The Antelope Canyon 50 miler. Where to begin?
3 days post race and it still seems like a surreal experience.
I’ll skip past the pre-race details and jump right to Saturday morning.
Thanks to traveling from East Coast time, waking up at 4am wasn’t too hard to coordinate. Between the time difference and being a bundle of nerves, Rachel and I were up and walked through our race morning prep. Taping knees, putting the last touches on our hydration packs, and applying anti-chafing product EVERYWHERE.
We arrived at the start line at around 5:15 with a start time of 5:45. We listened to the Navajo blessing and description of the land we were about to be venturing into, and then it was time to start! The horn went off and the 50 mile racers set off into the desert. Within the first couple of minutes we had our first big rock scramble. We had to climb to the top of a steep cliffside with our headlamps leading the way. Was this a taste of things to come? Spoiler alert: YES!
Soon after the start we were in the thick of things, heading in the deep sand towards the Antelope Canyon aid station and entrance. Running in the sand didn’t seem too awful at this point as we had our gaiters and were at a slight descent. It was beautiful watching the sun come up over the desert. We took in the scenery of desert plants, mesas in the distance, and even a cow skull on the side of the trail. It was straight out of a Western desert scene. Sadly, it was gone on the way back when I had hoped to catch a picture of it. I’m guessing someone decided that would be the perfect souvenir from the race, though I don’t envy them carrying that thing for 50 miles.
We made it to the first aid station and grim reaper checkpoint with over 30 minutes to spare. We turned the corner and made our way towards the Antelope Canyon. It was a couple of miles before we made it and as we approached, we started to see the front of the pack on their way back. It was so impressive seeing these speedy runners making their way out already! As usual, I was envious, but excited for what was to come. Soon enough, it was our turn as we approached the entrance to Antelope Canyon. Don’t mind the ‘flash flood’ warning sign!
The slot canyons were so cool and still dark as the sun had just risen. They are deep enough that even with the sun out, light is filtered in so the base was pretty dark. Combine that with the amount of runners making their way through, and it was slow going. We tried to just take it all in (and not bump into the narrow walls as we took photos). Soon enough, we were out and making our way back to the aid station and next section of the course.
After Antelope Canyon, we had another grim reaper to beat. The 20 mile mark right before entering Horseshoe Bend. I had intended on writing down the checkpoint times somewhere on my person before the race but forgot/ran out of time amidst other prep. This left me a nervous wreck when thinking we were cutting it close to the cutoff. Thankfully, we found some other runners who assured us that we were well within the time limit and had until around 12:30. We had a lot more sand to face and a little scrabbling about petrified sand dunes and we were once again at the checkpoint with time to spare. This is where we might have gotten overly confident. 20 miles down, 30 to go, but convinced that we had 10 mile or less of sand ahead us… well it could only get easier from there, right?
We parked ourselves at the aid station to dig through our drop bags, change out some gear (no need for the long sleeves anymore as it was getting toasty out), and munch on some food before we set out again. We had already been on the move for 6 hours and enjoyed a light lunch of cheese quesadillas and guac with our energy drinks before setting out again. We entered Horseshoe Bend and were immediately blown away by the landscape. The sheer cliffs and huge drop to the Colorado River below. It was such an incredible and beautiful sight. A few runners had veered to the right (off the trail) to take some pictures and we did the same. When we were ready to make our way back to the trail, we were in for a rude awakening when we saw the narrow slip of ledge we had to cross between where the fence keeping people out of that side of the trail and the cliff edge… that can’t be. They wouldn’t have us shimmy across this ridiculously dangerous space, would they? Yup, that is the pink course marker in the distance. Shimmy to the other side indeed. I will say a word of warning about this race: if you have a serious fear of heights, this is not the race for you!
We made our way to the other side of the fence and found ourselves running along the edge of Horseshoe Bend, climbing over rock formations and going from a run to speed walk constantly due to the uneven terrain. We caught up with a group of 20 or so other runners making their way across and stayed with them for the bulk of the 7 miles in the loop. It was hard to gain any speed through there because of the constant climbing and zig-zagging course. As slow as it was though, it was beautiful! I have never experienced anything quite like it in my visits to other National parks and landmarks.
Once we were through Horseshoe Bend, we dropped down into Waterhole Canyon. Dropped down is not an exaggeration. It was a steep, slippery climb… the kind where you feel like you held your breath to the bottom. We were all laughing nervously as we tried to find our footing down into the slot canyons, but once we were there, we were awarded for our efforts. I’d say they were as beautiful as Antelope Canyon. Not quite as dark and narrow at the top, but the beautiful smooth walls curved their way around as we climbed our way out. This was the portion of the race where the infamous ladders came into play. I believe we used 4 total though there were definitely spots that could have used them (had to work on my hip flexibility to get my leg up onto some of the high ledges!). It was fun and surreal as we made our way through this second round, and knowing that the end MUST be in sight for all this sand! Well, not quite.
