I just raced the Dead Horse Ultra near Moab, Utah, and I can’t stop wondering what killed the horse. Was it the breath-removing beautiful red vistas? Or the dangerous drop-offs from rock ledges that promise certain death? While most race reports ponder trail conditions, shoe selection, gear tradeoffs, course advantages and disadvantages, and some might even promise to help you “beat the Dead Horse Ultra”—I’d prefer to focus on two straightforwardly simple viewpoints—what you’d see when you look up at this race, and what you’d see when you look down on this run. Both, I think, give us some insight into the mystery of the stiff stallion.
Looking up, the red rocks stretch beyond sight, a unique beauty one doesn’t encounter much, if ever. As an army officer, I’ve lived and run in a lot of interesting places for extended periods of time—from Seoul, South Korea to Wellington, New Zealand; Washington DC to Colorado Springs; and multiple venues in Iraq, Israel, and Indonesia to the areas around upstate New York. Each has a particular geographic distinctiveness. For example, in New Zealand you’ll encounter pine trees alongside palm trees, and Seoul’s peaks shoot right out of the city and skyscrapers can appear as shiny business mountains amidst the more traditional rocky type. But the desert areas around Moab are special. They’re more distinct because they’re more dissimilar than any other terrain I’ve run in and on. Everywhere else has trees, grass, and a rainbow’s bucket of color. This is different.
Moab, the writer Edward Abbey called, “the most beautiful place on earth,” by which he didn’t “mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it—the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.” He’s talking about the Dead Horse Ultra course, and, all this is true and beautiful to me, because this environment is novel, it’s fresh, it’s new to my eyes—so it could just be that the horse looked up and died at this spectacularly singular scenery. Could it have been (equine) mind-blowing, literally?
Looking down for another possible explanation to our horse’s unfortunate end, the terrain itself around Moab is extraordinary. The race followed in the fat tire tracks of mountain bikers. There was a handy painted strip flowing the course’s length that simulated lanes on a road, which was helpful, as Abbey described the desert as “a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea.” So while I would certainly lose my mind (and my lunch) if I was adrift in the ocean, it was nearly impossible to get lost at the Dead Horse Ultra with such a persistent, consistent course marking guide to follow. Also, I found it strange I was in the desert, but only stepped in sand for brief patches—the race is run predominantly on slickrock and single track. It’s a fast course, relatively flat, although the hard surface means you’ve got to keep your eyes on the road so as not to hit a sinkhole or ledge.
And these drop-offs are steep, sudden, and stupendously dangerous if you’re not paying attention. At one point, I looked up and then right back down and noticed my feet were essentially tracing a razor sharp edge—one step to the right and I’d have created my own aid station at -1000 feet elevation. Maybe the better theory is that our poor horse just made one wrong step?
While there are legends about how Dead Horse State Park acquired its name, it’s fair to say we’ll never find out specifically what dealt death to our trusty steed. While my money’s on the landscape, this is really a job for CSI: Moab (someone call CBS, pronto!). What is clear is this is a fantastic ultra-race experience for newbies and veterans alike, for the unique scenery and terrific terrain. Abbey would applaud the effort, having written that you “can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.” And so I for one will be back at the Dead Horse Ultra next year, running, occasionally crawling, and still trying to figure out what killed that horse. When my own red stuff mixes with the trail paint, I’ll know. Maybe.