Wednesday, 31 July 2013 07:56

Red-Rock Cleanse

Running the Desert RATS

Published July 10, 2013 on

Kokopelli’s Trail spans approximately 148 miles from Loma, Colorado, to Moab, Utah.  While primarily thought of as a mountain-bike route, the trail traverses dirt roads, doubletrack, the occasional pavement stretch, and smatterings of rocky singletrack and smooth slick rock. Most of the trail is red-dirt desert with a small section that climbs into the La Sal Mountains—jagged, almost-out-of-place looking peaks that hover, lonely above Moab’s red-rock sea.

The course is mostly exposed and at elevations between 4000 and 8000 feet above sea level. Running a trail like this in the summer is unforgiving, the kind of thing that rings out your body in a harsh cleanse, the kind of ringing-out I’ve been craving since the first snow hit my home in Carbondale, Colorado last year.

And so, I’m running the trail, starting tomorrow afternoon, as part of a six-day stage race called Desert RATS. I ran the race four years ago when I first moved to Colorado in 2009 and had little understanding of ultrarunning training (it was my second ultra). Still, I finished, somehow, and I’ve been dreaming about going back ever since. Life’s obligations stood in the way … until this year.

Desert RATS is, according to the event’s website,  “a multiday footrace adventure.” It’s six days total (five running days with a rest day thrown in the middle). Stages are broken down in the following approximate segments: 20 miles, 38 miles, nine miles, rest, 52 miles (expedition stage) and 26.2 miles.

Each night Gemini Adventures, the event organizers, set up and break down camp (where racers start and finish each stage), transport gear along the trail and prepare hot meals morning and night. Racers share large four- to six-person tents and camp every night along the trail.

Kurt Egli and his wife, Shelley, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, have participated in Desert RATS every year since 2009, the year I last ran. We have since remained close friends. Yesterday while packing, I asked Kurt why he comes back to the same event year after year.

“This race has become such a part of my soul,” he says. “The course, the crew, my fellow competitors, even the lizards are all etched into my life. I am always stripped down to my core at this race.” And that, he says, is what brings him back to focus “on the other side” in his daily life.

Kurt is right. And that’s why I’m coming back, too: There is a purification that happens when we simply do nothing but travel forward by foot day after day, when the obligations of our “normal” daily realities melt away and our needs became basic: run, fuel, sleep. It is in this kind of meditative environment that we are able to replenish ourselves on a spiritual level … with the added challenge of ultra distances and desert heat to test our supposed physical limits.

This morning, before loading up my car for the 3.5-hour drive to Moab, I awoke to a race “pump-up” text from my best friend. The quote, by William James, was perfect for what I’m going to face this week running in 100-degree temps under unobstructed, smothering sunlight:

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

And so, today, I head to the desert to push through my obstructions.

Mid Week: Bonus Miles

When I came to the desert, despite knowing it would be hot and inhospitable, I had a sort of “this ain’t no thang” kind of attitude. We started day one just after 1 p.m. under blazing sun and near 100-degree temps. It was the first time I’d actually run in my pack that was now filled with what felt like 10 pounds of required gear. That was my first mistake. Then I hardly drank water or consumed electrolytes. And then, I got lost. I almost had a heat stroke and was forced to sit at the final aid station for at least a half hour before the race doctors would let me continue.

I was humbled. The desert, a fellow runner, Candy, reminded me, is a living, breathing thing, too, to be respected. And I’d come to it with the kind of domineering attitude I despise. And the desert pushed back. Stripped me, humbled me, make me feel like I was facing all my demons at once like a brick wall.

Desert RATS isn’t easy. It’s a semi-supported event with minimal aid stations along challenging, sandy, exposed trails and roads in the Colorado-Utah desert. Running out of water, going off course, getting injured and being lost are all real possibilities, especially on some of the remote sections of the trail. But that is also part of the race’s appeal. It’s hard. Really hard. At the pre-race meeting, race director Reid Delman said, “You can all get through this, but you have to want to suffer.”

Says Katie Trapp, 27, of Milwalkie, “I had gastroparesis on the first day because of the heat. I was throwing up a lot.  I was really miserable. All I wanted was for someone to pick me up in a car, but they couldn’t get a car to me. I had two options, the race doctors told me:  I could walk fast, or I could walk slow. And that kind of broke my spirit a little bit. I thought about dropping, but I didn’t. I just kept going. And you eventually get in a rhythm and put your head down and muster though.”

