I harnessed the GoPro camera to my head, careful to not elbow the dense crowd of runners around me. It was fastened to an elastic band that squeezed my head in three directions, but it felt oddly comfortable. The sun had almost crested the colossal mounds of red to our right, slowly warming us from the near-freezing temperatures of the desert morning. The 2013 Moab Trail Marathon and Half Marathon was just minutes from starting and the race announcer was making sure we understood what we were about to do. This wouldn’t be your average trail run, where your biggest concern is avoiding tree roots and the occasional whipcrack of branches on your face. Today we would have to contend with cacti, crypto (a living bacteria that serves as desert topsoil), loose rocks and slippery terrain that could spell certain doom if not navigated properly.
I privately thought that we had bitten off more than we could chew.
In the waves behind me were Steve (my father-in-law), his brothers Greg and Jim, and his brother-in-law Dan. Almost immediately after we all finished the Hoover Dam Marathon last December, the brothers began ruminating over which would be the next trip. In one of the many emails, Moab was mentioned. I knew of several races in the area, but one in particular stood out. Having read Mike’s detailed and flattering account of the Moab Trail Half Marathon, I was intrigued and threw it in the ring. Within days, flights were bought and race registrations paid. As the weekend crept ever closer, excitement levels reached feverish levels. I soon learned that Moab had a Mecca-like quality for Steve and Greg, over the years adopting an otherworldly character that always brought a fond smile to their faces. In their biking days of yore, they would visit the red desert canyon and lay claim to every trail they could find, seeing breathtaking natural monuments along the way.
If you ever visit Moab, you MUST stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge
This long weekend was therefore not just another out of state race, but a poignant family trip down memory lane.
With race director Danelle Ballengee’s blessing, the crowd of bouncing runners was sent on its way (for Danelle’s riveting back story of survival and triumph, please read Mike’s Moab story). I made sure to click Record and followed the human flood ahead of me. The first four miles were all uphill, interrupted only by brief dips and rocky camel humps. During this ascent, we would run over almost every possible kind of terrain. We started on asphalt, which quickly became loose sand, a surface that sapped the speed from every footstep. That soon disappeared, giving way to packed dirt with loose rocks, which grew to boulders and later entire mountains. I took a moment to look up from the trail to behold the towering walls of red surrounding me. This race, more than any other I’ve run so far, was the cruelest culprit of the central conflict of trail running — there is so much beautiful scenery to ingest, but you have to keep your eyes on the ground or you risk snapping down like a mousetrap. We hadn’t run two miles before a gentleman ahead of me fell face first into a pile of rocks the size of human heads. Although he immediately got up and shoo’ed away any help, I’m sure he took a rough hit to more than just his pride.
The Start / Finish Area
But like a kid trying to do his homework with the TV on, I couldn’t help but look up from time to time. The mesmerizing towers of rugged sandstone seemed to close in on us, each formation more impressive than the previous. The race followed the regular pattern of shock and awe from the previous day’s sightseeing tours. We had hiked to the almost mystical Delicate Arch, absorbed the dizzying vastness of Dead Horse Point and drove through the cartoonishly smooth biking playgrounds of the Slickrock Sand Flats. Steve and Greg had escorted us through each stretch of crimson landscape with the same zeal as an older brother showing his siblings Star Wars for the first time. Each new sun-burnt carving was a wonder to behold, never once blending in with its surroundings.
That’s how this race felt. Every single section, every part was completely unique and had its own story to tell.
Four miles later, I could feel the top of the climb, the end of the race’s opening act. I did my best to avoid walking, but there were several steep escarpments where everyone ahead of me had stopped to power hike the smooth mounds of red and white. The peak was at the top of a gradual incline of jagged rock and the sun was just beyond it. Slender, alien silhouettes ambled ahead of me towards the light and I followed in short, dusty steps. Even with my sunglasses, I was almost blind. But once over the other side, it was like entering another world. The light changed, everything came into focus, and just like that, I was flying.
