On Feb 20th, 2016, my wife and I leapt into the world of ultra running by taking on the Antelope Canyon 50 mile ultra-marathon. This race came onto my radar about a year ago as one of the Grand Circle Trail Series through a simple but beautiful online video, and seemed a perfect destination race to try and hit big distance. Along with the 50 miler, Antelope Canyon also offered a 55k race and a half-marathon, so there was variety sufficient for any distance runner. It should be noted though, that only the 50 milers had the opportunity to actually run through Upper Antelope Canyon; the other distances had separate courses that didn’t include this beauty.
My training plan leading to this was far from ideal, as I dealt with a recurring calf injury in the months leading up to the race, and was unable to put in the long runs I would have liked to. Prior to this race, my longest continuous runs were a pair of marathons that took place several months apart over a year before. I’d also hit ultra-distance at the SISU 24h Adventure Race in December, though the ~32 miles I put in at that event included a 4h nap in the middle.
This was the 3rd year for the race at Antelope Canyon, and it did not disappoint. Packet pickup was on Friday, and included a chance to interact with the local tribe with Navajo tacos available, a volunteer experience to add mud to the outside of one of their traditional Hogans, and a hoop-dancing demonstration. Incorporation of the Navajo tribe and their culture was clearly an important element to race director Matt Gunn, and helped make this event unique to all others. This also extended to the finisher awards; rather than mass produced medals, each award was handcrafted by local Navajo artisans (lacquered wood medallions for the 50 miler, bracelets, necklaces and pottery mugs for the 55k and half marathon distances).
The 50 mile race started before dawn, and headed first to Upper Antelope Canyon, one of the most famous and most photographed natural slot canyons on earth. Located firmly on Navajo land, Antelope Canyon normally requires a fairly expensive guided tour to visit; on this day, ultrarunners had the chance to run through it as the sun rose in the distance.
The path to Antelope Canyon followed the course of a large wash, and it was here that the deep sand that was ubiquitous to the course would start to take its toll. We were warned about sand, but many of us failed to recognize how large a role this would play in the race. The sand was fine and loose throughout much of the course – at least 30 of the 50 miles. It made its way through many shoes and scoffed at most gaiter designs. Stopping to empty our shoes was a frequent, though mostly fruitless endeavor. Additionally, the sand proved very taxing to my knees and started depositing energy in my hip flexors fairly quickly. In other words, it slowed us down significantly.
Aid stations along the course were very well equipped and staffed with volunteers, and provided multiple options for refueling, including fresh fruit and candy, some hot options like quesadillas and pancakes, and even organic fare and gluten-free offerings.
The race course would also wind through several other slot canyons, at least one of which, the Waterholes Canyon later in the day, was a pretty good match for the beauty of Antelope Canyon, and much longer. The other highlight of the run was a visit to the breathtaking Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River, and the course skirted along the steep edge of the river canyon for several miles. This area provided a very welcome relief to the deep sand we’d encountered thus far, but proved just as challenging, as it involved traversing across some very technical slickrock, with plenty of sharp edges, tripping hazards, and a fair amount of scrambling required.
When we left the canyon rim, the sand returned, with a trek cross-country to get back to the road and the next aid station, followed by a descent into the Waterholes Canyon mentioned above and a seemingly unending dirt (sand!) road to close the loop back to the Horseshoe Bend Aid Station.
From here, the course headed back a few miles, then up onto the rim of the Page Mesa, where decent single track (yay, no more sand!) took over for the last 10 miles to the finish line. While this section boasted views of Lake Powell, it was one that we didn’t get to experience firsthand; the grueling course had taken its toll on us, and we missed a hard time hack and DNF’d at mile 33 (37 by my GPS). Instead, we caught the shuttle back the the festival area, and enjoyed a free meal and a beverage for our efforts.
While any DNF is disappointing, this race softened the experience with some of the most incredible scenery imaginable… We ran/hiked further than we ever had before, didn’t quit, and had an amazing adventure. Along the way, we had great company, made a couple of costly mistakes, learned some really important lessons from them, and will be much better prepared next time. I’ve looked at the other races in the Grand Trail Series by Matt Gunn, and from Bryce Canyon to Zion to the north rim of the Grand Canyon they all look spectacular. The only question is which one can we next fit into our schedule?