I have been blessed with the opportunity to run all over the world. I have travelled extensively and have run in beautiful, remote places. Breathtaking places. Spiritual places. Places that few people have, or ever will, see. I recognize my good fortune and I am grateful for it all. It contributes to a life well lived.
I also recognize that I don't need to travel all over the planet to experience the beauty and adventure that satisfies my soul. I can stay home, in Utah, and find it all.
Monument Valley is among the long list of amazing places that can be found in Utah. Its history, beauty, and culture are unparalleled anywhere else in our country, and I was excited to line up for a 100 mile trail race that led me through this incredible place.
Traditional Navajo Hogan at Monument Valley
The Monument Valley 100 is an Ultra Adventures race, and is one of many events that they conduct in some of the most stunning locations in Utah and Arizona. This is definitely a "Bucket List" event that I wasn't going to miss, despite my already packed race schedule.
I was still recovering from the Jackpot 24 Hour race when I showed up in Monument Valley, and I had my eye on a competitive performance at the Pickled Feet 48 Hour, which lands two weeks after Monument Valley. My plan was to run at a very easy, relaxed pace so I would have a chance of recovery before lining up at Pickled Feet. I was going to be a tourist. Running, hiking and taking a lot of spectacular photos. This was a training run for Pickled Feet. My last LONG run.
Heading to the Start
The 100 mile race had a 7:00 AM start time. It was cold, probably 35 degrees, with a light, but chilly breeze. Pretty much perfect conditions for running, but we were assured that would change quickly as the sun came up. We were in for a hot day in the desert.
Before starting the race, we were treated to a Navajo prayer ceremony, followed by some beautiful native singing. We listened closely to the words, spoken in Navajo, and translated into English, before being sent into the desert on our amazing journey.
Navajo Prayer Ceremony
Once the ceremony wrapped up, we were set free to run into the desert. As people settled in, I found myself near the front of the pack. My game plan was already falling apart. This is a training run, not a race.
When we turned off the pavement and into the desert for our 36 mile out-and-back, I saw we were being led by Candice Burt. I had never met Candice in person and thought this would be a perfect time for an introduction. If I could ever catch her. That chick was SCOOTING!
This entire 36 mile section of the course is sandy. Very sandy. And as I would eventually learn, the other 64 miles aren't any better. Running through the sand was forcing me to push a 7 minute effort for 9 minute result. Frustrating and exhausting. I kept an eye on Candice and worked my way toward her.
Finally catching up to her, I made my introduction and we launched into conversation that would last for the next several hours.
This out-and-back was leading us through the Mystery Valley and onto Weatherhill Mesa before turning us back to the start/finish line. This route was dotted with arches, ruins, abandoned hogans and dozens of stunning monuments and formations.
Remnants of a Ruin
Time was passing quickly with the conversation and the scenery, but it was getting hot. The elevating temperatures, mixed with the deep sand, were taking a toll. We slowed to a more sustainable pace and faded back into the pack of runners.
Candice wasn't feeling great and she began a walk/ run routine while she sorted herself out. I stuck with her because I was trying to stay in "tourist mode" for this race and it gave me a good excuse for maintaining an easy pace. We plodded our way through the desert.
We made it to the base of Weatherhill Mesa and worked our way up the rocky grade to the top before darting out onto some rolling trail. The views were stunning, the sand was gone and things were looking better.
Top of Weatherhill Mesa
We finished the loop on top of the Mesa and headed back the way we came. Moving slower now, we could take the time to truly enjoy the desert landscape.
Pine Tree Arch
Selfie with a Candice Burt Photo Bomb
When we were about a mile from the mile 36 aid station, Candice and I parted ways and I assumed we would run together again later in the race, but that would be last time I saw her.
I exited the trail, met the pavement and headed to the start/finish line, running uphill. I was greeted by my good friend, Kendall Wimmer, who helped me get my pack off and refilled it while Jo took care of my gear changes and other essentials. I was 36 miles into the race and this was my first opportunity to see my crew. It was a very welcomed sight.
It was getting HOT.
Kendall Greeting Me at 36
Leaving mile 36, I headed the direction I KNEW I had to go. I scanned the area for course markings, found them and headed down a rolling, winding single track. I was feeling much better. I had an upbeat attitude and I was moving well.
This is a 4mile section before hitting the Hogan Aid Station at mile 40, where Jo would meet me and spend the next several hours as I ran different loops, always coming back to Hogan until mile 79, when I would make my way through the desert to the finish line.
At what "felt" like mile 4, there was no aid station. The trail dumped me onto a dusty dirt road and I continued following flags. I met up with another runner and I was whining about this section being too long. When she checked her GPS, she confirmed we were 5 miles into our 4 mile run. And still no sign of an aid station.
