In early 2013 a friend, and Navajo, informed me that for the first time ever a public ultra marathon race was going to be held in Canyon de Chelly, AZ. While I’d heard of the canyon, I definitely did not know much about it, though the more I read, the more intrigued I became and knew that I could not pass up the opportunity to explore a place that is usually only made available to the public via specially guided tours. Canyon de Chelly sits right smack dab in the middle of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. After dropping out of UTMB with a knee injury, I was unsure whether I’d be healthy enough to run and finish the Canyon de Chelly 55k, but after three solid weeks of rest, recovery and rehab I was able to get a few 12-15mile runs in. I was definitely no where near peak form, but I felt as though I could complete the race and thus couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to experience the canyon and the Navajo culture first hand.
Saturday October 12th runners gathered around the bonfire in an attempt too escape the 35F chill that greeted us. One of the local Navajo stepped forward and led us in a traditional Navajo morning prayer as we greeted the rising sun. After an additional moment of silence the race director, Shaun Martin, herded us over to the small starting gate for our 7am-ish start. No starting gun, instead Shaun sent us off by leading us in a loud whoop, and down the sandy wash we went, toward the rising sun. I cruised down the first few miles of sand, thankfully wet from a light rain, and into the mouth of the canyon. The red sandstone walls rose slowly from the sandy wash, but soon they engulfed us, towering 500ft above on all sides. The double track road in the wash bottom was a mix of packed sand and dirt, and made for fairly easy running. As I cruised into the White House aid station I became aware that I had no desire to ‘race’ that day, and that I was perfectly content to just enjoy the beautiful run and take in the pristine surroundings.
From White House on I ran alone, sure there were other people around, but I barely noticed them as my mind was in its own world. As I cruised up the canyon, through the numerous stream crossings, the massive sandstone walls continued to rise and signs of life began to appear. The barren wash had given away to a stream bed lined with cottonwood trees, showing just a hint of gold in their leaves. Small hogans dotted the valley floor, its inhabitants living in the style long forgotten by most. Here there were no department stores, no McDonalds, no Apple Store, no electricity, just the land and its inhabitants. Wild horses roamed the meadows and the only noises that broke the silence were the occasional rumbling of a jeep down the road and the loud whoops let out by the other runners. Where a western man like John Muir would preach for people to “go in silence…”, the Navajo prefer to announce their presence to the canyon and its inhabitants, so we were also encouraged to do so by Shaun.
As I continued to run the easy rolling road my eyes wandered the canyon; from rocky alcoves to ancient ruins, petroglyphs to modern hogans, the one word that kept coming into my mind was serene. While the canyon was beautiful, its architecture stunning, there are many other canyons that would rival its soaring sandstone walls and geologic beauty, but what Canyon de Chelly has that Zion, Grand Canyon, Buckskin Gulch don’t is a sense of purity and tradition. Entering the canyon is like stepping back in time, into a culture that existed long before Europeans arrived on these shores, long before the white man ‘civilized’ the West, where inhabitants tried to live in harmony with their surroundings.
After nearly two hours of running I rounded one of the many bends the canyon, but this time I was greeted by an 800ft pillar of rock towering overhead, Spider Rock. The first rays of sun were just beginning to penetrate the 1500ft canyon walls, illuminating just the tip of Spider Rock and a few select spots on the valley floor. To the Navajo Spider Rock is sacred, a place where it is said the Spider Woman lives, watching over and protecting the Navajo. The sight of this soaring spire rising from the middle of the confluence of two canyons must even give pause to the most unaware Westerner, as its majestic beauty can’t be denied. Just after Spider Rock our route turned up BatCanyon and onto the rocky Bat Trail, finally some technical hills, my favorite! I hike/jogged up the rocky slopes and through the final scramble to the BatCanyon aid station and turn around.
I took off bombing down the fun rocky technical trail and back onto the single track, and eventually double track in the canyon bottom. The sun’s full rays now warmed the cottonwood lined trail as I continued my steady pace, this time down canyon back toward Chinle. I stopped quite a few times to take photos, video and even paused by Spider Rock to have another runner snap a shot of me. I was in no hurry, but when I was moving I kept a steady pace, just enjoying cruising through the peaceful cottonwood lined valley. By the time I had reached the White House aid station I’d passed maybe half a dozen people and figured I was borderline top 10, thus finally decided to do a little racing. I pushed a little harder, dug down, and told myself that no matter what I wasn’t allowed to walk any of the last 5.5miles to the finish.
The last several miles were a grind, with several miles of now sandy wash to navigate. Finally at 5hours 19min I crossed the finish line in 8th place, woohoo. Not a bad day’s work considering I’d been in cruise control for 29miles and had taken forty photos and 5-10min of video along the way. As it turns out 8th was good enough to net me a Navajo fleece blanket, along with the standard finisher handmade turquoise necklace. In all the event had been a fantastic experience, one that had started before the race but did not conclude with me crossing the finish line. I am very grateful to Shaun Martin and the Navajo for allowing me to experience their culture in such a unique way, and for sharing their home and backyard. I would love a chance to explore more of the canyon, to see more of the history and the ruins, but that will have to wait for another day. Shaun is hopeful that the Canyon de Chelly Ultra will become a mainstay and that each year he will be able to share this special experience with a small intimate crowd of enthusiastic ultra runners, and I hope he and all future entrants do get this chance. Special thanks to Hind clothing for supporting my adventures and to Vfuel for fueling the long days on the trail. Run fast, run healthy, but mostly run happy.