Moab Trail Half Marathon (UT)

Posted: November 16, 2012 in Half Marathons, RACE REPORTS
Tags: , , , , ,

In between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown.
– Rush, “Subdivisions”

Few places in the continental U.S. can rival the spectacular vastness and beauty of Southern Utah.  This ~400-mile swath of wide-open highways and byways stretching to the horizon features a “who’s who” of national parks, including (from west to east) Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches.  Each park is a geological masterpiece of deep sandstone reds and robust earth tones painstakingly laid out and integrated on a distinctive canvas, all of which evoke a strong appreciation for how wild the West once was, and in many places still is.  In the late 1800s, for example, Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch took refuge in the remote uncharted wilderness of what is now Canyonlands National Park, frustrating their federal pursuers who quickly abandoned the chase.

I’d been here once before: in the summer of 2000, two buddies and I had road-tripped through southern Utah en route to the state’s five national parks.  In addition to all the natural wonders revealed by daylight, two of my most vivid memories from that trip were actually born in the pitch-blackness that engulfed us during our nighttime drives.  First, I spied for the first time with my naked eye the Milky Way galaxy overhead; and second, while driving one eerily dark and peaceful stretch of road, a winged UFO – we convinced ourselves it must have been a bat – flew into and caromed off our front windshield with an adrenalizing {THUMP}.  So southern Utah was a bit of a wake-up call for us city boys.

Southern Utah’s own start and finish lines include (clockwise, from upper left) Double Arch, Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Turret Arch at sunset, Double O Arch, and Mesa Arch.  Mesa Arch is found in
Canyonlands National Park; the others can be found in Arches National Park.

For those approaching from the Colorado (eastern) side, the town of Moab acts as gateway to the natural spoils of southern Utah.  But for trail racing aficionados last Saturday, the town promised more measurable spoils as host to the annual Moab Trail Marathon, Half Marathon and 5K “Adventure” Run, with the Marathon doubling as the 2012 USATF Trail Marathon National Championship.  Meaning there’d be prize money on the line… though not for me, for two reasons:  I’d be running the Half Marathon, and short of showing up with a ski mask and gun, I’m not walking away from a race with prize money anytime soon.

So why Moab?  With a population of roughly 5,000 residents and an economy dependent on eco-tourism, Moab’s laid-back and low-key vibe conveys a “play hard, work not so hard” mentality.  Red sandstone cliffs and miles of dusty trails reflect its definitively Old West character, and earn the town its identity as a mecca for hiking, mountain-biking and rock-climbing enthusiasts.  So Moab itself is a popular destination for outdoorsy types.  But for me its real allure lay in its proximity to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, the former of which lies on the town’s doorstep.  Plus, I can’t recall another town where the Chevron gas station advertised itself in the local newspaper as having the “Best Chicken in Town!”

No word on whether the local KFC was offering an 8-piece “high octane” value meal

I’d chosen the Moab Trail Half in collaboration with my college suitemate Ken, who now lives in Denver with his wife Jenny (also a college friend).  Both were willing, able and even excited to meet us for a weekend in the great outdoors, Moab-style.  Plus, I felt I owed Ken another race in the mountain time zone after my ill-timed foot injury had derailed our plans to run the Leadville Heavy Half together in June, leaving his misery without company during the ear-popping climb up to 13,200ft (though he’d sucked it up and run a strong race without me).  Sure my guilt was unwarranted – every runner knows injuries are the great unknown of race training – but still I felt the need to redeem myself, even if he didn’t.

With that in mind, I was looking forward to my first race in the state of Utah.  After a day of travel on Thursday (flight to Denver followed by a 6+ hour, 375-mile drive to Moab), Katie and I spent much of Friday in nearby Arches National Park before picking up our race packets that evening from the friendly race volunteers at Milt’s Stop & Eat (a local hamburger joint and race sponsor).  We then met Ken and Jenny, who drove in late from Denver and arrived just in time to get their bearings and get to bed.  We’d all be lodging at The Gonzo Inn, another race sponsor and for the record someplace I’d definitely stay again in Moab.

Rule #1 of dining out: Never trust a waiter wearing a nurse’s uniform
(Milt’s Avocado Melt was actually very good)

Saturday morning we awoke to bright cloudless sunshine that belied the crisp, though not quite biting, 39°F desert air that awaited us.  Fortunately race start for marathoners and half marathoners wasn’t until 9:00 a.m., giving temperatures a chance to soar all the way up into the mid-40s during the race.  The four of us drove to the start along Kane Creek Road, with sheer vertical sandstone cliffs flanking us on both sides and the Colorado River snaking along next to us on our right.  Our carpool status allowed us to park in the “preferred parking” gravel lot next to the finish line, and after a brief stop at the surprisingly uncrowded porta-potties, we made the short walk to the start line.

