A Tribe Made of Dust – Desert RATS Kokopelli 150
It’s getting near midnight–cutoff time–when we see the headlamp around the corner.
The runners amongst us who have already finished the stage for the day—and who have bonded with the med staff and aid station workers to become a singularly odd family unit over the preceding days—sit up in our camp chairs, the home-cooked chicken parmesan on our plates (some of us on our third or fourth helping) for the moment forgotten. We are caked in dirt and sweat, our tech shirts rigid with 4 days of accreted salt; it is too kind by half to say we smell just horrid. ‘Runners’, also, a hundred miles into the race, is perhaps no longer the best descriptor for us; we have instead become survivors: of lightning storms, of sweltering heat and the raging Colorado river, of a ‘rose garden’ in which no rose grows—only jagged boulders doing their best to snap a misplaced ankle. Someone said something about near-misses with both quicksand and cows, but we do not know if they are serious. Given what we have been through, it is not impossible.
“Here she comes!” someone cries out, waving wildly out at that single light bouncing in the otherwise void-like desert expanse.
We are too elated for the moment to feel our exhaustion. Instantly we’re up. Everyone. Howard the chef bangs on a cooking pot with a chef’s knife. The other nine runners limp slowly to the stage’s finish line, cheerful zombies. Reid, the race director, starts smacking a trailer with a mallet. Soon a chorus of cowbells joins in. I swear the darkness is a little brighter from everyone’s smile.The joy and excitement builds and the 20 people assembled here in the middle of the desert blackness explode in jubilation as Laurie Miller—a 64-year old who read about this race 15 years ago, vowing to do it before she ‘got too old’— crosses the finish line, done for the day. Hugs and tears flow.
Four days ago, most of these people did not know each other; tonight, in the howling winds, we are family. This is Desert RATS.
There’s a long stretch of lonesome highway as you drive west beyond Fruita, Colorado. Nothing but dirt, pinyon shrubs, and hills for miles and miles in every direction. It’s something straight out of the old western movies: a forsaken, sweltering landscape uninhabitable to all but the most resilient. The sun-hammered expanse seemingly infinite. Yet if you drive by in mid-June, look closely, you may see them. You may see the Desert RATS—a community of runners, support crew, and medical workers making their way, one step at a time, on their 140 mile journey on the Kokopelli Trail from Fruita to Moab.
“I’m here to make you suffer,” Gemini Adventures Race Director Reid Delman says during orientation, with more than a little glee. ”But I’m also here with a crew to give you the best possible chance to reach that finish line.” It’s the night before the race and the nervousness is palpable. In a world of Barkley documentaries, Hardrock 100 lotteries, and Western States qualifiers, the Desert RATS stage race is a breath of fresh air. It’s still a gem amongst the growing sport of ultra running, one of the only stage races to be found in the United States.
A stage race consists of running a variety of distances over a number of days. Each night you get into camp, plop into camping chairs and bask in the recollection of the day’s adventures with your fellow racers. It soon becomes apparent camaraderie is the real lifeblood of the race; moreso than finishing times, even for the most competitive amongst us. By the first night we are already meshing, by the third night the trail has forged a family.
“It’s like summer camp, but with more chafing and blisters.” someone proclaims when Corey Soules, one of the paramedics, asks a few days into the race to hear why all the racers and crew have found themselves huddled around a picnic table in the midst of a beautiful campsite by the Dewey Bridge. The discussion is lively and reasons are vast.To push beyond self doubt and to discover what actually is possible. To process life events, tragedies, joys. To experience the solitary nature of the desert. To explore areas unknown and discover “what’s around that corner.” To enjoy a community of like-minded people and be reminded of the goodness of humanity. To simply camp, get messy, bathe in rivers, smell of campfire smoke and body odor and forestall, if only for a week, the monotony of every day life. No doubt, it’s a singular mixture of all of these reasons. One thing is for certain: it takes a certain type to commit to a week of hell. Choose you adjective: adventurous, intrepid, idiotic, strange.
Amongst us is an Italian who’s flown 33 hours to be here in the middle of Utah; an extremely charismatic gentleman with a suspicious resemblance to Macho Man Randy Savage, a middle school teacher, an anesthesiologist, a rolfer, a truck driver, a high school principal and a Hollywood screenwriter…..“You run hard each day so you can get to the finish line and see these people you’ve grown to love.” Explains Phil Pinti, a second year RAT . “The people you share this adventure with and the legends that grow through the years make this race the best event in the country.”
It’s the final night in the desert. With the day’s stage completed, the group has spent the late afternoon huddled under the mess tent, warming their feet over a tiny citronella candle as an unseasonably chilly rainstorm hits the camp. The weather has literally brought everyone closer than ever before: our collective stink is forgotten or at least forgiven. We embrace the crappy weather with humor and inside jokes found through shared experiences. Around nine o’clock everyone settles into their tents for what will prove to be a wild night : a few hours later a windstorm hits camp and both racers and crew rush over to help a fellow RAT whose tent’s been upended by the 50mph winds. No questions, no hesitation, just people there for people, irrespective of the fact that the rain is coming in sideways.
Flash forward to Day 6: the marathon day, the last 7 miles of which descend toward the finish line in Moab. Culture shock as we re-enter society: ATVs, pick-up trucks and tourists zoom past us on that final leg of gravel road as we grind toward completion, all of them unaware just what these dirt-bagged desert souls that pass them have been up to for the last week—the zeniths of enlightenment, the nadirs of pain, but always, everywhere in between, the unfailing camaraderie.
The finish line is full of hugs, champagne, beer and pure unfiltered joy as the racers come in one by one. Morgan Hall is greeted by his family and is flanked by his kids as he crosses the line. Phil Pinti, as penance for being the most outwardly macho of the bunch, has been “awarded” the big rock on the out-and-back on Porcupine Ridge (a section at the end of which runners must retrieve a pre-numbered rock from a bowl and return it to the next aid station as proof the leg was completed), and has opted to carry the 5-pound stone in his right hand the remaining nine miles, holding it above his head as he proudly crosses the finish line. The stories are endless, each racers’ adventures unique and inspiring. Kayla Howell finished strong despite a wonky stomach early in the week that refused to hold onto its food as well as a persistent battle with a knee injury. Ulla Westermann — back for a third time after DNFing two her previous times— found redemption and completed the course.
Aforementioned Laurie Miller had this race on her bucket list ever since reading an article in Trailrunner Magazine fifteen years ago. Industriously prepared for the race over the preceding 8 months, but it was the culmination of her 15-year dream that made her finish an exquisite emotional event for the entire group. The heartfelt cheers shaking the Slickrock parking lot in Moab quickly morphed into proud, tearful embraces.
Why we come to Desert RATS and what the experience teaches us is of course at the end of the day a deeply personal thing, and for that reason difficult to put succinctly down in words. On one level it’s easy to say that it’s unique in a way that stays with you for the rest of your life, and equally easy to say that it changes you. But the truth is, there are not many things in the world that affect you and effect change as intensely as a week with the RATS does. It’s a curious, potent elixir that has so many components, all of which contribute to its magic: the camaraderie, the stark, raw-boned immersion in nature, the vistas, and perhaps most importantly, the hardships and elation one experiences when they are alone in the wilds, with no distractions or work-around. It is there, in the end where you hear and understand yourself at the most primal level.