Just as I was beginning to transition into full-on bitching, I saw my truck coming down the road toward me. Jo was driving down to look for me because several runners that had been behind me had already come into the Hogan Aid Station. She explained that I had taken the wrong route. The trail I had been on wasn't even for my race! The aid station was still a mile down the road!
My mood faded because I added miles, lost positions and made a huge mental mistake that was going to cost me dearly. Bonus miles...they're always free!
Pouting and Kicking Sand into Hogan Aid, Mile 40
I came into Hogan, still angry at everything. We loaded up my pack with more water, stuffed the pockets with Hammer Gels and I got pointed in the right direction. I headed out...still annoyed.
This next section of the race was a combination of two loops. The 4.5 mile North Window Loop, back to Hogan, then the 9.5 mile Arches Loop...then back to Hogan.
I started down the North Window loop, trudging through more deep sand, cussing and pouting my way along the trail. I saw a table set up in the distance and assumed it was a runner checkpoint. When I got closer, I realized it was Navajo Indian selling jewelry...in the absolute middle of nowhere!
Now, I'm not really a marketing guy, but this seemed like a pretty odd location for a business. Especially considering the only foot traffic would be ultra runners and we don't usually carry cash for a mid-race shopping spree.
I hustled through the winding, rolling, sand infested trail back to Hogan.
Back at Hogan, Mile 45
Leaving Hogan again, I ran the 9.5 mile Arches loop. This trail takes me past the Totem Poles, several arches and some very cool petroglyphs. Like the rest of the course, it was daunting, sandy, hot and beautiful.
The Arches loop seemed endless in the heat of the day and I was struggling to keep a decent pace. I drank my entire 50 ounce bladder before getting back to the Hogan aid station.
After a prolonged stop at the Hogan aid station, I headed down the dirt road, bound for Mitchell Mesa. The sun was dipping fast and the weather was finally cooling off, beginning to resemble something comfortable. If I wasn't so exhausted from trudging through sand all day, it would have been a very enjoyable run.
Turning off the dirt road, I scurried up a sandy wash toward the mesa, hitting a water stop before the ascent. I could see headlamps bobbing their way through the night. I took a deep breath and tackled the climb.
I was nearly 60 miles into my run. My legs were battered, but I made the climb in excellent time. My legs seemed to respond well to the change of muscle use and I soared to the top.
Once I was on top, I completed another two miles before making the descent. Mitchell Mesa was beautiful at night. The stars and silhouettes from the valley were an amazing sight. I only wish we had hit this high spot during the day when we could have taken full advantage of the scenery.
I scrambled off the mesa and headed back to Hogan.
After reaching Hogan aid, I loaded up and went back out to the Arches Loop. This time in the opposite direction. Then repeated the same with North Window.
In the dark, these loops lost most of their appeal, but I wasn't really in "tourist mode" anymore. I was fading to "survival mode".
Coming to Hogan Aid Station for the Final Time
Kendall and Jo were waiting for me at Hogan, urging me to hurry along by repeatedly reminding me that I was in 4th place and the 3rd place runner had "JUST LEFT". This piqued my interest, but honestly, I was afraid of shifting my mind to "race mode" at this point. 21 miles is still a long ways to go and I just wasn't in the mood for the stress associated with trying to run this guy down. But I did tuck it away in the back of my mind. If a podium spot was meant to be, it would happen.
Let's not forget...this is a training run!
I darted out of Hogan and headed in the direction I was told to go. In a moment of confusion, I returned to the aid station because I couldn't figure out the route toward the finish. I insisted on launching into a delirious debate with Jo and Kendall about the validity of their directions, and they insisted that they were right. Unwilling to take them at their word, I had them drive down the road and find the markers for me, which they did. After a few short minutes, Kendall returned with very specific directions to the trail that I would be hopping onto. That's a good friend!
The East Mitten aid station would be my first stop on the way to the finish, and it was a 7 mile jaunt through the desert. This route was a mixture of jeep trail, single track and a fair amount of cross country path finding. It was obvious that the dude that marks the trail wanted to make this as entertaining as possible, because I was routed over the top of every peak and point along the way, making sure to include every challenging feature. It was relentless! Unnecessarily relentless. Annoying is probably a better word.
Finally making it into East Mitten, I stopped long enough to check in, get a course update, and I left.
Somewhere in front of me was the third place runner but I hadn't seen any indication of it. I kept forcing it out of my mind.