The view along Kane Creek Road, en route to the start line

From a distance we could hear race director Danelle Ballengee addressing the crowd over the PA system with several pre-race announcements and reminders.  Danelle herself has a life story worth telling, and one that would make almost any other runner feel like a bona fide weak-kneed couch potato.  For one thing, the 41-year-old Ballengee is a world-class athlete – four-time champion of the Pikes Peak Marathon, three-time winner of the Primal Quest adventure race, and recipient of six “U.S. Athlete of the Year” awards in four different endurance sports.  Sports Illustrated once called her “the world’s premier female endurance athlete.”  And in 2000 she set the women’s speed record by summiting all 55 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains in less than 15 days.

Even more amazing than her athletic achievements, though, is her story of personal survival.  While running with her 3-year-old dog Taz in this same area of the Moab desert in December of 2006, Ballengee slipped on a rock and fell 60 feet.  Somehow she managed to land on her feet, but the fall shattered her pelvis and caused extensive internal bleeding.  After five hours of dragging her broken body through the canyon over frozen terrain, she lay exposed and freezing for another 52 hours until County Search and Rescue members, with help from the unshakably loyal Taz, found her alive and remarkably coherent.  It was an implausibly happy ending: most people with similar injuries don’t live longer than 24 hours, doctors told her, and yet she’d survived for more than twice that time outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures.

Less than five months later Ballengee – registered as a solo competitor under the team name “How’s This for Rehab?” – completed and won the women’s division of the 60-mile Adventure-Xstream adventure race in under 12 hours.

Danelle greets finishers and narrates the action as Ken crosses the finish line behind her

Ballengee’s presence can be felt around Moab in other, more subtle ways.  All proceeds from the Moab Trail Marathon races would benefit Project Athena, a non-profit foundation which Ballengee co-founded and for which she holds the title “Seraphim of Survival.”  Project Athena offers scholarships to female athletes who have “endured life-altering medical setbacks” and are making “that life-affirming transition from Survivor to Athlete.”  And on the topic of potential medical setbacks, in 2007 Ballengee and her husband purchased Milt’s Stop & Eat, a greasy spoon hamburger joint and local landmark since 1954.  Our race goodie bags included a $7 Milt’s coupon which would come in handy after the race.

Mike Sohaskey and Ken pre-Moab Trail Half Marathon

Pre-race posturing with our dual (and dueling) Garmins

So as the four of us approached the start line, the thought of our race director’s own near-fatal outing on these same trails suffused me with a healthy respect for the technical terrain that awaited us.  In this regard, we’d been cautioned to be watchful of the 3 C’s – cliffs, crypto (a living soil crust) and cactus.  Luckily Moab had been precipitation-free in the days leading up to the race, dramatically reducing our odds of discovering first-hand how slickrock earned its name.

Ken and I said goodbye to Katie and Jenny (they’d both be running the 5K beginning 40-ish minutes later) and positioned ourselves at the back of Starting Wave 1 (i.e. the leading wave, comprising the top 1/3 of all runners), behind a mass of lithe excited marathoners and half marathoners engaged in all manner of last-minute warming and stretching.  In true Moab spirit, we were treated to a uniquely free-spirited rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” performed by a local zydeco-style band, who offered their own jazzed-up (though no less respectful) interpretation complete with tuba, accordion, frottoir/rubboard and accompanying dancer with baton.  Suddenly San Francisco didn’t feel so far away, after all.

This was the most popular and crowded arch in southern Utah on Saturday

As the last vestiges of accordion faded the assembled masses cheered, runners whooped in nervous anticipation, Danelle’s countdown reached zero and the eventual winners shot forward while the rest of us… shuffled slowly toward the start line.  A classic case of “hurry up and wait.”  Starting on rocky singletrack will do that to you.

Crossing the start mat the crowd began to thin, and the course soon began an uphill trajectory on Pritchett Canyon Trail that lasted for the first four miles.  My Garmin quickly lost its satellite feed twice during that first mile, and by accidentally hitting the “lap” rather than the “enter” button the first time it happened, I ensured that my mile-by-mile pace times for the entire race would be all out of whack.  But at least my Garmin immediately regained its satellite signal each time.

