Three nights before my second 50K, I sat down with the course map and elevation profile and plotted my estimated time. Funny, my estimate of 7 hours 45 minutes was within just a couple minutes of my first 50K finishing time. But I wanted better. I recomputed what it would take to get a finish under 7 hours. I was ready. Bring it on!
I chose the Antelope Canyon 50K because I wanted something new that was still relatively close to home. The course offered some amazing views which I thought would make it that much sweeter. And, lately the weather had been unseasonably warm. Little did I know, my visions for the day were going to be radically changed.
It may have started when I got a cold four days out. Or maybe when the weather forecast was changed from 40/70 to 22/45. Or maybe when the race started before my GPS was aligned or when the snow started falling in the first five minutes. Whatever it was, it was a sign that things weren’t quite right.
My GPS aligned about 3 minutes into the race, then off I went into the darkness. I would have been last except my running partner Gary was still in the porta-potty. I passed a few people quickly and headed down the hill toward the mob of runners–only now, they were coming back up the hill at me! Every single person had missed the turn onto the trail. The extra mile I ran blew the first part of my plan right out of the water. It’s like getting a triple bogey on the first hole. You immediately want a do over.
The trail ran level along a rim around the northwest side of Page (AZ) and along the Colorado River canyon. The sky got brighter but the snow fell harder. It snowed for two hours, but it was amazingly pleasant–the views were great and I wasn’t cold at all. Thankfully, there were volunteers guiding us to the first aid station. Goal time was :58 and I was in at 1:06. Not super bad and maybe I could make that up?
We finished the rim trail with a super fun, super sandy downhill. At the top of the hill, I met a nice couple taking pics and I asked if they would send me some later since I chose not to carry a camera. They agreed and said, “Smile!” I turned around in time to get my picture taken before bounding down the hill.
Well, the sand didn’t stop there. The next several miles across the desert were sandy with places ankle and shin deep. It was not run-able for me at all. So I walked as fast as I could, knowing my goal time was slipping away. I refilled my water bottle and left the next aid station running across a bit of sandstone but that quickly gave way to more sand and more walking.
I reached the 14 mile aid station at about 16 miles. I grabbed a few items and quickly left, ducking under the barbed wire fence and toward Horseshoe Bend. Runners were starting to thin out at this point but I was able to keep someone in sight for a while.
Going along Horseshoe Bend was pretty cool. Slick rock scrambling and hopping right along the edge. The view was spectacular but there was to be little to no running. Too many ups and downs along the slick rock. But, it was fine with me, I love that kind of scrambling. At least, unlike the sand, I had footing on this stuff.
About two miles towards Horseshoe Bend, I now only saw runners in the far distance. I started noticing how hard it was to find the next flag. I’d walk or run to a flag, then stand there scouting the horizon for the next one. At first, I could find another. Then I couldn’t. Pretty soon, I was all alone in the desert. No people, no flags, nothing moving, just a whisper of a wind. I felt like I was in some bad western movie.
I kept moving, getting more and more frustrated. I probably went for about 30 minutes, climbing every high point I could find. No flags and no runners. I kept moving in the direction I thought was the route when Marie, a 50-miler, caught up to me. She was young and cheerful but had no idea which way to go. Together, we kept going and continued to scout for flags. We saw none.
I pointed in the direction of the highway and told Marie that was where I was going to head. My fear about following the canyon too closely was coming to a dead end with either a chasm to cross or wall to scale. So we stayed “inland” and made our way towards the highway. Marie was much younger and faster than me, and she was on a tighter timeline. So, she politely excused herself and headed off.
I gave up trying to find any more flags and made a beeline for the highway. As I got closer, I could see some cars and what looked like an aid station. I grumbled and huffed as I made my way there. But, to my dismay, it was just a house. Now I was at the highway, behind a barbed wire fence, not knowing if the aid station was to my left or to my right.
