Thursday, October 11, 2012

My First Ultra: Paatuwaqatsi 50k Report

Walpi from the north 

“I run in reverence of all living things. In our prayers may we always remember that water is life.”
   ~ Paatuwaqatsi run motto 

"Why are we taught to run early in the morning? Because running not only strengthens you physically, it strengthens you spiritually. A runner would take one of the many foot trails from the village in the early morning to a spring, take a drink from the spring and sprinkle himself with the cold water. This gave that person strength and provided healing for any ailments."
   ~ Bucky Preston, Hopi runner and Paatuwaqatsi founder

This report is nearly a month late. There are a number of reasons for the delay, but mainly it's because Paatuwaqatsi (which is Hopi for "water is life") was such a unique, amazing experience and I wanted to do it justice. Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that doing it justice is not something that is within my ability, so I'm just going to do the best I can.  Here we go.

(Note: I've written previously about Hopi running history and culture. To read those posts go here.)

Since the race website said that packet pick up started at noon and it's around a three hour drive to Hopi from our place, Emily and I left Show Low as soon as we got the car packed Friday morning. Three desolate, beautiful hours of driving later, we reached the mesas on and around which the Hopi villages are built.

The mesas in the distance (click to enlarge) 
We got to First Mesa a bit before noon, so we figured we would have lunch first at the Cultural Center on Second Mesa and arrive fashionably late for the packet pickup. On our way to lunch we saw this roasted corn stand and had to stop.

Sweet corn roasted in the husk. It was the best corn we'd ever had.

We resisted making a meal out of just the corn, but we weren't able to resist some amazing looking melon at another nearby stand. Finally, we got to the Cultural Center, where there is a nice restaurant with a number of local dishes on the menu. I got bean and hominy stew, which came with a fresh, thick blue corn tortilla.

Done with that, we drove back to the race start at First Mesa, arriving around 1:30.

The other car arrived 10-20 mins after we did. 
So much for being fashionably late. As you can see, not much was going on at this point, and it turned out that the packet pickup would be at the Secakuku Diner during the pasta dinner that night... in 4 or 5 hours. Oh well, at least we had time to sightsee.

We decided to drive up to the top of First Mesa, where the ancient village of Walpi is located along with the more modern villages of Sichomovi and Hano ("more modern" in this context meaning late 17th century, when residents of villages at the base of the mesa moved to high ground so they could defend against Spanish reprisals in the wake of the 1680 pueblo revolt).

First Mesa from the north
Sichomovi is a tiny, crowded village of timeless stone houses. (As in all Hopi villages, photography is prohibited, so I unfortunately don't have pictures). Aside from giving tours of nearby Walpi (which visitors aren't allowed to enter without a tour guide), the main industry of Sichomovi is hand carving beautiful kachina dolls, and there were many local artists eager to show us their work. Emily and I spent an hour or so perusing and eventually decided on a simple but beautiful traditional-style cradle doll made by a friendly guy who appeared to be in his twenties. We had a long a fascinating conversation with him about the dolls and tradition and symbolism surrounding them.

Our "cross-legged Kachina" cradle doll from Sichomovi
Hano, the village next door, and usually just called Tewa by locals, has an unusual history of its own. For the past 300 years (again, since the pueblo revolt and subsequent fighting literally sent people running for the hills) it has been the home of the Tewa people, a pueblo tribe who are distinct from the Hopi and still speak their own unrelated language. I had read about them before but it wasn't until I went to the mesa that I realized just how strange and remarkable that fact is. As you can see from the aerial picture, Hano/Tewa and Sichomovi are packed together so tightly that it's impossible for outsiders to tell where one ends and the other begins. Yet despite being in such close, almost claustrophobic proximity to each other on top of a small, incredibly isolated mesa for three centuries, the people have maintained their own unique identities. In fact, when our artist friend mentioned that his wife was from Tewa he said it in the same way that I tell people my wife is from Mississippi, even though he was talking about a place that was only a few hundred feet away.

