How To Do a 43.5 Mile 50k
I am in the middle of a Mad Max inspired post apocalyptic hell … by choice. The only thing missing is full body armor and a shotgun. I can barely see in front of me and any attempts to look up is rewarded with more sand irritating my overworked, bloodshot eyes. Sand and debris swirls around me and it feels like the pin prick of hundreds of tiny needles as it slams against the exposed skin on my legs. It hurts. A large tumbleweed sails across my field of view only to disappear mid-air in a gritty fog of red and brown. I can’t even see it land on the ground.
What have I gotten myself into this time?
The “what” is the Monument Valley 50 Mile. The “into” is a sandstorm that’s been whipping around us all day fueled by 10 – 14 mph winds with gusts of 22 – 34 mph.
I’d been wanting to go to Monument Valley since 1985 when, as a recently minted university graduate, a road trip with friends took me as close as the Grand Canyon. Twenty-nine years later I’d finally get my chance. When the race showed up on Ultra Adventures’ schedule I knew I had to somehow get myself there. It was an opportunity not to just site see from a tour bus but to be in, amongst, and above these sacred places.
The day started off with a warning and a blessing.
The warning. “We’ve been given a high wind advisory, which is the worst possible scenario, so we’re moving the aid station into the hogan at Dineh so we can keep the food from flying away and getting sandy.”
Race director Matt Gunn and his family had been staying in the hogan while they’d been here doing race prep so our single, centrally located aid station was basically set up in their bedroom. Normally I’d find this funny but the words “worst possible scenario” superseded any other thought in my head.
The blessing. Fifteen minutes before the start we all stood facing the east, the sun just beginning to light the sky. A Navajo elder sang out a prayer then we turned to the south, west and north in time with a short, sharp tone played on a wood flute. If we wished we could then take a pinch of corn flour as offering to the rising sun. With that the inaugural Monument Valley race was underway.
The first 6 miles had us running toward and through the iconic symbols of Monument Valley, the West and East Mitten and Merrick Butte. They were giant silhouettes against a sky turning orange and red. The weather was beautiful, perfectly cool and the wind gentle. I was hoping that the wind advisory might be wrong and put it aside for the time being to enjoy watching the morning light and shadows moving across the landscape.
After a quick stop at the aid station, Tawnya and I headed out on the 5 mile North Window loop. I noticed the wind picking up but it wasn’t bad. The terrain was getting sandier but it didn’t bother me. When I got back from Antelope Canyon I started training extensively on sand, running up and down Ocean Beach for miles to get my legs and head in order so it wouldn’t frustrate me like it did for that race. The specific preparation worked. The sand had become familiar and perfectly acceptable. The running was easy and I was happy. As we closed out the loop the gusts were getting stronger and at the aid station I noticed my drop bag starting to accumulate a dusting of red which wasn’t there at the first pass.
Tawnya and I started the next loop, the 10 mile Arches loop that would take us to the southern most part of the course. It was on this loop that it became crystal clear that the wind advisory was far from wrong. The formations and mesas in this section are more widely spaced apart which gave the wind the opportunity to come at us unabated with sand which it did with great force and great frequency. My eyes were now in a constant state of trying to clear out the grit that had taken permanent residency in them.
When we got to Ear of the Wind and made the turn to head north back up to the aid station we got pounded. Instead of the wind coming at us from the side or behind it was now fully in our faces. I still kept plugging along, looking up and taking pictures when we’d catch a break. As we made our way back, or staggered depending on the gusts, I wondered what the 1500 foot climb up Mitchell Mesa was going to be like. Or how scary being at the top at 6600 feet would feel with this wind. I made a mental note not to get too close to any ledges.
Back at the aid station my drop bag was now fully covered in red sand and I had to go into the hogan to pull out the things I needed from it. It was like a ghost town outside but opening the door of the hogan I could see it full of people. It reminded me of those scenes in movies where someone enters and those inside get a peek at the blizzard through the briefly open door before it’s shut again and quiet is restored. The sand had invaded my drop bag too. The wind had forced it through the small openings in the teeth of the zipper and there was a light, gritty coating on everything.
