Saturday, March 21, 2015

Monument Valley 100

Let me start by stating unequivocally, that Ultra Adventures’ Monument Valley is the must-do, bucket-list race for every ultra runner out there.  Yes, there’s lots of SAND to put up with, but you simply will not find another race with this kind of non-stop scenery.  The kind of scenery that’s been used in countless movies.  Add to that a nice dose of Navajo culture and a most caring race director.  What more could you possibly ask for in a race experience?

I am so incredibly lucky and thankful to be an Ultra Adventures ambassador and be able to take part in these amazing races.

Monument Valley was my 3rd 100 of the year and only 3 weeks after the Antelope Canyon 100 that tore my feet up with all the sand.  Ultra Signup had me ranked at 3rd male and 6th overall - my highest ever ranking.  Given that I’ve always beat their ranking (if not their predicted time), I figured I had a pretty good chance at another podium finish and, if I played my cards right, perhaps even my first ever win.  I tried my best not to get too cocky.  Anything can happen in the course of 100 miles, and any of the other runners could have been under-ranked.

With a slight breeze and temps in the 30’s, I was shivering at the pre-dawn start.  I could have stayed in my warm car for a bit longer, but Matt arranged for a Navajo prayer ceremony by Larry and his daughter and I did not want to miss it.  This was quite a different start than your typical race, blaring rock music with an obnoxious announcer trying to get everyone fired up.

After all the runners sprinkled a pinch of ground corn into the morning breeze, we were off.

The first leg of the course, heading to the Mystery Valley AS was probably the most “boring”.  The word “boring” is in quotes because it’s meant as a comparison to the rest of the day.  The views would have been an incredible highlight for any other race, yet they paled in comparison to what was yet to come.  We headed south, mainly down a SANDY road as the 35 or so runners settled into their pace.  A couple of guys went out pretty fast and I wound up about a third of the way down in the pack.  I stopped to take a few pictures and checked back repeatedly, but unfortunately the sunrise was blocked by distant clouds.  Starting out in a long-sleeved shirt and gloves, I was still chilled until we arrived at Mystery Valley.  The sun was breaking through and after a quick re-supply, I left the shirt with my drop bag.

The next leg to Weatherhill Mesa AS started to get a bit more interesting, though still mostly on loose SAND.  We wound in and out of a few canyons that featured amazing arches and ancient ruins.  I ran a bit in this section with Eric (from New York ) and Ken (from Tennessee).  I had worked with Eric the previous day in filling up sandbags to anchor the tents back at base camp.

At Weatherhill, I had packed an extra bottle in my drop bag since the out-and-back section to the top of the mesa was supposed to be 9 miles.  The sun was out and the temperature was climbing, but at the last moment, I decided to forgo the extra bottle so I could keep a free hand for taking pictures.  I’m glad I did, as the single bottle was just enough and my camera was out almost the entire time.

Leaving the aid station, we went up the sandy wash for just a bit and then got right into the climb up a gnarly slickrock trail.  I passed a few runners on the way up, though I was in no real hurry this early in the race.  I still stopped frequently to take pictures and tried to snap a shot of all the other runners also.  The views from the top were magnificent and the sun was still low enough to bathe the rocks in a soft, warm light.  Once at the “top”, we ran close to the edge of the mesa and I darted off to the side a few times to take shots overlooking the valley.

I was really looking forward to the downhill return and enjoyed the bit of effortless speed.  I didn’t overdo it though and still took time to stop whenever I came across an uphill runner to take their photo.  Most came out well and I’ve posted them in my FB album.  This out-and-back lollipop was also a nice opportunity to see other runner friends like Guy and Rachael.  I found that the whole course was conducive to this, without being overly repetitive.