One of the highlights of our visit to First Mesa was meeting an elderly woman who brought us into her house to show us the jewelry she had for sale. When she found out that we were there for the race she told us about her son who had run it and then insisted on showing us the course. She took us outside to the edge of the mesa (a place where you could see for a hundred miles on a clear day) and showed us the winding paths below, tracing the route with her arm as she told us about it. It didn't dawn on me at the time, although it should have, how differently the Hopi react when we tell them we run. Most non-runners, when I tell them that I'm a runner, are either impressed, or confused, or just want to know why I would do that. Most Hopis, on the other hand, take it in stride, or embrace it as a place of common ground. I've never had a Hopi ask me why I run. When I think about it, that's probably the best proof of how firmly ingrained running is in Hopi culture.

We eventually made our way to the Secakuku diner where I picked up my bib and goody bag (local jerky, how cool is that?) and we had a great pasta dinner. (Unfortunately, Emily had injured herself while soundly beating her brother (who, I might add, is younger and in the Army) in a 5k during a recent visit to her hometown, so she wouldn't be running. On the bright side, I've taken long enough writing this that I can now report that she is fully recovered.)

During dinner we got to meet a bunch of really cool people including Patrick Sweeney and Maria Walton (who were there with a bunch of the Luna monkeys), whom I'd had contact with through facebook but never met in person.

Photo stolen from Patrick
After deviously tricking Patrick into revealing his secret vegan pizza recipe (which is amazing, by the way) we drove back to the race start, which was finally looking somewhat inhabited. We pitched our tent and hit the sack early in order to get a good night's sleep. At least, that was the plan. Since we were all parked in a field with our tents next to our cars, our tent had a number of cars close by. This wasn't a problem until sometime during the night when someone set off their car alarm a few feet from our heads and we woke up thinking the apocalypse was upon us. Shaken, but obviously relieved, we went back to sleep.

I was up before sunrise to make sure I'd have time to hit the bathroom, eat, and get dressed before the 6am start. Once again, my stomach rebelled against the idea of an early breakfast. I don't know why, but I have an easier time eating while running than before running.

I had my clothes and gear already assembled, not that it would have taken too long anyway. Although this was my first ultra, I had resisted the urge to overpack. In fact, I was only bringing four items: shorts, sandals, one water bottle, and a watch. I'd put a lot of thought into my choice of footwear. After the 10k Emily and I had run in Oraibi in August, it was clear to me that closed toe shoes weren't a good idea--the terrain is really sandy and after even six miles my shoes were completely full of sand. Even aside from that, my preference was for my huaraches anyway, since they'd been my footwear of choice for the past six months or so and I particularly wanted to wear huaraches at Paatuwaqatsi because there's something timeless about running in huaraches, and it's hard to find a more timeless place than Hopi. The only problem was that a few weeks back I had kicked a small tree stump on a trail run and ripped my foot open. The wound had pretty much healed but it was irritated by my leather laces, which were the only laces I had. My solution was to steal the hemp laces from Emily's sandals since the hemp didn't seem to bother me. The potential problem with that was that Emily had cut her laces short, so I wouldn't be able to use the ultra-secure traditional tying method that I was accustomed to. On the bright side, I thought it might be easier to slip them off and run barefoot for a bit.

My dirty sandals from after the run. Unfortunately, I didn't think to get a pic of my dirty shorts.  Sorry. 
With the sun just beginning to rise, we assembled at the starting area. There were a couple of quick speeches in English and Hopi. I have no idea what the elderly man who spoke in Hopi was saying to us, but he said it like it was important, and hearing that beautiful, otherworldly language spoken as the rising sun began to illuminate the mesa was yet another reminder of the uniqueness of this event. The same was true of the exhortations in English to "run strong, and remember to pray" and to remember to sprinkle ourselves with water from the springs we would be passing. Finally, there was a brief memorial to Micah True (Caballo Blanco), who Maria says loved this event more than any except for his own Copper Canyon race. (Truth be told, one of the things that first attracted me to Paatuwaqatsi was the prospect of getting to run with Caballo, who was for me--as well as for so many others in the running community--an inspirational figure .) On that melancholy note, the run began.

Of all the pieces of advice that I received as a budding ultrarunner, by far the most common was the warning against going out too fast. So, of course, genius that I am, I proceeded to churn out the first few miles at a pace that would have put me on track for a PR in a road marathon, had this been a road marathon and not a trail ultra. The first few miles took us on a meandering route away from the mesa through corn fields. To this day the Hopi still practice their traditional dry farming, meaning they don't use irrigation but rely solely on rain to water their crops. One of the ways they manage this is by piling dirt around fields to funnel and keep rainwater near the crops, and we spent a lot of this part of the run on top of these berms.

