I’ve been away from my little writey-hole for about a year now, maybe longer – kept away from running and training by injury, and being generally depressed about my athletic hobby. It’s been a year of pain, fear, depression, worry. It’s been a year where I haven’t been inspired by much athletically, which means not much writing – since these two seem to live together so well in my brain.
My year of non-inspired worry has had a lot of lows and not many highs, a lot of learning experiences and not a lot of racing. It’s been a year of sometimes painful hip, and sometime not; a year of sometimes painful feet, and sometimes not.
I signed up for the Canyon de Chelly Ultra sometime back in February, and I was lucky to get in. Geekgirl prodded me and told me to sign up now or it would fill (it did, within 24 hrs), at the time I was barely moving, not really working out, going ever so easy on myself and dying on the inside.
Sesamoiditis and a torqued hip were part of my diagnoses, these are things that became acutely painful together over many years of living with the bones I came with. Undoing the injury would require me to rethink how I use my body completely: stop everything, then rebuild from the ground up. Thus the responsible approach was to experience a full year of paid professionals and listen to their advice…
Like the podiatrist who gave me orthotics that just would not work. Who said I would heal, and gave me hope, but couldn’t put a timeline on it.
And the physical therapist who told me to stop doing everything for several weeks (which was a far worse cure and did not help), and eventually could not fix me.
And the physical therapist who could fix me, but not completely. Who couldn’t figure out how to fix everything, and couldn’t put a timeline on it.
And the acupuncturist who said this was fixable, just give it time.
And the orthopedist who quietly told me that maybe I was done, that my running mileage was now limited for good.
And the massage therapist who made my eyes bleed.
And the shoe guy who patiently listened and made excellent suggestions.
And the strength trainer who gave me impossible things to do, then watched me do them.
And the coach who silently believed in me and kept handing me workouts.
I covered all the bases and tried all advice: Wear heels, don’t wear heels. Work out, don’t work out. Sit, stand, stretch. Do everything. Do nothing. No matter what, there really was no strong pattern to what made me hurt and not hurt. Through this process, I came to a final, peaceful conclusion:
Fuck it. I’m just gonna do what makes me happy.
There were no miracles. Shit didn’t magically get better with help or on its own. I had been confident in February that by October I’d be fit and ready to roll – that maybe this would be a second ultra, or maybe this would be a platform to do other things, or maybe…But that didn’t happen. Training was hard, nothing made sense. I had iffy training runs, races that didn’t quite feel spectacular. The process of rebuilding is confusing and results aren’t always immediately obvious. I decided to go anyway because I really wanted this race for so may reasons.
This is how I found myself quietly standing at the fireside in Chinle, trying to hear the pre-race blessing performed by the race director and his father and other tribal members. Smelling the sweet sage and campfire smoke, waiting for the sun to rise over the edge of the canyon, I stood fussing over last minute gear changes. The race director’s wife had given me number 13 – a very auspicious number, she said it had brought her luck.
The course started steps away from the Chinle Holiday Inn at the mouth of the Canyon. It followed the bed of the canyon to the far end, where it climbed steeply up Bat Canyon on Bat Trail to the top of the wall for 17.5 miles, then it reversed to the start. The trail was mostly jeep trail, climbing gently to the turnaround. Deep sand was at the first and last miles. I knew all these details going in – still, I didn’t really know what to expect. Would my body hold up? I found myself thinking about the orthopedist who suggested that 15 miles a week was my limit – was he right?
The last time I was in Canyon de Chelly, I was probably around 13 years old. I grew up in northern Arizona and northern New Mexico, not far from there. We had gone there as part of an school tour, and my group had special access to areas that were normally off limits. It was then that I learned that the Canyon is a holy place, full of impossible cliff dwellings, painting, petroglyphics, pictograms, stuffed with archaeologist’s treasures. I remember being surprised at water running in the canyon year round, at how chilly and windy a place it was for being in the Arizona desert.
