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Antelope Canyon Ultra 50 Mile Race Report: A Barefoot Story of Success or Failure?

March 23, 2018

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It’s been a month since the 2018 Antelope Canyon Ultra 50-Mile (AC50)–a month of procrastinating, during which my to-do list has included, each day, “write blog post.” Thus far each day has ended with that item still not crossed off.

While my inner mental health inspector would like to unsnarl that delay-behavior necklace for a few thousand words, practical blogger-me says, “Just write something so you can get back to posting those muddy barefoot selfies your Eastern European followers seem to enjoy so much.”

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Peter’s Canyon last week. Hooray for rain in So Cal!

But I wanted to give this race the blog post it deserves, since, for me, the AC50 was a fraught, freighted, far-reaching event, something I’ve aimed at since 2004, those benighted old shod days when I was a 44-year-old innocent with a vision to run “50 miles when I turn 50.”

So just before I turned 45, I tried a 20-mile trail race on for size–part of the Bishop High Sierra Ultra, at one of my favorite high and dry places–the Eastern Sierra Nevada–during which I discovered both the exquisite cuisine of aid stations (blueberry pancakes!) and the excruciation my left knee was/is capable of inflicting on my psyche.

The left-knee healing trajectory since then: more of a meander than any kind of story arc, through all kinds of physical medicine $pecialities/test$/treatment$: orthopedic surgeon (MRI + a few rounds of Synvisc injections); traditional physical therapy (quad-strengthening exercises, etc), non-traditional chiropractic (ART therapy: somewhat helpful, but way pricey); acupuncture (several sessions; not much progress, but super interesting to experience needles stuck all over me); Rolfing (my lower back was giving me fits as well, and Rolfing is a whole-body therapy that satisfied my increasing appetite for any authorized pain that I thought would help me get better); Pilates (which finally started me on the right track: our first session had me in tears as I tried to follow instructions about breathing and realized I had zero connection to my body); and finally (based on referrals from my Pilates instructor) a multidisciplinary physical therapy approach (Knight Physical Therapy ) as well as Feldenkrais sessions, both individual work and group classes that (finally!) have led me to all kinds of neuromuscular-mindbody insight/freedom of movement/joyful running.

Whew.

In the middle of this muddle, I happened upon some barefoot outdoors-people at a 2010, mid-winter, bird behavior workshop. While I don’t remember a whole lot of birdy facts from that day, I do remember being perplexed as to why anyone would be shoeless in January.

As so often it happens in my life, this gift of befuddlement then led me to researching: “barefoot hiking,” “barefoot running” . . . and then . . . doing it!

Voila? Shazaam? Bazinga?

No more knee pain? I lived & ran happily ever after? I reached my 50-mile race goal at the Antelope Canyon Ultra last month? (Imagine all this in the High Rise Terminal accents of a Kardashian).

Craps and tarnation (Cue Yosemite Sam ) : that’s not exactly how these last eight shoeless years have played out.

Yeah, I’ve come a long way since the days I could not even jog three steps without severe left knee pain. (Thanks be to God!)

I did manage to enjoy a 1:04:44 10k last summer, preceded by a 10:41:31 50k at Monument Valley in March 2016.

The 10k was fabulous–I started out really slow (as in, walking fast slow), and just kept gaining momentum, finishing with an Olympic-worthy sprint effort as my face almost split with grinning. Six miles–a distance that seemed absolutely impossible to run for so many knee-painy years–and I was able to enjoy every lovely leapy step.

The 50k distance, though, proved to be a lot more challenging. Something there is that does not love an ultra, and by mile 18 my left knee was complaining loudly. I managed to walk most of the rest of the 16 miles, but it was discouraging. My magic mojo secret barefoot recipe had failed me. WTF and back to researching chronic pain that had NO UNDERLYING PHYSICAL reason .

OK. Got it. Need to get my mind-body groove on. Figure out what my Inner Children are trying to tell me. See what kind of past traumas Dr. Van der Kolk says I need to become aware of.

