The 2020 Trail Marathon National Championships were held in Moab last weekend, Nov. 7 and 8. In spite of necessary COVID-19 mitigation measures, race organizer Danelle Ballengee said things went “really smooth,” and runners were excited for the chance to participate in the race known for its diverse terrain.

“About a mile and a half of the course is on the road,” said Ballengee. “The rest is on single track, jeep roads or cross country.”

The event included a five kilometer option, a half-marathon, or a full 26.2 mile marathon, as well as a one-kilometer race for children. Runners completing the longest course followed the jeep track through Pritchett Canyon to the Hunter Canyon Rim trail. After a short out-and-back up Hunter Canyon and a brief stretch on Kane Creek Road, racers connected with the Captain Ahab mountain biking trail and took it to the Amasaback Jeep trail. Jackson’s Trail brought runners back to Kane Creek Road and on to a final technical stretch that included a ladder and rope traverse.

The event marked the first completed marathon for race participant and Moab resident Nicole Fox, who called the course “as beautiful as it was brutal.”

“4000’ of elevation gain, with a 1200’ hill at mile 15,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Between that and running primarily on slickrock, this is the type of course that would be dreamt up only by a Moab native.”

The course was designed by Ballengee, a Moab local and renowned athlete. Ballengee was a champion distance runner for years in the early 2000s. She gained fame of a different kind when she recovered from major injuries she suffered from a fall while on a training run near Moab in 2006. She was missing for several days before her dog helped rescuers locate her and get her to medical care. She was able to return to competing after the traumatic event.

Now Ballengee manages the Trail Marathon, whose course nears the site of her accident. The course has been listed in Trail Runner Magazine as a top-10 “Bucket List” race.

“I at least had the home turf advantage of being able to practice,” said Fox in a phone call with the Moab Sun News, giving a nod of admiration to runners who were experiencing slickrock for the first time during the race.

“It’s just such an unforgiving surface!” she said.

2020 race participant Bodhi Roether signed up for the half-marathon event this summer, encouraged by a “big runner” friend of his who registered for the event as her first-ever race.

“I’ve run a few half-marathons, but I’ve never run a trail marathon before,” Roether said before the event. He was working a seasonal job in Colorado and was unsure if he would make it to the race, or if a chronic IT band injury would allow him to run it, but he decided to register anyway. As it turned out, he was able to participate, and enjoyed the race, though he said he hadn’t done much training.

“Everyone was very cheery and happy to be there,” Roether said. “I loved running through the Hunter Canyon Rim Trail! Definitely the highlight for me was trying to go quick through all that tech,” he added, referring to a rocky, technical section of trail.

For Fox, the highlight was the Pritchett Canyon to Hunter Canyon stretch of the course.

One unusual thing about this year’s trail marathon was a staggered start-time strategy, designed to help runners maintain distance from each other. Groups of 25 runners started the race 10 minutes apart. With almost 1000 runners, this approach took about 12 hours.

“It felt really small because, for one, the numbers were lower,” said Ballengee. Usually about 3000 runners participate. But the staggered start times also made the event feel smaller. Usually, Ballengee said, all the runners start within a 45 minute time window, gathering in large crowds in the starting pen. Ballengee said runners were glad to comply with the safety measures, and told her they felt safe. Fox commended the COVID-19 protocols.

“This race was incredibly well organized and did everything possible to socially distance participants,” she wrote. “Masks were worn at the beginning, end and at all aid stations along the way, by both the participants and volunteers... I was alone for most of the race, which speaks volumes to the organizer’s efforts to keep the event within CDC guidelines.”

Fox is a healthcare professional, and she told the Moab Sun News that she felt comfortable joining the event only due to the extensive precautions Ballengee had taken.

The staggered start times also meant that racers finished across a much longer time window. In past years, racers finished within four or five hours of each other; this year, Ballengee said the last runners finished as much as 20 hours later than the first.

That made for a long day for race staff, who stuck it out through a brief rain shower followed by cool temperatures and gusty winds. One gust was powerful enough to scoot a portable toilet out of place, Ballengee said—luckily this was late in the day and easily remedied. In spite of the challenging weather, racers did well, with the men’s champion Adam Peterman setting a record time of 2:57:04 for the course. Winner in the women’s division was Allie McLaughlin, with a time of 3:36:48. Local champions included Anita Rawlinson and Rowan Phillips. Even those who didn’t place have bragging rights for taking on such a tough course.

“I am so proud just to have finished!” wrote Fox.