Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Monument Valley: It Doesn't Have to be an Ultra to be Epic

Last summer I read a book that took place in Monument Valley, and although the plot was lackluster, the characters and description of the setting was amazing.  I wanted to visit this place, and when I stumbled across the Monument Valley Ultra, which was scheduled for the same week that Will and I were on Spring Break, it seemed like the thing to do.  

The question was: whether or not I could.  It is always hard to tell from a race website what the terrain is actually like, and since we've already established that I suck at running technical trails, it is important for me to know what I'm getting into.  

From the information I could find, it seemed like I would be able to do this course, except for the Mitchell Mesa section, which involved a 1 mile climb at a 28% gradient, and then turning around at the top and descending back the way you came.  Some of the race reports I found also indicated that this part was technical and rocky and may have involved sheer drop offs on one or both sides.

This concerned me.

Given my teaching load this semester, and fear of 28% grade ascents/descents on technical terrain, I opted for the "half marathon" (14.4 miles) instead, which shared part of the course with the ultras, but did not include Mitchell Mesa.  

But then towards the end of February, I injured my foot.  It was the kind of thing I thought would be completely better after a day or two of rest, but it wasn't. It got worse and better and worse again.  I could still run, albeit in a lot of pain. I knew there was no way I should run this race in Monument Valley, and I was feeling really stressed about all the plans we had made to go there.  I didn't want to pull the plug on this, but I didn't want to attempt the race and end up even more seriously injured. I took a week off of running to see if that would help.

We left on the Thursday before the race (I was still in a very grim mood) and stayed in a campground somewhere outside of Moab.

Will, with the moon over his shoulder.
The sun set that night and Will read planet books to us and we all saw Jupiter in the sky with diamonds.

The next morning we woke up in Utah.

It is always nice to wake up in Utah.
We drove on into Canyonlands, where Rob ran while Will and I hiked.  My foot felt okay, at least to walk, and Will (who normally complains when he is expected to hike), did not complain at all.  He talked the entire time about the planets and did not notice any of the beautiful scenery.  I was thinking how some kids have imaginary friends, but not Will.  He has the planets.

Will: "And then Saturn's rings said to Jupiter's great red spot..."

I learned a lot about the planets on this hike.
Will may not have appreciated the landscape around us, but I did.  It reminded me of the Grand Canyon, except instead of not being able to see anything through the crowds of people, we were the only ones there.  It was pristine and quiet and ten thousand times more lovely.

When we got back to the trail head, I made us lunch, and Will ran out to meet Rob as we saw him approaching on the trail.

Then we got back into the car and drove, and at last we arrived at Monument Valley.  It was every bit as beautiful as I'd imagined, and then some. 

The view from our tent. We saw Jupiter again at night.
We camped at The View Hotel's campground, right across from the start/finish line of the race.  It was perfect.  The campground had a real bathroom, with flushing toilets and running water and showers for after the race.  This was an asset.

Also, my foot felt a lot better.  Or at least I thought it did.  It could have been that my back and neck hurt so badly (unrelated to running) that I couldn't even feel my foot pain anymore.  Either way, I decided to consider this an asset.

We ate pasta, and then I spent a sleepless night, trying unsuccessfully to find a way to lie down that didn't hurt my back.

Before I knew it, it was time to get up the next morning.  The ultra runners started at 7am, around the time that the sun looked like this:

The 50-milers ran right by our campsite on their way out.  Once they were gone, I got ready, which went as smoothly as it could in the freezing cold desert.  But at least the sun was up so I could see what I was doing.  And the bathroom had warm water.  Assets.

When I put on my shoes, I discovered that the velcro backings where I attach my gaiters were missing. WTH.  I still have no idea what happened. Did they fall off? I swear they were there the last time I wore these shoes.  Now I was faced with 14.4 miles in sand, and no gaiters. Duct tape to the rescue.

This is a photo from after the race. They actually held up pretty well. The tape on my right foot stayed in place through at least 14 miles, and the left one stayed the whole time.

Soon enough, I lined up with over 300 of my newest friends to start the half marathon. The race instructions had said to make sure to "line yourself up accordingly" because the start is on single track trail and passing would be impossible for the first couple miles.  Great.  I've never run a trail race that was shorter than an ultra before.  It is always so hard to know where to line up in these things.  But when I saw the local Navajo track team (not sure if they were high school or college), I made sure to get way, way behind them.

And then we were off.  Well, sort of.  I took like 5 steps and then came to a screeching halt as we all funneled onto a trail that was no wider than my foot.  We weren't even walking.  We were just stopped. This is another reason why trail races frustrate me.

Eventually movement began.  There was sand and rocks.  It was mainly downhill. It wasn't super technical, but was more technical than I'd thought it would be. I tried my best to take in the beauty of my surroundings without falling face first in the rocks and sand.

After the first 3 or 4 miles, we turned onto a dirt road and could finally spread out a bit.  I was feeling pretty good at this point: my foot didn't hurt, and I was handling the terrain okay.  I realized it was also very nice to be running a half marathon at this pace, near the back of the pack.  Running it like it was an ultra.  Ever so much more enjoyable than red-lining it at your absolute maximum, all-out for 13.1 miles. 

