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  • Antelope Canyon Ultra 55K Write Up

    Posted on February 25th, 2016 Michele Sun No comments

    Last year my running buddy Michael told us about this Grand Circle Trails races, and the first one in the series he wanted to do was Antelope Canyon 55K, since I am always fascinated about destination races I jumped on the bandwagon without any hesitation. Antelope Canyon Ultra is one of the most videoed and photographed races, and the course preview video looks like we would be running on Mars :-p. I have never been to this part of canyon lands, so was really looking forward to this race and it would also be my longest run ever — my first 55K!

    Thur Feb 18th, Michael texted me in the morning saying that he probably would not be able to come to this race due to personal reason, and that got me panic and a bit stressed out that day. I have been to Zion and Bryce before, but driving to Page, AZ by myself for a race sounds so stressful. And I also worried about running such long distance by myself, what if I get lost? The movie 127 Hours kept playing in my head.

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    There was nothing I could do about it while waiting for Michael to confirm back his availability, so I started to study the driving directions from Vegas to Page, the aid-stations and cutoffs.. etc. Got to be responsible for myself now, right? I kept telling myself not to worry about it, and just take this 55K race as a very long run to test out my gears, nutrition & drinking…etc, and enjoy the unique scenery while making new friends. However, I wasn’t prepared for a very long breathtakingly brutal run though.

    Lucky that Michael was able to come after all, and we met up at Vegas on Friday morning to start our deserts bond road-trip. It’s funny to find out how little sense of directions Michael has during our less than 5 hours trip, such a joke for an ultra runner!! He might be very good at math but totally sucked at directions, haha! We got to Page, AZ a little after 3:00pm and hit the bib pick up first. The moment I stepped out of our car I couldn’t help but laughing out loud because there were tons of sands here. We got our first native Indian meal here — freshly made fried bread with beans, tomatoes, lettuce.. and choice of protein. This is a race that takes very good care of vegan runners, so at all the aid-stations you would find vegan food/snacks. I am sure Albert and Joseph definitely would like to see more races like this.

    We checked into our hotel which was about 1.7 miles away from the start/finish, but Michael needed GPS for it. I laughed and reminded him that “we just drove past it like 30 minutes ago,” and the whole race weekend I was teasing him repeatedly about his needing GPS for everything. I planned to leave one drop-bag for tomorrow’s race, which would include extra gels, some rice snacks and ginger chews, a tub of GU Brew Electrolyte, baby-wipes, eye drops..etc. At this race I was going to test out the new soft GU Energy Flask that holds 5 serving of GU Gel — the plan was to carry one flask with me and leave one in drop-bag which I would swap later into the race. The flavor of Gel for this canyon race was Cucumber Mint — I figured the refreshing combination of cucumber & mint would be great for a run in the deserts and it proved that I was absolutely right about this choice.

    Andrew came to meet with us and the three of us went back to the staging area to leave our drop-bags. We then ran into Andrew’s ultra friends from San Diego and the five of us had carbo-load dinner together after some goofing off photo shoots under the beautiful moon.

    Morning came and I went through my usual 30 mins pre-race ritual and headed out to the race  just in time to see the 50 milers taking off, and was amused to see it took Michael an hour to get ready.  Hence I was so proud of myself for being so efficient & low maintenance! Andrew had decided to upgrade his distance from 55K to 50 mile, Bravo, Andrew!! Runners with headlamps all gathered together watching the pre-race Indian praying dance and I thought it’s very nice to have this little tradition — it makes this race very unique. I chatted with some runners from Los Angeles, San Diego, Kansas, FL, Toronto… and photo-bombed a group of Asian runners! A good looking guy said “wow, we got photobombed by a beautiful girl!” Ultra runners are super friendly, yeh?! He introduced himself as Sean from LA and we took off together, running on sands, so much sands! You know… where I came from, sands lead to ocean!!

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    The first couple miles took us through very sandy trails and directed us to the first aid-station called SlickRock AS. I had never been on a rock formation like this before, layers and layers of sharp slickrocks that I got to be careful not to trip & cut myself. So glad that I had my gloves on the whole time. The sands were very fine and soft, and they not only weighted and slowed you down, but also mold and formed between your toes and under your feet; it felt like I was running with huge sand-balls in my shoes. When we got to the aid-station, I needed to sit down and took off my shoes to dump the sands out and so did most runners.

    I have come to discover that this is not your typical trail race, because there is NO trail!!!! You run through wide open cayon-lands and sandy deserts and there is no maintained or marked trail. We had to look for pink ribbons that were tie to short tiny cactus bushes, and with the super bright sun right above us (we were at above 4200 ft) it’s hard to spot those little pink dots. There were times that a bunch of us just standing there and looking everywhere but couldn’t find any pink ribbon, not even with collective efforts of 4 pairs of eyes! (Man, Kim would do so well at this race.) We also needed to hop over slick-rocks or jump down while descending toward the lower canyon; a girl with red braided hair told me “no woman got left behind” when helping me to come down attentively. Thank you Miss Copenhagen!!!

