Saturday, March 26, 2016

Monument Valley 50m – a glorious slog through “the most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on earth” (John Ford)

One of several views from the rim of Mitchell Mesa

Giant rock mesas illuminated by the setting sun cast dramatic shadows across the vast valley as I stood in wonder at the rim of Mitchell Mesa, one of the tallest and most prominent rock formations that towered above the desert floor.

View from Mitchell Mesa to the North.  Merrick Butte and the two Mittens are in the foreground. Stagecoach is on the far left.  The Dark Canyon Plateau is in the far distance on the left. Black Mountain, CO is in the distance on the right.

I noticed a chill in the air as I tried to retrace my tracks on the crimson canvas below.  There were the two Mittens, Sentinel Mesa, Stagecoach, Saddleback, Brigham’s Tomb, Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, Spearhead Mesa, the Totem Pole, Rain God Mesa, the Three Sisters.  For the last 12 hours it seemed I had moved around every rock and turned into every corner of the desolate landscape more than one thousand feet below.

Runners looking out to the horizon before the start of the race, 30 minutes before sunrise.

My legs had their way of making me understand that I was 42 miles into the race.  And although I could see the finish line less than half a mile below as a crow would fly, I knew that without a parachute the only way to get there involved another 8+ miles of scrambling, sand-slogging, and shuffling across the desert. Night would fall soon and several of these miles would necessitate navigation in total darkness by the narrow beam of my headlight.

The two Mittens and Merrick Butte from the start line before sunrise.

My run had started almost twelve hours earlier, at the break of dawn.  Those were twelve very special hours.  Only few people had ever been to all the places my fellow runners and I were able to see, and even fewer had been able to see them in a single day.

One minute before the start of the race.

Thanks to race director Matt Gunn and his wonderful team from Ultra Adventures, much of the course was on sacred Navajo land, off-limits to normal tourists who visit the valley on the single dirt road that winds through parts of it.  More than once had I followed course markings past a “no trespassing” sign deep into private Navajo territory.

Conga line up the first hill after the start.

The Navajo call the area Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, the Valley of the Rocks or the Sands that Light Up the Valley. For them it is a sacred place, a heaven on earth with the power to clean the ones within. 

The first rays of the sun shine onto Eagle Mesa. Brigham's Tomb is on the right.

Spiritual qualities aside, running, walking, and slogging through heaps of sand all day had made it abundantly clear to me that life in the valley must be exceptionally challenging.  Less than five inches of annual rainfall means that vegetation is very sparse.  There is no electricity or running water.  And yet, about 100 people live in small houses and traditional Hogans among the rocks, spread out across the valley floor below me.

An unnamed mesa is illuminated by the rising sun.

Thinking about such living conditions was humbling and made me reflect on the meaning of endurance running.  Sustaining 12, 14, or 16 hours of running – even in the harshest of conditions – must surely pale in comparison to enduring life in the desert.

The sun rises behind the Big Indian. Stagecoach Rock is to the left.

In a strange way these thoughts provided a powerful motivation to keep going when the sand in my shoes piled up, when the wind was in my face, and when my legs pleaded me to stop.  If people could sustain life in the desert, how could I not sustain a day-long run through this hostile yet magnificent place?

The rock on the left is just south of the Stagecoach formation.  The two Mittens and Merrick Butte are to the right.  Mitchell Mesa is in the background on the right.

And magnificent it truly was.  Novelist Willa Cather described it in her 1927 work titled Death Comes for the Archbishop, “From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals.  They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between.  This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left.”

Runners heading towards Stagecoach Rock.  Sentinel Mesa is in the background.

Perhaps the first people to recognize the iconic potential of this unique landscape were sheep trader Harry Goulding and his wife Leone who operated a Trading Post in the valley in the 1920s.

Stagecoach Rock

During the Great Depression, the Gouldings took their last dollars and some photographs to travel to Hollywood where they persevered in meeting and convincing director John Ford to shoot his next Western in Monument Valley.

Heading into the vast expanse of the central valley.

The film, Stagecoach, became a major success and made actor John Wayne a star. Many more Westerns and other film productions followed and the rock formations of Monument Valley became a widely recognized symbol of the American West.

Harsh conditions in the valley

As I continued to move across Mitchell Mesa I was reminded of the ancient geology of this place.  The top of these giant rock formations is formed by highly-erosion resistant De Chelly caprock dating back to the Late Triassic period (~225m years ago), a time during which many of the first dinosaurs evolved.

Navajo on horseback guarding the race course.  Stagecoach rock is in the background.

As I began the steep descent from the mesa I moved even further back in time through other geological eras starting with the horizontally layered rocks from the Moenkopi Formation (~240m years ago), followed by vertical cliffs formed by De Chelly Sandstone in the Middle Permian Permian (~260m years ago), and through the more gradually descending rubble at the bottom, which is part of the Organ Rock Shale (~270m years ago), before reaching the bottom of the valley that is made up of Cedar Mesa Sandstone, the remains of coastal sand dunes deposited during the early Permian period (~280m years ago).

Lonesome tree near Sandy Springs in the desert.

It was funny to think of the sand in my shoes as ancient sand, dating back to a time when the entire landmass on Earth was still concentrated on one single supercontinent (Pangea).

Much of the course required slogging through deep sand.  It was like running on a sandy beach.

Animals who lived at that time were just about to experience the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history that killed more than 90% of all marine species and 70% of all land species.

Condensation trail of an airplane devides the Sun's Eye.  There were several rock holes along the Arches Loop.

Night fell soon after I reached the valley floor.  I stopped to put on my headlight, emptied my shoes for the umpteenth time, and readied myself for the final miles to the finish line, which I reached, happy, but exhausted, 14 hours and 6 minutes after I had started my glorious slog through one of the most remarkable sceneries that Earth has to offer.

Ascent and descent through various geological ages on the single track to and from Mitchell Mesa.

The moon had risen and as I glanced around me I could make out the silhouettes of Mitchell Mesa, of the two Mittens, and of all the other rock formations that stood there quietly above the valley as they had and surely would for another hundred million years.

At the finish line.

Special thanks to:

The Navajo Nation who graciously hosted this event
Matt Gunn and his team from Ultra Adventures

Sources (in no particular order):