State 37: New Mexico (2014 Shiprock Marathon)

“It’s really masochistic if you think about it,” I told my friend Ryan as we sat in the finisher’s tent, downing bottles of water and chocolate milk. “They load you up in a bus, haul you thirteen or twenty-six miles into the middle of the desert, drop you off and say, ‘Alright, you’re completely on your own now. Run.’”

0503_shiprockmarathon 04

In any big city race, there’s a “loop” of sorts that we’re expected to traverse, which gives us the illusion that we’re sightseeing but with an elevated heart rate. Or we can trick ourselves into thinking we’re participating in an extreme scavenger hunt. But when you’re driving the very course you’re expected to run, it can feel a little defeating. It’s so remarkably easy to sit on a school bus for about thirty minutes. But knowing that returning on your own two feet will leave you ragged and gasping for air can feel like a kick in the gut.

If we’re expected to run over five miles, then why did god invent cars?

2014 Shiprock Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Shiprock Marathon Google Earth Rendering

Flag Song

Flag Song

But there I was, just a rattlesnake strike away from the Arizonan border, staring straight into the sun as it rose above the 2014 Shiprock Marathon. A crowd of two or three hundred other runners were shuffling excitedly for the race, every one of them grateful for the lack of sandstorms that had besieged New Mexico all week. A cloudless sky had welcomed us, along with a slight breeze from the northeast that got me well acquainted with the bone dry air of the high desert.

The non-profit NavajoYES organized the race, now in its thirty-first year. Instead of the national anthem, we were treated to a flag song, performed by a local drum group. Six men huddled around a large rawhide drum and began chanting to a tribal rhythm, their voices echoing harmoniously. The announcer rattled off a list of states near and far to a few hoots and hollers from the crowd, far from the louder calls he received when he began listing the different Native American tribes participating.

I started the race with a Canadian teacher and Marathon Maniac named Marc, whom I met on the flight to Albuquerque the day before. Affectionately known as “Mr. T” by his students, he was on the final stretch of his 50-states marathon quest, which will end in June with Grandma’s. The first two miles were a gentle uphill, which we ran modestly, as if paying respect to the distance before sparring with it. I could feel the thinness of the air in my nostrils, a familiar sensation from my trips to Colorado. I was unsure how the race would play out at this point, but I was increasingly thinking it would be a slow day.

The start is a gentle, yet consistent uphill.

The start is a gentle, yet consistent uphill.

Once past the starting line, the race was quiet.  The only sounds came from labored breathing, feet upon the pavement and occasional chit-chat.  In that opening mile, an older runner plugged a nostril and sneezed out a thin mist, as if evaporation were irresistible in the high desert even to snot.

The first five kilometers were mostly uphill, culminating at 6,103 feet, the race’s highest point. I still felt completely dry, having used these opening miles to warm up and get acquainted with the air. But once at the top, it was time to scream downhill, with no time to issue apologies to everyone who got fleeting glimpses of my soles.

The road pulled me downward, each foot behaving on its own, spinning relentlessly at a pace I reserve for much shorter races. One by one I sped past runners, wondering if I would see them later, heaving by the roadside, cursing my naïve exuberance. But I couldn’t help it. I was feeling powerful and confident. I had not forgotten that the marathon has taught me time and time again one of its harshest lessons: reel it in at the beginning and save that boiling energy for the end.

Most of the race looked like this.

Most of the race looked like this.

But with downhills, all bets are off. I can’t help but banish the worrisome auditors that run pace calculations in my ear every two minutes. That voice that tells me to take it easy and play it safe becomes too faint over the roaring flood of adrenaline.  I am all but forced to embrace the runner’s id, the childlike freedom to run forever, unencumbered by the silly notion of conservation.

In times like these, I just want to fly.

During this flight, I could see for miles. The road shot out ahead of us, thinning until it became a gossamer thread that spilled over the horizon. There was nothing to distract us from forward movement, which given the endless desert ahead, seemed like a joke.  It sometimes felt like running on a giant treadmill and we weren’t going anywhere. Nothing changed except the people around me.

But I loved every second of it. This was an exercise in running, pure and simple. If you didn’t like the activity itself, free from the polished sheen of flashy races, this wasn’t your event. There were no changes in scenery to draw your attention away from the punishing distance, no turns to hide the many miles to come, and no monuments to admire as we crossed them off … with one very impressive exception.

I love this picture.

I love this picture.

The race itself is named after a giant rock formation that juts out of northwest New Mexico like a castle. Where many mountains in the area are either rounded out or completely flat, Shiprock rises like a cluster of sharp spires. Its silhouette against the morning sun gives it the appearance of a villainous lair built thousands of years ago by a civilization forgotten by time. Given how haunting it looks, standing alone in the middle of a flat expanse, it didn’t surprise me to learn that it holds a very special place in the customs and folklore of the Navajo.

