Arizona: Canyon de Chelly Ultra

If you have never heard of RD Shaun Martin or his 55k at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, go here and read all about it. The short version is that unless you are one of the 150 registered runners every fall, you cannot access most of the canyon without being accompanied by a Navajo guide or a park ranger. One of my best running friends told me about it and explained to me that we were going to run it. I read the race website thoroughly, read some of the many reviews online, and was hooked. The course is consistently described as 16 miles of gradual uphill, 1 mile of serious uphill (1,200′ involving scrambling on rocks at the end) and then downhill on the return. There’s also about 3 miles of sand to start and finish, with variability by year on how firm or soft the sand will be. The good news is the 11 hour time limit!

cdcu map
17 miles out, 17 miles back. Easy enough!
cdcu elev
Garmin got confused that day. Only the middle peak is accurate.

My friend and I were prepared to register online February 1 (the last year before it went to a lottery). We’d heard about this race crashing the registration servers so we were were logged in and ready to go when registration opened. Twenty minutes after registration opened, I was still waiting for pages to load as I slowly made my way through when I saw Shaun post on facebook that the first runner was registered – it was me! Ultrasignup finally caught up and I got my confirmation as my friend waited and waited on her computer in another city. She was in…on the waitlist. We were reassured that her spot was high enough on the waitlist that she would make it into the race. We both started training and I started obsessing about the sand. We found out in September that she’d made it off the waitlist and into the race. I think they went over 30 spots into the waitlist that year.

There’s something unique in every race that sets it apart from others. Even so, this is an experience unlike anything else I’ve done. Because this event has been so well described by many others (e.g., this piece from the New York Times the year we ran), and most questions from those who haven’t run it (including me) focus on the race details, it makes more sense to me to focus on the logistics than try to recapture the experience. As usual, I worried about a lot of controllable (training for sand!) and uncontrollable (wet sand or dry sand?) things up until packet pickup. That’s where I learned about “rez time” and finally started to relax and take in the experience.

If you’re flying, the closest airport is Albuquerque at just under 4 hours. The year we went, it was the weekend of the hot air balloon festival and they seem to almost always overlap. If you’re interested in that, plan to spend some time seeing the balloons before you head to Chinle. Also be prepared to pay much more for flights, rental cars, and hotels than you might normally spend. In contrast, Phoenix is about 5 hours from Chinle, but the costs for the flight and rental car the same weekend were $400 less. We planned to visit Santa Fe after the race, so stayed with the plan to fly to Albuquerque.

We had early morning flights Friday. That meant waking up before 4am to get to Albuquerque early enough to have time to make the drive to Chinle, check in to our hotel, and be at packet pickup before the pre-race meeting Friday night. This made for a very long day. It would have been wiser to fly in Thursday, take a leisurely drive up and have a slower day Friday. We did a little sightseeing on the drive in.

We weren’t sure whether we should stay at the lodge in the park or at a hotel nearby and ended up going with the Holiday Inn next to the park entrance. This was one of the best decisions because the race start was across an empty field from the hotel. We drove down the street to check out the Visitor Center at the park, then drove in to the campground and found the ampitheater. The schedule for race weekend is posted and doesn’t seem to vary much from year to year. We checked in, got our bibs and shirts, admired the handmade awards for the 10 fastest runners, and noticed that there were really a LOT of dogs wandering around. I started to get antsy (and hungry) when the meeting didn’t start on time. I assumed it would take about an hour, and then we would go back to the hotel with time to eat, set everything out for the next day and get to bed early. The meeting started a little late and was easily over two hours. It was amazing. I learned so much about the race, the place, Navajo culture, and running. Many of the articles and race reviews tell Shaun’s story and summarize what’s discussed at the meeting. It is all better in person. You might want to take a comfy chair and some snacks, but even without those you will probably be enthralled.

