Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Magical 2017 Moab Trail Marathon

(Watching the sunrise from the Delicate Arch)
Moab, Utah, is a truly mystical place. Amber sandstone stretches for miles, sculpted into giant canyons and gravity-defying arches by an endless swirling dance of wind, sun, and water. The sunrise lights the landscape in an instant, then pushes the clouds across the vast blue sky at hyperspeed, accelerating and stopping time all at once. Every moment is precious, raw and exposed for your contemplation, worthy of absorption…a playground for both body and soul.

(All seasons at once!)
I was here for the 7th annual Moab Trail Marathon, joined by 3,000+ equally slack jawed runners from all over the world. Elite runners came to compete for the USATF Trail Marathon National Championships (and a shot at the World team), while others sought personal adventure in two half marathon and one 10k option that scaled the most difficult parts of the marathon course. I came with all cameras blazing, eager to capture our tribe of adventurers in this epic backdrop.

(Reconnecting with Michael Robbert, faster than ever!)
(Sage Canaday [crewing today], Bryon Powell, Michael Versteeg, and Mo Sojern greet the day)

(Chris Grauch is ready to roll!)
My body was already sore at the starting line, much in thanks to some pre-race climbing, hiking, trail running, mountain biking, and whiskey tasting with all the Scottish/Irish clans in town for the “Scots on the Rocks” celebration. This was my first trip to the area, and I quickly found out it is hard to rest in Moab! There is always a group of people pulling you to enjoy the view, play hard, then celebrate even harder.

(And we're off! Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt)
A New Orleans brass band played fired up The Star Spangled Banner as we all entered the starting corral. I recognized lots of fast runners, short course and ultra alike. Mario Mendoza (2x winner here) was as fit as ever, as was Mo Sojern (Instagram poet and Bears Ears Protector), Anthony Kunkel (just won the USATF 50-mile Road Championships two weeks ago), Boudler speedster Sandi Nypaver, Chris Grauch (defending Masters champ, now in my age group…grrr), Michael Robbert (who inspired me to get into trail running 15 years ago), Renee Metivier (back in form after a broken leg), Michael Roche (father to David Roche), and enough super-fit locals from Utah and nearby Colorado to keep everyone honest. When Race Director Danelle Ballengee and USATF ambassador Richard Bolt sent us off at 8am, it was a sprint from the first step!

(Heading down the first canyon)
(The sand was thick!)
I settled in about 100 places back, rapid firing my camera as we plodded through the soft red sand and snaked up the canyon walls. It was a warm morning, but the clouds held back the burn of the sun that, as evidenced in the dry, red expanse ahead of us, could be significantly worse.

(Aid station, courtesy of local Jeep experts)
The first aid station (mile 5.6) was a sight to see – five huge off-road Jeeps had brought all the supplies up the day before. When I asked what route they took, one teenager said “the same way you did…didn’t you see our tire marks on the cliff?”. Those were tire marks?!? Wow, that is impressive. The teen happily filled my water bottle, saying they were spending the whole weekend up here being volunteers, camping, fishing, and doing donuts in the sand.

As we picked up the pace on the flatter routes, the trail got skinnier and skinnier until it became a one foot ledge hanging on a cliff. Honestly, if there hadn’t been course markings and volunteers there, I would have for sure thought we took a wrong turn! Meghan Hicks (of iRunFar fame) acknowledged this was the correct route as she guided us down, requiring all limbs and a few (literal) leaps of faith. This course is a doozy!

(Are you sure this is the trail?!?)
(Surfing the sandstone)
One more aid station (mile 9.7) split the marathoners from the halfies, giving us all some long roads to open up our strides. The hot sun gained ground on the clouds, peeking into the canyons and heating up the walls like a convection oven. I settled in with two buddies from Boulder, CO, and joined their distracting discourse about the best fruit and/or candy to add to pancakes.

(A little road time)
(Jeff Colt is flying! Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt)
Richard Bolt was there to guide us up the next canyon, a 2-mile out-and-back through a windy, aspen-filled gulch. Mario and Salt Lake City's Anthony Parsel were already heading back, while Renee was leading the women by 3 minutes. All of them warning me to look for the turnaround since a volunteer hadn’t made it in time (Renee went an extra mile). My inov-8 280 shoes were loving the variety of terrain – sandstone, river rocks, streams, deep sand, grass, and of course, mud! Good times.

