“Welcome to the world’s most beautiful trail race. At least in my opinion,” the voice of the confident female start announcer blared from the loudspeakers. My friend Jürgen, running partner and fellow Austrian, and I found ourselves in start corral 3 at the start of the Moab Trail Marathon in eastern Utah, about to embark on a 26.2-mile endurance challenge through rugged canyon terrain. How on Earth did we get here?
The idea was born a couple of months ago when I started to get tired of running on asphalt and began to dabble in trail running. Some internet research revealed said event in Moab, Utah, a mecca for mountain bikers, off-road enthusiasts and climbers. With the slightly ludicrous argument that the fee for the full marathon was only ten dollars more than the 13.1 event, I got talked into signing up for the long haul. Now, slightly shivering in temperatures just above freezing, I was wondering what had gotten into me.
Starting at an elevation of almost 4000 feet, the 1600 participants, spread over the 26.2, 13.1 and 5k distances were sent out in waves onto the course from the start area at Kane Creek trailhead, soon entering Pritchett Canyon in which it became quickly apparent that this would be a race of frequently switching terrain. Sandy stream washes gave way to ascents on slickrock and descents on rock-littered single track, at times too treacherous to run. Side canyons veering off to the left gave a glimpse into the Behind The Rocks, an unspoiled, fifty square mile area filled with red rock fins, domes, and arches.
A gentle climb over the first 3.6 miles culminated in the first significant ascent up a path of dirt singletrack and slick rock to the crest at 4800 feet after 6.9 miles. Having conquered that first climb, we were in for a downhill section along a sand and dirt road. Smooth terrain considering what we had experienced thus far. At the end of the road, aid station #1 awaited, before the path narrowed, requiring us to negotiate rough surface while the trail now hugged the canyon walls. We had entered the Inter Canyon Rim Trail, situated between the actual canyon rim and the canyon floor below. Apart from minor ups and downs over ground we had gotten used to by now, the run was more or less easy going at this point. Rounding a bend after 8.9 miles, the earth gave way to the left, and we were treated to a view of Springs Canyon with Kane Creek switch-backing about 500 feet below us. We descended down to the canyon floor over what resembled more a class 2 hiking section than a running trail, fueled up at aid station 2 and then took a left, heading south on Kane Springs Road.
A short 1.4-mile side stint into narrow Hunters Canyon brought us to a checkpoint where we had our bib stamped by a twenty-something volunteer of slender built, while his young son (he could have only been one year old at max) was curiously watching from his child carrier backpack. We then continued on the wide gravel road, just to leave it after aid station 3 heading due southwest through dense vegetation, aiming for the most significant climb of the race, rising 1170 feet over 2.1 miles to the rim at 5300 feet.
I was in no condition to run up this section with an average grade of 10.5%, and it was good for my ego to see that others weren’t either. Tediously we fast-walked up the rocky trail, with vistas of the canyon opening up to the east and south. Reaching the crest, my watch read 14.9 miles.
Even though I was relieved about finally making it to the top, it was apparent soon after that that my legs couldn’t quite comprehend the amount of strain I had put them under thus far. Despite a gradual descent, I was in no way able to keep a decent pace, my whole lower body had become tense and ran out of power. From the floor of this “rim canyon” we had to climb back up to the actual rim, enjoying views of the snow-covered peaks of the La Sal Mountains to the east. Although “enjoy” is probably the wrong word here.
I felt spent, had to walk most of the time on this stretch of the course, known as the Captain Ahab trail, popular with mountain bikers. And indeed we encountered about a dozen two-wheel enthusiasts riding in the opposite direction on this challenging trail. Smooth slickrock, interspersed with broken up boulders and sandy underground dominated the area. The blazing sun, rising temperatures, and exhaustion got to me and navigating the terrain that seemed to repeat over and over again confused me. It almost looked like we were going in circles.
I gained new hope when, at 19.6 miles, we reached the turn onto Amasa Back Trail, at this section a rugged dirt road wonderland for ATVs and mountain bikers. The wide track at least made it easier to get into some kind of running rhythm again towards aid station 4, with vistas of Jackson Hole on our left. As we entered Jackson Trail on the southern side of the canyon carved by the Colorado River, the sight of the finish area gave me a new boost of energy, totally ignoring the obvious that it was still about five miles to complete the full distance. About a mile from the finish, a creek crossing provided an obstacle that could be conquered by either going straight through or balancing on a log with the help of hiking poles supplied by volunteers. The finish in sight, I neglected the poles, waded through the almost hip-high creek, nearly tripping and submerging in the dirty waters, and finally scrambled up the muddy embankment on the other side. Almost there I thought, but I couldn’t be more wrong.
Apparently, I had missed the section in the pre-race info sheet that mentioned the 5k obstacle course just before the finish line. Jürgen, whom I had lost earlier on the 1000+ foot climb, had run ahead and was already coming towards the finish when I bumped into him. He managed to encourage me like no one else could at that moment. “The worst is ahead!”, he proclaimed while high-fiving me.
Passing by the finish line only to find yourself on a course that takes you away from it again was psychological torture, courtesy of race director Danelle Ballengee. With almost 23 miles behind me, the first obstacle meant climbing up an aluminum ladder to a draining pipe, about 12 feet in diameter, navigating through a cave of about 100 feet in length through the canyon wall and negotiating up and down two rope-secured slickrock sections. As we got further and further away from the finish, the cheers of the crowds and the voice of the announcer fell silent, I thought this torment would never end. I still kept on running, now on fumes but with the adrenaline push from before when the finish was within my reach.
“You got 1.2 miles to go,” a grey-bearded volunteer in dark sunglasses assured me while handing me the rope to lower myself down the second rope section. The orange marker bands and flags directed me back on to Kane Creek Boulevard, the same road that we had used to get to the start area almost seven hours earlier. The course then swerved to the right, through a dusty field that doubled as an overflow parking area for the event. The finish came in sight again, with one last little obstacle to navigate, a short stint down and across a creek bed. One last time I ducked through some dense vegetation just below the finish area. A final left turn and dash up the embankment of the Colorado River and a sprint over the finish line, with Jürgen cheering me on from behind the barrier, brought me in after 5 hours and 55 minutes.
While right after the finish line I cursed the person who had come up with the idea to sign up for this race (which was me anyway), now, a day later, I am happy I did it. Undoubtedly a running experience of a different kind, the pride of finishing this endurance test outweighs the moments of pain and exhaustion I had felt only 24 hours earlier. It is those physical and mental tests, those moments where the wheels start to come off, figuratively, where you define yourself as a human being, where the circumstances force you to be in the moment, focused on simple tasks like placing one foot in front of the other. It is moments like this where you leave the safe path of the packaged adventure only to find yourself venturing deep down into your own psyche. This is your experience, just you, yourself and the task at hand, against the elements and circumstances. No matter how, but coming out at the other end of this tunnel of emotions, including despair, delight, joy, relief, and pain, always makes me feel more alive than anything else. Would I do it again? No way! But ask me again in ten months, and through the wonders of the mind, I might have forgotten how gruesomely breathtaking it was.