Monument Valley 50 Mile Ultra Marathon Race Report
(apologies for the font changes, can’t figure it out)
On November 22 at 8:45 AM an ad for this race showed up in my browser. I’ve always wanted to see Monument Valley and lately I’ve been thinking about trying out an Ultra Marathon. You know, sometimes a regular marathon which is 26.2 miles just leaves you longing to run just a bit more.
Being the impulsive person that I sometimes am I signed up. A few minutes later, at 8:49 AM when I received the sign-up confirmation email I was like, “What the hell did I just do!?!?”. I started looking at race reports and training plans. The reports didn’t sound bad at all and the training plans seamed doable so it was game on. During the race I figured out that these reports where not written by Ultra Marathon virgins and they were written by folks that are in insane shape and run these events all the time.
So if you’re researching this race and it’s your first Ultra and you found this report…BEWARE!!!! Don’t get me wrong. I highly recommend it and I had a surreal experience but it was a brutal day. If you’re an Ultra regular and don’t mind running in a lot of sand then don’t think twice. Sign up ASAP.
The training plan called for 4 months of preparation. I got off to a slow start and only ran 7 times in December for a total of 35 miles. Training started in earnest in January and I got in 126 miles.
I fell off the wagon a bit in February and only logged 66 miles for the month. In March I got back on track and put in a solid 122 miles, plus some time in the pool. Because you never know when a triathlon ad will appear and it’s best to be ready :-).
I was pretty satisfied with how I prepared for the race. Unfortunately this was winter training and except for several outdoor runs on mild days it was mostly on the treadmill. I caught up a bit on TV and watched about 5 seasons of Weeds and 3 seasons of The Walking Dead. I now love that show! 5 episodes in a row got me through a 20 mile run 2 weeks before the race. Much more long trail running and hill repeats would have helped a lot. Living on a beach may have given me a medal shot. JK.
I was also able to lose 10 pounds since Jan 3 thanks to the The Core Diet. My final sacrifice was to give up the sauce for 21 days leading up to the race. Well, to be totally honest, it was more like 7 days + 14 days. Having a few drinks with one’s Rabbi on Purim is allowed during a cleanse. No really, it is…look it up.
I got to Monument Valley on Friday to pick up my bib and hand in my drop bags (more on that in a bit). The views are simply insane and pics don’t do this place justice.
From the race site: Situated within the Navajo Nation, Monument Valley boasts amazing formations that reach over 1,000 feet into the sky and draw your gaze in wonderment. You will likely recognize these formations or “monuments” from the hundreds of movies that have been filmed in this desert backdrop over the years. Vibrant colors and dramatic shadows cast along the valley floor will give you a sense of becoming “in tune” with nature, experiencing the same inclusion with the natural world that the Native Americans have practiced for generations. Running becomes less of an activity and more of an intrinsic way in which to absorb the landscape.
I had lunch at a Hotel/Restaurant called The View and started to carb up.
I tried Navajo flat bread which is fried not baked. Delicious! Especially when dipped in the accompanying honey.
There were three aid stations on the course. You stop in one (Three Sisters) 3 times and the other two 1 time each for a total of 5 stops at mile 7, 16, 26, 33 and 40. Each station has a cutoff time. I’m not sure what happens if you don’t make the cut off time. I assume, they don’t let you continue.
One prepares a drop bag for every station with things you think you’ll need for that stop. Drink mix, gels, power bars, foot lube, Advil, bandaids, blister stuff, salt pills, clean socks, cold/wet weather gear and my personal secret weapon (thanks Igor!) Red Bull. Drop bags are returned to the starting line after the race or you can pick them up the next morning.
The day ended with a send off performance by native Navajo Indians. I don’t think these guys are runners.
With the anticipation of the adventure ahead it was really tough to sleep. Even Advil PM only helped slightly. It didn’t matter, adrenaline is all one needs for these things.
The sun rising over Monument Valley on race morning was truly a magical site.
After a short Navajo Indian prayer service the event started on time promptly at 7 AM with the 50 Milers going first followed by the 50k’ers (31 miles) and Half Marathoners (13 miles). At mile 29 I was talking to a fellow runner and she asked if I was doing the 50 mile or 50k. I said “50 mile, you too?”. She said she was doing the 50k with a huge smile on her face because she was only a few miles from the finish. Yes, I got a bit jealous and stopped talking to her.
It was a pretty packed start with approximately 200 runners on a very narrow trail. One of my goals was to not exceed 10 minute miles and burn out too quick. The packed start helped. I was able to hold back the enthusiasm and keep it above 10 minute miles for the first few hours. After that, I didn’t need any help.
By mile 3, I was breathing much harder than usual at that distance. That’s when I remembered that Monument Valley is close to a mile high in altitude. I quickly put that out of my mind because grilling myself for not getting there sooner to better acclimatize would drive me crazy as things got tougher throughout the day.
The course has three main sections and the organizers switch their order every year. This year the first section was a 10 mile out and back to Mitchel Mesa. Thats about 4 miles of running, a 1,500 foot ascent to the top, a half mile run on the top of it and then back. The climb and descent is VERY technical. I saw someone take a bad spill right in front of me and noticed several bloody knees on the runners returning.
The views from the top of Mitchell Mesa are incredible. Many folks simply forget that the clock is ticking and just stop to take it all in.
While stopping at Three Sisters I needed to get all the sand out of my shoes. I can not overstate how sandy the course is. If you’re going to train on the beach don’t run in the hard sand by the water, run in the soft deep stuff because you’ll be in it for about 30 out of 50 miles here.
