Tag Archives: sherpa

My Adventures as an Ultra Sherpa: Canyon De Chelly 55-K

About one month ago in mid-October, I expanded my Sherpa portfolio to the ultra distance when I traveled to Arizona for the Canyon De Chelly Ultra (pronounced ‘shay’) 55-K, a 34-mile trail run that takes place entirely on Navajo land.

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About 150 runners out chasing the sunrise

If you’ve been reading a while, then you know I usually Sherpa once per race season when friends take on long-course events.  After all, these folks push me during workouts, so the least I can do is lend my support when possible. Case in point: when a training bud needed people power for the Challenged Athletes Foundation during July’s New York City Triathlon, it was a no-brainer that I’d volunteer as a handler. That weekend resulted in one of my most intense and rewarding experiences to date, and I had similar expectations for the Arizona outing.  It was my friend’s second time doing this ultra, so she prepped me before the race: running and the Navajo culture are deeply intertwined, and hearing how the physical act of running intersects with so many aspects of their day-to-day life fascinated me—and I was excited to see it come together.

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Tsegi Overlook

Once in Arizona at pre-race briefing, it became clear this event would be a unique experience. The 150 runners gathered around the outdoor amphitheater’s stadium-style seats as Shaun the race director detailed the history of the race and discussed how running plays a critical role in Navajo culture: they run to celebrate, they run to pray, and they run to learn. Other prominent folks in the community spoke, including Shaun’s father-in-law who played a few instruments and sang a few songs in Navajo.  All in all, the briefing lasted about two hours, and the atmosphere was basically the polar opposite of what I encounter at triathlons.  No one was obsessing about getting in a last-minute swim or fixing their Di2 shifting. Rather, people appeared calm and relaxed. My friends who dabble in ultras and tris say this is normal; the ultra community as a whole is much more laid back.

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Hanging out in a canyon

This theme of unprecedentedness continued through Saturday with the pre-race blessing and fire ceremony. Around 5 a.m., Shaun’s father-in-law built a fire and tended to it throughout the day. The burning fire symbolized life out on the course, and it would only be extinguished once the final runner finished.  The blessing ceremony took place around 7 a.m. during which one male and female runner were selected to receive a blessing on behalf of all participants. Around 7:30 a.m., the runners set off on their journey.

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White House overlook. See the dirt path? Folks got to run on that.

My normal Sherpa duties include scouting the course and identifying areas where I can camp out and cheer for my friends, but this race had a wrinkle: only Nanajo are allowed in the canyon. Furthermore, if non-Navajo want to go in the canyon, they must enlist a Navajo guide. (Race director Shaun secured special permits so each runner was allowed in the canyon without a guide.) Throughout the day, I went to a handful of scenic overlooks to take photos and try to spot runners, and around 3 p.m. I headed to the finish area and hung out. There was a ton of food, including vegetable chickpea stew and Navajo fry bread. (No photos because I was too busy eating.)

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Selfie in a canyon

One of highlights was witnessing and hearing about the sense of community and camaraderie. Several people who crossed the finish line gave credit to fellow runners for helping them through.  There was an out-and-back climb on the course, and I was very impressed when multiple participants said one of the top-five finishers cheered for every single runner he saw during that stretch. Plus, since the majority of folks were out there for nearly an entire day, packs formed naturally, and there’s nothing like running with someone for a few hours to get to know them. I have no personal experience with long-course racing, but from what I’ve heard, it’s typical for these relationships to manifest at that distance.

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Finishing strong

There’s something to be said for the sense of solidarity when everyone around you is going through what you are going through. It warmed my heart as an endurance athlete to see this connectivity.

How often do you volunteer at races?

Ironman Lake Placid 2014: Tales of a Sherpa and Emotional Guardian

Where should I begin with this post? Let’s go alllll the way back.

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This trip north for Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP) has been one year in the making. As you may remember, I went last year to train, volunteer, and spectate, and after the 2013 race, one of my teammates signed up to take on this 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run. And with her registration, I committed to returning in 2014 as a full-fledged Sherpa—and I was pumped! Placid epitomizes paradise, and I wanted to go back in any capacity.