One positive effect of my ill judged pace was that I ended up running alongside Bookis Smuin, co-founder and CEO of Luna. Bookis is a cool guy who's had a lot of interesting experiences (he's run Leadville and the Copper Canyons, in addition to heading one of the first minimalist start-ups), so chatting with him made the early miles fly by. One thing I asked Bookis was how Paatuwaqatsi had seemingly become the unofficial Luna convention (there were close to a dozen people running in huaraches, most of them Lunas). He said he didn't know but that his theory was that the type of person who was attracted to Paatuwaqatsi was the same type who was attracted to huaraches. This made sense to me since as I've said huaraches just felt right on those trails.

At one point the route doubled back on itself and I saw Barefoot Ted a ways back, running along in blue jeans and carrying a walking stick. That's an interesting choice for a 31 mile run, I thought; I wonder how that's going to turn out. I asked Bookis if he knew if Ted was really planning on running the whole thing in those clothes. He said he didn't know, and that Ted's habit was to show up at events and then do whatever his muse led him to do.

It was around this point in the run that I decided to take off my sandals for the first time. The course was extremely sandy and it looked perfect for going barefoot. It turned out I was right, and I spent the next 15 miles or so taking my sandals on and off, depending on the terrain.

Hopi pottery c.1910.  I wonder if I saw parts of those pots...
One place where I always put my sandals back on was around the base of the mesa. If you've been to a hilltop pueblo ruin like Tuzigoot you'll know that while tourists spend most of their time looking at the buildings on top, archaeologists spend most of their time at the base of the hill, because that's where all the trash (potsherds, broken tools, etc.) accumulates. It turns out, the same is true for the base of First Mesa, where there were a thousand years of broken glass bottles, ancient potsherds, and everything in between. Not great if you're barefoot, so I always wore my sandals near the mesa. I also stopped to look at the potsherds a few times. They were beautifully colored with intricate patterns, like something you would see in a museum. And there were hundreds of them; at some points they covered the trail.

Some of them looked like they could have been pieces of this
The trail now led us straight up the side of the mesa via a sort of staircase made out of rocks. If I'm not mistaken, I think it may have been this one:

The staircase took us up into the ancient village of Walpi. We ran through the village, which was almost deserted, and then across the narrow stretch which connects Walpi to Sichomovi. Walpi was beautiful and extremely well-preserved. In fact, here is what it looked like in 1920:

Walpi in 1920
...and here is what it looks like now:

Walpi, present day
Not all that different, really.

The course dropped straight back down to the base and then back up a time or two, then meandered around the base of the mesa. It was around here that I started making what would be an entire morning of wrong turns. In my defense, there were quite a few people backtracking and asking for help finding the path at various times. I don't think it was the fault of the folks running the race, because virtually every time I found where I had gone astray I discovered that there had been clear markings, but for whatever reason some of the turns were very easy to miss. Maybe we were all just enjoying the scenery too much.

We ran past a few natural springs and through suburban Polacca, and then started the only extended paved section of the course. At this point I fell in with Patrick Muldowney and Amanda Amoros, two Tucsonians who were both running in Lunas as well. The three of us started chatting and then we suddenly realized that we were in a quiet Polacca neighborhood with no other runners around. Not again... A woman in one of the houses helpfully pointed us back to the clearly-marked turn a half mile away. It's a good thing I'm so slow; I can't imagine how lost I would get if I were in front.

One aspect of the run which I have left out so far, and which really is the most amazing and unique aspect of all, is the Hopi habit of thanking runners as they pass. Everyone does this, from the volunteers standing in the sun handing out water all day, to the women who stick their heads out their windows, to children playing by themselves. In Hopi, there are different forms of the word for thank you depending on whether the speaker is male or female, so women say "askwali", while men say "kwakwha'" (which they pronounce more like "k'kwoy"). I heard both words more than I could count over the course of the day, but the one occasion that struck me the most was at this point in the run when we passed a couple of small children outside by themselves who stopped what they were doing and thanked us as we passed. Can you imagine that happening at any race you've run?