I didn’t expect cramps to set in until after mile 20 or so but they hit hard at this stop in my left leg which made the routine of sitting down, removing and emptying sneakers and then getting them on again pretty painful. I took my second salt pill of the day and hoped the cramps would subside. They did.
Next it was off to do the Arches Loop which is 9.5 miles of mainly sand. It was a pretty slow go. The only consolation was that that almost everyone else was walking this section too. It was simply exhausting to run in this stuff and I made better forward progress by speed walking. The sites of course were incredible.
On the final stretch to the last stop at Three Sisters aid station is where you hit the official Marathon mark of 26.2 miles. My Garmin watch was off by two miles for some reason so when I got to the aid station I thought the marathon mark was still ahead of me. After emptying the sand out of my sneakers, again, with no cramps this time, I downed my aid station secret weapon…a can of Red Bull.
A very short three minute rest combined with the caffeine jolt made for an awesome second wind that took me into the next aid stop called East Mitten which was 7 miles away. This section heads over to the North Window overlook which provided more awesome views and then follows what’s known as the Marlboro Trail. The lack of pure sand (there was still plenty of it) made for a pleasant surprise as I was able to actually run again and lower my average minutes per mile a bit.
At the East Mitten aid stop they served Cheese Quesadillas which were very welcome after downing gels and energy bars all day. From East Mitten it was another 7 miles to the final aid station named Bringham’s Tomb. Large dark clouds started rolling in and the wind was picking up quite a bit. The temperature up to this point was a perfect 60* F and cloudy most of the day. This next section had the least amount of sand of the day and was mostly a dirt road followed by horse trails. This again allowed for some more running and gave me hope that I would be able to finish in the twilight by 8:00 PM.
I started giving the race organizers a lot of credit for taking it easy on participants on the 2nd half of the course. I was super excited that from this last aid station it was only 9.5 miles to the finish. That’s less than a half marathon. Should be a cake walk I thought. I had another Red Bull packed in my last drop bag. I didn’t have that much sand in my shoes and didn’t want to risk cramping up by sitting down and going through the process. So I grabbed some pretzels, potato chips and other snacks, downed my Red Bull and it was off to the finish.
A quarter mile out of the aid station I realized that in all my excitement of the end being near I forgot to refill my two water bottles with drink mix and water so it was back to the aid station to do so. No big deal as my finishing time didn’t matter. I just really wanted to finish before dark.
That hope faded because the finishing stretch had over 5 miles of deep sand that my shot legs couldn’t even speed walk through. A 500 foot climb up a very steep sand dune at approximately mile 45 was the final exclamation point on the complexity of this unrelenting, unforgiving course.
My hopes for a daylight finish faded quickly but I was very confident that I would finish before the 15 hour cutoff so I was in a really good mood. At around 7:40 PM the sun set and with the overcast skies above sun light faded VERY quickly. Even though earlier in the day I was confident of a daylight finish, I still took my head lamp out of my drop bag and carried it with me just in case I needed it at the end. That was the best decision of the day.
It got pitch black shortly after 8 PM and there was still approximately 5 miles to go. I had shut off my phone to preserve any battery life that remained for a finish line shot and a “I’m done and alive” text home so I don’t have any pics from this final chapter. The pics would have looked like 4 workers searching for a way out of their mine. I was really happy that I caught up to a guy in front of me and two others later caught up to us. This was unnerving to say the least but doing it totally solo would have been much more scary.
Picture the terrain below in complete darkness with the course being marked by pink ribbons attached to the bushes by clothes pins every 20 to 40 yards. I would bow my head to shine light in front of my feet to avoid tripping and falling over something with every step and then raise my head every few steps to look for the next ribbon. This routine went on for 2 hours with zero stopping. We were on a mission to finish and got back to speed walking as fast as we could.
Pure adrenaline made all the leg and body pain go away at this point and survival instincts kicked in. We were never in any danger but it was unnerving to be in total darkness for so long. There was no moon light and no stars. It was pitch black except for the 4 tiny lights coming out of our head lamps. Unlike most of the day, no one was talkative either. The only comments made were curses when someone tripped on something and “is this thing ever going to end?”.
At approximately 9:30 the lights from the finish line finally became visible. We finally had something to walk towards but still needed to stick to the trail finding routine. At 10:01 PM, 14 hours and 1 minute after the start I crossed the finish line to put an end to this incredible adventure. First place finisher crossed the line in a blazing 7 hours and 28 minutes. Oh, I almost forgot…it hailed on an off during the last 90 minutes or so. They weren’t huge, a bit smaller than grape sized but they still hurt. How’s that for icing on the cake?
Here is a great pic from a co-worker that summarizes the day perfectly.
Thank you for reading this long post. Hope I was able to relay this experience in all its glory. If it inspired even one person to get some exercise into their daily routine and get in shape it was worth it. Thank you to my family, friends and co-workers for your incredible support and motivation. You guys rock! I say this all the time, because I mean it.
Most common question I’ll get is if I would ever do something like this again? Many have told me that Ultra’s are very addictive. I believe that because they’re held in beautiful locations and not the concrete jungles of big cities where most marathons are held. That adds a ton to their appeal. So the answer is No, I don’t think I want to do this one again (until I become a pro at running in sand) but I would definitely do another Ultra to see more of our incredible planet. But for now it’s off to train for something easier. Ironman Frankfurt in July, here I come.
PS: On my way out of Monument Valley on the road to Park City for some skiing (because there is nothing better for leg recovery…NOT) I passed by mile marker 13 on Route 163 in Mexican Hat, Utah. This is known as the Forest Gump Spot. This is where he decided to stop running in the movie. I had no idea this spot even existed. Stopping here at this historic Hollywood made up running site after finishing this Ultra was pretty cool!