Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Monument Valley 50 Miler

My first 50 miler was more of a drive-run-drive duathlon.  I planned to leave Friday after work, and return Sunday morning before a school ceremony for our youngest.  I’d hoped to pull into Monument Valley by 7 or 8 pm, just in time to catch the end of race check-in, but Friday the 13th traffic and an unexpected Time Zone change—the Navajo Nation is on Mountain Daylight time, not Standard time like Arizona—brought me in to the Monument Valley View Hotel at 10:30.   I’d planned a 5 am wake-up to make sure there was enough time to gear up before the 0700 start time, as this was my first 50 miler.   As is often the case before bigger events, sleep was somewhat elusive.  

Nervous.  Not well rested.  Not to worry.
I beat the alarm, and on went the gear—Hokas with gaiters, Injinji toe socks with DeFeet wool socks over them, compression shirt and shorts, cover shorts, a race pack with Camelbak, a waistpack with a nutrition bottle, and, perhaps most importantly given the venue, a point-and-shoot camera.

We milled around in the darkness for a few minutes, as I silently wondered exactly how one started an all darned day run.   My inner Master Yoda answered, “Mmm, one step at a time you go; slowly and comfortably you run.”  That was the plan, at least.  Running more or less from sun-up to sundown is a hard thing to imagine when one’s previous longest run is around 5 hours.

We received a predawn blessing from a representative of the Navajo Nation.  Then we lined up, and, in a relatively unceremonious way, we were off.   Dawn broke after a few miles, and the views were amazing.  Most other runners seemed to have cameras, and photo stops were the rule, not the exception.  The terrain was more undulating and sandy than expected.  After the first couple miles, I revised my expected finishing time estimate from the 10-11 hour range up to about 12 hours.  The segments that were around mesas had more solid footing, and a moderate amount of rock-hopping.   But the terrain was like all other conditions, just something to accept and work with.

Across the Utah line, running towards the Brigham's Tomb aid station.

Looking South at the Valley from across the Utah State Line
One mental strategy for a race of this duration might be to break it down and not think of the entirety of it, but I kept reminding myself of the race length in order to subdue my urge to pursue other runners or push a faster pace.  Mostly, this worked.  Around Mile 14, it no longer helped, as the weight of the race landed on me.  It helped to treat this as another opportunity to pay attention to what I was doing in the moment, and to detach myself from my thoughts and feelings, and just observe:

Wow, so I don’t feel like running, certainly not for another thirty-six miles.  Okay, so noted.  Keep the feet moving, and keep sucking down the nutrition, and it will change.  And then it will change again.  And again...

The "mark" of a true ultra runner.
About this time, I saw a 100 mile runner walking in the other direction, 26 hours and 85 miles into his race.  By the despair etched on his face, it looked as if he was struggling mightily, and when I offered some encouraging words, he brightened like I’d handed him a winning Powerball ticket.  It turns out there was an abundance of encouragement flowing in all directions, and some positive words helped to lift me out of my own funk in short order.   Some of this can be found at times in triathlon, but the sense of support and community at this race was truly inspiring.  Everyone was cheering for everyone else, even the frontrunners.

After the first 22 mile loop, the rest of the race involved three loops starting from and ending at the Hogan Aid Station, which became a sort of temporary community between scenic adventure jaunts.  At my second stop here at mile 27, I decided to give myself a head-to-toe, “full service” aid stop.   A volunteer at the aid station helped me out, noting that I had what appeared to be "Ultra Brain."  Putting together a plan—like taking shoes and socks off—and executing it felt like an impossibly complicated task.  A fair amount of red sand had snuck in past the gaiters, and I had one blister.  So I dusted off my feet, drained the blister, and switched to the "cover all" Raid Light gaiters.  I was at the aid station for what seemed like half an hour, but it turns out it was only ten minutes. 

I also tried something I hadn’t done on long runs, or in triathlons: Solid food.  At 50 mile pace, I managed to tolerate pretzels, potato chips, and a Clif Bar, and to suck down an entire 20 oz. bottle of Tailwind at once on more than one occasion.  As long as I kept the pace reasonable, it worked. I maintained a steady state of fluid, electrolytes, nutrition, and pacing for most of the race.

The "Totem Pole" and friends
A runner trudges through the sand on the scenic southern loop
"Ear of the Wind," at the southernmost turnaround point of the course
"Ear of The Wind," at the southernmost point of the course.
All was well until mile 39 or so, when the springs in my legs seemed to suddenly lose their bounce.  This was unfortunate timing, as Miles 39-43 were the approximately 1,000 foot ascent and descent of Mitchell Butte.  Over the next few miles, I devised a couple of other names for it.  Whatever residual quad strength I had was spent getting up it, and the descent over loose, rocky terrain made my moderately sore feet scream at me.  The turnaround at the top was exultation—I knew I would complete the race. 
Mile 41.5, final turnaround on top of the Butte
The last 7 miles were about how to manage the progressive muscle failure.  First, I power walked, with a little bit of kick on the downhills.  This stride felt about as graceful as doing a Frankenstein impression on cross-country skis, but it was fastest, and I was all about the finish line at this point.  My power walking speed was initially not much slower than my dwindling running speed, but even that eventually collapsed to a walk up the long final hill to the finish line, 11 hours and 42 minutes after the start.

Two fellow racers almost caught me right at the line, but somehow I found just that little bit of reserve to stay ahead.  The utter failure of leg muscles was beyond even that of an Ironman by quite a bit.  Shivering and limping, with spasming hip flexors, I barely made it to the car, where I cranked up the heat and began convalescence.  It occurred to me to take a final picture of the view before I left, but the body was no longer capable. 

Looking North from the top of Mitchell Butte
The race was amazing, not just in terms of the course.  The aid stations were excellent; the feeling of community among the racers was like nothing I’d experienced.  I’ll definitely do another one, and probably one that Matt Gunn put together.

Just not next weekend.


  1. Congratulations! What incredible scenery. As for muscle failure - I feel ya buddy! Way to push on through to the finish line. See you soon!!

  2. Thanks for the race report. Really enjoyed the read, the heads-up on the time zone and the route info. I love ultra adventures and look forward to doing this run next year. Nice meeting you today in the running shop - best of luck on your ironman!