“Are you going back for revenge this year?” Last year, I fell and broke my arm at mile 9.7 of the Moab Trail Marathon… because I was a complete jackass. It was my own arrogant self who did that and I have only myself to blame; I only owe it to myself to seek a better outcome. The desert owes me nothing.
“Not for revenge. Redemption.“
364 days was enough time to recover from a “magnificent” fracture, some fiddly surgery, a few new permanent cyborg enhancements, a lingering “discussion” with my now-former insurance company, and a borderline-debilitating fear of falling while running. It was also enough time to forget quite how gut-punch beautiful this course is and learn anew how tough it is. Spurred by my tales from 2018 or perhaps just to keep an eye on me and my orthopedic health and welfare, a number of my indomitable running pals had made the journey with me this year. Time to race!
One thing I had not forgotten was how cold it is in the desert in the pre-dawn hours of November! Just like last year, we milled about in the dark huddled around campfires, listened to the awesome brass band rendition of the national anthem, stripped off outerwear at the last moment before joining our respective starting waves, jostled for position in the first mile up the surprisingly-sandy and cold Pritchett Canyon, and waited for sun and exercise to warm up the muscles. Just as I’d finally broken a sweat (not for lack of effort!), I crested the top and enjoyed the two miles of fast downhill to the first aid station, then the rolling, rocky cruise across the top of Hunter Canyon.
Rounding the corner at mile 9, I approached the location of The Fall. Someone went dodging past the now-hiking runners just like I did last year. “Hey! You really don’t want to be that guy!” I muttered, but he apparently escaped unharmed. Suddenly I was scrambling down ledges I definitely remember being helped down last year while cradling a right wrist which was obviously not the right shape. Oddly, after all the time thinking about this spot, I somehow never noticed the actual location of the fall!
Before I knew it, I’d reached the second aid station and turned left up the road where last year I’d climbed into a ranger truck for the first leg of my long trail to recovery. The emotional impact of this was bigger than I’d expected. On to the rest of the race!
After 10 miles of mostly-rough trail, it was really nice to be able to zone out for a mile on the wide gravel Kane Creek road. Miles 11 and 12 were a zippy out-and-back on narrow singletrack deep in Hunter Canyon to a punch. It was also a chance to see some people who’d started in earlier waves on the way in and later waves on the way out. There was no sign of Ben K–even with a 14-minute head start, he was apparently having a pretty great race–but Andrew, Francisco, and Ben O appeared about ten minutes behind me on the way out.
Another mile of cold, shadowy road running to the half-way mark whereupon I hit the wall. This wall wasn’t just the figurative one you hit during any marathon, but a literal one; the Scorched Earth Wall, a massive wall of dark sandstone rising above a blasted plain of pits and scars. The sandy trail slabbed steadily up the wall at a 15% grade and the chilliness of the deep canyons was quickly replaced by the heat of the sun and exertion. Certainly no one was running anymore. Oddly, my bonk disappeared on the climb and I annoyed everyone else within earshot with a running commentary.
The end of the climb brought an incredible view to the west of the wide, green Colorado River stretching off into depths of Canyonlands. On the maps, this part of the course doesn’t make much sense and in-person it makes little more. Ben O caught up with me at this point. He was running his first marathon and had started 14 minutes behind me, so clearly he was having a really good race. We ran a mile of sandy singletrack before diving into the canyons again up and down over slickrock slabs, through narrow slots, and down some fairly impressive ledges.
Ben receded out of sight as we climbed again to the bewildering toplands and the trail wound crazily over slickrock and rubble. The views were phenomenal and completely unlike what you get down in the canyons up here, but I was still bonking pretty hard by mile 20 and getting really tired of the constant stepping up and down off of rock slabs and bogging down in deep sand, the short, fierce climbs and technical descents, and the sudden jinks and fakes of the course. After another few miles, we reached the final rim and could see the start/finish area far below. All it was here was a gradual descent along the side of the cliffs down into the green bottomland of Kane Creek. It was still technical, but I managed to make pretty good time down there.
After many hours of sustained technicality, deep sand, and lots of surprise turns, the course had one last trick for us. At mile 23, you run past the finish line and proceed to the Adventure 5k Course. The Adventure 5k Course would be ridiculously fun had it not come at the end of five hours of sustained technical trails, deep sand, steep slickrock, and no end of surprise twists and turns. As it was, I was in Not In The Mood for climbing up a ladder, waiting in line for a rope climb, running through a cave, a culvert, and a small natural arch, nor for another few miles of sandy, off-camber trail. To add final mental toughness, you top it off with a mile along the river (bonus beer here) and a very steep dirt climb to the finish area. Puffing up the dirt climb, I emerged, blinking, in the Kane Creek trailhead area with the finish line a dozen yards away. Done, and about time too!
It was wonderful to finally see the second half of this course. In my 364 days of brooding between the arm incident and finally finding redemption on the course, I’d assumed that miles 12-24 were similar in style and difficulty to the first 10 miles of the course; challengingly technical, but mostly runnable. No, the back half of the course was considerably harder than the front (half marathon) course. My estimated conservative 5:30 finish turned into a pretty hard effort at 5:52. For reference, I ran a pair of 54k races just across the river in 6:20-ish (8 miles longer in distance, but only slightly longer in time) It’s a tough course!
It was also really fun to be out there doing challenging things in the desert with a big group of friends. Ben K finished in just under 5 hours, good enough to place second in his USATF age group. Ben O, in his first marathon, finished in a very respectable 5:30. Having my family at the finish line was really nice and cheering on my friends as they came in was a really nice way to end a big day in the desert.