Situated within the Navajo Nation, Monument Valley boasts amazing formations that reach over 1,000 feet into the sky and draw your gaze in wonderment. You will likely recognize these formations or “monuments” from the hundreds of movies that have been filmed in this desert backdrop over the years. Vibrant colors and dramatic shadows cast along the valley floor will give you a sense of becoming “in tune” with nature, experiencing the same inclusion with the natural world that the Native Americans have practiced for generations. Running becomes less of an activity and more of an intrinsic way in which to absorb the landscape.
This race will begin on Friday and will start off heading south on a long out-and-back leg to the remote and sacred Mystery Valley and up onto Weatherill Mesa to the turnaround point overlooking the entire central valley. After returning through race headquarters (approx mile 36), the route then takes you directly over to the Hogan aid station in the central valley (mile 40). From here, you will do a 4.5 mile loop through the North Window overlook, then a 9.5 mile loop that takes you past the Totem Poles, several arches, and some petroglyphs. You will then climb up onto Mitchell Mesa and turnaround at an overlook directly above the starting line (mile 59) with views into the north and central valleys. You will then run the Arches and North Window loops in reverse direction before departing for the north valley at mile 79. This last section of the course takes you along side the East Mitten, Brigham’s Tomb, Stagecoach, Big Chief, and Sentinel Mesa formations before leading you home to the finish line.
I Had No Business in the Race
This was my first time in Utah, and my first solo race in a 100 miles event. I can say that I had underestimated this race and I had no idea what was the terrain situation. Honestly, I thought it was going to be an “easy” scenic run, I thought how bad was a few of 1000 feet could be. So I thought with lack of training from injuries that had not 100% recovered, I would able to pull it off. If I was a reasonable person, I should have dialed it down to 50 miles race, or just not running it. Fortunately I was not a reasonable person and I glad that I did it. It s a 100% race for your bucket list, if you have not done it. This race was such a scenic race, I felt it was a little magical and spiritual trip, yet it was a little vicious and heartless. It was like cute in the beginning, turned into a very awesome run, then start getting annoying and frustrating, but at the end all the gore and glory were worth in every second, every steps.
Today Will Be A Good Day
If you watch the you tube trailer, the voice over was the voice of Larry Holiday, the Navajo chief, who gave us a prayer and bless before the race. It s a common practice for Navajo people to face toward the east and pray for a bless throughout the day just before their journey, on the first light of the day. Then, it was followed by Ann Marrie, the chief’s daughter, who sang a song to the four corners of the earth, for our 100 miles journey. This whole procession made my hair on my neck raised. At the end of Larry’s prayer he said “Today will be a good day” (or something like that), while we, 30-40 runners (maybe a little more), released a pinch of hand-ground white corn to the wind. And through out the race that wind kept whispering me that words when I had doubt.
Weatherill Mesa Loops
When the race started, I was standing and facing the wrong direction. I was expecting that we were going to run straight to the mesa. I lost my direction in these open landscape. So I was accidentally place myself at the front-runners, and I had to move faster than I should. We ran down the road towards the entrance booth before we turned left on the jeep sandy trail. I, finally, was able to slow down to 9 min ish pace where I started to dwindle back to the pack and started to run with Ken Lonseth, who became my running buddy pretty much the whole race, catching up one after another. It was pretty cold when the race started, but this long 6 miles on the sandy path going to the Mystery Valley AS, was kind of warming me up for my legs and my eyes. With sunrise peeking behind the end of the desert, I started to see the landscape, mesas, buttes and red rocks; also started to collecting a good amount of extra padding under my foot from the sand. At the Mystic Valley AS, I took a few minutes to collect my own miniature sand dune from my shoes, I wished it was a gold dust, I could be as rich as Richie. I think one of the volunteer told us that the cave behind them was a Navajo settlement 700 years ago
From this point, the course become more interesting. We ran along the rocks formation and between the wall, passing hidden arches and windows, and also got to see some ruins of Navajo houses from hundreds year ago. In this section Ken and I caught up and started running with Adrian, who was the winner of the race. They ran pretty hard, I believe in one point we hit 8 min ish pace. I barely caught up with them, but it was better run with these guys and saved my lonely run for later on, under the stars. When I arrived at the Weatherill Mesa AS, again, I had to empty out my sand dune inside my hoofs, then I visited Matt’s ingenious portable restroom. The best restroom in any race ever, even though it was in the middle of desert.
