Trail Running – Behind the Rocks 50k, Moab, Utah

La Sal Mountains from Behind The Rocks Road
The Beautiful La Sal Mountains

Gearing Up and Ready to Run
Starting at oh-dark-thirty. Race Director let me start with the 50 Milers (at 6am)! Awesome guy, that Justin…

Approaching The Halfway Aid Station Spot
The Halfway Point, at Mile 16

Behind The Rocks 50K Finish Line
Crossing the Finish Line in 87 dF temps after 7 hours 13 minutes of running.

Behind The Rocks 50k Map
The 50k Map!

Behind The Rocks 50k Elevation Profile
Elevation Profile for 50k!

I was researching single track trail 50k races held in Utah during the month of March, and I found Behind The Rocks. Just south of Moab, in the high desert and set against the backdrop of the La Sal Mountains, the BTR run is a challenging yet beautiful race. It is an out and back, with some variation on the way back to keep it interesting. Just prior to the turnaround, at the halfway point, there are a series of ledges involving some 3rd class scrambling and a bit of exposure. FUN!

I contacted the race director to ask some questions; mainly to make sure the event was not on pavement and to find out the total amount of elevation gain. Justin responded to my questions promptly. He was really friendly and encouraging. He mentioned the course was a bit longer than a 50k (turns out it’s 32.5 miles), that it was definitely not on pavement, and it was ~3,800 ft of gain (turns out it’s ~4,100 ft of gain). In my experience running 50k trail races, the Race Directors are often not hung up on the specific distance or gain parameters and their main focus is running a safe and smooth event.

A few days before the race, I emailed Justin, to ask him if I could start early with the 50 Milers. They were starting at 6am and since the high was supposed to reach the mid 90s, I thought I better start early! I had been training all winter in Denver and the warmest run I had done was in the mid 60s. I don’t do well in the heat, which is why I run Ultras in the swing seasons. I love running in temps from 20-50dF.

At the start of the event, it was just cold enough to see one’s breath, so I decided to start with my lightweight wind breaker and a ball cap. Dennis walked with me over to the start, in pitch black. By the light of my headlamp, we exchanged the “good luck” hug and all of a sudden everybody took off. I may have been the last person to cross the start line.

Starting Line to Aid Station 1 (0 to 6 miles)
The pack ran ahead and I lingered in the back, warming up with an 11 minute mile to start. Over the course of mile number 2, I had to adjust some layers and tighten some laces, but after that I was able to get in a groove. I caught up with a nice middle aged guy and we ran together in darkness for the next couple miles. At one point we thought we lost the trail. Squinting and panning the horizon, we paused to make a decision, should we go back to the last known tape, or keep going?

Darkness was transitioning to light; which is a difficult time for my eyeballs. My fellow runner mentioned that his sense of direction was not so great…So we made a good team-we could use his eyeballs and my navigation skills! Finally, we noticed the bobbing of headlamps in the distance, so we followed those until we knew for certain we were on trail. In about 5 minutes, we were back on the taped course…happy to not have “busted the crust”.

Aid Station #1 (Mile 6)
When I made it to Aid Station #1, Doug was there with Craig and they were wrapping up their stop. I took a few minutes to grab some banana and refill my two 20 oz recycled vitamin water containers (it was 10 miles, from this aid station to the halfway point). Also, a nice lady volunteered to take extra layers back to the race director’s tent. So, I took off my windbreaker and the ball cap. Unfortunately, in my haste to purge the extra weight, I forgot my sunglasses were in the pocket of the jacket!

It was an amazing morning. The stars, which had been shining brightly in the desert sky during the first leg of the race, slowly melted into the soft morning light. Desert rock glowed while the faint greens of sage and cactus emerged. I had feelings of great happiness as I surveyed the wild desert scenery.

In the mile following the first aid station, the trail descended along an old jeep road. Therefore, a bit of bouldering, was required in the crux section. (Those with no climbing skills could just slide down the rock on their bums rather than try and climb down.) The boulders in the road were covered with ugly, black scarring where jeep undercarriages had scraped the rock. My mind wandered to thoughts of the Lake Como road; how would this road compare?

Mile 10-16
Somewhere around mile 10 I caught up to, and passed, Doug and his friend Craig. They were holding a steady pace and looked really strong. I wished them the best and then continued at my slightly faster, 50k pace. At mile 13, it occurred to me that I have no sunglasses, and no cell phone (to call Dennis and request for him to get me some).

Sandy Wash
Photo of Sandy Wash by Dawn Westrum

Around where the picture above was taken (~Mile 13), I saw two runners ahead of me and I was hoping they had phones or could somehow help with my sun glasses predicament.

When I caught up to them, I noticed that one of them was a girl. Immediately, I asked if she had a phone. Turns out she’s super nice and was really supportive of my predicament. She then tells me that in her drop bag she had an extra pair of sunglasses!

“I hate them, they’re just in case my regular ones break. So, please take them, you’d be doing me a favor. They are in the bright fluorescent green La Sportiva bag.” Right on!!! I thanked her for the offer and then I continued at my faster pace.

Hunters Canyon
Photo of Hunter’s Canyon, above, taken by Dawn Westrum
The last couple miles to the halfway point were really fun. Single track trail which follows the curving of a huge massif of rock, above Hunter’s Canyon. As the trail wraps around the rock, some cliffs start to form to the left of the trail and before you know it, there is a huge drop off!

Descent to Spring Campground Halfway Aid Station
The Descent to Spring Campground and the Halfway Aid Station, picture by Dawn Westrum. There were cairns, leading runners down a series of ledges; and runners can be seen descending the ledges in the picture above.