Once out of the Waterholes, we were on a long stretch back towards town and the Page Rim trail; what would be our final 10 miles of the race. We had about 10 miles to go and it was more… you guessed it: deep sand! This was where we started to fall apart. My watch was dying so I had to stop it at mile 32. While I could still go by time, I no longer had a good gauge of mileage going forward. It was hot, we were tired, and if I saw another cheese quesadilla again, I was going to flip a table. While we didn’t even have to deal with sand in our shoes thanks to our gaiters, every step in it was sapping our energy. Rachel and I talked about the pace we needed to maintain and what points we needed to hit in order to beat the 15 hour limit. She told me to go on without her but emotionally, I couldn’t hear that. First round of tears started. She warned me there would be crying during this race.
I had kept my phone on airplane mode as I really only wanted it on me for pictures and in case of an emergency, but this became my call for help. I turned on the connection and hoped I’d get a bar. Better than that, it was full signal. I called James and instantly started crying. We had 14 miles to go and it was just SO. HARD. I didn’t think I could do it. He told me about the texts and encouraging words he’d been receiving with people checking in. He reminded me how hard we had trained for this and that 14 miles was nothing in the scheme of things. Some more tears. But it was the boost I needed. A woman in front of me was powering through the sand and I told myself to keep her in my sights. I had 5 hours to go but I knew I could do this. I learned that her name was Barbara, she was 61, and she was a badass! This was her first 50 miler and we gave each other little pep talks as we made our way through the sand. We trudged up the last steep hill to the Page Rim aid station. Mile 38. The sun was still out and we had over 3 hours left. From what we had heard, this is where we would finally get relief from all of the sand. Barbara and I parted ways as she went to find her husband. I grabbed a quick drink of water, electrolytes, and some food and headed out to tackle the last big loop.
Page Rim was pretty spectacular and was the much needed relief from the deep sand. Mostly hard-packed dirt trail, it overlooked Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon recreation area. While some sections allowed for generous berth between you and the edge, others were narrow and terrifying, especially as it started to get dark. I caught up with some ladies that I had been running with around Horseshoe Bend and we made it to the last aid station. I was exhausted, dehydrated (I hadn’t filled up my hydration pack in the last couple of aid stations as I thought I had enough), and had a little over 1.5 hours to complete the last 6 or so miles to the finish. I was feeling a little dejected but hopeful. That seemed like enough time. I filled up my water and fiddled with my headlamp, trying to adjust the settings so I could set off for the final stretch. As I was doing so, a gentlemen sitting in a folding chair called out to me: ‘Excuse me, excuse me! Are you doing the 50 miler?’ I was confused and blinded by his headlamp. When I realized he was talking to me I said ‘yes, are you?’ He replied, ‘Yes, but I think I’m done. Are you going back out? You know you don’t have enough time.’ I replied that with the distance left, I should be good and have more than enough to finish it if I set off. He said ‘yeah, but it’s all uphill from here.’ Cue my face dropping. Holding back tears. ‘What?’ He replied, ‘yeah, it’s all uphill. Do you really think you can do it? I think I’m done.’ I looked at this fit young man and said ‘I’ve made it this far, I’m going for it.’ and I turned and headed out to the trail.
6 miles to go. It was completely dark at this point and the moon was a sliver in the sky. I found some more headlamps going in my direction and worked at following them or picking them off if I could pass them. Occasionally, someone would pass in the other direction, a 100 miler going the opposite way as part of their repeat loops. I couldn’t even fathom that task at that point. A couple of miles in, I encountered a couple from Spokane, WA. They were super perky and asked how I was feeling. When I confessed my nervousness about meeting the cutoff they said ‘nah, you got this! We have TONS of time!’ I don’t know if they know how much that affected me, but it gave me so much hope! I got another burst of energy and told myself if they were that confident, that I just needed to stick close to their pace and I could make it. I took off and caught up with some other runners that I knew were pushing hard to make the final stretch and soon enough, we were just a mile from the last aid station. Once there, we were back in deep sand and a super steep, sandy descent, but then it was the home stretch to the finish line! I was feeling weak, but gathered every ounce of energy I had in my to burst through the final aid station and straight into that big downhill. The couple from Spokane came out right behind me and I chased them knowing they at least knew where to go as I couldn’t rely on myself anymore in my delirious state to keep up with the course markers. I saw the lights of the finish line in the distance, behind a giant rock formation, and could hear the cheering of the crowd.
As I approached the finish, a few more 50 mile finishers came into sight and we approached the finish line chute tentatively. It was a giant metal structure, raised off the ground, but there didn’t seem to be a way to directly access it. Stairs? A ladder? Bueller? At that point, I said ‘well screw it’ and I scrabbled up the rock along side it and stepped into an opening a little further down the chute. Immediately after doing so, I rounded the corner and there it was… the glorious finish line! I couldn’t hold back and immediately burst out sobbing. I had made it in time. 14 hours and 47 minutes. 13 minutes to spare. I’ll take it! I heard cheers all around me as I sobbed and made my way across the finish line. I was promptly enveloped in hugs by random strangers and a medal was placed around my neck. But I wasn’t there for that medal: I saw the bottles of sand on the nearby table. ‘I’ll take one of those, please!’ Coveted bottle of sand in hand, and tears still streaming down my cheeks, a kind man offered to get some finish line pictures for me. I think it is about 8:30pm at this point. It may have been 3am. I was slightly delirious.