(Through the tunnel!)
(Bit of a line at the turnaround)
(Fall colors in bloom!)
Despite promising myself to stop while taking pictures so I didn’t face plant, I soon face planted while taking pictures. Whoops! A mouth and nose full of red sand was a good lesson, so I slowed down on the big climb of the day with some runners from Canada and Washington. This climb was solid (2,500’ vertical), giving me plenty of chances to stop and gaze back on the course in awe. Atop the mountains, the scale is deliciously grand.

(Heading up the big climb)
(Cloud cover is nice!)
Once we reached the peak, I couldn’t see any runners in front of us. Luckily I was with two 3-time finishers who guided me through the white chalk course markings that took us through cliffs, slot canyons, and dry creek beds. We stopped to help a bonked runner, squeezed through a crevasse that required turning sideways, then soon found another crazy Jeep-on-a-cliff aid station (mile 17) to refill. This race is amazing!

(I think the trail goes this waaaaaaaaayyyyyy!)
(Run the slots!)

(Another courageous group of volunteers)
I caught up to Mo (unknowningly in 10th place for women) and Leadville’s Marvin Sandoval (12th at Leadville this year!), and we shared laughs as we crossed the rugged backcountry and mugged for my camera. The trails were more populated now, and we passed off-roading Jeep tours, mountain bikers, hikers, and motorcycles all out enjoying a great day. Bryon Powell (also of iRunFar fame) filled us up at the last aid station (mile 21) and I shared how blown away I was in my first visit to his home turf. What took me so long? I have no idea.

(Marvin and I head across the desert, photo courtesy of Bryon Powell)
(I'll lead, Marvin!)
(Along the Colorado River)
(Bryon Powell gets us fed...)
(...and hydrated!)
The trail worked its way down to the Colorado River, and I kept Marvin in sight best I could. Richard Bolt had forewarned me about the finish, saying just when you hear the cheering, you still have 3 miles to go, and it might be the toughest 3 miles out there. He was right! We had three rope sections, a ladder, and a tunnel, all of which triggered weary muscles into spams with devilish glee. When the finish line finally arrived (5:00:03 for me), I was spent!

(A ladder at mile 26? Are you kidding me?!?)
(Mario Mendoza for the win! Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt)

(Sandi Nypaver almost catches Renee Metivier, and immediate falls prey to the rabbit ears! Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt)
Mario Mendoza (3:13:54) claimed another win, with Anthony Costales (3:19:19) and former Mario roommate Patrick Parsel (3:24:26) finishing out the podium. Renee Metivier (4:08:01) held off a fast-charging Sandi Nypaver (4:08:53) to win the women’s division in her first trail marathon, with Michell Hummel (4:17:47) coming in third. All runners cited times were a bit longer than usual, saying the soft sand and 27.2 mile course may have added some minutes. Chris Grauch (3:51:53, 12th) won the Masters title, with his highest ever finish place, and Corrine Walter (6:02:05) claimed the Masters for the women. (all results) We all donned our red rock sock lines in flip flops, and cheered on finisher as the sun set along the canyon walls. Even by Moab’s high standards, this was an epic day!

(Beginners route, my ass!)
Despite a tough race and a many-beer post-race celebration, I couldn’t help but sneak out early the next morning for a mountain bike fix. Slickrock is an endless expanse of petrified dunes worthy of a Westworld episode (Westworld is actually filmed nearby, no surprise), and even the “novice” routes are a step up from any advanced ride back home. Here, however, I was joined by families out on their Sunday joy rides, motorcycle packs of 10-year-olds, and half naked, barefoot prophets that could all glide across the terrain with ease.

There is more to this mysticism of Moab it seems, and only deeper play and exploration can fully reveal its secrets. I shall have to return, long enough that the red earth burns deep into my bones and my soul swims across the blue sky.


  1. Amazing pictures! This is a bucket list race for sure.

  2. Wow. Your pics and write-up were worth the wait. I assume this was your first race with a ladder in it?

    1. Thanks! Well, my first ladder in a marathon. There's one on the Deep Ravine Trail (all races in Marin Headlands), and I've found a few in Switzerland and France. There are certainly some hills so steep I WISH they had ladders. ;-)


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