I've just returned from one of the most amazing trail-running experiences of my life: the Canyon de Chelly Ultra. So much more than "just a race," this event is a unique experience that allows you to experience the canyon in a way most non-Navajo people never can: by running through it, along the canyon floor.
The Canyon de Chelly Ultra takes place at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which is on Navajo land, and which is still inhabited by tribe members -- which is why the canyon floor is normally off limits to anyone other than those who've hired a native guide. But race director Sean Martin, a member of the tribe, managed to obtain the necessary permits to hold this amazing trail race within the canyon's walls, allowing all the running participants to experience the canyon in a way most tourists never can.
The race begins facing east, just as the sun crests over the top of the horizon: a ray of light peeking over the sharp edge of the canyon's walls. The first two miles or so are very sandy underfoot. Local runners kept telling us we were lucky that the sand was so firmly packed down this year, due to rains two or three days before the race's start, but if the sand I experienced was packed, I don't want to know what it's like when it's loose!
I tried to just keep up a steady cadence, even if it felt like I was sinking back with each step rather than moving forward. As we entered the canyon, the local native runners had urged everyone to call out to the canyon and announce your arrival, and so as we ran, calls rang out from all the runners, echoing against the bright red walls. Some locals had perched themselves on the canyon rim to watch the runners go by, and occasionally they called back as the runners' cries reached their ears.
After the first couple of miles, the sandy trail became a harder-packed road, and wound along past cultivated fields, through cottonwood groves, and along a creek. We must have had a dozen or more stream crossings, some calf-deep or more, and the cool water felt great on my legs.
Dad surprised me at the first aid station, having hiked down from the rim that morning. It was fun to see him and I was glad he got to experience the canyon floor and see the White House ruins at the first aid station.
After passing Spider Rock, the trail began to climb, first gradually then more steeply, toward the end of the canyon and the turn-around point, where runners got to climb to the canyon rim and survey the land we'd passed through over the previous 17 miles. I reached this point about four hours in -- 30 minutes faster than I'd planned -- but since I'd been running relaxed all morning, I tried not to worry too much about having gone out too fast, and focused on just keeping a steady pace all the way back to the finish line. My aim was to finish with an even split, or even slightly negative, and I figured if I just moved steadily, I could probably accomplish that.
Though the sun was a bit more intense on the way back, the canyon's steep, sheer walls provided quite a bit of shade, as did the cottonwoods. The many stream crossings also cooled our legs as we made our way back. Sean and all the runners who participated in the race last year had told me the canyon would look completely different on the way back than it did on the way out, and they were right: the views were different from this new perspective.
Sean had told us we might encounter wild horses along the trail, and indeed I crossed paths three or four times with various herds. They seemed a little surprised, but not overly concerned, as runners made their way along the canyon.
Before I knew it, I was nearing the final aid station. I took inventory at this point, and as I still had enough water and gels to last me the final couple of miles, I didn't need to stop for anything. I also calculated at this point that as long as I kept moving at a steady pace, I could probably finish in under 8 hours: a negative split for the day, and about an hour faster than I'd thought I might finish. At the same time, though, I knew the final two sandy miles were going to be challenging on tired legs, so as I left the final aid station I picked up the pace a bit, knowing the final two miles through the sand might be a slog.
Before I knew it, I could see the finish line in the distance. Dad was there and took some photos. I remember feeling tired, but also exhilarated, having spent the day surrounded by such beauty, and having met so many kind people along the way.
As Sean fastened the turquoise finisher's necklace around my neck as I crossed the finish line, I felt like I was being welcomed into a family of fellow-travelers who understand what a unique experience the Canyon de Chelly Ultra is. I even managed to run the race at a negative split, finishing under eight hours -- about an hour faster than I'd expected! I will definitely be back next year for the next family reunion, to run in beauty at Canyon de Chelly.
See you on the trail!