Where to begin? Well, I do know where to begin, and it all started with a Facebook post earlier this year. One simple, but loaded post with a handful of words that really caught my eye: Canyon de Chelly, ultra and Navajo Reservation. It also didn’t help that the post was from a former NAU team mate turned high school cross-country coach and ultra runner: Shaun Martin. I was in, and after convincing my brother back in the UK and a small group of fellow NAU alumni it would be a great event to attend, we all ‘ultra-signed’ up as soon as we could!
Travelling from Hawaii to Arizona for an ultra trail race, the first I’d entered on the ‘mainland’ was exciting but slightly daunting. With the majority of my ultra-trail running in the past year or so having taken place on Oahu, within the cosy HURT community, this was going to be a big step. Planning and preparation would be tantamount to a successful day on the trails. But also knowing that friends and family were going to be there at the race made it all the more special. Additionally, the race represented a chance to revisit Northern Arizona, one of my favourite areas of the world, whilst supporting the Navajo running community.
The race description for the inaugural Canyon de Chelly 55km ultra race reads: “…run 17 miles up Canyon De Chelly passing ancient ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs to Spider Rock, then run up Bat canyon trail climbing 1,200 feet from the canyon floor to the Spider Rock overlook turnaround point and back… Although not much vertical gain, the canyon offers sand, single track, creek crossings and many more obstacles to add to your journey. The first and last 2.5 miles will be in sand and has the same effect as big vertical climbs!” And the key words to note at this point are ‘last 2.5 miles will be in sand’, but more about that later.
Pre-race: Arriving in Chinle the day before the race we meandered to Cottonwood Campground to pick up race numbers and brush our shoes free of foreign debris. By this point my brother Simon had joined us, alongwith my friend Kendra of NAU running-days, and we chatted with Larry a Canadian who had driven the 1000+miles to Arizona especially for the race. The relatively small group of 100 or so ultra-runners and their support crews gathered for the pre-race meeting at 6pm, at which Shaun talked about his inspiration and the motivation behind the event, and we were treated to two informative yet light-hearted presentations about the history and culture of Canyon de Chelly and the Navajo people by Ravis Henry (Canyon de Chelly Park Ranger) and William Yazzie (Navajo Cultural Practitioner). We then dispersed for food, final race prep (setting up nuun for hydration packs, counting gels, deciding on socks!) and canyon-lulled sleep.
CDCU Race Day:
As per instructions from the race meeting the night before, everyone gathered around a bonfire near the start as dawn broke. The soft light offset by the licking flames of the fire created a charged atmosphere, but everyone settled for a moment’s reflection as a Navajo blessing was offered to Mother Earth & Father Sky in return for a chance to run through the land of the Canyon. Five minutes later, after an adding of a layer of clothing (it was pretty chilly to this Hawaiian bird), the race was started by Shaun who encouraged everyone to yelp and cheer – to celebrate, and run!
The first few miles flew by as we crossed sand that had been dampened and compacted after rain a few days previous.
Settling in behind a group of men, I quickly realised there were no women around and that the pace was slightly quick, confirmed my a glimpse at the Garmin that read 7:50 for one of the early miles. Yikes! Adjusting to a more reasonable pace I found myself running along side the author of “Relentless Forward Progress” Bryon Powell who was gracious enough to chat for a while. Running past the canyon’s infamous grey stallion we carried on to begin tackling the dips and rolls through the numerous stream crossings that snake along the canyon floor. The spectacular canyon walls loomed all around, and every bend provided a new scene. We ran past Navajo families who live in the canyon, as they lit early morning fires and began their daily business. Every so often an echoing call would bounce around the red sandstone as a cheer of support rang out from spectators on the rim. Further along the trail I ran with ‘Drew from Durango’, who was setting a steady pace obviously established from year’s of ultra running. As the newbie next to him I tried to make a few mental notes, remembering to drink and trying to eat what I could. Passing the rightfully infamous tower of Spider Rock signalled that the valley floor would soon be changing.
My favourite part of the race was the climb and scramble up to the canyon rim in to the sunshine at the half-way point. The changing colours of the stratified rocks and differing vegetation, plus the yips and cheers from people up at the turn-around down made it a giddy challenge. Plus it gave me a chance to see the lead runners bounding back down the section of the canyon known as Bat Trail, and realise that Simon was in 6th place! At the top of the climb my right leg was gripped by a surprising and servere cramp, which must have been due to the change of effort and possibly lack of nutrition in the early stages of the race?! Thankfully Shaun was on the rim to guide us towards the aid-station, where friendly & helpful volunteers plus a bowl full of Hammer Nutrition Endurolyte tablets were waiting. Shaun and Drew both kindly advised me to take 2 every half hour to help the cramping, so I grabbed a handful and stuffed them in to the pocket of my awesome ‘Distance’ Oiselle shorts – they were really living up to their name at this point!
The second half of the race was as spectacular as the first. Spider Rock appeared warmer as the morning light reached it’s statuesque presence, and the canyon walls created an almost arena-like running route. Crossing paths with on-coming runners was uplifting and gave me a chance to realise that Kendra was 3rd woman, and there was a fairly comfortable gap between the second place lady and myself – but as with any race, it’s not over until it’s over and there was still a long way to go!
So with my head down, and focus set, I ploughed on. Exchanging places with Bryon and Drew a few more times, the final two aid stations were welcome-relief, along with the spectators who had hiked down to the canyon floor at the White House Ruins. The last 10 miles were the hardest, but that’s no surprise – especially after the early fast miles! The final few sections of the canyon floor and sand, now warmed by the sun in to a softer mix, sapped any remaining energy reserves and despite the persistent ‘Excuse me can we stop now?’ of my legs, I pushed on to the reach the finish in 5:32:20 as first placed woman. Upon crossing the finish line I was greeted by Shaun who placed a beautiful handmade turquoise necklace around my neck (no race medals or certificates!) – something he continued to do for every single finisher.
Post race: Finding familiar faces in the small crowd gathered at the finish area wasn’t too difficult, and it was awesome to see my husband Jesse and my brother Simon chatting to a group of Flagstaff friends who had travelled up to Chinle. The exchange of race highs & lows continued over bowls of bean or mutton broth, accompanied by hot, made-on-the-spot Navajo fried bread. At the awards presentation later in the afternoon, the top ten in each category picked handmade prizes from a selection, and I was thrilled to come home with a pair of suede moccasins. Kendra picked out a wonderful quilted blanket and Simon a handmade necklace – fantastic gifts that will act as constant reminders of the day.
Where to end? End? To briefly wrap up, the 2013 CDCU was only the beginning of what I hope will become an annual event, a chance to honour the ancient tracks and trails of those who ran before, and support those who will continue to run long after. I can definitely say that the whole experience from the initial Facebook post to the departure from Chinle and the canyon was one I will never forget. A huge thank you is due to Shaun Martin, his entire family and community for agreeing to organise a race and share their land with a host of ultra runners for an epic weekend. Ya’a’teh’!
It was with a heavy heart this summer that I learnt that Johanna Nilsson had passed away. It was with Johanna, and her sister Ida, NAU team mate at the time, that I had first visited Canyon de Chelly in 2001 – and the memories of that visit, Johanna’s patience with our tiny car and minimal camping gear, the beauty of the sunrise over the canyon that we witnessed on our short weekend trip, are still as vivid in my mind as they were then – a major reason why I was eager to return. Knowing that Johanna’s spirit lives on, this post and the time I spent in the canyon last weekend are dedicated to Johanna Nilsson. RIP.