For me, some races are for personal best attempts, some serve as supported training runs and some are to have an adventure surrounded by spectacular scenery. Antelope Canyon fell into the third category. I’d fallen in love with the American Southwest after I did the Bryce 100k and I had wanted to go back to explore a new area. This was the inaugural running and the first time an organized race had been run through the canyons. In fact the first two legs of the race were on tribal land so I felt honored to be able to spend my day in these special places. About 30+ people had signed up for the 50 mile and an equal number for the 50k. It was going to be nice and cozy.
About a week before the race, directors Matt Gunn and Tim Long had started letting us know that conditions were very sandy due to the lack of rain. Normally rain plus the colder temperatures would have firmed up the sand but they had never seen it this bad. I knew the sand would play a large role in how the race would develop for me so getting into the right mindset to cope with it would be important. However, saying and doing are two entirely different things.
I was traveling with Jen, who paced me at Bryce, but this time was signed up as a runner. She’d been having doubts about her preparedness and feeling ambivalent about running it. I was enthusiastic and kept trying to get her excited about how awesome it was going to be. This particular conversation went on up until the night before the race. The irony of all this is that as race day dawned, Jen was excited and I was now the one feeling uncertain. I don’t know what happened to my earlier enthusiasm but I couldn’t summon it. I didn’t give this feeling much credence though. I’d done enough races and long training runs where my head wasn’t quite in the game at first but ended up having a great day. I just figured I needed to mentally warm up.
It was 6 a.m. and in the mid-30s as we stood at the start line listening to Tim and Matt give us some last minute instructions. Also chili, cornbread and peach cobbler were waiting for us when we finished. Could I just stay here for that instead? A quick half mile on the streets of Page and then we were on the trail. We’d had a bit of luck since it had rained the day before so the sand had firmed up a little. It was a nice reprieve. Around mile 6 we got our first taste that this race was going to have plenty of adventurous moments. Tim had told us to be on the look out around that point for the entrance to our first slot canyon.
“You’ll see what looks like a 30 foot drop with a ladder at the bottom. You can go into the slot canyon that way or stay on top of it to get to the aid station.”
I don’t think anyone decided to remain up top because the fun slip and slide in the sand to the bottom seemed too cool to pass up. This was a minor slot canyon but it was giving us a little taste for what was to come. It was a short run through the canyon to get to Antelope Aid (mile 7) where I grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed up the wash to our race’s namesake. It had started to snow about a half hour earlier and now the wash and the surrounding terrain was covered in white. The snow squeaked as I ran across it and I was grateful that it created a firm crust that made the very soft sand beneath quite manageable.
The first trucks of tourists visiting the canyon bounced passed us. I waved to them. They waved back. I wondered what they thought seeing us running beside them.
At the end of the wash I could see a wall of rock with a black gash running through it. We’d arrived at Upper Antelope Canyon. I had seen plenty of pictures beforehand but nothing had prepared me for how nondescript it looked on the outside to how stunningly beautiful it was on the inside. I made my way past the tourists clustered around the entrance so I could be in a section by myself and take in what I was seeing. None of my attempts to take a picture in there could do it justice.
Upon exiting, the course took us up a sand hill then down a stupidly fun “ski” through deep, soft red sand to the entrance of another slot canyon that was just east of Upper Antelope. I don’t know if tourists even go into this one but there were a number of ledges to either drop down from or scramble up to plus some bonus ladders. The canyon brought us back to the wash for a return trip to Antelope Aid. The snow had stopped and the sun was now shining in clearing skies. It was starting to warm up and with it the sand began to soften.
The section between Antelope Aid (mile 13) and Slickrock Aid (mile 19) was where I became unglued. I was losing my battle to stay positive with each sinking footstep into the sand. Everyone, their mother and generations of their ancestors passed me. Try as I might I couldn’t stay in contact with anyone. Around mile 17 there was a highway crossing. A sign had indicated that we’d be on the shoulder for only a ¼ mile so I began scanning around for another marker and saw one pointing to the right. I also saw a pair of runners ahead of me going the wrong way and I knew Jen was ahead of them but I couldn’t see her. I shouted as loud as I could several times and finally caught Katie and Marilynn’s attention. I pointed to where we should be going. Luckily they were able to see Jen and after repeated shouts were able to get her to turn around as well.