    About mile 5 we arrived the HorseShoe AS, and it was interesting to see those porta potti tents. Each zippered tent had a blue bucket inside with toilet seat on it, and you would see a litter box next to it that you scoop some sands and cover your thingy after taking care of your business. All human waste collected is composted after the event, eventually becoming a nutrient-rich soil amenity. Very Eco-friendly and it didn’t stink at all, what a neat idea! All the aid-stations got plenty of food, besides the typical Costco packaged snacks, potatoes, PBJ sandwiches, I really like those fresh watermelons, strawberries, melons, apples, bananas.. and tortilla with Nutella, oh don’t forget those baby pancakes. Also there were tables marked “Gluten-free” and “Vegan”, again very thoughtful of them.  And they also separate all organics/compostables as well as the normal recyclable materials at the start/finish line and each aid station.  I didn’t linger too long inside the AS, since I got GU Gel with me and I had my Garmin set to beep me every 45 mins for Gel. I was fine in terms of nutrition concerns the whole day. But I made sure I grabbed some tortilla bites before walking away after dumping sands out of my shoes.

    We came to the HorseShoe Bend and I had no way to describe how unbelievably beautiful this place was. We stopped to take photos and made sure we were not too close to the edge nor looking down into the Colorado River down there. Sadly that I needed to leave because the Water Holes were waiting for us, so let’s continue this race journey!! We ran and hiked down toward the Lower Canyon, and I scrapped my butt when coming down a slickrock, ouch!!! Michael pulled down my capri a bit and checked how it was; whatthe! you are checking my butt! But that’s what running buddies do for each other, tough love!!

    We continued to weave through slickrocks along the rim of the Colorado River, and this was the area that few humans have traveled which offers views that are just beyond words. “WOW” “I can’t believe this!” That’s all I could say when entering the slot canyons. I guess I will just let the picture and video speak for itself!

    The Water Holes were very beautiful for sure, but it’s also challenging! We had to climb up 5 ladders and craw through narrow holes while continued to wobble on a mile of soft sandy trails, and it’s chilly down here. (Man, Kim would do so well at this race.) Not sure how long we were there as we were so lost in this beautiful and magical space. Many people had commented on how beautiful those pictures I had taken, but do not forget that this is a race and the course is challenge. This race is unlike anything I have ever seen or experienced before.

    After coming out of Water Holes, Michael picked up his pace and soon I lost him. I was running in deserts by myself and I started to worry that I might get lost and became Chinese food to those condors circling above me. I checked my watch and thought “it’s OK that Michael took off, and I should tell him to go ahead without me so I won’t further slow him down at the next AS. ” After all, this is Michael’s race, and it would be too selfish of me to expect him running with me all the way. I ran alone and carefully searched for the pink ribbons to follow, from point A to point B, and I thought about that movie Con Air! How come the bad guys never get lost or eaten by condors? (Man, Kim would do so well at this race.)

    Came to the HorseShoe AS for the 2nd time, mile 18, and a volunteer with a clipboard came to check my bib# and told me “you made the cutoff.” But he also advised me that the next AS would be 3 miles away, and I had about 30 mins to make it. “There is shuttle bus here to take you back to the Start if you stop here, and there is no shuttle at the next aid-station.” I went into the AS to grab some fruits and dumped the sands out of my shoes and socks, yes the sands also got into my Injinji toe socks; frustrated and irritated shaking off the sands and at the same time pondered on the millions dollars question– “To Do or Not to Do?” I hesitatingly walked into the deserts again, and with the power lines & condors above me I felt so uncertain about my future, and lonely! Should I turn around and stop here? Will I be able to jump off rocks again when no one around to help me? I got so scared that I eventually turned and walked back toward the HorseShoe AS.

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    Then I saw two girls walking together towards me.

    Are you two going to keep going?” I had to question them because I didn’t think they made the cutoff, giving the amount of time I had spent at the AS and they were still behind me at this point. “Yes, we told the volunteers that we would continue to the next AS and stop there.” Well, that sounded like music to my ears at this point, at least I now have walking buddies for the next 3 miles. No worry about the condors now :-p

    It’s fun to meet and chat with runners from other places, like the Koren guy Sean this morning, or the red hair Copenhagen girl whom had helped me jumping over gaped rocks, the fit & fast Japanese guy (who won the 50 mile), or the tall guy who told me “the shorter the shorts the longer the legs, it’s all optical illusion” after I complaining about it’s not fair to a shorties like me dealing with climbing up those huge rocks..etc. This two girls from Phoenix are my BFF now!! We talked about our mutual frustration with the sands, what we liked at the aid-stations, and I even invited them to have post race dinner & beers with me :-). Having company made the distance and time gone by faster, and we arrived mile 21 AS.

    They sit down and took off their shoes to check their feet, and I joked that my shoes are becoming a “5 Mile Hourglass” — it took 5 miles to fill them up:-) They told me that we could walk toward the next AS and we then stop at the parking lot where the race start/finish was. As they were sharing this with me and other runners at this AS, a short-haired 50 miler girl told me “don’t make decision now, just get to the next aid-station, have some food and drink, then you decide after you walk out of that aid-station.

