logoMonument Valley is a region in southern Utah/northern Arizona that features a cluster of enormous sandstone buttes that tower as much as 1,000 feet above the valley floor.  Much of the area is included in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park with its impressive views that rival any national park.  This year, for the first time, the Monument Valley 100-mile race was held in this spectacular park.  You have seen many westerns filmed there, Marlboro Man commercials, and even a Forest Gump highway scene.

After coming up short (90 miles) at Antelope Canyon 100, three weeks earlier, I was anxious to get back on the desert trails and complete Monument Valley 100.   I recovered very fast and was even able to train 118 miles during the week between the two races.  I felt strong and ready.

I went to the region a day early to take in the sights and get mentally relaxed and ready.  I’m always very impressed by Matt Gunn’s races.  He puts in so much care and attention to detail to make the experience rewarding to everyone who participates.  After the race briefing, we were treated to hear from a local Navajo, Larry, who helped get the permission needed and routes figured out for the race.  The course would take us into areas that tourists do not go, generally only seen by Navajos on horseback.  We would run by numerous arches, ancient ruins, and up on a mesa rarely climbed.  Larry shared with us the Navajo culture in the area.  He explained that many of the families living in the area were “off the grid” without power and modern conveniences.  He spends much of his time checking in on the elderly who thrive living in the old ways.  Donations of food and other items were collected at the race to help these families.   I went to my motel room feeling very humbled, and privileged to be in this area that in the past I had only driven by fast.

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The next morning, after a Navajo prayer, we were off and running a little after 7:00 a.m. at the break of dawn.   Our field was small, about 35-40 runners, and no fast rabbit runners sprinted off.  After a mile, Kelly Agnew, Candice Burt, and I found ourselves unexpectedly in the lead.  As we watched the glow of the day increase against the high majestic buttes, we chatted about the sand difficulty we were running on and various races we had run in the past.   I rarely chat at the beginning of a race because I’m just trying to stay alive breathing hard, but I was feeling good, relaxed and fast.

As the light increased and I looked around at Mitchel Mesa high above, I said out loud many times, “Wow”, “Spectacular.”  I felt very privileged to have this experience and predicted that this would be one of the most amazing 100s that I have run.  But one of my predictions was wrong.  I thought we would run in far fewer miles of soft sand compared to about 30 miles of it at Antelope Canyon 100.  Well, little did I know, we would face far deeper and far more miles of sand running along the way.

But, with all the miles of sand running three weeks ago, I felt experienced and found myself floating across the sand pretty effortlessly.  My strides seemed right and my shoes performed well.  After Candice and Kelly fell back to take needed stops, I found myself in the lead alone.  I called back to Kelly, “You’ll catch up!”

Sandy trail along the base of Mitchell Mesa - Matt Watts photo

Sandy trail along the base of Mitchell Mesa – Matt Watts photo

Then there was silence for me leading the race alone.  All I could hear was the brushing of my feet along the sandy road.  I picked up the pace a little, still feeling great.  My miles were averaging 9:00 pace and I was really enjoying the fast course thus far.  I looked behind me and there were no runners to be seen.  I rarely lead races like this.  The last time was at 2014 Salt Flats 100 when I took the lead on a climb at mile 25 and kept it for the next 19 miles.  The feeling was the same.  The adrenalin kicked in.  I knew I couldn’t win this race, but it would be fun to see how long I could stay in the lead.  I kept saying to myself, “run like a frontrunner!”

As the leader, there were no footprints to help me navigate.  I had to be very alert and trust the course markings.  At times we would leave the dirt road and run through washes or on horse trails.  In those cases I could see one set of footprints from the person who marked the course.

An amazing arch we ran by.

An amazing arch we ran by. Matt Watts photo

The side trips took us into amazing alcoves of cliffs.  I soon learned that the purpose for these side trips were to visit an arch or some ancient ruins.  I know I missed seeing something because of the speed, but I often let out sounds of awe and amazement.  Wow, they were really letting us run a race in this amazing place!

