco.  Good thing I was hungry.  The thing was larger than the plate.  Over the next couple of hours, I chatted with fellow runners and double checked my drop bags.  Matt gave a brief course overview right after dark.  The main thing I got out of it was SAND.  We were to expect 35 of the first 40 miles to be slogging through deep, soft, loose sand.

Although the camp fires were enticing, I soon crawled into the back of the car for some much needed sleep.  I was still a bit groggy from the 2 AM wake up call.  I slept better than I usually do the night before a big race, and in back of the car.  I got up at 5 despite all the previous day’s preparations, and years of experience, I barely made to the line for the 6 AM start.

It was chilly, probably only in the upper 30’s so I started out with a longsleeve shirt and gloves.  There was a bit of reluctance to be right at the front, but once we were off, everyone seemed to be in quite a hurry.  The 50 and 100 milers started together and as usual, too many runners were going out too fast.  I could tell by their heavy breathing.

We crossed the highway (the only time that traffic would be stopped at a road crossing) and headed up the sandstone side of a mesa.  I tried to take a picture of the trailing stream of headlights, but without a tripod, the results were unusable.  We made our way up, across the top, and down the other side of the mesa, then settled into some longer stretches of the SAND that we were warned about.  It wasn’t long before I could feel small mounds of the stuff piled underneath my toes, but it was too early to stop.
We eventually made our way into the first canyon, about 4 miles in.  Most of us stopped and took pictures throughout.  This canyon section would be cut short due to flood damage and a nesting owl - both legitimate reasons, so no one complained.  We popped back out, ran on more SAND, and dropped down to the Antelope Aid Station.  From here, the next 3 miles were along the bottom of Antelope Wash - very wide, and filled with more (you guessed it) SAND.  This was an out and back section and only part way through, the lead runners were already racing back.  I was shocked to see that the 2nd runner was a 100 miler.  This turned out to be Dallas, who would go on to build up a lead of over 2 hours on me, which I would whittle back down to under 50 minutes.

Upper Antelope Canyon was a long, narrow slit in the seemingly impenetrable wall that blocked our way. There’s a reason that this is one of the most photographed slot canyons in the entire world.  It was absolutely magnificent!  Tight, undulating sandstone walls.  The only downside was that we were in there shortly after sunrise, on a cloudy morning.  The sky wasn’t very bright, and therefore the canyon was rather dark, but wow was it cool. 

Everyone was taking pictures. The canyon itself is not very long and soon enough we were out the other side.  After climbing up more loose SAND, and a brief traverse, we dropped back down into another slot canyon, only slightly less magnificent than previous one and with a short ladder part way through.  This dumped us out into the wide wash that we followed back down to the aid station.  Part way back, the trucks of tourists were already driving in, full of wide-eyed, open-mouthed faces wondering why those fools were running in the deep SAND.

From Antelope aid, we continued to retrace our steps but where the trail dropped back down into the first slot canyon, many footprints continued straight.  I almost missed it myself, but only by a dozen feet.  After coming out the other side, the route turned back on itself a bit and I saw a number of runners along the top of the canyon.  I shouted over to them that they had missed the turn into canyon.  I don’t think it would have made a real difference distance wise, but seeing the canyon again would certainly have been worth it.  Back along the SAND roads across the open desert, we climbed back on to the mesa just outside of town.  At this point, I finally stopped to empty out the SAND from my shoes.  I was surprised that so little came out.  Unfortunately, even though it was now warm enough that I had dumped off my shirt at the Antelope Aid Station, my hands were stiff and useless.  Between the chill air and the fact that the cuffs of my thin gloves were cutting down on my already poor circulation, I couldn’t use my fingers.  I was frustrated by the minutes that I wasted getting my Dirty Girl gaitors back on.  Once I did, I finally hit the trail again and tried to console myself with the fact that there were still 85 miles to go.  Unfortunately, the time seemed to have been truly wasted as my shoes felt just as sand-filled as before the stop.

