Antelope Canyon 55K: The Recap

I’ve never run such a long race before and I’m even less experienced with trying to write a recap for that many miles! In the end, I’m going to share my Antelope Canyon 55k story with you like I remember it: surviving from aide station-to-aide station with a whole lotta sand in between!

23 miles of ankle-deep sand. I think that about sums it up!

The 55k began at 7am on Saturday morning, so Heidi and I set an alarm for 5am. This gave us plenty of time to get dressed, eat some breakfast, and let the jitters set in. Surprisingly, we were both nervous but neither of us were terrified like expected. We knew we had a long day ahead of us and that wouldn’t change; what good would butterflies do?

Page, Arizona is a tiny town {i.e. I had no cell service!} so it took us no more than 7 minutes to drive across the city to the slickrock amphitheater where the race began. We sat in the parking lot for a solid 15 minutes, watching elite runners warm up and stretch their legs. I laughed to Heidi; I had plenty of miles ahead of me, so there wasn’t going to be a separate warm up! We finally pulled ourselves from my car, shedded our warm layers and left our drop bags on the appropriate tarp. After a quick trip to the eco-friendly composting toilet, we had killed all of our surplus time. It was go-time!

Antelope Canyon 55k

Unlike shorter races, the start of the Antelope Canyon 55K was unceremonious. Honestly, I missed the announcer saying “go” and simply looked at Heidi as the mass of runners began moving around us. I guess it was time to start moving?

The thought of 34 miles was enormously overwhelming to me so instead, I mentally set myself up for smaller sections. The first aide station was located at mile 2 {and what would be mile 21 on the return trip} so I told myself to ease into the first few miles and enjoy the scenery while warming up my legs. Of course, that was easier said than done as Heidi and I crossed the street and immediately trudged into ankle-deep sand. We had known the course was sandy, but we had both assumed it would be packed down. This stuff was loose, deep and difficult!

Regardless, the sun continued to crest the skyline and we were treated to the dawning of a beautiful day. It’s no secret that I chose the Antelope Canyon race because of the scenery, and I immediately knew I had made a good decision. Sandy or not, the course was stunning!

Antelope Canyon 55k

We chatted through the first aide station at mile two, briefly giving our numbers to the volunteer who was checking us off the list. We were already near the back of the pack, but neither of us minded as we wholly expected to be there the entire day. I felt great but let’s face it: I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. There was no way I would push myself to go faster so early in the day!

The thick sand continued as we followed the semblance of a path through a wash and up a steep climb. After cresting the hill, we had a semi-long downhill of sand that took us directly to the second aide station at mile 5. For some reason, my foot was irritated right where my insole hits the wall of my shoe. It had never happened before but I’ve dealt with hot spots while backpacking. I pulled up a chair at the aide station and grabbed some duct tape from my UD Jenny pack. After taping over the entire area, I knew that I would be fine. Sure, it could hurt but the skin would be unscathed with the protection of duct tape.

Antelope Canyon 55k

It was at this time that we realized an added bonus of Hoka trail shoes for Arizona running: the height of the shoe is enormously helpful in deep sand! Heidi was dumping buckets of sand out of her shoes at every aide station but I was totally fine. Because the soles are so much higher, I was lifted above the sand and barely had a few grains inside my shoe. In fact, after taping my foot, I never took my shoes off for the remainder of the race!

Our next section was the longest distance between aide stations that we would encounter for the day; the next stop wasn’t until mile 13. However, it was also one of the most visually and technically stunning portions of the course. You see, the distance from mile 5 -13 was all on private Navajo land that tourists are not allowed to visit without a Navajo guide. Fortunately, the Navajo tribe had given the race permission for runners to be on the land, and a Navajo member was standing at the gate as we left the aide station. Instead of forking to the right like all of the tourists had to do, we got to climb through a hole in the fence and begin our run through the private, rarely-traveled land. It was so cool!

Within a mile, the sand petered out as the slickrock filled the landscape. We clambered over some steep rock walls before finally reaching the Colorado River– and the famous Horseshoe Bend!

Antelope Canyon 55k

Antelope Canyon 55k

At this point, we had caught up to a dozen runners from various groups. The view was breathtaking and all of us agreed that snapping photos and soaking in the landscape was far more important than a faster time. I didn’t want to completely quick moving though, so we only spent five minutes snapping some pictures.

Antelope Canyon 55k

Antelope Canyon 55k

Heidi, running along the lip of the Colorado River

From Horseshoe Bend, the trail continued along the canyon edge, hopping around on the stickier slickrock. It was a nice change of pace from the deep sand but for me, this was the hardest point in the entire race. We hit mile 8 or 9 and I was beginning to question myself. How was I going to make it through another marathon?!

