In the past couple of years, I have stopped racing for the sake of racing. Instead of doing several races a year, I have done only a couple, preferring to spend the money on races that allow me to see new and interesting places. Running lets you experience a place in a way far more intimate than simply visiting an area. Races let you access areas you might never have gone on your own, use trails you didn’t know existed and see sights that you would never see from the car. After I run a long race in an area, I feel like I know the “place” and have a connection with it.
This year’s first installment in my ultra-tourism was Monument Valley 50 miler. Ultra Adventures, the same people who put on Zion 100, hosted this race and had worked with the Navajo people to let runners into areas that are normally off limit to the public or accessible only with a Navajo accompanying you. As the date of the race grew near, I debated making the trip, but in the end, of course, I was glad I did.
We ended up flying into Denver so we could spend a couple days in Moab before the race. I am not sure long runs on slickrock on Thursday and Friday, while Tony biked, was all that great of an idea. But then again, I only wanted to be well ahead of cutoffs so I could actually enjoy the race.
We managed to get a last minute-cancellation at The View Hotel, the only hotel on the reservation, and “The View” was spectacular. In addition, the race started and ended at the hotel and since there was nothing within 20 miles or so of the reservation, this was a luxury. When we arrived, I picked up my shirt, hat and bib, bought another shirt and a piece of jewelry from Zion 100, that I ran last year. The packet pick-up was inside a traditional Navajo hogan and we were treated to Navajo dancing and flute playing.
The race started at sunrise and after a very brief run on a dirt road, entered the sandbox. I knew there would be a lot of sand, but I did not expect so much of the race to be in the soft sand. In the first few miles, I began to get very concerned. If that was what I would contend with all day, I would be hard pressed to make the cutoffs and I really didn’t want to have to drop down to the 50K. But still, I remained positive and thankful that I was allowed to be running where I was. That was reinforced when I passed an older Navajo man who was taking pictures of the runners passing through. The sun was peaking around one of the formations, and I remarked to him that it was a beautiful day. Yes, it was, he said, because you (referring to the runners) have blessed it.
Shortly after, there was a fairly short steep downhill in deep sand. It reminded me of running downhill in the snow, except at the bottom I had to make what would be the first of several stops to dump sand out of my shoes. Gaiters did not help much, as the sand was so fine that it permeated the fabric of my shoes. (The next couple times I wore those shoes, despite having dumped the sand out, I still ended up leaving little piles of sand on the floor).
Thankfully, I had a brief respite from the deep sand as the course began to follow a ledge overlooking the valley below. The views in all directions were beautiful, but too soon, we dropped down into the valley, into the deep sand and to the first aid station.
In the next section, the course cut across that valley floor back to the “mittens”. Starting here, I would have many times where I would not see the people in front of me or behind me and had the feeling of running alone in the desert. I never used my iPod during the race and instead listened to the wind and sounds around me. I came upon two Navajo on horses, who, before I left, made sure I was carrying enough water with me.
The section after aid station two was the “worst” section of the race. Worst is relative, because despite the difficulty, the scenery made up for the struggle. In this section, you followed a wide, flat, sandy wash. The sun was high and there was no shade. The wind helped some, but also stirred up the dust. Running was difficult, but I tried to alternate running and walking. It was on this section I was finally in the desert with a horse with no name…
The wash ended and a trek up the main dirt (sand) road through the valley led to the Hogan aid station, which would serve as the aid station for the remainder of the race. There was quite a bit of traffic and other runners from the other races on the road, but the dusty running did not last too long.
Three loops started and ended at the aid station, each going through different terrain. These loops were much better than the Zion loops, which just seemed to meander through the same area. Here, the first loop took you took a beautiful view and then at the base of some formations and then back to the aid station. The second loop was the most difficult to run, but the most interesting. You ran through a lot of soft, deep sand, but passed by big sand dunes and several arches.
The third and final loop takes you up onto Mitchell Mesa. After leaving the desert floor, you follow a little narrow trail zig zagging through a scree field to the top of the mesa. The views into the canyon below were beautiful, particularly in the late afternoon sun. At the top of the mesa, you run along the edge to the end and all along the way are beautiful views down into the valley. You look down on the Mittens and mesas, which became even more beautiful as the sun sank lower. I kind of wished I had gotten there later to see them at sunset, but I also didn’t want to run back down that steep rocky trail at night. So back down I went.
It was getting dark when I got back to the valley floor, but before long I found Tony on the trail waiting for me. He ran back with me to the aid station for the final pass, right at dark. I grabbed a cookie and headed to the finish. The aid station had had a variety of food earlier in the day, but I did something a bit different for nutrition. Instead of using gels and whatever the aid stations had, I used liquid GU Roctane for my main source of calories. The only thing to this point I had eaten at the aid stations was some avocado and orange slices.
The last segment of the race followed the valley road back to the hotel. I was glad I was slow enough to run this at night. I didn’t need a light for the most part because the moon lit up the road and the surrounding desert. The mesas were illuminated and it was quiet, except for the occasional vehicle and the faint voices of the people running ahead of and behind me.
I finished right around 9pm, and Tony, luckily was able to get me a to-go order from the restaurant that was closing. (If I had finished later, it would have been a long hungry night, since the food stations at the finish had been broken down earlier in the evening.) The finish itself was rather anti-climactic, but as I wandered back to the hotel room, I appreciated the fact that they didn’t hold the 100 miler this year and I was able to take a shower and sleep, rather than running around all night. I had thoroughly enjoyed the race, but was glad to be done.