Somewhere on top of the mesa, we turned off of our original route and headed more westward toward the Slickrock aid station.  This section was pretty uninspiring, with a road crossing, and of course, more SAND.

From Slickrock, we climbed up through some SAND, and onto another mesa as the 50K leaders were coming back.  Down the other side, there was a long, straight road made of…  wait for it… SAND!  It was actually pretty decent running downhill in the stuff, but I was really dreading the thought of having to come back up in a few hours.

Down at the bottom was the Horseshoe Bend aid station.  This was the first one that was crew accessible, so there were a number of families around to cheer and support.  Amongst the usual aid station fare, they had some unusual, yet tasty treats made of layered peanut butter, jelly and rice.  From here, we crossed the paved road and went through a wire fence, which was nicely spread open and padded with foam.  Soon we were at what I think was the highlight among highlights for this race - Horseshoe Bend.  I had already been treated to some pretty spectacular views on the Cable Trail the previous day, but this was even better.  We ran for miles, only feet away from the edge of vertical sandstone cliffs that fell away to to the mighty Colorado River below.  I don’t know about the lead runners, but everyone around me took time to take pictures of the majestic scenery, themselves, and each other.  Race?  What race?  Yes, we still ran, but my camera was out more than in my pocket.

It was in this section that I was caught by Travis McWhorter, a fellow UA ambassador.  We chatted for a bit, but soon he ran off into the distance while I was still distracted by the views.  After a while, we turned away from the ridge, but came back to it within a couple of miles.  This was the longest stretch between aid stations and though the temperatures were only in the low 60’s with a thin cloud layer, I was glad I had taken along an extra bottle.

I ran a bit with Sabrina from Breckenridge and we chatted about her upcoming Leadville race.  We eventually made it to the Waterholes aid station where I was treated to the most delectable polenta with feta and red peppers. From the aid station, we quickly dropped down into Waterholes Canyon.  The descent was a little interesting with some short, steep, scrambling sections.  More pictures, another ladder, more surreal undulating sandstone.

  Once out the other side, we climbed up and ran for a while on more SAND roads, eventually making it back to the Horseshoe Bend aid station.  I sat down to do some foot maintenance here.  They actually had loads of wet towels for runners to clean off with and I took advantage.  Once I took off my shoes, I realized why the previous sand dumping didn’t have much of a beneficial effect.  The bulk of the sand wasn’t in my shoes.  It was inside my socks!  I couldn’t believe how much I poured out.  I could have used those things as sandbags for flood control.

I emptied out all the sand that I could, cleaned my feet with a wet towel, and slobbered on a whole bunch of vaseline.  I then grabbed a huge handful of dates and figs and hit the road.  This was the uphill SAND section that I was dreading slightly more than all the other SAND sections.  For some reason, it didn’t feel quite as bad as I thought it would.  Maybe because I was looking forward to soon being done with the SAND.  Soon enough, I made it back up to the top of the mesa, over, and down the other side.  At Slickrock, I reapplied sunscreen, grabbed a few cupfuls of electrolyte gummie bears, and a couple of salt caps.  Then off I went through the last stretch of SAND.

I crossed the paved road near the parking area at the start and was slightly confused by the flagging but there was a gal in a pickup truck there to direct me.  Up the mesa I went as other (shorter distance) runners were coming down.  There was a short scramble to reach the top and then onto a gravel road for a few hundred yards to the Page Rim aid station where I reloaded pretty quickly and hit the trail.

