Sometime in September ‘19 I got the bug to fill up the adventure calendar for 2020 and an email from VacationRaces.com caught my attention. After clicking on the link I saw pics that I’ve normally seen only as computer wallpaper or screen savers. Described as two of the most photographed places in the US, Slot Canyons in Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River, happened to offer an ultra marathon with camping options! That combined with a book I had just finished about a runner turning Vegan and increasing his performance resulted in only a 30 seconds pause for me to register for the 50 mile ultra marathon distance race scheduled for March 14, 2020. And I was going to do it on a full vegan diet.
I found a 16 week training plan on Runnersworld.com and started following it on November 25th. I did a better than average job of sticking to the plan that included getting in the necessary miles to be able to accomplish this advanced ultra course. I logged 330 miles of training including a 50k ultra marathon called Border to Badlands in Texas for a warmup on February 29th. I felt prepared to finish strong on March 14th. I can’t say the vegan diet made me feel significantly better but at least mentally I knew my body primarily received healthy, organic, plant-based nutrients which felt really good.
My goal was to shave an hour off my 2017 14 hour 50 mile ultra finishing time in Monument Valley, but I missed the part about 3,700′ of elevation gain for this event. I was prepared, at least mentally for 40 miles of sand on the course, but my legs were not, as I only got in two beach training runs. The race guide definitely didn’t depict just how technical and complex miles 20 through 27 would be and only described it as slick-rock. Surprises are all part of the adventure.
I arrived in Arizona Wednesday, the week of the race to acclimatize to the altitude and 3 hour time zone difference. Pre-race activities were fun but I’ll leave those till the end since this is mainly about the race itself.
As mentioned, I was excited about the camping option available with this race, so I spent the night before the race camping in a tent a few hundred yards from the starting line. The race offered four distances; 100 Miles, 50 Miles, 55k and Half Marathon. My 50 miler started in the dark at 5:45 AM. With close to 400 participants and a single track start it was super slow, single file shuffling for the first 30 minutes or so and then it opened up a bit pre-sunrise. It was cold with borderline freezing temps outside with a pretty brisk wind.
After a slick-rock climb we had a 5 mile desert traverse on sandy double-track with our first slot canyon mixed in. This canyon was a tease for what was coming.
After that we ran three miles of large open wash with a very intense head wind. The cold air, sand and strong wind was incredibly energy draining but the anticipation was building for what I knew was ahead. We finally entered the incomparable Upper Antelope Canyon. This is one of the most photographed slot canyons in the world.
Navajo Indian guides were posted along the route, as travel on tribal lands requires their presence in order to visit the sacred sites. After passing through the slot canyon, we had to climb a sand dune and pass through another small slot canyon on the return (since the canyon isn’t wide enough for two way traffic) and then run just over three more miles to complete the first ~15 mile section.
From there, we traversed another open desert section for about three miles before reaching the famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River. An aid station was set up prior to this spectacular overlook. This is where I was supposed to meet my first drop bag which contained sun screen, my Gu gels, Arbonne electrolytes and carbo pro mixes. Well, it wasn’t there. I don’t know why and neither did any of the staff. I dropped all four bags in the right place before the race and this one didn’t make it to its intended destination. Oh well, I chalked it up to part of the adventure and luckily the aid station was well stocked. I had a PB&J sandwich, a banana, some salty chips and M&M’s before refilling my bottles with the supplied Gnarly brand electrolyte water mix and off I went for Horseshoe Bend.
The next seven mile section weaved through slick-rock along the rim of the Colorado River, in an area that few humans have ever traveled. The views were beyond words. The running terrain was beyond words as well. While the pros channeled their inner mountain goat to coast through this section, I speed walked the majority of it. Good thing I packed my motivational skills as I had a women near me that was in bad shape. “I hate this, this sucks, this is not a trail, what kind of race is this, I didn’t sign up for this, I’m really not enjoying this” was all that was coming out of her mouth for the hour or so she was by me. I was able to encourage her through and commiserate a bit too because unless you’re an Ultra Marathon Guru and are used to extra unique terrain, this was something out of this world. She later finished the race BTW.
After the grueling experience of covering the equivalent of Mars for the last three hours I hit the mile 29 aid station with only 15 minutes to spare before the cut off time for this point in the race. They call it the Grim Reaper time. I was met by a race official and questioned about my ability to keep going. He didn’t appreciate my jovial “Never felt better in my life!” response and again sternly asked me if I was OK to continue. I truly felt rested after speed hiking the previous seven miles and not really running. I reunited with my bag of fuel, carbed up again, refilled my water bottles, emptied the sand from my sneakers and got back on the course to be treated to another gorgeous slot canyon.
