Moab’s Trail Marathon

Running the red rocks in the land of Arches National Park

Moab trail marathon
Trail running at Arches National Park. Flickr/Smith

“Bees are biting me!!” yelled one young woman, hysterically as she ran through the brush.

They were stinging me too. We weren’t special – they were stinging everyone.

The Moab Trail Marathon runs every November in the San Raphael desert of southern Utah, after the heat of the red rocks and arches has died down, and that year the trail brushed up against a wasps’ nest in the river basin.

Moab marathon arches national park
Wild color at the Moab Trail Marathon. Flickr/Levely-Rinaldi

It was my first half-marathon, and the “bee stings” made me feel tough. I slapped mud on them, which is what you’re supposed to do, especially if you’re tough. Draws out the venom. I was a little deflated to later hear that my wife, Sonia, a half-mile behind, had been stung too. Most everyone had been stung; I wasn’t special.

At the starting gates, the racing junkies were bright with their spandex and busy with pre-marathon rituals. We park the Subaru. There are a lot of Subarus.

I, however, was dressed in full-length long underwear, grey with the fine waffle texture of Army surplus supplies. Running shorts forgotten, I had made a trip to the general store late the night before, and those were the best they had. Sonia is forever mortified by my fashion choices.

A tightly packed starting gate is an uncomfortable place to run, but the crowd spread out and the trail quickly descended to rock and sand. We were immediately into the canyons, which were cool in the early morning hours. Turning out of them and into the sun felt good. Hours later the sun would be very, very bad. Moab is nearly uninhabitable from June to September; the November start date of the race was hot enough.

In truth, my wife is in much better shape than I am – proportionate to size. I’m no slouch, and we started in the middle heat, but she’s faster based on the comparative size of our legs. I  felt I needed to do well; I’m a foot taller, and we’re both naturally competitive people.

We trudged up the trail as it turned into blanketed “slickrock” – smooth red sandstone reminiscent of the surface of Mars. The sheets of rock form waves in the wind and stratify into banded layers, creating a sublime surface for mountain biking or rock climbing. As the wind blows out of the canyons, it cuts massive holes and arches throughout the area. Some were visible in the distance, but most are on the other side of town in Arches National Park.

Arches National Park trail marathon
Arches National Park. Flickr/Schlagenhauf

We ran a ridge trail with uneven footing. Some of that windswept scenery was lost in interest of watching where we put our feet. The trail wasn’t exposed for a fall, but there were lots of things to step over very quickly. I couldn’t help but look up often. The canyon landscape is worthy of a Warner Brothers’ cartoon, filled with spires and red table mesas in the style of the coyote and the roadrunner.

A jeep road became the trail for a long ways, an easy jog, but a long ways. The runners had spread out wide and sparse now. The full marathon option diverts from the shorter route, and I thanked God we were not doing that one. A friend was; she does longer runs all the time, but I still thought it might kill her or someone other poor fool. I was fully cooked by sun and sweat by then, so the water table at the junction was like a haven. Gatorade and cookies.

Then the course ran down into the river bottom, where runners were being harassed by wasps and wasps harassed by runners. It was cooler in the willows of the creek, and my wet shoes felt good. We crossed through the creek twice, but the third time was disaster. The registration materials for the race warned of knee deep water, but I was suddenly up to my neck. I had circled around to pass another runner and found a deep spot of the creek not far from the knee deep section. I’m comfortable in water, so there was no big panic, but everything was soaked. Cotton long-johns are heavy when they’re wet and muddy. All the same, the cool water felt fantastic in the moment.

Arches National Park trail marathon Colorado river
The Colorado River near the start of the race. Flickr/Hensley 

The trail moved up from the creek to more sunny ridges, and I caught a second wind, spurned by the knowledge I could simply collapse is another two miles. I passed other runners, again and again as the clock ran down, pushing hard and finishing up a few spots in the list of participants. I probably could have paced quicker. Next time I’ll know.

Bells, whistles and the booming, muffled announcer grew louder. The gates were finally there!

The registration form allowed runners to enter a quick bio, which the announcer reads as they pass through the finish wearing their race number. He boomed: “Sandra O’Neil from Reno, Nevada is running her second marathon. Congratulations Sandra!” I requested a bio of “Travis Kinney has made some bad decisions in his life,” because that’s the kind of thing I think is hilarious, like soaked long underwear. He opted not to read my bio.

The swarm of the racers that were at the start had become a collapsed crowd of weary people surrounding booths of bagels and orange juice, all wearing the same free t-shirt, most in mild shock from their exertions. That much running really isn’t a natural thing, and if you’ve run a good race, your cardiovascular system has taken a blow. For most of the racers, the afternoon was spoken for with mandatory rest and the likelihood of beer.

Arches National Park trail marathon
Post-race: Moab Trail Marathon. Flickr/Levely-Rinaldi

Sonia finished – much higher up in her bracket than I did in mine. We stood around dazed with fatigue and ate free food. My parents had arrived too late to catch the finish, but we spent the afternoon mulling through Moab’s tourist stretch of restaurants, t-shirt vendors and high-end bike shops. Overbuilt Jeeps trolled up and down the street with giant knobby tires. The slickrock in the area makes Moab a world-famous destination for 4-wheeling too.

An early lunch was in order. Zax’s Pizza is right on the main drag, and sports a tree sculpture aflame with natural gas on its patio. With an endurance event like a half-marathon, you’re left physically reeling for a while afterwards, and the patio was a good place to zone out on our endorphins. The flaming tree was surreal, and the pizza I had was excellent. In actuality, I have no perspective on the quality of that pizza. I was ravenous.

4x4 4 wheeling moab arches national park
4 Wheeling is popular in Moab too. Flickr/Powhusku

This late race in sunny Moab was a great way to close out the summer in one last burst when your hometown has already turned cold. The prime season in Moab starts in late March, which makes it a great spring break destination for some early summer play when summer’s really two months away. Considering the fun we had this trip, we may very well be back in the spring when we get sick of winter.

If You Go to Moab

If you plan to run the race, register early because it fills up quickly. Plan at least two extra days in Moab – one for recuperation and another for more exploring. Checkout Arches National Park. Also visit the Moab Rock Shop on the north end of town. A piece of the geology is a great souvenir.

Moab Trail Marathon

Moab Tourism Info

Author Bio: Travis Kinney is an avid hiker, biker and kayaker living in Great Falls, Montana