Wow, what a nice trail to run on - firm single-track, mostly level.  It felt like I was flying!  I looked down at my watch as my average pace kept dropping.  After the first few miles, I reeled it in a bit.  As good as I felt, and as much as I was enjoying the lack of SAND, there were still almost 60 miles to go.
The views from the Page Ridge Trail were nice, including the blue waters of Lake Powell.  It wasn’t quite as spectacular as the morning’s scenery, but the solid footing certainly made up for it.  A short sandy climb (not as loose as earlier in the day) led us up the out-and-back to the Lake Powell aid station.  Once done, the short descent led us back to the continuation of the Rim Trail.  Within a half mile, the trail truly earned its name.  For the next quarter mile or so, the narrow trail was literally on the edge.  While there was no sheer vertical drop like above the Colorado River, the slope was steep enough to be deadly.  Along the Horseshoe Bend section, there was plenty of room to steer away from the edge, and if you did fall, there would be a long pleasant flight before the life ending impact.  Here, the slope was such that your body would have been grated away on the sandstone, leaving behind a long red swath that lead to a small splotch of remains a few hundred feet below.  There were a couple of spots in particular where the trail hugged some mid-sized boulders where there was no room for error.  I was already thinking ahead to what it would be like to run this section in the dark.  Not seeing below might be nice, as long as the fatigue didn’t make me any more prone to tripping.  “Just fall to the left”.

After a few miles, the trail led through more populated parts of town.  We crossed a few paved roads where we had to stop and wait briefly for a break in the cars.  And we even meandered along the golf course.  ALong this section, I got passed by a 100 miler and his pacer.  I knew the answer, but asked anyway - “what lap are you on?”

“Second” came the reply from his pacer.  This was Dallas, the lead 100 miler who was on the tail of the lead 50 miler right after the Antelope Canyon turn around.  He now had a lead of 10+ miles and more than 2 hours on me.  I had 50 miles to go, he had 40, but he was looking strong and I had no idea how many more runners were between us.  Off they went and I made a conscious effort not to try and chase.

Nearing the Page Rim aid station, I got caught by a female runner.  I turned to ask her what distance she was running when I saw the pink bib, so instead I asked what lap she was on, again already knowing the answer.  She also, was on her second lap.  This was deflating.  Not because she was a woman, but just being lapped by two runners.  There was no way I could make up that kind of time/distance.

I pulled into Page Rim and emptied out my shoes and socks for the final time.  The race was almost half over and only a bit over 10 hours.  That time was excellent time, but the SANDy parts earlier had taken their toll on my body and I didn’t think the second half would be as fast, despite the better running conditions.

There was a slight breeze, so I finally pulled on a shirt and set out on my 2nd lap, trying to calculate the sunset, and deciding to chance going around one more time without a light.

On my 2nd visit to Lake Powell aid, I discovered the most delicious cheese quesadillas.  I probably ate too many, but they were so good.  I did this same thing at Coldwater.  I made it back to Page Rim aid in about the same time as the previous lap.  That was promising, but it would be difficult to maintain.  This time, I grabbed my flashlight but kept the camera, hoping to catch some nice sunset colors.  Unfortunately, the sun was setting on the opposite side of the Page mesa, so the camera never came out again.

With the combination of distances, it was impossible to tell where I was in the field, though no more runners passed me.  Part way through my 3rd lap, I caught Dallas and his pacer.  This was a good sign, but he still had too big of a lead.  Part way through my 4th lap, he was only a few minutes behind, but coming past the deadly drop-off section again, I caught up to a female runner and her pacer.  I soon caught a glimpse of yellow underneath her long-sleeve top and realized it was Janessa, the gal who had lapped me earlier.  She was now in the lead with just a bit more than 1 lap to go.  I could tell she was really pushing herself and was quite nervous about Dallas catching back up.  Nearing the end of the loop, she stubbed her toe pretty bad and needed comforting from her pacer.

I slowed a bit on the 5th loop, but not too bad.  I was startin to calculate my potential finish time, which it typically not a good thing.  If it slips away, it feels like an additional defeat.  21 hours just wasn’t going to happen.  22 hours was attainable, if I could keep things up.  I knew I could walk much of the way and break 23, which was my main goal, so I took comfort in that and pressed on.

Lap 5 done, I asked the volunteers at Page Rim aid where I stood.  “3rd place”  What?  Holy cow!  Janessa was not far behind, but on her final loop.  I didn’t know where Dallas was, but unless he quit, there would be no way for me to catch him.  Apparently, there was no one else between us.  Inside the warm tent, I looked around at the food choices until my eyes settled on half of a chocolate covered crowler donut.  Before it was fully down my throat, I grabbed half of a large cinnamon bun and ran out, soon wishing I had taken the whole thing.

