Race across the desert

Marilena Wilkinson of Venezuela and Jessica Oh of Ontario, Canada, compete in a previous Desert R.A.T.S. race. The ultra run is June 18-23 from near Grand Junction, Colo., to Moab, along the Kokopelli Trail. See story in Sports & Outdoors, page 10. (Photo courtesy Glen Delman)

To many, what 30 registered runners are about to do is certifiably crazy.

But to Desert R.A.T.S. race organizer Reid Delman, it’s a perfectly normal pastime.

And, he says, anyone can do it.

Delman, of Boulder, Colo., had always wanted to run an ultra-marathon-esque desert race in Morocco. But the price tag was too high and he could never make it work.

So he did the next best thing: He started his own.

Now, Desert R.A.T.S. (Race Across the Desert) is in its 8th year.

Participants log 148 miles. Each.

The six-day running race begins just west of Grand Junction, Colo., on Monday, June 18, and ends in Moab on Saturday, June 23. The course follows the Kokopelli Trail, which is rugged desert terrain.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Delman said. “The distances they run every day … the shortest day is nine miles. The longest is 50 miles.”

It’s not cheap either. The entry fee is $1,000. But, Delman points out, that includes everything an entrant needs for an entire week. Race organizers provide tents and other camping equipment, food (including Milt’s Stop and Eat treats at the end of day two), drink, etc. They also transport all that gear for the runners and have the tents set up at the end of each day.

“All they have to do is wake up in the morning and run,” Delman said. “Then they camp and have dinner.”

Think about the race as you would the Tour de France, Delman said. Each day, runners complete a set course. Some days are easier, some are (much) harder.

Officials keep track of each person’s cumulative time. The one with the fastest cumulative time at the end wins.

Each year, the race has grown, Delman said. But this will never be a mega race with thousands of entrants. The max number of entrants is 50.

Just who are these people signing up for this sort of athletic challenge?

“It’s a real mix,” Delman said. “Some are adventure racers. Some have never even done a marathon.

“The way we describe it is it’s a challenge for the best racers, but it’s doable enough that anyone can do it.”

Contestants come from all over the world. This year, the race will feature runners from Italy and Wales, to name a few, Delman said.

Similar races exist in deserts around the world, Delman said, but this is the United States’ offering.

The desert heat is one of the biggest challenges for the runners, Delman said. Temperatures during the race out in the desert are almost always 100 degrees or higher. That’s why some runners wear long sleeves or keep hoods or other lightweight material draped over their heads – to offer some sort of protection from the grueling sun.

“You have to learn how to drink and keep hydrated the whole time,” Delman said. “One of the big things is people have to do a lot of heat training.”

They also have to figure out how to best use their energy – and when to refuel.

“You have to learn how to manage things well,” Delman said. “You have to learn to eat while you’re on the move.

“It’s a lot of running, walking kind of thing. A lot of people walk the uphills and run the downhills.”

Sound fun?

You’ll have to wait until next year. Race entry closed June 1.

But you can come out to watch. Hardly any spectators line the course, Delman said, but everyone involved would love it if there were more support.

The final leg is a marathon, 26.2 miles. Participants cross the finish line in Moab at the Slickrock Trail parking lot.

Runners will be finishing anywhere between noon and 3 p.m.

“It’s very emotional for people who run it to get to the final finish line,” Delman said. “It’s really something to watch the people come in.”