In Mystery Valley - Matt Watts photo

In Mystery Valley – Matt Watts photo

After climbing through a notch of high rock cliffs, I arrived at the first aid station for the day, Mystery Valley at about mile 7.2.  I arrived in a speedy 1:05.  The volunteers weren’t quite set up yet and came running to their table as I arrived.  “You are the first runner, but you probably know that.”  I gave my number, grabbed a little candy and was off.

Some ancient ruins seen along the way - Matt Watts photo

Some ancient ruins seen along the way – Matt Watts photo

The sun was now shining on buttes and the temperature was perfect in the upper 40s.  I was the only runner to start with only a short sleeve shirt and shorts.  Everyone else seemed over-dressed.  I was glad I had dressed for speed.   My fast miles continued to click by, 9:20, 9:57, 9:55 as I even ran through some deep sand washes.  When we did take a detour into a side valley, I could look across on the way out and get some glimpses of runners far behind.  I expected Kelly to catch up at any time, but he never appeared.

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The various arches and ruins were incredible to see.  I would stop for about 5 seconds to take in the sight but then would continue to run fast ahead.  At about mile 14 and at 2:05, I arrived at the second aid station.  They asked if I needed anything.  I asked if they had sandwiches prepared.  They didn’t, which I kind of expected since it would take them a little while to figure out what runners wanted.  As they scrambled to make one, I finally said, I would get one on the way back.  I was off again, but stupidly had forgotten to fill my bottle, so back I went.

The next section took us on a long sustained climb up an old wagon trail to the top of Wetherill Mesa, 700 feet in three miles.   I looked back and could now see a runner on my tail about a quarter mile back.  I just concentrated on a good solid steady pace around 11:00.   But as we neared the turn-around point at mile 17, I was caught and passed by the runner going strong.  It had been fun to lead, but I was now ready to act my age.   At the top, the view was spectacular and I was greeted by two Navajo cowboys on horses.

Amazing view at the top of Wetherill Mesa - Matt Watts photo

Amazing view at the top of Wetherill Mesa – Matt Watts photo

The route next took me in a loop on top of Wetherill Mesa.  I was happy to not be the one navigating anymore.  I could see the lead runner ahead and that helped me find my way quickly.  The areas we ran across were beautiful with green plants contrasting against the red sand.

The loop on top was finished and now I was heading back the way I came.  Coming toward me were the mid pack runners, many friends, who looked surprised to see me near the lead.  Carl Tippets let me know that I was only two minutes behind the leader at mile 21. I was still in great spirits and it was fun to see friends and happy runners.  I returned to the aid station (mile 22.4) at about 2:58.  Utah friends were there, probably shocked to see the old man running well.  Race director Matt Gunn had just arrived and asked if I was in the lead.  I told him there was one runner ahead.

Me running in Mystery Valley - Cory Reese photo

Me running in Mystery Valley – Cory Reese photo

As I ran on, a pickup truck soon needed to pass me.  It was Matt Gunn, with Matt Van Horn and others.  They wanted to film me at some upcoming ruins.  They went on ahead, but as I approached, they shouted, “slow down!”  They were not quite ready.  But they took some pictures and I sped on.

Me, running in Mystery Valley at about mile 25 in second place.

Me, running in Mystery Valley at about mile 25 in second place. – Matt Van Horn photo

As the route now took me cross country on deep sand across the valley, I slowed, but soon heard the whine of Matt’s drone.   I had expected this sooner or later and had purposely worn a green shirt so the drone could see me well.  I made some antics for the drone as it followed me.  Its operators were about a mile away, but still it buzzed above me.  Soon we parted ways.

Horses allowed to run free - Matt Watts photo

Horses allowed to run free – Matt Watts photo

Now I was again visiting alcoves from earlier in the morning but the trail wasn’t marked as well in this direction and I know several, if not many runners accidentally cut the course.  But I was careful and made every turn right, and even a couple wrong turns briefly which I went back and corrected.  I came across a Navajo family setting up a picnic for the day.  They were very surprised to see me and asked if I was lost.  I explained that we were running a 100 mile race and were at mile 26.  Little did they know that they were camped right on the course and many more runners would join their picnic

Matt Watts photo

Matt Watts photo

At about mile 26.1, the marathon point at 4:45, the next runner caught and passed me.  It was getting warmer so I was happy to back off the pace.   I also got confused and worried that we were off course because I hadn’t seen flags, but soon they appeared again.  Another runner passed me, but he knew he had accidentally cut the course.  We compared our GPS watches and indeed he had run more than a half mile less.  Later I saw him making up the lost distance.  Good for him.

I made it back to the start/finish area (mile 34.7) at 6:45.  Kendall Wimmer greeted me and helped me get in and out quickly.  I had loved that long out and back but was ready to go see some new sights.  I was in third place but had several runners right on my tail.  The next section was the worst, a dusty car dirt road for about four miles.  I arrived at Hogan aid station (mile 38.4) which was the aid station for the next 40 miles.  It was near the busy tourist dirt road below Camel Butte.   We would do various loops and out and backs using this aid station.  I had a big drop bag there with everything I needed.   I tended to my feet for the first time, but just emptied sand out of my shoes and socks.  The feet were holding up just fine.

My loops track

My loops track

I next ran two amazing loops, 4.9 miles and 9.4 miles.  They were spectacular, many times up on a ledge next to monoliths. The afternoon was getting warm and I really enjoyed running in the cool shadows of these tall majestic giants.  The first loop ran around North Window and Rain God Mesa. The two loops overlapped, so the intersections were rather confusing.  I figured things out each time but felt disoriented on my direction.  The second, longer Arches loops was incredible. We were allowed to run in restricted areas that tourists don’t enter.  It took us to many arches that I never knew existed including Suns Eye.  We also went by and through massive sand dunes.

Me, running in toward Totem Pole.

Me, running in toward Totem Pole. Matt Van Horn photo

Again as I was running, the Van Horns pulled up saying they were going to film me some more.   They went ahead, but I arrived too soon, feeling good and fast.  They packed up again and drove after me.  The road was a dead end for them so I waved good-bye as I ran into the restricted area.  But about ten minutes later, the drone appeared above me as I descended through a valley.  I saluted it, grinned, and through a clod of dirt up to it.   I put on some bursts of speed for the video and the crazy machine continued to follow me.  Eventually it turned and headed back.

It was now quiet and lonely on the loop with no runners or tourist cars nearby.  At one point I could look back and see another runner about a mile behind but we were very spread out.  I watched a big Navajo family in a pickup coming out to camp.  They temporarily got the truck stuck in some very soft wet sand, but soon came free and went on.

I reached the 50-mile mark at about 10:30.  I had slowed significantly on these loops but was pleased to reach the half-way point in that time, given the difficulty of this sandy course. I returned to Hogan aid station (mile 52.7) at about 11:15, 6:15 p.m.

Route up and down Mitchell Mesa

Route up and down Mitchell Mesa

Next up was a long out and back to the top of Mitchell Mesa towering above to the west.  We made a 2.5 mile approach and then about a 1,000 mile climb in one mile on an old rocky wagon road that weaved its way to the top.   I greeted the first place runner, who was now about five miles ahead and the second place runner four miles ahead.  Both had loved the views from the top.   But I would miss the views.  About halfway up I turned on my light and it was dark when I reached to top.  I thought we would just turnaround and go down, but at the top I saw a sign.  I read it closely; it indicated that we needed to run an out-and-back on top for a total of two miles.  I was now in 6th place and could gage how far behind runners were.  The eventual female winner, Sarah Emoto was one mile behind but she eventually caught up and led me for many miles.