I started the final lap on a high note, but knew better than to celebrate.  I was tired, I couldn’t completely trust the 3rd place declaration, and I wanted to keep my time as low as possible to get a high UltraSignUp percentage.  This was a smart strategy, because about 6 miles through the last lap I passed another runner who said he was also on his last lap.  Drake was apparently the actual 3rd place guy at the time.  I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled when I passed him, but despite all the scenery and camaraderie, this was ultimately a race.  I never stopped looking back over those last 4 miles.

Eventually, I made it back to Page Rim for the final time and turned right to drop off the mesa.  The wind had really picked up over the last lap and now there were more consistent drops in the air.  As I trudged through the last few hundred feet of SAND, I saw the elevated walkway that led through the rocks and dumped out onto the finish line. 21:37:50 and 3rd place overall, 2nd male!  Not bad, given that UltraSignUp had me at 12th overall and 7th male.

The finish area was pretty subdued given that it was just past 3:30 AM.  I made my way to the blazing fire and a blanket was thrown over my shoulders.  I didn’t want to get too comfortable yet.  I went to the car, grabbed some clothes and a towel and made my way to the poopmobile.  This requires some explanation.  Matt has this trailer that’s equipped with compostable toilets,a wood fired hot tub and a SHOWER!  That’s what I wanted, to rinse away the grime and sand from the past 102 miles before I tried to get a few hours of sleep.

Man did that hot shower feel good.  After drying off and putting on some fresh, clean clothes, I decide to go straight to sleep.

I slowly woke up around 7:30 to the sound of a light, but steady rain.  I immediately thought of all the runners out on the course.  There were probably fewer than 20 left, but they would have been miserable if it had been raining since I had finished.

As it turns out, the drizzle that I finished in did turn into a light, steady rain, mixed with snow.  The temps stayed above freezing, but 36 and raining towards the end of a hundred miler is not pleasant.  I felt for everyone out there and knew some would drop due to the conditions.

When I did finally step out of the car, I was amazed.  The ground underneath my feet felt solid.  The rain soaked sand was firm!  Boy, that would have been nice in the first 40 miles.

I made my way over to the fire and chatted with Matt and a few others for a bit. Apparently, there was a steady stream of finishers after me, separated by 10 to 20 minutes, but still another 15 out on the course.  As tempting as it was to just hang out with everyone and cheer additional finishers, I still had to drive all the way back to Colorado and I knew the weather would make it even longer.

I grabbed my 2nd Place Male tomahawk and belt buckle, thanked Matt yet again and drove off.  I made a quick stop my the Page Rim and Lake Powell aid stations to gather my drop bags and headed towards home.

Wrap Up
If you’re looking for a fast or easy race, this isn’t it.  You have to deal with 35 of the first 40 miles being deep, soft, loose SAND, unless the weather gods take pity on you and it rains the previous day.  As a reward for dealing with the SAND, you run through 4 magnificent slot canyons.  As great as those were, my favorite part was still the Horseshoe Bend section - absolutely surreal.  Afterwards, you get to race for 60 miles along a pleasant and very runnable trail.  This final section, though somewhat repetitive, is also comforting since much of it is run in the dark.  For any who don’t like the repetitiveness at the end, the 50 miles option gives you all of the same terrain and views, with only a single finishing lap.

The race was superbly managed.  The start/finish line was a warm and welcoming place to hang out.  The volunteers were great.  The food at the aid stations was awesome.  As mentioned, in addition to all the usual and necessary snacks, they had a bunch of unique treats.

As a final note, DO NOT RUN THIS RACE WITHOUT A CAMERA!  Take your time to enjoy and photograph the sites, then race the last 60 miles.  This is absolutely a must-do 50 or 100 mile race!

Slideshow Video

1 comment:

  1. Found my way here from GZ's blog. Really enjoyed the report of what sounds like a very cool race. Congrats on the fine finish and placing!