We climbed up some sandy rocks and the temperatures continued to rise. I felt self-doubt creep into my brain and knew I had to shut it down. It was too early for that and it could only ruin the day. Instead of capitulating to the negativity, I began an incessant stream of conversation with Heidi. We talked about podcasts; we talked about a book she is reading; we talked about people we knew; and we talked about my upcoming bachelorette party. In essence, we talked about anything and everything other than the race!

Within 10 minutes, I felt my mood turn around and the pep returned to my step. It’s amazing what a strong mental constitution can do for you!

Antelope Canyon 55k

One of the many technical sections

We continued crawling through the landscape, battling thick sand and shaky slickrock. We both laughed to ourselves as we tripped over the geographical features; who could run on this stuff? As it turns out, apparently those elite runners are also like billy goats! I turned around to tell Heidi something and saw a few runners on the skyline: the elite 50 milers had caught us!

I admired the lead runner as he literally skipped by me, skirted the narrow ledge and launched off the sandy boulder before scampering off into the sand. He was clearly deep within his pain cave and barely acknowledged us, but I was impressed. Because we were on private land, we weren’t running on a defined trail: it was essentially desert bushwhacking while searching for the tiny ribbons tied to the shrubs. This guy not only conquered the trying geological features but he also was an expert navigator– he had no problems route finding. On the bright side, it gave me someone to follow– until he literally ran away from me!

Antelope Canyon 55k

Finding the trail = search for the pink ribbons!

Eventually, the course veered away from the canyon edge as we crossed the desert towards the aide station at mile 13. As it turned out, everyone had lost GPS signal while on Navajo land so we were surprised to see the aide station sooner than expected. Our watch told us we were at mile 11 but I had also lost signal for an undetermined amount of time. Such a pleasant surprise!

We zipped through the third aide station, barely stopping to say thank you to the volunteers. I couldn’t eat any of the food and Heidi was fine, so we figured it was better to just keep going. Besides, my favorite part of the course was coming: Water Holes Canyon!

We immediately began the technical descent into the canyon, climbing over rocks and using our hands to slide down the slippery canyon wall. I found the leftover remnants from a previous runner who totally ate it and lost his fuel in the process, so I packed them up inside my Jenny vest. Once I hit the ground of the canyon, I was psyched– so beautiful!

Antelope Canyon 55k

Water Holes Canyon is a slot canyon but is nowhere near as famous as the nearby Antelope Canyon. Only the 50 mile and 100 mile runners went through Antelope so I was happy to see that Water Holes was equally beautiful. Towering walls rose above us as the canyon floor grew incredibly narrow. There were a few spots where we had to use our hands to stem up to the next level, so speed wasn’t the priority. It was like an adventure race!

Antelope Canyon 55k

Near the end of the canyon we found a friend that we had met earlier in the morning. As it turns out, all the stemming and butt-sliding hadn’t treated her well– she had ripped a couple of holes in the butt of her capris! She turned around to show us and we realized she wasn’t kidding; these holes were huge, and with almost 20 miles left in the day, there was no way she could run with those pants. Thankfully, Heidi had an extra long sleeved shirt on her pack so she gave it to this gal to tie around her waist. It wasn’t a perfect solution but at least our friend could run confidently knowing that no one was staring at her ass!

Antelope Canyon 55k

We finally reached the end of the canyon which concluded with an epic ladder climb. After climbing our way out, we had yet another steep ascent to finish the long haul back to the desert floor. From here, it was a wide, sandy road back to the aide station at mile 18 {which was the same station from mile 5}, and fortunately, it was very runnable. For the first time in awhile, Heidi and I were able to run and reached the aide station full of smiles. At 18 miles, this was the farthest I had ever run and I felt great!

We checked in with the volunteer who noted that we had passed a handful of people in the 13 miles since we left her. I thanked her and headed to our drop bag to grab some more fuel. I wasn’t eating as much as I hoped, but I still was consuming 200-250 calories per hour. I needed more food!

We began the sandy climb that had been so enjoyable on our way to the aide station hours before. Naturally, going up was nowhere near as fun, and for the second time that day, we both hit a bit of a mental wall. For me, it was less obtrusive though and I noticed that my legs felt great on the climb. With only 3000 feet of gain in this course, my legs are used to MUCH more elevation gain and I found myself accelerating as I pounded up the hill. I may not be able to handle sand but I think my quads like to climb.

The next three miles passed uneventfully as Heidi grew quiet and I tried not to annoy her. It was then that I realized that I have the opposite reaction than most during difficult endurance events: I get cheerful. What?!