We got to the one aid station on the course at ~5.5 miles (we'd go past this again, after we turned around on our way back to the finish).  When I saw it, I thought, oh, so that's why they call it the "Three Sisters."

It also looks like a "W"... for William

After heading out from the Three Sisters, we went back onto single track and climbed up the first significant hill-- rocky and covered with several inches of sugary sand.  I caught up with a Navajo lady and we leapfrogged back and forth and chatted with each other for a while.  The views along this section were amazing.

My new friend and I stopped to take pictures.
After the uphill, there was a descent that included a small section that was incredibly steep, rocky, and sandy.  And terrifying for me.  I was glad there wasn't somebody on my heels in that section because I slowed down a lot and the people I'd been running with just kept on going.  This part of the course was like that time on a trail run when my feet skidded out from beneath me on a sandy, rocky descent and I fell and thought I broke my hip.  Only worse.  I was so glad I'd worn my Salomons with slightly better lugs, even though they seem to irritate my foot worse than my Sketchers, which are more cushiony but not good for trails. This was the kind of thing that if I'd known about, I would not have signed up for the race.

But the steep section was very short, and I made it, and I caught back up with the people who had passed me and kept going.  I'm not good on technical descents, but I seem to have enough endurance, so when people go by me on gnarly terrain, I often pass them back when things smooth out or even start going uphill.  This is what happened during the second half of the race. It wasn't as rocky but involved pretty deep sand, which felt a lot like running through a Colorado snow storm (just not cold).  I got plenty of practice with that during the early months of winter, so I don't think this bothered me as much as it did for some people, who didn't necessarily have that kind of training.  It was tough, but not something I couldn't handle.  For once, I viewed all that snow we'd had as an asset.

We passed back through the Three Sisters aid station again around mile 10.5, and from there it was a dirt road for the last 4 miles.  It started out downhill, which felt easy and great.  Then it went up, and up and up.  I recalled that the course was supposed to have about 1250 elevation gain, and we hadn't gone uphill all that much until this point.  This is where it all began, in the last 2.5-ish miles.  It felt like doing Towers, after having run for over 2 hours in deep, loose, sand.

I passed a lot of people who were struggling hard during this last bit.  This was definitely an ultra runner's half marathon.  Not something you should sign up for if you are used to running on roads and run races with the mindset that you should go all-out and try for a personal best every time.  In other words, the way I used to run back when I regularly ran marathons and half marathons.  On the road.  I was very glad that I was coming into this race with several years of ultra running experience and with the simple goal of seeing a beautiful place, rather than having a "fast" time.  The race website has a very inclusive "come one, come all" type of attitude, which is great, but I think that if anyone is looking into this race, they should be prepared and know that it is going to be tough.  At the very least, this is 14.4 miles, which is longer than a half marathon, and the sand you run through for most of the race makes it feel like a much harder effort.  Not to mention the significant climbs you do during the last several miles.  As I was running those hills, I kept thinking: it doesn't have to be an ultra to be epic.

I saw Rob and Will standing up on the hillside as I came into the finishing stretch, and at last I was done.  A race volunteer (or maybe one of the organizers?) gave me a high five.  I'm not sure there was a timing clock at the end, and I forgot to stop my watch for a while.  The best I can figure is that my finishing time was about an hour slower than my (road) half marathon "PR." But really, that seems beside the point.  I was so happy to have held up well throughout the race, and to have completed a course that involved fairly difficult terrain. My quads and hamstrings were wrecked from the effort, but what mattered most was that my marginally healed foot injury felt okay (and has continued to feel okay).

Half marathon finishers got a bracelet, which I think is 10 zillion times cooler than a medal. I will actually wear this instead of put it in a drawer and forget about.

I got to take a real, actual shower at the campground, and then Will and I had lunch and rested while Rob went out for a run.  He never stops training.  I had initially hoped he might go out and check this 28% grade on Mitchell Mesa for me, but since the ultra was still going on over there at this time, that didn't seem like a good idea.  

We stayed over night again, and my back finally stopped hurting enough so that I could get a few decent hours of sleep. The next day (Sunday), we took Will to an outdoor dinosaur exhibit near Moab, where he had the time of his life.

#Utah #Rawr

On Sunday night we stayed in Fruita with @angelmurf and family, who are the nicest people ever.  Seriously. I would have stayed with them forever, but eventually we had to get back to work and school.

I'm so glad I did this this race, and I hope Rob and Will enjoyed visiting Monument Valley as much as I did.  It was a great event-- well done and well organized in every way, from my perspective.  I still don't know what Mitchell Mesa is like and if I could really handle that ultra, but I'm already wondering if maybe we'll go back again next year.

Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

CONGRATULATIONS ON A GREAT RACE!!! The pictures are AMAZING !!! esp, the ones with WILLIAM in them!!! He is seeing the country and learning more,than he ever will in a classroom! He knows more now about the planets than most of us do!!! so glad he could see the sky in all its brilliance out in the middle of nowhere!! UTAH!! As always thanks for,taking me along through your blog!!! A big hug and luv to all! Mama