Monument Valley 50k was my first ultra of the season (and my 3rd, following the Antelope Island Fall Classic and Bryce 50k’s last year). Perennially under-trained and quasi-injured as ever, I was a bit anxious for this one. However, this was to be a special race. It is run within the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, largely on trails and back-roads only accessible with Navajo guides. Moreover, the course allows access to the top of Mitchell Mesa which gives some amazing views, albeit with abandoned uranium mines. From its northeast overlook, you get a view that is hard to beat. In any case, I was determined to walk the course if that’s what it took. I spent a lot of time taking picture instead of running, a select few are below.
It is part of Ultra Adventures’ Grand Circle Trail Series, for which I’m volunteering as an ambassador this year. Matt Gunn and his crew put on such good events. Wow.
The race started at sunrise. Local Navajos gave everyone a pinch of white corn meal to sprinkle eastward towards the rising sun, while Navajo prayer blessing was offered. Then, we were off, running down from the starting line at the View Hotel campground.
We ran down IR 42 about 3.5 miles to the course aid station at the foot of the Three Sisters formation. I had to grab a couple things from my drop bag, but tried to head out quick on the first loop.
The loop was about 5 miles, putting us back at the aid station by about mile 8.5. It went across some great single track with spectacular views. Also, we got a taste of some of the sandy terrain we had been warned of.
Back at the aid station, I swapped out my bandanna, put on a tank top and applied some sunscreen. The next loop was 10 miles and I knew it was heating up.This loop headed on a dirt road for a few miles and then transitioned to desert paths of deep soul-sucking sand. Oh man. It was slow going. I teamed up with a couple runners along the way, boosting spirits as we chatted. But man, the sand was rough. It was slow and it cut the efficiency of each stride – lots of energy wasted pushing sand. It went on for miles and every time we finally hit good dirt, the sand came back. Thankfully, there were some really cool rock formations and arches to behold.
We returned to the Three Sisters aid station again at mile 18. I was feeling a bit hot, but my energy levels seemed good. Again, I took more time at the aid station that I would have liked. Finally, refueled and supplied another runner I had met on the arches loop, Julie, said “Run out together?” That sounded great. I knew this next portion, miles 18-28, would be the hardest but also potentially the most rewarding. After about 2 miles of sand and washes, we arrived at the south side of Mitchell Mesa.
The picture doesn’t do it justice, but it look so tall. IT was about a 1,000 foot climb of 1 mile of trail. Rocky, steep, hot. The breeze that had been saving us earlier was coming from the north, so on the south side of the mesa, the air was still. And hot. Already 21 miles in, this climb was brutal, maybe one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – at least it felt that way at the time.
Once at the top of Mitchell Mesa we ran about a half mile north to an overlook. The view was breathtaking. I spent a few moments trying to take it in. But, as the pictures below demonstrate, you scope of the landscape is hard to take in.
I was worried about the descent. Coming up I saw how rocky it was and have been prone to roll ankles. To make matters worse, both of my quads began to cramp. After turning around at the overlook the slight decline to the south trail felt great. I picked up the pace and was excited to be moving at a good clip. However, I must have been low on electrolytes because I cramped right around the rim. They spasmed on the way down, but I made good time. The footing wasn’t as sketchy as I had thought it would be. At the bottom, I filled my water at the water drop they had put there and made ok time for a portion of the return to Three Sisters. Some sandy sections slowed me quite a bit but I eventually made it back to the Aid Station. I got some ice in my bottle and hydration pack and headed off on the road for the last 3.5 miles to the finish.
It rolled a bit, up and down, but ended with a series of very steep pitches. Not fun. I crossed the finish at a jog, 7:11:24. Without the sand, I think I could have dropped a good 45 minutes off that. I tried out new nutrition and it had worked great. Tailwind in my hydration pack and Sport Legs. A lactic acid supplement that is supposed to reduce muscle soreness. Perhaps it was the placebo effect, but my legs never got to the level of soreness that I usually get above 20 miles. So, that experiment was a success. As for the cramps, that was only after swapping out Tailwind (which has salt) for a bottle of Perpetuem as my main calorie source climbing the Mesa. I switched just to have a change in flavor, but forgot to add Salt Stick pills. Lesson learned.
In the end the race was great. It beat me up and the sand sucked so much more energy out of me than I anticipated.
Now, to recover and get ready for the Zion 55k in 3 weeks!