Antelope Canyon 55k

Heidi needed a moment at the mile 21 aide station so she took a seat while I dug out her drop bag. I didn’t dare sit down for fear that I wouldn’t get back up. My feet felt swollen but I also knew that my Hokas wouldn’t go back on if I took them off. My spare shoes were in this drop bag {New Balance Leadville 1210}, but I decided that I would finish the race in the Hokas. I’m happy with that decision.

As we headed downhill towards the final half marathon of the day, I felt a stabbing pain in my left knee. In fact, it was so crippling that my knee almost buckled and I was close to falling in the sand. I righted myself and sighed; this wasn’t a shock and I had dealt with this before during a half marathon a few years ago. You may remember that I have some wonky issues with my spine and regularly see an ART doctor for treatment. I visited him prior to the race and he said things were a bit tight. As a result of all of the running, my psoas was tightening up and yanking on my hip which was pulling on my IT band. There was nothing I could do other than grin and bear it.

We jogged back through the slickrock amphitheater where the race began before climbing up on top of a plateau that circumnavigated the city of Page. We quickly hit up the Page Rim aide station at mile 23 before heading out on the final 10 mile loop of the day. A volunteer told me that the entire loop was packed dirt and very runnable so I was excited; maybe we could finish this day with some speed!

Heidi and I began running but after a few minutes, I realized that the knee would be more sporting than I hoped. I could run the flats and the uphills but the downhills were out of the question. Heidi was suffering through her own struggle while battling stomach issues, so the two of us trucked along in silence. It was then that I had a stern mental conversation with myself; I was 10 miles away from finishing my first ultra and less than a 5k from my first marathon. There was no way that my knee was going to rain on my parade.

Antelope Canyon 55k

Sunset after the race

Miraculously, my brain overpowered my leg and convinced me that I was fine so I continued moving towards the final aide station at mile 27. Heidi fell back a bit but I knew she was there and needed some time to herself without my annoyingly cheerful self. So, I powered into the Lake Powell aid station to wait for her arrival.

Once she gathered herself at Lake Powell, we set out for the final seven miles of the day. Again, we ran along the back half of the plateau so the trail was runnable and smooth. The hugest mental game came around mile 30 when the trail crossed directly underneath out hotel! Literally, you could see Heidi’s car in the parking lot and the window to our room. How frustrating is that?! I felt like a dog following her nose and I physically forced myself away from the comfy bed and hot shower. We were so close!

The final three miles weren’t easy and they seemed to drag on for-ev-er. However, as we scrambled down the final steep descent towards the finish line, I realized I felt great. In fact, I had more in the tank and could have forced myself to finish the 50 mile course, albeit it with some pain. Heidi and I climbed up the stairway to the slickrock amphitheater and ran towards the finish line with smiles on our faces. And, surprisingly, there was tons of people there, waiting to applaud and cheer for us! 34.3 miles = done!

There are a lot of nitty gritty details I’ll discuss in a future post {fueling, gear, etc} but for now, this recap is long enough. Suffice to say, I loved the race and I know more 50k trail races are in my future. Do I want to sign up for a 100 miler now? Hell no….but I could consider a 50 miler….

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35 Comments

  • Reply Cathryn March 2, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Congratulations, what a wonderful achievement!! That is a LONG way to run! And that slot canyon is beautiful even if they terrify me!! Hope you’re really proud of yourself!!

    • Reply heather March 2, 2015 at 7:56 pm

      Slot canyons are definitely scary in rainstorms but we had great weather 🙂 And thank you!

  • Reply Kovas - Midwest Multisport Life March 2, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Awesome job – serious mental toughness!

    • Reply heather March 2, 2015 at 7:55 pm

      Thanks Kovas. I really learned how mental it is!

  • Reply Heidi @BananaBuzzbomb March 2, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    I couldn’t write a better recap. You hit everything right on the head. When and where is the next one?!

    • Reply heather March 2, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      I may or may not be researching already… 😉

  • Reply Ash Diamond March 3, 2015 at 3:30 am

    What an incredibly gorgeous race! Those pictures leave me in awe! I can’t imagine running through the sand – did you train in advance for sand specifically?

    • Reply heather March 3, 2015 at 7:32 am

      Hey Ash! No, I didn’t. I knew there would be sand but I assumed it would be packed down, similar to how it is near Phoenix. Plus, there really isn’t any sand in Colorado to train on, so I just told myself my surplus climbing {from CO mountains} would help offset the sand 🙂 Thank goodness for gaiters!

  • Reply Heather @ The Shoes Run 50 March 3, 2015 at 5:55 am

    Wow that is a beautiful course! I am very impressed by your perseverance and positive attitude even when you were struggling.

