Moab Trail Marathon

In the bright sunlight and crisp air of Moab, Utah, my calf starts to cramp up. I yelp in surprise, and pause for a second during my unrelenting climb. I’ve been hiking up the “Scorched Earth Wall” for about forty minutes now, and the steep ascent up the cliff isn’t ending anytime soon. My muscles are tired and I’ve already run 14 miles by this point. Somehow, I’ve still got a big grin on my face, especially when I turn to look around. The La Sal Mountains are capped with snow, and below them is an endless stretch of brilliant red rock, cliffs, and plateaus sprinkled with bright yellow aspen trees. I take a deep breath. God, I’m so lucky to be up here.

This weekend I raced the Moab Trail Marathon to close out a year of racing for Epic Experience. I use the word “race” loosely, because that really wasn’t the point of this final training milestone. Since becoming a triathlete, I’ve focused heavily on the aspects of becoming as fast and as strong as I could be. This time around, I was looking for a different source of fulfillment. Obviously I wanted to be strong enough to finish my very first marathon and to run it without injury, but I was after the journey more than the actual finish line. I wanted to push myself, but not so much that I forgot to look around. I wanted to feel tired, but not so much that I wanted the race to end.

Ultimately, I wanted a genuine experience of long distance trail running. I wanted to soak in every gorgeous view laid before me, and I wanted to effortlessly travel among the rocks, roots, and cacti without focusing so much on getting past them quickly. I wanted to find solace in the repetitive pattering of my feet on the rocks and dirt, and to marvel at what God has blessed me with; the ability to achieve anything I set my mind to, and these legs that can run for miles. With this in mind, I focused on the fact that this run was an opportunity to live my life to its maximum potential, to exude joy in running and give thanks for all of my past and future milestones. 
The morning started out very chilly. Standing before the start line, I turned to my mom, who was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer almost two years ago and attended an Epic Experience camp in 2014. Since then, she has had confidence in living her life to the fullest and believes she can do anything. I believe in her too, which is why I decided to race for Epic in order to raise money to send cancer survivors to camp. I can’t express enough how much of a positive influence Epic has had on cancer survivors like her.

“Do you think it’s too late to go back to the hotel and sleep?” I joke nervously. I’m apprehensive about running for 5 or 6 hours.

“You’re gonna kill it, Ali.” Mom gives me a big smile and a hug and kiss. I immediately can’t wait to start running and make her proud.

The gun goes off, and my wave starts at a fierce clip toward the canyons. I focus on keeping my own comfortable pace, since the half-marathoners are with me too. They only have to run half as much, and are probably overly excited. We descend into the first 5 miles of rocky riverbed and loose clay. At this point, running feels really easy, and my only complaint is of the endless butterflies in my stomach. This segment ends with a short, steep climb out of the canyon and onto a jeep road.
The jeep road leads to an exposed cliff side, where I can look down into a canyon with a small river and road. The views are gorgeous, and I wish I had my camera, but I’m storing memories for my own personal keeping. Traversing along the cliff side, I continue to stare down into the canyon and at the neighboring plateaus without tripping over rocks. Many sections of the course (including this one) afford no room for error; a trip and fall could mean death in several spots. It goes without saying that I was soaking in views while also being overly cautious.

The descent down the cliff side was a bit sketchy, and there were volunteers to give you a helping hand or catch you. At the bottom, there was an aid station with an older man serving beer. I would have had a swig, but I didn’t want to risk GI issues. I barreled out onto the road close to mile 10, which was where the half marathoners separated toward the finish and the marathoners continued on. I was relieved to have them out of my hair and to gain a bit more isolation from crowds.

The road continued for a few miles with a small out-and-back with river crossings. At mile 14.5, I reached the base of the infamous Scorched Earth Wall. Looking up as far as I could see, small specks were trudging up that darned wall. More than 1000 feet of elevation gain in about a mile and a half makes for a long march. I knew this would be the hardest part of the marathon, so I simply put my head down and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. As many trail runners say, forward progress is progress, even if it’s crawling, beware the chair, and so on. A bit more than halfway through the ascent, my watch alerted me of the completion of another mile. 24 minutes per mile. It was slow, but I was still moving forward, and I was happy. I remember thinking, this is hard, but fighting cancer is harder, so I’m not going to stop or let it get me down.  I repeated that phrase over and over in my head until I was finally at the top, after 45 minutes of walking and one nasty calf cramp. My legs felt like Jell-O and it took a few minutes for them to remember how to run again.

I turned around to soak up the view. To my left, the snowcapped La Sals. To my right, a deep, wide canyon with the Colorado River running through. The view was breathtaking, and I was happy to store it away in my memory. The amazing part was that this particular view, from this spot, is not something the general public gets to see. For one, it’s miles out from any road and on a path that is only marked on the day of the marathon. Second, the Scorched Earth Wall is enough to make a hiker turn around on its own. I was gleeful to know that this view was mine, and mine alone (plus the other marathoners). The best views in the world are those that are earned through sweat and perseverance. I thanked my legs for getting me up the wall and trotted onward.