When I got out, I lost Ken and Adrian. It was a bummer that I had to continue my run by myself. After another sandy trail section, I started to ascent my first mesa where I ran on the rocky uphill. I was so happy that I got into my comfort zone (terrain). Here was another dangerous factor that Matt had placed in the course. A stunning view along the course. They were so stunning that they could deter you from finishing the race. Earlier I had already stopped like every 10 minutes to take pictures, but now, I literally stopped for a few minutes to soak in, not once but multiple times. On the turn around point at the top of the Weatherill Mesa, where I could see the panoramic view of red rocks, mesas, and open desert, I saw two Navajo horsemen on the other side of the mesa’s peak. Suddenly my mind was flashing back into a black and white cowboy movie, I waved at them, not sure if they saw me. Also, I caught up with Ken, who was emptying out his shoes from the sand dust. Then we started to run back together. After a few minutes, on the sandy trail section, the horsemen caught up with us, we let them pass us. They gave us a friendly smile, probably they were thinking what s up with these crazy folks running around on their backyard.
From the Weatherill AS to the Mystic Valley AS, the sun started to beat me down. It was a relieve when we were tracing back the course, we ran through in between of cool rock formation, and got a little shades. Earlier in the morning, with the condensation and cold temperature, the sand was not that bad. Now the sand were getting soft and I had to stopped every 10 minutes to clean up my shoes and socks.
After the Mystic Valley AS, I was starting to melt down from the sun heat. The only thing that kept me together was the beauty of mesas and buttes around me. In one point, I ran by a group of horses on the side path, they were just staring at me while munching their vegan breakfast. I started to walk on every small uphill and running a little faster over the flat and downhill, until I was back to the pavement road, back to the Monument Valley park entrance again.
Loopy Loop Hogan Made Me Loopy
At the Start Finish AS, I made a quick stop since the next aid station was only 4 miles away. I drop my extra layer and shell into my drop bag, clean up my shoes and socks, refill my bottles, and head out to the dirt road towards the Hogan AS.
This section was mostly downhill where I made up my time. A few cars flew by me a couple of times, I got blown by some red particles, onto my face and lungs. Although, some gave me cheers and waves. About half way of the run, I was surprised by a shaggy dog that suddenly running on my side. It was pretty big too, about my knee height. It just ran next to me, no barking and not asking anything. When I stopped and walked, it followed. When I started to jog, it kept up with me. I was thinking to give the dog some water and my beef jerky when I got into the bottom of the hill. Unfortunately, I was probably running too fast, when I got to the bottom of the hill, I just realize it was not next to me anymore. It starred to me from the top of the hill. I felt a little bummed that I lost my companion, I hope I could have it for a little longer.
When I got to the aid station entrance, I chatted with Candice Burt, who was going out for her 1st small loop. I met her on the pre race meeting, and she was also leading the pack at the starting line. She told me that she has a little stomach issue, but she kept her head up with big smile. I also saw Adrian, who was heading out to the big loop (the second loop from Hogan AS). He told me he was slowing down, but I believed he might have been leading the pack by now. The Hogan AS was the second biggest AS after Start and Finish. We were going through this aid station from mile 40 to 79. There were 5 loops on this aid station. The clockwise North Window loop (4.5 miles small loop), the clockwise Arches loop (9.5 miles big loop), out and back Mitchell Mesa (10.5 miles), counter-clockwise big loop, and counter-clockwise small loop.
I had my Orange Mud gym bag there. I changed my shoes into my winter running boots. I thought, if water doesn’t come through it, then not sand nor dirt would. And they worked, I didn’t have any excuse to take a sand break anymore. I spend a little longer then I should there, but I was not in a hurry. I thought I was still in a good schedule.
One section of this small loop was probably my favorite run. It was the one after we run around a big hill, there was a switch back rolling hill on a rocky terrain at the back of the hill. It was along the ridge with a big drop on my left. It was probably the only part that I was truly running fast, jumping here and there and having fun. It reminded me Bear Mountain or TDS in someway. A nostalgic run.