Back at the Mitchell AS, I took a minute to empty the SAND out of my shoes, restocked snacks and took off.  The return to Mystery Valley AS wasn’t quite the same as the trip out.  This provided for a bit of variety as well as an opportunity to see some different ruins.  I came across Matt by one of these and welcomed his encouraging words.  Just after, I came upon Matthew Van Horn with his drone.  He was bringing it in for a landing as I ran by and I voiced my disappointment, so he lifted off again and followed me for a good bit.  Unfortunately, this section was slow, loose SAND and didn’t make for the best running, but I’m hoping to see some cool aerial footage.  Being in the spotlight, I worked extra hard and ran faster even in the SAND so I could look good for the camera.  I was actually relieved when the drone turned back as I could slow down and relax again.

Just before coming back into the Mystery Valley AS, I passed another runner and when inquiring at the AS, I was told that I was now in 2nd place and number 1 was 18 minutes ahead.  This was quite a pleasant surprise, less than 30 miles in, but from here, back to the Start/Finish, I slowed a bit.  The sun and the drone induced sprint were catching up to me and despite the open terrain, I couldn’t see the lead runner but I tried not to let it bother me too much.

I figured I was losing time in this section, but by the time I got to the Start/Finish, I had apparently cut the lead down to 12 minutes.  That was a very pleasant surprise and between the good news, and the energy of all the spectators and volunteers, I headed down Valley Drive rather upbeat.  I’m sure the big fat cookie that I snagged at the AS helped also.

Luckily the car traffic on the road was pretty light so the dust that the cars were kicking up wasn’t a problem.  I also was able to pick out the lead runner’s tracks on the dusty road and noticed that my stride was consistently longer than his.  Unless he was short and/or had a very quick cadence, this meant that I was moving faster than him and continuing to shorten his lead. And just before coming into the Hogan AS for the first time, I ran across Jeff Kasal , the first place runner by about 8 minutes.  I had managed to cut his lead by another 4 minutes in less than 4 miles.

It was fun to see Katrin at Hogan with all of her student volunteers.  Having an experienced ultra runner as an aid station captain is awesome.  She kept me informed, was incredibly supportive and encouraging, and very efficient in helping me to move through and out repeatedly.

I was a bit concerned about the course around the Hogan AS.  We were to visit a total of 6 times, running a short loop and a long loop clockwise, an out-and-back to Mitchell Mesa, then the long loop and short loop counter-clockwise.  This was difficult enough to follow on the map, but actually doing it in practice, at night, with many miles on the mind and body was downright intimidating.  While you couldn’t afford to be totally brain-dead, the system that was put in place was extremely effective and I personally had a pretty easy time with it.  Great job done by Matt and his crew in making a potentially difficult situation into a non-issue.

It was tempting to chase after Jeff, and being in second place so early in a race and with only an 8 minute deficit was an unfamiliar position to be in, but I held back and took my time.  It wound up taking me the next 12 miles to finally catch up to him - non-stop photo opportunities kept slowing me down.

The short, 4.5 mile, North Window loop was first.  Out of Hogan, we headed back on Valley Drive for a couple of hundred yards then off on a cross country section.  The initial climb off the road was a bit harsh as the clay had been torn up by cattle then hardened, creating a very uneven surface.  After the short climb, we ran across fields of sage brush and before turning off towards the mesa edge, came upon a Native American woman tending a table of goods.  Though there was access here via a dead-end dirt road, it was a very remote location and I can’t imagine more than a handful of vehicles coming out even on a busy day. I waved, yelled out a greeting, and continued on my way.  About a third of the way around, we crossed another dirt road which was part of the longer Arches loop.  I thought the crossing was pretty straight forward, but apparently some runners had a hard time figuring it out.  The sun was high and hot, but the scenery was still spectacular so I kept the camera out most of the time.

