MOAB — Somewhere in the desert that straddles Colorado and Utah, my prayer turned into pleading.
I’d been alone for hours trudging through sand, battered by wind, withering in the heat. This section of the Kokopelli Trail offered almost no escape from the sun and almost nothing beautiful to see.
Scrub oak, angry-sounding insects and hot, red sand were all I experienced for so long, I felt myself slipping from struggle to surrender.
I felt desperation and doubt pulling me as I moved slower and more hopelessly. I’d stupidly opted for a tank top because of the heat, but my heavy backpack had rubbed my back raw. I had heat rash all over my legs, and my shoulders ached from the weight I was carrying.
I grasped for distraction, praying it could rescue me from the overwhelming urge I felt to lay down under any shrub that cast a sliver of a shadow and activate my emergency beacon.
The only thing stopping me was my sister’s advice, which hammered in the back of my mind every time I searched for an escape.
“Just keep moving forward,” she’d said. “If you’re sick, tired, just keep moving through it.”
So I reached for anything to occupy my mind.
I sang — sometimes in my head, sometimes aloud.
I recited poetry, told myself jokes, acted out some of my favorite movie scenes and I prayed.
Eventually, my prayers were just pathetic begging for any human to cross my path.
“Please, please, please, let someone catch me,” I shouted pathetically and out loud through cracked, burning lips. “Please let the sweep find me. Please let someone come looking for me.” I knew I was near the end. I’d heard a couple of other runners had dropped or missed the first cutoff.
At the last aid station, I’d been told I had two and a half hours to cover 10 miles, and even though I didn’t think I could do it, I knew I had to try.
Six miles into it, I wasn’t sure I would even make it to the next aid station at all — let alone by the 3:30 p.m. cutoff.
I needed a break. I saw a small tree that cast a decent shadow on the side of the path, and I laid the hand towel covering my shoulders on the ground, took off my pack, and fell onto my back.
I felt sleep tempting me as I drank deeply from the warm water in my pack. I closed my eyes and felt myself drifting. I resisted but not much.
I laid there nearly 15 minutes, before I forced myself back onto the path.
Moments later, relief came walking down that dusty path.
Another runner, Micky Sederburg, who I’d shared a few painful miles with earlier that day, appeared behind me. As the Colorado man came into view, I nearly cried.
I wanted to hug him.
“I’m so glad you caught me,” I said. “I was desperate for company.”
He said he was similarly struggling, and we fell in step together, talking about our lives like two long-lost best friends. From his decision to deploy to Kuwait next month with the Air Force or how complicated it is raising teenagers, we moved through our lives comparing notes and trading stories.
Getting to the next aid station, where we’d missed the cutoff by an hour and a half, was brutal. As I sat in a chair contemplating what went wrong and how I might avoid failure in the remaining three stages, I knew one thing with absolute clarity — those final miles were only bearable because I had someone to keep me from thinking of all the ways my body was hurting.
I didn't finish Tuesday's stage, but I did manage to finish every other stage of the race, making all the cutoffs and collecting four of five finishes and running 139 of the 150 miles.
When Reid Delman first conceived of the Desert Rats Kokopelli 150-mile Stage Race, he envisioned the kind of experiences Micky and I had on that barren stretch of sand.
“I love the suffering,” said Delman, who started the race in 2004. “I love the focus. And I love sharing that with other people. … It opens your eyes, makes you feel more alive.”
A former wrestler, he said his life lacked structure and purpose after he quit competing.
“It took a lot of experimenting,” he said. “I don’t drink or do drugs because I think it dulls the senses, that feeling of accomplishment, that feeling of being awake.”
During his search he became a bit of an “adrenaline junkie,” he said, “anything to get the blood going.”
But what he realized as he repeatedly stared down fear was that without the grind, there wasn’t any glory. What he really missed was working for something significant.
So he found experiences that challenged him, and then he created events that offered others a similar opportunity.
Delman was up front with us as we sat in a pre-race meeting. He wanted to see us suffer. He wanted us to struggle, to wonder if we could make it, to doubt whether or not we would reach our goals — whatever they happened to be.
But he also wanted us to win.
Just 24 of us showed up this June for the challenge of running five days in extreme heat on a remote stretch of trail from Fruita, Colorado, to Moab, Utah. Each of us came for different reasons, hoping to achieve different goals on the same, unforgiving terrain.
Ryan Gouldan, who ended up with his fifth victory, hoped to complete all 150 miles in less than 21 hours. For my sister, Mikie Pylilo, it was finish every stage after failing to earn two stage finishes last year.
For me, it was to finish the first stage and start every day.
Paul Scheuring said he expected the journey would turn him inward.
“I came out for the experience,” he said Saturday night as runners and staff shared their favorite moments from the week. “I thought my experience would be the desert and my relationship to the desert.”
Instead, like me, he found his most profound moments in the company of a stranger.
On Thursday, we endured our longest day — 43 miles. We had two stretches of about 12 miles between cutoff No. 1 and cutoff No. 2. In what he called “the Valley of Death” because it was so dry and desolate, he said he and Scott Scarpinato “fell in together.”
They kept each other company, even as he struggled just to stay lucid. About two miles from the second cutoff, Scheuring ran out of water and Scarpinato offered him his.
“He was giving away his life blood,” Scheuring said. “That was my moment.”
Thomas Mullins had one on the last day, as we ran a marathon to finish the week. The Texas native was in the running for a special award for completing the course in under 30 hours.
He said that Jay Lee, who took second overall, and Chris Ward, who finished fourth, “ran with me, in front and behind, dragging and pulling me, because they wanted to see me have that kind of success.”
Sederburg became disoriented and was unable to make the third aid station on the 43-mile day, and he was taken off the course by the medical personnel. He spent two days in a hospital in Moab with hypernatremia (too much salt), before managing to get to the finish line just in time to see me finish Saturday's marathon stage.
Jeff Knakal, who was running the race for the third time, said it wouldn’t be possible for him to accomplish his goals without the selfless help of fellow competitors and medical staff. In fact, the medical staff is almost as invested in our success as we are, and they don’t let you give up on yourself as easily as you might hope.
As Delman handed out awards to the finishers, he said “that feeling of camaraderie and of just pitching” wherever, whenever and in whatever way was needed is what makes the race so unique.
“There is suffering,” he said, “but it is really about coming out on the other side, about the understanding you gain.”
And for me the understanding was how much stronger we are together than alone. It’s not just that we can help each other, it’s that we draw strength from one another.
The moments I had were many, and all of them involved other people. Some were small, like a smile or word of encouragement. Some were huge, like critical advice or shared supplies.Comment on this story
Sometimes those people who helped me carry my burden, physically and emotionally, were with me only in my heart. Sometimes we walked side by side through the sand in complete silence. Other times, our experience was so intertwined, no aspect of the challenge went unshared.
I realized, long after I’d left the desert, our desire to share our suffering and our triumphs isn’t just about distracting conversations, course directions or fueling secrets.
It’s that love can actually makes us stronger, braver and more resilient.