And neither last nor least, get a grip on how to connect to “the wisdom of the body” 

My last couple of years is littered with way more books than the few mentioned above, but this story arc is clear: an amazing learning curve up from pain and limited movement and on toward the previously mentioned joyful physical inhabitation of my days.

(For brevity’s sake I’ll not mention my osteoporosis–“brittle bone disease”–and the accompanying relational schizzness that this issue continues to require. Forgiveness, anyone?)

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One of my favorite typos ever: “Osteoporosis–bitterness and breaking down of the bones . . . “

So this is now officially the longest ultra race report introduction ever–an ultra, ultra preface, if you will, all to set the stage for a beautiful day in the desert on Navajo land outside of Page, AZ, on a loopy course overlooking Grand Canyon and Lake Powell, two days after a late-winter snow storm frosted the buttes and mesas with a powdering of puffy stuff that immediately melted and melded the otherwise deep sandy race course into a firmly packed surface of damp loveliness–the most barefoot friendly surface in the shoeless universe. (Except for the eight miles of trail-less rock between the Horseshoe Bend and Waterholes aid stations. A big except.)

With 6 am racetime temps in the 20s, my face hurt (Flashback to childhood joke: “Does your face hurt? It’s killing me!”) and my toes would have frozen right off except for the Sockwa X8’s I was wearing into which I stuffed packets of Grabber Hand Warmers . Did I mention I’ve only lived in sunny/warm/mild Orange County my entire life, and thus never ever felt compelled to go running when temps are in a range that MAKES MY FACE HURT?!

Soon after the frigid in-the-dark start, the first of many climbs confronted us 250+ runners. So, like, I thought this was a running race? (back to upspeak mode) And we’d be, like, running on trails that were runnable with our feet? Not climbing up sheer sandstone with our hands?

Sure, they had advertised this as a race through slot canyons, with a ladder figuring prominently in the pre-race publicity photos.

But I’m 58 years old, and my rock-scrambling skills a bit rusty (circa Joshua Tree 1969). So I busted out my inner 10-year-old (the happy outdoorsy one, not the one with parental attention issues), and actually did fine on all the climby sections except one slot canyon ledge, up which I was grateful to “ummph” with the aid of an outstretched racer-friend’s hand.

Those superhero ladies! A group of seven of us somehow glommed together in the back of the pack during the stressful, trail-less 8-mile stretch previously mentioned, and we stuck together for hours, which provided 14 eyeballs to scan the endless rock jumble landscape for scraps of pink or silvery ribbon to lead us up and over the next set of boulder piles. And after that we lent each other a hand or two clambering up Waterholes Canyon’s sketchy ladders and layered red sandstone pour-offs.

To this point I had not said a word about how much MYLEFTKNEEHURTS, and the other ladies were mum regarding anything in their lives that wasn’t hunky-dory as well, but it seems it wasn’t just me that was havin’ issues, and at mile 33.5, the second pass through the Horseshoe Bend aid station, four of us grimly unpinned our race numbers, passed them to the aid station worker in charge of such matters, and waited for a shuttle to take us back to the start/finish line at the Page Amphitheater.

(Truth in storytelling note: OK, I did start verbalizing disappointment in my knee at about mile 30, but only after 27 non-complaining miles of pain At Every Step. And I wasn’t all that sad to quit the race when I did; I’d been out on the trail for 10.5 hours already, dark was approaching, and the cold day was getting colder–I could only imagine what another 16.5 miles in the chillysome dark would be like when my pace was limited to the speed of “ouch” with no way to go fast enough to keep warm. Then there was the minor issue of tasting something odd and bloody in my mouth all day, which turned out to be a major flap I’d bit loose on the surface of my tongue chomping on some of that amazing aid station food, in this case: bacon-avocado roll-ups.)

And that’s a wrap in the latest episode of a drama that has been going on since 2004: me run, me happy, me knee owie, me no run, me sad. (Hmmm . . . my long days of grand-kiddo care this past school year might be rubbing off linguistically.)

