This run was full of firsts for me; first trail race, first race longer than a 10k, and first run over 20 miles. The event is very low key and locally supported, considered a sacred trail prayer run on the high desert Hopi land of northern Arizona. The trails the course follows are ancient foot paths that have connected Hopi villages for hundreds of years and the event itself serves to keep the trails alive and also encourage the running tradition among modern Hopi people.
There was very little in the way of course info available before the race. No course map, no elevation profile, no data on distances between aid stations, no mention of drop bag availability, etc. After talking to a few runners who assured me that aid was plentiful and often, I decided to go with a single handheld bottle for water and a gel flask full of Hammer gel to start, foregoing the vest as I wanted to go light and knew the sun would really be heating things up soon after the 6 AM start. This proved to be a good decision as water was available almost every 3 miles and gels/food/more water about every 5 miles. Many of the faster runners didn’t even take a handheld with them as there were so many locals out on the course offering water in between official aid stations.
A line was drawn in the sand at the start area and after some Hopi prayer chanting we were off with a “go” from the RD. The first four miles were flat and fast. Most of the trails on the course were sand but thanks to some rain the night before it was firm and nice to run on. The field of ~70 runners thinned out quickly and by the time we got to the first climb up the Mesa around mile 5 I was on my own. The Mesa that the run centered around rose about 500 feet off the desert floor and had a 1000 year old village on top which is still inhabited. The sides were nearly vertical though, and no one I had talked to before the race had mentioned just how technical and steep the climbs up to and descents down from the Mesa would be.
At one point around mile 7 we ran up and across the top of the Mesa. When I got to the edge there was a volunteer pointing at the edge of the cliff saying go down here. I looked at the cliff and looked back at her in bewilderment. It wasn’t until I got right up to the edge that I saw a narrow set of chisselled steps leading down to what could rarely be considered a passable trail. Aside from that, it was turning into a beautiful day and the views of the desert from high on the Mesa were spectacular. I had mentally broken the race down into thirds when my Garmin beeped for the tenth mile I was feeling great and was just over an hour and a half in, fuelling well and running comfortably.
Somewhere around mile 13 I arrived at an aid station, ate a gel and refilled my water bottle. The volunteer then told me that I was the 11th runner through. I looked at her in surprise, grabbed my water bottle, replied with “awesome,” and headed out with a little extra pep in my step. I knew I still had a long way to go and that I would still need to conserve if I wanted to run a strong last third, but the thought of a possible top ten finish gave me a huge mental boost. Soon after this though I took a short detour off course (never blindly follow the footsteps of those in front) and when I got back to my wrong turn a lanky bearded fellow had caught up to me. We were keeping a very similar pace so I decided that having some company for the middle miles of the course would be nice. We ran together up to mile 22 or so when he left an aid station before me and I could not close the gap back up again. Thankfully, we had picked a few runners off in our miles together and with the middle ~8 miles being an out and back section I knew I was solidly into the top ten and just had to hold it together till the end.
That proved to be difficult. The last ten miles of the course started out fantastically. I was feeling the fatigue in my legs but we were up on top of the Mesa running across it the long way which meant flat hard trail with wonderful views and a nice breeze. I had ditched my shirt at the turn around aid station in a successful attempt to keep as cool as possible in the ever warming direct sunlight. Around mile 25 the course dropped off the Mesa towards the valley where I knew the start/finish area was. I was optimistically hoping that the finish would simply involve dropping off the Mesa and running a few flat miles along the desert floor as the start had done. I was very very wrong. The last 5 miles was a roller coaster of steep ups and downs around the end of the Mesa. I was nearly crawling up the climbs and painfully bumbling down the descents. I kept trying to push, knowing that it would be over soon, fearful that some more experienced runners would be charging on this section and catch up to me. My hamstrings were starting to twinge with mild cramps on the climbs but it never developed into full on cramping.
The start/finish camp area finally came into view as I came off the Mesa for the last time and onto a dirt road leading down to the finish. A huge smile broke across my face as I blasted down the dirt road with no one in sight behind me. I rolled across the line in the sand 4 hours and 58 minutes after I’d left it completely overcome with euphoria as the announcer read off my name and time and called out 9th place overall.
My training for this was less than stellar, have a look in my log to see the gory details. I was very apprehensive about even attempting this and had my doubts about finishing. I learned a lot during the race. Hammer gels work well for me, I can tolerate heat, sand sucks, and a lot of people carry way too much stuff. The Hopi people are gracious and wonderful, their land is harsh but very beautiful. The mantra for this run is “water is life” and the run is meant to raise awareness for the scarcity of water left for the Native people of northern Arizona. I would highly recommend this run as a real community ultra. It is rare here in North America that we get to run on trails that are as much as 1000 years old.