My First 50 Miler!

So, let me take you back to the beginning.  Last year, I made a last minute decision to drive up to Monument Valley to run a 50K.  Sounded fun and I was in decent shape at the time.  The course was some of the most scenic and spiritual landscape I have ever seen.  Absolutely beautiful!  Since I had gone up with a friend and her husband, I was on their schedule and that was fine with me.  We stayed in a town called Kayenta about 20 miles away from the start.  We arrived the evening before the race and did not make it to the pre-race meeting  since we were not driving there until the following morning.  They didn’t seem too concerned about it and I figured how hard could it be to figure out the course.  I expected it to be well marked and I had looked at the lines on the course map a few times before heading up there.  I was feeling pretty good about it.

Typical race day morning, I woke up super early, finalized the outfit, the nutrition & hydration that I  wanted to carry, drank my chai tea and prayed to the poop gods to make something happen now and not in the middle of a sandy desert…nothing out of the ordinary.  We drove in the dark up to Monument Valley which was about 25 minute drive.  I couldn’t see much as I rode along in the back seat.  Just a few monolith silhouettes here and there.  Even when we arrived at the start, it was still very dark and pretty cold.  We picked up our bibs, shirt and we also had a choice between trucker hats and buffs.   I chose a pink Ultra Adventures trucker hat that I adore!

As we prepared to start there was a brief overview of the course by race director Matt Gunn and I got a little nervous because he was calling each loop by a different name which didn’t sound familiar to me even though I had studied the map, or at least the lines on the map!  I  just trusted that I could follow the markers, and besides, there’s always volunteers out there to help, right?

The race started after a beautiful Navajo prayer and blessing as the sun just started to illuminate the valley.  It was so serene.  The colors in the horizon transitioned from purple to orange and they silhouetted East and West Mitten prominently in the center of the valley.  Wish I could have stood there and stared longer, but I had a race to run!  I started off strong on the sandy downhill trail and was feeling really confident.  Made it to the main aid station at the hogan and was feeling great!  I was comfortly running in second place for the women and was hesitant to pass the woman in front of me.  She seemed like a very experienced runner and was running strong!  Made it through the two loops without much mishap and worked my way up to the top of Mitchell Mesa which provided us with a stunning 360 degree view of Monument Valley!  Still in second and made it down the mesa and back to the aid station in one piece!  I wanted to double check how to get to the finish.  Was it one of the trail?  All they had were lines drawn on a dry erase board and I couln’t tell what I was looking for?  I asked a volunteer as I was headed out who said she didn’t really know but to keep going “straight”?!

Hmmm, got the the fork in the road and I did keep going straight, but knew that couldn’t be right.  So then I turned onto a trail which I had already run on…that didn’t seem right either.  I didn’t feel like turning around to the aid station which was more than a mile back, I just started to follow the road.  Feeling deflated since I knew I was no longer in seeond, I decided to just follow the road back up to the Vistitor’s Center which I knew was right next to the start/finish line.  I figured this wasn’t the correct way and I was probalby going to be disqualified but I was out of water, my watch died at mile 35, and didn’t really have much to eat except all the dust from the SUV tours driving up and down this dirt road.  It wasn’t much fun and I was a little sad that I wasn’t finishing strong.  Oh, and did I mention this was all uphill?  Finally, I came to a crossing where the 100 mile course intersected this road and I saw my first sign that said “Finish Line” with an arrow!  What?  I was going the right way?  I hadn’t seen any runners this whole time, yet felt relieved.  I finished that climb out of Monument Valley and managed to finished 4th female.  Not bad considering I ran close to 40 miles for my third ever 50K.  If you’ve ever experienced this as a runner, you know that part of you is sad about not placing or winning.  Then there is this other part that feels proud for accomplishing more than you thought you could have under the circumstances.  I never felt at peace with the whole thing, not completely.

Fast forward one year later.  A couple of months before Monument Valley, I was training for another 50K up near Phoenix that RunGoApp RunGoApp had paid my race entry for.  Everything was feeling pretty good and I had this idea that I could use this race as a trianing run for maybe running my first 50 miler in Monument Valley.  The wheels were turning.  I decided to just go for it.  I looked online and not much had changed with the 50K course which I was now familiar with, the finish line was the same and basically I was just adding in a 20 mile loop before hitting the 50K course.  It was tempting.  Besides, I practically ran all those miles, unofficially the year prior!

So, I decided to go for it!  I picked up my weekly mileage and checked out some 50 mile plans online.  Basically, just running two back to back long runs on the weekend seemed suffice so I started doing that.  I ran the 50K in February and won 1st place female and then the day after shuffled through another 8 mile run.  That was my longest training weekend of 40 miles.  From there I gradually lessened my weekly mileage and tapered before the big day.

