Two years ago, I ran the inaugural Monument Valley 50 in a sandstorm, loving every minute in spite of the challenging conditions. Last year, I ran the Grand Central Aid Station (aka Three Sisters) with a group of my students at the inaugural (and so far the only) Monument Valley 100. This year, I signed up for the third annual Monument Valley 50, hoping for calmer skies and a PR.
To the uninitiated, Monument Valley seems like a fast, runnable course: not very technical, negligible elevation gain, one steep but short climb up Mitchell Mesa. Harmless on paper. But I’ve run this race before, and have helped many runners finish. I know that the sand is the real challenge. It’s deep. It goes on for miles and miles. But I’m ready.
The weather forecast looks perfect: not too hot, not too cold, not too windy. I am recovered from Antelope Canyon four weeks earlier. My husband David has graciously agreed to crew for me. Even my horoscope sounds promising. I feel optimistic and ready to rock as we line up at the starting line in the pre-dawn twilight before seven a.m. on Saturday. The silhouettes of East and West Mitten framed the rising sun as a Navajo blessing sends us on our way into the desert, for a race among the iconic rock formations that were sacred to the Diné and subject of their tribal legends, long before John Wayne and Forrest Gump made them famous as a backdrop.
I usually run smart races. I usually start near the middle of the pack and work my way up, but not today. Today, I throw caution into the wind. I feel good. The morning sun takes the chill out of the air, pouring golden light over the Valley. The beauty of it touches my heart and quickens my stride. This is what I came for, this is what I live for. I pass runners, until the first out and back leading to the first aid station makes me realize I’m probably in second place, behind my Nuun teammate Laura Swenson. And I leave the aid station in first place. At mile eight. Too soon. Not smart. Laura stays right behind me, too close for comfort. I push the pace even more, partly because of her and partly because it’s too glorious of a morning to take it easy.
Adrian Stanciu, the Dorito-fueled speed demon, feels the same — unable to hold back. We run together for a few miles, trading gear recommendations. He convinces me to try gaitors before he takes off in pursuit of the lead pack. I glance behind me. No Laura. Good. Maybe I have built a solid lead. Aid station two. I duck into the Eco-potty for a total of maybe two minutes, then see her run in at breakneck speed. Time to skedaddle, without wasting another minute shedding my jacket.
It’s warming up. Maybe I should have taken that extra minute. It’s getting toasty in my long-sleeve, but if I stop and tie it around my waist, Laura will pass me, so I keep going. Ultra logic at its finest. We enter a sandy wash that goes on forever. It looks runnable, but the deep footing slows us down. A black dog has adopted me as his running buddy, or maybe it thinks I’m a sheep he needs to herd. Either way, the dog keeps me company all the way to the bustling activity of the Three Sisters aid station at mile 22.
David has said he’d meet me here, but he’s nowhere in sight. I’m 45 minutes ahead of schedule by now, so maybe that’s why. Time to stash the jacket in my drop bag, to swig some ginger ale, to grab a handful of Swedish Fish which, for some reason, look really appetizing. As I get ready to exit, Laura runs in, looking fresh. This means I have no time to waste on the red loop, which starts out rolling and runnable, snaking its way between the iconic rock formations of the Valley and crossing dirt roads on occasion. Bus loads of tourists stare at us with curiosity, pointing their cameras and iPhones in our direction. I wave and grin, hoping that their guides have explained to them that today they might see lots of local wildlife in brightly colored shirts. Maybe they think it’s mating season for ultra runners.
Back to Three Sisters. Mile 27. Still no David, but no Laura either. There’s still plenty of water in my pack. I allow myself a couple of minutes to slather on sunscreen and tear open a Stinger Waffle, then head back out on the white loop. This one’s longer, nine miles total, and sandier, too. There are giant dunes that look like they belong in the Sahara desert, not the Southwest. My legs begin to protest. Two Navajo guides riding beautiful horses, one black, one grey, trot along the trail, offering encouragement.
I am tempted to ask for a ride, trying to remember the race rules. Does getting on horse count as entering a moving vehicle? Probably. We arrive at the Big Hogan, an upside-down bowl of smooth red stone. Even though I know Laura is right behind me, I step into the shady space under the curved roof and glance up through the hole in the center. A special spot. I can almost feel ancestral spirits, benevolent ones, swirling around me.