Helping them was a welcome reprieve from the non-stop flow of negative energy swirling around my head. I was in a foul mood when I got to Slickrock Aid. Jen had come into the aid station a few minutes after I did.
“Are you okay?” I grunted out a “no” and stomped away. I was unfit for human companionship or interaction. We left the aid station together, sort of. She approached behind me.
“I can sense you want to be left alone but I want you to know that if you need anything just ask me.”
Then she dropped back. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this and to receive such words of support at that moment was almost unbearable to hear. We continued on, mostly in silence with an occasional reminder from Jen to look up because the expansive desert vistas with mesas in every direction were indeed beautiful. By the time we got to Horseshoe Bend Aid (mile 22) I was feeling a little bit better. Jen told me later that she could hear me laughing with one of the aid station volunteers and thought – okay, Laura’s back.
I continued on ahead of Jen. I knew she’d been holding back to monitor me and figured she’d catch up easily, which she did. We stopped at the overlook to Horseshoe Bend where the Colorado River carved out a dramatic, horseshoe shaped canyon. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how long we stayed there taking pictures. I think we both wanted to just be … at least as much as we could in the middle of a race. I could have sat there all afternoon watching the light change but we had to keep moving.
We weren’t on sand anymore. We were on thin sheets of rock tilted at an angle, their edges exposed. It made for strange footing because the ground undulates beneath you in unpredictable ways. We also found ourselves wandering around this area with an unnerving and sudden lack of course markers. We’d go up to a marker and not see another one. Then we’d follow a set of footprints that hopefully led in the right direction and find a marker barely visible in the distance. It was much too far to pass for normal course marking.
Up to this point everything had been well marked so this felt totally uncharacteristic and strange. But between the two of us we kept finding markers. Sometimes I’d see one and sometimes Jen would. We worked well together here and it felt reassuring to not be alone because this had the potential to be panic inducing. But it was slow going. Sometimes there wouldn’t be any footprints to follow and we’d have to split up and go in different directions hoping one of us would see a flag.
We continued like this for a while when suddenly above us on a hill Matt’s brother, Adam, appeared carrying a sack of flour. He was trying to get us to come to him because they were re-marking the course to give us a more direct route to Water Holes Aid. We pointed to a flag going in the opposite direction. Isn’t that the way to go? We were confused but complied. We eventually saw Matt, also carrying a huge sack of flour and dropping handfuls on the ground. We went from hardly any course marking to a literal dotted line showing us the way out. Even though it felt like there was no one else around us there were actually small groupings of runners similarly wandering around a bit aimlessly in this expanse and Matt’s new course marking suddenly brought us all back together again.
The renewal I had felt upon reaching the Horseshoe Bend overlook had been slowly dissipating and by the time we saw Matt and the groups came together it was gone. I was passed en masse again with no motivation to try and follow. I was moving so slowly at this point that I didn’t give Jen much choice but to leave me behind. In truth, I think I wanted to be left behind.
I trudged on, occasionally ran, but mostly coming to the decision that I was going to drop when I got to the next aid station. There was absolutely nothing physically wrong with me but my head and my heart had gone missing. I became oblivious to my stunning surroundings. What was going on with me? I could not tap into the finish-at-all-costs mentality that I’ve always been able to summon when things go south. It seems I had finally overdrawn my account at the Bank of Courage and Tenacity. If I was going to DNF I wanted to do it on my own terms. I got to Water Holes Aid (mile 29) and was surprised to see Jen was still there. She excitedly pointed to George who was volunteering.
“He was at Bryce. The one who gave you his sleeping bag at Proctor Canyon!”
“I couldn’t believe how you popped up like that and just kept going,” he said.
Fate had chosen a completely awkward (or perhaps appropriate) time for me to be reunited with George and reminded of a moment of strength when I was feeling anything but.
“I’m dropping,” I said and immediately sat down in a chair and started wrapping a blanket around myself.
I could hear George calmly talking to me and Jen’s protests. I stood up and faced her.
