Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Monument Valley Ultra

When I first found out about this race, I knew I had to do it, but my reservations were that I had not run in that type of environment before.  So, I set out to devote almost the entire year of 2017 as my "run in the desert" year.  I started out planning to run the Big Bend Ultra in January, which I thought would be a good "prep" race for Monument Valley, as the Big Bend is noted as a high desert environment.  Most of my training during this period was done on hills, trails, sand (what little there is here in my area), and Stairmaster training.  I even worked the upper body with weights along the way...nothing too heavy.

As the Big Bend Ultra ended, and the training for Monument Valley became eminent, I knew I had to step up my progress, as there was a monumental climb up Mitchell Mesa that looked daunting.  I ran over 50 miles per week to get ready, and worked the Stairmaster twice a week.

As I arrived at the Navajo Tribal Park at Monument Valley, on the Arizona/Utah border, I was in awe of the beauty of the place.  I was camping, so I set up my tent overlooking the "Mittens," which is a beautiful rock formation.  It was pretty windy already, and I wondered if it was going to affect the race on Saturday.  I actually hiked around the valley for awhile looking at what I was going to be up against.  I looked at Mitchell Mesa and really began to wonder what I had gotten myself in for.  The mesa was huge, overlooking the entire valley.  I began to doubt if my training was going to get me through this race.

As race day approached, it was a chilly 35 degrees as I made my way to the starting line.  As the race director was giving his race information, he announced that they were changing the direction of the race.  We would be running the Mitchell Mesa loop first, followed by the Arches Loop, and then the final loop to the finish.  I wasn't sure what to make of this, but it turned out that I was really glad they did that.

We started the race after Navajo blessings, and we started running downhill on the Valley drive road to the first aid station that was 3.5 miles away.  After that, we set out on a very sandy road and single track trail that led us up to the Mitchell Mesa climb.  The closer we got to the mesa, the more daunting it looked, towering above us as the narrow trail followed a zigzag pattern up the sides of the mesa.  By the time I got there, the elite runners were already on their way down the mountain, so we were meeting them as we began to climb.  It was close quarters as runners and climbers maneuvered their way up and down the mountain.  I began to climb, and my legs reacted well.  I was glad I had spent so much time training on hills and the Stairmaster machine.  My breathing was ok, and I was trying not to look at how far I had to climb, but it was inevitable.  Big mistake, as it turned out.  I could see runners and climbers half way up and they looked like ants up there, which put the whole climb in perspective.  It was extremely difficult, and the trail was rocky, strewn with loose rocks, gravel, and huge boulders.  In some areas, the trail was narrow, and skirted a path around the mesa that was near a huge drop off the edge.  I was pretty nervous on those narrow ridges, but I kept climbing until I reached the top.  By the time I reached the top level, I was exhilarated.  The view from the very top was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  The entire sacred Navajo valley lay before us like a museum of rock formations and towering mesas.  I stayed for awhile, as did everybody else, just gazing across the valley.  Then, it was time to head down the mesa, which filled me with a little dread, as I began the descent.  There were times when I kicked rocks and almost lost my balance, but I managed to get down pretty well.  As I was heading down, I was talking to a lady from California, and we both agreed that being stubborn was a huge trait for a trail runner...we simply were to0 stubborn not to keep forging ahead.  In other words, we didn't come this far to fail!

As we reached the aid station, we were at the 13.5 mile marker, and we headed out on the Arches Loop, which was another 10 mile loop that was nothing but sand.  The trail was single track for awhile and sandy roads, gullies, and all of it in deep sand, which made hiking or running very difficult.  The sand was so deep that we had to take our shoes off every so often to shake out the sand.  I was wearing gaiters, but it didn't stop the sand from filling up my shoes periodically.  This was a very difficult section, and by the time I was finished, I realized that had they not changed the direction of the course, we would have to had traverse this 10 mile loop of sand before the major climb up Mitchell Mesa.  At that point, I was glad we hit the mesa first.  As I was running this section, I met and ran with several Navajos that were running the race.  They were telling me how spiritual of a run this was for them.  The valley was sacred, and they felt deeply honored to be there.  This loop also took us through the main section of Monument Valley with some great climbs, and some great views of the rock formations throughout the area.  After another ten miles, we came back to the aid station, and I had to sit and eat something.  I was feeling hungry and weak.  I ate some Navajo fry bread and some bananas before I took off on the last section.

The last section was the ten mile loop to the finish, and was filled with some major climbs, more sand, and some pretty rocky outcrops with a lot of ups and downs to traverse.  This was where I began to feel a lot of fatigue.  My back was beginning to ache, and my toes were hurting because of so much sand in my shoes and socks that it was pushing up against my toes causing pain.  I reached the next aid station, and began the last two miles of the race, when all of a sudden a major sand storm hit us.  The sand was so thick it burned the eyes, nose, and throat.  The wind was strong, and the visibility was poor.  I was thankful that I only had a few more miles to go. 

As I ran into the finish line, I was thrilled that I had been involved in a major adventure I would never forget.  I learned a lot about myself, as well.  Even though I have run many ultra events, and many more that were a lot farther in distance, (I have run several 50 milers, a lot of 50k's marathons, 100k's, 24-hour races, and even a 100 mile race), this was the toughest race I have ever encountered.  The climb up Mitchell Mesa, on one hand, filled me full of fear and doubt, but on the other hand, I completed it, and that filled me with an exhilaration I will never forget. The beauty of the valley, the camaraderie I had with complete strangers, the sacredness of the Navajo Tribal lands, and the satisfaction that goes along with completing something that challenges you to the very soul, all made for one memorable race I will never forget.

If you decide to run this race, take it from me:  1. Train, and train hard.  2. run hills  3. strengthen your legs, calves, and hips, and 4.  practice running in deep sand if you can.

I do recommend this race to any ultra runner, but you need to be prepared.  This is a desert race in a very rugged and harsh environment.  But, it is something you will never forget!