Marie had called her husband to help her find her way. Fortunately, he saw me, stopped, and told me it was two miles to the aid station–just follow the fence to the south and there will be an opening. I got more and more angry about the whole situation. I trained hard for this. I followed a plan consistently. I wanted to run a great 50K and here I was 23 miles in with two more miles to get to the 21 mile aid station. The sand had taken a toll on my lower back and it was all I could do to get myself to that fence opening.
I couldn’t imagine another 10 miles in deep sand with no course flagging. IF I made it, it would certainly be night by then. I told myself I didn’t care about finishing anymore. I didn’t need a stupid finisher necklace anyway. So, when I popped out under the fence and the aid station volunteer, my friend George, asked what he could get me, I said, “A lift!” I told him that this was ridiculous and I am done. He sat me in a chair and gave me his down jacket and a blanket. I stewed about the incompetence. I felt awful I’d talked my friend Gary into coming. He’ll never listen to my suggestions again. I was mad and sad.
I always marvel how quickly things can change in these long distance races. You go from happily running along to stomach or body issues that you think will take you down to happily running again. Well, this race was no exception, only it didn’t happen quite like that. After about 15 minutes of sitting and sulking, my photo friends showed up and chided me to join them.
“Come on! You got this!” he said. “You can finish with us, we’re mostly walking.” she said. After a few more grumbles and groans from me and a few more words of encouragement from them. I put my pack back on and we all headed out.
This next section started off with crawling backwards and downhill under a very large rock that might make some feel claustrophobic. Then a slide and jump down the slick rock into a slot canyon. And, to my surprise, Gary shows up! He came back to find me saying that after climbing the first ladder, he worried I might be alone and not able to manage it solo. He would have been right. There would have been no way I could have maneuvered the ladders alone.
The four of us, Lynne, Omar, Gary, and I, worked our way up the slot canyon. At times it was so narrow you had to contort your body to fit through. Other times, we climbed ladders not quite long enough to reach the top. Some ladders were precariously placed on piles of rocks. It would have made for an awesome hike, but was harder to appreciate when you were in the middle of a race and hoped to make it back in daylight.
Once out, the four of us motored down the packed sand road, following the power lines to the next aid station where our drop bags were. Omar had shoe issues and could barely walk. Lynne suggested taking his shoes off, putting his insoles inside his socks and going sock footed. Perfect solution! Note to self.
We got ourselves in and out of the next aid station with just 5 miles to go–still hoping to finish before nightfall. The course doubled back on itself but I thought I remembered it splitting off at some point. As we approached a major intersection, we saw lots of footprints, in the deep sand again, heading downhill. We double checked the sign but couldn’t tell if we should go that way or not. Lynne and Omar were already at the bottom, so we said screw it, let’s go.
We knew we had lost the course at that point, but just made our way across the desert, back towards the town of Page. We chatted, laughed, and bitched about the race and other stuff. We also made plans to share dinner together. Finally, after 10 hours and 20 minutes, we hit the finish. Unceremoniously, we walked into the building, told the race director we were here, and he gave us a time. He also gave us our finisher’s necklaces even though were technically past the cutoff time. We ended up doing somewhere around 34-35 miles.
Afterwards, we ran into our friend Justin who is an awesome runner. He was leading the pack through about mile 20 when he came across the race director still laying flags! The race director said there was no way he could keep up with Justin, gave him a handful of flags, and told him to continue marking as he went. When Justin replied that he didn’t know where to put them, he was told to just follow the canyon. Unfortunately, Justin quickly ran out of flags leaving much of that section unmarked.
Though the race didn’t even come close to playing out like I planned, it gave me a chance to meet some really cool people. Lynne and Omar were so much fun. I’m sure we’ll stay in touch. We also invited Nick, a 50-miler who finished at the same time, to join us for dinner. Lynne and Nick are both Aussies and chatted about that. We all had a wonderful evening getting to know each other and talking about what we love doing.
*With special thanks to Omar, Lynne, and Cory Reese for the photos.
To see all of the photos, see the