Antelope Canyon 50 Race Report

Antelope Canyon 50 mile Race Report
When: Feb 20, 2016
Where: Page, Arizona

The following will be a long and probably rambling race report with loads of pictures. This is for anyone considering running the Antelope Canyon 50 miler (or if you want to relive the fun if you were a participant) or if you like to laugh at us crazies and what we voluntarily put ourselves through.

Not sure if this race is for you? Let me help you out:

Do you like running in the desert with stunning backdrops?
Do you like courses with somewhat ambiguous trails?
Do you like well supported events with awesome friendly volunteers?
Do you think a 50 mile event is not quite enough of a challenge, so you throw in a little “possibility of death by falling off cliff edge” to the mix?
Do you like sand?

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No, seriously. Do you really, Really

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REALLY like sand?

Did you answer yes to any or all of the above? Well, let’s continue!

I have been so excited to have this race on my calendar these past few months, for several reasons; a) It got me back out West (yay!) b) It got Brian and I back together with our Ohio running posse, and c) I love the 50 mile distance (it’s my absolute favorite) and having this event to look forward to made the cold and icy North Dakota days bearable!

We arrived in Page, Arizona around lunchtime on Friday. We decided to really tempt fate and go big or go home…which meant Mexican food for lunch! Yes, the day before a race. What can I say? I live dangerously and I perhaps have an extraordinary amount of confidence in my bowels. I got the odd cracks on social media about really risking it with this move. Only time would tell…

burrito

After lunch we headed straight to race central to pick up our race bibs, t-shirts, hats and other race swag.

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I’m going to be honest, going into this race, I was looking at around a 10 hour finish. I did my homework and looked at what other runners have done in the past in order to figure out my anticipated finish time, but that ALL changed when we got to the start and I got my first taste of what the course would be like.

SAND. And lots of it! Okayyyy….nothing to be done about it at that point. I am nothing if I am not flexible, so I decided to rethink my race strategy and with it, my finish time. I adjusted with the aim to finish between 10:30-11:30 hours.

Speaking of goals, prior to this event Ann wanted me to really think out my plan. She was worried that this race was a bit early in the season for me to go too hard. We decided this race would be an excellent opportunity for me to:

– Tweak some hydration and nutrition strategies
– Refine my Aid Station approach (fast in/out)
– Work on pacing (running MY race, and not based on what the runners around me were doing.) and
– Have FUN!!

Of course, me being me, I also sent some fun goals in the mix including:
– Top 10 female finish OR top 10% finish
– As mentioned above, a finish time between 10:30-11:30 hours
– Not allowing anyone to pass me after the half way point (mile 25)

Bear in mind, the first set of goals were the main focus of this event. The last set are fun games I make with myself to keep me focused!

Okay. Back to the sand. I kid you not that when I say just how bad the sand was. And yes, I had read all the previous years’ race reports on it, but it still didn’t quite sink in until I saw the real thing. They had to have been over exaggerating, right? WRONG. If you are reading this now, and thinking about doing AC50, consider this your warning. There is sand. A lot of it. It’s thick, it’s deep, and it’s EVERYWHERE. You will find sand days after the event in places and things that were nowhere near the race course.

The first thing I thought was “shit, shit, shit.” I have blister issues on the BEST of courses, and I had seen the kind of carnage sand can do to other runner’s feet. (Think skin on the bottom of the foot sloughed off like some sort of SAW movie outtake, or blisters UNDER the toe nails. I cringe even thinking about this one.) So needless to say, I was a teensy, tiny bit nervous.

Race Morning

I woke up at 4:15am Saturday morning after a GREAT night’s sleep. I usually toss and turn the night before a race, but this time I was light’s out. I think my body knew what was coming and wasn’t messing around! I had a quick and somewhat light breakfast of a banana and a granola bar and some green tea, changed into my running clothes and made good use of the loo. Because, yep, if you have luck in the bathroom race morning, you KNOW it’s going to be a good race. At this point I was fairly confident (and maybe a little cocky) that that burrito from the previous day had made its bid for liberation and I was in the clear. Ha!

We made our way to the starting area (Brian was doing the 55k and his event started an hour after mine, so he had to leave earlier than his race required of him. Have I mentioned how awesome he is?!) where we gathered for a traditional Navajo prayer. It was a beautiful way to start the event, and one I will not soon forget. Shortly thereafter at 6:00 it was go time, and we were off. To a slooooowww crawl in the sand and over a steep rock outcropping. This was the first of MANY places in the course where we literally has to scramble on hands and knees up cliffs and rocks. This truly was a full body workout!