For most of the race, Shiprock kept gaze over us. No matter how many miles we would run, it was always off in the distance, permanent, unfeeling.

I reached the halfway mark, where about fifteen minutes earlier, the half marathoners had begun their own journey to the finish line. Ryan was part of that pack, running his first ever half marathon. I was hoping that he would enjoy it, especially since this race would challenge him in many unique ways that he couldn’t anticipate during training.

I kept hammering out the miles, invigorated by every downhill. It wasn’t long before I felt like I was running alone. With every mile marker, the trappings of the organized race disappeared, leaving the runner bare to run, pure and simple. I started noticing that uphills were somehow capitulating to my momentum. I was breathing easily, my teeth weren’t clenching and I had no curses to spit into the air. As I approached the back of the half marathoners, my heat-seeking straight line path became a bit more serpentine and it felt, once again, like a race.

If you zoom in, you can see the half marathon crowd about a mile ahead

If you zoom in, you can see the half marathon crowd about a mile ahead

Now with a crowd of people, I kept the relentless progress through the unchanging world. The desert remained ahead, infinitely revealing, with no end in sight. Every few miles I would sneak a glance at my watch and realize how close I was to running a PR pace.

What is happening? I asked myself. How is this pace possible? Is the downhill enough to overcome the thin air? Is 5,500 feet even considered altitude? How is it not even warm yet?

And yet, despite the confident pace and joyous stroll through the ancient plains, not all was well. Right at mile 19, I felt an awkward shift in my right foot, as if all the skin on the outside had separated from my flesh. I hadn’t developed a serious blister in a long time, but I felt that streak end in one chilling step. Downhill running is a double-edged sword, and after wielding it with gusto for two-thirds of the race, I was beginning to notice the cuts on my skin.

Ryan 10/13 of the way through his debut half marathon

Ryan 10/13 of the way through his debut half marathon

A mile later, we made the first turn of the entire race. The dedicated two-lane road we had been navigating for the last 20 miles stopped when it reached 491. We would run north for the last six miles, heading toward the town of Shiprock. Up ahead I spotted a runner with a bright, neon tech shirt and a white hat. I caught up to him and confirmed that it was Ryan, looking strong and smiling.

But I couldn’t say the same for myself.

The altitude and hard effort had taken their toll and my body had started to rebel. Miles 22 through 24 were almost completely flat, which meant that I had to run harder to keep the same pace. Right on cue, my calves began to falter, and every step sent a buzzing current into my legs as if the road were suddenly electrified. Each one was closer to delivering an unwanted and untimely cramp, so I had to stop and walk, the ghost of my PR floating toward the finish line.

Airborne during the final dash to the finish

Airborne during the final dash to the finish

The rest of the race was the familiar pattern of grunt and breathe. I would run as fast as I could to the next aid station, drink and douse myself in water, and continue to the next one. It was finally starting to feel warm and the cold water absorbing in my tech shirt was heavenly. Though it was no longer muscular and dominant, the engine was still working and I kept a strong pace through those last miles.

We returned to Shiprock High School, where the buses had boarded four hours earlier. We left the road and entered a dry, dirt field, just a zig and a zag away from the cheers of the finish line. It was the first crowd of spectators we had seen all day and they were generous with their support. I passed under the timing sensors and stopped my watch at 3 hours, 28 minutes, having finished my twenty-second marathon in the sacred grounds of the Navajo.

Never would have guessed that time, I thought, clenching a proud fist.

Ryan finished just a few minutes behind me, ending his first half marathon just shy of two hours. When I first saw him, he mentioned something like “every part of me wants to die right now,” but his smile betrayed the morbid sentiment. Most people aim for a local, flat race to test out their mettle. But circumstances made it so he would face the distance at altitude, on a downhill course in the middle of the desert with skin-flaking dry air.

(left to right) Ryan's sinuses acting up, Tom, me, Shiprock

(left to right) Ryan’s sinuses acting up, Tom, me, Shiprock … and this picture makes it painfully apparent how short my shorts are.

All things considered, it was a great day for both of us.

That is, until we spent the remainder of the day trying to get out of the bottlenecked parking lot. The organizers may have done a great job with everything else, but if you’re thinking of running the Shiprock Marathon in 2015, make sure they’ve addressed the post-race parking exodus, because it felt like being in the music video for “Everybody Hurts” but with legs on the verge of seizure.

