Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Canyon de Chelly, 2016, race report
Really, neither of us felt that we had any business even being at that start line watching the sky change as the sun began its ascent. There we stood, surrounded by elite and experienced ultramarathon trail runners knowing that we didn’t have many long runs, many trail runs, and a few (?) extra pounds on one of us. The traditional Navajo blessing had been given to all of the runners, and we were just waiting. Waiting. Waiting for the sun to peek over the ridge of the mountains on the horizon. No camera filters needed for this morning as the sky was streaked in pink, orange, yellow, and blue.
The sunrise is the birth of a new day and “the most innocent time of day,” (Shaun Martin, race director). It hasn’t been spoiled by doubt, or regret, or unmet expectations, or anger. The to-do list hasn’t yet been reviewed. The stress hasn’t started to build. It is just quiet and beautiful. Anything is possible, right?
Then, the first ray came over the mountaintop, and the mob started running…. through six miles of sand (even though it’s advertised as two). Deep, deep, deep sand. Serious sand. So much sand. And horses. And did I mention some sand? If sand made dust, Rose and I would have been left in it. We quickly fell to the back of the pack – my comfort zone. (Probably not for Rose so much…)
We were just approaching the second aid station when the winners passed us on their return trip. We knew then that it was going to be a long day, but hell – we always knew it was going to be a long day no matter what. We kept on. And on. And on.
We met James Bisbey from Scottsdale. He gave us some pointers (which I didn’t listen to very well) and snapped loads of photos, and then he was on his way. We would see him again on the climb.
We were on auto pilot, and we just ran (and walked) for miles. Except when we were snapping pictures of each other. Or stopping dead in our tracks to look straight up a cliff wall. Those cliff walls sure can make you remember how big the world is and how very tiny you are.
We were doing great until the climb up Bat Canyon when poor fueling and the change in elevation hit me. I didn’t hit the proverbial wall that I’ve experienced in other races. I hit more of what I suspect Trump wishes he might someday build. This was A FRICKIN’ WALL, man. Walk 100 steps, rest and dry heave for two minutes. Repeat. Rose took my pack and gave me a little Gatorade. Her brother met us halfway and hiked to the top with us. I’ll bet he wished that his sister had chosen someone faster and non-barfy with whom to run. Nope. She chose me.
We met James on our way up and his way down. “I didn’t think you would make it," he said to us - referring to the Bat Canyon cut-off time. Honestly, I felt GREAT until we started the climb. I had even calculated our time and figured we could be done in nine hours! But, by the time we met up with James again, his concern seemed completely reasonable as I could barely get two words out without wanting to hurl. Some Gatorade helped. It took us about an hour to climb the 1.5-ish miles to the top. So much for finishing in nine hours....
The climb was relentless. Not the steepest that I’ve ever done in a race (Sapper Joe, thankyouverymuch), but it was constant and ever changing. There were big rocks, small rocks, hard packed dirt, and sand. There were twists, turns, and scrambling over rock face. During the pre-race briefing the night before, we had been warned not to cross the orange ribbon marking this portion of the trail or we may fall off the side of the mountain. This is the time when we find out if they were exaggerating or not. They were not.
Before we reach the top of Bat Canyon, we are passed by a group of 12-ish year old boys who are conquering this upward climb as if it is a lay-up on the basketball court. Smiling, greeting us, having a great time while tearing up the trail.
Finally, the top of the canyon, and a blessed area to sit, rehydrate, change socks, use the tent toilet, and eat some oranges. There was other stuff, but it was the oranges that brought me back from the brink of misery. We collected our thoughts and started back down to the canyon floor.
She was sitting in the middle of the trail which was packed hard and scattered with rocks. The trail itself had finally evened out enough that I could actually run it, and I was finally upright enough to run again. Luckily for her, I was NOT actually running when I saw her. Otherwise, I may have stepped on her.
She was a beautiful gray/green color – unlike any tarantula I had ever seen before. (This isn’t saying much since I’ve only seen them at the zoo, the pet store, movies, and a scraggly looking one crawling around at Vernon Reservoir.) She was different enough to catch my eye, and I stopped, bending at the hips and knees – more at the hips and less at the knees because after 18 grueling miles, I actually wanted to get up again. After all, 16 more to go….
I shouted my discovery to Rose who was about 200 feet ahead of me. “Cool,” she shouted back. I think she found it not quite as cool as I did. She did grow up in the desert surrounding Lake Powell and has probably seen her fair share of tarantulas. I shouted behind me to Whiskey Stout (Imagine! She goes by the name of Whiskey Stout!) to let her know not to step on this beautiful creature as she made her way down the trail.
I didn’t have a lot of time because I needed to catch Rose, so I took another look at her and thanked her for showing herself, for appearing to me once she knew that I wasn’t going to quit this race, for giving me hope from her perch above the tower that is her home. She provided a magic cord to a Dine' man once so that he might climb to the top of Spider Rock and be safe from the treachery and danger on the canyon floor. I felt like she was doing the same for me today.
