Desert Rats Trail Festival Half Marathon (21K) in Fruita, Colorado

A half marathon, in the desert of Colorado, right along the mighty Colorado River, what else could we ask for? Although we were reluctant to sign up for a spring race, because that meant we would most likely have to be training in the snow, Courtney and I both signed up for the Desert Rats Half Marathon in Fruita, Colorado. Better yet, this race would coincide with our third wedding anniversary right next to the town of Palisade, where we go every year to celebrate in Colorado’s wine country! Talk about a win-win! Well, it would be a lot of struggle and pain before we crossed that finish line. But it was worth it!

I’ll be honest, living on the top of a mountain in Tollgate Canyon makes winter running and training difficult due to, well everything. Unless you’re on skis, these hills and snow/ice covered roads make it tough to put miles in, especially at 8,000ft. This would normally make signing up for a spring-time half pretty much impossible unless we wanted to run the roads in Park City or drive down to Salt Lake City every day. Luckily, this year, we had the option to be on the road with the van, and in warm places, to tackle our training plan in places like Sedona, Arizona! This was going to be the perfect solution, but in reality, most of our long runs still ended up being here, at home in the cabin, but the hill training was well worth it when the race came around.

The race weekend itself is a pretty big deal in town, promoted as a trail running festival weekend in the desert. The race is hosted by UTMB, which famous for being a little race in France… where they run around the entirety of Monte Blanc. As a part of the race series to qualify to run the UTMB in France, this weekend had four race distances over Saturday and Sunday: 100K (62 miles), 50K (30 Miles), 20K (13 Miles), and lastly the 10K (5.7 Miles). The promotion & bib pickup setup shop in the small desert town of Fruita, with the race itself planned to kickoff from the Hawkeye Trailhead right off I-70, near the Colorado River & Kokopelli Trails. Throughout the weekend, you could see tons of people in town and out camping that were definitely here for the race. Especially a lot of French runners.

The half marathon (20K) course, as we found during the race, was incredible! 13 miles and 2,300 feet of elevation gain defined the race profile, but experience was so much more. The race, to me, was broken up into three separate segments, separated by the aid stations. Quickly, after hopping on the school bus shuttle from the high school to the trailhead, we joined the few hundred other runners at the starting line and headed off down the dirt road at 8:30AM, as the desert sun was low and temperatures were a comfortable 55 degrees. But our day was just getting started, and we were in for a world of pain, and a little bit of fun!

Out of the gate, we headed out at a comfortable pace, as to not get too excited and head out too fast. As the course gradually headed up the first grade, we quickly were very satisfied with our heavy training plan, especially up in our hilly neighborhood, because we cruised up the hills as everyone started to hike them instead of running. Filing neatly into the singletrack, from Mary’s Loop to the Steve’s Loop, we passed the first Aid Station which, in my opinion, was too soon at mile 1. And as our legs warmed up, we started to pick up the pace, making our way around the other runners, just as the course peaked over the Colorado River for the first time. At this point, the course started to get more and more difficult, climbing up steep sections getting to the second aid station at mile 3.1 mile. 

Though the climbing really didn’t start until after the third Aid Station at mile 7, the second section was amazing. The desert terrain was rolling, sweeping, and technical along the Blue Rated Mary’s trail. We’d tuck past massive boulders that line the uphill sides of the trail, as the downhill side pointed us down to the mighty Colorado. Climbing these trails added a whole new way to cover this terrain that we love. I’ve ridden bikes through here and we’ve even rafted with our friends through this section on the Ruby Horsethief Canyon. But even though it was gorgeous, we were still chugging along, flowing through the terrain and making up a ton of places as most of the other racers as we headed up the hills. 

As we descended the last rocky section of Wrangler trail, we finally hit the last Aid Station, which was very welcomed. Filled with candy, snacks, water, and electrolytes, because we had a gnarly climb ahead us on the Double Black rated Moore Fun trail. Over the next 5 miles, we’d climb another 900 vertical feet, and it felt like it’d never let up on the rock desert trail. And even though the pace dropped off a bit due to some dehydration, unfortunately, overall, the legs felt fantastic with all the hill climbing. To add to the struggle, the hot spring air filed in, hitting the 70s, and the sun was strong as it could be. We finished the climbs and crested the two summits, with incredible views of the vast, flatness of Fruita’s farmlands, the Colorado Plateau in the distance, and the river below the race course to the south. And with that last summit, came a steep, stair step-style descent that brought us back down to the road we started the race on and pushed that last hill to the finish line, filled with tons of finishers and spectators! We came in just around 3hours, to which, we were happy with, considering everything.

Overall, what an incredible race and fantastic half-marathon course. The area outside of Fruita and the desert landscape is unbelievable. Even though it’s not the red-rocks of Moab, and often overlooked from I-70 as you pass by on the way to Denver, this bit of trail will always be a memorable experience. If it wasn’t so expensive ($140), I would love to return every year. Without this motivation, I definitely don’t think we would have been training and running this much through winter, and it was fantastic! And I mean if the race wasn’t awesome enough, we got to celebrate our anniversary over the rest of the weekend in Palisade at the wineries we love to go to every year like Varaison and Restoration. Especially when we can bike from where we stay at Base Camp to these wineries!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *