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It was an ambitious plan for two avid, but rather average Montana ultrarunners. After all, instead of collecting medals, we’re usually the ones limping past the awards podium on our way to the post-race beer. Nonetheless, over Thanksgiving weekend 2015, we decided to run the Kokopelli Trail in one go, and maybe—miraculously—finish in a fastest known time (FKT).
The Kokopelli Trail links Fruita, Colorado, and Moab, Utah, via 142 miles of high-desert and alpine trail, mostly arteries of single- and doubletrack. Our demanding work schedules had us attempting the feat over Thanksgiving weekend, much closer to winter than most attempts we had researched.
That Thursday, we arrived in Fruita: Hayden, a planner and type-triple-A data geek, his mind ever limber thanks to his hyper-controlled system of logistical calisthenics; Casey, a no-stretch, no-spreadsheet type of runner who agreed to the adventure despite being severely undertrained after a firefighting season spent chainsawing and truck-sitting; and Karin and Kate, our ever gracious wives and crew.
After a Thanksgiving feast at the only open restaurant—IHOP—we began the following morning. Here’s how it all went down.
We arrive punctually at the eastern trailhead near Fruita. It’s chilly, but almost ideal for a long run through the desert: partly cloudy, 24 degrees. Fueled by the previous evening’s smorgasbord of carbs and bacon, we take the obligatory starting-line pictures and make final preparations.
7:00 a.m. (Casey)
Hayden packed the night before and is ready in short order. I’m impulsively stuffing my pack with king-size Butterfingers. Hayden is annoyed.
7:13 a.m. (Hayden)
The journey begins with a quick climb. “I’m tired,” I say sarcastically. Morale is high and confidence inflated. We discuss goal times: a little faster than five miles per hour will break the current FKT of 30:21. Many things sound possible with fresh legs and fair skies. We crest the first hill and a geologic kaleidoscope—ochre-colored sandstone cliffs dissected by the languid Colorado River—comes into view.
7:23 a.m. (Casey)
We make our first wrong turn amid a confusing spider web of trails. Consulting the GPS app on Hayden’s phone, we alter course. I’m thankful that he found those digital maps; I hadn’t thought much about navigating.
7:37 a.m. (Hayden)
Another wrong turn. We have gone 1.7 miles, but only 0.9 of those miles on the Kokopelli.
8:40 a.m. (Casey)
We’ve completed just seven miles, but we’re accelerating as we learn how to navigate the Kokopelli. Back on FKT pace, I fantasize about setting a record, though few would notice or care. I’m feeling a runner’s high (or a sugar rush). Singletrack flows in and out of red-rock canyons above the dark-green Colorado River. Rabbits are everywhere.
9:15 a.m. (Hayden)
We follow the trail up to the immense expanse of the desert rim. A pleasant wind cools our faces. Distant arches look on us stoically. Feeling strong on a downhill stretch, Casey says, “This is easy. Let’s go fast.”
9:16 a.m. (Casey)
My right foot catches a rock. I fall face first and roll downhill, slamming a knee into another rock. I lay below the trail, in the sagebrush. I’m not really hurt. Hayden acts concerned, but I know he’s just thinking I’m a fool.
11:35 a.m. (Hayden)
Twenty-two miles down. At our first resupply, Rabbit Valley, our wives wait with food, drinks and extra clothes. Still ahead of FKT pace, we want to strictly limit resupplies to five or 10 minutes. I pound some food and change into short shorts; Casey grabs a foot-long sandwich and the pertinent Latitude 40° map. Somehow, this takes 25 minutes.
12:45 p.m. (Casey)
Marathon mark, 5:32 elapsed. My stomach feels better than it did an hour ago; double-fisting a sub sandwich may not have been the best thing to do while running. Passing through windswept canyons, our spirits begin to wane. After not eating enough, Hayden’s energy level is dipping. I am trying to solve chafing issues: I am carrying two pairs of underwear and wearing none.
1:50 p.m. (Hayden)
50K. Fatigue begins to hinder us, and the trail’s two major climbs, in the La Sal Mountains, still await us in the second half. We declare the FKT out of reach and resign ourselves to breaking 36 hours. I recall a telephone exchange I had with a bike-store employee in Fruita while planning this adventure:
“You want to do what?” he asked.
“We’re going to run the entire Kokopelli Trail,” I responded.
“Dude … that’s badass.”
At this point, it just feels asinine.
2:15 p.m. (Casey)
We’re on a rolling dirt road through pungent juniper and sage—beautiful but monotonous. I try to entertain myself by turning my trucker hat backwards and asking, “Do I look like Jenn Shelton?” Hayden, unamused, just says, “No.”
4:02 p.m. (Hayden)
After 39 miles of undulating trails and a stretch of unwelcome pavement, we find our crew under a railroad bridge and immediately don down coats. It’s much colder now. A storm is approaching. So is darkness. Our wives boil water. We attempt to remain optimistic, layer up and cram emergency items into our packs. Casey has a swig of Pepsi.
5:50 p.m. (Casey)
It’s dark and stormy. I feel as though we have run into a snow globe. The bitter north wind sends snow sideways into our faces.
6:38 p.m. (Hayden)
Our world is white and ends at the edge of our headlamp beams. The trail follows an obvious dirt road, and the wind is at our backs, but this has frozen our hydration bladders. We text Karin and Kate, assuring them we can deal with the elements and make the next resupply. They’ve just battled blizzard conditions on I-70, where driving 15 miles per hour felt harrowing.
7:17 p.m. (Casey)
Ankle-deep snow. We are on pace to reach the Cisco Landing resupply at 9 p.m. We alternate running and walking, trying to maintain four miles per hour. I brush snow off of BLM trail placards to reveal the Kokopelli markers that tell us we’re still on course.
7:40 p.m. (Hayden)
I have been reduced to running a few minutes at a time so Casey can keep up. Casey claims I’m going too fast in an effort to show him up. I do not think I can possibly go any slower and still be moving.
8:30 p.m. (Casey)
I look into the distance, straining for some sign of Karin and Kate. Hayden says we are close, but he has been wrong before. I just want to sit down.
8:56 p.m. (Hayden)
Karin and Kate have hot food ready. After 57 miles and 13 hours 43 minutes, we are wet and drained. Next up is a remote section of singletrack, nearly 20 miles to the next access point. The snowfall is lessening, but it’s still blustery and frigid, and the cairns marking the trail will undoubtedly be buried. We return to Fruita, where the day began.
10:35 p.m. (Casey)
Feeling no shame, I traverse a Taco Bell drive-thru. As usual, there are no medals or records at the end, but there are tacos and beers.