Once back in Albuquerque, we got together with Amy and Aaron of Lavender Parking Running Fame at Il Vicino Brewing Company.   We shared dinner and a few drinks with them and our college friend Tom, who graciously hosted us for the weekend, before moving to La Cumbre Brewing Company. Much to my delight they had also brought Giuseppe, their snow-white Westie, who often makes cameos in her race stories.  During the course of the evening, I learned that they had hired the same photographer who worked my wedding, and that Aaron’s parents live two houses down from Tom.

But more importantly, I learned that there’s something special about running bloggers. Whatever chemical reaction that causes people to run and write about it also produces the most welcoming and caring people. It’s an infinitely complicated route that has led me to this sport, but if I continue meeting such wonderful people, then I will gladly tread that same path for many years to come.

(left to right): Aaron, Ryan, me, Tom, Amy

(left to right): Aaron, Ryan, me, Tom, Amy

As midnight approached, the day had already caught up to us. We had gotten up at 4 AM, throttled our legs, dehydrated ourselves and sat in a car blaring 90’s hits for three hours. We said our goodbyes and drove back to Tom’s where we all fell instantly asleep.  At the moment, I am doing whatever it takes to make sure this massive blister heals before the 39.3 race miles I’ve committed to running this weekend. If the hot and humid forecast holds up, then I’m staring down another intense challenge.

Maybe we are masochists.

Marathon_Map 047 (NM)

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About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

30 Responses to State 37: New Mexico (2014 Shiprock Marathon)

  1. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results | Dan's Marathon

  2. Charlotte says:

    I was so envious reading this post! I love that area of the country and now that I’m a runner..I will have to put that on my list. I loved your vivid description of that marathon. I am training for my first one in Oct and I am like a sponge reading everyone’s account. Yours made the top of my list. ~Run On~

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for reading, Charlotte, and for the pingback! I remember training for my first marathon with nothing but fondness, and since you only get that experience once, I love reading about others going through the same process, relishing the new milestones and challenging themselves on a weekly basis. Best of luck with the summer long runs!

  3. I didn’t need to read a word – the photo of the start line drew me in and instantly I wanted to run this marathon.

  4. Pingback: Tired, Sick or Karma…Whatever | I Run in the Rain

  5. Amy says:

    I’m always nervous when people visit New Mexico for fear that they’ll take one look around and wonder why on earth they spent hard earned money to visit this dry, hot place with no rivers and no trees. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the race except for the parking issue (I want to apologize, even though it isn’t my fault?) and even had moments where you thought you might PR. PLUS, I’m very happy that you took away some of the cultural significance of Shiprock and the flag song. The incorporation of Native American tradition really sets this race (and the state) apart, and I’m glad that you could experience some of that uniqueness in your 50 state quest.

    And a huge congratulations to Ryan (great picture of him sneezing or something by the way!). We had a great time hanging out with you all!

    ….I also just read that whole post in a Spanish accent. 🙂

    • Dan says:

      I should just carry a classic Spanish guitar and a rose with me everywhere. That way, when I pronounce your lovely state New Méjico, I won’t come off as a complete tool.

      Thanks for taking the time to show us a little bit of ABQ. It’s always fun for me to visit new cities and partake in a tiny sliver of the local flair, and I’m glad our schedules matched up to allow for a meet-up. I wish I could have stayed longer, but that just means I’ll have to make another trek out in the future, hopefully with enough time to hit up Rebel.

      Thanks again!

    • Ryan J says:

      Thanks very much, Amy! It was great meeting you, Aaron, & Giuseppe! (Also I’m glad you liked the sneezing pic as much as I did.)
      -Ryan

  6. Jen says:

    Congrats on another marathon finish and on what sounded like a fantastic running experience up to mile 22-ish. So jealous you got to meet the Lavenders – I’m hoping to meet them in Santa Rosa in August, and it’d be great to meet you too at some point!

    • Amy says:

      We WILL make this happen in Santa Rosa! Though, sadly, we can’t bring Giuseppe on the plane 😦

    • Dan says:

      Thanks Jen, and congratulations to you on your Big Sur finish! I’ve had the San Francisco Marathon on my radar for a long time, and I just might go for it next summer (no promises though), in which case, I’ll definitely holler at you for some fun times in the Bay Area. Though with all the moving you’ve done, I’m not entirely sure where you are these days. Regardless, I’m confident that we’ll make a meet-up happen.

      • Jen says:

        Oh, I’m still around the Bay Area so definitely hit me up if you end up running SFM! I might actually run that in 2015 as well, since they have a “52.4 club” for people who have run both half marathons and the full in consecutive years. I’m not usually into gimmicks like that, but when I found out there was a free hoodie… I must say, I’m a sucker for free loungewear.

