When I say that I run ultra marathons, one of the first questions I get is usually along the following lines:
‘But what do you think about when you run for such a long time? Isn’t it boring?’
The truth is that it’s so hard that I don’t think. I just put one foot in front of the other as best as I can, and thinking would be an unwelcome distraction. It’s all about sparing my mental energy.
This weekend, this simple strategy worked again. What happened? I realised a childhood dream: I ran the Canyon De Chelly ultra marathon in Arizona. Running this race was one of the main reasons I started training. I also vividly remember a substitute teacher who taught our class when I was about seven. He was passionate about Native Americans and told us about the Apaches, the Navajo code breakers, Geronimo and the Wounded Knee massacre. It stuck. In fact, I can still remember the tune we learned about life in Arizona.
Fast forward almost 40 years (time flies right?), and here I was, trying to be part of the race a thousand miles away from London, and managing to get in despite the crashing website. It only dawned on me a few weeks later: I was in. Me being me, I immediately started organising the logistics. I was supposed to go with a friend of mine, and possibly our respective husbands. But life happened, and as the start date was approaching it was only me who could go. Frankly, I thought about dropping out. Because, you see, it wasn’t just a race: I actually had to go to Chinley. It was an expedition. The only way was to fly to Phoenix and then rent a car to drive 500 km to the place where the race started. The thing was, I didn’t really like driving and I had never driven in the US. What to do?
There is a first time to everything. I flew from London, took a shuttle to the car rental center in Phoenix at 3am London time, and managed to drive myself to a nearby hotel. After a short night and a lot of jet lag, I drove to Chinley. The journey was quite an experience. I started on Interstate 17 to Flagstaff, and then took Interstate 40 to Holbrook. The landscape was becoming more and more dry. When I left the Interstate for the last leg of the journey to Chinley, it felt a bit like driving on the moon: there was nobody on the road, and I spent a long time without seeing a house or civilisation for that matter. The sky was blue, the stones in the horizon pink, and the plain yellow. It was surreal.
I arrived in Chinley right on time to get my bib and my race packet. Fellow runners were friendly and helpful, and I found out that some had already done the race a few times before. I couldn’t help wondering why they kept coming back to it. I was soon to find out: this was a unique race, a delicate mixture of great beauty, wilderness, fortitude and community spirit.
We gathered at the visitor center at 5pm. Shaun Martin, the race Director, explained to us how the race came to life six years ago, and from then on it became more and more popular. He did so while showing his emotions, and it was clear that the race was a family affair as well as a declaration of love to his community. After so many years in the Corporate world where showing emotions is frowned upon, I found his way of communicating simple, refreshing and gentle. Maybe I have become cynical. In London –and more generally in the Western world, I feel judged all the time. Because of this, I have learned to hold back and never tell what I really think , or how I really feel. I know that all my moves are interpreted and analysed for ulterior motives. Recently, my travel plans even ended up in the press ! While listening to Shaun, I couldn’t help thinking that we have lost some of our values.
We were then treated to Navajo songs and explanations. What amazed me was the fact that the Navajos were massacred and persecuted, but they didn’t hold any grudges. Quite the opposite: we were made to feel welcome in spite of all our differences. This was diversity and inclusion at its best: no theory, just kindness and mutual respect. So why is it so difficult to be inclusive in my world? Why do we talk about it all the time but end up bullying women and patronising minorities? Clearly we could learn a thing or two from the Navajos.
I didn’t sleep well. The race was supposed to start at 7.00 am, with a registration at 6.00am. It was pitch dark, and cold. A coffee and some Navajo corn stew made me feel a bit better. Once my bags were dropped, I attended the Navajo blessing. The sun was rising, and all the runners were gathered around a fire for the ceremony. We didn’t start until 7.30 am, and I was becoming nervous.
It was eventually time to start. What had I done? The thing is, I am an optimistic by nature. I thought that it was going to be an easy 55 km. After all, I had already done a 100 km race, so what could go wrong? Of course, I knew that there was a bit of sand at the start, and a bit of a climb to go on top of the Canyon, but I hadn’t thought much of it. Well, as it turned out, once again I was wrong. There was sand involved almost all the time, and the sand at the start was particularly soft. It got better, but we then had streams to cross. And after 25 km or so, you had to start climbing to get on top of the canyon. And believe me, it was steep. My watch mentioned 3000m of elevation before the battery died. That’s 10,000 ft, if you like numbers. I found it impossible to run on such a narrow, stony and steep path. In fact, I was scared. Let’s just say that I am not a climber (can you hear the British understatement here?). I made it to half point eventually and was rewarded with magnificent views, fresh socks (pure bliss!) and great food. I need to come clean: I really thought about quitting at that point in time –it had been too hard. But then I took comfort in the fact that from that point on gravity would help me. It would be easier. And this time I knew what to expect. I didn’t quit. I hadn’t come all this way to quit anyway. I soldiered on.
At the start line, with new friend and fellow runner Emily Willemin.
I took my time and went back to the finish line, alternating walking (a lot) and running (a little) as best as I could. Words simply couldn’t convey what it felt like to be surrounded by huge red cliffs, to catch glimpses of horses running in the wild, and to see turkeys behind bushes. I saw a snake too. There were old houses, and I started imagining what life in the canyon would be, without water or electricity, in this immense stretch of land. Surely a humbling experience. I was such a city girl. I felt minuscule.
On the bright side, I thought it was impossible to get lost. Because of the sand, I was always noticing the footsteps of other runners. This meant that for the first time ever in an ultra marathon, I knew I couldn’t take a wrong turn. This was reassuring. See, there was a silver lining. To be fair, the race was well-marked anyway.
I learned a few things too: did you know that you could grunt while walking? Obviously, you can grunt while running. But I found out that you could do it too while walking, especially in soft sand. I have also found out that sand could go anywhere: I found some in my bra after the race, and when I blew my nose after the race there was sand in it.
I eventually caught a glimpse of the finish line. I had made it. Everybody was cheering, and I even managed a pathetic little run. That said, I wasn’t sure I could stand for much longer. I got my finisher necklace from Shaun, and I have been wearing it ever since. I crashed on a nearby cushion, exhausted. Ten minutes later, I was called back for an award. Would I be able to stand? I barely managed. Everybody was thanking me for having come from so far away, which felt amazing. In fact, I felt privileged to have been able to participate. Some runners had driven a far longer time than the time it took me to come from across the ocean! I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about, but really appreciated the attention. And look at the beautiful jacket I was given, courtesy of Bison Trail Embroidery
The rest of the day passed in a blur. I went back to my bedroom after some much needed food –the Navajo fried bread was amazing!- and slept for 12 hours straight, which hadn’t happened since my teenage years.
I came back to Phoenix this morning. The drive was much easier the second time. Despite having only spent a day or two in Arizona, I felt like I was leaving a familiar place. It had been such a unique experience. In fact, it had been at the same time the most beautiful and the toughest race I had ever done. Come to think of it, it was so much more than a race. I had felt a connection with the beautiful surroundings and the Navajo community. And frankly, that was priceless.