By the time we hit the 10 mile aid station I was ready for some real food, since I'd had nothing but water and part of a banana since starting. Fortunately, the main aid stations (which were placed every five miles from miles 10 to 25) were very well stocked, including with watermelon, which I ate ravenously. Not only was it perfect on a warm day, but considering that it has always been a Hopi staple crop it seemed appropriate as well.

A Hopi watermelon patch
Not long after this, maybe 12 miles in, I started having my first problems. I was feeling surprisingly fatigued for the distance covered, and my hamstrings were beginning to cramp. Neither problem was something that I had had in training, and I'd tapered adequately, so I was confused and discouraged. I slowed the pace a bit, made a mental note to start taking more salt, and kept running.

The route took us several miles along the base of the mesa, up to the top again, and then across. When we reached the other side, the trail ended abruptly at a cliff. To get down, we had to climb down some rocks to get to the trail 10 feet or so below. From there we went down and then along the base of the mesa, hit another main aid station, and then across some open country to another mesa to the north. At the top of that mesa, as well as at various places throughout the course, there was a solitary person with some water, often apparently packed in on foot. And, of course, that person would always thank us.

After running across the top of the other mesa for a ways, we came to one of the best moments in the race for me. We came to what looked like one of the small water-only aid stations, which was great because for the entire run there had been no clouds and no shade whatsoever and I was completely out of water at that point. When we got there, however, instead of giving us water, the volunteers simply handed out (empty) paper cups and pointed us down toward a small mini-canyon (maybe 20 feet down) with some small trees at the bottom. Near the trees there was a small stream, which led into a small, ancient-looking pueblo-style building built into a rock overhang somewhat in the style of Montezuma Castle. Inside the building was a small, clear pool of water in the middle of the room. Water was slowly dripping off the rock overhang into the pool. The air was wonderfully cool, like a cave. This was our water station.

It was beautiful. The question I couldn't help asking myself, though, was is it safe? Am I going to get sick if I drink this? If I don't drink, though, am I going to make it to the next water station? I'd been out for a while and I was dehydrated to begin with (I was sweating like crazy) so I really needed water. Plus, it looked like everyone else was drinking, and surely some of these people had run last year (and presumably wouldn't be drinking now if they'd gotten giardia the last time around). I decided to drink. And, reasoning that a little bit would probably get me just as sick as a lot anyway, I decided to drink my fill. I filled my handheld in the pool and drained the 20 ounces, then filled and drained it again. It was amazing. Cold, clear, pure. It was the best water I've ever had. Remembering what we'd been told at the beginning of the race, I cupped some water in my hand and sprinkled my steaming head and shoulders. It felt great, so I filled my bottle and emptied the whole thing over my head. WHOA! That was really cold. It did wonders for my core temperature, though, and I felt rejuvenated. I filled my bottle for the road and willed myself out of the dark oasis back into the burning sunlight.

It was at some point during my second bottle that I'd noticed that most people weren't really drinking, or were drinking just a few drops they'd caught from the ceiling. Oh well. I tried to think positive thoughts as the woman running next to me volunteered that this was her second time running Paatuwaqatsi and that she hadn't drunk the water from the spring either time. Not helping.

Spring water notwithstanding, I was still having a hard time of it. I had gone into the run feeling pretty confident since my longest run was a solid 25 miles on fairly hilly trails. That run had gone really well and had been the textbook three weeks out, so it was hard to understand why less than 20 miles in I was feeling much worse than I had after that 25 mile run. I still don't have an answer, though my suspicion is that it was the incredibly sandy course. Sand is a very inefficient surface and one on which I'd had almost no experience running.

Whatever the reason, I was dead tired and my hamstrings were now spasming. Since I was sweating so much I suspected that I might be low in electrolytes so I'd been taking a salt tab every 5 miles. At the mile 20 aid station I was searching for the salt tabs when the volunteer asked what I needed. I told her and she found the bottle and started to get one out for me. I was about to ask for two tabs when she plopped two tabs in my hand; she had taken one look at me and decided that one tab obviously wasn't enough. Great; that's probably a good sign.