Course elevation profile or in-race heart rate monitor?  You decide

This initial ascent was unlike the uphills I typically encounter in Bay Area trail races, as this terrain was more technical and the footing more variable.  The trail (and really the entire course) was an alternating mix of dry slickrock, red sand and firmly packed dirt overlaid with rocks of all sizes.  Orange flagging tape and white chalk led us over slickrock and loose rock where no true trail existed… singletrack, doubletrack, really what’s in a name?  And it dawned on me just how perilous the footing along this course would have been under wet conditions.  Luckily the course boasted few tree roots, my toes’ usual nemesis on Bay Area trails.  Nonetheless each step demanded my full attention, and by maintaining focus I was able to keep pace with Ken, who routinely trains in mile-high Denver.

Surrounded by slickrock in Arches National Park

Near the mile 4 marker the flow of runners briefly slowed to a crawl as we hiked up several shelves of boulders.  Although this section appears as an intimidating stalagmite-like spike on the course’s elevation profile, it didn’t feel so severe since we were forced to speed-hike rather than run.  But then the trail summited (~4,800ft elevation) and immediately headed back down the other side, and runners eager to release the parking brake dashed downhill over the rocky terrain.  I followed as quickly as I dared, still vigilant of my footing until the course leveled out somewhat and we found ourselves running through red sand, chasing our shadows on the ground ahead of us.  At last I was safely able to look up from the trail and admire striking views, on both sides, of orange-red sandstone cliffs imposing on brilliant blue sky.

This heavy-footed sensation of running through an hourglass – I should’ve trained on the beach! – continued until roughly the first aid station at mile 5.7 (according to their mile markers; my Garmin read mile 6).  Still running together, Ken and I each grabbed a quick swig of water and began our next ascent as the trail morphed into Hunters Canyon Rim Trail.  The next 3.9 miles offered little in the way of level footing, as we renewed our painstaking climbs and descents over alternating loose rock and slickrock, with the occasional delay to hop down from or scramble over boulders.  Along the way we passed through a couple of singletrack sections that bordered relatively sheer drops; here in particular the course demanded a steady focus to avoid a reckless misstep and tumble that would make Humpty Dumpty cringe.

Another slow, switchback-like descent over layered slickrock brought us to mile 9.6, and we emerged on the paved surface of Kane Creek Road next to the second aid station.  By this point my feet, apparently thinking their vote counted, had begun to protest the relentlessly rocky and uneven terrain.

Either this is Katie’s love of rappelling shining through, or she knows where the photographer is
(photo © 2012 Chris Hunter)

Here the marathon and half marathon courses diverged, the former veering left in the direction of the aid station while we 13.1ers headed to the right.  Ken turned into the aid station and, after slowing briefly, I glanced ahead and saw the course continue up paved Kane Creek Road, where a caravan of slow-moving runners were toiling their way to the top.  Like old friends, seeing that paved surface and steady uphill climb renewed my spirit.  I waved to Ken to let him know I was skipping the aid station, and as my second (or third… or fourth…) wind kicked in, I shifted into a higher gear and passed several runners on my way to the top.

The ascent up Kane Creek Road was relatively short (~1/4 mile), but really its length didn’t matter because finally I was able to forget my footing and just run.  And when the road reversed trajectory and started back downhill I seized the opportunity to pick up the pace, stretching out my legs as I focused on the rhythm of my footfall and breathed in the desert scenery around me.

Mission accomplished!

So I was understandably disappointed when a volunteer appeared on the shoulder of the road ahead and signaled for us to veer left, directing us down more slickrock and into Kane Creek Canyon.  As I navigated the narrow sandy canyon where the creek drains into the Colorado River, I envisioned this potentially messy stretch after a hard rainfall and thanked Tlaloc the rain god for his decency.  Only remnants of Kane Creek – no more than small puddles, really – remained here, and my “creek crossings” were limited to splashing through a couple of puddles that barely covered my shoetops.  Though I may have felt some boyish satisfaction at maxing out the splash-ability of each puddle….

Of course even that minimal amount of mud got stuck in the tread of my shoes, and I carried it with me up a short steep embankment to the Amasa Back Parking Lot, and back on to Kane Creek Road.  As I reached the parking lot a volunteer offered me something to eat, which I declined… I think it was candy though I can’t be sure, because with roughly a mile to go I had finish line on the brain.

Ken skywalks his way across the finish line (photo © 2012 Chris Hunter)

After another short but gloriously runnable stretch down Kane Creek Road, two volunteers cheered us on with promises of “half a mile to go!” while again directing us to veer left, off the road and back into the Kane Creek Canyon drainage.  Negotiating several largely avoidable puddles and more undulating rocky terrain, I heard the mellifluous sound of nearby cheering as the orange flagging tape along the trail increased in frequency.

