Friday, October 17, 2014

Canyon de Chelly 55k Ultra RR

I have lived my entire life in the Southwest.  I have lived most of those years just a few miles from the edge of the Navajo Reservation.  When I discovered that there was a new Ultra through Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, I knew I wanted to do it (even though I have sworn many times that I would not run an ultra). The canyon is about 2 1/2 hours away and it's known for it's beauty but I'd never been there.

My preparation was worse than crappy. I have been nursing an angry TFL since February and spent my time since Colfax Marathon in May trying to help it recover. After cutting back mileage, then cutting back days, seeing a sports therapist, massage therapist, chiropractor, I gave up. I was entered in a Half Marathon already so I decided to run it and see how it went. Depending on how the hip was I would decide to run the first Ultra I had signed up for (8 weeks after the Half) or give up my spot to a waiting list runner.  (The October race opened for entry in February for 150 filled in 52 minutes).  I ran the Half and paced my running buddy to her best time by 5 minutes. I left her in the last mile and managed to finish only 3 minutes off my best time (not bad since I had been only doing easy runs for months).  1:38:21.  Sore as ever the next day!!!! There was a lot of steep downhill mixed into some good climbs so my quads were ruined!

I managed to get a 16, 18 and 20 mile long run in preparation for my first ultra.  Yep...that's it...I've done a heck of a lot more for every marathon I've ever run but I was concerned about adding too much mileage and getting a real injury or just plain being exhausted when I arrived at the starting line.  So, I just chilled and worked more on my strategy of what I was going to have to do to be successful (fuel, gear, etc.).

Driving the 2.5 hours from our home in New Mexico past Shiprock and around the Chuska Mountains of Northeast Arizona, we had amazing views. The open landscape, red mesas and gorgeous blue skies were only preparing us for what we'd see the next day.  We arrived at packet pickup and Shaun Martin (Navajo runner, coach, and race director) greeted us.  We got our bibs and waited for the evening ceremony to begin.

Other runners chatted with us about the race (some had done it the year before).  At one point, another runner asked what other trail races I'd{as I frantically scan my library of races in my head sure that there is a trail run in there somewhere....but there isn't} finally answer "None. This is my first trail race."  Her response: "Oh....well, what other Ultras have you run? Any around here?"  Me: " this is my first Ultra too."  She looked dumbfounded (and I'm pretty sure I did too).  What was I thinking??? I'm going to go run 8 miles further than I ever have, on less training than I ever have, through sand.  Good idea. Ok. Let's do it tomorrow. I actually wasn't questioning myself...seemed totally logical.

Weeks ago my brother had given me the best advice when I was discussing my concern in my lack of training and prep for this event.  He said "You could run a lot further if you had to."  He was right. I could.

Shaun told us the story of how the race came about. He discussed the Navajo culture of waking up before sunrise and running towards the east every morning. He told us about a day where he ran through Canyon de Chelly with a lot on his mind and was accompanied by a group of wild horses that ran with him for many miles.  The entire experience was so overwhelming to him that he decided he wanted to put on an Ultra in that canyon and a few years later he did. He had tears in his eyes as he described the whole experience.  The Canyon is sacred land and cannot be entered by non-Navajo without a permit and a Navajo guide and even then it's a jeep/truck tour where you rarely get out to put your feet on the ground.  This was a rare opportunity for a bunch of white folks and their fancy running shoes to go prancing through this land. Shaun was a wonderful story teller; funny and personable and natural in front of the crowd. His father in law dressed in the native clothing and discussed more about the culture and sang some Navajo songs for us. I felt like I learned more about the Navajo culture that night than I had my entire life.

We stopped for some ice cream on the way back to our hotel and headed off to bed. I slept like total crap even though I wasn't nervous. I really wasn't. I was definitely excited to see the canyon but I wasn't concerned or stressed like I get before a marathon.

Up early, we had some oatmeal and bananas and made sure everything was ready to wear and that our drop bags were loaded with whatever you're supposed to put in one of those things????? I had a bag of my favorite potato chips (Boulder Avacado Oil), and an extra pair of shoes and socks, plus extra Tailwind.

We got to the start in time for the Navajo blessings facing east.  The words were soft as they sang towards the rising sun.  The sunrise was beautiful.  We stood quietly listening for probably 15-20 minutes. Humbling and empowering.  I was ready to see the canyon. We were encouraged to yell as we entered the canyon and to yell whenever we felt like it to announce ourselves to the spirits.