My thanks given, I stood began to run again always trying to catch up with Rose. I had forgotten to fish my phone out of my pack and take a picture of her, but I think that’s OK. I think that she will be in my mind for as many years as I can even remember this race, this experience, this feeling of determination, my newfound knowledge of myself.
As I ran (shuffled) into mile 19, I finally found my voice.
I had been searching for my voice all along. I had watched the video of Shaun yelling with the sunrise. I had listened with longing at the pre-race meeting as Shaun encouraged us to yell and sing and greet the morning, but all along I knew that it just wasn’t me. I yell, but usually just in anger. I haven’t yelled with positive energy or to release stress for – hell, I don’t know how long – and I’ve never shouted out to the dawn regardless of whether or not it is the Navajo thing to do.
Listening to the whoops and hollers across the canyon all day, I was jealous. I just wanted so badly to be that person who knew herself, who believed that anything was possible, who couldn’t be stopped. I just wanted to be moved so profoundly by anything in my life that it would cause me to yell at the top of my lungs because there has been very little (any?) of that in the past few years. I just wanted to know that I was enough.
Enough for my job. Enough for my family. Enough for myself. Just enough.
Not too broke, too tired, too grumpy, too stressed, too dull, too uncool, too awkward, too sad, too mad.
Just enough. I just wanted to be enough.
So, after the spider on the trail, I ran forward with my eyes on the pinnacle of Spider Rock imagining the flattened top, white from the sun-bleached bones of the children that the Spider Woman had lured there and consumed along with the sun-bleached bones of my fears and doubts. I now looked down at the trail very infrequently because I had suddenly become sure footed. I finally ran with the confidence that I could finish the last 15-ish miles in my 700+ mile road shoes full of sand. (Note to self: next time, trail shoes and gaiters, for sure! Or running sandals….)
I began to talk to Spider Woman. I asked her questions about myself in hopes that she would answer. I talked to myself about myself because the answers felt as if they were right there waiting for me. As I talked, the lump in my throat grew, and tears came to my eyes. “I am enough. I am enough. I am enough,” I repeated over and over, and finally I yelled.
Unlike the higher-pitched, celebratory whoops that echoed from canyon wall to canyon wall throughout the day, my yell was guttural – less ‘woo-hoo’ and more of an ‘aaaaarrrrruuuuggghhhhh’ from deep inside – less happy runner and more anxiety-filled, middle-aged, overweight lesbian, mother of two with an inferiority complex and a debt-to-income ratio that needs some work.
And, it felt good. Really good.
So, I did it again. And again.
More than the past 19 miles got me here. The arguments about whether or not we could afford the trip. The conversation filled drive with dad’s wife. The beautiful preview of the canyon from the lookout points at the top. The tearful news of Grandma Nora’s fall. The nerves at the start line. The six miles (regardless of what the race director said) of sand at the start line. The wild horses, the perfect weather, the shade from the cottonwood trees, the other runners.
All of this was brought together in my mind and heart at that moment. The previous 19 miles, the (not enough) training miles over eight months. The same 10 pounds lost and gained and lost and gained. The 4am workouts.
It all came together as ‘AAAARRRRRUUUUUGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!’ Along with it came the realization that for once – for now, for this moment and this race – I was enough.
The petroglyphs at White House aid station, the camaraderie of the other runners, our new friend James, the arches in the red rocks, the towering cliffs – it was all part of the run – all part of the experience. I felt connected to the race since the morning of Feburary 1 when I actually got in against all odds. I knew that this was a race that I was destined to complete. There was never a time – not even during the barfy climb – when I felt that I wouldn’t finish. There were times that I worried that I wouldn’t finish in time, but I always knew that I could do it if given the majority of the day.
We proceeded to run/shuffle/run/walk in to the finish line (but not before we had to run through that six goddamn miles of sand, again).
Rose and I finished 128 and 129 out of 130. Our finish time was 11:08:45. There was no shame in this for me. I’m as proud of this finish as I am of my first marathon finish 14 years ago. (How is it that I’m still the same weight?) I received my finisher’s medal – guaranteed by Shaun to have been hand beaded by Grandma Nora Yazee (and yes, I cried). I tried some stew and fry bread, but I couldn’t finish much as my stomach was still feeling sketchy.
After a couple of crackers back at the hotel, I whined and belly-ached about taking a cold bath. I just couldn’t do it. So, I started to pour a hot bath. Then, I looked at my legs and realized that I would be wasting a good soak, so I turned off the water after a very short while. Two inches worth of muddy, coffee colored water later, and the initial filth was rinsed away – but not my feelings of accomplishment. Finally, I drew a piping hot bath and laid there for about 30 minutes, occasionally dreading the stiffness of the next day (which, by the way, never came. That ice bath nonsense is, in fact, nonsense!).
I wish I could say that I dreamed of that tarantula during the night, but I rarely remember my dreams. This night was no different. After a long and deep sleep, I awoke the next morning at dawn. I went outside and looked around for the spider, but she wasn’t there. That’s OK, though. I didn’t need her anymore. I was enough.
Briefly and satisfyingly, I was enough.