After doing back-to-back rainy marathons in New Hampshire and
Maine last month, I was happy to find a trail marathon in Moab, UT, a place with a desert-like climate.
Moab sits in a canyon carved out by the Colorado River, about 20 miles west of the eastern Utah border. Both sides of the canyon walls are visible from anywhere in Moab. Though the view from inside Moab is very nice, the true scenery lies on the other sides of these canyon walls. Arches National Park
, sits at the north end of Moab.
Moab is a paradise for outdoor recreation and sightseeing. In July of 2008, our family
vacation to Utah included several days in Moab. Our excursions included white water rafting on the Colorado River, a hummer tour of the Slickrock Trail in the Sand Flats recreation area, and driving and hiking in Arches National Park.
I absolutely loved Moab. The scenery, the small town of about 5000, the relaxed atmosphere, the recreation opportunities, all are a perfect fit for me.
I stumbled across the Moab Trail Marathon website. The course description included a sentence "climb out of the canyon using a ladder and a rope" and I was intrigued and signed up.
We flew into to Denver the day before the marathon. Though Salt Lake City is about an hour closer to Moab, airfare between Milwaukee and Denver is a fraction of the cost of flying to Salt Lake City. Furthermore, the drive between Denver and Moab, through the Rocky Mountains, is very scenic. (Glenwood Canyon in Colorado is shown in picture to the right.)
We arrived on Friday evening, just barely in time for packet pick up. We had a quick sandwich at Eddie McStiff's
in downtown Moab, and checked into the Aarchway Inn
, which is the same place we stayed in 2008.
In the area surrounding Moab, the Colorado River and its tributaries have cut down the plains from heights over 5200 feet, down to the river's current elevation just below about 4000 feet, leaving behind rising buttes shaped like the tentacles of an octopus, red sandstone cliffs, gorgeous canyons, and a wide variety of terrain in between.
The marathon starts and ends in the Kane Creek canyon area, along the Colorado River, just southwest of Moab. The marathon course will take us from canyon to canyon to canyon, up and over 2 of these buttes, and through every kind of terrain imaginable along the way.
This marathon is about adventure, challenging terrain, and beautiful scenery. Running this marathon while focusing on time and pace would be like doing a crossword puzzle at the Super Bowl. My normal time for a trail marathon ranges from 3:40 to 4:40. This one took me 5:38. Somewhere around mile 14 or 15, I looked down at my watch, and saw my road marathon PR time.
The course was well marked with orange ribbons. Much of it was on jeep, ATV, or mountain bike trails, but plenty of it traveled across terrain where no defined trail existed. You could see the next orange ribbon, but you had an array of choices of how to get there.
Though Moab traditionally has an arid climate, the marathon start comes after 6 hours of rain. The normal high temperature of 65 degrees for this time of year is nowhere to be found. The temperature at the start was in the mid 30s. The rain continued for the first couple hours of the marathon. This created an unexpectedly muddy course.
During the first 4 miles, we climb to the top of the first of the 2 main buttes. This portion was windy, with a lot of ups and downs.
Many sections were runnable, as long as you were careful about footing.
Other sections were ups and downs of short steep rocks, about the height of a table that required climbing up or jumping down.
There were many places where if you stuck your arms straight out in front of you, you touched the place your feet needed to be next. Many required hands-on-the-ground-in-front-of-you climbing. Souls braver than me navigated these without their hands. For some of the the downs, I found myself squatting and scooting, rather than jumping. I guess that goes with being over 40, and not as confident in my landing skills.
After cresting the first butte, we made our way down the other side to the canyon. The descent was about 6 miles of
windy ups and downs. If you look closely in this picture on the left, you can see tiny dots of runners coming down the steep trail. For a better view of this picture, click here.
At about mile 10, we reached the canyon floor, and ran along a gravel road for a short stretch.
Just a couple miles ago, we were at the peak shown at the top of the picture to the right. When we were up there, we could see down to the road we are on now. Several times during the course, we were only about 2 feet from tall steep cliffs. I didn't stop to take pictures at those spots.
Mile 11 took us through an out-and-back in a very scenic canyon, criss-crossing repeatedly a small creek. We crossed the creek about a dozen times, some just a couple inches
deep, others were up to my knees.
In this canyon, we also encountered thick brush where a machete could have been useful. We had other small creek crossings that were about 4 feet straight down, and too wide to jump. The mud made these challenging. Getting down was involuntarily simple, but up was another story. In one, I could not get my foot to any place where it didn't slide straight down. After several attempts, I found all could do was grab some nearby branches, and crawl up the side slopes. After navigating creek crossings, we found the ground to be covered with what appeared to be debris left by a recent flood or mudslide... lots of trees, logs, branches and vegetation stripped from its roots, clumped together, and spread out across the path ahead.
And our adventure was just half way done.
We begin our long ascent to the top of the second butte at around mile 14. You can't see it in the picture, but we can see the long mile and a half climb ahead of us, etched into the side of this butte. We will end up on top of the bluffs that can be seen at the top right of this photo. As far as I can see, everyone is walking. When we start this ascent, we look up at a tall rock spire in the distance. At the end of this long climb, we will look way way way down at that spire.
