A heavily overcast sky had me silently pondering the trustworthiness of American weathermen… Was sunny, beautiful weather really in the cards the next day?
I felt nervous and unprepared, even more so than for previous races. Technically, a 55K is only a short ultra. But it is still a long way to run. And when vast sections of this run are through deep sand, it may even get longer. The niggle in my hip adductor wasn’t of any solace either, and I knew I had to take care of the minor cold I was sporting, granted the symptoms were mostly above the neck. I planned to take it really slow and easy in order to actually finish the race.
The Page Shores Amphitheatre, a semi-occlusion naturally weathered from the surrounding sandstone, was to be the perfect setting for the race expo. We were especially looking forward to the Navajo cultural presentation and traditional dances that were to precede the race briefing.
The Navajo Native Americans are a deeply spiritual people who believe in the importance of maintaining the balance between man and Mother earth. Their traditional rituals, including dances, mostly pertain to maintaining or restoring this balance and harmony to promote or restore health. These are principles that speak to me.
Disappointingly, with the deteriorated weather the organisers were forced to relocate the expo to the Page Community Center downtown. Now, as with any indigenous cultural performance that occurs outside of a natural setting, one has to employ all of your imagination and then some to draw value from such a situation. In this case, what could have been a moving experience was ruined by the tennis courts as the backdrop and a pair of bright red basketball shorts to complement hoop dancer’s traditional attire. Best then to leave stirring moments to spontaneity.
While the Hubs read the boys bedtime stories before our official first night in the camper, I used the only 10cm² open floor surface in the truck to foam roll in one last effort to fix the hip adductor, but with no results. The night was going to be a long and stressful one with very little in the form of revitalising sleep.
A beautiful, clear, windless but cold morning finally broke after a restless night in the race camp area. Breakfast was a banana and lukewarm coffee that my Darling had to trek for to the starting area in the icy pre-dawn darkness.
The majestic sandstone protrusions framed by the soft early morning glow was the perfect setting for the Navajo Headman’s prayer and well wishes before the race start. A sense of peace and calm washed over me. “Whatever happens, at least you’ll hopefully see the slot canyons”, I thought. “That would make it worth it.”
At Home in The Sand
Hailing from arid southern-African, sandstone holds a special enchantment but also a comforting familiarness for me. Years ago, while still living in Bloemfontein, some of the earliest excursions I undertook with my Geologist then to-be-husband was to the eastern Free State. Passionate a being as he is, he described the sequence and development of the various formations as we passed through them at road cuttings approaching the Drakensberg. Here the Clarens sandstone is a prominent landscape feature that presents as towering, layered cliffs among the rolling green hills.
The Clarens was deposited where dune fields were abundant, so during arid periods. On these trips, his contagious excitement for geology and life, in general, made it hard not hard to fall in love with his subject too. Hence, it is the artfully chiseled sandstone landscapes around Golden Gate, the Drakensberg, and Korannaberg where we went rock climbing and hiking that remain part of the epitome of those first years.
Some time later, after our return to my native Namibia, we would do work in the Namib Desert. Here, resourceful entrepreneurs lure tourists to experience “petrified” or “fossilised” dunes in the Sossusvlei area, not too far from my birthplace. These, of course, are nothing more than parts of the Tsondab sandstone formation, visible in places beneath the uppermost layer of Namib sands.
But one really doesn’t need a scientific background to appreciate a sandy landscape, whether modern or prehistoric. This is attested by the staggering number of people that annually visit the dunes of the Namib Desert, and also the sandstone-sculpted environment surrounding the small town of Page, Arizona, on the other side of the Atlantic.
A Reason to Run
The field was quickly forced to spread out and runners each found a comfortable spot in line on the sandy jeep track. Descending towards the rim of the Colorado River, the course suddenly tapered into a narrow pass between two sandstone mesas. We found ourselves wholly immersed within its mesmerizing stratified walls, our first real encounter with the Navajo sandstone.
Be it the instant release of stress or the realisation that this event might just be all that it was professed to be, but fumbling for my camera through a blurry haze of tears and giggles marked a pivotal point for my weary, doubtful mind.
For some runners, the value of a race lies in their finishing time or the distance conquered. For travel runners like myself, the joy of an event is measured largely by the number of times we are compelled to take pictures.
So, instead of the usual smartphone, I use a waterproof, shockproof camera for photos on the run. (We can attest to its ruggedness after it once spent a night on the bottom of the Indian Ocean off the shores of Zanzibar, but went right on snapping the next day.) The camera has a dedicated pocket in the front of my race vest, for which I forgo the comfort of a second easy-to-reach hydration flask. It isn’t small or light by any means, but it serves as a physical reminder for me to take photos. And also to only partake in events that make it worth carrying the extra weight!
