Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

February 24, 2016

Antelope Canyon 50 Miler, 20 Feb 2016

Page, Arizona has two iconic locations to see when visiting there, and the Antelope Canyon Ultramarathons visit both of them.    The Antelope Canyon slot might be the most beautiful, most visited slot in the world, and it's amazingly gorgeous.   Plus there is Horseshoe Bend, a gigantic curve in the Colorado river just outside town, as the river drops from Lake Powell and begins to form the Grand Canyon.  We would see both of these on the race, and that was the reason I had signed up for the 50 miler, as the 55 k wouldn't pass through Antelope Canyon.

I haven't done a 50 mile run in a while, since I spent most of 2015 hiking while training for the Red Bull X-Alps.  So I confess I was a little nervous going into this race.   My training had consisted of only TWO marathon runs in the last few months, and really nothing else long since the X-Alps.   What I did have going for me was the fact that we now have a dog.  Spot is about 6 months old now, and I spend time each day walking him (and a few miles of extra walking each day adds up!).

Conditions were perfect for the race, light winds, moderate temperatures with full sunshine.   The 6 am start was a little chilly, but with a super light windbreaker and light arm warmers I was fine.  I had to laugh later when I passed a lady still wearing long sleeves hours later, with not one but TWO other jackets tied around her waist.  Conditions were just too nice to need much of anything.

Headlamps needed at the 6 am start
The start turned into a gigantic bottleneck, as 250 runners tried to funnel into a single track trail up the slick rock.   I wish I had known to get to the front of the line, but found myself in the middle with no where to go.  After almost 10 minutes we finally got to a wider trail, but by then the leaders were already a mile ahead of me I'm sure.    The wider trail was our first taste of sand (aside from the gigantic expanse in the check-in/expo area).   I jokingly asked the guy next to me if there would be much of it on the race, and he replied very seriously that he thought there would be 38 miles of it!   Ugh.  (I calculated later that it was actually about 32 miles of sand, which is still A LOT).

Sand.  I couldn't decide if I loved it or hated it.  On one hand, it was very soft running, and easy on muscles and joints.  The elevation grades were very gentle for most of the race, and on flats and downhills this made running pretty enjoyable.  On the other hand, each step seemed to lose energy as I sunk into the deep red fluff, and going uphill was sort of miserable.  Running at a 10 minute per mile pace (effort level) only seemed to net me about 12 minute miles, with the sand soaking up the rest of the time.   My shoes and socks soon filled up with the stuff, but I managed to make it to mile 17 before I dumped a cupful of it out of my shoes.

Antelope Canyon
At mile 4 we dropped into our first slot canyon of the race, and it was just getting light enough to enjoy the curvy sandstone walls.  We climbed out of it shortly before it dropped into a technical section.   Then we were down to wash leading to Antelope Canyon.   Three more miles of deep sand, broken by multiple tracks of the jeeps that bring tourists here all day long.   Each runner tried to find the hardest bit of trail, which often descended back to the deep stuff.  I weaved back and forth just like everyone all day long.

Antelope Canyon appeared at the end of the wash like a narrow line of darkness.  At 7 am, it was still quite dark inside, and with the walls so high above me, I had to use my headlamp to see where I was going.   Definitely not the beautiful slot it is during the daylight :(  

Getting back to the wash meant climbing up and over a hill and back down another short slot, this one airy and open with a couple short ladders.  Then we backtracked (all that SAND!) all the way to Page, before heading over to Horseshoe bend.

At mile 20 I reached my 4th aid station, which was super-well stocked with snacks and drinks.  WARM quesadillas and chocolate brownies, yum!  Jim and Spot were waiting for me here, although the poor pup had puked up his breakfast so Jim had his hands full.  Here also was my halfway bag, so I was able to drop all of my extra clothes and headlamp to lighten my pack.  I set off from there with not much besides a full load of water and a few snacks.  I had sent all of my ziploc bags (empty?!?) in my halfway bag the night before, and wasn't sure how to repackage my snacks for the start.   Luckily now that we have a dog, we have dog poop bags stashed everywhere.  I snagged a few of these (CLEAN!) ones, and brought some twizzlers and a bit of cheese.    That's really all I ate outside of munching at the aid stations.

I was looking forward to the next 8 miles as they were supposed to be on the slick rock above the Colorado River.  The views were outstanding, to be sure, as our little pink flags showed us a trail along the rim, then through the middle of a huge rock plateau.  But it wasn't smooth slick rock like Moab, rather it was pushed up into thin ridges, which would break off under my feet.   The terrain was very undulating, and added to the rough rock, this would be the slowest section of the race.   Everyone was feeling it I guess, because as I dropped to a walk and power hiked through the miles, no one passed me.  It was startlingly beautiful, and I just hoped that my water would last through the hot dry afternoon.   There was no trail to speak of here, just flags that often were hard to follow.  I had to stop a few times and scan the horizon to find the next clue.

Crossing the plateau slowly but steadily, I finally could look over Waterholes slot canyon, which would lead me to my next aid station.  My water barely lasted, and I was grateful to refill and drop into the deep canyon that is Waterholes.  Most of the slot canyon is very technical, and a LONG rappel will even get you right down to the Colorado river!   Thankfully a section of the slot above the bridge is non-technical, aside from a few rickety ladders.   It was also over a mile long, so there was great scenery, shade, and an occasional break from the deep sand.

