Canyon de Chelly Ultra Marathon – Race Report

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canyon de chelly ultra marathon 2017

2017 Canyon de Chelly Ultra Marathon race report

Where to start? So much to say about this fantastic race. I’ll start by saying thank you to Paula, a local Prescott runner (and an amazing asset to our running community) who ran the race last year using one of our training plans. She was so complimentary of the race that I decided to give it a shot. Now, you have to understand: it is VERY difficult to get into this race… The race is 5 years old. The first year, it took approximately 15 minutes to fill up. The following years became incrementally more selective. The Ultrasignup website crashes every year within minutes of going live! For 2017, it appears that it only took minutes for the race to fill up. I was one of the 150 lucky athletes who made it in!

About the race

canyon de chelly ultra marathon 2017While at the race briefing, I got to learn more about how the race was born, from race director Shaun Martin. Shaun is a Najavo who lives in Chinle, AZ, where the race takes place. At the time he conceived the race, he was on a "rave" run through Canyon de Chelly. At the time, he was coaching the local cross country team and was going through a tough time. He was looking for a way to help his athletes financially when the school was giving him little to no support. I won't tell the whole story in hope that you enter the race to hear it directly from him. But in short, after a year of planning, he was allowed to host the race and provide financial support to a very talented group of runners.

A running culture

The Navajo see running as much more than a sport. It is part of their culture. They run to make one with nature, to enjoy the beauty that "Mother Earth" and "Father Sky", as they describe their deities, provided to them. To be part of the elements. To commune with wildlife. Trees. Flowers. Mountains... The respect they have for the sport is very clear and it shows. Many of their  runners compete at a high level, including the Olympics trials. 

Training for the race

Training for the Canyon de Chelly Ultra marathon required some creativity. While my "A" race for this last part of the season is the Space Coast Half Marathon (Thanksgiving weekend), I had to create a hybrid training plan that would focus not only on long runs (for the ultra) but also on speed work for the half marathon. For the first time in my life, I pushed my training to 70 miles per week, something I had never accomplished before.

Just like the training plans I create for my clients, my plans consisted of two speed workouts per week - one focusing on shorter distances (200m/400m repeats) and one "tempo" run. In addition, I included a long run, and towards the end, "back-to-back" long runs on Saturday and Sunday.

My training started early June after taking a few weeks off in light of the Whiskey Basin Trail Run and the Whiskey Row Half Marathon. Over several weeks, I slowly increased my mileage with easy runs until I felt ready to add speed work. In the middle of July, I hit a good mileage week while conducting our Summer Training Camp and later while hiking the Prescott Circle Trail and many local trails with a customer who was getting ready to head to Nepal and wanted some high-altitude acclimation.

Focus on the long runs

I created a mix of challenges for my long runs, between carrying a heavy pack full of water and camera gear, running out of water on a circumference run (not on purpose!!) and later taking my revenge. I tried to plan difficult routes around Prescott with some epic climbs and gnarly terrain (like this run).

Running out of water

Circumference run revenge

Beating the storm

Some of these runs were back-to-back long runs (25 miles followed by 13 miles the following day) or a 10k race followed by a long run the next day (20 miles). I even included a 3-day week end during which I completed the Prescott Circle Trail in 40 hours (that's 53 miles). I also managed to race a bunch of mountain bikers in the Prescott Dells. That was fun! 

38 mile week end

Racing mountain bikers

But the training wasn't always perfect. One of my last long runs, I managed to bonk miserably after planning a route in an unknown part of town that turned out to be extremely technical and hot. I eventually rerouted mid-run but had to cut it short in the end. 

Bunking on a long run

Flagstaff Long Run


And then came the taper. Always my least favorite part of training, although I understand its importance. With three weeks to race day, I had a relay race in Michigan with friends from Florida. It was meant as a tune up and a way to assess fitness. The race went really well and I felt strong coming out of it. The last two weeks before the race, I stopped all speed workout and long runs, tapered down to 35 miles. Sadly, during these two weeks, this is the worst I felt of the entire training cycle.

Aches and pains

A few weeks before the race, I pinched my back while cutting and carrying firewood in the forest. It went away in a few days but a sharp pain remained in the middle of my back that just wouldn’t go away. And with each day of taper, it felt worse and worse, to the point I was worried about the ultra! On top of that, I felt tired, sometimes out of breath, and even suspected overtraining, which was odd because I was still nailing all my speed workouts. I check my oxygen saturation level with my oximeter and realized that it was at 92. Not catastrophic but not great, especially when it usually is around 98. I added more red meat to my diet along with an iron supplement and I saw the oxygenation go back to 95-96% within a few days.

I only ran three times the week of the race and each time I increased my speed a little to see what I could sustain (while keeping it on the easy side). Between my back pain and the blood oxygenation issues, I lost a certain amount of confidence, despite feeling great about all the training I had done to date.

If you are interested in more information about my training, you can find my training log right here on Strava

Racing Strategy

My race strategy for my last ultra was: “run as fast as you can and see how long you can last”. If you’ve read the race report, you know it didn’t go well. Like Jim Walmsley said after WS100: “Sometimes when you’re not careful trying to set off fireworks you light yourself on fire.” I did NOT want to mess with fire at the Canyon de Chelly Ultra Marathon.