Finally I reached a point where a 6-inch-wide metal pipe spanned the creek, which here was actually creek-like with a width of approximately 10ft.  Two female volunteers assured me the finish line was just up ahead.  Rather than splash through the creek I crossed the pipe in two steps and one awkward leap to the opposite bank.  And I realized, as I stood looking up at a small-scale inflatable finish arch ~10 yards above me, that they weren’t kidding when they said “up ahead.”  Clambering up to the arch on all fours, I peeked out over the edge of the embankment and immediately straightened as I saw the finish line ~20 yards straight ahead.  Katie and Jenny cheered to my right as I high-fived Danelle (narrating the action with microphone in hand) and gratefully hit the finish line in 2:11:22.  Immediately I turned back around to watch Ken emerge over the embankment and finish strong roughly a minute later.

Jenny goes bananas for the post-race spread
(orange you glad I always go for the low-hanging humor fruit?)

In total, Ken and I estimated the half marathon course to contain ~3 miles of legitimately runnable terrain, including the straight-ahead stretch of soft sand leading up to the first aid station.

Collecting our medals and finisher’s mugs (a Moab exclusive), Jenny shrewdly noted that if you held the mug so as to conceal the “half marathon” (for me and Ken) or “5K” (for her and Katie) designation at the bottom, others would simply see the “Moab Trail Marathon FINISHER!” label above it.  Why put yourself through the stress of training for and running 26.2 when you can skip straight to the accolades?

The finishing four: Jenny, Ken, me and Katie

We then diffused around the finish area basking in the noontime sun until it hit me that whoops, I’d forgotten to wear sunscreen.  So I corrected that and then took advantage of the post-race spread, which was impressively stocked with Campbell’s soup, bagels, peanut butter, cream cheese, chips, pretzels, fruit and an assortment of soft drinks.  And we each scrawled a message and signed our name to the inflatable wall that asked the question “Why do you run?”

After what seemed like only a few minutes since our own finish, Danelle announced that the marathon leader was only ten minutes out.  So we gathered to watch her exchange high-fives with Cody Moat of Fillmore, Utah as he crossed the finish line in a crazy-fast winning time of 3:08:27, over six minutes faster than his closest competitor.  Kerri Lyons of Salt Lake City followed him 19 minutes later, winning the women’s division in 3:27:48.

Apparently the 5K lived up to its “Adventure Run” billing, as Katie and Jenny navigated such obstacles as hopping to an orange pylon and back with both feet in a burlap sack, balancing on a seesaw plank, throwing into a frisbee golf basket, crawling under netting, wiggling through a child’s nylon tunnel, climbing two ladders, and negotiating two steep sections using a hand-line.  Katie’s only disappointment was the lack of a crossword puzzle as publicized on the race website… she’d targeted that as her best chance to make up ground on the competition.  I felt like a slacker listening to the blow-by-blow description of their 3.1 miles.

The four of us spent the remainder of Saturday in Arches National Park, before refueling at the very respectable Moab Brewery (the only brewery in Moab) for dinner.  After Ken and Jenny headed back to Denver on Sunday, Katie and I spent the next two days hiking through Arches and Canyonlands, ultimately deciding we needed more time in the latter.  Butch Cassidy and Co. knew what they were doing.

Overall, the Moab Trail Half is among the most rugged and unique trail races I’ve run… the organizers aren’t kidding when they advertise it as “an unforgettable journey through some of the world’s most scenic and unique lands.”  In many ways the course is what comes to mind when I hear the term “trail running.”  Its primarily sand-and-slickrock terrain is unlike anything I’ve raced in California.  As such it’s not my favorite type of course… I tend to struggle with highly technical, unstable footing (as does everyone to some extent), though diligent strengthening of my left ankle over the past few months has certainly improved my technique.

But Moab itself is an awesome backdrop for a trail race that – luckily for us – benefitted from awesome weather.  I’m glad we made the trip to experience both the race and the town first-hand, and if we lived closer I’d probably include the full marathon on my list of must-do races.  But we’ll definitely be back in southern Utah… it’s a stunningly beautiful region, with a far-from-the-madding-crowd vibe and plenty of postcard-worthy scenery.

And besides… what better destination for a runner than a place called Arches?