In darkness I did the out and back, punched my bib, headed back and down the rough trail. Far down below I could see the lights of cars and headlamps.  I flashed my green light down below to get their attention. The trail back down was very rough and I was careful not to twist an ankle.  When I reached a water station, I was very thirsty, and drank up well.  Kelly Agnew greeted me there still a few miles behind.  He had gone off course for a couple miles so was trying to now catch up.

It was nice to see runners again, a little brief company in the dark.  I stopped to greet some and explain what they we face with the crazy climb ahead.  I returned to Hogan aid station (mile 62.3) at 14:34 (9:34 p.m.)

Now I was faced with doing those two loops again, but this time in the opposite direction in the dark.  This proved to be the most confusing time for all the runners. Within a mile I was off course.  I had been following footsteps in the sand, but somehow missed a marked turn and followed what turned out to be horse tracks.  I wasted about 15 minutes wandering around, trying to figure things out.  During that time, little did I know, but Kelly Agnew had caught up and passed me, not to be seen again. Sarah was about a half mile behind.

Usually at night, my stomach shuts down causing me to go very slowly.  But during this race, I took great care to eat better, more solid foods, and take increased electrolytes.  After dusk I backed off the pace and as the stomach started to get tender, I was very careful.  During this loop, it recovered well and soon I could push as hard as I wanted.  I was having fun and had no thoughts about quitting.

I returned to the aid station at about mile 70 a little after midnight.   My feet were getting in bad shape so I took a longer stop to clean and retape them.  Friends were nicely supporting me.   Off I went again out into the dark to again do the 4.5 mile loop.  At one point I came upon some wild horses out for the night.  They actually aren’t wild, but the Navajo let them run loose for the night and each morning they return to their owners.  They didn’t like my green light and one nayed at me and stood up on two legs in defense.  I told them to calm down and carefully went around them.

About three miles into the loop I blundered.  I was feeling so great, singing to music, I wasn’t paying attention.  I missed a turn and followed a horse trail for nearly a half mile.  Eventually I noticed there were no foot prints on my trail.  I was totally confused.  I ran up a side road, hoping to find the right trail but there was none.   I saw another light across the valley and concluded that I should just head back to where I went wrong.  I did, got back on the right trail and pushed very fast to make up time.  I caught up with that light.  It was Carl Tippetts who was 4-5 miles behind me in the early evening.  I knew he goofed somehow.  We discussed things for a minute and I later figured out that he had headed the wrong way out of the aid station and was doing a 2-mile loop instead of a 4.5-mile loop.  Carl did head back to the aid station and figured out how he went wrong.   I pushed on ahead and felt bad for so many confused runners.  I know that the race director will fix this for next year.

All was pretty quiet when I returned to the Hogan Aid station.  I mentioned to the volunteers that runners were very confused out there and needed some help getting pointed in the right direction when they left the aid station.  I next was faced with about 20 more miles across wide open desert to Brigham’s tomb and back to the finish.  Sarah passed me at the aid station and was long gone ahead.

To cross the desert, we ran up various washes that were moist from recent storms.  I wanted to run fast, but I was always in doubt that I was going the right way because the markings were really hard to pick out in the dark and very spread out.  But I pressed on.  It seemed like a runner’s light was catching me, but they soon disappeared and I fear missed a turn.  In the distance I could see one of those very annoying flashing back red lights of a runner.  Those flashing lights can really bug you at night if you are running closely behind.  Don’t use them on trails, only use them on car roads.  But in this case I could gage where the next runner was very easily and it helped.

Out of the washes, now the route was on rolling cross-country slick rock up and down.   This section was very poorly marked for the night.  But I told myself that this was similar to running in the Uintas on the Highline trail at night, where the trail markers are hard to pick out.  It turned into a very fun navigational exercise for me and kept me awake, but I felt bad for others who didn’t have as much experience doing this at night.   If I could see several reflectors I could run fast, but then I would have to come to stop, not seeing any, nor foot prints.  As I came closer to the East Mitton aid station (mile 86), things improved and I was greeted cheerfully by the volunteer there.  I reached there at about 4:30 a.m., crossing into Utah.