Ryan Guldan, 29, a water systems engineer from Denver, Colorado, the winner of Stage One, approached me on the start line of day two, the 39-mile day, about pacing together. We ended up running the whole way together, focusing on a good pace and consistently drinking water. We have run every stage together since then.

After a nine-mile day, we completed the “Expedition Stage,” which is supposed to be 51. Ryan and I, though, veered off course for 10 miles. Why not run a 100K? Neither of us had ever done one. Seriously, the course is marked by the Kokopelli signs only and there are quite a few spurs, jeep roads and side trails that are easy to turn down  and get off course if you’re flying by and not paying attention (like me!). That, though, is the design of the race: To follow the Kokopelli and our guide books, or passports, as the race calls them — a mandatory book we carry around with directions and a map for every stage. A lot of people took wrong turns, I just have a knack for taking them often.

Despite several horrible, waterless hours in the heat of the day, we stuck together and made it to the finish in, surprisingly, exceptionally good spirits. … I mean, what do you do? The desert had stepped in again to teach another valuable lesson.

“Yesterday was glorious,” Ryan told me this morning after breakfast, our rest day. “It was the definition of really good team work and perseverance, camaraderie. … A lot of the other runners out there were giving us water.”

The detour, it seemed, had not deterred Ryan at all. In fact, it made him love the race more. “The race overall—it’s going to be a yearly vacation,” Ryan has already concluded with still one stage left. “The semi-supported, more adventure style tests your level of confidence. Being on your own in a harsh environment.”

Aftermath: The RATS Family

In a sedentary society designed around convenience, we must seek out physical challenge to push ourselves, to discover. And so, I went to the desert to allow myself to suffer, to cover 148 miles of dry terrain (the Kokopelli Trail plus a little extra) in a harsh climate. I went to the desert to take a break from my daily life’s grind, to spend a week simply being present and in the company of other people that wanted the same things. In the end, I happily finished the event despite getting lost and running a total of 162 miles.

Kurt Egli, who has now completed the race every year for the past five years with his wife Shelley (that’s a total of 740 miles), told me after the race, “I have run it slow and I have run it fast. And in every running I heave learned a lesson. Each time, I have gained a better understanding of who I am.”

That first day, I decided I was going to pack up my car and drive home, that I was going to quit running for a year. It was the only night I had cell service and so I sent a message to a friend: It is only the first day and the desert has already stripped and humbled me. I am facing my demons like a brick wall.

He texted back: This is your vision quest. Good thing you run too fast for your demons to catch up.

Valuable insight. I didn’t give up. I was there to discover, and so I kept going.

I had to remember, this race wasn’t designed to be easy.

After the first day, the landscape changed from rocky, technical singletrack to sandy doubletrack and an exposed, dusty dirt road that offered little to no rewarding views. Throughout the race, the terrain was a mixture of dirt roads, sandy doubletracks and rocky, slickrock trails that ended on the final marathon stage, with a 10-plus-mile downhill into Slickrock park in Moab, Utah.

But the challenge alone didn’t make the race. The conversations that were held at camp, the meals shared and the friendships that formed both on and off the trail, made the whole experience all the more incredible.

“While a stage race is still a ‘race,’ it is so much more,” racer Judi Setzer Cowart of Jacksonville, Florida, said a few days after her finish. “In a one-day race everyone does their thing, maybe hangs out for while, and then goes home. In a stage race, by the end of the week, you’ve spent so much time together, on the trail and in camp, that you become family.”

It is for that reason, that Ryan Gulman says he’ll be back. “I was optimistic that doing this adventure would allow me to see and be immersed in an environment that would be unforgettable in my lifetime. It definitely didn’t disappoint. I am grateful to have met and shared this experience with each and every runner and crew member.”

No doubt. I’m already planning my return next year. Not only does the event have a 40-percent return rate, meaning previous-year’s finishers come back time and time again (this is called the “RAT’s Family), I now have some time to make up (by not getting lost).

For more information about the event and to take a look at this year’s racer’s posts and results, click here.