Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Race #13, State #13, AZ

Race #13, State #13, AZ

February 1, 2014

This was my first trip to Arizona and my first race in a western state. I was pretty worried about my run in Sedona, as I knew the altitude could affect my breathing and the hills could kill me entirely. My mom came with me on this trip, and we met my cousin Andrew in Arizona two days before the race. Andrew and I decided to run this one together as a "warm" climate race for the winter. While it was great to get away from the single digit temps back in CT, Sedona was hardly the hot, dry desert area I expected. (And actually that was great, as it was ideal running weather.) We arrived on Thursday in Phoenix and made the 2+ hour drive up to Sedona before sunset. It was beautiful, desolate country most of the way with the occasional small town popping up here and there. We saw lots of cacti and light colored soil all the way along, until we drove in to the lovely Sedona area.
The red rocks seem to come out of nowhere and all of a sudden, you are surrounded by them. And boy, are they beautiful. We pulled in to the Sedona Real hotel, site unseen, and purely chosen by its close proximity to the race start/finish. The view from our back patio was gorgeous. 
View from our room
Andrew wasn't due to arrive until later, so mom and I got ourselves situated and peppered the concierge with all kinds of questions about restaurants, sights to see, and other various hotel related info. He was very helpful and kind to us. We ventured out to a restaurant called the Barking Frog for dinner that night. It was a southwestern flavored local spot where we promptly ordered up a plate of cactus fries. 
Cactus fries, yum, yum!
They were super delicious. Dinner was and veggies for me, a bison burger for mom. We headed back to the hotel to relax and wait for Andrew's arrival. We were both half asleep by the time he arrived, so we didn't really give our proper hellos until the morning.

The next day, we started slowly and went to the number pick up which was located at a cute arts plaza called Tlaquepaque Village. The day was cool with temps hovering in the low 40s and a light rain started just after we collected our numbers. We decided we'd try to drive up to the Grand Canyon, seeing as we were only a couple of hours away. We headed out north and up through the ridge of the Sedona area canyons. As we drove, the rain turned to sleet then to snow atop the canyon. 
We stopped in Flagstaff to get gas and some snacks that were going to pose as lunch on the ride. The Circle K convenience store had slim pickings, but we did the best we could. Water and gatorade were a must. We hit the road again, jumping on the highway up to the Grand Canyon, and within minutes we were driving in white-out snow conditions. My mom's dear friends live in the Phoenix area (part of the reason she came with see them), and all I could hear was her friend Ruth's voice in my head saying, "If you get caught in snow, you be very careful! These Arizona people do not know how to drive in snow at all and they are crazy!" So with that advice swimming in my head and the lack of visibility and knowledge of the area, we decided to turn back and just check out the sites in Sedona. Smart idea. We decided we didn't want to be a news story about the family who is found a week later with their car in a ditch surviving on Tic Tacs, Powerbars and Gatorade. 
Snow view after we turned around and started back toward Sedona.
The drive back down the canyons in to Sedona was beautiful but tricky,as the roads are twisty and the drop off the edge is impressive. The snow stayed with us most of the way down, but once back in Sedona, it all turned to rain again. 
We decided to check out the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Catholic chapel that is built right up against the red rocks. It was beautiful and left me with a feeling of nature as faith. The red rocks are the backdrop to the rear of the chapel, and the view from the front window is stunning as it looks out over the land below and more red rock formations in the distance. 

As we exited the chapel, I noticed a shape in the rocks behind it that looked like an eagle's head. It was cool to start looking at the rocks as sculpture. You can see so many shapes in them. In fact, many of them are named for their shapes: Teapot rock, Snoopy rock, Cathedral rock, Courthouse rock. As I continued to look, I started to see faces looking back at me from the rock. It was almost as if the ancients are preserved in them, watching us below. It started freaking me out a bit, so I tried to stop looking at them like that.
Can you see any faces looking back at you?
We decided to take the rest of the cold, rainy afternoon to walk around and look at some shops, art galleries and stop for coffee. That evening, we had a dinner reservation at a top-notch Italian restaurant, Dahl & Deluca, so Andrew and I could properly carb-load. Dinner was awesome, and the three of us enjoyed the lively and lovely atmosphere of the restaurant as well as the live piano and bass music. We all ended up heading to bed early to prepare for the big run the next day.
The late 9 am start to this race allowed us to leisurely roll out of bed at 7:30, which was a nice departure to the usual 5 or 5:30 am wake-ups. The morning weather was a chilly 28 degrees F, which ironically was colder than temps back in CT that weekend. As Andrew and I readied ourselves for the start, my mom's close friends, Ruth & Don arrived at the hotel to help cheer us on in the race. They live near the Phoenix area in a town called Casa Grande. We said our hellos and said we'd see them near the start and at the finish.  With that, Andrew and I headed out for our short walk to the starting area. 