Bottom line: yeah, we get it, you didn’t quite run 50 miles last month. Is that it? There’s nothing else at stake in all of this? (For we all know good storytelling requires high stakes .) Sheesh, Thea, it’s not a matter of life or death. Get over it, put on some !#(*#-ed shoes, for cryin’ out loud, ENOUGH of the running already, accept that you’re getting old, and oh yeah make sure you keep yourself plopped in front of an electronic screen more and more each day.

Maybe it is a matter of life or death.

(Cue dramatic music. OK, I just have to say I loved how that ending happened. And now for a boatload of race photos. Happy (barefoot, snowy) Trails!)

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The Page RV Park, the morning before the race. Snow in the desert!

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Frosted prickly pear.

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Tower Butte in Lake Powell, frosting-style.

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OK this is getting ridiculous . . .

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Before the AC50, Husbando and I spent a week at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon; I attended (and presented at) a two-day seminar for hiking guides, after which I spent three days testing/learning for my Wilderness First Responder certification. Finally, I had the privilege of speaking about my poetry and life to a couple of classes at the local school, where elk share the athletic field.

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We had a nice snowstorm at the South Rim, and lots of our practice first-aid scenarios (here I’m getting a fake leg fracture splinted) took place in blowing snow. Or, on the last day, sunny snow.

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Stirrups, J’s, and Figure 8’s: how to stabilize an ankle. Got it.

early morning traffic jam trail run

Then there was that AC50 to tackle. It was “yikes” from the get-go, with a start in the dark that turned into an immediate bottleneck/climb. Oh well . . . that was the last I got to hang out with all these fast folks for the rest of the day.

barefoot running down rocky slope

I started the race in my Sockwa X8’s (the ground was frozen solid. Super yikes.) but was able to run most of the miles shoeless–except for sections of the infamous eight-mile scramble between the Horseshoe Bend and Waterholes aid stations. So much beautiful stripey sandstone.

barefoot desert road running

It’s difficult to describe how delicious this sand is (once it warmed up to 40 degrees).

barefoot running up rocks

Uh, yeah. This is the trail. Yeah.

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Here is my new friend Tricia peering down into Horseshoe Bend–most of the photos of me were taken by her, which was so much easier than setting up my camera, running by, etc. Tricia was amazing . . . besides her love for looking over edges, she also had the guts to finish the 50-mile race, even though she was reduced to a walk as well for much of it. An inspiring person to hang out with!

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Horseshoe Bend: here is probably the crappiest photo on the internet of this spectacular place, but the little person taking a selfie gives a bit of scale anyway.

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See the pink ribbon? Yep. That’s the trail, in this case an interesting bit of icy morning singletrack. It was so cold (“how cold was it?”) that the bite valves froze on my chest-mounted water bottles and I had to crunch and chew them to get the very very very cold water to flow. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d have the pleasure of writing.)

 

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The Navajo Generating Station looms (dare I write it? “both literally and figuratively”) over the city of Page, the Navajo Nation, and the race course. Here’s Aid Station #1; I had to make it there within certain time frame or the Grim Reaper would catch up to me and make me drop out of the race. Well, I beat the Reaper by a whopping 15 minutes here, and by an hour four hours later at the next (and final) Grim Reaper checkpoint. Yay me.

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Speaking of poor quality images–this one still delights me. It was an amazing day (worthy of my colorful silk scarf) and I tried to smile a lot in appreciation 🙂

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Are we done yet? Although I didn’t finish the 50 miles I’d signed up for, they still let me have a 55k finisher award: 33.5 miles=close enough? (And that’s the sunlit buttes of Lake Powell in the background.)

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Are we there yet? The loong drive home begins with this stunning view of the Big Ditch running almost imperceptibly right to left through the middle of the photo, with House Rock Valley winding its way between the Paria Plateau (right) and the Kaibab Plateau (snow-capped).  See you this summer, favorite places!

