Land of Sand Part II: Page, AZ and the Antelope Canyon 50 miler
I know it’s been forever since I wrote the first installment in the “Land of Sand“. Excuses are excuses, but it’s been a little hard to accept yet another DNF. It’s been harder to accept a lack of motivation since returning from the desert. I can make excuses about how I’m not over my burnout from last year, about how work is crazy and is sucking the life out of me, or about how my knee and ankles still don’t feel great. But all of those are just excuses and I don’t whole-heartedly believe any of them. So you shouldn’t either. Anyways, I’m finally ready to talk about our adventure in Page, so here it is.
After our nighttime journey to Horseshoe Bend, we went to bed without any concrete plans for the next day. I knew I wanted to participate in the Ultra Adventures trifecta challenge, so I suggested that we take the easy route down to the Colorado River. The info we could find on Cathedral Wash was pretty limited. The only thing we knew going in was that when in doubt we should stay to the right of the wash/canyon and there may or may not be a handful of cairns to guide us in the tricky parts. It’s a popular trail in the summer, with pictures showing people hiking in a conga line, so we assumed we could definitely do it. Spoiler: we were right and the trail was awesome. Dipping our toes in the Colorado River was pretty cool, but honestly the best part was the trail to and from the river. At one point the trail navigated down a huge 30+ foot pourover, which was pretty interesting since my knee and ankle were pretty sore from the day before. We relaxed at the river for a bit before heading back up to our car.
Cathedral wash was about an hour drive from Page and the highway went right over the split between the upper and lower Waterholes canyon. Miles 31-33 ish of the race the next day went through the canyon, but Jason really wanted to see it and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it that far, so we decided to get a little preview. We had done some research so we knew that getting a permit from the Navajo Nation backcountry office was recommended to avoid having your car towed. After a little confusion, we found the backcountry office and acquired our free permits. Then we headed to Waterholes canyon to begin our adventure! The descent down into Waterholes canyon drops about 200 feet in 5/100ths of a mile but luckily the course markers had already done this section so we just had to follow the little pink flags down the most efficient route. The canyon immediately wowed us with twisting, swirling sandstone walls that glowed red in the mid-afternoon light. After a brief section through a tight canyon, it opened up before getting to the main section of the upper canyon. Here the walls rose above us and it was easy to imagine we were in sandstone wonderland, complete with ladders strategically placed up the steepest sections of the canyon.
Afterwards we headed to packet pickup, which also involved a Navajo taco for each of us and watching the traditional Navajo hoop dance. Ultra Adventures really does a great job of allowing runners to really experience the areas where they host their races! We went to bed early, but before falling asleep I told Jason of the possibility of me dropping out after Antelope Canyon at mile 11. I also told him if I made it past that aid station then he should meet me at Horseshoe Bend and that I would probably drop there.
The alarm rang bright and early. I bandaged up my knee, packed up my running vest, and pinned on my number. We got to the start with enough time to use the compost toilet at the finish line and walk the short distance to the starting. After a brief course overview and a Navajo blessing, we headed out into the pre-dawn darkness. For a little while I was running with a group of guys and briefly had delusions of finishing the race somewhat close to my goal time. But then the sand started to wear me down and I had to slow down to avoid stabbing pain in my knee. After the first aid station, the course followed a long “road” of deep sand. At first it was nice watching the frontrunners effortless float over the sand but then it became more and more frustrating as I watched countless runners fly past me while I seemed stuck in place. After what seemed like forever, I finally reached the entrance to Antelope Canyon. Although I was frustrated by being at the very back of the pack, but I was happy when I realized that Antelope Canyon looked better and better as the sun rose higher and higher. And I had it pretty much to myself! The jaunt through Antelope was short and I soon found myself struggling through sand again.
The course would up on to the mesa top and then dropped back down into another slot canyon before rejoining the miserable sand road. The way back seemed easier since I had some company in the form of a woman who had the most efficient sand-walking technique I have ever seen! We chatted about life, love, and the mysteries of the universe until we made it back to the aid station where we parted ways. I was so completely done with the race at that point, but the aid station volunteers said I couldn’t drop out at that point. They said I could follow the deep sandy road back to the main highway and figure out how to get back to town or I could follow the race course back. That meant another 5-6 miles in the deep sand, but it was better than wandering aimlessly along a highway. After about a mile of sand running, I caught up to another runner who was walking the downhills (even the back of the packers were still running the downhills at this point). We commiserated about not being able to drop out where we planned and talked about the ailments that led us to purposely starting a race we knew we wouldn’t finish. Luckily they hadn’t pulled the course markings yet, so we were able to follow them all the way back to the finish line, where we turned in our bib numbers and called our loving supporting fiances/husbands to come pick us up.
Just because my knee (and both ankles at this point, not just the injured one) had refused to continue for another 33 miles through deep sand and hard slickrock didn’t mean I wanted to sit in our air conditioned hotel room and gorge myself on ice cream. After a little research (very little research since Page, AZ still does not have high-speed internet and our entire hotel had less capacity that our apartment), we decided to hit up Bucktank draw. It seemed like a straight-forward hike that led to a sandstone arch called “Birthday Arch” and the potential for unnamed slot canyons! When we got to the guardrail at mile 9.75 and dropped down below the highway to the wash, I was immediately frustrated to learn that we would be hiking through more deep sand. At least we could take it as slowly as we wanted without having to worry about cutoffs. We decided to skip the arch, mainly because we could see it from the trail and were more interested in exploring the slot canyons. Although we never found the slot canyon that inspired the whole hike, we did find some small but still beautiful slot canyons. If we had more time, we would have explored further since it seemed like the entire canyon/wash wall was dotted with slot canyons. Maybe one day we’ll be back to see more of them.
Although the original intent behind driving 11 hours to Page, AZ in the middle of February had been to run the Antelope Canyon 50, I’m still happy we went. Over the three days we covered 38.1 miles and 4,800ish feet of elevation gain. Not bad for someone who could barely walk the week before! Page, AZ is known as being a main access point for Lake Powell, but there is so much more to do then just sit on a houseboat or ride jet skis. The slot canyons in the area are beyond compare and, although they require slogging through deep sand, the hikes are spectacular. I don’t think I’ll be back to run through that type of environment since I’m much more of a mountain girl, I do want to go back and do more exploring. Next time you’re longing to escape the grey of winter for the contrast of bluebird skies with red sandstone walls, head to Page, AZ. You won’t regret it!