Views from the starting line area
As we got to the top of the hill where the start and finish lines were located, we saw the most amazing backdrop. Hands down, so far this was the most picturesque and beautiful race I have run. And without a doubt, Andrew and I decided, it offered the nicest porta-potty views ever! After a quick bathroom pit-stop, the singing of the National Anthem commenced and the marathoners started first. 
View from the porta-potty area
All the races were staggered by 5 minutes, so we (the half marathoners) were next, followed by the 10K runners and 5K runners, also in 5 minute intervals. The start was well-organized, and the officials were in good humor. The announcer said, "You are welcome in advance for the downhill start. I'm sorry in advance for the uphill finish." Something to look forward to after running all the other huge hills in between. 
Selfie just prior to the start
Anyway, we were off and minutes after starting, I spied my mom, Ruth & Don across the street cheering and yelling for me. Don had his camera and large camera lens out, so I waved and smiled. I always feel bad for running spectators, as they have about 10 seconds of excitement and two hours of waiting around doing nothing. They are a die hard bunch. 
The route was an out and back along Dry Creek Road and Boynton Canyon Pass. The sights were spectacular along the way. The red rocks provided a magnificent backdrop to the run. I won't lie. The hills were hard and plentiful, but somehow the views kept me inspired and so alive. I guess I just kept thinking about how lucky I was to experience this unbelievable place. At times, I'd get to the top of a long, difficult hill, and I'd just take a breath and a moment to pick my head up, look around and say "wow." It was truly stunning and humbling. 
Along the way, we passed some neighborhoods that you barely noticed because the houses were all built with colors that blend in to the surroundings. We saw many trail heads along the way, as the area is a hikers mecca. I can't wait to return someday with my husband and kids to get the full Sedona hiking experience. The water stations were manned with fun groups of people who were competing for their own "best water stop" awards. My favorite was at the vortex where a gypsy-esque group of people were playing drums and blowing whistles. It really helped pump me up on the way out and especially on the way back. 
I passed an older man along the way, probably in his early 70's who was wearing a t-shirt with his name on the back (Steve), a 50 States logo, and a 1 superseded by a 2 and then a 3 "times." He was my new hero. He was on his third time through the 50 states, assumably in full marathons? Holy crow! 
Just before the turn around, a huge hill loomed. I had heard rumors of this hill from the other runners along the way. I was getting pretty warm, so I decided to remove my running cap and outer jacket before the hill so I wouldn't overheat. The temperatures were getting close to the 40's by now, so it really was perfect running weather. Shortly after the turn around, I saw Andrew heading the other way. We made an embarassing attempt at a high-five and continued on our respective ways. Less than half to go, and one more mega-hill. I knew I could do it.
One thing that dawned on me as I ran was that the thin air really didn't affect me to the extent I thought it would. Perhaps arriving two days early allowed me to acclimate well enough. I wasn't having any trouble breathing. The difficulty was all in the hills. I tried to make the best of the downhills on the return to the finish line, and all was going well until around mile 10 where the largest hill was located. This one was way worse than the rumored monster at the halfway point, in my opinion. This hill was steeper and later in the race. So with very tired legs I hit it, and it felt like I was shuffling up, barely moving. I just kept pushing the best that I could, but it was a killer. 
Thoroughly enjoying the last few miles of the race in the beautiful terrain.
After that, it was smooth sailing. My next favorite moment was in the last mile. Two old guys sitting on their front lawn had a boom box blaring out Oingo Boingo's "Just Another Day." Exactly the best motivation to get me up the final hill in to the finish line. 
As I approached the finish line area, I started to look for mom and Ruth and Don. I scanned the people lined up along the barriers lining the finish, but I just didn't pick them out. I was pushing my hardest to finish as quickly as I could. As I crossed the line, I heard them announce my name, Kristen Frost, Enfield. I was done. 
Crossing the finish line
I entered the finisher's chute and got my medal on the way to the food/water/stretching area. I walked around and kept an eye on the finish line. A few minutes later I saw Andrew pumping like he just started racing, up the hill and across the line. What an awesome, strong finish! We met up, stretched and recounted some of our best/hardest moments. Neither one of us saw our cheering section at the finish line, so we headed back to the hotel to shower up and chill out. 
An hour and a half or so later, mom, Ruth and Don met us back at the hotel. They were so disappointed that they didn't see us finish. Somehow, from their location on the bleachers at the finish line (I never even saw any bleachers!), they weren't able to pick us out. They also were looking for me in my running cap and warm up jacket, which I had taken off mid-way. Such is life. Don, with his excellent photography skills, managed to create his vision of me crossing the finish line, thanks to the wonders of Photoshop. I love it! My net time on the race was 1:57:23, my slowest time to date, but I was pleased with it, as this was also my most challenging course to date, and I was under my "ultimate" cut-off time of 2 hours. When the results were finally posted the next day, I discovered I came in 7th in my age division! And I was the overall 55th woman to finish, and 142nd out of all half marathon finishers. I was pretty pleased with all of that. 
Uncle Don's rendering of me at the finish
I opted to relax for the afternoon, as my stomach was having some GI troubles. Andrew took off to attempt a visit to the Grand Canyon again (this time successful), and mom, Ruth & Don headed out to some shops in Sedona. We reconvened that night for dinner at the Barking Crab again (sans Andrew, as he was still en route from the Grand Canyon). 

The next morning we all headed out. Andrew to the airport and the rest of us back toward the Phoenix area where we met up with Ruth & Don's son, William, for a brief visit. He and I grew up as cousins back in CT, but now he lives in AZ where he works as a prison guard. It was terrific to see him after all these years! We then went to Casa Grande and toured around Ruth & Don's Palm Creek neighborhood. It was so beautiful, and I can see why they love living there. I left mom with Ruth & Don, as she was staying on in AZ for a couple more days, and I headed to the Phoenix airport to return my car and check in to my hotel. My flight home was bright and early on Monday morning. 
I wasn't too jazzed about the snowy weather waiting for me at home, but I was overjoyed to see my wonderful husband and little girls waiting for me at the airport. Another successful race done. Thank you, Sedona, for a spectacular race. 

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