It’s tough not to compare this year’s experience to what happened last year, but overall, they varied—a lot.

Let’s start with the Sherpa-ing.

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I absolutely love training and racing, but sometimes it’s refreshing to be in a race environment and not actually race. Crazy concept, right? As a type-A person who does triathlon, I’ve discovered being a Sherpa utilizes my skill set. Not only do I have the logistics under control—planning our day to be the most efficient, knowing where to drop off special needs bags, etc.—but I can also talk the talk. And knowledgeably too. During race weekend, one of my goals included memorizing course maps and the athlete guide so I could answer every question my teammates asked me.

In addition to knowing everything about IMLP, I also took on the role of emotional guardian. I needed to be positive, reassuring, and flexible at all times. Moods swing easily in the days leading up to the race, especially when certain factors come into play: someone’s doing their first Ironman, someone’s shooting for a specific finish time, etc. Needless to say, everything became more intense, and when the crankiness and anxiousness kicked in, I wanted to be there to listen, calm them down, and provide support.

One main difference between 2013 and this year centered on training. I did some final tune-up sessions with teammates—a few race-pace efforts on the bike and some open-water swimming—but logging workouts was not my number one priority. Case in point: My Slice saw only 15 miles, tops. But I knew this would be the case, and I’m totally OK with it. My main goal was to be there for my teammates in every way possible.

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Being there wasn’t exclusive to race day. This was the first time I watched people go through Ironman training. Each of my five teammates approached the distance differently—not to mention they came from various backgrounds, had different goals, etc.—and I learned a lot in terms of how I will navigate long-course training. (We’re talking at least 10 years from now, by the way. And that’s another post entirely.)

More importantly, this was the first time I trained with people who were tackling this distance. During the week, we’d do similar swim and bike workouts, and when Saturday and Sunday rolled around, they’d go long. Very long. Sometimes, I’d tag along and bike 40-50 miles while they did twice the distance. Or if they had a cutback week, then we’d ride together.

Bottom line, when you train together–for six months, at least five days a week, and for nearly three hours everyday–you become invested in their race. And when they have an Ironman on the horizon, it’s impossible to remain unaffected. When dull aches surfaced during long runs, I sympathized. When brick workouts got crushed, I felt invincible. When tune-up races approached, I experienced sympathy taper crazies. Basically, Placid became a pseudo race for me.

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During the race itself, I wanted to be there during all three disciplines, so I volunteered as a wetsuit stripper. At Syracuse 70.3 in 2012, I worked in the same capacity and had a blast. So not only would it be fun, but this position would also grant me access to athlete-only areas—which meant I could be with my teammates right up until they charged into Mirror Lake. Plus, I’d have a front row seat: I’d be able to pinpoint each person when they finished their each loop, and if I played my cards right, then I’d be able to help everyone take off their wetsuits. Four of my five teammates logged both loops of the swim, and I was able to see everyone during the wetsuit stripping process. (Due to thunder and lightning, the swim was cut to one loop or 1.2 miles. Some athletes swam both loops, but others were pulled from the water.)

After the swim, I camped out in front of our hotel—which was conveniently located on both the bike and run courses—rang my industrial-sized cowbell, and cheered until my voice grew hoarse. (And obsessively checked IronTrac, obviously.)

As the day progressed, my mental involvement intensified, which I didn’t think was possible. Waiting for the team colors seemed like an eternity: ‘They should be off the bike now. Why aren’t they here yet? Did something happen? What’s going on?’ Soon enough, the red and black kits appeared: ‘Yes! They look so strong and dialed in!’ And when not-so-great stuff happened, all I could do was run with them briefly, remind them they’re strong, and tell them they’ve overcome this before. But I couldn’t really do anything. I felt helpless. And it was the worst feeling. I had to trust their training and have faith they would work through the tough spells.

Sure enough, they pulled through.

And when they entered the oval, running strong and passing people and accomplishing their goal … being able to see the culmination of their dedication and their training and their hard work was incredible.

Clearly, it was an emotionally charged weekend. And I’m so grateful I was able to be a part of it.