Within minutes of standing there in a daze, someone approached me and asked if I was with BibRave. ‘Yes!’ It was my BibRave ‘boss’, Stephanie. I knew she was doing the 50 miler, but she was speedy so I thought there was no way I would even see her out there. Apparently her group had also finished at the same time, so it was a fun coincidence that we were there together. After she left with her group, I stumbled over to one of the fire pits to try to get warm. I think shock started to settle in as I couldn’t stop shaking. I realized how starving I also was (and ready for anything other than a quesadilla), so I made my way over to the food truck. I picked up my Navajo taco and tried again to sit by the fire, but I was too weak to eat it and realized I just wasn’t warming up. At this same time, I received a message from Rachel that she was approaching the last aid station and was going to catch a shuttle back to the finish. I was heartbroken for her but understood. This race was brutal. I decided this might be a good time to hang out in the med tent, or at least grab a foil blanket while I waited for her return. I entered a blissfully quiet med tent and wrapped myself in one of the blankets. Within seconds, the medic was there checking on me and offering me a fleece blanket and to see how I was feeling. I kept insisting that I was fine but finally, wrapped in blankets and a heater pointed in my direction, I was ready to lay down for a bit. Shortly after, I heard from Rachel that she made it to the aid station and was going to go for it. It was just one more mile and she was running with a couple of other people that wanted to finish too. Yes! I was ecstatic and set an alarm to go wait by the finish. As I waited, I chatted with the medic about the whole experience, and we kept peeking out to check on the finish line. Soon though, 15 minutes turned into 30, and then into an hour. We were both getting concerned. Could it have been the second to last aid station? And then, there she was!! She got her medal and we cried at the finish line, so happy that we both had made it to this point. Apparently, they had taken a wrong turn and went off course before finding their way back in that last mile. But they made it, and we were both so happy to have made it across that finish line.
Shortly after, when Rachel also had time for some food, and we had our blisters checked out by the medic, we slowly made our way back to the car. It had been an incredible adventure. It felt about as ‘Ultra’ as the word could get, and considering it was my first and unlike any terrain I could have possible imagined training on within my limited North Carolina wooded trails, I was so happy to have tackled it. Everyone is asking me if I’m going to do one again. While I won’t rule out the 50 miler, it’s going to take some time, and I’m definitely going to consider all aspects of the race when signing up. As for Antelope Canyon, I wouldn’t change a thing; I wouldn’t even drop to the 55k distance for this one. The sights that you see and experience on the 50 miler are just too spectacular. I would definitely be smarter about time spent on the course itself and my aid station strategy, but considering it was my first ultramarathon, I’m happy with the end result.
Here are some of the lessons that I took away from this race:
- Desert gaiters: We both had the velcro stitched to our shoes by a cobbler and our feet were completely closed in with the gaiters. Not a grain of sand made it past these puppies so chafing from that was the last thing on our minds.
- Trail Toes and Squirrel Nut Butter: I only had one blister and raw spot on my whole body and that was underneath a toenail. Chafing lube was never going to prevent that, so I’d call that a huge win in my book!
- Sunscreen: Ya know what’s helpful when you’re going to be running all day in a desert? Yup. Sunscreen. We put a little bit on, but when you are rolling out of your hotel room hours before the sun comes up, it’s not on the forefront of your mind. I should have packed some in a drop bag, or looked around for it at an aid station. I did search for some at a smaller aid station but they didn’t have any first aid supplies, much less sunscreen. We both actually had very few aches and pains from the race itself except for the sunburn that we left with.
- Thinking we had lots of time to kill: Let’s face it, we knew we weren’t going to be winning our age groups, but we could have hustled a little more earlier on. We pushed hard to make it to the two grim reaper check points and made it past them with a generous amount of time to spare. So much so that we detoured off the race course at one point to take pictures of the famous Horseshoe Rim. We didn’t dawdle for hours, but we could have hustled a bit more on Horseshoe. By the time we realized how strenuous that section of the race was going to be, we had lost some of the easier, flatter portions and we were into straight climbs or uneven terrain where we couldn’t run as much. It was fun, and we knew this was a once in a lifetime destination so we wanted to savor it, but I think we could have hustled a bit more to get out of that 7 mile stretch.
- Hydration and nutrition: I felt good for the majority of the race. I had packed my drop bags appropriately with some items to supplement the aid station food, but towards the end of the course when I was feeling short on time, I stopped refilling my hydration pouch. That was a huge mistake as I ran out of water when I was between aid stations. They were about five miles apart and in the dry desert air, I needed it. I was also so nervous about making the cutoff times earlier on that I didn’t eat enough until the mile 20 checkpoint. With those two mistakes alone, I could feel the energy being sapped out of me. As soon as I refueled, I got that burst back that I needed.
Let me know if you have any questions or anything else that you’d like to know about the race. I’ll do a separate post about the drop bag process as that was a new concept to me and I’d love to share what I learned. Thanks for reading!