Canyon de Chelly Ultra 2015

So there I am again with Tara, Denise, John and my mom just outside of Canyon de Chelly watching the sun rise and listening to a prayer to start the day. Well more like just watching because we’re all the way in the back. Shaun says a couple more words about the race and the VP of the Navajo Nation jokingly tells us not to pass him since he is running today too. We line up and Shaun gives a quick ‘ready, set, go’ and we’re off with a lot of shouts.

I have been feeling extremely fatigued for some reason, but was doing everything to keep positive and stay enthusiastic about running 34 miles. Last year I was so anxious and excited to run after missing out the inaugural year. I wish I could have some of that energy today, but I do feel less nervous since I know the course and what to expect. I even opted to spend time at my Mom’s house with my family eating a pasta dinner rather than head to the pre-run meeting. The race director, Shaun Martin, is extremely inspirational to hear speak, but it’s not often I get to spend time back home these days. Even my sister Desiree and her family made the trip back to Chinle and the only one missing is my brother so it’s definitely a rare event for us to all be back home.

My training this year has been solely focused on this event well at least this run is always in the back of my head. Just the thought of running back home in Chinle in the canyon is so awesome. I can’t say I had the best training though. I went almost 4 months during the summer with my longest run being about 13 miles, but 6 weeks out I thought I’d just give it a go and went out on the trail for 32 miles in about 8 hours. Then 4 weeks out I ran about 27 miles with Tara at the Water is Life run on the Hopi Rez. It’s not like I was sitting on the couch all summer, and put multiple hikes down on the weekends. I felt confident my legs could hold up, but hiking and running are hard to compare. The last thing I want is to fall apart again like last year.

There is about 150 runners and a small group of us quickly leave most behind as we enter the mouth of the canyon. I hold myself back from taking off to fast and luckily my GPS watch is working this morning to stick to my plan of around 9 minute miles. I figure I need to maintain that pace to finish in under 5:30 or better today which would best my time last year of 5:48. Ideally the goal is a low 5 hour run today, but I can’t say I feel all that well on that goal. The leaders quickly vanish in the distance and I guess I’m not winning today. I just need to go at my own pace. The problem is my legs feel tired, and have to keep telling myself that they’ll loosen up as the day progresses and will feel better with a few miles in. I pass and get passed by runners as we trudge through the sand trap in the first couple miles, but I have to say it is much better running than last year after some heavy rains in the Chinle area a couple days earlier.

I did remember to use the restroom before starting this year though! So at least I feel better about that approaching the first aid station at White House Ruins. I have a bag full of raisins for fuel already and just need to fill up my water bottle so I get out of there as quick as possible. I see Tara, Denise and John and grab my visor and say a quick hi and tell myself to pick up the pace. And get another shout out from them to do the same! Only problem is my legs still aren’t feeling it. I remember last year just feeling amazing at this point. I see two runners up ahead who are taking selfies and photos of the scenery like crazy. At least they’re enjoying themselves! I realize later this is Benedict Duggar who created the Grand Canyon Running Rim to Rim to Rim (or R2R2R) Facebook group and really does a great job promoting running and the Grand Canyon online. I never did get to actually meet him, but he did post every one of those photos on the Canyon de Chelly Ultra Facebook group even with one of me in the distance after I passed!

Raisins have been my only fuel and it’s working out ok so far as I make it to the bubble man aid station around mile 11 and just grab more water. I continue to tell myself that I’m right on pace and doing everything to stay motivated. But I’m really questioning everything and know deep down I’m not running comfortably and even think how I should have probably grabbed at least a banana back there. Little things are bugging me now too as I see a guy up ahead cut the course. Well there really isn’t a course just a jeep road that winds through the canyon. It just always bugs me when people go off trail, but happily pass him a few minutes later and get to see a flock of Wild Turkeys in the road. Spider Rock is all I’m thinking about now and then with the sun in my eyes I see it towering over the canyon. I know I’m close to the turnaround now and begin the climb up Bat Canyon as I pass it up. Only a few minutes later do I see two Native runners going at it back down the canyon and we give each other a quick wave and good job and they are gone. Trent Taylor ended up winning in 4:17 this year after placing 2nd the previous two years and being the first Native runner to win the race so congrats to him!

This little climb up Bat Canyon trail should be nothing and I had no issues with it last year, but suddenly my back and shoulders are tightening up. My thoughts turn to the multiple summits of Camelback Mountain I completed this past summer and how this should be the one thing I’m trained to do. I did strain my back a few weeks ago and I’m saying no, no, no this is not coming back now. How is it even possible? I’m not even carrying a bag and the last time I felt an aching in my back while running was when I had a bag with way too much weight. I should be light and care free with just my water bottle. The running stops and I slow to a crawl up the trail and look back to see the runner who I was a little too happy to pass earlier. He ask me if I’m the one we’re not supposed to pass, and I answer with a laugh and very perplexed no. Not sure how he could confuse me with the VP of the Navajo Nation, but I’m in too much pain to care. Finally, the climb flattens out a little approaching the saddle between the two rims of Bat Canyon and I’m able to run somewhat again.