I could feel the crunch of sand and rock with each step as my feet skipped over the surface. Although it was so easy to give in to gravity, I would meet a long, gruesome end were I to accidentally slip and fall to my left. So I kept a respectable distance behind the runner ahead of me and let my eyes dart to and fro on the path ahead, evaluating where to (not) step. Like a stream finding the fast-flowing river, we soon spilled from the rocky cliffs and onto an orange dirt path, hugged by miles of desert, distant mounds of jutting turmeric acting like walls of an enormous arena. The last four miles had consisted of a slow, sustainable running pace with brief periods of hiking and a few four-legged scrambles, so the suddenly flat, soft trail easily broke the chains.
I hit Record on my unicorn camera and let reckless impulse consume me. One by one, I passed runners, often running along the edge of the trail like a skater on a half-pipe. My Garmin’s wrist strap had broken the day before, so it was bouncing in my back pocket, my pace a complete mystery. But in the middle of flight, I didn’t care. I had laser targeted the red skyscrapers on the horizon and was closing in on them like a hawk, every step effortlessly pushing off the packed dirt, every rock providing a spring to the next, nothing in my-
“What the,” I said and pulled the harness off my head, my skin practically stuck to it. “Are you serious?”
“Battery dead?” a nearby runner asked, mid-stride.
“No, full memory card.”
“Ah, that’s a shame.”
“Yeah,” I said, clumsily strapping it back on my head like a mascot caught out of costume. “I could probably make some space on it, but I doubt my father-in-law would appreciate it if I delete his Scuba diving videos.”
“That’d be a terrible idea.”
“Oh well,” I said. “At least I got the hard part on video.”
The runner laughed and continued with his run. He didn’t say anything else though. In retrospect, I suspect that he had run this race before because, as I would learn just a few miles later, I had not quite reached the hard part of the race.
I reached the first of two aid stations at the end of the flat stretch, where I drank some HEED energy drink and ate an orange slice with a sugar cookie before continuing on the path, which was no longer a discrete trail. For much of the next three miles, we would be on the shoulders of red bluffs just a head turn away from awe-inspiring canyons (also known as a giant, potential graves). Running was happening in short bursts, whenever possible. Loose rocks, curious shrubs and a general sense of self-preservation kept me from attacking these cliffs. The slower pace gave me a chance to absorb the enormous gap created by ancient water, an expanse so large it almost rivaled Dead Horse Point. I continued leaping over rocks and sliding under natural overhangs, wondering how the brothers were reacting to this race so far. After all, I was the one who suggested it.
I could imagine Greg admiring the view in his congenial Midwestern voice that hints at his goofy personality; Dan would stop and appreciate the monuments with pithy, no-nonsense remarks while stroking his goatee; and Jim would take a hundred pictures with his phone and remark at each new vista with gushy adulation in his slow, mellow intonation. Meanwhile, Steve would yell “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” like a wild man, pick out the most efficient way possible to tackle the challenge ahead and continue enjoying the trip he put together with the bros in his life.
But I did hope they were being careful. The orange ribbons that marked the trail weren’t as easy to find anymore. There was no one ahead of me to follow so my eyes were working overtime to find the next marker and keep me from tripping on rocks. For several stretches, it felt like I wasn’t following ribbons as much as unearthing them. During one slight downhill, I began to pick up speed but couldn’t lose focus for a second. As I fell methodically down the stepped rocks, I felt like a cyborg targeting every possible object and evaluating its relevance, four, five times a second.
I was enjoying this so much, I couldn’t help but smile. It didn’t take long for the downhill jaunt to become a dance, with short, rhythmic steps clicking against the sand before a semi-graceful leap over a rock. I was living every step, focused so intently on form that it felt like I was holding my breath the entire time. I wouldn’t have noticed if the spires in the distance had uprooted themselves and done Tai Chi.
But soon all running would come to a grinding halt. The shoulder of the mountain was narrowing with every step until it was scarcely more than a thin ledge with clumps of red dandruff. The only things separating me from tumbling down the side into a canyon popping with vegetation was an arm’s length of space and a poor decision. I was also holding a hand above my head to keep the camera from scraping a red ceiling. Two days earlier, we had hiked to see Delicate Arch, which included a slow walk next to a similarly sharp drop-off, during which Greg had mentioned his fear of heights. I could only hope he would keep it together during this leg of the race.
