Ultra Trail Racing or Time Travel in Monument Valley?
The objective was ambitious, but the journey would be nothing short of epic. When my wife and I explained to family and friends that we wanted to head to Monument Valley in March 2016 for some desert trail races, we received mixed responses: either pure excitement or blank stares.
Many who have visited or heard of Monument Valley knew exactly what we'd encounter: a beautiful desert scene with towering rock formations that astonish you to awe. For those who weren't familiar with Monument Valley, we listed classic Hollywood movies with its defining American West landscapes--huge expanses of open desert interrupted only by pronounced buttes of red rock shooting up as much as a thousand feet into the sky. More often than not, that landscape was Monument Valley in those films.
We made it official: we signed up for the race. Southern Utah or bust. The course options in Monument Valley included a 50-miler, a 50k, and a half marathon (which was actually about 14.5 miles in length). My wife, Jill, the more ambitious runner in our relationship, signed up for the 50k. I modestly signed up for the half marathon, knowing I'd run this one a little differently than my other races--taking my time and soaking up all the amazing views.
Along with our friends, we traveled from our various homes around the United States to the Utah-Arizona border, where Monument Valley rests. Jill and I flew from our home in Seattle to the Southwest, rented an SUV, and drove several hours the rest of the way.
It was...an unmistakable first-hand experience of some of the largest, most beautiful rock formations we had ever laid our eyes on.
When we reached Monument Valley for the first time, we couldn’t believe our eyes. There was a feeling of complete awe and wonder to see these huge natural sandstone towers. It was a strange combination of both familiarity, based on all of the classic western movies we had seen over time, plus an unmistakable first-hand experience of some of the largest, most beautiful rock formations we had ever laid our eyes on.
Planning for our runs, we checked to see if the race day weather forecast looked favorable: clear skies and mild temperatures—not bad for some desert trail running. An amazing experience was guaranteed.
The 50-miler and 50k had a 7:00 a.m. start time--right before sunrise. As the runners anxiously crowded around the starting line, an orange-yellow hue lined the eastern horizon beyond the classic Mitten Buttes.
My race, the 14.5-mile "half marathon," started at 8:00 a.m.--shortly after sunrise. The countdown began: one hour, a few minutes, ten seconds. The starting call sounded, and we were off--running down the sandy trail into the valley. We immediately ran around the backside of West Mitten, and we surrounded the butte for the first three to four miles of our race.
Despite the long distance course, our energy was inexhaustible thanks to cheering crowds, stunning scenery and the excitement form other racers. It was an exhilarating experience--the perfect way to start not only our time in Monument Valley, but also our entire Southern Utah road trip.
We took a moment to hydrate and eat...my favorite, Navajo quesadillas.
The race progressed, and we eventually reached an aid station in the middle of the valley. We took a moment to hydrate and eat any number of snacks and foods that had been prepared--including my favorite, Navajo quesadillas.
Fueled up and ready to press on, we left the aid station in a gallop. Our race continued along a loop of horse trails weaving through the valley's impressive towers, mesas and buttes.
"It was brutal.
The 50-mile and 50k runners completed multiple loops as well as an aggressive 1,500-foot climb to the top of Mitchell Mesa--a once-in-a-lifetime experience. "You could feel the burn in your legs and the hot sun beating down--it was brutal," my wife, Jill, recalled. "But once we reached the top of Mitchell Mesa, the stunning views in every direction made the climb up totally worth it. It was a special moment on top--especially since so few people can reach this exact spot in this Navajo Nation land."
After completing our loop in the half marathon, we returned to the aid station one last time for our final cup of water and to inhale one more quesadilla slice--I was ready for the final push. We pushed ourselves down the main valley road for the last several miles to the finish line.
The final half mile was almost completely uphill. All previous mileage through the sandy terrain was catching up with me, but I pressed on. The finish line came into view as I made the final turn. With one last burst of energy, I crossed the line and came to a halt with a big smile on my face.
A large group of runners with their families and friends were gathered at the finish line taking in the beautiful day and cheering for the runners as they finished up. I didn't waste much time, and went straight to the water cooler...and then proceeded to grab a celebratory Navajo Taco.
Several hours later, my wife and our other friends wrapped up their 50k race. The excitement and challenge of running and finishing the entire race left them exhausted but fulfilled.
Although our trip centered around the trail races in Monument Valley, it was a great opportunity to explore more of southern Utah. After the race, we ended up road tripping north into Moab and hiking in Arches and Canyonlands national parks. While strikingly different from my usual outdoor scene in western Washington, Utah has so much unique beauty of its own, and it keeps bringing me back, visit after visit.
If you want to take your spring vacation to the next level, why not tackle a trail race in southern Utah or make a larger trip of it as well. Check out Grand Circle Trails for more info on race options.
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Scott Kranz is a freelance photographer, writer and videographer based in Seattle, Washington. Over a year ago, Scott left his office job and original career in law to chase a dream and follow his passion for the outdoors. Follow Scott's work and adventures on his website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.