I was slightly disappointed that I wouldn’t get to run the 100 miler again, but the 50 mile “sprint” would actually work better into my training plan.
Despite the SAND, Antelope Canyon is one of my favorite races, with scenery only slightly surpassed by Monument Valley. With my focus clearly directed at training for a real push at the 24 hour races, I went into AC somewhat lackadaisicaly. I ran one of my best 6 mile tempo runs the Tuesday before the race, followed up by a pretty serious cross/strength training session later that night. And although I recover pretty quickly, come race day, I was still feeling some lingering effects. I was still hoping I could break 8:30, but it wasn’t a serious goal and I decided to take my camera along. It seems sacrilegious to run an Ultra Adventures race without a camera (the only one that I did was Capitol Reef, and that was because my stupid camera died).
Anyway, I was pretty sure that unless I resorted to actual crawling, I would have no trouble in beating Ultra Signup’s predictions for me - 11:59:39, 44th overall, and 21st male.
I left Lakewood Thursday after work and made my way down through South Park, since I-70 was still closed through Glenwood Canyon. The travel time might be pretty close, but I certainly prefer to be on a major interstate at night - much less chance of wildlife. Additionally, as I drove across the high plains, the wind kicked up fiercely and snow started to fall (sideways). I later learned that just up the road from where I drove, a new wind record was set at 148 mph on Monarch Pass.
My plan was to spend the night somewhere in Durango, but driving through, I didn’t see any place that looked good to park and sleep, and I was enjoying the audio version of A Storm of Swords (3rd book in the Game of Thrones series), so I drove on. Finally coming into Cortez, I was just too tired to continue, so I pulled into a Walmart parking lot, set up my cozy bed in the back of the Subaru and went to sleep. As I dozed off, I had lingering memories of being woken up by flashlights and shotguns pointing at me a year earlier as I slept in a truck stop with the entire state of Utah on a serious manhunt.
No such troubles this night. I got up pretty early and drove to the nearest McDonald’s. After a quick toothbrushing, potty break, and a large cup of coffee, I was on my way.
I pulled into Page mid morning and tried to make myself semi-useful. I helped a bit with tent setups, food inventories, and then ended up as the information guy in front of the maps. This was fun as most runners had never been out here before and I was able to give them real world feedback from my race the previous year.
I wound up crashing by 8 PM and got a decent night’s sleep. Getting race ready in the back of the Subaru is a bit tight, but I’ve gotten pretty adept at it. Unfortunately, my legs were still a bit tight from Tuesday’s hard workouts so as I was putting on my shoes, my left calf cramped up painfully. That is not the way you want to start a 50 mile race.
You know the wise old saying “always try something new on race day”? Well, at the last minute, I decided to don a pair of Brooks that I had never run a single mile in. I typically use them at the gym, but I had worn them standing around the previous day and noticed that I had minimal sand infiltration. Additionally, I heard people talking about duct taping their shoes to keep sand out, so I figured I’d try that too.
After slathering on a healthy amount of extremely cold sunscreen, I was off to the starting line. It was downright chilly out there. I was still wearing my pre-race pants and a heavy, hooded sweatshirt, standing by a roaring fire, and I was still cold. I got to see Katrin Silva while waiting for the final few minutes. Ultra Signup had her finishing over an hour ahead of me.
Soon enough, we were off. Heading east, up a loose sandy hill, on a path that was only a few runners wide. I slogged through the sand and didn’t pay much heed to all those that were fighting towards the front. With 50 miles to go, the effort of trying to gain a few seconds now was beyond futile.
We made a U-turn, down the hill, across the highway, and started climbing the first slickrock mesa. With over 200 runners, the view back down showed a slithering snake of light. I’m never able to get a good photo of these scenes, but for anyone who has not experienced it in person, it’s a pretty cool sight.
Lots of runners were still fighting to pass me on the ascent (stay tuned for my upcoming blog page on pacing), but by the time we started dropping down the other side, everyone had pretty much settled into a pace. The sky started to slowly lighten as everyone weaved back and forth along the sandy double-tracks, trying to find the firmest path. We soon arrived at Owl Canyon and made our way between the slickrock walls. Everyone around was ooing and aahhing as we shimmied our way through the slots.
Out we popped above the rock, and back to more sand, before we dropped back down to Antelope wash and our first aid station. I went through pretty quickly as I didn’t need much. The wide wash spread out before us and again, everyone meandered left and right, trying to find the firmest footing. It seemed like we were only halfway through when we started seeing the leaders already coming back.
Eventually, we saw the sandstone cliff looming ahead, with the thin, narrow crack that we were about to enter. Antelope Canyon seemed to be a bit darker than the previous year. Maybe I ran faster and got here earlier? Unfortunately, my stupid camera had been set to auto flash, so after being blinded by the first photo attempt, I gave up, as I couldn’t see the faded buttons well enough to fix it. Instead, I just enjoyed the majesty of this place, while trying not to whack my head into the rock. All too soon, we were out the back end and trudging our way up a hill of more loose sand.
After a short traverse, we dropped back down into Tumbleweed canyon. Only slightly wider than Antelope, it was much brighter and just as pretty to experience. Once out the other side, we made our way back down Antelope wash. With a slight downhill, and the wind now at our backs, the return seemed so much easier. There were still runners coming up the wash, but their numbers dwindled as we approached the Antelope aid station again. From here, we followed the same route back up the sand hill, down into Owl Canyon, and back along sandy double-tracks. I ran bits with others in this section and I overheard a guy mentioning that it was his first 50 miler. The person he was next to, smartly suggested that he pace himself properly, especially given all the sand. His reply was “I can’t run slow. I only run fast, or walk”. I just felt like pulling up alongside and smacking him upside the head. “Give it a few hours. You’ll figure out how to run slow” I wanted to say. But I kept my stupid mouth shut.