I kept checking the Monument Valley Ultra website to make sure there were no updated course maps that I may have been missing and studied the one they had already provided.  My body felt good and I was so excited to be heading back!

This time, I was driving myself along with my mom and a close family friend.  They were my “crew”!  I had taken note of the hotel that was right at the start/finish line named appropriately The View.  I wanted the convenience of walking right to the start and walking back once I was finished.  I warned my “crew” that I had no idea how I would be feeling post race and that it was going to take me most of the day to run it and for them not to worry!

My race strategy was this:  Run the first 20 mile loop strong and complete the first 50K just like usual which should take me around 6 hours.  Beyond that I didn’t know what to expect, other than the climb up Mitchell Mesa which would be near the end of the race.  I figured I just needed to stay on top of my nutrition, hydration, and mental status.

From about the 10 mile mark on I was in a comfortable second place position again.  My strategy was to stay behind her for most of the race which would make her push harder, and was also pressure free for me.  I could wait to see what she had left in the end and see if there would be an opportunity to pass her.  If not, this was my first ever 50 miler and finsihing in second place would be just as exciting for me!  Heck, I didn’t need to win it!  I just wanted to make sure I finished it!

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Ear of the Wind

At every aid station, I generally ate boiled potatoes with salt, some m&m’s, a swig of ginger ale and maybe some coke.  I had some candy on me just in case I felt like I was crashing out on the course.  I had lots of Nuun in my drop bag and added it to my water bottle every time I came by the main aid station.  I never felt nauseus or weak which was a pleasant surprise.

The volunteers at the race this time were so amazing!  They all were really knowledgable about the course and very helpful at the aid stations.  The only thing different about the course this year was that they color coded the loops and out and back to Mitchell Mesa!  The first loop was red, second white, and the third blue!  Genius!  Oh!  And there was a sign pointing the way to the Finish Line! Yay!

Eveything physcially felt pretty good.  The course is tough.  Deep sand, rolling hills, and a big climb up and down Mitchell Mesa near the end.  However, it is also so beautiful running around the sandstone monoliths carved by years and years of erosion and still standing strong!  The 50 mile course took us out to Brigham’s tomb, back toward The Three Sisters where the main aid station was located.  Through areas where the Sun’s Eye and Ear of the Wind were filtering sunlight from up above through holes naturally carved out of the sandstone.  So many ancient Navajo stories have been told here from generation to generation.  This land holds so much meaning to them and I was feeling so blessed to be runing on these ancient trails.  The runners get to go places where few tourists ever see and all tourists must be accompanied by a Navajo guide at all times in these areas.  A blessing indeed.

Other than all the sand in my shoes (despite wearing gaiters and two pairs of socks) my body and mind felt strong.  My achilles had a deep (sand) conversation with me around mile 22, my right knee was complaining to me a little on the Mitchell Mesa descent, and I could feel a blister or two blossoming between a couple of my toes on my right foot, but overall I felt confident that I would finish strong.  From about mile 42 on I knew that the woman in the lead was going to stay in the lead.  She picked up the pace coming down Mitchell Mesa while I was reveling in the view and taking pictures.  I really didn’t see her from that point on.

Upon leaving the aid station for the last time, it was less than 5 miles to the finish line.  Less than 5 miles…and on a dirt road!  You would think this would be a piece of cake after running 46.5 miles of sand, right?  Well, until you realize the climb you have ahead to get to the finish line.  Yes, it is all uphill!  I ran most of it until the steepness of the last mile got me.  I decided to text my “crew” that I was on my way!  As I continued to put one foot in front of the other and just keep moving forward, I heard my name (or, at least, I thought I heard my name…I had been out there for quite some time!) being shouted from the top of the ridge where the finish line was!  It was so uplifting!  It was my “crew” plus another friend who ran the half marathon (which was really 14.4 miles) cheering me on from up above!  How I could not wait to be done, and to be up there!  As it flattened out, I ran it in for the second place female finisher!

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What a feeling!  I wasn’t as sore as I thought I would be.  Even though running in the sand takes a lot of effort, it really is gentler on the body.  I remember not being that sore after the 50K last year even though I ran closer to a 60K!  One big blister and a little tenderness in my knee, but I did it!  The pain is temporary, the pride forever!

I didn’t realize at the time, that the woman in front of me had set the course record the previous year and was out to set it again!  That she did by about 10 minutes!  Incredible!  I guess not very many women had finished under 10 hours and so currently I hold the third fastest time for women on the course.  I couldn’t be happier with my decision to listen to my heart whispering to me to just go for it!

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What a feeling!

 

 

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