I’ve never really done anything exciting for my birthday. But I found this sweet race back in January, thinking it was just (“just”) a marathon. It was simultaneously a break from Seattle winter combined with a sport I love and scenery I’ve always wanted to go run through, and I could justify it as a birthday party and present for myself. I could eat a shit ton of cake, or get drunk, or cry on my couch because Pints and Pies closed, or I could take a shot at an awesome trail run. Turned out it was an ultramarathon. Eh. I ran 20 miles in January, I can walk the rest right? I miraculously connected with a woman who sold me her spot in the race 10 days before the event. But I couldn’t find anyone to go with me. Convincing people to fly to Vegas and drive to Arizona on short notice is hard. I am not a patient person and was sick of waiting on people so I made a last minute hail mary post on Seattle Mountain Running Group’s Facebook page asking if anyone was going to the Antelope Canyon races. I was hoping I’d know one single person there so it wouldn’t be as scary. And someone replied. Omg. This might actually happen.
That someone was Sonja, who I quickly learned is a collector of people. A collector of the best kinds of people. She had no reservations about inviting me to split rental cars and lodging and made it so easy for me to tag along with their group. Suddenly it went from scary solo amateur trip to tagging along on an ultrarunning expert trip with 4 unbelievably accomplished ironman triathletes and ultrarunners. I was (still am) like the little kid trying to soak up all of the knowledge. “What’s your pace going to be?” “…somewhere between 8 and 15 minute miles?” “What do you want for your pre race meal?” “Anything’s fine.” “Do you need snacks?” “I’m all set, I got some peanut butter bites and almonds at the gas station.” Seriously, this trip was eye opening. Did you know there are triathlons that are longer than ironmans? Like 3x an ironman distance? Yeah, that’s right. There’s always more to do, and you can always be better! Luckily I’m useful for some things, like being the team sherpa and having Verizon Wireless.
We had a VRBO (like airbnb) literally 5 minutes from the starting line. The 100M and 50M both start at 6am, my 55k (so short in comparison) started at 7am. So we left the house at like 6:40am, which was amazing. The start was cold, but I trusted my layers and just waited for my numb stump feet to come back as we started running. The beginning of the 55k course* takes you across rolling desert hills as you run along sandy utility roads. We lucked out. It had snowed the previous day, which meant the sand was packed down and frozen. My calves were as loose as my language when I stubbed my toe on slickrock 90 minutes later.
We ran right past the Slickrock Aid Station on the first pass since it had only been like 2 miles. I briefly stopped at the Horseshoe Bend Aid Station to chug some electrolytes and down some bacon and peanut butter and carried on. The sandy roads eventually turn to solid slick rock as you approach Horseshoe Bend itself, which was underwhelming because of the lighting. The sun lights everything up bright red, and when we hit the canyon it was still in the shadows. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty sweet, but it did not meet the unrealistic expectations I had from all of the massively photoshopped pictures I had seen. But after hitting Horseshoe Bend, we ran along the canyon rim for a while which was stellar. There were frozen puddles reminiscent of tarns in the Cascades, the views went for miles, and the slickrock meant interesting footwork as you danced along uneven layers of bright red rock.
Wendy’s run buddy (I never caught his name, nor did I ever speak to Wendy, I just heard him shouting back to her occasionally) and I leapfrogged along with a guy in a neon yellow tee. I was thinking we were 8 or 9 miles in when we saw the Waterholes aid station in the distance. “Whoa, I thought we didn’t get an aid station until mile 13!” Wendy’s run buddy was stoked. Holy shit, we ARE at mile 13. Already?! This is awesome.
So let me tell you about the aid stations. I’m not going to proclaim that the toilets were my best pooping experience ever like the course descriptions promised, but it wasn’t bad. The snacks, though… on point. Bacon. Peanut butter. Happy volunteers willing to put the peanut butter ON the bacon for me. Fresh avocado. Pickles. PB&J sandwiches, potato chips, peanut M&Ms, sodas, tortillas with nutella/honey/peanut butter/whatever your heart desires. And they were cup free. No disposable cups to be strewn everywhere. Instead they had mugs, which volunteers washed after disgusting slobbery sweaty runners used them. I’ll admit I did not always actually put in the effort to get a clean mug, I’d just grab the first available one sitting around, but I haven’t died yet. I’ll report back.
So in terms of food, I had bacon, peanut butter, avocado, pickles, skippy pb bites, and Blue Diamond coconut dusted almonds (mixed with the pb bites, I know, I’m a genius). And those Justin’s packets of almond butter. And I carried a bunch of Reese’s and Sour Patch Watermelon in case I wanted candy but I didn’t touch them at all. I had a friend who had a shirt that said “I only run so I can eat more chocolate cake.” Well, I only run so I can eat excessive amounts of peanut butter (or almond butter). Interestingly, I learned that fat is much easier on the stomach during long distances, so if you’re doing a serious ultra (50+ miles) it’s best to stay away from the straight sugar for as long as you can.
We continued on past the Waterholes aid station, where you immediately scramble (almost class 3 ish, there were a few butt-scoot moves) down into a slot canyon. This section blew my mind. I laughed and told the people behind me (including Kimberly, who I would meet again later) that they should go first because I was stopping to take photos, but they all agreed with my touristy approach and we basically stumbled around corners ooh-ing and ahh-ing and wow-ing because the canyon looks completely different depending on how the sun hits the walls and how tall the walls are and it’s like exploring a fort as a kid. And it just keeps going!! It’ll mellow out and you think it’s over and then the walls heighten and narrow again and you’re right back in it! Ahhh! There were a few scrambley moves to get out of the canyon (MANTLE), and a ladder (YES! I thought this was only in the 50M but the 55k gets a pretty sweet canyon too!) to climb up at one point. I excitedly ran up and snapped a picture of Kimberly at the top right as she announced “I hate ladders.” Could have just stemmed it?