Miles 10 – 12
I began descending, quickly. Not only were the ribbons leading me down into the canyon, but runners were catching up with me – probably the ones I passed during the flat, dirt road – and I didn’t want to be the bottleneck. I saw a spotter up ahead, who ushered me towards a pit between two large boulders. Rather than crabwalk down the edge, I decided to jump. I landed with a full crouch, my knees almost touching my ears. After picking myself up and slapping the dust off my gloves on my legs, I slid down until I could turn around and see the line of people waiting to shimmy down the rock face, wishing my camera had some space left to capture the vertiginous descent.
I reached the bottom of the canyon, the next aid station just a few minutes away. The trail was thicker here, so I ran with my hands outstretched, pushing away the plants and reeds that had joined the cavalcade of obstacles. As I approached the station, I noticed with great confidence that I was still feeling strong and not drained by the air at 5,000 feet like I had expected. I downed another cup of HEED and left the station through a thin layer of trees that separated the canyon from the main road. We had driven here the day before and knew what was to come: a long, dry climb.
Miles 10 – 12 (Google Earth)
So up I went. I started with a slow jog, pushing the gravel behind me in short steps. I passed a few walkers along the way, who would later pass me as I took my own break. A quick asphalt switchback pulled us quickly up the slope and for the first time in the race, I could feel my quads start to burn. The top of the climb was in sight, so I let myself take one last walk break before topping the hill and turning on the afterburners. Though the road was full of small rocks that could still be felt through the soles of my trail shoes, I wouldn’t have noticed. The downhill had the perfect slant – not too weak to just be a false flat, and just shy of a quad-melting grade. I came up to an older runner who looked to be in his 60s.
“This is more like it!” I yelled as I passed him.
“That’s the way to do it!” he said with a fist in the air. “Save it all for the end!”
The sinister stream
But the downhill, like every single act of this race, was short lived. A small sign dug into the side of the road showed a little black arrow pointing left, into a shallow canyon. As if to avoid temptation, the organizers had stationed a few friendly volunteers next to the sign to make sure everyone stopped their exuberant prance and made the proper left turn. The road became slickrock so my run became a jog; the slickrock began dropping into the canyon in steps, so my jog became a cautious scoot. Once flattened, I got back to running, eager for the finish line. But there was one obstacle left to face.
This last barrier to glory would come in the shape of an ice-cold stream, winding in and out of the canyon, surrounded by mud-drenched rocks. The organizers had warned us that the local beavers had been busy, so we should plan on getting our feet wet. There was a volunteer at the first crossing, who wasted no words by telling us that we simply had to get in. There was no way to avoid it. It was too wide to jump and no rocks were breaching its surface to act as stepping stones. So in I went.
Jim on the final scramble to the finish line
Those first steps were awful. Though it was only shin-deep, the cold sensation shot up my legs and through my spine, causing me to stiffen completely. I lumbered across that stream with my arms moving around me as if I were shaped like a sphere, all grace and confidence draining into the icy water. But to my delight, it only took me about five or six steps to reach the other side. Once on land, I knew it was vital that I run to bring my feet back to life. We were deep in the canyon and there was very little sunlight reaching us, so running alone would warm them up. I was trying to actively hug the ground with my toes with every step, leaving the cold sensation on the damp grass. So far, it was working.
That wasn’t so bad, I thought. Now time to … get back in?
All elation of being almost finished was dashed when I looked ahead and saw runners crossing back to the other side of the stream. If we had to ford this thing more than once, then it was possible that we’d have to cross it a third, fourth, maybe even a fifth time. I was right on all three counts. Just as my feet would warm up, I would once again drown them in an icy bath like a cruel interrogator. But at least the crossings were quick, requiring only two or three fully underwater steps.
But even that small luxury was stripped from me as we found ourselves wading in the middle of the stream, parallel to the bank, those damned orange ribbons hanging from the branches above us.
This is getting silly, Steve would think.
Oh boy, Greg might say aloud.
This is sooooo cooooool, Jim would chime in.
Dan, meanwhile, would scoff out an expletive and soldier onward.