On the way back to the Three Sisters, I am starting to feel tired, hot, and nauseated. David is ecstatic to see me, happy that I’m leading the pack, but alarmed at my near-bonking state. I have been taking in the scenery way too much, have worried about Laura way too much, and not been drinking nearly enough. Two liters of Nuun filled my pack this morning, and now, 35 miles later, I still have plenty left. Not good. I chug more ginger ale. I take a couple of salt pills. I munch a handful of salty potato chips. I stuff a handful of ice under my hat, another down my bra. While I do all that, and begin to feel better, Laura bounces around the corner, takes a look at me, checks in, and runs back out. My competitive instinct returns with a vengeance. I finish my potato chips, then take off after her, hoping she feels more tired than she looks.
The only real climb of the day still lies ahead. I pass Laura before the trail becomes steep and rocky, but now feel the added pressure of having to stay in front. Passing strong runners like her is like burning matches: it’s tempting do it, but I know I have a limited number available, and they don’t burn forever. At this point in the race, burning a match is a gamble. I may not have another one left, and I know it.
Most of the runners who descend Mitchell Mesa already are wearing green numbers, meaning they’re in the 50k. George Okinaka is one of them, and I spend precious time (well, a few seconds) saying hello. I climb, stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other, when a girl with a red 50-mile number comes flying down, poised and moving like lightning. My dreams of being In the lead, by however narrow a margin, are dashed, but the fight for second place is still on. Up on the Mesa, the views are worth every second of the work it took to get here.
We run a mile along the edge, soak up the amazing view, punch a heart-shaped hole into our bibs, then turn around. A by now familiar silhouette in a red shirt runs up, bristling with energy. Nope, no time to take another picture. I will fight for this second place. The descent down the Mesa is gnarly. My Franklin Mountain PTSD, based on the still shiny new scar on my right knee, makes me cautious. At the same time, my competitive instinct makes me reckless. I try to find a balance, a speed that won’t send me crashing to the ground while keeping Laura behind me. A few more miles back to Three Sisters, for the last time. Four more dirt road miles to the finish. Don’t look back. Don’t walk. Run. I barely pause at the aid station. The beauty of the Valley gives me a last surge of energy. The specter of Laura breathing down my neck gives me wings. David hops into his truck to meet me at the finish, but stops a few times along the way to take action pictures. I feel lucky. Deep down I know that it doesn’t matter where I place. A day like today is a celebration, a time to appreciate everything and everyone in my life.
Still, it’s a race, not a walk in the tribal park. I glance behind me. No Laura, but she has to be close. There’s one last climb to the finish line. I powerhike it, willing my tired legs to keep moving. One last switchback. No, one more. And one more . . .
Finally, the cheers from the finish line. I muster up a last bit of energy to run across it, trying to look like a cheetah, not a snail. My finishing time is 9:14, which breaks my 2014 course record.And after some confusion, it turns out I won the race after all, since the girl with the red number had switched to the 50k at the last minute. A perfect end to a perfect day, like whipped cream on top of a hot fudge sundae.
There is nothing like crossing the finish line of an Ultra. But out of all ultras, the Ultra Adventures series has the best finish line: the smell of pizza is wafting from a mobile wood oven, competing with the aroma of Navajo Tacos one tent over. Exuberant finishers smile from ear to ear. In the afternoon sun, I catch up with old and new friends: George, the rest of Team Nuun, Laura (just a few minutes behind me), Pam (third woman at age 55!), Tana, Matt, and the rest of the gang. Yes, a perfect day.
There is a difference between running a 50 mile race and actually racing it. This one, I raced all the way from the first aid station to the last hill at mile 49.9. Thank you, Laura Swenson, for the competition. It motivated me (and you, too) to leave it all out there, on that sandy singletrack, on that gnarly climb up Mitchell Mesa, on that dusty dirt road to the finish line. Thank you, Matt, Tana, Turd’L, and everyone who helps make Ultra Adventures races into running celebrations. Thank you, all the runners I shared the trail with for parts of this glorious day but whose names my mushy post-ultra brain tends to forget. Please friend me on Facebook. And thank you, thank you, thank you, as always, to David Silva, the best crew, cheerleader, paparazzo, and husband a woman could wish for.
It is a good time to be alive and running. My only wish is that the Monument Valley 100 will return next year.