Of course, there are moments or aspects of entire events that can’t be captured by a camera. The Ultra Fiord was such a one. We took very little pictures during this wild and crazy, scary race, but, a year on, we are still discussing the enriching aftermath of surviving this epic journey through the Patagonian hinterland.
Sometimes pictures can’t reflect the true essence of growth-inspiring, life-inducing experiences. Perhaps because these moments are often fleeting and their value is only realised after their effect. Other times they are dark and far from pretty, let alone picture-worthy. But oh, if we come into the habit of taking those pictures anyway, these may serve as the most precious reminders of how far we’ve come and what we have overcome.
Antelope Canyon Ultras: A Dream of A Race
Notwithstanding the general, yet unexpected, scenic nature of the drive through the arid parts of the southwest U.S., the big drawcard of the Antelope Canyon Ultras was, of course, the slot canyons. Past photographs I had seen from this race of runners traversing narrow rocky passageways had firmly gripped my attention, and so another dream run was born, bottled and shelved for “maybe one day”.
Our plans for visiting the U.S. started to materialise and I had to pinpoint a race. With marathon choices very limited early in the year, I first settled for an okay-ish looking out-and-back 50K in the Blueridge Mountains (yes, West Virginia!). That was until my dearest hubs stumbled across this gem on another one of his endless, unselfish late night internet searches for adventures for his wife. Only when I had a look at the website I realised that this was the race I read about all those years before!
Only, there was one problem. The race was full. There were, however, still places available in the 100M. They would allow runners to drop out at any stage of the race and still be awarded a medal for the distance completed, but with an official DNF in the time logs. I knew that if I was given the chance to experience some of that beauty there was no way I was going to pass it up! And so I willingly let myself be signed up for my first 100M race, with no intention to complete it. Just for the slot canyon experience.
Around 10 km into the race, I had my second full-on epiphany of the day. Probably for the first time in all my years of running, I realised that I was in a field with not a mere sprinkling but an entire troop of runners from my own tribe. People who would veer off course, stop and spend time to fully appreciate and photograph dramatic scenery.
Admittedly, we found ourselves facing one of the most photographed land features in the country. Horseshoe Bend, a meander in the Colorado River incised in the shape of a horseshoe, lay in its full splendour before us. This scene, notwithstanding the less-than-flattering midmorning lighting, had one fully appreciating John Wesley Powell’s urge to explore the curves and secrets of the Colorado as it lay glistening some 300 m below.
Powell, a professor in geology and later the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey was a full-blood adventurer with an affinity for mountains and rivers. Despite the loss of his right arm during the Civil War in 1862, he successfully led the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition that cartographed and scientifically investigated long sections of the Green- and Colorado Rivers. Their expedition was the first recorded trek by white people of the entire Grand Canyon and included sections through Colorado, Utah, and Arizona up to the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers in Nevada.
The eponymous Powell Museum in downtown Page, Powell Butte in the Grand Canyon as well as Lake Powell, the second largest man-made reservoir in the US. attests to the nation’s admiration for this intrepid explorer.
The return from Horseshoe Bend was a bit of a tiring slog. I was starting to doubt if our race did, in fact, include a slot canyon portion. The 100M and 100K races included two slot canyon sections, one of which was the well-known Antelope Slot Canyon. The second one, which was the only one included on the 55K course, didn’t have a name or I didn’t notice it the race directory. Either way, I started to doubt that it could be special.
The sign read “Welcome To Lake Powell Tribal Park”. The bulk of the Antelope Canyon Ultras traversed Navajo Indian land, or as it has been known since 1969, the Navajo Nation. At a total of 350 000 members, the Navajo is the second largest Indian tribe in the US, topped by only the Cherokees. The Navajo Nation is the largest land area retained by a Native American tribe and covers large parts of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, with more than 140 000 Navajos residing in Arizona.
Despite the previous day’s disappointment of the traditional presentation, I was still hoping for an authentic and inspiring audience with the native landowners.
Entering through the gate, I noticed the little family on the veranda of the small log office where they sat watching the runners trudging by. Without traditional regalia or the tell-tale ramshackle stall displaying dream catchers that were actually mass-produced in China, their olive skin and dark hair was a giveaway. They were a beautiful sight to behold as they enjoyed the early spring sun.
My gaze caught that of the younger lady’s. She was perhaps five or ten years my senior. Strands of grey in her long hair added an extra shimmer as it lay spread across the shawl around her shoulders. When we exchanged courteous smiles and greetings, it was the warmth, depth, and kindness that exuberated from her eyes that struck me. This is something that is not easily feigned. It clearly stemmed from intrinsic wisdom and self-confidence, a well-established comfort within her own skin. And there, sans moccasins or drums, from a mere acknowledgment by this lady, I received so much more I could hope to learn from any staged performance or rehearsed presentation.
