Race Report - Antelope Canyon 50 Mile Trail Race - By Emmett Delaney
(Click on the picture to view a photo set)
- March 9th, 2019. Page AZ.
I love wide open spaces and the stark terrain of the desert South West. I was sold on the Antelope Canyon 50mile Ultra Marathon last year when I saw the promo photos. Even though I was injured at the time, I signed up and hoped for the best.
The race is run mostly on Navaho land, near Page, in the North East corner of Arizona. The only way into some of these remote places is with a 4x4, or on foot - either way you need Navaho approval and guidance.
Our 50m race started at 5:45am and the 100m runners 15 mins behind us. We shivered in the pre-dawn air and wondered what the day had in store for us. I was nervous, edgy, giggly, excited and jumpy. Above us we had a clear view of the stars in the firmament (no city smog here) and we breathed in deeply the clean air. We received a Navaho blessing for our spirits and we were off in the dark. It was 4 miles of sand and rock before we entered the first slot canyon. Slot canyons are extremely narrow passages between cliffs, carved out by water over millennia. Some were shoulder width to 10ft wide, depth varied up to 100ft deep. The rocks are laid down in bands and you can see all the copper-toned hues and colors, as well as feel the different textures of the stratified rocks. Weaving through those narrow slots was like walking back in geological time. That early in the morning, we needed our headlamps navigating the initial slots. It was quite surreal to creep between the rocky outcrops and to touch the walls on both sides of the canyons. There were ladders in several places to climb the steepest and narrowest sections. Everyone was in awe and many spoke softly, feeling the specialness of the place.
After exiting the slots of Lower Antelope Canyon about M11, we pounded soft dust and rock for another 9miles. Some of the sand dunes were quite steep and climbing them sapped a lot of energy. I felt very tired and dispirited around here as I was struggling with the sand, and we still had such a long way to go. Climbing the dunes seemed sisyphean, I was running to stand still. However, about M20 we came into Aid and I downed some hot melty cheese, which gave me a great boost. The sun was well up by then and baked the chill from my bones.
Next up was the breath-taking panorama of Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River. Photos do not do justice to the bigness of it all - the precipitous cliffs dropping to the Colorado River far below, or the majestic grandeur of the red mesas sweeping around a giant bend in the river. There were many photo ops along here - or at least that was my excuse for a steady 19-20min/mile pace for about 6 miles along the escarpment. Much of this terrain was simply not runnable - "ankle breakers" as I heard another runner refer to the rocks. There was also some cacti and thorn bushes scattered around, just to keep us runners alert. At times it was difficult to follow the course markings, but we roughly followed the cliff edge and that was good enough.
I made a silly mistake at the next aid station, around M28. I had some food & drink and left without filling my Camelbak. I was down a steep ravine and into the next slot canyon before I realized what I had done (not done). I thought the next aid was only 3m ahead (oops, more like 6m). Once I exited the slot, I ran most of the way to the next aid as the course was very runnable there - 9-10min pace. I did this without water in the heat of the day across a parched terrain. I was quite lightheaded reaching aid and spent some time there recovering. I drank deeply and resolved not to leave aid again without a full load of water. There was a slight breeze at times and I never realized how warm it was. Probably my first real dose of sunshine this year, all without a hat or any sun protection. Silly me, I got sunburnt.
More pounding of the sand dunes took us back to the town of Page. We ran the Rim Trail which orbits the town and provides sweeping vistas of Lake Powell, the vast open landscape and distant buttes and mountains. On the interior of the Trail we could admire some lovely houses built in typical adobe desert style. The trail was mostly firm ground and easy to run if not for tired legs. I kept glancing at my Garmin, sure they had measured the course incorrectly as it all seemed to stretch out. A single 10m loop of this trail and then 1m to the finish. The 100m runners did the same course but added 5 extra loops of the Rim Trail for good measure. After crossing the finish line, we were offered a choice of a bottle of Arizona’s finest sand, or a medal. I was heartily sick of sand by then and my choice was easy. Why would anyone choose the former? I completed the 50m in 10hrs 42mins, or about 13min/mile pace. My Garmin under-read in the slot canyons where there was no clear view of the sky. Some miles were at 19min pace and some under 9min. 3/21 in my age group. I ran for the views, the experience and the bragging rights; not for time. However, I was still pleased with my results as I expected to be around 12hrs.
A wonderful adventure and I am glad I took a walk on the wild side. Short term effects -dehydration, sunburn and blisters. Long term effects - A mental cleansing, a soul restoration and an incredible photo set.