 

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob G. permalink
    March 27, 2018 6:09 am

    Hi Thea…well done on the run! The sight of cacti impinged by snow is just painful to me.
    I sure did leave lots of snowprints where I live…worst March I’ve ever seen. Good job on the WFAR certification. It’s valuable for you and anyone venturing with you…Bob G.

    • March 27, 2018 7:22 am

      Thanks for the note . . . seems like it’s been a wild March all over the place (but here in So Cal our “wild” pales in comparison with snowier spots). Here’s hoping Spring springs soon for you! 🙂

  2. Brian G permalink
    March 25, 2018 5:34 am

    OMG Thea. How many nerves are in the feet? Not as many connections you make between the you, the us, and the story. Thank you for sharing such inspiration. You rock!

    • March 25, 2018 9:36 am

      All I can say is “ha!” . . . you crack* me up! Thanks for reading and sending the encouraging words. (* = a subtle geology pun, inspired by “you rock” 🙂 )

      • Gina Barnes permalink
        March 29, 2018 10:31 am

        Ditto to Brian’s comment, Thea!! Good for you. He is risen and you keep rising!

      • March 29, 2018 1:04 pm

        Hi Gina! It’s always so good to hear from you . . . it makes me want to dangle from a tree branch or jump over something 🙂 Blessed Easter to you!

  3. Caveman Hiking permalink
    March 24, 2018 1:32 am

    Wow Thea! That’s a lot of miles… Barefoot or otherwise! Congratulations! I’m Planning to do the Colorado trail this summer (barefoot, as much as possible, of course), and you got me thinking: if I ran 30 miles everyday I could be done in about 16 days instead of the 45 days I’m planning. Nah… Going to stick to my slow plodding ways. I want to echo what others have said: You are an inspiration! 60 at 60 has a nice ring to it 😉

    • March 24, 2018 9:21 pm

      Thanks for the note–and best of luck on the Colorado trail this summer! (I just looked it up; what a great adventure, and kudos for doing as much as you can shoelessly 🙂 ). I’m glad you’re going to take your time and enjoy things . . . slow ‘n’ plodding is definitely the style that gets these long distances DONE. (And now you’ve got me pondering a 60-mile “day hike” for Summer 2019 . . . I’m thinking Eastern Sierra? Any suggestions?) 🙂

      • Caveman Hiking permalink
        April 4, 2018 5:26 pm

        Eastern Sierra = Rockies?

      • April 4, 2018 7:06 pm

        Not quite the Rockies, but California’s version of high country paradise — all the 10,000-foot-plus trailheads just a windy drive up from Highway 395 🙂

      • Caveman Hiking permalink
        April 6, 2018 2:25 am

        OK. I’m a Colorado guy so unfamiliar with the Eastern Sierra and unable to be of much help with recommendations for backpack trips / hikes in that area. I hope you find some fun trails!

      • April 6, 2018 8:35 am

        Well, maybe some day I’ll get a chance to hike in Colorado . . . and then I’ll make sure to get your advice on back-country barefooting there 🙂

  4. Scott permalink
    March 23, 2018 9:43 pm

    Congratulations Thea!

    33.5 miles! And after the various setbacks you’ve been having, WOW! Do I see a 60 at 60 attempt? I’d love to even do half the distance you just did. You are an inspiration!

    I’m still plodding along on our local trails and working with our new puppy, Monty, who is doing pretty good at putting up with following me on a leash clipped to my waist. Maybe some day I’ll do a long run like you?

    Thanks for your great blog posts!

    Scott

    • March 23, 2018 10:59 pm

      Thanks, Scott–I’m not sure about 60 at 60 . . . but running with a puppy sounds like a pretty good challenge. Hope you’re having a good spring up north 🙂

  5. March 23, 2018 9:05 pm

    Still a carp ton of miles even if you didn’t finish the whole 50… Proud of ya.

  6. March 23, 2018 5:17 pm

    very impressive!

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