“I’ve thought hard about this. Physically I feel fine but I’m just not into it today. I’ve made my decision and this is me owning it.” I thought I was being definitive and that would end the discussion.
“Yes, but … no! Absolutely not!” I could feel myself wavering in the face of her vehement opposition.
“If you’ve got 5 more miles in you, make it back to Horseshoe Bend Aid and decide there,” said George.
This was starting to feel all too painfully familiar. These two people who’d rescued me at Bryce were doing the same thing all over again. Somehow I found myself standing in front of the aid station table looking for something to eat, the chair forgotten. George put Nutella and peanut butter on a flour tortilla and that seemed to seal the deal. Jen and I left the aid station and headed out to the final slot canyon on the course.
The entrance into Water Holes Canyon was another adventurous drop to the canyon floor especially on legs that had been turned into jello by the sand. At a mile in length, this was the longest slot canyon we’d be in. There were three ladders in place at various points to help us traverse the dramatic changes of height in the canyon floor. There were also numerous ledges to negotiate, sometimes wedging our bodies into them to gain some leverage. More stunning beauty to take in.
We got back to Horseshoe Bend Aid (mile 35) and I was surprised to find Katie and Marilynn just leaving and Cory’s group still at the aid station. I thought they were all too far ahead of us to make contact with again. Our drop bags were here so I grabbed spare batteries for the headlamp and handheld. I also stashed away some hand warmers and left behind anything that I didn’t feel I’d use anymore. Jen and I headed back out again. We’d been in sand since Water Holes Aid and it had beaten me into submission. It’s not that I didn’t notice it anymore, it just was.
When we arrived at Slickrock Aid (mile 38) Clair, one of the guys that I had seen all day with Cory’s group, was there. He was planning on taking the 50k turn off and calling it a day. Cory and company were long gone. As I drank some hot broth, Katie and Marilynn came into the aid station. Now that was odd. They left Horseshoe Bend Aid ages before we did. Then Julie and Jill came in.
We all essentially left Slickrock Aid together on our way to the final aid station which was 7 miles away. It was around mile 40 when we left the sand behind for good on a steep climb up to the Page Rim Trail. At this point I was dead last and laboring up the sandy climb. We’d have the most runnable part of the course ahead of us with smooth, packed single track all the way to the finish. Everyone who hit it took off running. Everyone except Jen, who was waiting for me at the top.
I would never ask anyone to sacrifice their race for me. You pay cold, hard cash for a race and you should do with it what you will. That doesn’t include babysitting me because I’m having a rough time. I’d been feeling guilty for holding her back all day and I finally couldn’t take it anymore.
“Please, just go.” I said.
She looked confused but after a moment she left. I regret that I wasn’t able to be clear about why I waved her on. I just wanted her to be able to run her own race, what was left of it at least, and finish on her own terms instead of mine. But I didn’t verbalize that and so I left her to wonder and make assumptions about what I just did. I won’t do that again.
I stood there for a minute and watched her quickly catch up to everyone. She looked so strong and I was glad she could finally move at her own pace. I watched the light from the headlamps grow faint as the runners got farther and farther away from me. I still hadn’t moved. I seemed determined to be the last one standing; my penance for the day. It was dark and getting cold. The light from both my headlamp and handheld were dim so I was glad I had the presence of mind to take the spare batteries. I decided to wait to change them at the last aid station.
My Garmin hasn’t been holding a charge like it should and it died around mile 41. I was in the dark, alone, with nothing to tell me how far I was from anything. I’m not sure how it happened but I passed Julie and eventually came up behind Katie and Marilynn. Marilynn asked me if I wanted to pass and I said no, I was fine. I would keep up, fall back then rubber band back up to them again. She would occasionally turn to look at me and at one point asked if I wanted to run between her and Katie. Again I said no, I’ll keep up as best as I can. I felt a complete aversion to continuing to impact anyone’s race and wanted them to carry on as they saw fit. I wanted to be responsible for adjusting to it. Katie was really good about finding the markers so we kept steady progress despite numerous stops to scan the area with our lights when it wasn’t so obvious where to go. I complimented her on her ability to see the markers in the dark. She laughed, “I seem to do better at it at night than during the day.”