I was happy to see this Arch in Moab, even if it didn’t take millions of years to form
This pattern continued for a few more crossings until we were finally out of the water and onto the road. I was thrilled to be back on dry land, even if we had yet another climb ahead of us. It felt like I had an ice pack squeezed between the tops of my feet and my shoes, but it was quickly melting with each step. At the top of the climb, I could hear the muffled sounds of the race announcer and a red arch, slightly obscured by a row of porta-potties. The adventure was almost over, so it was time to empty the tank. My legs had shuffled through cliffs, slid over loose rocks, climbed up dirt roads and now battled with glacial waters, but I managed to kick uphill, pulling the finish line closer. The end was near …
… until it wasn’t. What I thought was the entrance to the parking lot looked more like a complete turnaround, back into the canyon. My suspicions were confirmed by the cheery volunteers pointing downward into the realm of the cold creek. I told the friendly woman who rerouted me that what she was doing was downright cruel. She assured me that there was just a quarter-mile left, which was friendly volunteer-speak for “a vast expanse of unfathomable distance separates you from success.”
Jim finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon, just 3 weeks after the Chicago Marathon
Just as I had thought, we’d be crossing the dreaded stream again. There were a few rocks poking their heads out of the surface a little downhill, so I tip-toed over them and into a wall of reeds and dirt. I regretted that decision because I ended up covering my shoes in muddy runoff just to avoid getting them wet. Once back on the trail, it was business as usual – a thin, serpentine path interrupted by enormous boulders with ribbons leading the way. Jim would later joke that he imagined the race director tying each one in a deliberately treacherous location while snickering sadistically.
The shrubbery was thicker and taller here, making me feel for the first time that I was in a forest. I reached the stream again to find a black pipe connecting the embankments, just a few inches above the water. My first thought was that we were going to tightrope across it. And why the hell not? We had done most everything else in this race except zip-lining as Steve would later point out. But a volunteer showed me otherwise. She pointed to the muddy water next to the pipe and told me there was a cinderblock there. I looked down and saw nothing. But after exploring the water with my foot, I felt the solid structure underneath. Like magic, the rest of the water became translucent and I could see the remaining stepping stones.
(left to right): Dan, Greg, Steve finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon
I walked over the water like a basilisk and ran over smooth dirt toward the finishing area. Up ahead were about forty people ceremoniously standing above a giant rock, looking down at runners and cheering. One of them yelled, “She’s gaining on him, watch her go!” so I gave everyone a show and picked up the pace. I ran up and slid past the rock to behold a short, but very steep chute covered in orange sand. I could tell it had suffered the fanatical footsteps of many runners already, giving me neither traction nor elegance. But once at the top, it was just a quick left turn to dash across the finish line in 2:19:22.
After changing into dry shoes and socks, I made my way back to the top of that last climb to see the rest of the boys finish. Jim soon came scrambling up the mountain, proving that he had enough endurance to finish this tough race just three weeks removed from his second marathon. Not long after, Greg and Dan emerged together, matching each other stride for effortless stride under the finisher’s banner. Shortly after them, Steve climbed through the arch, conquering the trails of Moab for the first time on foot and cementing the five of us as finishers in the most intense adventure race any of us had ever experienced.
We spent the rest of the day gabbing about the race like girls after a One Direction concert. While everyone enjoyed the event in their own way, there were signature moments that couldn’t go unnoticed. Cresting the top of the first four miles, the fast dash through the open fields, the perilous descent, the long hill, the treacherous creek, the false finish line and that last crawl through the inflatable arch. It was clear that everyone loved the race. I can already hear us talking about it when we return in ten years for the next grand adventure with brand new faces. And return we no doubt will.
(left to right): Me, Greg, Dan, Jim, Steve. Where’s my matching team shirt, you ask? Covered in sweat and crumpled in a plastic bag, where it should be in the interest of public safety and comfort.
Because there was something unique about the landscape in Moab, something difficult to describe that separated the red desert spires from any other natural formation. Each stepped mountain was not just an impressive sight worthy of a telephoto lens, it was a painting of the enormity of the planet’s geological history. I’ve been to the Alps, biked the Rockies and walked around volcanic craters in Costa Rica. But I seem to imagine the creation of a mountain like a child – three or four earthquakes and suddenly, there are mountains where once a plain existed. But the slowly eroding red top hats and stone scepters in southeast Utah give you a true sense of just how long it took something like Dead Horse to reach its current state. Similarly, it makes me realize that we’re just a blip on earth’s radar, and that millions of years after we’re gone – assuming we don’t decimate the entire planet – Delicate Arch will still be there, moving a bright circle across the desert, a silent caretaker with a thinning cane.
But until that happens, I will enjoy that short blip in the company of great people as we visit amazing places.