Unlike Moab’s other landmarks, Finisher’s Arch is visible one day a year for but a few hours

PRODUCTION:  Danelle and her fellow organizers did a terrific job with race organization and execution.  Friday (packet pickup) and Saturday (race day) each had a laid-back yet decidedly professional feel to them.  The course was well marked with orange flagging tape and white chalk, and well designed, particularly given that much of the course travels over slickrock rather than established trails.  Volunteers were across-the-board friendly and helpful, and seemed genuinely proud of the course.  The post-race ambiance was (to use Katie’s word) festive, due in part to the impressive post-race spread.  And Danelle set the tone with her exuberance and constant encouragement.

Swag-wise, the Merrell tech t-shirt (included with registration fee) is the best in class… it’s a solid piece of craftsmanship I’ll wear for a long time.  The medal, which sports a dangly Athena logo in its center, is a generic “Project Athena Race & Adventure Series” medal, but it’s nice in its understatedness.  On the other hand the finisher’s mug, while appreciated, is excessive… I probably should have politely declined it, since I’m not a fan of hot drinks and can’t envision ever using it.  Plus I don’t know a single person who’s ever wanting for a ceramic mug… aren’t they ubiquitous in homes and workplaces?  Based on their numbers, I’ve always assumed that two coffee-stained mugs left on the kitchen counter overnight find each other and generate many ceramic offspring.

Moab/Project Athena Race and Adventure Series medal

To make matters worse, I immediately filled my superfluous mug at the finish line with what I thought was water but which turned out to be HEED, Hammer Nutrition’s sports drink.  I appreciate Hammer’s sponsorship – I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds too hard here – but boy I wish they’d leave the HEED in the van.  The stuff tastes like cough syrup.  One accidental sip brought back my lone negative memory from the 2008 Grizzly Half Marathon in Montana, where I’d sampled HEED for the first (and what I swore up and down would be the last) time.  And as the name implies, since then I’ve been careful to heed my own taste buds.

As for age-group awards… if I understood Danelle correctly, Merrell stepped up nicely and awarded a free pair of shoes to every age-group winner rather than just the top men’s and women’s finishers.  And the top 3 finishers in each age group received “unique locally crafted trophies,” i.e. copper wire sculptures twisted into the shape of a runner and embedded in a large rock base.  Pretty creative and quintessentially Moab.  Since I finished fourth (by chip time) in my age group, I didn’t have to worry about explaining my awkward copper rock art to the friendly folks of the TSA.

The winners podium awaits the top Marathon finishers, including the Trail Marathon National Champion

GEAR:  My Mix Master 2’s took the slickrock challenge and had themselves a day.  They’re lightweight and provided excellent traction on some of the diciest terrain I’ve navigated.  Amazingly, not once did I lose my footing or have my foot slide out from under me.  Unlike at Rocky Ridge I had no problems with my arch, so maybe it was simply a matter of lacing them up tighter or breaking them in more.  I’d highly recommend them and plan to make them my go-to shoe for future trail races.

FINAL STATS:
November 3, 2012
13.0 miles in Moab, UT (click here for course map)
Finish time & pace: 2:11:22 (first time running the Moab Trail Half), 10:02/mile
Finish place: 73/505 overall; 4/43 in M(40-49) age group by chip time (5/43 by gun time)
Race weather: sunny and cold, low to mid-40s
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 2,800ft ascent, 2,822ft descent
(Garmin Training Center software): 3,118ft ascent, 3,011ft descent

Oops… mistakenly pressing the “lap” button during mile 1 skewed all my subsequent mile pace times

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Comments
  1. Dan says:

    Excellent recap. You really capture both the grandeur and peril of running such a technically demanding course. I look forward to my Utah race (the Canyonlands Half Marathon is the one I’m currently eyeing), even though the state is spoiled rotten with their surfeit of amazing races.

    Well done!

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks Dan, Utah really is an amazing place to run. And clearly other runners recognize this… I don’t know of another state that has a lottery system for both a half (Canyonlands) and full (Ogden) marathon! You’ll have a great time out there, especially if you leave yourself a few days to breathe it all in and explore the territory.

  3. Jen says:

    Well done, Mike! Looks very scenic, but it’s probably something I’d rather hike than run. (Shh…don’t tell anyone; they might take my trail running credentials away and call me a poser…)

  4. Mike says:

    Thanks Jen, I’d actually like the chance to go back and hike the route, I think it’d give me a greater appreciation for the terrain. And keep in mind… the trail-running police can’t take away your credentials if they can’t catch you!

  5. […] mentioned.  I knew of several races in the area, but one in particular stood out.  Having read Mike’s detailed and flattering account of the Moab Trail Half Marathon, I was intrigued and threw it in the ring.  Within days, flights were bought and race […]

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