I began a steep descent among slickrock for a few miles. My legs were still shaky from the climb, but I was able to enjoy a bit of fast singletrack. I slammed a bit of Coca-Cola at the aid station and felt a second wind coming on. I flew across the rocks, and my smile was big again. Fast singletrack is my favorite kind of trail running, and I was having a ball on miles 18-20. The thing is, I hit mile 20 and felt just fine. I was tired, my legs were tired, but there was no “wall” to speak of. I was still having a lot of fun, and when the views changed once again from slickrock and singletrack to dirt paths along the side of a steep canyon, I couldn’t get enough. I didn’t want it to end.

Rounding the corner of the canyon wall, I could hear the race announcer on his speaker system and could see small tents about two miles away. The path was rocky and technical, but I was so excited. Somewhere down there, my mom was waiting (probably worried like most moms are), and soon I would get to cross that finish line and bask in my accomplishment. I choked up for a second, realizing that I was within reach of finishing. The distance that had been so daunting for so long was now almost complete. I stumbled on a rock and mentally chastised myself for not focusing on keeping light feet.

Coming toward the race crowds, I was directed to run past the finish line and onward. One of the more cruel tricks of this particular race is that you reach the finish line at mile 23.1. In order to make 26.2, you have to run the obstacle course 5k prior to finishing. It’s a heartbreaker to hear the announcer, hear the crowds, and be forced to run out of earshot of them one more time. I grumbled past the finish, but settled into thoughts of how close I was and that it wouldn’t be a big deal to run 3 more miles.

The 5k challenged my tired, shaky legs. I had spent the past 23 miles jumping from ledges, hoisting myself up onto rocks, climbing hills, and twisting my ankles in riverbeds…the last thing I wanted to do was pull myself up a steep ledge using a ladder or a rope! I took it slow and tried to jog whenever the terrain allowed me. I was still smiling, and I was still soaking up some awesome views. I high fived a folk band at mile 25 and picked up the pace. At least, it felt like I picked up the pace. I may have looked like a turtle by this point.

I finally rounded my way back to the finishing area. When I cleared my way through some trees, I could hear my mother screaming wildly.

“Go Ali! Go Ali! Go! One more hill! Run up that hill!”

Yes, one more hill. A short, but very steep dirt hill that I had to use my hands to crawl up. I climbed as fast as my weary body would allow, and ran to the finish line. I could feel myself choking up again, and when my mom pulled me into a tight hug, I started to cry. She was already crying, telling me how proud she was of me. I was flooding with happiness and euphoria! I had done what I had set out to do back in August. I had run 26.2 miles on authentic, challenging trail, and I had enjoyed every minute of it. I was joyful and thankful that all of the hard work had paid off, all of the early Sunday mornings and long trail runs. Above all, I was thankful that my mom had been present to witness it.


I finished the race in 6 hours, 25 minutes. Looking back, I know I could have finished it faster, but the time means nothing to me. The point of this entire race was not to have a fast marathon time. I have my whole life to try to do that. But with my first marathon, I wanted to honor the reasons I am passionate about running. I don’t love running because I’m particularly fast or accomplished at it. I love running because there is no sense of accomplishment like being self-propelled. I love running because it makes me feel like I’m a part of this natural world. I love running because it leaves me with my thoughts to reflect and it gives me isolation from the negativity in my life. Lastly, I love running because there is no greater drug than an awe-inspiring view after the climb. I’d like to believe that I felt all of those reasons in my six hour journey.  Trying to run the marathon as fast as I could would have taken away from the experience I so earnestly wanted to have. 

This year, I’ve raised as much money as I could for Epic Experience. Their mission is to provide cancer patients with an experience that brings them to the realization that they can do anything. The camp they put on every summer and winter helps these individuals to shatter their self-imposed boundaries and to do things they’ve never done before. Cancer does not define anyone. It doesn’t define my mom, and it didn’t define the loved ones and friends I have lost to cancer. Life is best spent living beyond cancer, and Epic aims to change the way so many individuals live when they receive such terrible news.  I sincerely hope that my story has placed a seed of thought in those around me that enjoying the journey can be so much more fulfilling than the destination.

I want to thank all those who have donated to my page, and if you haven’t donated already, I highly encourage you to do so. Epic Experience is a more than worthy cause, and your donation goes directly to helping a cancer patient attend a camp filled with horseback riding, whitewater kayaking, snowshoeing and more. No donation is too small! It costs approximately $2500 to send an individual to camp, so Epic needs your help! The link to donate to my page is below and at the top right of my blog:



Thanks for reading, and happy racing! 

Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading every word! Awesome reminder of the power of running! xo

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