When the meeting ended, all of the runners and their crew went back to the restaurant at the Holiday Inn for dinner. (I’m sure that’s not true, but the place was completely full and the staff were overwhelmed.) It might be best to bring your own dinner or eat before the meeting. Chinle is a small town and if you are selective, there are not a lot of options. We finished dinner and walked back through the very nice hotel grounds to our room. We noticed a LOT of cats and kittens wandering around. 

I was excited that we were practically sleeping at the start line, so that meant we could sleep later and roll out of bed in time for the 6:40 opening ceremony. My running friend is only slightly less concerned than my boyfriend about being on time, so I was sad to learn that we would be rising at 5am to be ready to walk over at 6ish. We were nowhere near the first to arrive and the others were smart enough to have brought headlamps. The fire was already burning and we joined the others huddled near it after checking in and dropping off our bags (a cooler with triple bagged ice, a coke, and clean socks in my small cooler drop bag).

We had been told that the race is run on “rez time” at the meeting and reassured that we would have 11 hours on the course from the start time, even if (when) it started later than the scheduled 7am. Shaun’s goal is to start the race at sunrise and the prayers and blessing of runners sometimes runs a little long. It was nice to be able to enjoy the festivities and to have let go of the worry about starting time, making cutoffs, etc. After reading so much about the race and the experience, I was excited to be a part of it and I enjoyed the pre-race rituals.

Starting facing east to greet the sun.

We started with more whooping and hollering than I typically hear as we made our way through the sand (it was a dry year, so lots of deep sand). The sand was slow going for me, but there were several others at the same pace and their stories were entertaining. We saw horses running through the canyon within the first two miles. We hit mile 3 and the sand had not yet ended. I had to wait for some cows to mooove along just before the first aid station at mile 5 (still sandy but not as deep). The aid stations were well stocked and the volunteers at all three were runners. The vault toilets at the first AS were a nice surprise. We crossed several streams on the way to the second and third AS but shoes could stay dry if you tried hard enough. The second AS was run by the high school track team and they played motivational metal for us and it went well with the Halloween candy (including Rice Krispie Treats).

My biggest worry about this race was how narrow and steep the trail up and out of the canyon to the turnaround would be. I started counting the runners on their way back to the finish and hoped most would be gone by the time I started my climb. The course turns right at Spider Rock and you can feel the climb at about the same time you start noticing the sand is not quite so bad. The climb up and out of the canyon was quite rocky but not at all slippery. It was easier than I expected to step aside for runners coming down. My watch told me I was at mile 17 and I thought the turnaround might be just around the bend, but I looked to my right and saw people scrambling over rocks to the top of the canyon.

not turn
I was at the dot – so close but not nearly there.
Looking towards the canyon while standing at the dot – you can barely see the guy in the blue shirt ahead of me on the left.

Not long after, I was scrambling to the top myself. The rocks are gritty and not slippery like the ones I’m used to at home, so scrambling wasn’t a problem. Volunteers were waiting at the top with water, snacks, a portable toilet in a pop up tent, CHAIRS, and anything you might need to get back to the starting line. The RDs for Mt Taylor were the AS captains here and the volunteers’ skills were impressive. While I waited for my friend, I used the ice in my drop bag to wash off my sandy feet and changed into dry socks. I was starting to get worried as the posted cutoff time came and went, but there was no move to shut down the AS. As promised, we were given the extra time promised with the leisurely start. We headed back down to enjoy the views from another perspective.

View from the turnaround.
Hitting the wall on the way back.
Last 3 or so miles were sandy.

Shaun greeted us at the finish line and gave us our finisher necklaces, hand beaded by his grandmother. We then had delicious soup, fry bread, and COKE. We walked back over to the room, said hi to the many, many, kittens roaming around, and cleaned up for dinner. As we left for dinner, we could see the finish line still up.

If it doesn’t have a collar and you feed it, you’ve entered into a social contract with it and must take it home.
Finish line seen from across the field at the hotel.

We drove to Santa Fe the next day, well rested, cat-free, and happier for having experienced the event.

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