The middle of January isn’t the best time to be looking for a warm long run, unless you live in the southern tier of states. But in Colorado, it doesn’t take much to be warmer. That’s why I usually look toward the desert this time of year for a good run – at least it should be a dry one. Sometimes… Arches Ultra happens.

arches ultra moab slick rock

In walks Arches Ultra hosted by Mad Moose Events. This race with multiple distances takes place above Arches National Park. In a rolling landscape of slick rock and red sand, it makes for a serene view. Bonus in the middle of winter because the place is empty.

arches ultra moab cold start

In 2018 (results), I found the race and talked my friend Katy Jane into joining me for a road trip. I chose the 50k and talked her into doing her very first trail run with the 9k distance. And if I didn’t get enough, I returned for the 50-mile edition in 2019 (results).

arches ultra moab national park

Arches Ultra Couse

The courses for the 9k, Half Marathon, 50k and 50-miler run similar routes with each distance turning back toward the start at some point as longer distances continuing farther out on the loop.

It’s easy to get off track in the slick rock if you’re not paying attention. The fields of rock don’t leave much room for flagging, so you must pay attention to the flagging tied to available shrubs or the faint paint from the mountain bike paths. Each year I’ve made a few steps off the path, but quickly realized my mistake and found the path within a few seconds.

arches ultra moab snow slope

Most of the course was dry in 2018. No problems with mud whatsoever with the exception of a few snowy spots on a couple north slopes as is depicted above.

But 2019’s race fell right after a good snow (relative for the desert) when temperatures warmed to 40 degrees for a few days. This warming and thawing made for some soft dirt. And on race day, the areas of dirt turned to shear mud. If it wasn’t a race day, we probably wouldn’t have been on the trails.

arches ultra moab snow course

Arches Ultra Distances

The 50k course turns back toward the start at mile 20. To this point, the worst part is the endless slick rock. After 2018’s race, I claimed never wanting to see slick rock again in my life. Ha!

It’s at mile 20 where the 50-mile continues on to an outer loop. There’s a five-mile stretch of service road on the map at mile 21 that runners cover twice (out and back with a 9-mile loop of trails on the far end). I was REALLY looking forward to that break where I could zone out and reset that far into the race. Ha!

arches ultra moab fun sign

All it took was some warm sun on race day to melt that service road into one big sloppy mess. It’s as if they took a pen of cattle and ran them straight down the road ahead of us. It was slick, making it difficult to find solid footing. And just enough clay to stick to your shoes. I have no clue how the race leaders were still running in the slop.

Of course, I didn’t take any photos of the stretch, but I’ve washed my shoes for a month and put 100 more miles on them and there’s still mud in them.

This photo is after I stomped them on a mile of pavement before the race finish. I kind of felt bad for whoever cleaned my hotel room.

arches ultra moab muddy shoes

The aid stations along the way were well-stocked and staffed with experienced, friendly volunteers. By far one of the better races I’ve attended from this aspect. There are enchiladas at the finish if your stomach is up to it. But no beer at the finish line. #fail.

At the end of the day

The 50k distance set me up for 9 ultramarathons in 2018. It was a great day, even if it left me cursing slick rock. Granted it was the first time I had encountered the footing for long distances. The run was definitely a challenge for me mentally, but in a good way as it broke me down and offered a chance to pick myself back up.

arches ultra moab finish

The 50-mile distance in 2019 was another type of challenge. The mud left me longing for a return to slick rock. My pace wasn’t great, but I really don’t think that’s what this race was about. Honestly, I was in great spirits most of the way (even if I was cursing the mud for a few miles). I held my own and kept my eye on the next section ahead.

I had a really good feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day. In an ultramarathon, I think that’s about the best feeling there is.

arches ultra moab finish 2019

I enjoyed myself and look back on the day with a smile. In 2020, if I find myself looking for a January ultra within driving distance, there is a good chance Arches Ultra will be on my list once again.

50 miles
Altra Lone Peak
Nathan Fireball Race Vest

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