So I sat down and analyzed the course, the previous finishers and their performances, the weather, and my previous races. One thing I learned from my long runs (amongst other things) was that I do not enjoy racing with a backpack or a vest. If the race offers aid stations within 7 miles of each other, I do not need to carry much. The other thing I learned was that I overheated a bit at the last race because I failed to drop my extra shirt on time. And finally, I learned that if I wait too long to take in my nutrition, it doesn’t make it to my stomach and comes right back up.

canyon de chelly ultra marathon

Beautiful images courtesy of Jess Ehrbar

canyon de chelly ultra marathon

Beautiful images courtesy of Jess Ehrbar

canyon de chelly ultra marathon

Beautiful images courtesy of Jess Ehrbar

canyon de chelly ultra marathon

Beautiful images courtesy of Jess Ehrbar

Pace Strategy

With all this analysis in mind, I determined that if I stuck with no more than 7:20-7:30/mile pace, I could probably maintain that effort throughout the run, except for that tough climb between mile 16 and 17, where the turnaround was located. I knew pace was irrelevant there since it would likely be close to 16:00 or 18:00/mile. I also knew that there were a few fast runners on the roster. My plan was to not lead the race but instead, let someone take the lead and set the pace. If they went faster than my goal pace, I would let them lead in hope that they would slow down later, and I wouldn't. Once I got to the turnaround point, I would have a good idea of how "fresh" I was and if I could push on during the second half.

Ditch the backpack

My other race strategy was to ditch the backpack and go with handhelds only. One thing I missed greatly during my last ultra having access to fresh, cold water. My bladder was full of warm Tailwind when my body was asking for water. I experimented heavily during my long runs with the handhelds, making sure the weight was ok, seeing how long I could go before running out of water, etc...

Don't overheat

In terms of clothing, the forecast called for sunny but chilly at the start. Low 30s before the sun got up and slowly warming up to the mid-60s. Perfect weather on paper! The wind was supposed to pick up but I expected the canyon to block most of it. The plan was to wear arm warmers and gloves, with possibly a long sleeve shirt that I would ditch at the first aid station. At the last minute, I decided not to wear the long sleever, which turned out to be a great idea.

About the course

The race is 34 miles: 17 miles out, 17 miles back. The first 16 miles are on a short incline, about 30-50 feet per mile. Seems easy on paper, but the sand is the killer there! The first 3.5 miles are in rather deep and SOFT sand, similar to running in the soft section of a beach in Florida. A great way to warm up... and to cool down on the way back.

The rest of the course is riddled with small creek crossings that help break the monotony of the otherwise mostly flat sections. Some of these washes have very low water levels, most of which can be avoided by going around a few feet on either side. Aid stations are located every 5.5-6 miles and are very well attended and stocked. There are two aid stations on the way out, a third one at the top, and the two stations again on the way back (five stations total).

From mile 16 to 17 comes the dreaded climb. A combination of loose, rocky, technical terrain with some very technical sections where the use of both hands is highly recommended. I come across this kind of terrain from time to time in Prescott but not for that long of a distance. At the top of the climb, you will find your drop bag along with a surprise from the High School cross country team. From there, the course heads back to the start, technical downhill included! Check out these beautiful photos taken by Jess and Andrew, my friends from Phoenix. 

canyon de chelly ultra marathon

Beautiful images courtesy of Jess Ehrbar

canyon de chelly ultra marathon

Beautiful images courtesy of Jess Ehrbar

canyon de chelly ultra marathon

Beautiful images courtesy of Jess Ehrbar

canyon de chelly ultra marathon

Beautiful images courtesy of Jess Ehrbar

Race day!

The sandpit

For this race, being as unique as it is, the start offers something you don't see every day: a Navajo prayer and blessing. While facing east, the race director's father-in-law led the morning prayer as the sun was rising over the Canyon. Upon completion, his father took the lead for the blessing of the runners. Using eagle feathers that were passed down to him from previous generations, he blessed two runners, a female and a male, who happened to be my friends Jessica and Andrew from Phoenix!

From there, we were off to the starting line of the 2017 Canyon de Chelly Ultra Marathon! A group quickly formed at the front although the pace was very comfortable. This is not your local 5K where everybody starts twice as fast as they should. After a while, I settled into 3rd place while keeping an eye on the two lead guys who appeared to be running together. They were going faster than my race strategy pace so I stuck to my plan. As I arrived at the first aid station, they were leaving.

Running in the sand was tricky. I was trying to find the harder spots without going too much out of my way. Some spots just couldn't be avoided. I focused on eating the gels I was carrying, as well as food from the aid stations. I was slowly catching up to second place, a runner from Colorado, and eventually passed him when he took a pit stop on the side of the trail. 


With the leader in sight, we arrived at the technical section. At the bottom, I dropped one of my handheld that was still mostly full. This helped me focus on the climb, alternating between running and power hiking. I kept my heart rate and breathing under control and I could see both the leader further up and my follower right below. When I finally got to the top, I refilled my bottle and ate fruits and a hand full of Skittles. I also dropped off one of my arm warmer (the other one was stuck under my Garmin) and my gloves. 

