Sand. SAND. SAAAAANNNNND. Omg. The sand. And then the rain, wind and cold.
This weekend I ran the Antelope Canyon 100 miler – well, to be clear, I didn’t run 100 miles – I ran 90 of the 100 miles. Of course I had intended to run the full 100 but in ultras you can’t always predict or plan for everything. While this race was a DNF for me, I still feel like a finisher.
Race weekend officially started on Thursday afternoon when Travis, Jenny and I flew into Flagstaff where we’d spend the night and the next day before hauling our butts to Antelope Canyon. We had dinner at Beaver Street Brewery and pretty much ordered all the food on the menu (we might have gotten a little carried away).
We picked up some last minute goodies and some Flagstaff running tees (of course) and then headed to lunch at the vegan cafe in town – Macy’s – where I had a delicious vegan BLT.
Of course we took a long detour so we could explore the beautiful desert scape along the way…(and of course did a little yoga).
After tooling around near Sunset Crater in Flagstaff we hit the road for Page, Arizona. The drive was pretty spectacular – beautiful desert landscapes – and then epic views of Lake Powell before reaching our hotel. We headed over to packet pick-up and then grabbed groceries – basically all the food I might want to eat while out on the course (peanut butter, bagels, bread, fruit snacks, apples, cookies – you know, all the essentials). After our grocery run, it was pre race dinner time which was basically all potatoes. Gnocchi with a side of sweet potato fries – because why not?
I slept like shit as I always do the night before a big race – tossing and turning – and thinking about my alarm clock going off. Finally, around 4am on Saturday I got up and started getting ready for what was about to be my longest ever race day. The weather report was looking promising – 60’s during the day and high 30’s at night – I packed layers, gloves, beanies and headbands to get me through the cooler morning and night hours.
We arrived at the start line around 5:30am with a good 30 minutes to spare and circled up around the fire pit chatting with other runner friends.
Started the race in a tank top, shorts, long sleeves (with arm sleeves underneath), long compression socks, gloves and a headband; I figured I could take a few layers off as the day started to heat up. The morning air was cool but in a good way – felt like perfect running weather.
Before the race started, we got a quick trail briefing and a reminder that there would be quite a lot of sand – over 30 miles of deep, soft terrible sand, to be exact. And not just sand but also more than 5 miles of slick rock. Oh boy!!!
At 6am we were off…plodding along in the deep sand on our way to the first slot canyon.
In some ways I thought the sand could be a good thing because it would force me to slow down at the beginning and help me set a good pace. And it did slow me down….but even running slow, it still took incredible effort to run through the sand, not to mention some crazy mental strength…having loads of sand in your shoes while running is the WORST thing ever. The absolute worst….whether you’re moving “slow” or not.
Thankfully, the slot canyons were sooo beautiful. A very good way to take my mind off all the sand in my shoes and of course take quick breaks for photo opps.
I got through the first 20 miles of sand in about 4:45 and realized I probably needed to slow my roll a little. I knew I had semi “rushed” through the first 20 because I desperately wanted to get to my crew and see if they could help me solve the problem I was having with my hydration pack. Basically I was having a really hard time drinking water. I forgot the bladder for my hydration pack so we picked up another one (a different one)…..and it was IMPOSSIBLE to drink from. Needless to say, we’ll be returning that bladder to R.E.I. just as soon as we can.
Anyway, I arrived to see my crew and spent a good deal of time dumping sand from my shoes, eating some PB&J’s and getting doused in sunscreen (thanks Casey).
I got back on the course for a 13 mile loop around Horseshoe Bend – which had the most AMAZING views – and also required a bit of teamwork to navigate. On the slick rock the course markings were near impossible to see so we relied on one another to make our way through the loop – climbing, crab walking and “running” our way to mile 33.
While running this portion with my new friends Ethan and Andrea, I also figured out a hack to using my hydration pack – pressing my hand on the back of the pack to get the water to come out. Finally, hydration was happening!