One benefit of the sand was that I'd been happily running barefoot for almost the entire middle third of the race. The fine sand felt great on my feet and it was hard not to feel a certain vicious glee as people passed me only to have to stop and watch me pass them back as they dumped the sand out of their shoes. (It was also hard not to feel a certain satisfaction at being the most barefoot guy at a race that included a guy whose first name was "barefoot".) It was working so well for me that I would have stayed barefoot most of the way to the end, but by 11am or so the sand got so hot that my feet were starting to burn. Alas, I had to wear my sandals for the rest of the run.

The rest of the run was fairly uneventful, although it took forever since I kept going more and more slowly. We ran back to First Mesa, climbed it again, and ran along the top for several miles. We then went back down, by another spring, back over the mesa, down the other side, and ran through some small hills that looked like they were from the painted desert (which isn't that far to the south).

Finally, we started winding our way toward the finish.

"No!  This way!"
Oddly enough, the finish was a bit of a surprise since my GPS ended up being several miles short (despite the fact that all my wrong turns had added at least a mile to the course).

"Yes, I've been totally running this fast this whole time"
Also surprising was the fact that I didn't feel all that bad by the end. Well, okay, I felt pretty awful, but I didn't feel that bad for having just run c.32 miles, and only slightly worse than I had 10-15 miles early.

Everyone gets sprinkled with water after finishing
I finally crossed the finish line in 7:18:15. At the time I was convinced that I was in dead last place since I'd only seen a handful of people in the previous ten miles and every one of them had passed me. I later found out that I had actually finished in 40th place out of 63 finishers, which is a result I am very happy with considering how badly (and how early) the wheels had come off.

Best wife in the world and sweaty guy (with Walpi again  in the background)
Emily was there waiting patiently, as she had been for over seven hours. If that's not devotion I don't know what is.

Now it was time to eat!

I forgot to get a picture of the stew
The post-run meal was some of the best food I've ever had. Watermelon, steamed blue masa (sort of like a blue tamale), and bean and hominy stew (the same dish I had gotten the day before, but much better). Delicious!

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to eat as much of the food as I would have otherwise, since I was still feeling like this:

On the bright side, the person in the seat to my right was none other than this guy:

Ted had had his own adventure. He had decided on the spur of the moment to only drink spring water, which was a bold move given that the spring I had drunk from was at least 15 miles in. Ted ended up not finishing but had a good time trying out his experiment before dropping out around mile 20 after cutting his toe open on a rock. (Considering that he was wearing sandals at the time and how many barefoot miles I'd put in without incident, I couldn't help but wonder if the barefoot gods were sending him a message.)

I have to say, lunch with Ted was one of the highlights of the weekend. He's a fascinating guy and the conversation ranged from the growth of Luna, to feral horse leather, to winter socks of the samurai, to the chief end of human existence. One odd moment was when he noticed my sandals. "Hey, are those Lunas?!" he said, picking one up. "Whoa, these are light!" That wasn't the response I was expecting. "You seem surprised by that..."

After lunch, it was time to say goodbye to our new friends and hit the road.

Patrick Muldowney, Patrick Sweeney, Maria Walton, Mike Miller, and Lola
Incidentally, Lola, the dog in the picture above, ran the 50k with Mike--and beat me by half an hour. Emily knew how to make me feel better though: "Well, it wasn't her first ultra."

Packing up the tent, we met yet another friend:

Yes, that's a 4-5 inch centipede camped out under our tent right under where my head had been. Good to know.

Lessons Learned
So that was my first 50k.  All in all, it went pretty well. I finished and I didn't get injured or sick, which is all I was really hoping for. I did learn a few valuable lessons, though, about what to do differently next time, and what to keep doing.

What I did right:
 - Brought soap. This is an epiphany I had at a previous race. Most races have porta potties but don't have places to wash your hands, which is a serious problem if you are going to be eating with your hands all day. I've started bringing hand soap and extra water to all races, and it's really improved the quality of my life.
 - Footwear choice. I love my huaraches, and they were an especially good choice given the sand. I finished with happy feet and no blisters.
 - Ran barefoot. As great as the sandals were, I'm glad I kicked them off for part of the time. It felt great and really added to the experience.
 - Stopped running barefoot. The sand was getting really hot, and if I had tried to keep running barefoot I would have ended up with heat blisters which could have jeopardized my ability to finish. This run was a big validation of my "run barefoot only as long as it's fun" philosophy.
 - Drank the water. Given the limited information I had at the time, this may not have been the wisest of decisions. However, knowing as I do now that it was safe, I'm glad I did. It was amazing.
 - Handheld water bottle. I've become a big fan of handhelds, both in training and especially in races, and my AHTL worked great for me.

