Canyonlands Half-Marathon, Moab Utah, by Paul Berg

I hadn’t intended this to be a running destination vacation, but it was a nice reward at the end of a 2-week road trip. Hilda and I had been planning to do a driving and hiking trip to southern Utah for a while, so we blocked out our route and I began looking for interesting places to stay. I called the Desert Hills B&B in Moab after some favorable reviews on TripAdvisor to inquire about availability, and the owner asked, “are you coming for the half marathon that weekend?” I told her no, but my curiosity was piqued, so I checked out the website, found a lovely video of the start of the race down the Colorado River canyon, and I signed up. We flew to Las Vegas, rented an SUV and meandered our way 2000 miles in 15 days. We made good use of our vehicle, exploring back roads to visit slot canyons and petroglyphs, ending every day with the feeling that today had been a real adventure. As anyone who has a non-running partner knows, hiking, no matter how strenuous, is not the same as running. Although we hiked 7-10 miles a day at over 5000ft altitude, I felt that 2 weeks of that and no running was not a good idea for half marathon training. I managed to get in two 45-minute runs at Zion NP the first week, but our robust time schedule was not allowing much more. On Tuesday before the Saturday race, I had a major crisis when I struggled through an 8-mile workout in 1:22, over 10 mins per mile, which was a lot slower than my goal. After I calmed down, I realized that we were at 7500 ft. elevation, and later in the car I clocked the distance at 10 miles, which made it closer to 8:15/mile. Celebrating its 40th year, the Canyonlands Half Marathon at the end of March is the informal beginning of tourist season in Utah, coinciding with spring break. Moab was buzzing, every vehicle in town seemed to have a roof rack and/or to be towing an assortment of ATVs, Jeeps and mountain bikes. At the expo I got into a long conversation with the town’s tourism director, who moved to Moab from Benicia 35 years ago as the last uranium mines were closing. The remaining 6 families didn’t want to leave, and someone came up with the idea to promote mountain biking, and the rest, as they say, is history. Three other guests from the B&B were also running the half, and our hosts were very accommodating in having food available for us at 5:30 AM. The others were extra cautious about arrival time to the bus, over my objection, so we arrived very early to the park where we were to assemble, then boarded the first bus for the 13-mile drive up the canyon on Highway 128 to the start. The advantage of arriving so early was I had the pick of the best rock to camp out on, made more comfortable by the last minute addition of my REI inflatable camp pillow. I soon found myself in a lively discussion about Utah and its quirks, since it seemed like most people running were originally not from Utah, but many were recent non-Mormon transplants to Salt Lake City.

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I had been told that this March race can often be very windy, but that was not the case today. It was still in the 40’s when we had to abandon our gear and head to the starting line, so we had a cold half hour anticipating the start and the predicted warmer morning ahead. My goal was to try to run 7:30 mile pace, so I found a 1:40 pace group and off we went. The scenery was as spectacular as advertised, red sandstone canyon following the meandering Colorado River, comfortable rolling hills, starting at 4200 ft elevation with a net drop of only 200 feet. The highway was closed to all traffic for the morning, so my 3000 friends and I had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the stunning views. Within 2 miles we were in sunshine and it warmed up quickly, so I was happy to have chosen my ER singlet, and later welcomed the road back into canyon shade. I somehow got a bit ahead of my pace group and dropped in with another pack, and was pleased to hit the 8 mile mark at exactly one hour. The only real hill on the course was at mile 9, but I handled it well, dropping off pace about 20 seconds, but still OK. After 11 miles of dramatic red canyons, the course headed south to the outskirts of Moab, and finished at the city park where we’d boarded buses hours earlier. Of course there was the usual pain, doubt, determination, pity, loathing, euphoria and self-analysis that accompanies the last stretch of a hard effort, but I was pleased with my 1:38:57 finish. I took it as a milestone finally marking the end of my one year of injury, my hip didn’t bother me and, even if it was only the 4% Utah variety, there was cold beer at the end.

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