Antelope Canyon 55k Race Report
Race Date: Saturday, March 9, 2019 – 7am
Two days before race day I landed in Las Vegas with my mom, business partner Kris, and brother Andrew. We were all traveling to Page, Arizona for the Antelope Canyon Ultras, a trail race of varying distances through the desert and deep canyons of northern Arizona. This was to be my first real destination, vacation-type race, besides perhaps Ironman Wisconsin in Madison. That is not quite the most exotic travel destination, although Madison is a very cool city. So I was really excited to travel to a very scenic, warm, far away place to race. We drove from Vegas to our resort on Lake Powell across the dam from the race site in Page. The drive in was incredible–otherworldly. Sandstone features and deep gorges and reds and orange, deep green desert vegetation and Joshua trees. It was cool. We were all excited for a vacation.
The next day, we explored Horseshoe Bend and ventured off nearby though extreme wind, eventually joining the actual race course. We knew because of the pink flagging attached to rocks and shrubs. Then we drove to the race start. It was not clear where the start and finish lines were, where the course went, or anything. Volunteers and race staff were out setting things up. We got our race bibs next, then settled down for an early morning to race.
The 7am temperature was forecasted to be a brisk 36 degrees with a high around 60, and abundant sunshine all day. I ate instant oatmeal for breakfast, grabbed my handheld water bottle and pouch filled with gels, put on a few layers and we drove out early. We arrived with plenty of time to get a lay of the land. It was a calm race morning and by the time 6:55 rolled around, I was lined up for the start and ready to rock, feeling good. Cold, but good. Numb, but good. I had faith I’d warm up quickly, though. As I looked around at my fellow racers, I saw people in down jackets, people with barely any skin exposed, hats, everything. I felt very skimpy and exposed in a singlet and short shorts. At the last minute, I saw two others appear at the start line. They were the only other people in my peripheral vision me who looked like they were ready to rip.
Once the announcer yelled “go”, our pacer Mike set off and I was right behind him, pushing the pace. I thought it was funny to go out hard, like I had to or something. Like I would win only if I went out really fast right away, way out in front. I commented on Mike’s great name, he left me at a road crossing, beckoning to the other side where the pink flags continued. He also mentioned that it was really windy the previous day and to relay the status of the course markers to the aid station volunteers, in case they needed to readjust for the rest of the runners. Because if I was still in front, I’d be the first runner to go through that area. Hmm ok.
The first couple miles were a bit up and down, through decently fast sand, but definitely loose footing. I made it to the first aid station before mile 2 in no time, and ran right through it. I peeked my head back and saw two runners, presumably the two who looked serious, a couple minutes behind me. Up a little mesa, views abound, then down I ran. Then more down. Down, down, down, along a fence to my left on a semi-packed sandy double-track trail. Woof, this is going to be a bear climbing back up, I thought to myself. I had studied the course map and knew the first miles are ones I’d run again hours later and beyond the second aid station was a large loop with some awesome landscapes. At that point I had no idea how awesome they actually were.
While running to the second aid station, about four miles and 30 minutes into the race, I realized I forgot to put on sunscreen. That would be a major issue. I recalled reading in the race guide that there would be sunscreen at the aid stations. I also had to take a leak, so prepared to do those two items plus eat food, per my race plan to eat at least something at every aid station from there on out. Once I arrived at the aid station, I ate first, filled up my water bottle, peed and yelled about for sunscreen. The volunteer was caught a little off guard because I was the first runner of the day, but eventually pointed me to the medical table where I found a bottle of spray sunscreen. Two sprays onto my two shoulders, then one onto my hand to wipe across my face, and I took off. As I turned my head around from the medical table, I saw my two competitors run right through the aid station. I thought that was pretty surprising, knowing that we were over four miles in, and it was nearly eight to the next aid station.
I took off after them, pushing to catch back up. I passed the gal first and said a brief, “hey”, getting an even more brief reply. I caught up to the guy and passed him, too. I took that chance to say “hey” and got about the same response as the gal. So I was out in front again, ready for a really awesome loop along the canyon rim of the great Colorado River. We were quick to get to Horseshoe Bend, then took a sharp left over a deep crevice in the sandstone around a fence into the desert.