I actually regretted somewhat for getting to this point as fast as I did.  I could tell from the dark monoliths above me that this would be an amazing sight during the day.  The next section was very forgiving, a double track road.  In the distance I could see the flashing red light guy, Mike Wright, and I was gaining on him fast.  As I came close, he noticed and it was funny how he kicked it into gear and I think turned off his flasher so I couldn’t see where he was.  I chuckled, feeling pretty confident that I would eventually catch him. We climbed up the foothills below “Stagecoach” towering above and ran on a rolling out-and-back trail to the slope of Brigham’s tomb, to a homestead there. They graciously hosted an aid station.  On the out-and-back I determined that Sarah was about a mile ahead and Mike about a half mile ahead.   I arrived at Brigham’s Tomb aid station (mile 91.5) at 23:05 (6:05 a.m.).

OK, with less than ten miles to go, dawn was approaching and the race was on.  I was determined to catch those two runners.  The next runner behind me was about two miles back.  I knew he would never catch me.

The next few miles up on Stagecoach were incredible!  The trail was soft and fast and the views were outstanding as we ran around Stagecoach on a sandstone shelf.  “How lucky am I?” I thought.  Mike again kicked it in gear and disappeared ahead.

Route around Stagecoach to the sand dunes

Route around Stagecoach to the sand dunes

After making almost a complete circle around Stagecoach, we were faced with an enormous sand dune to climb up and over.  I watched in the distance as Sarah and Mike were crawling slowly up the distant dune.  Here was my chance!  My uphill strength was still very strong. I could make up lots of distance on them if I ran up that deep sandy slope.  I also wanted to get to the top of the dune before the fast 50-milers came toward me. I hit the dune hard, trotting up the entire deep sand slope without walking.  Once finally at the top, I could see the front-runners of the 50 coming toward me.  I didn’t want to look like a slow old man so I really kicked it into a very fast gear and got good complements.  More runners arrived including friends who knew me.  I was feeling pretty good and kept up the speed.  Soon, I was right behind Mike and Sarah.  I didn’t slow down and raced past them, just saying hi.

I reached Sentinel Aid Station (mile 97.5) at about 24:30.  I didn’t stop at all, just called out my number.  The Matt Van Horn film crew was there and again yelled, “slow down!”  I couldn’t, I was ready to get this done.  Matt ran fast ahead to try to get a video opportunity.  I grinned and kicked it up another gear.  It felt very fast, but it was only 10:30 speed.  After some shots, we parted ways and I set my sights on the finish over rolling hills at the foot of Sentinel Mesa.  I looked back at times, but Sarah was a quarter mile back and with each new hill, I increased the distance because I refused to walk.  My final goal was to beat 26 hours and I did, coming into the finish at 25:46 in 5th place.  Kelly Agnew had finished in 4th.

Wow!  What an amazing adventure!  I finished!  This was my 66th 100-mile finish and my 3rd 100-mile finish already for 2015.  At no time during the race did I consider quitting. I did so many things right this time.

I believe with some course corrections that this could become my favorite 100-mile course.  I love the desert.  I’ve learned to run on sand, so it doesn’t bother me.  But this course is tough and the cutoffs need to be increased a lot.  It looks like they let runners continue, the last on finishing in just under 34 hours.  The views were breathtaking all day and I long to see them again.  I felt very privileged to have run the race and I thank Matt Gunn and the Navajo Nation for allowing us to run on this sacred ground.  Put this high on your list to run, but be prepared for miles and miles of sand.

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I again ran with a fitbit and it thinks I ran 188,000 steps.  The chart above shows steps in five minute increments, the green is high activity (quick steps) and the orange is moderate.  I recovered pretty fast.  After finishing Saturday morning, I immediately made the long drive home, stopping for short naps along the way and was home before evening.  Two days later, no sore muscles, did a little short running, but still low in energy.  I should bounce back by Tuesday.