We finally got to Lake Powell Aid (mile 45). Katie and Marilynn were in and out very quickly. I had to change batteries and doing so with cold, stiff fingers was challenging.
“Hey, I know you!” It was George. “I knew I’d see you here. I don’t know. When they made you they put something in you, unobtainium, and look at you. Now you’re here. Is there anything you need? Hat, gloves, pants?”
Pants? It was really cold and I wasn’t going to turn down some pants to run in. Unobtainium? I couldn’t seem to do much more than lift a foot and put it back down again so I leaned against George while he zipped me into a light pant shell. It made a huge difference in my comfort level.
“How am I going to get these back to you?”
“I’ll be at the finish line where I will see YOU,” he pointed to me. “Five miles. You’ve got this.”
He walked with me for a short distance to where we could see the first marker then I was on my own. I wouldn’t run into another race participant again. I kept finding markers and following them. In daylight it might be glaringly obvious where to go but in the dark, in unfamiliar territory when you are tired, every bend in the trail feels like a decision point. The tension of alternately feeling lost and found, of wondering where the finish line was made me scream into the darkness only to gather myself together again and find the next marker.
Finally, ahead of me standing on a hill, I saw a glowing angel named Joan. She was the course marshal, the reflective vest she wore turning her into a beacon of light pointing the way home. I was nearly brought to tears. She stood at the borderland between the strange shadow world I was leaving behind and the familiar environment of concrete sidewalks and street lamps.
And like that it was over. George, as he said he would be, was at the finish. I hugged him and he got his pants back. I hugged Matt. Crossing the finish line meant going through the front door of the Into the Grand Museum and checking in with Tim who was parked behind a desk recording times on a laptop. I found this so strangely appealing. He gave me a unique finisher necklace hand made by a Navajo family living in Monument Valley. It was awesome.
I expected to see Cory’s group and Katie and Marilynn hanging out at the finish. And where was Jen? Where was everyone? The check-in sheet that Tim had showed them all going through the last aid station but not here yet. What? How was that possible? It seems the running gods showed me a touch of kindness and kept me from making a wrong turn in the final stretch.
What Else Would I Want I Be Doing Right Now?
This was not one of my shining moments. I feel so privileged that Matt and Tim put in so much work to share with us these beautiful places they clearly love but I also struggled mightily for most of the race. Or maybe it’s this area that does it to me that I keep being drawn back to. Both Bryce and Antelope Canyon have striped me clean of bravado and hubris and have deeply humbled me.
When Jill came into the finish I went to congratulate her. This was her first ultra and she probably ended up doing a 100k from getting lost. She had a melt down or two. But she was also completely elated. She was relaying all this to Tim and he said something to her that stuck with me.
“When I’m out there, going through all this stuff, one of the things I think about is what else would I want be doing right now?”
So what else would I want to be doing right now that doesn’t just blend and disappear into the fabric of my every day existence? Is there something else I’d trade that 14.5 hours of my life for even with all it’s ups and downs? No. Nothing in my experience has allowed me to put up a mirror that so clearly reflects my strengths and my flaws. It’s uncomfortable but it’s also the truth.
Ultra Adventures put on a great race with a totally grass roots feel. Yes, not everything went off perfectly without a hitch but I knew they were scrambling to make adjustments and insure we were all okay. The volunteers were awesome and incredibly generous with their time. It was really great to see some of the same volunteers from Bryce at this race. A special shout out must go to George who was a life saver to me at Bryce and again, here at Antelope Canyon. I’m almost afraid to see what circumstance would have us cross paths again considering my current track record with him.
Once again my dear friend Jen provided me with an anchor I could hold onto with her steadfast belief in me when I had none for myself. She was there to run her own race and ended up keeping me afloat for most of the day. She has told me repeatedly that it was her choice to stay by my side as long as she did but I’m finding it difficult to just freely accept that. I’m too Catholic and it’s easier to feel guilt than grace. My sister once told me that everyone needs a Jen in their life. I completely agree.
Many thanks to the other race participants and supporters whose photos I’ve used to fill in the gaps for this race report.