Andrew, my mom, Kris and I had seen this section the day before, and there didn’t seem to be a trail at all, just markers every ten feet or so. As I ran further and further in, the trail never materialized. I was very glad that the guy behind me had stuck onto my back, and I started chatting. I asked what his name was and where he was from and what other races he was doing this year. Robert from Sacramento. He had an accent of some type. Sacramento accent? He said he ran a lot of trail races and was training for a 100k in a month. Every time I’d angle off course, Robert would correct me by spotting the next pink ribbon. I spotted a few first and redirected him. It was a useful partnership early on in the race having to wayfind.
Along the Colorado River canyon, I noticed I was breathing hard. For some reason, I felt good pushing. I also felt it very difficult to reel back to a pace where it felt easy. Going into the race, I wanted the first ten miles to feel easy. If that happened, I wanted the second 10 or 15 miles to feel like a controlled burn… smooth. Then I’d let it really rip because I’d have gas left in the tank. The final 13 mile stretch was a loop around the Page Rim–flat, hard packed, runnable and fast according to the race guide. The pace Robert and I settled on didn’t feel easy to me. I was running fast and my watch confirmed that. I was breathing heavy. It was kind of tough terrain, a lot of very uneven sandstone formations. Not a ton of sand, which was nice, and meant that every foot strike was solid, but a lot of technicality given that there literally was no trail. I got a bit nervous because a few foot steps caused the sandstone layers to crumble beneath me. Whoops. But how much more careful could I be? There was no trail!
Robert got a bit of a lead on me as we came near the next aid station. I felt good coming in. I also felt a desire to catch back up to him. I didn’t want him to run off on me. How fun would it be if it was him and I on the Page Rim, duking it out on the fast trail? I just gotta get there with juice to run. I stopped pretty quickly at the aid station, ate a bit and filled my water bottle. I saw Robert drop into a gorge, and was excited to myself go down into the very steep descent into a slot canyon. I’d read about this feature and was greatly looking forward to actually running through it. It was a very dicey descent and I slid on my butt. I was getting a bit hot in the beating sun, but once I got to the bottom I could immediately feel a cooling rush and I sprinted off into the sand. Right away, I had to slow my pace because of the hairpin turns. It was like a maze, the curves of the canyon walls so abrupt and narrow that you had to sidestep and turn your shoulders to squeeze through to the next straightaway. The walls, just inches away on either side, were worn smooth by millennia of wind and water. It was incredible. The sand below my feet was deep and soft, and there were plenty of big steps up and down, a perfect distance from one another to make a good running flow impossible. Every now and again I’d see Robert down the hallway but I couldn’t catch him. I said one word to myself over and over: “smooth”. In my mind, I knew I should keep it smooth and controlled, but fast. I felt good, and felt like I had to push it. About a mile later, the canyon widened and we climbed a sandy dune up and out. I looked down back behind me to the slot canyon walls, trying to etch the wonderful memory into my mind permanently. And I was back into the sun. It was an intense sunshine, but luckily the temperature was very favorable, perhaps 50 degrees.
The course then merged onto a sand road, perhaps for the 4×4 machines that took tourists on slot canyon tours. It was slightly downhill, straight, and decent footing although all sand. I saw Robert just up the road. He hadn’t put too much time on me. So I took off to get back to him. I leaned in and let my legs churn. I slowly reeled him in. It was a speedy clip, which was then confirmed by my GPS watch, beeping at me to let me know that I’d just ran mile 14 in 6:52. I caught Robert. I didn’t say a thing, and neither did he. We ran a mile in 6:30. I knew it was a mistake, right then and there. I could immediately feel a suck of energy. Perhaps this was mental, and I let Robert eek past me once again. As slowly as I reeled him in, he put distance on me. A 6:52 mile later and we neared the next aid station. This was the same aid station as the second of the race, meaning we’d completed the first loop and now head back to the start and finish area to complete the second loop of the course, making a sort of figure-8 pattern. I stopped at the aid station and filled up my water bottle. There were other runners everywhere, presumably 50-milers. I wasn’t sweaty but felt a little warm. Perfectly comfortable, really. Some other runners were in long shirts, headbands, headlamps, running rights, jackets, and gloves. I set back off, now onto the uphill sandy grind. I remembered this section on the way down, thinking that it’d be rough to run back up. Perhaps mental, but it sure was really rough. I felt dead all of the sudden. Tired, beat down, slow.