I didn’t position myself correctly and was in the back to mid section of the pack, where I spent the next 2 miles weaving my way through an endless conga line of my fellow runners trying to get into a better position where I could open up my legs a bit and run. Which, really, was pretty pathetic considering how little running I felt like I was doing between the sand and the irregular rock formations.

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Running in the wash towards Antelope Canyon

The sand was thick and the head wind was cold and relentless the next few miles, as we made our way into the wash towards Antelope Canyon. I ditched my gloves and flashlight at the first aid station (mile 6) and soon found myself at the entrance to Antelope Canyon just over mile 7. WOW. This alone was worth running 50 miles (although, some could argue that you can get the same views by springing $40 bucks and taking the tour. But, it is so not the same as actually running through it, without the crowds). It was dark and so peaceful (although I wish I held onto my flashlight at this point) and it was by far one of the coolest things I have ever done. Simply breathtaking.

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Slot Canyon at Antelope Canyon – picture taken the day after race, when there was more light!

The next 10 miles had us weaving through another (smaller) slot canyon and then up onto the ridge, where we headed to another aid station and our courses and the 55k course joined. It was also about 10 miles of – yep!! – sand (f*cking SAND). I felt like an extra out of Lawrence of Arabia or Star Wars (Think Tatooine, not moon of Endor with the cute and fuzzy Ewoks). The sand was thick – think beach sand. It sucked you in with every step, and my shoes and socks were filling with it. (I stopped around 4-5 times during the race to shake out my shoes and socks – time WELL spent to save my feet) There was NO shade at any point along the course (aside from the brief moments in the slots canyons) and although it was cool for the area, being that it was February, the sun still beat down on you and it was getting ever warmer. The air was dry (drier than I am accustomed to) and it was easy to dehydrate. Staying hydrated was KEY; it was easy to underestimate the dry air and the sun.
Before I knew it we were at mile 17 or so, near Horseshoe Bend, aka that really famous picture of the river weaving around the rock formation.
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Aside from the pretty river, what do you see? That’s right! A CLIFF! Because I have always wanted to experience the fear of falling to my death during a run. There were some parts of this section where we were INCHES (ok, maybe a few feet, but STILL) away from the edge, with nothing but the cliff on one side to our right and a slippery rock wall to our left that we had to climb (yes, yes, hands and knees again.) There were a few hand holding and butt pushing moments from a few of my fellow runners to keep me going when I started to let the fear of dying get the best of me. Thanks guys!

HB

Photo courtesy of Tom Herchline

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I was also with a small group of four that found ourselves suddenly unable to find the pink flags on the course. Overall, the course was marked very well, but I think this section was the hardest to stay on the trail due to the absolute ambiguity OF the trail. I mean – LOOK! It is obvious where the trail is, right?

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Photo courtesy of Tom Herchline

Unlike a nice single track, out here on the cliff face the trail could be anywhere. (Well, not off the cliff, but anywhere else) so we spent a lot of time keeping our eyes open for the little pink and silver flags. We ended up getting passed by a gang of a few guys and about four ladies as we finally found our way back on the course. Frustrating, yes, but I reminded myself that this was my race, and with 27 odd miles to go, a negative thought – however small – could be toxic. So I dumped the thoughts and frustration of getting lost and passed the time soaking in the sheer wonder of the surrounding area. And trying not to die. Amazing how that passes the time.

I ended up running miles 23-28 almost completely by myself; the 50 mile runners had spread themselves out at this point, so I was able to enjoy the sheer stillness of where we ran. It was truly a magical place to be. You could feel the history around you almost come to life.

I came into the next aid station and topped off my bottle (thank goodness, as I was pretty much empty at that point!) grabbed some watermelon and headed back out. I ended up leaving the station the same time as another runner, Nathan, and we dropped down a cliff (literally, it was a chalk arrow pointing off a rock to a drop below. Use your resources to figure out how to get down!) and spent the next section running through Waterholes slot canyon. This was a total body endeavor as we had to scale sketchy ladders and climb up rock faces to get through it. I am telling you, this was a full body workout!