  7. Nice work, Dan! Again, totally jealous reading your recap, even when you get to the grunt and breathe section. I know the pain associated with it, but I also know the pure joy that comes from fighting through it. Nice job. Also, that “shiprock” looks a lot like something out of Game of Thrones.

    • Dan says:

      Dude, now that you mention it, Shiprock kind of looks like the Iron Throne itself, with its jagged peaks that look sharp enough to cut. That only adds to the intimidation. As I wrote the recap, I wanted to apologize to the Navajo for characterizing that sacred mountain as something evil … but seriously, it’s just so imposing.

      Thanks for reading.

  8. Pingback: Race Medals | Dan's Marathon

  9. Mike says:

    Now I’d like to read the 2014 Shiprock race recap from your quads’ perspective… how did they feel the day after bombing the downhills on limited oxygen?

    As much as I loved running Chicago, and as much as I look forward to the other big-city races I’ll run in the future, there’s something very special about a race like Shiprock, where you can stretch the legs in wide-open spaces while feeling like you have the entire state (almost) to yourself. It’s a major reason why, given a choice between road and trail running, I’ll always gravitate toward the trails.

    Great job on another strong marathon outing despite a nasty blister, 19% less oxygen and the unfiltered Southwest sun beating down on you. Nothing will ruin a perfectly good run quite like blister onset, and trying to guess (on the fly) exactly how large a blister is based on the pain. Nefarious little nuisances, they are. On the bright side, they do heal quickly so yours should be but a blogging memory by the time you reach Maryland.

    Thanks for a lovingly detailed account of the consummate New Mexico experience… assuming the parking situation improves, I’ll definitely give Shiprock strong consideration when I point my “50 States” RV toward the Southwest.

    • Dan says:

      Believe it or not, I was more of a stiff mess after St. Louis than this race. I ran very similar times, but this time it was the bottoms of my feet that were carping louder than every other muscle group, with that nasty blister holding a megaphone. It’s healed up considerably in just these last three days, so I’m no longer that worried about the weekend.

      You would have loved this race, Mike. If I’ve learned anything from reading your race stories, it’s your insatiable desire to connect with the outdoors. Rain, heat, mountains or plains, you just love running through the earth and, dare I say it, possibly reaching some sort of spiritual euphoria from it. So to run through this mystical desert with such an enormous, omnipresent sentinel would have definitely made you smile (even though it’s not a trail race).

      I would definitely recommend it to you — though I feel like you might also lean toward the Bataan Memorial Death March for the name and challenge alone. There’s something worth considering …

  10. MedalSlut says:

    Man, the bus ride out to the start brings back memories of Loch Ness, but instead of 30 minutes, it takes about an hour to navigate the winding back roads along the loch. It’s pretty humbling to see just how far you have to run back!
    I’m also jealous you got to meet the Lavenders (and Giuseppe!!). You guys all need to plan a European tour. Seriously.
    Well done on another comfortable (mostly) fast marathon. And good luck this weekend! Hope the weather is kind.

    • Dan says:

      The glass half full says “humbling” and the empty contingent goes with “defeating” — sure, part of you thinks it’s awesome that you’re capable of running back … but then you realize just how much easier life became when our ancestors invented the wheel.

      The Lavenders were excellent people, so yes, you are very right to be jealous. You should make the road trip over to ABQ the next time you’re Texas-side. And as for that European tour, don’t think we’ve forgotten about you — we just haven’t made our Scrooge McDuck fortune yet, which we will instantly use to gallivant throughout Europe, one race at a time. Until then though, I’ve got my name in the London Marathon, long stretch that it is …

      Thanks for reading!

      • MedalSlut says:

        Good luck with the ballot – I missed out! I was too busy at work and when I got my first chance, the ballot was closed. I think Vienna might be calling my name instead….

  11. Pingback: State 38: Maryland (Maryland Half Marathon) | Dan's Marathon

  12. I don’t know if I could do that one…just being out in the open for that many miles sounds daunting to me.

    Also, random question, are you part of the Marathon Maniacs group?? I’m sure you’ve qualified for many of the levels about 10 times.

    • Dan says:

      I’m not a Maniac, but if I were, I’d be at the Four-Star (Iridium) level for nine marathons in nine different states in a year. I can’t imagine qualifying above that anytime soon because it’d require far too many 26.2-milers in very little time. I like to think that while I do run a lot of marathons, I don’t run so much that I end up in a non-competitive zone. So for that, I guess I’m not a Maniac. Alas. I do like the camaraderie that they have, and it’d be a great way to expand blog readership …

      Speaking of, thanks for reading 🙂

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