I was now headed to Brigham's Tomb aid station, at mile 91.5. This section was more rolling desert, lots of sand and a few climbs that always seemed to deposit me into the bottom of an ancient SANDY wash. The climbs were steeper and the sand was deeper. Lovely combination.
The last section to the aid station was an out-and-back, that scrambled along the edge of a mesa. Rocky, loose material with a steep drop off to one side.
Shortly before getting to Brighams Tomb, I saw him! Galen, the 3rd place runner was heading my way, just leaving the aid station. We each made a casual "Hello" gesture, but that was just masking the sudden rush of adrenaline that we were both feeling.
I picked up the pace.
My experience at Brigham's Tomb was surreal. I made my way through an open gate, then passed a crowd of gawking horses and unkempt dogs, all eyeing me with great suspicion. When I made it to the tent, I swung the door open and was greeted by a dead stare from three Navajo men. We all locked eyes in silence for a moment before I blurted out, "Number 35! I don't need anything, so I'm heading out! Thanks!".
It was an awkward exchange. I assume they felt the same way.
Heading back out, I picked up the pace again, not out of a desire to gain on the runner in front of me, but more a desire to just be finished.
9 miles to go!
The trail was a mixture of meandering, undefined single track with areas of deep sand that had shifted and blown into a frustrating obstacle. An observer would certainly think I was afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome if they had bore witness to random outbursts of frustration.
At mile 96, I was confronted with an enormous sand dune to ascend. I was warned about this in the pre-race briefing but never would have guessed the magnitude of this monster. I started my climb, hitting numerous false summits, pausing to scream obscenities into the sky at each one. I never thought I would reach the top!
I eventually did, and then made a gradual descent toward the Sentinel Mesa Aid Station at mile 97.
The sun was just beginning to hint toward making an appearance when I arrived at Sentinel. Again, I stuck my head in, gave my bib number and pushed on after thanking the volunteers.
This is where things got interesting!
Making my way through the last few miles, I was running toward a large steel structure in the distance. As I got closer, and the daylight increased, I was unable to make it out. It looked like a giant piece of the Death Star that had fallen into place in the sand. As the terrain shifted, it came and went from my view and my mind was totally preoccupied trying to figure it out.
As I got dangerously close to the Death Star, I heard somebody yell. I spun around to see a light and a man coming my way. Thinking it was another runner, I sped down the trail. The yell came again. I ignored it.
When he yelled for a third time, I spun around and was greeted by a 20 year old Navajo kid holding a flashlight in one hand and a club in the other.
I've run 99 miles through terrible terrain, and there's no way I'm stopping now, no matter how big his club is!
Shit just got real!
Here's the dialog as I remember it:
Navajo kid: This is private property! You can't be here!!
Me: Wrong! I'm running a race with the blessing of the Park, the Navajo Nation and the local chapter! Look at all these flags along the trail! They were put here for us to follow.
Navajo Kid: (now shaking his club) But...but...a race?
Me: Yeah, a foot race. I've been running since yesterday morning. I'm almost done. I really have to go.
Navajo Kid: Yeah..haha. That's cool. Ok. (wanders off toward the Death Star)
Hands down, one of the strangest things to happen to me in a 100 mile trail run.
After passing the Death Star, I made a final descent toward the finish line, which was now in sight. After my short discussion with "Navajo Kid" my legs were rested and I was running very well. The 50 milers run this part of the course backwards and their race had just started. A long line of runners was headed right at me and as we passed, I exchanged greetings with several friends, each giving some form of rousing encouragement as we met. It really lifted my spirits and I smiled for the first time in several hours.
As I got close to the finish line, I became overcome with emotion. This was a feeling that was common early in my running career, but had faded as these accomplishments became routine or redundant. A combination of the beautiful scenery, tougher than expected conditions, and the greeting from so many friends had opened up something that I thought was lost. I was totally choked up.
Coming to the Finish!
I finished in 24:19:48, taking 4th place overall. Slow, but well earned. I dropped into the nearest chair and finally felt relief.
Dumping Sand for the 100th, but Final Time
This race is unlike anything I've ever experienced. It's an absolute gem in the landscape of 100 mile trail races in the United States and I'm elated that I ran it in its inaugural year. The beauty, character and hidden challenges are unmatched in this sport. It's a "must do" event for all ultra runners.
Thanks to Hammer Nutrition, Topo Athletic and Gear:30 for all the support. But a special thanks always goes to my beautiful wife and dedicated crew chief, Jo Agnew. Awesome work by everybody!
Next up: Pickled Feet 48 Hour in Eagle, Idaho. Expect big things, because I am! Thanks for reading!
Oh...as a side note, the Race Director says the Death Star doesn't reside in Monument Valley, but I know what I saw!!