As I struggled to churn my legs uphill, the voices of the other runners unfortunately did not help my cause. Sometimes you can suck energy from the encouragement of passing runners, but not today, not right now. Ugh. It was so hard to run uphill. I made it up and over, though, and was able to cruise through the sandy ups and downs back to the start/finish area. I couldn’t even seen Robert anymore. He had juice. Darn, there goes the epic race I’d thought about. I blew it running sub-7 minute pace. The course branched off from where the 50 milers were coming from at an aid station, which I ran right through. I stopped to pee in the bushes and looked back to see if anyone was around and would perhaps be offended by my public urination. I saw a runner coming up behind me. I finished the business and kept running, now running scared. My legs hurt, they were getting tired, and they felt heavy and slow. My watch beeped for 20 miles, an 8:30 mile, and not quite 3 hours in for the day. I was still on track, but really had to keep it together here. Well, if this gal behind will catch up to me, maybe that will be my epic race. Nope, I was unfortunately too tired. Shut up! Smooth. Smooth. The only mantra I could say was “smooth”. Just one word. Keep it smooth.
We ran towards the finish area, around the parking lot. It was a different feel to be in civilization instead of the remote desert and incredible landscape. The pavement seemed hot. It was perhaps 50 degrees but I felt challenged by the hot sun taking its toll on my energy levels. I was quickly passed by the same girl from the beginning of the race, and she looked strong. We went through more sand, really tough sand. I bombed the downhills with hoards of half marathoners headed the opposite way to their finish. The biggest uphill of the race presented itself, and I could see an aid station from below. The gal in front of me had her hands on her knees and was power hiking up. I did the same, trying to close the gap slightly. When I got to the aid station, I felt dead. It was hard not to stand around for a bit, but I forced myself to quickly eat a pretzel and fill up my water bottle. I wanted to wash it down with Coke but the volunteer wasn’t as speedy as my mind was. It took a while to pour a cup but I wanted to be courteous so I waited. I drank up, it was delicious. Then, took off onto the singletrack.
Just like the race guide advertised, the Page Rim loop was fast. I could rip on it, but my legs were shot. They felt so heavy and slow. I had no spring. It was not smooth. I kept saying that mantra in my mind, though. As I got further onto the Page Rim trail, I could visualize the large mesa on which the city of Page was situated, and how the course ran counter-clockwise around the very edge of it. I looked up to see the gal running hard into the distance. Crap. She was way out. I pushed, my body rebelled. My watch beeped at me, and it was a 7:50 mile. At the next turn, I saw the gal way out, just a tiny object many turns beyond me. Double crap. My next mile was 8:20. It felt terrible. This isn’t fun. My next mile was 9:15. Dead. By now, the girl in front of me was beyond the curve of the mesa and I couldn’t even see her anymore. Robert was way out.