Waterholes Slot Canyon
After climbing out, it was a few relatively hot sandy miles back to Horseshoe bend aid station and Mile 33.  I dug into my halfway bag again, this time for new shoes, a dose of Ibuprofen, and my trekking poles.   This proved to be a perfect combination to speed me into my last 17 miles of the run.     Even better, there was going to be an end to the sand eventually.   The trekking poles worked particularly well in the deep sand, allowing me to float above it a little, get less sand in my shoes, and move faster.  No one could keep up with me here.   I continued to pass almost everyone in sight for the rest of the race, as my legs just felt better and better.

This is somewhat unusual, as near the end of a long race, almost everyone around you is going the same pace (slow).   After all, if you have stayed together in a race this long, chances are your paces are similar.    Case in point.  If you want to find compatible running partners, enter a local marathon, run to about the midway point, then look around you and start making friends.  These people have kept the same pace as you have for hours!

The last 11 miles of the race were on the Page Rim Trail, a (thankfully) dirt trail following the rim all around town.  It was very runnable, and I was happy to have enough bounce left in my legs to run it.   Again the poles came in handy, as they helped me power up and down the small washes as the miles ticked off.   My goal all day had been to finish before dark, which was effectively 12 hours of racing.   The slick rock at Horseshoe had slowed me down a little bit, but I was making up time at the end, and back to averaging 13 minute miles, pretty good considering I was taking some walk breaks.

At the north end of the rim we had great views of Lake Powell (and the white bathtub ring of low water levels), plus the aid station down here was frying up fresh bacon!   With snacking on bacon and a pickle, and the watered-down Mountain Dew in my water bottle, I felt like I was a poster-child for the weird stuff people eat on ultra marathons.

From there it was only 7 miles to the finish, and although I felt tired, I was able to keep running strongly, even at 4800 feet of elevation.  I started thinking as I ran that this might be the strongest finish in an ultra that I've ever had.   Lots of dog walking probably helped with that, but I also believe trekking poles really helped me push through and keep some weight off my legs (up to 16% can go to your arms).

It was twilight as I dropped the last 1/2 mile off the mesa and had a last bit of deep sand to the finish. I actually sprinted to the line, dropping my phone in the process, but crossing in 12 hours and 15 minutes.  That was enough for 95 place out of 260 entrants.    At the finish I picked out a handmade finisher medal, and Jim and I had Navajo tacos for dinner.   Not bad!

2016 Results

The next morning, Jim and I took Spot out to the slick rock near Lake Powell...he went for the first swim of his life!  The water seemed to excite him, as he ran back and forth across the beach at full speed.   He absolutely loved running around the rocks, and by far was better at climbing them than we were.   It won't be too long before he's joining us for the long runs!

This beach was trackless before Spot arrived!

Jim and Spot above Lake Powell


Horseshoe Plateau (the flat part of it at least)
Slot canyon #1

Wonderful Aid Stations and helpful volunteers!
Spot above Lake Powell

February 10, 2016

Wasson Peak, Saguaro National Park

This spring I'm training for a 50 mile run in Page, Arizona.   It's called the Antelope Canyon race, and it's part of a series of races near the National Parks of the Southwest.   I'm actually not in shape for a 50 mile run (as usual), but I'll get through it (as usual), by walking the last part, however long that might take.  In fact, I probably should have signed up for the 50k, which is a significantly shorter option for the race, but...the 50 mile version goes through Antelope Canyon, and the 50k doesn't.  Antelope might be the most beautiful slot canyon in the world, and with no technical sections, it's also easy to get to.  As long as you are willing to pay a local tour company to take you there!   So a chance to run through it on my own in a race seemed really cool.   I might be regretting that decision by mile 45, but....oh, well.

It's been cold and snowy in Utah, so my first chance for a run outside came in Tucson.  We had just arrived in Arizone, but I was going to fly out for a working vacation in Iowa the next day, giving me one day to get a long run in!   Luckily the weather cooperated, and from our campsite, I was able to run to the highest point of Saguaro National Park (West) in the Tucson Mountains.    Along the way, I got my first introduction to the full desert.  It was mostly flat for the first 10 miles, and the trail deviated from straight only to go around the multitudes of cactus growing everywhere.

Wasson Peak, at 4687 feet, is surrounded by (you guessed it) Saguaro cactus by the thousands.  These beasts can grow over 40 tall and live for hundreds of years.  They stick up above the landscape of Tucson like half-buried forks, and I pity the person who ever runs into one.  It seems like every plant in this desert has vicious spines, and I was very careful where I put my feet and how I stepped.  I have been known to trip over an imaginary stone and take a header on the trail...but not today, hopefully!

From relatively flat terrain, I crossed into the National Park and climbed steeply up to the summit.  The trail was rocky, loose, and hot.  The relatively cool morning had passed and I knew the rest of the way would be pretty hot.  With temps in the 70s it was hard to stay cool enough to run.    There were a few other people on the trail but it wasn't crowded at all.

I was very happy to see the summit, because it meant I was now on the second half of my run.  Actually a little more, as I would cut off a few sections of trail and return a shorter way.  It meant running on a road for a little while, but the trail had been exceptionally slow, what with dodging cactus and running around each obstacle.   After a few road miles, and a water refill at the Desert Museum (worth visiting if you're in the area), I had a final few flat miles to be home again.  

Jim had been tracking me, and brought Spot out on the trail to meet me for the last mile.   Australian Cattle Dog or not, he doesn't like the heat, and he was grateful for a sip out of my water bottle!    My mileage for the day was about 25 miles and that was good enough for a training run.   Some of my distance for the day was on bike trails, and I am looking forward to riding them, too.