We stood in a giant wash...I mean GIANT.  Shaun counted down 3-2-1 and off we went, all yelling.  As we "ran" up this wash for the next few miles, the red canyon walls began to appear growing around us...starting at 6 inches high, and then growing.  The cottonwoods in the canyon were beginning to yellow and against the red rock walls, they glowed in the sunrise. Around mile 4, we got to witness the wild horses. They were grazing under the cottonwoods and as we ran by, they decided to join us...only for a few hundred yards but they were beautiful and after hearing Shaun's story the night before, it was a special moment in the canyon.  When we arrived at the first aid station (mile 5.5), Shaun was there waiting for us.  By this time, the canyon walls were probably 500 feet high and I exclaimed how beautiful it was.  Shaun told me to just wait...that they'd get at least twice as high.  We ran and ran, and around every new corner I found myself saying "Wow" or "Beautiful" or "Amazing" or "This place is captivating" or "I feel so lucky to be seeing this". Our feet were still dry and we were mostly running on two-lane jeep road now where we frequently crossed the wash. Around mile 11 my left knee started to idea.  I have never had knee pain before. It wasn't debilitating, just annoying, so it didn't really slow us down. Shortly after the second aid station (mile 12ish), the water crossings began.  I think there were about 12 in the next 4 miles. We rounded a corner and ran towards the famous Spider Rock....a very tall rock spire.  Gorgeous. When we reached mile 15ish, we turned onto a single track and began our 1200 foot climb (in less than a mile) out of the canyon and onto the rim.  It was pretty technical...loose rocks and many deep grooves from the fall rainstorms.  We began to see the race leaders coming down the climb, headed back to the start/finish.  One of them said as he ran by: "Best view in ultra running is straight ahead." When we reached the top, there was Shaun waiting for every runner.  He told Ryan and I that we looked relaxed and fresh.  I felt relaxed and fresh. The view was spectacular. You could see the canyon stretching with its long arms both directions (at this point we were about halfway into the canyon so we were in the middle of a "spider" of canyons). I changed my socks but kept the wet shoes on as I liked that pair better and they were going to get wet again in a mile anyway.  My socks had gotten super fine mud in them on one of the water crossings and thought with 17 miles to go I should probably try to get rid of that.  I ate about 25 of my favorite chips and then left the bag for others to enjoy.  Down the climb was really aggravating the knee.  The big down-steps and jumps were getting painful. Finally we reached the bottom and were able to start running again.  Based on all the people we had seen before and after us, we'd determined we were around 50 or 60th place (not that we really cared). We got through all the water crossings again and passed some runners.  As we neared the mile 23 aid station, things began to ache.  My mind and body were fully aware that we were entering the zone of being on our feet for longer than ever before, that my training was...well....not much, and that we still had more than 10 miles to go.  Still, I found myself with my jaw dropping open in awe at the beauty of this place. About a mile before the aid station at 28.5, we both ran out of water. It was getting hot. My knee was still aching but wasn't getting worse; just annoying. We made it to the aid station and filled our bottles multiple times.  The cross country team from Chinle was running the aid station and they were nice kids...chatting with us and helping us with what we needed. We started having some walk breaks with about 5 miles to go. We'd allow only a quarter mile at a time and then made ourselves run at least .75 of a mile.  Ryan said he thought I was doing better than he was. I loved having him through this entire thing. To share the beauty of this place with someone; to share this experience with my favorite person in the entire world. He ran a PR in a marathon only 3 weeks before so I imagine his body wasn't fully recovered for this type of event.  We were passing the 6 hour mark and knew what we had to do to stay under 7 hours (my goal). We pushed on as the canyon walls got lower and the sun grew warm.  Some cloud cover was creeping in and we had some good shade for the last few miles when we were in the thick of the sandy wash. We finally round the last corner and could see the finish line, we ran it in. Finish time: 6 hours 44 minutes. 52nd and 53rd place. As we crossed, Shaun gave us both a hug and decorated us with Navajo turquoise necklaces all hand-beaded by him and his family.  By far, the most special finisher's medal I will ever receive.

So much community went into this race. The melons at every aid station were grown by one of Shaun's friends on a hillside right next to the canyon. The awards were all made locally (jewelry, moccasins and rugs).  The volunteers on the course were all runners or friends and were so helpful and genuine.  This RR is lame...I can't explain so much of this experience and why it moved me so much. Every step of the journey made me love running more and made me want to run more to celebrate life. I know that this run made me a better runner and a better person. It was refreshing to step onto a course with such history and meaning for the love of this sport. I feel so honored to have had this experience...words just can't express.

In my swimming days, as a sprinter, I couldn't believe anyone would run a marathon (I didn't even know how far a marathon was) and swore I'd never do anything like that.  I read Born to Run and that changed me.  After my first marathon, I swore I'd never do an Ultra, but from the moment I read about Canyon de Chelly, I knew I had to try.  I told Ryan for months before this race that this would be the only one.  Turns out, if you go back a second year, you get a coral necklace....I love coral.
saw this printed on the inside of Ryan's asics jacket pocket during the evening ceremony...thought it'd be great on my arm for the race.

the wash...

the start of the cliffs

Ryan running in the cottonwood carriageways...loved this part!!


me and Spider Rock

red cliffs and cottonwood...and southwest blue sky!

a short video from mile 30...just to remind myself that we were still running

towards the end of the wash. Canyon walls getting smaller and the clouds coming in.

Our sweet gaiters! I'd never worn them before but I was sure glad I did for all this sand! Totally worth the $20.

most treasured finisher's medal

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