Waterhole Slot Canyons
After that spiritual encounter, I was ablaze for what lay ahead, my weary legs all but forgotten as I followed the route to the rim of the Waterhole Canyon. Excitement mounted during the wait for my turn to clamber down to the base of the canyon.
The next day, when I dragged my family to the canyon to share the experience, a fellow runner who also did the tour a second time remarked how technical this descent was. He mentioned that is was unusual (but refreshing) for U.S. trails to include technical (read hazardous) sections such as these. I had to make double sure that I, indeed, descended in the same way that he referred to. I suppose some things are just more normal for Africans, or the moment was just too big for me to notice.
Once down in the riverbed, I was enthralled from the very start. I didn’t dare run. Not only did I sense that we were treading on holy ground, but there was no way that I was going to squander a moment of the time I was afforded in this sensitive, natural work of splendour.
We made our way along the canyon through wider and narrower slot sections, the course literally comparable to a journey through geological time. In some places, the canyons closed up to narrow passages with walls of different heights.
The various degrees of cross-bedding in the sandstone walls told of wetter and drier periods, faster and slower stream flows, which even changed direction, and the resulting silt deposition by water and wind. The canyons formed only after deposition when water tediously started to carve a way through the basement rock.
Even without this geological intel, which I received compliments of Hubby only the day after the race, my fellow runners and I were able to fully appreciate the immense beauty of the striated facades with its varying textures in hues of yellow, white, pink, orange and even purple.
In some places, the canyons were so narrow that it was a bit of a squeeze to pass. This reminded all too much of an incident that took place in 2003 in Bluejohn Canyon in Utah. Hiker Aron Ralston spent five days trapped in a slot canyon after his hand got trapped by a dislodged boulder. He eventually had to amputate the hand with a pocket knife to survive and write a book about it, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The book, of course, lead to the film 127 Hours.
In other places, water pooled to carve out wider caverns from which we had to use ladders to get out of. Here I would have loved to spend more time, resting in the coolness and mulling over the sacred ceremonies that I imagined must have been hosted within these chambers over time immemorial.
An Ultra of Picknicks
Antelope Canyon Ultras was my first real run-in with the American trail hospitality. If the route wasn’t marked as well as it was, the smell of freshly fried tortillas would have guided runners in.
Pulling up at the Horseshoe aid station, my inner child had to suppress a giddy giggle. The centerpiece of the four table spread was the mother of all jars of M&M’s among trays of Nutella- and cheese-and-bean quesadillas, fresh fruits, nuts, candies, and chips. It was like gatecrashing a kiddies birthday party, only we were the guests of honour. We were heartily welcomed and encouraged to feast and fuel. I was on a picknick safari with a little bit of running between each of the eight glorious banquets!
Support, the American Way
But despite the comfort and recharge of the treats at the aid stations, it was the people that made all the difference. Now, I have been cheered on by Africans, Chinese, Swiss Germans, Swiss Italians, Spaniards, and the French, and all of them were lovely and memorable (notable those Italians). But man alive, when you have been cheered on by an American you will know it. They are a species onto their own. There is just nothing timid or bashful about how they go about supporting their runners, and this in itself is reason enough to sign yourself up for a run in the US.
It was below the Page Rim aid station that she spotted me. Dusty and weary after returning from the southern parts of the course, with only a single loop around the town of Page that remained. But, slogging through the deep sand, the struggle got more real as I faced a gargantuan climb to the top of the rim.
Unsurprisingly, my misery was visible from afar. Calling me by my bib number, she took charge of the situation. Very authoritatively she proceeded to command me up the hill: “Runner Fourteen-Forty-Five! You have GOT this! Now you will rock this hill like you are ROCKING it!” I had no choice but to comply, with a smile and gratitude for the kindness of strangers.
The Final Bits
Although completely runnable and I assume very enjoyable on any given other day, the 16 km Page Rim Trail loop seemed never-ending. Tortillas and electrolyte can only do so much, even on flat, compact scenic trails, before your aching body starts to scream “Stop!”.
Luckily, like with good things, tough ones also come to an end. And nobody could ask for a better finish than the picturesque welcome we received at the Page Shores Amphitheatre.
A week before race day the organizers kindly allocated more spots in the 55K, so I happily downgraded. I was an official contender in the 55K race.
With a relatively flat course of around 1000 m vertical gain I hoped for a sub-9 hrs finishing time. Despite taking it really easy I managed to finish in the top third of the field in 8h47, 6th in my age category (they awarded up to the fifth place, ha!) And the finishers medal is definitely up there in the top 5 of the prettiest I own.
But, as per usual, the best part of the race was having my three favourite men there, cheering me over the finish line.