I arrived at mile 33 still smiling but feeling the miles of sand and rock in every part of my legs and feet. I grabbed some rice balls with flax seed, chocolate chips and peanut butter at the aid station and chugged some TailWind. I was starting to feel a little queasy and realized I was going to need to hydrate better since I had consumed less water than I had wanted in the first 20 something miles.
I set off for the next leg – the final sandy portion – feeling pretty good – not great but good. And the not good part just continued to build…because somewhere along the way to mile 40, I started to hit my first low point. The sun was out, the sand was still very much underfoot (and in my shoes) and I was on what felt like an endless slog to the next aid station.
When I finally got to the aid station, I was so beyond happy to see Casey and Alyse but then got a little low when I realized I still had a good 18 miles to go before I’d be picking up my pacer (Travis). I think I was craving a little company and pick me up and Alyse and Casey could sense it. They tried to cheer me up and helped me take care of my feet and get dressed in my night gear. I changed into long pants with long compression socks underneath, a long sleeve, headband and of course a headlamp and handheld flashlight. It was a pretty lengthy process just to get my original (disgusting and sandy!) compression socks off my feet (not easy, trust me) and then clean the sand off my feet, doctor the massive blisters with Moleskine and Glacier Freeze and then change out of my Salomons into my Hokas.
Dressed and ready for the night, I made my way for the first loop which I was supposed to be doing for the last 60 miles of the course. I set out and was pleased to see that the trail was all packed sand. No more soft, terrible sand. Major relief. I was able to pick up the pace and had a pretty good 18 miles before picking up Travis (I seriously couldn’t have been happier to see him!).
We set off on our first portion of the loop in pitch black – my favorite part of the loop – and enjoyed the nice temps and easy strides. Our lights weren’t great – they definitely were not bright enough for how dark it was – but we managed to get ourselves to the next aid station. Once there, we fueled up with grilled cheese sandwiches and soup broth before going out for the second part of the loop (my least favorite loop…like ever). It was a “6” mile run to the aid station where we’d restart the loop around the Page Rim Trail but it honestly felt more like 10 miles. We got lost several times on that part of the loop and I was getting pretty frustrated. At this point, I was moving way more slowly and was having a lot of trouble getting my legs to move the way I wanted them to. I realized I was low on fuel but was going to have to tough it out until the next aid station. I also knew that I needed to start eating more at each aid station even though it was difficult to get any food down. To pass the time, we shared a bunch of stories and made our way from miles 60-80 still feeling pretty good.
Somewhere on our way to mile 80, the temps had started to drop (down to low 30’s) and even worse, the wind had picked up pretty good, whipping through our clothes chilling us to the bone. We also felt a few raindrops but didn’t think anything of it -especially given all weather reports had said 0% change of rain. We layered up against the wind and cold and kept moving, totally unaware of the unexpected blizzard we were about to be in.
My vision was starting to get pretty fuzzy and I was having some funny hallucinations. I jumped backwards a few times startled by the things I was seeing – on one such occasion, I thought I had seen a mountain lion next to Travis. Even weirder, I thought I saw a giant gingerbread man all bloodied and chewed up on the side of the trail (it was some kind of piping, according to Travis) – crazy, I know…Travis got a good laugh out of that one.
We got into mile 80 and parked ourselves inside the aid station tent to warm up with some soup broth and put our hands next to the heater. We also swapped our dim headlamps for Jenny’s amazing spotlight of a headlamp (seriously game changing to have actual light while running at night).
We set out for our next loop with ponchos that Jenny, Casey and Alyse gave us; they somehow knew that the rain was about to get real. And sure enough, about a quarter of the way through the loop, the rain did start to come down pretty bad. Big raindrops, even bigger wind chill and super slick trails. I was struggling to keep myself upright and leaning on Travis a lot to get down precarious parts of the trail (causing him to fall on more than one occasion). Seriously, I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing friend / pacer (thanks again Travis!!).
We got through the first portion of the loop just fine (it wasn’t easy but we made it into the aid station) and warmed our hands and legs by the heater and filled up on soup broth and rice balls. I was having a hard time eating and was starting to feel a little queasy again. I was trying to take deep breaths and power through it but it was really taking its toll on me – both mentally and physically.