After about a mile of this natural beauty I exited the slot canyon to a long, exposed, sandy desert traverse where the sun finally showed itself in all its might and glory. Until this point it was perfect running weather; mostly overcast and a bit chilly. The direct heat and full running pace resulted in sweat soaked attire which would become really uncomfortable when the temps would inevitably drop again. The things one has to deal with during these races! Oh, I forgot to mention that it also rained on and off, ever so slightly though, up until this sunny point in the race.
|Nothing 4 u 2 c here son, keep moooov’n
As I was making my way towards the mile 38 aid station, the course wound its way past the race camp site where my car was parked. I thought that was a pretty cruel idea by race organizers. It was pretty tempting to hop in and drive away. I could have been sipping wine with the setting sun over beautiful Lake Powell but instead I just dropped off my headphones so I could lose the 3 oz of weight that I hadn’t used all day. This would surely guarantee me a better finishing time. I used this opportunity to again empty the sand out of my sneakers and I felt the beginnings of my thighs cramping for the first time all day.
At this point there was about 15 miles to go. I had three hours to make the race cut off and avoid the Grim Reaper. After hearing from others that were doing the 100 mile version, that the rest of the course was nowhere near as technical or deeply-sandy as the first 35 miles, I felt that it was totally doable and pressed on. So I was off to finish the job I set out to complete 12 hours ago. The final push included running/climbing up onto the plateau on which the city of Page Arizona is built upon. The route tied into a smooth single-track of what is called the Page Rim trail. This is a fast and very runnable loop with spectacular views of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam.
At dusk I hit the 2nd to last aid station at mile 43 and felt that I had enough in the tank to run the last 7 miles at a decent enough pace to finish in the 90 minutes I had left. That was until the lights went out. After the sun set on this moon-less night I could not see my hand in front of my face in the desert darkness. I turned on my headlamp which has been on my head since the pre dawn start and quickly realized that I didn’t put in fresh batteries before the race. Total bonehead move. I sincerely thought I would be done with the race before sunset and if it wasn’t for the uber difficult seven miles of slick-rock by Horseshoe Bend or the 3700′ unexpected elevation gain, I would have been. Needless to say it was really hard to find the barely reflective ribbons that marked the trail every 20-30 yards. I made a wrong turn somewhere, finding myself off course and a little disoriented with black nothingness all around me.
With the poor excuse of an illumination device strapped to my head, I desperately tried for a few minutes to find a reflective marker or some semblance of a trail. This effort proved futile and I finally resorted to yelling out “Is anyone out there?!??!?”. I don’t know what I was thinking! Who the hell did I think would be out there in the dark? As scary as this sounds I later learned by reviewing the course map that I was never more than a mile or two from civilization but I absolutely felt much farther from any sign of life. After a few more minutes of this I finally saw a headlamp bobbing in the distance. Assuming it was another runner I immediately starting running towards it and fortunately it was. I asked if he was doing the 50 mile course and learned that 100 milers were doing this final loop 6 times and he was one of them. I politely asked if I may follow him and he rudely replied with “sure, if you can keep up” and then took off at a lightening 8 min/mile pace. Buh-bye!
I lasted behind this hot shot for about 60 seconds and then he disappeared, but at least I was back on the course. Unfortunately that didn’t last long as my next wrong turn followed a few minutes later. This time at least I was mentally reassured that someone else would be running by sometime soon. This routine repeated itself a few more times. Besides being in the dark and off trail, the scariest part were the drop-offs that I knew were all around and only one wrong step away. My longest “tow” lasted a few miles behind a gift from a god that was running a 12 minute mile pace, who I was able to keep up with for enough miles to get me to the home stretch. It is simply amazing what the body is capable of when the mind is in full control.
With all of the above drama the Grim Reaper time for the final aid station at mile 48 was weighing heavily on my mind and I still had a mile to go to get there. At this point I didn’t care and was starting to feel the relief of the day coming to a safe end. When I got to the aid station I was cheerfully greeted by the race staff. My immediate question was “I’m hosed right?” to which I received a comforting look and response. “If you can make it two more miles to the finish then get after it! What do you need?”. Very pleasantly surprised I refilled one water bottle and enthusiastically took off for the finish line. I managed to get slightly lost one more time but was able to course correct by myself and finally crossed the finish line 15 hours 28 minutes and 32 seconds after I started. My motto of “Not fast not last” proved true again as I placed 272 of 369 starters with 88 people unfortunately dropping out sometime during the day.
So that was the race recap. If I had to do it all over again I would have not let the slick-rock 7 mile section around Horseshoe Bend freak me out and would have at least jogged it which would have cut an hour off my time. Also, if there is a next time around I won’t stop for pics which accounted for about another 30 minutes. As much as I always have a goal time in mind it doesn’t truly matter. I had an awesome experience and feel beyond grateful that I was able to start and complete two Ultra Marathons 2 week’s apart which brings my total to 3. Woot woot! 100 Miles next ?!?! Maybe.
Now to share the fun times of getting to the race and I’ll try to keep it short as this post is getting quite long. After I arrived in Arizona I wanted to stop by the Grand Canyon on Thursday before heading all the way to the border of Utah where the race was going to be held. After seeing this pic on AirBNB and reading the description I immediately booked 1 night.
|Nomad’s Pad is an OFF-GRID, alternative outdoor experience in the enigmatic Northern Arizona landscape with panoramic views and radiant starry night skies. Rugged and unplugged. Designed for those seeking a uniquely immersive experience with a modern day Wild-esque vibe — your adventure awaits!