Shaun Martin is enthusiastically cheering everyone on from the top of the rim again. Last year he called me out for smiling up this climb, but definitely not smiling this year. My whole upper body is stiff right now and just grab a few snacks and water at the aid station and start making my way down figuring that I’m around 15th place. Slowly my body start to loosen up while scrambling down the very rocky trail. Another runner pops up behind me who obviously has no fear going down this trail and I let him by and he gives me reassurance that I’ll catch him again on the flats. I only hope so at this point! I catch a group of runners and want to pass them up but now there is so many runners coming up that I’d really have to get off the trail to do it. So I sit back and just follow them down. We’re following the first place female runner down and nearly every female runner coming up is so excited to see her. It’s a little awkward cause they give her screams and cheers and then there is a couple dudes right behind her and they just wave at us with a oh good job too, I guess. She is doing awesome though and kept that pace up to win! We get back on the jeep road and I’m like ok time to make my move, but my body is not having it.

I just creep along behind them until finally they are gone and I’m slowing down as I struggle to even get 10 minute miles. It’s a beautiful sight again to see Spider Rock, but my mind is so much on the discomfort that I’m feeling that it’s gone just as quickly as it is there. The next couple miles is just a lot of waving and good jobs to the runners going up until I’m all alone again. Hitting the bubble man aid station I’ve seen maybe one runner and the volunteers ask me how I’m doing and tell them I’m in pain but almost there. I guess that is all I can say at this point. I am really hoping for some Mountain Dew for a quick pickup and decide to give up on the raisins, but I have to settle with some Sierra Mist which does nothing for me. I look at my watch and it’s about 3:30 and need 11 miles and about 2 hours to still beat my time last year. At this point my goal went from finishing in about 5 hours to just beating my old time. Walking away from the aid station though is torture and everything is so tight and the old IT band issue that I dealt with all summer after Shiprock Marathon is coming back.

Eventually I loosen up again and start moving, but the sun is really out now and it’s definitely draining. Some horses pop up in the middle of the road and I give out my first shout of the day to get us both moving. I do actually catch another runner but as I am passing he is asking me if I’m ok. I guess with just a bottle and moving slowly it doesn’t look good or maybe he’s just being friendly. We chat for a bit and then suddenly he starts screaming how he is cramping up. Whoa. That’s never happened to me. He waves me off or at least I hope he is waving me off cause I am too scared to stop since I know what will happen if I do. My confidence is pretty low at this point and even think about how that guy will probably catch up to me even with his cramping issue. I take my last caffeine gel hoping it’ll give me that boost I need right now.

So relieved to see some confused tourists as I run by White House ruins who are wondering where these runners are coming from in the canyon. I know I’m close now to being done. The food at the aid station has definitely been sitting out for a while now, but I don’t care and grab a crusty pb&j sandwich and warm watermelon and scarf it down. I decide to go with the Tailwind energy drink since I figure I’ll need all the energy I can get to make it through this last section. My IT Band is in so much pain that I quickly have to stop and try to stretch it out and start walking. I have one hour and 6 miles left to go to beat my old time from last year, but I can’t even run. I just keep looking at my watch as I hit a walk-run pace. Finally, I give up. I think about all the running I still want to do this year and destroying my body is not worth it. I just need to finish.

My mind keeps wandering to last year and how I was basically in the same predicament at this point too. Only difference is that I ran the first half so fast that it didn’t matter that I slowed down to a walk-run pace the last couple miles. But my legs just gave out last year and not necessarily an injury like today. I’m regretting my whole race strategy, but I guess I have a lot of time to think now. It is nice to enjoy the scenery, but all I want to see is that damn “nipple” hill as we used to call it back in the day. Going around another corner and there it is and start to run again only to walk a minute later after the pain is too much. The sand, the sun, my IT band and getting passed by so many runners is definitely a hit to my confidence. Even the guy who started cramping earlier is passing me. Why do I even do this? I like the beauty and the scenery and all that, but most of the time the agony of running a marathon or an ultra just sucks.

And then all the pain and doubt suddenly disappears. It’s amazing the adrenaline you can feel seeing that finish line. Exiting the mouth of the canyon I’m not about to walk through the finish line even with my injury. It’s all worth it after all. I do it for this right now to finish and have that amazing sense of accomplishment. I mean I am moving so slow another couple runners pass me in that last stretch, but I don’t care anymore.

Give my nephews a high five going into the finish line, and have a smile on my face now as I shake Shaun Martin’s hand and he places a finisher’s necklace on me. It’s so nice to see my cheering squad who all made the long drive to be here today and to relax, eat and cheer on other runners as they finish.

Canyon de Chelly Ultra is an awesome event that I love and will keep coming back. I’d love to completely run it someday and obviously disappointed that it didn’t happen this year. In the words of my 5 year old nephew “you didn’t win, so you need to run faster next time”. That is some pretty simple great advice. Well I’ll probably never win it, but a 5 hour run is totally possible. On to next year!

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