Going back to the start!

After a few minutes at the top aid station, I was ready to head back. I didn't want to spend too much time stagnant in order to avoid cramps or lactic acid build up. I left before the lead guy and being that I love technical downhill running, I went for it. By the time I got to the bottom, I couldn't hear anyone behind me, as a large portion of runners was now making their way to that area. They cheered as I passed by (that was awesome!) and I could gauge how far second place was by how long it took for the second cheers to echo in the Canyon.

I got to the 4th aid station (mile 22) feeling pretty good. I still had water and Tailwind left, I was still able to eat. The weather had warmed up a bit but a light headwind was keeping things cool. The second place runner got to the aid station shortly after I did. I didn't stay long and continued trying to maintaining my 7:30 goal pace. It wasn't comfortable, but it didn't feel impossible.

Mind games

My goal at that stage was to not overthink those "key" distances: the marathon and the 30-miler. Instead, I focused on aid stations. 5 miles to the next one. 4 miles. 3 miles: just a 5k, right? 2 miles: "that's easy, you've done plenty of those on the track". I was trying not to turn back, just focusing on pace, running my own race. I was fully expecting to get passed at any time, seeing how comfortable the leader looked in the first half.

Then came the last aid station. Fatigue was setting in, the legs were getting heavy. It was mile 29. I had passed the marathon distance and still felt great, all things considered! I didn't want to languish at the station, in fear that number 2 would get there and decide to skip it and run ahead of me. I focused on topping off my bottles and grabbed as many watermelon slices as I could carry. No one else arrived at the station when I left, and I couldn't see anyone in the distance.

5 miles to go

But I still had 5 miles to go. And most of it was in the sand. The soft and deep sand from the start. So I started the countdown in my head. "4 miles isn't so bad". "3 miles, that's just a 5k". Then with 3 miles to go, I saw one of the cross country girls who was running about a quarter mile ahead of me. I tried to maintain the distance. At this stage, I was looking back A LOT to see if anyone was coming. I figured I was at least 2-3 minutes ahead, something that would be hard to make up with this terrain. I needed to keep pace and not walk. 1 mile to go...

"Hey, I recognize this bridge from the start!" Right around the corner is the finish line, with what feels like several miles of MORE SAND! With no one behind me, I savored the victory by walking the last few meters, and receive my beautiful turquoise handmade neckless from Shaun.

Finish line

After a short recovery, greatly aided by the downing of my first soda in 12 years, I had fun cheering everyone at the finish line. The atmosphere was festive and personal, like nothing I had ever experienced at a race. Having the race director hand out handmade necklaces, each one a different color based on years of participation, was unique. Shaun welcomed back every runner, gave them a hug, and offered them a drink and a place to sit. What an incredible experience. Shaun, if you read this, you are one incredible individual. That alone is reason enough to sign up for this race. 

I met many runners at the finish line, from all over the country. From a baker who makes killer bread in Salida who exceeded his goal time (and placed in his age group) to a lady who really needed a chair and a coke after her new PR, it was great to discuss everyone's experience. 

The entire Chinle community was there to support the race. From cross country runners, coaches, families, and other Chinleans, the spirit was strong. However, next year I will not apply to get in. With only 150 spots, I had my chance to experience Canyon de Chelly in a way I hope many others will. My spot will be available for anyone who wants to push themselves and enjoy the incredible views. 

Special mention

canyon de chelly ultra marathonSpecial mention to this cool puppy who ran 17 miles with the lead pack, all the way to the top aid station. He took a 3-hour break after finding water and shade, then decided to run back with fellow runners and finish the race!! Along the way, he helped herd cattle and wild horses, he even chased a few wild turkeys. Sounds like someone on Facebook is making plans to find him a forever running home. He's already conditioned and ready to be someone's running partner. 

Lessons learned

As always, I learn a few things before, during, and after the race.  Here's a short list of things I will do again, and things I will change. 

Things that worked:

  • The handheld strategy.
  • Real food, especially fruits, work better for me. Skittles are pretty awesome too, and gels are perfect early in the race when I can still stomach them.
  • Mixing tailwind in one bottle and fresh water in the other was the way to go.
  • No soda for 12 years means that when you drink one, it's like crack! Great way to recover at the finish line.
  • Taper sucks but it works.

Things that didn't work/could have worked better

  • I need to strengthen my core.
  • I need to stretch more and start yoga (some of you have heard me say that before).
  • I need to keep an eye on my oxygenation levels.
  • I wish I had incorporated more flat long runs at marathon pace, especially towards the end of my training. 
  • If you're training for this race, run in the sand, especially at the end of a long training run. 

Overall this was an amazing experience I would recommend to everyone. Be sure to check out the registration deadline (I think it's in February) and be ready to click refresh a million times, unless Shaun decides to go to a lottery system.

As always, if you need help to accomplish your training goals, we offer affordable custom training plans as well as coaching services. Need to get ready for your next Fall race? Join us in Prescott for a high-altitude training camp

Until the next race, thank you for reading.