    I spent a long time at this Slick Rock AS since the plan was to quit at the parking lot, so really in no hurry now. As the three of us were just about to continue our journey, the volunteers captain asked me “how do you feel?” “I feel great!” “Good, that’s all I need to hear. Get going and you might change your mind at the next aid-station!” We ran/walked through the familiar canyon-lands, and a guy in jeans shorts told me that he was going to get his beer at the next AS. He looked so happy and full of energy, and his face lit up with the mention of chugging down a beer. Not to mention that he is totally cute in his jeans shorts!! When we got to the parking lot I suggested my Phoenix BFFs that we should climb up that big hill and check in at the Page Rim AS (mile 23), “let’s see what it looks like up there!” So the three of us walked up the big climb and came to the crossroad of this race!!

    Ok, so there was no crossroad as far as course goes, but mentally this was the most critical point of this whole thing.

    Before I came to this race I had read Chas Melichar’s race report about Antelope Canyon Ultras, and I remembered he mentioned that the last 12 miles being very runnable. So here I am, standing at mile 23 aid-station, looking out at endless deserts in the horizon and questioning myself “You are calling it quits, Michele?” “You have come all the way/this far and you are quitting your first 55K?” “Oh well, You have gone far enough, feel good about your 23 miles, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone…” “But if you quit now, you will always, always, and always regret that you DNF at this race..” so many dialogs went on in my head and I wondered why I wasted so much time earlier and almost talked myself out of this race? After all the training and mentoring, how can I allow myself to quit willingly? If I was going to DNF, then let the race officials to pull me off the course for not meeting cutoff, but I should never ever call it quits on my own.

    So I asked a volunteer to fill my hydration pack with some ice & water while I swapped my GU Gel Flask which was in my drop-bag at this AS, and I also left my jacket, gloves, extra battery..etc in my drop-bag. I waved bye to my new BFFs and took off at 3:10pm — I now had 2 hours and 50 minutes to run the last 12 miles.

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    Page Rim Trail was a single file trail and it went around the plateau that the city of Page was built upon; I am sure it must be very beautiful but at this point I had no heart, no mood, no energy to look at anything. The only thing in my eyes & mind was the trails ahead of me, the 12:00 pace on my watch that I needed to keep, and boy my face was hot from the sunburn. A big guy was following me closely since we left the AS, and I turned to look at him in question. He said “I am just drafting and you got great pace.” But I found the sound of his breathing & footstep very annoying, so I step aside and let him pass, but he wouldn’t. What should I do? I picked up my pace a bit and he started to fall behind. I am sure it’s not very cool of me to ditch a fellow runner like that, but I was tired and I wanted to be alone. At this point I didn’t feel lonely any more, instead I was so fixate on my mission — the last 12 miles.

    Powell AS came and it’s mile 27.3, I ran through the AS and stuffed couple melon pieces into my mouth without stopping. I was getting tired and the sun really had drained my energy, even a small rolling hills would slow my pace down by now. I kept telling myself “Push, Push” the way that Dennis would instruct me  if he had been here. About 1 mile after I left the AS I came to face my biggest mistake today — I ran out of water!! I sucked the blue tube hard but no water came out of my hydration pack, and then I remembered the volunteer was having a hard time opening my Salomon hydration pack for refill. OMG, nightmare!! I struggled for a mile or two, but it felt like I was running in hell forever! A guy in a white shirt ran past me near the golf course and I asked (more like begging) “Can you do me a favor? I ran out of water for 2 miles already, can I have some of your water?” He pulled his hydration tube and put it into my mouth!! God!! That water really was life saving!! Water is amazing!!!! Water is life!!!!

    The sun wasn’t as hot as earlier after I came around the Page Rim, and now was running through some residential area; I was getting tired and slower, and somehow I got lost! I found myself looking at someone’s backyard fence. OMG, I am running against the clock here and I am lost! I told myself “calm down, look for the stupid pink ribbon,” and “if they are going to pull you off the race at the next AS, at least you have done your best. So no big deal.” I saw couple runners running below me, and they hand signaled me to follow them. I got to the Page Rim AS in the dusk, mile 33.5, and walked into the tent found only one volunteer there now. I asked for Mountain Dew — something that I never take but at this point I really needed that.

    Got out of that AS and I could hear the cheering at the Finish! I had to slide and jump down from a steep slickrock and ran downward to the ground first, then follow the edge of this half-empty parking lot. I found my feet sank deep into the sands again, after following the pink ribbons, for the next couple hundred meters and I cursed “who put them here?” Some spectators were ringing cowbells by a metal ramp at the end of this stupid beach, and I had to walk up with hands on my quads, “wtf!! are you serious? this is too cruel,” and now come to think of this I hope I didn’t actually say wtf out loud there. So I walked up the metal ramp with Dennis’ Push Push” in my head, sprinting through the nature sand-stones and I heard “Michele Sun from San Jose, CA. Wow!! I heard my name! I heard my name! I made it!!! Tears streaming down my cheeks when I crossed the finishing line.

    I cried not because how hard this race was, or how hurt my legs were! This tears of joy was for I didn’t quit, for I had believed in myself, for I didn’t disappoint me or my coach/mentor in the end.

     

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