When the host said “OFF-GRID” he wasn’t kidding. It was a 3 hour drive from Phoenix with the final 5 miles on a dirt road which had no lights on it at all. When I finally found the property it took another quarter mile of exploring in the dark (in my car) to find my tent which was called The Bohemian. He has 3 others and they are nicely spaced about 50-100 yards apart for privacy.
It rained on and off that night so there were no stars to be seen unfortunately but it was a nice glamping experience non-the less which I would highly recommend if you want to spend a night or more in a huge luxurious tent, equipped with a space heater, small butane stove, outdoor fire-pit and hammock. An outdoor solar heated shower is available on the property as well.
In the morning it was off to see the Grand Canyon. I stopped by Mather Point which is by the South Rim Visitors Center and then drove on to visit the Desert View Watchtower and its associated incredible views. I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon in about 15 years and was completely blown away as if I was there for the first time. I don’t need to describe the sights. I’ll let the pics below do the talking. Going back and hiking a trail to the bottom, camping overnight by the Colorado river and hiking back up the next day is now on the bucket list.
I really wanted to spend more time hiking around the GC but after accumulating over 10,000 steps I thought it would be wise to get off my feet and rest my legs for the upcoming race. I set off to Page which was 2 hours away so I could check in at the race hotel which was called Lake Powell Resort and Marina. Right before the hotel I crossed the Greg Canyon Damn which was another great site for the day with Lake Powell behind it. After a quick stop for some pics it was a beautiful 3 mile drive along sections of the lake which of course resulted in more stops and more pics.
I got to the hotel and learned that my room wasn’t ready. I was too restless to sit around and enjoy the incredible views so I asked what the best way to kill a few hours was and was told that Horseshoe Bend was THE place to go. I knew it would be part of the course so I didn’t mind checking out this iconic sight without the stress of the race. Back into my Buick SUV which I had built a love/hate relationship with, I was off for the 20 minute drive to the HSB observation area. It was a 3/4 mile hike from the parking lot which rewarded me with the views below. I was in complete awe and could not wait to be back on Saturday. The course didn’t got go through this exact area but non the less it looked just as awesome the 2nd time around.
Back at the hotel I was finally able to Kindle and enjoy a comfy chair overlooking the pool, which was overlooking the lake, which was right in front of beautiful rock formations under a warm sky. Life was good as anticipation built up for the race. But the serenity was being impacted by the dinging of my phone with the play by play of the world crawling to a halt because of the Corona Virus. I felt a little guilty for not being there with my family but all were safe and sound and knew that I would be home on Sunday so I continued to just take it all in and enjoy the moment.
I knew that I definitely needed to keep Friday uneventful and minimize being in a vertical position which for the most part I succeeded in. After checking my email and not hearing about any race cancelation I was thrilled to finally drive over to race check-in to get my bib and deposit my drop bags that would be brought to the various aid stations later. There was sorting that I needed to do in the back of the SUV first. It’s funny how no one that passed by even gave me and my mess a second glance as all have been doing the same thing. I did get a “Nice hat!” once. He was wearing an Ironman one. Crazies have the same sense of humor.
Number in hand and bags deposited it was off to the starting area and camp site to set up the tent that I had reserved. To be honest I foolishly thought that by reserving a tent that it would already be set up for me. Like I said, silly me. I found a spot next to a cool looking blue Dodge Ram tricked up camping pickup truck and my soon to be 24 hour BFF John. After introductions and pleasantries I started the assembly process. Ultra marathon folks are the nicest peeps on the planet. Except for the jerk that didn’t slow down so I could follow him, but he was in race mode so I forgive him. John immediately offered a hand which I gracefully declined telling him that I wanted the sense of accomplishment of completing this on my own. My exact words ended in “..have a seat and enjoy the show, this will be comical”. I did not disappoint. The wind picked up something fierce and 15 minutes in after spotting a pitiful look from him I told him that I wasn’t THAT proud and would appreciate his assistance. You can see just how strong the wind was in the pics below. You can also see how much of a true outdoor pro John was with this set up of stove, sink, chairs, table, and fire pit. He’s been to this rodeo before.
I felt he was uber prepared to cook dinner but I wasn’t going to impose and drove off to get my own. And sure enough when I returned he was cooking up a huge pot of spaghetti, marinara and chorizo which he enjoyed with a glass of wine. He did offer me some but I had my fill of delicious carby Thai food off my glamorous passenger side Buick-Dash. He respected my venganism and didn’t offer again. The neighbor on the other side offered me an “energy drink”, which were strictly prohibited in the race guide, and we sat by the fire sharing races stories. Can’t wait to check out the 100k Ultra he described in Tasmania. Yeah!
By 8 PM the camping area had totally quieted down and it was off for some slumber before the 4:45 AM alarm clock and action filled day ahead. One last pic….and it doesn’t do it justice but the stars were out in full force and it was yet another incredible thing to see without the light pollution of big cities. The sights from this adventure will not soon be forgotten and I’m happy I took the time to memorialize it here. Man, this blogging business is exhausting 🙂
Thank you for reading and thank you to my family and friends for their unwavering support.