Thursday, March 31, 2016

Monument Valley 50k: A Magical Tour Through a Mystical Place

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt 

Navajo sunrise ceremony (Photo: Peter Beal)

Months ago I started planning my training for a rematch with Kettle Moraine 100. I decided then that I wanted to run in some new places and drag my family along on at least a couple of the adventures. It would be our excuse to break out of some routines that, while good on the whole, need an occasional kick in the backside.

So I searched through Ultrasignup for some reasonable contenders. Monument Valley 50k popped up on the radar, pronto. Done.

Day One: As we pack up the van to head west over the mountains the snow is dumping down on Boulder, having moved in about 12 hours earlier than predicted. A few last stops in town and we're off. The drive over the Continental Divide is sketchy but once we're past Vail the skies clear though the buffeting winds accompany us for the remainder of the 10 hour drive.

First siting of Monument Valley
We finally arrive in Mexican Hat, Utah, population about 100. As we pull into The Hat Rock Inn we notice that the sleepy town has yet to wake from winter hibernation. We are pleasantly surprised that the Inn is quite nice - clean, comfortable, welcoming, overlooking the San Juan River banked by tall red sandstone cliffs leading the eye on to the seemingly endless expanse beyond.

The view from our room.
We settle in and are thankful we brought a cooler full of food. The eating options in Mexican Hat this time of year are limited to microwaved frozen burritos from 7-11.

Day Two: I head out early for my customary shakeout trot exploring the dirt roads just north of town leading up the the town's namesake, the Mexican Hat formation. The desert is so desolate and quiet, except for the songs of unseen birds ushering the morning awake.

Mexican Hat poking up in the distance
We then head off to Monument Valley some 20 minutes south. We spend the day exploring the area. Throughout the day I see the marker flags for the race dot the landscape and red, white and blue ribbons tied to scruffy desert grasses. Some appear to just cut randomly through the desert. There's no actual trail, just a lot of sand. This unintentional reconnaissance exercise leaves me feeling more nervous than I anticipated.

The Fam xoxo
Sophia trying to fly
We return to the motel, my husband heads off to the the next town, 30 miles away, for some pizza, and I start formulating my plan for the next day. I have no experience running in sand, especially long sections of deep sand, so I throw a couple extra pairs of shoes and 4 extra pairs of socks into my drop bag that will stay put at the Three Sisters Aid Station, which we will pass through four times. Better safe than sorry. What I don't know now is just how much sand I'll be running in tomorrow. Later I will be thankful for my ignorance.

Day Three: The alarm goes off at 5:20 a.m. but I'm already awake. I quietly get ready and then wake up my husband and daughter. We drive through the dark and as we enter the valley my stomach begins its usual flips. We arrive about 10 minutes before the start. People are milling about as the sun rises showing the towering sandstone formations in silhouette.
"Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me, I’m on the pollen path." ~ Navajo Sunrise Corn Pollen Blessing
We make our way to the start as the sky brightens enough to hand my headlight off to my husband. I'm hanging way back in the pack as the 50 milers are ushered on their way with cheers and claps and shouts of encouragement. I'm in no hurry to start, or get up front since this is a training run and I am taking a chill attitude about the whole thing - well, as much as I can. I hug my husband and daughter tight. Thank them for coming out so early, and assure my husband that I'll let him know when I'm a few miles from the finish.

And we're off.

The start is chilly and all downhill, some of it pretty steep, and I know I will be running back up this several hours from now toward the finish. We hit the first checkpoint and head out on the first loop: The 'red loop'.

This section has some fun, steep, ups and downs, twists and turns, and is all single track, which makes for a little challenge because the field still hasn't spread out. I feel like I was in the middle of a particularly vexing "Indian Run" (not politically correct, I know) training game. I am stuck behind many people while looking for my chance to pass. Many let me by, others do not and so I either have to slow down or bide my time and wait for a good passing place, or jump briefly into the spiky desert foliage, feeling the cuts across my shins and calves, to get by. At this point I am regretting my laid back attitude at the start.

We hit the Three Sisters aid station at 7 miles and change. My shoes have some sand in them but it's not too bothersome at this point so I forgo a sock change, use the facilities (which are chemical 'toilets', aka litter boxes, made of plastic pails) in tiny tents - Luckily ultrarunners have no shame nor need for privacy ;) I discard my hat and gloves, and refill my bottles with HEED and I'm off for the 'white loop'. This one starts out along a dirt road and I'm hitting my normally comfortable marathon paces here, which feels good - and people are now spread out to the extent that from time to time I wonder if I'm lost. We turn off the road onto a 'trail' of sorts, heading for the Totem Pole and the sand dunes.

The coming miles, I'd estimate about 10ish miles of this section, are through the dunes and deep, deep sand and some of the most churning, grueling miles I've ever run.

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.  An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Mile of sand behind me, miles of sand in front of me...
It goes on and on and on. My socks fill with sand and become little sand bags bunched up at my toes. During this section I stop three times, maybe four, to empty my socks and shoes.

This loop seems to last an eternity, which actually it does as my pace drops off the map and my effort goes off the deep end. "It's just training. It's just training" I repeat over and over. I see no one for a very long time. It is me and this amazing place and no one else. Except for one of our Navajo guides, who appears as though a mirage.