The next section was the out and back to the overlook on Mitchell Mesa. The overlook was the 25 mile mark for both the 50k and 50 mile races. The climb up was narrow, steep and technical. While it was sheltered from the worst of the wind it was still there and the sudden gusts that would come up could be scary if it came at the wrong time when you might be off balance on loose rock.
Once at the top it’s a one mile run on slick rock to the overlook. Garret, one of our Navajo guides, and his horse was stationed at the turn around. I couldn’t imagine doing that climb on horseback. It was nerve wracking enough on my own two feet. From the overlook I could look down upon Monument Valley and see almost the entire course laid out for me. It was spectacular up there. I could also clearly see the haze from all the sand being kicked up by the wind.
The descent down Mitchell Mesa wasn’t any easier. The gusts could push you off your footing if you weren’t careful. On the flats heading back to the aid station I saw Jen. She was doing the 50k. I had seen her in the morning but the 50k folks started a half hour after we did so I knew that this section would probably be my only opportunity to see her and I was very happy to have a moment to connect with her.
So now we come back to Mad Max in the desert. I was in the middle of the Arches loop around mile 35, this time going counter clockwise when things, as I would later tell people, got biblical. It was now the height of the sandstorm with the strongest gusts of the day and I was in the thick of it. This loop had felt tough earlier and now it was beyond anything I’d ever experienced. There were objects whipping past me. Tumbleweeds. Branches. If a car had sailed overhead I would not have been at all surprised. I looked down at my leg at one point and saw three thorns embedded in my skin. I thought of a photo I once saw of a drinking straw speared into a tree by a tornado. In this case I was the tree. I brushed them off and kept going. I could see the swirling lines of sand coming toward me like waves in the ocean and I knew that was the signal to brace myself because I was going to get pummeled. Some times I just stood there and took it. Some times I walked backwards. Some times I faced it head on, marching forward pretending to be some heroic figure who would emerge victorious out of the desert.
But that’s all I was doing was pretending. I got back once more to the aid station. I was at mile 40 and a glance at the time and some math told me I was going to time out before I could cross the finish line. Not this time but certainly when I finished the second pass on the North Window loop. I had taken too long to finish the Arches loop and to be honest I couldn’t stomach being in the wind any longer. I’d had enough of my day long exfoliating spa treatment. I’d actually kept it together and stayed positive throughout the worst of it but about 3 miles away from the aid station, like a light switch, my motivation just turned itself off.
I went inside the hogan looking for Matt’s wife Danika. For some reason I wanted her to be the one to hear me say that I was done but she wasn’t there. I went back outside to tell Adam, who was checking in runners, that I was dropping.
“If you want you can drop down to the 50k. Just stay to the left of the 50 mile turn off. It’s 3.5 miles to the finish.”
I’m not sure if my really meant “Really? I can at least I can cross the finish line and get a time?” or “Really? But I’ve already done a 50k and then some, can’t I just get a ride?”
I knew I had to get back under my own power so out there I went to finish and turn my 50 mile race into a 43.5 mile 50k.
What is there to say about a DNF (Did Not Finish)?
I’ve had one before at Miwok 2012. DNFs suck, plain and simple. Time has dulled the sting from Miwok so I’d forgotten how awful you can feel in the wake of one. I seemed headed for a DNF considering how my races have gone of late. I’d been staying just ahead of a moving train and it finally caught up with me. But I suppose if I was going to crater somewhere, Monument Valley in a sandstorm is a worthy place to do it in.
Once again Matt Gunn and Ultra Adventures have out done themselves. He and his crew were also dealing with the elements just like the runners were so it couldn’t have been easy for them either. The course marking was spot on. There’s potential for a lot of confusion when loops share and cross paths and you must traverse them clockwise or counter clockwise. I never once wondered if I was in the right spot or going in the right direction. A lot of his family and friends were volunteering as usual and it’s beginning to feel a bit like home away from home for me now that they feel so familiar. Some day I hope I can be on the other side of the aid station table and volunteer at one of his races too.