Back up to the top of the first mesa that we had climbed in the early morning darkness and we made a left turn, heading off of the morning’s route. I though the Slickrock station was closer, but it wasn’t. The sun had climbed, along with the temperature and I now had my long-sleeved shirt around my waist. One of the UA ambassadors, Brita, was at the aid station and I realized she was taking drop items from runners, so I threw my shirt, gloves, buff, and flashlight into the bag. It was still early, but I now felt like I was ready to run! I headed out of the aid station with a whoop.
Through the notch in the slickrock, up the sand, over the sandy mesa, and down the sandy trail. This is where I started to see the lead 55K runners, and surprisingly enough, Travis wasn’t too far behind. He gave me a hard time because he saw that Katrin was ahead of me, so I lashed back with “Why don’t you run a manly distance?”. It was all in good fun and I hope those within earshot didn’t take it too seriously. I would never insult anyone for running a 55K, unless of course, it was tattoo necked Travis.
I popped into the aid station, filled my bottle, grabbed a couple of items from my drop bag, and headed out. This was my first mistake of the day. I was heading into the longest stretch between aid stations, during the full heat of the day. I should have gulped down my fill of fluids before heading out, but I didn’t. It probably cost me a few minutes overall, but not as bad as it could have been on a hotter day.
I saw Katrin as soon as I got down to the edge - and by edge, I mean EDGE, as in a 2,000 foot vertical drop, straight down to the Colorado River, right at the Horseshoe Bend. Katrin and I chatted for just a couple of minutes before I pulled away. I commented on her unbloodied knees and she acknowledged the fact that she was being rather cautious on the rough and uneven sandstone.
This part of the race course is absolutely my favorite. Running inches away from the precipice, with one of the most magnificent natural wonders on the planet just over your right shoulder is just un-freaking believable. I took a few pictures, but not as many as last year. The bright, cloudless sky made for too much contrast and I was still somewhat in racing mode. This section is also not very fast. There are lots of twists and turns, as well as vertical rises and dips, and with some of the flour arrows fading, a little bit of care was sometimes needed to stay on course.
I hooked up with John Gamble from South Carolina for most of this stretch. Four eyes are better than two at finding trail markers, and we also pushed each other along a bit at times. By the time we hit the south side of this little peninsula, we started catching up to the tail end 55Kers. Most were in great spirits, enjoying the majesty of their surroundings. We also managed to reel in a few 50 milers. Not long after I licked the final drops of fluid from my empty bottle, we crossed the road at the Waterholes aid station. This time, I got a long drink, and then refilled my bottle again.
The drop down into Waterholes is a bit of a steep scramble, but luckily not too long. Once down, the coolness and shade of the canyon felt good. I didn’t move though quite as quickly as I could have, slowing to take a few pictures and enjoy the last slot canyon of the day.
Once out the other side, I slowly made my way up the loose sand, but once on top, I started to push the pace. Most of this section is on a sandy road that rolls generally downhill back towards the Horseshoe Bend aid station. I started to do some calculations and to my surprise, I figured out that I still had a shot at an 8:30 finish, though it would be pretty tight. This insight, along with the gravity assist, gave my legs the extra speed as I flew past 55Kers and also passed a number of 50 milers.
Back at Horseshoe Bend, I was feeling good and went through the aid station pretty quickly. I climbed back up the sandy double-track to the top of the mesa, went across the top quicker than I had expected and dropped down the other side to Slickrock. Another quick stop and off I went towards the Page Rim Loop.
I made it to the Page Rim aid station a couple of minutes ahead of my self imposed cut off, thus keeping that 8:30 goal still within reach. All I had to do now was run 10 slightly rolling miles in less than 1:30. I got off to a great start with a few miles at well under 9 minutes, but by the time I got to the Lake Powell aid station, I was getting tired. My legs, and especially my calves, were feeling the effects of 30 miles of sand, Tuesday’s tough training, and my never-before-run-in shoes.
My sub-9 minute miles turned into 10+ minute miles and my legs were more than ready for the finish line. The realization that 8:30 was slipping away didn’t help my motivation, but I motored on. As I passed through Page Rim aid again, I stopped to pick up my drop bag - the extra seconds wouldn’t matter at this point, and I didn’t want to have to go back for it later.
I dropped down off the rim as more runners were climbing up. I jogged through the final section of sand, up to the back of the stage, through the break in the slickrock, and out onto the finish chute with a final time of 8:46:36. Good enough for 12th overall and gender, 4th in my age group. more than 3 hours ahead of Ultra Signup’s prediction and way better than the 44th place they had me ranked at.
Though not quite a perfect day, I was pretty pleased overall. I got to see a bunch of friends at the finish and not too long after, Katrin came through as the 2nd female. Travis and I gave each other some crap while I downed a few beverages and an entire honey dew. There were way more runners this year, and unlike last year’s 100, where I finished alone, in the middle of the night, the finish area was crowded and active. It would have been cool to just hang out for a while, but I gathered up my stuff and hit the road.
Overall, it was another awesome UA race. It’s unfortunate that we can’t run through Antelope Canyon just 30 minutes later when it brightens up a bit, but I guess I could always stay at the back of the pack if I really wanted to. The sand didn’t bother me nearly as much this year, perhaps because of the shoes, but also because I was better mentally prepared. The aid stations were awesome, with more choices than any other race organization provides. I also liked the finish area. Matt has made it a place where people want to hang out with family, friends, and fellow runners.
My calves definitely felt the effects of the sand and the shoes. Though able to run by Monday, I wasn’t really 100% for a week. Now it’s time to get ready for Monument Valley!!