Back at Hogan again, I tended to my feet.  I emptied out the sand, smeared copious amounts of vaseline on my toes and put on a fresh pair of socks.  I grabbed a second hand-held bottle and then set out on the Arches loop, which started on a dirt road.  Again, I could see Jeff’s footprints and I was still running with a slightly longer stride, especially on the downhills.  Back onto a trail and then out into a parking area where a few tourist cars were gathered.  The course led through a gate marked “No Trespassing”.  I love it when we get to go where others can’t.  The route lead down a very rough road and across a small creek that I was easily able to jump.  As I started climbing up the other side, I looked off to my right and for the first time noticed these giant sand dunes.  Sure, we had been running through lots of sand all day, but these were barren dunes like a picturesque desert.  And up on top were a group of horseback riders, with sandstone monoliths in the background.  The pictures don’t do the scene justice.

After snapping a few pics, I continued on along a SAND road, crossed the creek again and the road turned into tire tracks on the dunes.  I hated the SAND, but loved the diversity.  I soon came up on three free-roaming horses that skirted around me as my camera clicked away.  Being able to see for some distance again, I scanned the horizon and spotted Jeff far ahead on the dunes.  I could have caught up to him sooner, but I just couldn’t stop taking pictures.

Nearing the south end of the loop, I came off the dunes, around a sandstone cliff, and was faced with the first arch.  Click, click, run a few hundred feet, and there’s another one.  More pictures and then back onto the SAND road.  The very south end of the loop was in a bit of a canyon, shaded enough that there was a field of snow tempting me to jump in.  I didn’t.  The course took a sharp, almost U-turn to the right, past another arch, click, click.

I could now see Jeff off in the distance again, checked my watch as he ran by a boulder, and timed the difference.  It was a bit over 4 minutes, but confusing because there was a short out-and-back to yet another arch, made almost inaccessible by a large pool of water.

I was now gaining ground rapidly, and checking the diminishing time gap periodically.  Soon enough, I finally caught Jeff with only a couple of miles to go before another stop by the Hogan AS.  He asked if I wanted to pass, but he was running at a good pace and I settled in with him, enjoying the companionship that I hadn’t had since early morning.  We chatted a good bit and came into Hogan together.

Though the sun was getting lower, I was making great time and somehow convinced myself that it was only 9 miles up to Mitchell Mesa and back.  Therefore, I took a small gamble and headed off with no shirt and no light, figuring that I could make it back before dark settled in and the temperatures dropped.

I called out to Jeff as I headed out of the aid station and he followed only seconds back, but as we headed up a gently sloped road, he fell further behind.  I was feeling pretty good and running a decent pace, though not pushing it.  As I got closer to the water only aid station at the bottom of Mitchell Mesa, I started questioning the distance, trying to remember the map and my stupid spreadsheet.  Now I was convinced that this section was 12 miles.  Holy crap, an extra 3 miles would make it almost impossible to get back before dark.  As I started up what looked like a vertical wall up the side of Mitchell Mesa, my mind was busy recalculating every few minutes.  Could I make it?

Part way up, I came across three park rangers on their way down.  I asked them the distance to the turnaround and their assessment was good news - shorter than 12 miles, but I just couldn’t trust their distances.  So I motored on up, vowing that I wouldn’t end up having my hypothermic body rescued by them in the dark.  I periodically looked back down and couldn’t believe what I had climbed up.  The “trail” consisted of pretty steep switchbacks, littered with rocks - small ones, big ones.  Finally, up on top, I could run again, but of course, I had to make multiple stops for pictures.  The sun was quite low and the light was perfect.  Even the threat of hypothermia couldn’t keep me from capturing the views.

I made my way to the turnaround, used the hole punch to mark my bib, screamed down towards the Finish line in the valley below, took yet more pictures and headed back, constantly recalculating the remaining time and distance.  Just before the descent, I came across Jeff on his way up.  I tried to push on the descent from the mesa also, but the rocks and boulders required careful tap-dancing.

Back at Hogan, I dropped off my camera, picked up a flashlight, shirt, and second bottle and headed out on my second Arches loop.  It didn’t get dark until I got to the first arch and I really enjoyed the reversed loop as I got to see other runners pretty often, even with such a small field.  Most of them were running in pairs or small groups, which was probably a smart idea for both route finding and camaraderie.  Having run the loops in the daytime made a big difference as I knew pretty well where to go and what to expect.  I ‘m sure it was more difficult for the later runners who were running it for the first time now in the dark.  Finding their way would be more challenging and they missed out on some incredible sights.