We rolled into the Horseshoe Bend aid station for the second time, where we were finally mixing with the 50m and 100m runners. We’d cheer for them as they ran by us (opposite directions) and made our baby ultra feel like a stroll through the park compared to their distances. I met Kim and Randi during this stretch who sounded like they knew what they were doing and we cruised to the Slickrock aid station where Jason invited me to join their group and I said hell yes. He and Randi had won free entries to this race in a giveaway like 2 weeks prior, and were just winging it like I was (though my story isn’t as awesome). So I tagged along with them through the next few miles, happy to have chatty company and other impulsive people who woke up one day and thought a 55k sounded like a great idea. Kim changed his shoes at the Paige Rim aid station giving me enough time to eat half my weight in peanut M&Ms and soon enough we were milking the slow jog once again. Randi had set my expectations for the Paige Rim trail nice and low, so I was pleasantly surprised at the scenery. At least on the first half.
The first half of the Page Rim trail (going counterclockwise from the Paige Rim aid station) is a mostly flat single track dusty red trail with huge views since you’re on the edge of the plateau. Lake Powell is shockingly blue especially against the red rock, and holy crap it was so much more fun to run with people than to run alone. Turns out plenty of people run these races to chat and pull together a random group. I gotta do trail races more frequently, they’re just such a blast. No one wanted to chat during the Seattle marathon. Time flew by and the Lake Powell aid station came up quickly, at least if you ignore that it’s a .2mi out and back where you basically hike up a dune. But from that aid station, there were only 7 miles left! And who walked up to the aid station but Kimberly, the woman I had met in the slot canyon! She had made a new friend (Dave) as well, and I decided I’d tag along with them for the last section.
Kimberly was feeling great on her first ultra, and Dave was a far more experienced ultrarunner who just wasn’t having a hot day, so he became our fearless leader. Mama duck. He was alternating between jogging 1km and walking 200m, so we did the same. I had no idea what time it was or how long it had been, all I knew is I felt great and was having a blast and I was so lucky to find two groups for the second half of the race. So we walk-ran the last few miles, which skirted through the town of Paige. Backyards, crossing main roads, it’s still a cool trail it’s just not in the middle of nowhere. The first and second place runners in the 100M had caught up to us (they had a 1hr head start and a 16mile out-and-back and THEN started on our course) which was amazing. So basically their pace for the 100M was faster than mine for the 55k. Ridiculous.
We barely stopped when we hit the Paige Rim aid station again, since it’s only another like 0.7 miles to the finish line. I was like guys we’re all crossing the finish line together. I had made up my mind miles ago. Kimberly and I doing our first ultras and Dave leading the newbies, it was too exciting. So we all held hands and cheered and hugged as we crossed, and it was totally awesome. Easily one of the best race finishes I’ve ever had. I picked up my finisher’s mug (yes!!! MUGS!) and found a chair to go sit in, and a few minutes later Jason crossed the finish line followed by Randi and Kim! Jason came over to sit and we shouted at Randi and Kim to move their chairs over to us. Jason whipped a toothbrush out of his pack lamented the lack of toothpaste – apparently brushing your teeth is an incredible feeling during ultras, especially at the longer distances. I’ll make sure to pack a toothbrush when I do a 50m.
We spent the rest of the night being support crew for Sonja, who was chugging along in the 100 miler. Guys, I learned SO MUCH in 48 hours. About running, about ultras, about hydration and eating and pacing and training, everything. But one of the coolest parts was learning to be crew for someone else. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. You need to predict what they might need. Do they need salt? What foods might they like that they didn’t bring? Did they have any hotspots or something that might need to be taken care of next time we see them? What’s their pace, how long do we have to nap before getting to the aid station, how much buffer time do they have, do they need more layers because it’s cold? I don’t think we really got dialed until the wee hours of the morning. My favorite part was that we were trying to figure out who would pace the last few laps, and Karen offered to do all of it. “But then you’d be running 45 straight miles!” She nonchalantly responded. “Yeah, why not?” Some people’s baseline fitness is a 3mi run whenever they feel like it. Some people can do a half marathon with 24hrs notice. Some can do marathons. And some…. apparently, some can do casual ultras as long as they have enough time for a sandwich and some fritos.
Guys, this was an amazing weekend. 1) Give an ultra a chance if you’ve done marathons and want a little more. The 55k really isn’t that much different than a marathon, and trail is way easier on the legs than road. I’d still argue that my road marathons have ALL been harder and more painful than this was. 2) Go to Antelope Canyon. It’s freaking beautiful. 3) Stop waiting on others. Get out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it pays off in the best way possible.
People I have to thank: Stacey (chauffeur extraordinaire) and Karen (nothing is impossible) and Sean (also saved me from airplane dehydration) for being an awesome support team and welcoming me into their little Sonja Support Squad. Dave, our fearless leader for the last 7 miles. Kimberly, the star of that awesome ladder photo who laughed at my dumb jokes while Dave taught us how to run an ultra for the last few miles. Jason, Kim, and Randi (and a few others whose names I didn’t catch) who let me join their group from mile 17ish until mile 27. Wendy’s friend/husband (never caught his name, but he often shouted back to Wendy) for wandering the desert with me seeking out blazes in the distance and letting me tell him where to stand for a good rim picture. The owners of that VRBO who had like 30 USB chargers in each outlet (amazing) and costco size spice jars for cooking and get this – matching(!!!) pots and pans with lids. And most of all, thank you to Sonja, for being so welcoming of an internet stranger and being the one key factor that made this trip such a success for me.