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Going down the cliff. Photo courtesy of Tom Herchline


Once out of the canyons we popped up to an open road area, where for a few miles I was able to really open up my legs and RUN. I was pushing 9 min miles through this section, and I felt GREAT. A quick trip through the next aid station put us back on the trail we came down to get here, only this time going up. It was a lot less fun in this direction, between the false flat, SAND, and warming temps.

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alllll by myselllllfff….

I couldn’t wait to get to the next aid station, but I had to face a lot of sand and slick rock areas first.


Before I knew it, I was headed out to the Page Rim Aid station (which I would pass through again at mile 49) for a 10 mile loop along the Page Rim Trail. This was by far the most runnable section of the race (for me) and I was able to settle into a good rhythm, chatting with a guy who had just run HURT the month before. Badass!

Just before the next aid station (mile 42ish) I came across my hubby (who was running the 55k) as he was leaving the AS and I was coming in. It was so great to see him, but also very emotional for me. I started crying and I had this irrational feeling that I was leaving him and I felt so bad! I tell you, running ultras can really put you through a full swing of emotions, from elated to sad to excited to exhausted – and everything in between. He assured me I was fine to go on without him and that he was feeling and doing good, so after a quick kiss, a photo op and a good luck, I pressed on for the last 7 miles!

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Mile 42 photo op with my guy with Lake Powell in the distance.

Right around 5 miles to go, I realized the burrito from the day before had some unfinished business with me…and I had at least 4 miles until I hit an aid station. YIKES. It was that horrible conundrum that many a runner has faced; I wanted to run faster to get to the aid station (and potty) sooner, but the faster I ran, the worse I had to go. Not a fun experience at all. I had to have a major pep talk with myself not to just drop trow in the middle of the golf course. Not a high point in my race career. I was (thankfully) able to press on and made it to the mile 49 aid station, where you could literally see the finish area. I got in and out as fast as I could, but no doubt the compost toilet at mile 49 will never be the same again.

From there, the final mile felt like a victory lap as I made my way down the FINAL stretch of sand (PRAISE THE LORD!!) and into the finishers shoot, where I was greeted by all of my Ohio running friends cheering my name. Official time was 10:27 on my toughest 50 mile course to date,7th overall female and 3rd in my AG. I was thrilled!

I accomplished all of my goals for the day – pacing, aid station efficiency, and nutrition, as well as my finishing time, placement and not getting passed.  YES!

Another fantastic surprise awaiting me at the finish were three of my fellow Orange Mud Ambassadors who had raced (Joe and Joey both rocked the 55k, and Jeff killed the 50m) It was so fun to meet them in person; I am so thankful for the wonderful community I have found through ultrarunning!

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These guys ROCK!  (L-R Joey, Joe and Jeff)

Hubby came through shortly after and I was able to run him in – it was so great to see this amazing man finish a 55k on little training – just guts and good humor.

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All in all, this event was top notch in almost every way. The course was as stunning as it was challenging, treating those willing to go the extra mile to a truly memorable experience.

What I did right:
• Blister Prevention – I FINALLY have found a way to manage blisters! (Can I get an Hallelujah?!) I did a few things this race I had never done before. What?! Aren’t you never supposed to try something new during a race?? Umm…depends. This was a training race (and an early one in my race calendar to boot) so this was all about playing around and finding strategies and solutions for issues that have popped up in previous events. So when I happened to stumble upon a product via another race report – I wish I could remember which one! – about a product called Trail Toes, I was intrigued.
It’s a cream like product you apply to your feet that, according to the website, will fend off blisters in pretty much any conditions. Say no more! I have tried almost every blister prevention trick known to man, with little to no success over the years. I figured what did I have to lose? Out came the credit card! Would it work? Would I finally have a race (in thick relentless sand, no less!) without being tormented by blisters?
The answer is a resounding YES! I suffered from one tiny blister start up around mile 19, but a quick shoe and sock shake out (which I would do about five more times during the race) kept that little guy at bay. For the first time in my ultra career, I didn’t finish with blisters overtaking my pinkies and big toes. I am a believer!!