My only challenge was hydration.  Soon after leaving Hogan, I realized that the volunteers had put Hammer Heed in one of my bottles.  God that stuff is vile.  Luckily the other bottle had water in it.  I had to drink some of the Heed and quickly wash it down with water as a single bottle wasn’t going to be enough.  I was especially happy to get back to Hogan and fill up on cold cola and hot soup.

Off onto the North Window loop.  The night sky was amazing.  So full of stars.  I didn’t get to see any more runners on this loop, but I was still running well and enjoying the cool temperatures.

On my previous visit to Hogan, I asked Katrin to track how far behind Jeff was.  Last time I saw him was on top of Mitchell Mesa and he was only about 15 minutes back.  To my surprise, when I returned to Hogan for the last time, Katrin told me that Jeff had not even come in yet, giving me more than a one hour lead.  With more than 20 miles to go, I knew the race wasn’t over yet, but it sure felt good to have such a comfy lead.  As it turned out, Jeff dropped out at some point.  What a shame - he was running so strong in the first half.

I left Hogan for the last time and headed back onto Valley Drive for a bit.  The route turned off onto a wide wash.  The running here wasn’t too bad as the recent moisture made the ground quite firm.  Markings were a little sparse, but I didn’t worry as there was no getting lost within the wash.  As soon as I’d get a little nervous, a reflective marker would appear in the distance.  After a few miles, clear signs and markers guided me out of the wash and to the left, then down into another, smaller wash.  Shortly after popping out of this second wash is where my troubles started.

I was following a reasonably marked, though rather faint trail just above the wash when the markings disappeared.  I searched around for a bit after a couple of hundred yards and decided to turn back before I got really lost.  This area felt so incredibly remote, even though I could see lights many miles off in the distance.  I got back to the last flag, looked around and convinced myself that there was a faint trail going straight ahead, the way I had just gone.  So off I went in the same direction again.  This time I went a bit farther and then started to wander from side to side but still couldn’t find any more flags.  I got a bit lost and panicked slightly.  I was hoping I was close to the East Mitten AS so I called out a bunch of times but got no response.  As it turned out, I was still 1 ½ to 2 miles away.

I eventually made my way back to the last flag, took a deep breath and started searching again.  Wahoo!  This time I saw some flagging off to the right that was blown flat against a bush.  What a relief.  I moved along now but I had really lost my momentum, along with a good 15 minutes or so.  This next section to the aid station was a bit tough.  It was cross country, and I had a hard time finding the markers.  It just felt like they weren’t in a straight line.  Offset by just a bit so that I would have to stop at each marker, look around, find the next one and then run to it.

I was thrilled to reach the East Mitten AS.  The guy and gal there recognized me from Antelope Canyon and I let them know about my problems over the previous section.  I appreciated that they took me seriously though I am curious if I was the only one that had issues.

After a quick refueling (cola and awesome grilled cheese sandwiches), I set off towards Brigham’s Tomb.  I didn’t have any issues with the markings here but the terrain turned kind of ugly in sections.  There were stretches of loose, deep SAND, some sections that felt like powdered clay (softer and deeper than the SAND), and some sections through a wash that had sticky, clayey mud.  I was not having a very good time.

I made it to the intersection to turn off to the out-and-back section to the Brigham AS and turned right.  I hadn’t realized just how long this section was (maybe a mile or so) and kept expecting to come up on the aid station.  I finally saw a fire and tent in the distance.  The trail wound around a bit, crossed a small drainage, and dumped me out into a paddock with a few horses and at least a dozen barking dogs.  The dogs were friendly enough, some were playful puppies, but I couldn’t see the aid station anymore and there were no further markings.  I doubled back a bit to the last marker, looked around carefully and then walked straight through all the animals again.  The aid station was hidden beyond a bend.  The Navajo men that were running the station were very friendly and quite surprised that I had a hard time finding it.