What I will do differently next time:
 - Pacing. Okay, I just ignored the most common piece of advice and paid the price. Hopefully, I can do better next time. My plan for my next 50k is to try to force myself to keep to a 12 min average for the first 20 miles.
 - Started in middle of pack. This might have been part of the problem. Next time I'll try starting at the back where there won't be as much of a temptation to keep up with the people around me.
 - No hat, no shirt. Okay, I really thought I was going to be okay here. I'd run for up to 5 hours at a time without either and been fine, so I thought 6 or 7 hours (I was optimistic) wouldn't be a problem. I was wrong and got pretty burnt.
 - Laces. The hemp slip-on style laces were okay for the most part but kept slipping down my heels on steep downhill sections. I'll have to find something different to use next time.

Next up: Cave Creek Thriller 50k, October 20. Who's coming with me?


  1. Congrats on the great run. I hope our paths cross again soon.

    1. Thanks, and same here. At the very least, I'll be there again next year. Do you have any other races planned in AZ?

  2. Even though I am anti-shirtless running I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this write-up and to congratulate you on achieving your goals. I also have a question for you about huaraches and sand, if you've got a minute: I wear Bedrock EQ sandals a LOT but I don't like to take them off-road because the few times I have sand gets wedged between the sandal and the ball of my foot and gives me a massive blister. Is there a trick to preventing this or is it just because the sand here is wicked fine-grained?

    1. Yes, I think I've read your post about shirtless runners. I couldn't help wondering if that was meant for me... =)

      Anyway, thanks. I didn't have a problem with blisters during the run, though I couldn't tell you why. I can tell you that the sandals were relatively loose on my feet; I supposed that could have made a difference.

  3. I recall ranting about bf runners not being taken seriously because they dress ummm "in the tails of the bell curve" and I think they'd be taken more seriously if they toned it down a bit, but I don't think I have yet loosed all my vitriol regarding my dislike of naked male chests. :-p

    Anyway, we can agree to disagree, back to huaraches: I assume yours are ones you laced yourself? You've been wearing huaraches for awhile, have you ever gotten blisters because of sand or debris? Maybe mine are too tight? I like them the way I have them (they aren't ones I have to lace myself, thankfully) but they do have a wide range of adjustment. They work/feel just fine on hard smooth surfaces. Some people complain about a slapping sound with huaraches but I have yet to experience this. Maybe a slapping sound will save me from some blisters?

    1. In my experience blistering on the ball of the foot in huaraches is a result of either landing with the foot too far in front of the body or pushing off too much. There could be other issues such as trapped sand or moisture from sweat.

      I keep my sandals relatively tight even in the sand. As long as I make sure to lift my feet rather than push off I do fine in sand.

    2. I did lace my huaraches myself. I generally lace them pretty tightly and haven't had any problems with blisters on the ball of my feet (and I often come home with filthy feet). I don't know what your problem might be, though unshoes could be right about it being a form issue. I definitely don't think slapping is something to aspire to.

    3. Thanks for the input both of you. I have noticed if I am not being mindful of my feet when I am barefoot I can get a blister for the above reason. I am getting better though. I only get blisters in the huaraches if I go off road and then I actually find the sand in the blister. I'm going to try socks now that it is cooler, not that it is yet cold enough to require them. I'd really like some of those Swiss Protection Socks but not at that price at this point in my life :-p

    4. I was temped to blame it on your choice of sandal brand but didn't think that would be fair ;) Keep running, I'm sure you'll figure it out!

  4. What a cool race! It sounds like the Hopi just... get it when it comes to running. It's the kind of event that you want to support.

  5. Hi
    My son and I met you and Emily at the race. This is a great report. Take care and I hope to see you again next year.


    1. Hey! Emily and I enjoyed meeting you. We'll see you next year!