On the big loop, I was doing fine for the first 3 miles. It was an easy downhill dirt road from the aid station before we turned left into the trail. The trail was not that hilly, it was just very sandy. Also the dry heat of the desert started to consume my body liquid. For a good couple of miles I had to run and walk, my body started to abandon my order, and all the injuries started to stiffen up. After I passed the muddy area and the petroglyphs wall, I was able to dial-up my pace again. And I got to catch up with Ryan and Rachel at the scenic detour around the pond and took a quick look at the window on the top of the rock formation. Then I was started to get hurt again from the heat and, of course, from running 50 miles-ish; but I tried to keep running. I want to get into the Hogan AS (54.5 miles point) by sunset. So the end of the small loop and big loop were on the same single track trail. And it would be the same trail where we would start the counter-clockwise loop. While I was shuffling my way back from my counter clock big loop, I met Adrian doing his counter clock big loop, still running with happy face, no one was close to him by that point.
I was depleted and got sick when I got into Hogan Aid station, it was pretty bad. I could not eat anything, cramping everywhere, and dry heaving. But the volunteer in the Hogan AS, was my angels that night. The kids from international school had no clue anything about an ultra marathon race. But for the whole 2 days, they put up with our gross, smelly, and sometime a little rude behavior, with patience and smile, for the whole 2 days. Katrin the AS “lieutenant” was my biggest hero in this race, especially when she had a roller.
I was probably a bit rude to those fellas, I could not talk very well at that moment, so I just waved around, shook or nudged head. Then, I took my Z-poles in my drop bag that was prepared for an emergency, I made no excuse to DNF this time. After a few long minutes, I regroup myself, forced some ramen in, and head out to the darkness for Mitchell Messa.
Happiness Is Contagious
For the first a few hundreds meters was horrible, it was cold and all my joints were locked up from sitting too long. But the poles kept me going into power walk mode and turned into a turtle jog (does monkey jog do you know?). The course was a 10.5 miles out and back, started with a winding jeep road with a little patch of sandy trail. When I got into the un-manned aid station, I just kept going since my double barrel OM vest’s bottles still had plenty magic liquid. From there, the ascent started. It was pretty technical, specially at night. The trail was decorated by loose rock and some mini boulders (or giant pebbles) in between. Love it! Although I was cheating since I was using the poles.
At the top of the mesa, the trail become a sandy trail again. And it was a good long one that made me impatient. When I got to the turn around check-point, I had to mark my bib with a puncher. On the way back, just after the scenic turn around, I missed the marking and went down for a few minutes. Luckily the guy with bib #65, Carl, called me. On the downhill, I slung my poles onto my shoulder and ran over that ankle rolling rocks. Cursing and screaming here and there for some close calls. Halfway down, I met Yoshiko, a Trail WhippAss runner from PA. She was so happy like she just found a cotton candy and walking in the park. Crazy bad ass. The good thing was, that attitude was contagious. It was effecting me that made me so happy and giddy up when I got into the aid station. I could not wait to do my second big loop. It was around 10 pm-ish, and I felt good that I was still on schedule. I had 35 miles-ish in 9 hours ahead of me, if I want to do sub 24, and 16 hours to meet the cut off.
In the aid station I saw Ryan, with big blanket around him on the beach chair, he was thinking to DNF. I tried to convinced him to continue since he had been running much better than me. A few minutes later, he caught up with me with big smile and decided to finish what he started. I threaded him that I would prod him with my poles if I found him thinking of DNF again. He ended up finishing the race 3 hours ahead of me.
Wished Upon the Stars
Ryan and I ran together for a little bit. After passing one of the rock wall area, we got lost into someone resident. We managed to get back to the trail, when I started to slow down and Ryan moved on. Me, myself and the darkness. For a while I could still see the headlamps from people a head of me, which help with some direction. But after I passed the petroglyphs and the pond area, I lost them. I was distracted by the bright moon light in between of humongous dark clouds and a gigantic mesa. For a moment I thought it was a UFO mothership tried to kidnap me.