As the mid-morning sun rose higher in the sky, I relished the breeze that washed over me. I didn’t feel good in any regard. Food didn’t sound good, my legs were lifeless meat sticks, I was struggling to stay in the 10-minute mile range. I was solidly in third place, and desperately wanted to finish in that position. So my mission from here on out was to stay consistent and maybe cultivate a second wind of some sort. As the Page Rim trail circled the town, I did mental math to predict how long it would take to get to the opposite side of the loop, to the final aid station, to the finish line. It was a crushingly long time. Keep going, keep moving. My brain went fuzzy and I didn’t have any motivational mantras, just frustration and anger. It wasn’t fun, it was just hard. The views of blue Lake Powell against whitewashed walls were really sweet, but I couldn’t enjoy them. I tried my go-to mantra: “I like the pain”. This is what I live for! It didn’t work that well. It wasn’t a mental game anymore, and I was frustrated about my sub-7 minute mile escapades. I thought to myself in the solitude of the trail. If I’d reeled it back and stayed in my circle, so to speak, would I be able to run under 8 minutes per mile now? That’s a hard question. Too late, anyways, so I just kept pushing, looking behind my shoulder any time I thought I could see a far ways back. There was no sign of followers.
Around mile 29, I was well into hour four. I hit the second to last aid station and felt like if a piece of poop took a crap. I drank some Coke, ate some pretzels and filled my water bottle, which had been drained near empty. The next section ran adjacent to a golf course and was pretty residential. It was a far cry from the inspiring slot canyons and gorges from hours earlier. The trail was still solid, great footing, and relatively flat. I had locked into a 10-minute mile pace and felt that that was a sustainable running clip I could hold all the way in. I just hoped it was enough to stave off any other runners coming up from behind me.
As I made my way along the golf course, past the city library, across a couple busy roads, I started to think about finishing under 5 hours. That was a motivation, and I also sensed the finish line to be near. Well into 30 miles on the day, I could feel reserve energy becoming accessible. For some reason, I absorbed motivation and energy from the half marathon stragglers that I was passing. With each person I interacted with, I felt more and more positive, happy, excited. It was fantastic to get to the last aid station, and I splashed just a bit of water into my bottle and took off, sprinting down the steep sand dune down to the valley to the finish line. My watch read 4:47 and I wondered how long it would take to get to the finish. Was it less than two miles? I’d need to run under 6 minute pace! Gah. I picked it up, using any leg speed I could muster. “I like the pain.” I passed people going both ways, relishing the encouragement and trying to give it back, too. I ran scared–scared that I’d be just over 5 hours. I needed to go under 5 to salvage the race that I messed up so badly. I got to the bottom of a sand dune and felt the wonderful stability of sandstone rock. I sprinted. There was a volunteer in the distance yelling at me to come forth. She told me the finish was right there. My watch said 4:55. I ran up a metal runway, saw my mom and brother yelling, up and over and there was the finish line. Knowing I was safely under 5 hours, I ran it in with a smile on my face.
At the finish line, I immediately dropped to my knees. Bad move, I told myself and the volunteers out loud. It took a while to get back up, and I hobbled around, hoping to get out of the sun. It was a long wait at the finish until Kris came through, in a similar fashion just 70 seconds under 8 hours. But the wait was fun. I changed my clothes, talked to strangers and talked to my mom and brother, hung out (literally) in a hammock, ate a truly delicious Navajo frybread taco, and enjoyed the desert sunshine. What a treat just to chill, the race behind me. I knew it was snowing and blowing and cold back home. That was sweet. I also came to terms with my race. On one hand, it was a dumb move to run so hard so early. I totally felt the shift in my race after three consecutive sub-7 minute miles. Legs instantly shot. I know I lost some time in the struggle around Page Rim. But it’s also kind of fun to know how hard you can push before the wheels fall off. Also, it is good to know how fast you can maintain once the wheels do fall off. On that trail on that day, I could still run 10 minutes per mile on and on and on. But I also wondered how I could train and race differently to keep up a fast clip for a long period of time. It’s a fine line. I later learned that Robert had won, like, 8- 50k trail races in 2018. I also learned that the gal who passed me with authority, named Allison, was a professional triathlete living in Page. Finally, I had put about 35 minutes between the runner behind me, who was also from Minnesota. Therefore, I felt pretty good about the race as a whole. To run under 9 minutes per mile on average, through the desert sand, is good. I am happy. And I believe that this race was indeed a great catapult to the Zumbro 100 Mile less than 5 short weeks away.
Shoes: Saucony Peregrine size 12
Hydration: Nathan 19oz insulated handheld