Saturday, October 19, 2013

I am not so spiritual, but I do burn off demons when I run. A race report.

Dear Diary,

Himself the clydeologist is a deep thinker. He plans carefully and fully experiences what he does. I am not so much so. I gut things out. I push through, terrified, often marginally aware of my surroundings until I'm finished. Occasionally I look up and around and take in brief glimpses of beauty, before putting my head back down and slogging up the hill, down the valley, through the river, or into the finish. What I lack in good decision-making, I make up for in persistence. And bravery.

I think it's mistaken that I don't enjoy ultra running, because I always look so pained and I have a tendency to bitch a little. When I run, my mind is busy with the worries and aggravations of my week. As I run along, as the race wears on, the worries burn away. I purge. At the end I am tired, exhausted, and grimly accomplished. If I were a more spiritual person, I might say that the demons of modern life that build up inside of me are burned away, leaving me clean and ready to face new challenge.

And so it is this context that I present a race report for the Canyon de Chelly ultra. Here are six things you need to know about this 55k run.

First, it is gorgeous. I have never been to the CdC before, and although I've seen some pictures, nothing captures the grandeur of the place. If you are a slow runner you may get quite distracted and behind looking around in awe, grateful for this experience, and taking pictures, which will slow you down. That's okay. It's better to have this rare experience than try to put on your personal best. The RD, when telling us about his inspiration for puttin onn this race, was tearful talking about it, and he's run here before. This is an area where outsiders are forbidden unless accompanied by an approved Navajo guide, so it is an honor and privilege to be able to experience it. You don't want to waste that.

The race starts off with a bonfire and Navajo prayer. So after that, they count to three and yell GO, and you yell out your intentions to the gods as you head out.


Second, it is sandy. The mouth of the canyon, where the race begins and ends, is where any and all waters work their way out. It is soft, deep sand covered on this day with fine mud, and to call it slippery would not do it justice. The first three to four miles were in this environment as you run into the canyon and make the first two or three stream crossings.

Eventually, you are alone, or I was. At the pre-race meeting one of the racers asked Shaun, the RD, about what happens if you have to, you know, GO. He shrugged, hey man, it's ultra running. I was relieved. I'm willing to forgo peeing for a long time if I'm told that this is sacred ground. I have that much respect. I was grateful for the green light.

Arizona and New Mexico have a rainy season referred to as the. Monsoons in late summer to early fall. This year's monsoons were unusually heavy. Which leads me to my next point.

Third, there are many water crossings. Not some. Many. I counted thirty five on the way out, Dreadpirate counted thirty-nine. I defer to the engineer. But what that means is that since it's an out-and-back, there are between seventy and seventy-eight crossings total. The water ranges from just over the top of your foot to perhaps your lower calf in some spots, but you won't be able to jump them. Wear shoes that shed water. If you have feet that can't tolerate this, then this isn't your race. Each crossing involves descending into a small ravine and then climbing back out again, often on very slippery mud. I wore Altra trail shoes, which shed the water nicely.

Other than the crossings, the trail is dry after the first 3 to 4 miles, but will still have some patches of soft, deep sand here and there. I learned to run off the side, where the sand looked deep and soft, but in fact was solidified and settled by the recent rains, and allowed for firm footing. We were told about this by one of the race organizers. Most "faster" people ignored this and ran in tire tracks, which had broken throughout the crust and churned up the sand so it was soft, and deep. Too bad for them. I pride myself on taking time to make things as easy as possible.

What can I say. It's a gift.

Fourth, it is an out and back. Some people don't like those, but I promise you, the canyon is very different inbound than it is outbound. There's no repetition, no redundancy. You're barely aware that you've been here, or there, before. It's 34 miles of never-ending beauty.

At mile eight, I came upon the eleven mile aid station. They explained that the truck couldn't get back up out of the next water crossing to get to the 11th mile. I looked into the small refine and saw the deep ruts made by four-wheel-drive truck as it tried to extricate itself. I thought, fleetingly, if the truck can't make it can I? But I managed okay.

Fifth, to get to the turnaround, you will climb. You will climb up a rock trail on the edge of a cliff that rises a thousand feet over a little over a mile. On the way up, I started feeling queasy. I chalked it up to unusual exertion. When I was about ath the top, I heard some yelling and whooping from people at the top, wasn't coming from where I thought the top was.

I looked around, and then straight up, and way, way up the cliff. I saw people, very small and far away, far above what I thought was the top. Oh, areyoufuckingkiddingme, I muttered. And continued onward. Eventually, I reached the top and sat down to rest and admire the view. It took me nearly five hours to get seventeen miles.

I drank some Ensure Clear, did not refill my water pack for reasons I do not understand, whooped loudly into the canyon, and headed back in. The steep, rocky decent was not rewarding.

Lastly, the trip back was not easy. Not at all. My Achilles started barking. My left ankle was a little whiney. I wound up power hiking. I became increasingly queasy, which I decided first was because of the ensure, and later from lack of water.

I ran out if water before I got to the mile 23 aid station, which was actually around mile 26. But, the cool water crossings felt good on my Achilles and ankle. On the way back, I saw an important site that I realized I had missed outbound.

Not my picture. But I saw this, and it was totally worth ever painful step.

I started looking around more, really taking in the canyon. About mile 27, I came around a bend and happened on a small group of deer. I did not get a picture.

Around mile thirty, I heard a loud snap, and turned to be face-to-face with a huge and somewhat disgruntled, or so I imagined, bull. He was about five feet away, starring at me, a cow slightly behind him. As I do not know bull-diversion tactics I quietly slunk away, hoping he didn't take my bright pink shirt as a challenge.

Sixth, and I'm not lying about this: the last two miles are possibly the hardest. Remember I said that the first few miles were deep! soft, wet sand? Much of that is packed down by jeeps and trucks running in and out of the canyon, but increasingly the sand is soft and deep and slippery.
Not my picture, but shows the scale of the surroundings.
As I rounded the corner I could see the finish line, about 1/2 mile ahead. Maybe less. The announcer boomed my name, and there was an outbreak of applause. Then, as I slipped slowly in the mud and sand, oh, so slowly, the clapping petered out and there was some silence. After a few minutes the announcer announced my name again. Another applause, which dwindled. This was repeated until I finally crossed the finish line, just past the ten hour mark, at mile 34+. The RD hung a Torquoise choker around my neck. I had some Indian fry bread and vegetable stew.
Not my picture, but shows the scale of the surroundings.
You will see a point at which it appears that I leapt up 600 feet around mile 27. That was an anomaly caused by my Garmin pinging off the canyon walls.
Not my picture, but shows the scale of the surroundings.

This is an awesome run. It plays to your weaknesses and rewards you with an experience that is one-of-kind.

For a deeper, more thoughtful race report, chcpeck out Sweet Baboo's race report.




  1. I have so much more appreciation for that kind of terrain since our trip to the Grand Canyon this past May. I wish I could make myself run the way you do - god knows I need the movement but I've gotten so far away from any sort of distance that I'm having a hard time finding my way back. Thanks for sharing!

  2. After reading your and Baboo's reports about this race, I've put it on my bucket list. Thank you.

  3. The pictures are absolutely glorious.

    I loved your quote about "What I lack in good decision making I make up for in persistence." I know you added bravery, but that part I actually quoted could be my life motto. Or, more likely, my epitaph.

  4. I'm #69 on the waitlist for this year. I don't much like running long but I really, really, really hope I get in. I want this experience. I really do.


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