    • Reply heather March 3, 2015 at 7:32 am

      Thanks Heather! It wasn’t always easy but fortunately, I was able to keep my brain from freaking out 🙂

  • Reply Art March 3, 2015 at 6:07 am

    I can’t imagine going through all that sand! That is a workout in and of itself. And kudos for powering through the knee pain. I know that I’m stopped by knee pain on some of my runs. But what beautiful scenery to enjoy on your run. Great choice for a race and thanks for the recap. It made me realize that I hadn’t signed up for any of my races this year yet!

    • Reply heather March 3, 2015 at 7:33 am

      Yeah, the knee was shockingly painful but I also knew what it was and that it wouldn’t be damaging. Makes it easier to ignore if you know you won’t be injured the next day!

  • Reply RFC March 3, 2015 at 6:08 am

    CONGRATULATIONS YOU TWO!!! Water Holes Canyon looks amazingly beautiful! So as a regular in the obstacle course racing world, I had to laugh at the poor girl and her capri pants. I have seen more bare ass due to barbed wire rips than I care to remember, haha! Poor thing! Thanks for sharing your adventure with us!

    • Reply heather March 3, 2015 at 7:33 am

      Haha that’s true! I remember people ripping them during the Tough Mudder!

  • Reply Eric Eagan March 3, 2015 at 6:24 am

    Just like that – Bit by the ultra bug.

    • Reply heather March 3, 2015 at 7:34 am

      #Truth 🙂

  • Reply Krysten March 3, 2015 at 6:51 am

    AMAZING!! The ladder climb looks epic!! And I love the views! What a gorgeous race. You rocked it girl!

    • Reply heather March 3, 2015 at 7:34 am

      It really was stunning– definitely worth it!

  • Reply Beth March 3, 2015 at 7:41 am

    That looks AWESOME! I’m so proud of you ladies and really kinda jealous of the scenery!

  • Reply Penélope March 3, 2015 at 7:46 am

    Wow, good job! You are really inspiring! Thank you for that 🙂

  • Reply Hayley@healthyregardshayley March 3, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Wow those views though! Amazing. And congrats! Not an easy feat and you did it!

  • Reply Amanda March 3, 2015 at 8:05 am

    You know that I was so excited to see this post! What a gorgeous course. Again, congratulations to you!

  • Reply Kelly @ Cupcake Kelly's March 3, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Congratulations! What a beautiful (and technical) course, you guys are amazing, reading your post had me terrified!

  • Reply Christine @ Love, Life, Surf March 3, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    OMG those photos! What a stunning place. Congrats Heather (and Heidi)!!! You both are amazing.

  • Reply Heidi Nicole March 3, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Welcome to the dark side… 🙂

  • Reply Alex March 4, 2015 at 8:03 am

    What an awe inspiring place for a race

  • Reply Natalie @ Free Range Human March 4, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Congratulations! That is a really beautiful course. I was in the area a few years ago, and I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did!

  • Reply Christy @My Dirt Road Anthem March 5, 2015 at 4:47 am

    WOW so beautiful!! Huge Congrats to you both on pulling through and finishing your first ultra!

  • Reply Why All Women Should Road Trip Solo - Just a Colorado GalJust a Colorado Gal March 9, 2015 at 4:02 am

    […] my return trip was going to be different as I checked the weather immediately after finishing the Antelope Canyon race. A huge blizzard was predicted across the majority of Colorado, and there was no way to really […]

  • Reply Epic Adventure: How Far Would You Go? - Just a Colorado GalJust a Colorado Gal March 17, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    […] thrive on adventure. And now that my bushwhacking, desert-crossing 55k is over, I’m on the hunt for something different. You’ve heard me say it before: I want a […]

  • Reply Land Conservation: Who Is It For? - Just a Colorado GalJust a Colorado Gal March 19, 2015 at 7:43 am

    […] been mulling it over in my head. Through a long series of events, one of the runners at the Antelope Canyon race had the list of runner emails, and sent a critical email to the race director, including all […]

  • Reply Runner Burnout + What's Next? - Just a Colorado GalJust a Colorado Gal April 16, 2015 at 7:04 am

    […] running the Antelope Canyon 55k in February, I was done with running. As in, stick a fork in me-can’t be bothered-really not […]

  • Reply R2R2R Training: Week #1 - Just a Colorado GalJust a Colorado Gal December 16, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    […] used CrossFit last year during my Antelope Canyon training, and it should come as no surprise that I’m a strong advocate of the sport as an […]

  • Reply Amanda - RunToTheFinish December 30, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    A. You met Heidi, jealous.
    B. OMG amazing. You did a fantastic job really showing exactly what it was like!!

    Congrats to you this was quite an accomplishment and darn you as well for really making me want to do an ultra

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