In the red rocks surrounding Moab, the Earth’s skin splinters into a million, trillion towers, fins, spines, spikes, hoodoos, mesas, arches, and rock formations so strange that they yet possess no name. The on-the-ground feel of this geologic jumble is a sense that one has wandered into a massive and infinite maze, or pretty much the perfect recreational playground.
Every year, a group of 50 more-physically-able-than-most folks conglomerate in these red rocks for a six-day trail-running race called Desert R.A.T.S. (Race Across the Sand). The race begins outside of Grand Junction, Colorado. Six days later, athletes have run 148 miles and the length of the Kokopelli Trail. Each day has a set running distance, and racers camp as a group at or near the finish line of each day’s stage. The runner with the lowest cumulative time over the course of the week is the declared winner.
There’s one more catch: the race takes place in the heat of June, one of Moab’s hottest months. Temperatures in the mid-90’s Fahrenheit are normal, and 100-plus-degree days are common. To some, running almost 150 miles across a hot desert for about a week might sound like a form of torture devised in the Middle Ages. To be sure, the 50 folks who undertake Desert R.A.T.S. each year are challenged at some point in their journey. But, the pros of an outing like this far outweigh the cons, because some runners return year after year.
“I run Desert R.A.T.S. to see the landscape, be in the moment of this vast outdoor mecca, and bask in where I am running, be it through fields of mountain orchids, wild irises, trees, sand, sand dunes, or rocks,” says, Encinitas, CA-based strength and conditioning coach Janet Alexander. She ran the race in 2011 and is returning for more action this year. “Just knowing that I am so small compared to the rest of nature: it grounds me and feeds my soul.” Janet also says that there is no denying the race’s difficulty, but that the challenge attracts her. “I get a kick out of finishing a race like this one, knowing I have spent every penny. It’s what I call an honest effort.”
Sean Meissner, who hails from Sisters, OR, has run and won the race for the last two years. The elite athlete has competed in hundreds of marathons and ultramarathons, or races longer than a marathon distance, over the course of his running career. He is so steeled to the physical and mental challenges created by endurance-running events that he thinks Desert R.A.T.S. is a vacation. “I love stage races, races where you run every day for several days, like this one. It’s basically a summer camp, where the emphasis is on running!”
“The race is magic,” exclaims Jenks, OK runner Kurt Egli. “At other, one-day events, everyone heads back home to their busy lives afterward. Because you’re so far out there, where there isn’t even cell-phone service, it’s just us runners, a few tents, and a couple of support cars.” For Kurt and his wife, Shelley, who will run the race for the fourth time in 2012, the challenge is also usurped by the camaraderie that develops among runners over a week of racing and camping together. Kurt explains, “Every year, we create lifelong friendships. When you take away the distractions of daily life, it happens so fast. The concept and the experience are very simple, but simple is, I guess, where the good stuff happens.”
A physical challenge, time spent in wild places, and tightly bonded human relationships: these are the experiences that race director Reid Delman, a full time race manager and a part time mixed martial arts fighter from Boulder, CO, wanted to facilitate when he developed Desert R.A.T.S. in 2007. “ I took the best aspects of the races I’ve done and those on my bucket list and put them into this event. Desert R.A.T.S. is a mixture of the successful international desert stage races, expedition adventure races, and grassroots ultramarathons.”
The Kokopelli Trail sits front-and-center on mountain bikers’ radars as a pilgrimage of sorts, but isn’t well known on the trail-running front. Beginning in the open desert outside of Grand Junction, CO, the route heads southwest, crossing the Utah border and see-forever desert terrain. No water, a lot of sand, and quirky rock formations characterize the trail in this region. In the route’s second half, it climbs into the high country of the La Sal Mountains before dive-bombing back downhill and into Moab’s red slickrock.
“The course practically chose itself. It has exceeded our expectations,” says Reid. “We were looking for a route with scenery unique to this desert and with a variety of conditions. We also wanted to put racers as far into the backcountry as we could while allowing access for safety. We did a lot of research and are happy with this long trail.”
“How can you choose a favorite spot on the race course? The whole thing is a 148-mile postcard!” exclaims Kurt. “The first year, I got a bit cranky with my wife for stopping every mile to take a picture.” Sean says he has a couple favorite spots along the route, including this one: “On Day 2, we run miles and miles of flat jeep road under some telephone poles. It’s so flat and so hot that you can see the heat waves rising from the ground. Awesome!”
“On the last day, when you have 100 or so miles in your legs, there’s a nasty, six-mile climb,” remembers Janet. “It’s so hard, but the view from the top with wildflowers lining the sides of the trail and butterflies floating everywhere is wild, stunning!” She, too, has a hard time choosing favorites, “I also love the course during the 52-mile stage. Fabulous stone formations and canyons engulf the trail.”