• Nutrition/Hydration – This was one of my biggest goals; to absolutely stay on top of my hydration and nutrition, especially in the dry air and warm(er) temps. To drink little and often and consume around 200-300 cals an hour. Fluids have never been an issue for me, but staying on top of my calories HAS been; I don’t feel hungry until it is too late, and at some point I can’t stomach gels and sickly sweet items anymore. Which brings me to the second “new thing.” I have YET to find a solution that involves something that doesn’t leave me with a tummy ache or starving. I have tried a ton of products, but nothing has been the right fit – until now. I recently discovered Carbopro, which is a fantastic carbohydrate powder that dissolves instantly in water and is tasteless. It provides about 200 cals per bottle (the way I mix it) and about as much CHO as a 1 ½ pounds of potatoes. I mix this with a serving of Skratch (for my 20oz Orange Mud bottle) and it provides about 300 calories of readily available and great tasting fuel and electorlyes for my runs. No tummy aches, no flash crashes; just steady calories that my body can digest easily. Score #2 for this run so far!

• Pacing myself and staying calm – I am so proud of the way I paced myself throughout this event. Granted, at times it felt more like and ultraHIKE vs. an ultraRUN, but, I adjusted myself according to the conditions and didn’t freak out when I got lost or when the course seemed unrunnable. I kept telling myself that the parts I was forced to slow down would only mean I could attack in the last 10 miles when the race was runnable and smooth – and I did! I passed runners left and right in the last 15 miles, many of which I am sure hadn’t paced themselves well and had exhausted themselves out fighting the sand.

• Mindset – I had recently started reading “How Bad Do You Want It?” by Matt Fitzgerald, and I WOW, did this book ever help me shift my way of thinking going into this (and future) events. Rather than immerse yourself in blind optimism, this book challenges you to face the hard work ahead, to expect and prepare for the worst. I went in thinking running in sand would be hard (which it was, but I was anticipating it to be even worse) and that it would be a tough – but very doable – course. My mantra for the day was “How bad do you want it?” meaning, how bad did I want to cross that finish line, despite the sand and heat. It was the most strong minded I have felt on any race.

All in all, I felt like I was fine tuned more for this race than any other, but there are always opportunities to learn.

What I could improve on:
• I could have studied the course a bit better. I passed through an aid station not realizing my drop bag was there; in this case it was fine as I didn’t need it and had plenty of supplies on me, but in another race this could have been catastrophic. I did carry a cheat sheet of aid stations and mile points in my pack…but this kind of stuff is only helpful if you actually refer to it. Oops.

• Selected a hotel closer to the start. I went with the “host” hotel, which was fine, but due to road works it was 20 min from the start rather than 10. There were plenty of hotels within 5 mins of the start that would have been great options, while allowing for more time the morning of the race to prepare/sleep.

• I used my VP1 pack (which has one bottle) and for most of the course this was fine; however, the longest span between aid stations was 8 miles which also happened to be the most exposed area of the course; I ran out of water just before the AS and had to ration that out a bit as it was. My VP2 would have eliminated the stress of worrying about running out of fluids.

All in all, I simply cannot praise Matt Gunn (RD) and the folks at Ultra Adventures enough on what an amazing and ecofriendly event they put on. I can’t wait to do another one of their events, which is great, because they offer several primo races throughout the year.
Thanks to Orange Mud for the amazing hydration pack and trucker hat I sported during the event, Carbopro, Skratch and Huma gels for keeping me fueled and hydrated, and Trail Toes for being THE most amazing antiblister treatment I have ever found.  Oh, and a shoutout to North Dakota for giving me plenty of snow to train through these past months; that was a kick ass way to prep for all the sand running!

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Antelope Canyon was an amazing, tough and GORGEOUS 50 mile event. A 55k and half marathon are also offered.  Highly recommended.  Now excuse me while I go and try and shake out more of this sand…

5 thoughts on “Antelope Canyon 50 Race Report

  1. Such a well written race recap Sarah! The sand looks so challenging, and those vertical accents/descents would have been difficult to manoeuver. It would have been difficult to say positive mentally.

    So cool that your hubby is also a runner, and you are able to support one another.

    The longest distance I have run to date is a 50k, but even then I have had blister issues, plus I just can’t stomach the gels. “Trail Toes” and “Carbonpro” are 2 items I have not heard of, but both have me very intrigued.

    Thank you fir sharing! 🙂

    • Thank you, Carl! Glad you enjoyed it! And I *highly* recommend both Trail Toes and Carbopro; both have been game changers for me! Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: Badlands 50k Race Report « Drty Runner

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