I didn’t stay long, grabbed some food, more cola, warmed quickly by the campfire and took off, anxious to finish off the night.  I made it back to the junction just fine, followed the drainage for a bit, then the trail pretty much contoured on the side of a hill for a while.  This was an actual trail, but very faint as the ground was mostly hard.  The flagging could have been a bit more frequent.  I was back to the look for flagging, run to it, look for the next flagging, repeat, routine.  My body was probably capable of running faster at this point but I was still paranoid about getting lost again.

The route eventually dropped down and then went straight up the side of a very steep and loose SAND dune.  The trail was pretty easy to pick out now, but the going was slow.  Part way up, I turned around to see the moon peeking up through the Stagecoach formation before it was lost in the clouds.  That was a pretty magical site.

I slowly made my way up to the top of the dunes and then along the ridge for a while.  The footprints were easy to follow and now there were plenty of flags also.  The moon reappeared from behind the clouds as I saw the Big Indian AS up ahead.  I jokingly yelled out for them to wake up.  A gal was actually sleeping inside by the heater, but Turd’l was outside waiting for me.  I had some more cola and some kind of food, but I don’t remember what.  I rushed out, wanting to finish.

Glancing down at my Garmin, I knew I would make it somewhere under 22 hours, but I pushed as much as I could for a strong finish.  I could smell the barn.  The trail seemed to go along through more of the typical desert terrain, between seas of sage.  Eventually, it led out onto narrow ridges of gravelly sandstone.  Luckily, the side were steep, but not dangerous, as I misjudged a sharp turn and slid a little ways off the side.  This section dumped me out onto a dirt road through some kind of an empty camping area.  Not far from the finish, I was now pushing myself to run it out.  It was a bit surreal as there were short light poles set on motion sensors that would individually flick on as I ran by.  Soon enough, I crossed the turn-off for Valley Drive and headed for the finish.  There was a runway of green Christmas lights making the right U-turn under the finish arch and I was done.

Leaning over to catch my breath from the finish “sprint”, I looked around and saw no one.  4:40 AM and not a single person was around.  Within a minute, Matt came running around the corner to congratulate me.  Then, a few others started popping out.  Lights came on, and I walked over to warm myself by one of the fires.  I then went to the car, got a towel and some clean clothes and hit the shower on the poop-mobile.  Matt got it going for me and boy did the hot water feel nice.  Unfortunately, as I took my socks off, I saw a disgustingly large blister on one of my toes that the toenail was now floating on top of - thank you, SAND.

After towelling off and stopping by the fire for a few more minutes, I headed off to the car for a couple of hours of sleep.  I think the 55K’ers were starting just as I woke up to a clear, chilly morning.  It was nice to be able to cheer them off, as well as the 25K’ers.

Pretty soon, I was interviewed by Roberta from the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources, ate some fresh fry bread and hopped back in the car for the long drive back home.

What a totally awesome experience.  Matt kept going on and on about how this race was even more amazing than Antelope Canyon and I didn’t quite believe him, but sure enough, he was right.  Antelope had some amazing sights, separated by a bunch of somewhat ho-hum desert.  Monument Valley was non-stop scenery.  I held back and only took about 250 pictures in the span of about 12 hours.  The terrain was quite diverse and the abundant SAND made it much tougher than the 6,500’ of elevation gain would suggest.

The only two things that could make this race any better are to; 1) get rid of all the SAND, 2) run it on a full moon.  Obviously the SAND is just par for the course in this part of the country.  It wouldn’t be a desert without all the SAND.  As far as the full moon - if this was UA’s only race, I would really push to reschedule it, but with 7 events in these incredible locations, trying to shift everything around and schedule the races around the lunar cycle would be impossible.

As I mentioned at the start, this is absolutely the must-do, bucket-list race!  Prepare yourself for the SAND and enjoy the most incredible scenery that mother earth has to offer.

Slideshow Video