I remember being astounded at the dramatic rocks, the shapes and colors of the walls formed by millions of years of water and wind — and it is pretty hard to impress a teenager. I remember the mystery of the people living in the canyon, who were nearly invisible to visitors but who kept a presence there in what seemed like primitive conditions. It’s a living monument of the Navajo people, a cultural treasure. And here I was again, 30-something years later, exploring the canyon on foot, with access to areas that no one except the locals were allowed. Seriously – what a treat! Why would I not go?
I worried about my iffy hip and hamstring, my newly weird knee, my feet that seemed to bother me randomly, and decided I would do whatever I could. My only intention: finish fast, feel good. The race director said we had been blessed with the best course conditions he had ever seen – fresh rain had made the deep sand packed and runnable. He urged us to yell and yell often – to make expressions of how much we are enjoying ourselves as loudly as we wanted was acceptable in his culture. He had no gun to send us off with, instead we left the start line with the first of many yells uttered into the chilly morning air.
Right away the sand was slippery and muddy – the rain had made silt float to the surface making the first quarter mile tractionless and odd. The first several miles was deep sand with a rained-on surface, making it somewhat packed. Truck and jeep traffic had left narrow ruts of packed sand, not ideal for fast running.
Soon came the first of many water crossings – just a trickle and easily traversed. The second managed to get a sock a little damp. The race director had said that there were water crossings, and I could remember from my previous visit that water and quicksand were in great supply here.
The third water crossing resulted in a damper sock, and I started to question my shoe choice (Hoka Stinson Evo). The fourth and fifth water crossings were over the ankle shoe-filling, icy cold. I stopped for pictures when I couldn’t help myself (I took a lot of pictures). I kept saying, out loud, “wow” as the sun rose and changed the colors of the canyon walls. Newer and more dramatic views opened up around every bend of the trail.
The sixth and subsequent water crossings made me realize that I had to give up any expectations for the day, but I think I stopped worrying about water crossings after about 15 or so. Somewhere in there I realized that I had been turned loose to run and play in the world’s most gorgeous playground with complete access to places that nobody in my world gets to see – and there was food along the way. Just lucky can a person get?!
At about mile 8-ish I ran in to Mo, who was still recovering from a win at Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race. Her knee was bugging her, so my pace turned out to be just fine for her. We trotted along the canyon floor catching up on our stories before got to the steep part – Bat Trail.
Remember that strength trainer who would give me impossible things to do? That was her coaching, pulling me up the steep, rocky stair-step hands-and-feet scramble to the top of Bat Trail, and then back down the trail – strong legs, knees and all.
Mo and I decided to count water crossings on the way back – there had been so many we lost count on the way back, and both of us being science geeks wanted to know the numbers. Mo had made a grievous shoe error, wearing waterproof Salomons which filled entirely with water on every crossing and didn’t empty until the next crossing. Finding this unbearable, she opted to take off shoes and socks and run completely barefoot for the last 15 miles.
I should point out that Mo is not a barefoot runner by habit, so going barefoot when one hasn’t trained for that is pretty extraordinary on its own. But did I mention that she was still recovering from a WIN at the 100 mile Run Rabbit Run? Yeah. Mo is a rock star, and an excellent companion.
Counting water crossings and carrying shoes, we enjoyed all the sites of the canyon without stress or pressure – and the canyon is truly unspoiled, wonderful, holy. Water crossings occasionally made my sesamoid-ish feet hurt painfully, then stop. My hamstring oddly sometimes twinged, then stopped. Miraculously I found myself running – like RUNNING the last miles at a pace that was even stronger than where I started. Remember that coach who believed in me and kept handing me workouts? That was him pushing me down the last 10 miles of the trail. The legs that didn’t hurt? That was hours in the gym with my strength trainer, miles of carefully planned training runs wearing the right shoes.
And then, after 78 water crossings in total, we were done: crossing the finish line to receive handmade turquoise necklaces (made by the race director and his family), eating frybread and mutton stew and shouting thanks to the running gods for the most excellent race I have ever had the privilege of completing.
Now I find myself signing up for a few carefully chosen races over the coming year. I’m thinking yes, I will keep doing what I’m doing – I’m getting stronger, I’m getting better. The rebuilding process isn’t easy or obvious or fun, but boy is it worth it.
Pictures here are courtesy of the excellent Mr. Black, my spouse, who sherpa’d me on the day.