After reaching the crest, we get to see what's on the other side... a view of Canyonlands National Park. The Colorado River in the picture on the left is about 3.5 miles away, and about 1200 feet down. Later that afternoon, when Bill and I went to Canyonlands National Park, it was exciting to see some of the same landmarks that I had seen from this section of the course. While at the scenic overlook, I tried to point out which butte we had climbed during the marathon.
After reaching the crest, we have a long downhill journey to the
finish area. The scenery continues to be incredible. We have several stretches along defined trails where we can look away from the footing for a few seconds to really take in the views.
The course also takes us to the rim of the butte, where we need to pay close attention, as we are just a couple feet from the edge of the cliffs. One slip here could result in severe injury, death, or possibly a DNF.
We skirt along the sides of the bluffs, sometimes ducking under rocks cantilevered out from the bluff walls, other times, we are on top of the cantilevered rocks.
The journey across the butte and over to the cliffs along the Colorado river took us through a wide variety of terrain. There was a 30 foot deep, 2 foot wide crevasse that we had to jump over. There were rock descents that were so steep, they warranted volunteers stationed to advise you how to navigate them. One descent was about 10 feet high, and as steep as a step ladder. I crouched into cannonball position, and slid on the soles of my trail shoes. The rock wasn't slippery, it was just that steep.
Around mile 20, the course took us through a crevasse that was barely wider than me at its narrowest point.
Once we reached the cliffs over the Colorado River, we could see the finish area off in the distance. We ran along a mountain bike trail. Though I could see tire marks from a mountain bike, I could not imagine what skills would be needed to travel this route on something with wheels and pedals. If I were going to attempt this, I'd need a lower deductible on my health insurance.
At about mile 21 we approach the finish area. We go up this steep mud hill shown in the picture to the right. We get an arms length from the finish line, and are sent back out for a 5 mile loop, and head right back down this hill.
This was a tad cruel, but necessary, as there are several spots ahead of us that need to be taken one at a time. If this loop had been the first five miles, the field would have been too bunched up, and it would have created bottlenecks.
The final 5 miles treated us to some unique challenges. We went through a long stretch of shoe-sucking mud so slick that walking was difficult. My feet slipped from side to side, but I managed to stay vertical. We had about 50 yards with thick brush and overhanging branches so low, that the only way to get through was bending over at the waist. Only a short pre-schooler would have been able to getthrough without ducking. We came around a turn to find a 5 foot extension ladder that lead up to a 12 foot diameter corrugated metal culvert.
About mile 23 we found a second ladder for us to make the climb out of the creek bed.
Then things got interesting.
Shortly after the second ladder climb, we had a 20 foot nearly vertical climb. The shape of the terrain here was not appropriate for a ladder, instead there was a rope, anchored in the rock. Hoisting myself up using the rope, I struggled to find places for my feet. After some pulling, crawling, grunting and scuffling, I managed to reach the top.
A bit further down the course, we had to go down a similar rock formation, also requiring a rope. Down was easier, but I hung on to the rope for dear life, and ended up rather sideways and slightly dangling. My feet didn't really assist in forward progression, they just prevented me from sliding other parts of my body against the rock wall.
The rest of the course was not terribly scenic. At this point we were simply putting in the distance. We ran through a second corrugated metal culvert, across fields of mud and brush, and back to the steep mud wall, and finally crossing the finish line.
After I finished, we stuck around just long enough for me to grab a quick snack. We only had a few hours of daylight left, and we wanted to get to Dead Horse Point State Park, and Canyonlands National Park before dark. After briefly visiting the parks, and snapping a few pictures, we went to The Moab Brewery
for a burger and a beer. This was a very cool place, decorated with outdoor equipment from local businesses: a raft hung from the ceiling, a jeep was in the corner, mountain bikes hung from the walls, a mannequin on climbing equipment, and a hang-glider also hung from the ceiling.
Our drive back to Denver the following day offered a tiny bit of adventure as well. Snow showers around Vail, CO mandated the use of chains for all commercial vehicles. We had left in plenty of time to accommodate anticipated backups on the freeway, and arrived in Denver in time to take a few pictures of the state capitol, and grab lunch at The City Grill
. Marquee signs inside and out boasted that they were voted best burger in Denver, but I opted for a chicken burrito, which was mighty tasty. We arrived at the airport, and got to our gate just in time to be last in line to get on the plane.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first 21 miles of this marathon. The last five were a bit frustrating, but interesting, and still enjoyable overall. But let's face it, the last 5 miles of most marathons fall into that category.
I would absolutely recommend this marathon to adventurous runners who want an intimate tour of the astoundingly beautiful scenery that Utah has to offer. If you are interested in perks, a finisher medal, or a PR, this is NOT the event for you.
For information available:
For those keeping score: states (with marathon or longer) 17, marathons 40, 'marathon-or-longer' 54.