Eventually we move away from the dunes and I pray to the running gods that there is no more of that. The normal sand here is bad enough. We join back up with the final miles of the earlier red loop where we run into the back end of the half marathon - so once again, I am forced to beat my way around people through the spiky desert flora. We hit the Three Sisters aid station for a third time at 19ish miles. I beat out my socks, but at this point I see little sense in changing them. Even though they are covered and stained red with sand, my feet are fairing well and I tend not to mess with things when they are working. More peeing, more HEED and I'm off for the last loop.

Now we head off to the 'blue loop' which promises a 1500 foot in a mile climb to the top of Mitchell Mesa. We briefly make our way out a dirt road and then turn, making our way around the back of the Three Sisters and onto more single track and fairly deep sand until we hit a narrow canyon. From the bottom I can see people weaving their way up the ascent - and from here it looks to be straight up. This is the most technical part of the course with long sections of rock hopping and precipitous drop-offs inches away.

The climb is difficult and mostly unrunnable for me. Add in the challenge of others coming down, and all I want is to get the hell up. Naively I'm looking forward to the descent. I finally get to the top of the mesa and the markers lead us another mile or so across a sandstone path to the edge of the mesa where we punch our bibs with a heart shaped hole puncher to ensure that we do no turn around early. 

Turn around point on the top of Mitchell Mesa
I stop at the top for many minutes, taking it all in and beating out my socks yet again. The wind is picking up now, but it feels good at this point. Then I head back down. Now, the descent is majorly hairy. I pick my way down through the rocks, large and loose, and sandstone slabs trying not to catch a toe or twist an ankle. A guy is right behind me doing the same. 

"If you want to get by just let me know" I say to him. I can't look up and I can't look back. I just speak to whoever I am hearing behind me.
"Nope. You're doing just fine". He returns. 
I do not feel fine.

And we continue. The trail splits for a second and he goes left and I go right, and now he is ahead and immediately catches a toe and almost goes down. Several paces later, I look up for a moment as runners are coming up and catch a toe, and start spinning my feet to catch the fall among huge boulders and slabs of low angle sandstone. I spin around, and with an audible thump, slap both hands against a vertical wall bordering the trail, stopping my fall with a 'thwap". The runner coming up has his mouth wide open, hesitates, and then haltingly says "Nice - save!" Somehow I survive the rest of the descent unscathed and then back into the sand, which now feels like freedom. I pass my descent partner and after some chuckles about our near misses, I am off. I hit the aid station for the last time at about mile 28. 

I leave the aid station to head for the road back, which is all uphill and sort of grim with cars kicking up major dust. I then remember to call my husband (I never run with a phone!) and tell him that these last few miles could take a while. Then I just push for home. I see the hotel next to the visitors center way the heck up there. Up there?? Seriously, I have to run up to there?? Ugggggggg. But I push on, now with a very healthy headwind slapping me down. Churn, churn, churn. I there??? No...another switchback...repeat. And finally I reach the top. I turn left where the arrows point but I don't see a finish. I ask some guys walking, "Where's the finish?" "Just ahead on the right" they promise and sure enough there it is. 

And, my husband and daughter are right there, waiting on the other side of the mats. This is a totally new thing for me. I see my daughter's neon green pullover and just focus on her and go. 

I cross the mats, so damn glad to be done, and so damn glad to have done it. I rip my shoes and socks off and don't give a damn about the goat-heads hidden in the velvety soft sand. That sand feels like heaven outside of my shoes. 

Best of all I feel really quite fine. One small blister on the inside of a big toe and some cuts on my shins and calves is all I really have to show for the six and a half plus hours I was out exploring this magical desert landscape - going places most are not permitted to go - I feel blessed and honored and thankful. It was a good long run. It is a good day. 

What more can any of us ask for from a day than a little adventure, a bit of exploring, a new experience, and some pleasantly sore muscles to show for the effort. For a short moment, for a day, that is enough. 
“Happiness is not a's a by-product of a life well lived.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt


Note: Ultra Adventures put on a top notch, zero waste event. The course was well marked even though this is very very difficult terrain to mark sufficiently. The course was also very tough, which I'm sure was by choice - the RD wanted to find the most beautiful, challenging course, allowing runners to get close to some of the most amazing formations and enjoy breathtaking vistas. The aid station was well stocked and volunteers were the best (but I use Hammer products, so having Hammer as a sponsor for the race worked great for me). I would certainly do another Ultra Adventures race. 


  1. that sounds like a tough run. Your recaps are always a pleasure to read. Do you think different shoes would have helped the sand situation? Or gaiters? I've never run in that type of terrain for any length of time. I run on the beach and don't have issues with the sand, but it may not be as loose as those trails.
    Just curious. Great job on the 50k.

    1. I wore gaiters. And I doubt different shoes would have helped a whole lot. This is not anything like beach sand. It's very loose, deep and incredibly fine - it's almost like talcum power. It was not nearly as bad away from the dunes even though it was still very sandy. I did not see anyone NOT dealing with this. Thankfully the soft texture of this sand meant your feet didn't get chewed up which was my biggest concern! It's a great race :)

  2. Thanks for the recap! I just registered for the 2017 50K today, and the sand-running is my biggest worry if gaiters are little help!

    1. I think gaiters do help, and honestly the sand is so fine that it doesn't really bother your feet. But, when it accumulates, at a certain point, it needs to be dumped. The act of running in the sand, especially though the dunes, is the hard part. Definitely a must do race!


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