Descent Ledges Above the Halfway Aid Station
Dennis took the picture above, which is taken from the inside of the Spring Canyon and looking back up to the ledges.

Some runners, who don’t have any climbing experience or don’t feel comfortable with exposure, had issues with this part of the run. Although, I was in my element, I could understand a person feeling queasy at the sight of the cliffs.

Approaching the Halfway Aid Station
I helped the guy in this picture navigate a couple of the tricky sections through the ledges and I told him that I had a lot of experience climbing. He was relieved to be following me through this cruxy section as he had gotten turned around a couple times and wasn’t sure exactly how to get down.

Mile 16.5 (Halfway!) Aid Station
At the halfway point, I was really excited to see Dennis. He was there with my turkey bacon, change of shoes/socks, and other special goodies that the aid station didn’t have…Dennis went to grab those spare sunglasses while I changed my shoes and socks. Then, I ate the turkey bacon and took some with me. I checked into the halfway point and wished Doug and Craig best of luck (they caught up to me after I had finished tying my laces) as they continued on to their 50 mile course. It was not their halfway point, so they were very efficient with the aid station and quickly disappeared.

Running back up the ledges was really fun. I missed a cairn at one point, but it didn’t really matter. A couple of 3rd class moves and I was back on track. More runners were starting to approach the descent and I gave some of them a few hints.

I was starting to wonder about when I would see the 1st place 50k people. They had started at 8am; so I was sure I’d be seeing them soon. Somewhere around my mile 18, I finally saw a couple of really strong guys and they looked puzzled. I told them that I started early and they both nodded with smiles. They told me I was looking really strong and I returned the complement. I was expecting they would catch up to me around mile 22-23…so I told them I’d see them in an hour!

The first place 50k female was not far behind the two guys when I passed her. I think she was in 7th overall place at that moment. So, I gave her some encouragement and said I hoped to see her again, but she never passed me back as the first place female finished 10 minutes after I did (with my 2 hour head start!).

At this time, it was starting to heat up and I was really looking forward to the aid station. There was a very long, unrelenting uphill section of climbing from miles 22-25 and there were virtually no trees. I started feeling hot.

Slick Rock
An Example of the Slickrock sections we ran over, taken by Dawn Westrum.

When I was at mile 25 and closing in on the top of the long uphill, I ran into a guy who was clearly lost. He said, “A couple questions for you. 1. What distance are you running? and 2. Where is the next aid station?”. I told him that I was running the 50k and that the next aid station was in front of me by about 1 mile…But that I wasn’t sure where the 25K race course went and that I wasn’t sure where his next aid station was because I just printed out the 50k map and I didn’t have the 25K map with me. I gave him directions to the last sign that I saw; thinking it might be helpful for him. He took off downhill with his empty water bottle in hand.

The next couple miles were lonely, hot, and extremely dry. I ate some more turkey bacon, thinking that the salt would help my mouth water. It did, but then the salt made me even more thirsty. I was starting to feel the heat and I wished I had an umbrella! I was sure it was climbing above 80dF and it became really apparent to me that the aid station was not where it was supposed to be. I began to think that I was off course when way up in the distance, I saw a runner. Whew!

Then, even more good news. There was a lady on a Quad, driving down the gravel road. She asked me if I needed water and I said YES! I had completely run out of water; and it was still another 1.5 miles to the aid station! I told her that it was too bad the aid station was so far away; but thank God for her offer of 10 ounces of water. With a couple big gulps, those 10 ounces disappeared, but it helped immensely. Some cramping in my calf muscles immediately subsided and I was able to take one of my salt pills (to combat the heat).

At the aid station, I filled up on water and grabbed some cool fruit. The guy who was stocking the aid station was there with his son and they were doing a bang up job. Before I knew it, I was out of there and back on trail. I had caught up to that runner and I left her at the aid station, with a smile and a “good luck!”.

The desert road with the last 3 miles was torture. The sand was hot and I could feel the heat through the soles and the sides of my shoes. My face and neck were covered with salt crystals and I started to feel really cold. I had read about people with beginning stages of heat stroke feeling this way…but I had never actually experienced it. My arms suddenly were covered with goose pimples and I felt a chill down my spine. I knew I was only a couple miles from the finish line!

Finally, there was the last downhill section, which I recognized from the morning…so I started hauling. I picked up the pace and ran a couple of 9-10 minute miles. I was psyched and then I remembered that the race was a “little” longer than 31.4 miles…so the joke was on me. Still, I kept the last mile at 11 minutes and before I knew it, I was approaching the last 100 yards!

Approaching the Finish Line of Behind The Rocks 50K
Dennis got this picture of me reeling in the finish line!

I was so happy to have finished my 4th trail 50k, to see Dennis at the finish line, and to finally sit down in some shade. What a fantastic race!

We walked around a little bit and then I stretched.

I ran into the first and third placed guys and we chatted about the race. They were both Rocky Mountain Runners, from Boulder, and extremely strong guys. One of them was French (Yves-Marie) and the other one was Italian (Nicola) and it was fun hearing them rib each other; but in a supportive way. Even the elite runners agreed with me, that the course was fun yet challenging, especially given the hot weather (it was 87dF when I finished!). After chatting with them, I got some super yummy vegetarian chili, quesadilla, and some chips. It was awesome post race food.

Dennis and I waited for an hour at the finish line, on the off-chance that we’d hear from Doug and Craig. Hearing nothing (no texts, etc), we decided to go back into town so I could sit in the hot tub and stretch.

Back at the Hotel and Ready for a Refill
With my finisher’s pint! Yay, I’m so psyched!!!

Behind The Rocks 50k Splits
My Splits!

Behind TheRocks 50k Race Metrics
My Time

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