Janet, Sean, and Kurt wave wild flags of excitement when I ask each of them to describe the Desert R.A.T.S. experience. “Some of the race’s best elements don’t involve running,” emphasizes Sean, “like hanging out at camp, soaking in the silty Colorado River, hiking around camp, sharing battle stories, and getting to know my fellow racers!”
Kurt agrees with Sean, “Desert R.A.T.S. is more than a foot race and that’s why we keep coming back.” Kurt also says that the race has a positive influence on his life after it’s over. “We racers spend six months afterward talking about how much we miss each other. Then we spend six months talking about how awesome it will be when we meet up in Moab again to race.”
About the bonds that develop among racers over the course of the week, Reid explains, “We let camaraderie happen organically. We keep the race small so that racers may get
to know one another. Whatever happens happens and that strategy hasn’t let me down.” It seems that isolating a group of like-minded folks in the desert wilds is a good way to forge friendships. “By pushing themselves during the day, the runners make tight binds at night,” says Reid.
“You run your butt each day,” Janet says. “Then, when you arrive at camp, Reid and his crew serve up watermelon, salted peanuts, and potato chips. There’s a bit of music and dinner is prepared. Did I mention how awesome the food is?” Janet continues, “But, when it comes down to it, the people make the experience. People who do these races, they are kindred spirits to me.”
Think you might be up for a challenge like this? It’s more accessible than you imagine. “While most of the course is runnable, I don’t think of this as a running race. It’s an endurance event.” Reid says, “The experience has many obstacles, both geographical and personal, that one must overcome. It’s an ‘aspirational’ race, one that both great runners and novices aspire to. We’ve had previous winners of other ultramarathons and people who have never done a marathon, both of which are happy to cross the finish line.”
“Desert R.A.T.S. is not a cakewalk. But, but! You don’t have to be elite to do it. The community is so strong that it will buoy you through the tough times.” Janet finishes, “I’m a mid-pack runner, for certain. If I can do it, you can.”
The towering Colorado River canyons, the slickrock steeps, fields of sand dunes, shimmering heat waves, a camp full of jovial folks, not a lick of cell-phone service, strawberry shortcake as dessert, waist-high wildflowers, and the promise that, by the end of the week, you will become a desert rat: all of this is waiting down there inside of that splintered Earth.
Trail Running in Moab
Moab is a known mountain-biking and jeep-crawling paradise, but did you know that trail runners consider it sweet terrain, too? Enough single and doubletrack spider through the Moab region’s red rocks to entertain a trail runner for life. Give trail running in the Moab area a fair shot by checking out these routes:
Moab Rim Trail- This jeep route climbs from the Kane Creek Road before turning to singletrack after a few miles. Once the trail becomes singletrack, keep your eye out for a cliff on the left and social trails heading to it. On the cliff are thousands of petroglyphs. Return the way you came.
Porcupine Rim Trail- Climb this trail from Highway 128 east of Moab. After four singletrack miles, it switches to doubletrack and goes on for almost forever. Run as far out as you want to and then return the way you came. You’ll see views into Arches National Park to the north and the La Sal Mountains to the south.
Poison Spider Trail- Do this as an out-and-back from the Potash Road. The jeep trail crawls up onto Poison Spider Mesa. After five miles, bring a map and mind the confusing intersection. Head onto the Golden Spike Trail, an entirely slickrock jeep trail. Turn around and return whenever you’re ready.
Out of town
Behind-the-Rocks Trails- This web of trails is south of Moab. A map is critical to not getting lost here. Nice, runnable sections separate insane blocks of slickrock. Use the trail system to make a loop of whatever distance you desire.
Devil’s Garden trails in Arches National Park- If you run all the singletrack on this rough lollipop (including one or two short out-and-backs to views of arches), it’s something like 12 miles. Here, singletrack wends past gravity-defying rock arches.
Upheaval Dome Trail in Canyonlands National Park- Gnarly terrain and primitive singletrack defines this loop around a geologic dome. Bring the map and keep your eye out for rock cairns leading the way. The west side of the loop provides sick views west toward the Colorado River.
Far from town but oh-so-worth-it
Needles District of Canyonlands National Park- It’s a haul south of town, but the trails weaving in and out of the rock needles there are worth whatever driving you have to do to get there. Create runs from five to 30-plus miles with the trail network. Petroglyphs seem to dot every wall, and don’t miss massive Druid Arch. Alternatively, stay a day or two by camping in the national park campground for a couple days of trail running.