The counter-clockwise for the Arches loop was easier, since we had more downhill and significantly less heat, but I got lost so many times. I had a problem to see the streamer behind the bushes, and all around me was looked like a trail. The only thing that helped me survive, was looking at the track on the trail. At that time I remembered Ryan, Rachel, and Carl shoes’ outsole print. So every time I got lost and not sure which direction, I tried to find their track and follow their shoes tracks heading. If the trail was on solid rock I might be still out there by now, looking for finish line. During my lonely time in the open desert, I witnessed a few shooting stars, and I made my wish. I want to finish this race. By the time I got back to the aid station I was pretty depleted and sleepy. It took me about 3 hours and a half to do a 9.5 miles. I dozed off for a few minutes while I was waiting for my ramen. I pushed myself to keep going, I thought another 4.5 miles would not be so bad. I convinced my self it would be another hour or so. Everything went alright, I walked too plenty though. But when I got into the rolling rock by the ridge section, I went off the trail so many times. A couple of times, I went down to the edge till it was a dead drop. It was pretty hard to find the flag, maybe I was too sleepy and tired. But I made it back to the aid station sound and safe. The bad news was, it was already 5am.
Determination Never Betrays
Katrin convinced me that they would not cut me off. She said, about half of the runners were still out there in the loops and Matt would extend the finish time cut off. She also convinced me that I was doing great. (wished that was the truth) But I obeyed like a good student. Seriously I felt that I just graduated from Hogan AS University.
After we made a right turn, into a kind of jeep trail, my getting lost quest continued. I am not sure why the flag was placed sometimes on the right side of the trail, in the middle or sometime on the left. I was depleted, barely running from a sharp pain on both of my ankles, and I started to get frustrated. I wished I knew that I just needed to follow the jeep road. I ended up run/walk zig zag to do my find the flag quest. I was afraid that I would miss a turn again. Ken caught up with me on the three-way junctions, I had been back and forth for about 10 minutes. I was not sure since I did not see the next trail mark. And the tracks on the mud, showed the runners in front of me had been back and forth also. We split, and yelled to each other till one of us find the next flag. I found the flag, it was a few hundreds meters from the junction. It was about 7 am, the second sun started to shine. I told Ken, I was pretty sure that we had hit 7 miles already and missed the aid station. I thought that they might had broken off the aid station already. But after a few gorgeous hills climbs, there the East Mitten AS was hiding in the middle of it. I was happy that we found it, yet it was an upset that my mileage count was off. Suddenly, I smelled bacon. God Bless Bacon! Something about munching bacons, while listening to Larry Holiday explaining about the terrain that we had gone through and what would come, lifted up my spirit.
On the way to the Brigham Tomb AS, we started to slow down a little on the sandy path. We started to see the 50 miler front pack running towards us. At that moment, I really wished I was smart and dialed down to 50 mile race. After a few rolling hills, we got into the out and back of Brigham Tomb Butte. The course was a relenting small hill one after another. I was way behind Ken, I could not move my ankle anymore.
When I got there, I just checked in and straight headed back to the main trail. I saw Malcolm and Bob on my way down. Malcolm was cursing the non-stop uphill. On the other hand, Bob was a joking around, he asked me to wait for him. At the same time, I got my second wind from the downhills. I started moving a little faster and was able to catch up with Ken again on the Mesa edge.
Matt had warned us about the hike over the sand dune on mile 95, I thought it would be only a dune. It ended up a good couple of miles of dunes. We had a quite journey.
When I got into the aid station, I was done. I was overheated, cracked and burned over my lips nose and ears, and busted both ankles. I poured cold water couple of times, soaked my buff with ice-cold water, and started to head out. In my brain, there was no way I could hobble another 3 miles. But I just shut my brain off kept put one foot and pole in front of another. I swear it was longer than 3 miles, at least what I felt. Oh one cool thing, Ken got wrapped up inside a mini sand storm twister for a second, he looked like The Storm from X-Men. It must be horrible for him, but it was pretty wicked. He didn’t stop tho.
Then I saw the finish area on the other side over the valley. We had to run downhill over a very narrow back of hill edge, probably just as width as my foot. Ken, who was in front of me, slipped down for a few meters. Me, with busted ankles, I ended with my butt slide technique. Ain’t pretty, but it worked.
I got off from the winding trail, I shuffled across parking lot that feel like hours, Larry Holiday called my name from the finish line light years ago, and finally I did it. I was crying inside but big smile on the outside.
Best Taco Ever.
The finish line was another beauty of Matt Gun’s race. They have an eco-friendly zero waste restroom, zero smell and zero gross. He had hot shower and hot tub, yeah you read it right. On the top of it, I got to eat a Navajo taco. I was the happiest kid on earth that afternoon. Until today, I can’t wipe my big grin of my face when I am thinking of this race. I said it before, I said it again, it s a must do race, hand down.