With a tough, mentally challenging but at the same time rewarding year of running in 2012, it was time to start 2013 with new experiences and in the process I think I found my second favorite place in the world.
If 2012 was all about speed and a goal unattained, I felt 2013 should be about healing. Seemed appropriate then when my good friend John called up to say he had just registered for the marathon in Sedona, Arizona and wanted to know if I would join him. I’d wanted to go to Sedona since my wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon. On the bus trip to the biggest hole in the United States (outside of Washington, D.C.) we passed the byway to Sedona and everyone chuckled about having their aura read, mystic vortexes in the mountains and the wacky artists that populate the place. It sounded like a cross between Santa Fe and Haight-Ashbury. I had also heard it was home to some of the most renowned spas and rock formations in the world.
To make the trip more memorable we decided it shouldn’t be about the run but a chance to bring our wives and make it a vacation – with a short 3-4 hour Sunday morning interlude. Boy was this a good decision.
Reesa and I had spent the holidays with family and our work years had started off fast and furious so a break from the action in early February sounded like a great decision. We booked bungalows at The Enchantment Resort & Spa, not knowing much about the place other than its excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.
As for training, I had taken it easy after Santa Barbara and was running for myself, not the miles. I worked up to 16 because I felt like it, not because I had to. I had also started the year by focusing on reconnecting with the SMS running club and making running more social. When it was time for a 20-miler, I went back to my mainstay – San Francisco to Tiburon and on an absolutely gorgeous January morning 10 of us took in its incredible sites and a fabulous breakfast out of the patio behind Sam’s watching the sun rise over The City.
It was a good omen.
My wife and I flew to Phoenix that weekend then had a wonderful organic breakfast at The Farm at South Mountain. The place is less than two miles from the airport and literally is in the middle of a farm. It was a perfect setting on a beautiful sunny day.
Heading North from Phoenix about 90 miles up we hit the same scenic byway we had seen that weekend with the hike team but this time we took the turn and literally no more than five minutes later I got a sense of what was in store for the weekend. Looking North towards some pretty standard Arizona desert mountains a crack appeared at the top and behind it was a rich red stone as we turned the corner further that crack turned into a valley ringed with rich reds and oranges that created a valley unlike any I had ever seen. I lost count how many times I said, “wow,” and “amazing.” I drove slow (which is a big deal for me, as those who have carpooled with me will tell you) looking for the best, any, place to pull over, step outside and take it all in.
Sedona’s red hills were everywhere we looked and created incredible formations. Now I know why so many people come here.
We hit the town and nearly ran out of town looking for the resort. Good thing we kept driving because it was past the town, down deep in a red rock valley nestled up against the hillside. Constructed in a deep red adobe, the resort blended in beautifully with the canyon and there were views of the mountains everywhere you looked.
Saturday we took simple hikes around the valley and visited the center of town. If you go, know that the attractions here are the nature, not the town. There’s enough town to sell gear to all the hikers, curios to take home to the curious relatives and galleries to show off what it seems everyone does for a living here – make art inspired by the surroundings. I mean no disrespect to the native economy; even Rodeo Drive would land a distant second to these mountains.
On race day morning, John and I drove from our resort up to the race start which sat on a plateau overlooking the incredible mountains. As the sun began to rise we saw hot air balloons in the distance gliding over the scenery making for some incredible pictures. The temperature was nearly perfect. Desert mornings, especially this time of year, can be very nippy but with no clouds in the sky and the sun rising quickly it was in the mid 40s by race time. We shed our layers, left them in the car and headed to the start.
How’s this for an envious beginning: The start was a downhill slope overlooking the canyon so that everyone lined up to race could look straight ahead and see over everyone’s heads and above the Welcome banner to see the sun turning sandstone every shade from red to brown. If a gun hadn’t gone off, I might still be standing there staring in awe.
If there’s any downside to all this natural beauty it’s that there’s no flat in Sedona – anywhere. Certainly not for 26.2 miles. So the marathon was a constant up and down. No climbs were significant but the race starts at 4,000 feet and you go up and down every mile or so gaining 500 feet at a time.
The course is an out and back through the same canyon where our resort was located. It starts out on paved roads and about seven miles in switches to red dirt trails, which felt great on the feet and knees. John and I started off at different paces so we lost sight of each other after about three miles. No more than two more miles in and I found myself side by side with Pete a professor of Forestry at Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff. He had driven down that morning to run the race and turned out to be nearly my exact pace. We shared life and running stories for the next 15 miles. I’m sure he got sick of me ogling the mountains and constantly muttering, “just incredible” but if he did, he kept it to himself.
There’s a big reason I run with friends – the miles go by so much faster and easier. This was certainly the case that day. Normally in a race with so many ups and downs of this magnitude each subsequent climb would drain you for the next. But we held pace.
The race was very close to our resort and our wives simply had to walk about a third of a mile to the fork in the road to see us at around mile nineteen. As we rounded the bend, there they were and not just waiting. They had been drafted into the volunteer water stop and were cheering for everyone. I like to think they cheered a little louder when we went by. I’m pretty sure I was the only one to get a big hug. :)
Shortly after seeing Reesa, another hill came and I started feeling the miles. It was warming up as well but I don’t think that was as much of a factor as the 20-plus miles that were now behind me. During the next downhill, I slowed considerably wanting to maximize the recovery but that might have been a bad idea as the next hill was more than a mile long and I didn’t have it. Pete, and his fresher legs left me, which didn’t help and I found myself walking a bit towards the top of the hill. The course leveled off again with less than a mile to go then turned into the small village. I looked up ahead and there was the finish – up yet another hill.
Knowing I was close, I poured on what little energy I had left and finished strong. Okay, semi-strong. But felt great. In fact, I felt amazing. Not because I wasn’t tired but because I had regained what I had lost in 2012 – the love for running. Nothing beats the feeling of crossing the finish line after a hard effort and I remembered that this time. It was an incredible day, in an incredible place. I feel like it healed me.