It’s near 7 in the morning on Navajo Mountain and the blue light of the sunrise washes over the high desert from Monument Valley. The Naatsis’áán chapter president of the Navajo Nation drums and blesses 45 of us with a prayer before sending us off on a 32-mile trail race that will take us among wild horses and burros to the San Juan River, through what I am told is some of the most beautiful county I will ever see.
As the prayer comes to an end, the sunlight starts to illuminate the trees on Navajo Mountain. They are such a deep, dark green the mountain almost appears to be black. It hits me in the gut.
The night before the race we were all treated to a home-cooked meal in the Navajo Mountain High School lunch room while we were given the rundown on the race. As we ate and talked, the big question was: “How did you come to find this race?” Many of us that were there for the first time shared a common reason. I can even relate it to the many responses I get from people who find themselves here on the Key Peninsula.
We found it by accident. We didn’t intend to be here, but we’re sure glad we made it.
Navajo Mountain (Naatsis’áán), much like the Key Peninsula, is not a place you just drive through. It’s a village in Utah with an Arizona zip code and one road in that’s 40 miles long and was only paved four years ago. The people are friendly and are happy to share their home with visitors, especially during Ultra Time, better known as the Naatsis’áán 50k and 10k.
The blessing concludes with drumbeats fading away softly. At the stroke of 7 we’re on our way.
The first three miles are a 1,200-foot climb from 5,000 to 6,200 feet. This is where racers like me take it slow and talk with each other along the way. One racer from Tucson and I spent the first four miles together. Tucson tells me about all the running he does playing soccer, the handful of 5ks, the relay race he did with a group of friends, and that this is his first 50k. He’s nervous because he didn’t train and six miles is the furthest he has ever run in his life. He asks me what to expect out there. I don’t expect he’ll make it past the 15-mile mark. I tell him to enjoy himself and take his time.
After mile five I took a pit stop at the high school before starting the heart of the race. Tucson kept going and I eventually caught back up to him a few miles later at the first aid station, where he was sitting on the tailgate of a truck with his shoes off, rubbing his feet. He said he was fine, so off I went thinking how much I enjoyed his company and hoping to see him out there again.
At mile 13, I was returning from an out and back that took me to Hawkeye Arch and was excited to see Tucson making his way in. We checked in with each other as we passed and I wished we were still hanging together, but I reminded myself to race my race and keep moving forward.
Somewhere around mile 23 I reached an aid station ready to ask for some ramen noodles and broth, only to find the lady tending the station taking care of some housekeeping items. Not wanting to be rude, I decided to wait until she could come back to the table to fix up the noodles rather than interrupt her. I waited a whole two or three minutes, then made the great decision to pass on the noodles and push forward.
At mile 26 I was laying in the back of an ATV being transported to an ambulance, where I got an IV full of saline. I ended up crossing the finish line in the ambulance with a DNF for the race. This was a hard thing for me to swallow as I stepped out of the ambulance embarrassed and humiliated. All I wanted to do was take a shower and go home.
But after a cold shower at the high school I came out just in time to see Tucson cross the finish line. Even though I didn’t complete the race, I had the amazing opportunity to meet this man and witness him pull off a feat that I know changed his life. When we set off to tackle a race like this we step out of our comfort zones, compete with ourselves and enjoy the adventure.
Hence, lesson learned. I lost sight of enjoying the adventure, got caught up in how fast I could get the race completed, and ran myself into the dirt. Not to mention underestimating what someone else can accomplish.
I will be going back Oct. 31 to complete the adventure.
Jeff Minch lives near Minter Creek.