We set off for the next part of the loop and the rain and wind had really picked up – and continued to worsen as the miles went on. It was relentless. We were barely moving at this point – our pace had slowed so much that I would barely even call it walking. The footing was extremely hard because the trails were slick and dangerous and the rain and wind were whipping through our ponchos, clothes, gloves …. we were shivering pretty badly but just kept on walking. The last two miles to 90, I was in pretty rough shape. I was having trouble finding footing and even more trouble with my steps – swaying from side to side – shivering uncontrollably. I had pretty much stopped talking at this point. I was responding to Travis but staying mostly silent beside him.
Travis was a complete trail angel and tried to help block the wind, assisted me down each part of the slick, scarier parts of the trails and tried to keep my spirits high by telling me stories, asking me questions and trying to keep me engaged. He was cold and miserable too but never showed it and never pushed me to go any faster…though I’m sure his legs could have. I just couldn’t. I was low on fuel, nauseous and freezing my ass off. When we finally saw the aid station, I was almost in tears because I was so happy.
We got into the aid station tent and started taking off our wet items so we could try and dry them against the little heater. Still shivering, we had more soup broth and rice balls – realizing we both needed more fuel – but I was having so much trouble eating that all I really wanted to do was curl up in a blanket with my head between my knees. Casey came in and found us and moved me to the car so I could sit in there with the heater on and get under a sleeping bag.
In the car, I started to dose off and told them to wake me in 15 minutes. Travis came out to the car and we debated what we should / could do from there. The conditions had worsened – the rain was coming down harder and had started to resemble snow – and we didn’t have any more dry, warm items to put on. We were cold just standing and talking and knew that we’d have a good amount of time left out on the trails at the pace and state I was in. We eventually decided that it was a matter of self preservation and called the race.
Mile 90, just ten short of a finish. A tough decision but I also think it was the right one. The trails were just too slick and scary – especially when you’re out there with sore and unstable legs – and the rain and wind was whipping through our clothes. We got in the car, tried to ask the the non obliging race director to close the course because it was becoming too dangerous in those conditions and then headed back to the hotel. Casey had to piggy back me to the room and help me in and out of the shower.
I got straight into bed – in my towel – not even bothering to dry off or get dressed before passing out. I woke up about an hour later and threw up – that nausea finally coming to a head and then went back to sleep until about 3pm. Waking up at 3pm on a Sunday is a weird feeling. I was starving, weirdly awake and a bit confused about the time. We headed out for some Mexican food and then lounged around eating cookies and other snacks while watching The Oscar’s.
While I’m super disappointed with having yet another DNF on the books, I’m also super proud of myself. It was a TOUGH race for me and I stuck it out until the bitter end. I ran hard when I could and pushed through the sandy miles (not to mention the pain in my feet from having so much sand in my shoes).
Gotta celebrate the 90 miles and be proud of that accomplishment…because as my husband pointed out, 100 is an arbitrary number and 90 miles is pretty damn impressive. There will be many more races…on to the next!
And I can’t say THANK YOU enough times to Travis who selflessly paced me through the night for 30 miles. He never complained, remained positive and took care of me despite how cold and miserable he was feeling. I don’t think there’s any other way to repay him than pace him through the night in his first hundo ;). And also a HUGE thank you to my amazing crew – Casey, my husband for being out there at every aid station he could whether he was dousing me with sunscreen, helping me change shoes, getting me food or water. And Alyse for being so incredible and driving all the way out from Austin with her Tigger dog to come and support me. She stayed up all night long and kept a positive attitude even while helping me strip out of nasty, stinky clothes. She also made sure I tried a roasted Starburst…I mean, sooo good. 😉 And to Jenny, my ultra badass friend who not only helped me prepare and pack my race bags but loaned me gear (best headlamp ever) and gave me pointers throughout the race. They were all out there with me until the bitter end and truly deserve the most recognition – crewing and pacing for a hundred miler are truly no easy feat.
Anyway, that’s my weekend….how was y’alls weekends?
Stay sweaty friends!