I parked my Sequoia at the first aid station of the Moab Red Hot a little before noon and set out on my journey. From the aid station, the 55kers, who were 5.5 miles into their 34-mile trail race, started the next portion of the course, an 11.5-mile loop that would circle back to the same aid station. My mission was to sweep this section, i.e., to run/hike it after all the runners had passed through and pick up flagging and, I jokingly thought, any dead bodies I might encounter.
It rained all morning and I felt bad for the runners who had been out there in the wet for four hours already. I noticed though as Kate Avery and I drove up the Gemini Bridges Road to the aid station that the runners we saw were smiling and seemed to be enjoying themselves. Kate was also sweeping; her job was to cover the 15 or so remaining miles of the 33k course. She was a bit worried about getting finished before dark, not because she couldn’t cover that many miles in that amount of time but because we both knew how time consuming it would be to stop and remove ribbons. We discussed how we couldn’t go faster than or pass the last runner and if there was a runner in distress it would be our responsibility to make sure the runner made it back safely.
I grabbed my backpack and my waterproof hat with a brim and set out into the high Utah desert. I mountain biked in this area a couple years ago and was familiar with the terrain. Right away I noticed the bright greens of spring new-growth, dazzling with raindrops in the bit of sun that was peeking through the mostly socked-in sky.
I wasn’t expecting to see any runners out there – their cut-off time for being back to the aid station was noon, the same time I started – so I was a little surprised to see a woman, with a bib, approaching me when I was about three miles in. I was taking the loop counterclockwise, the same direction the runners were, and was perplexed as to why she’d be coming from the opposite direction.
“Did you decide to turn around?” I called out to her once she noticed me. She responded with a question of her own, “Do you know where the aid station is?” There was the aid station from which I started but along this loop there was another aid station as well. “Which one?” I asked. “Any,” she said. “I’ve been out here for 17 miles and I haven’t seen a single aid station.”
I spent a few minutes talking to the woman, the whole time assessing her mental state. “There is an aid station about three miles from here, but I just removed all the flagging that would lead you to it, so I’m not sure you’ll find it. You can come with me, if you’d like, and we’ll circle back to the aid station in about eight miles. I have my car there and I can give you a ride wherever you need to go.” I knew that if she continued in the same direction, I would turn around and follow her. I did not want her to be out there by herself. Luckily, she turned around and came with me.
She seemed quite disoriented for the first hour that we hiked together. She trailed behind me and kept checking her watch and her phone and shaking her head. She couldn’t believe she had gotten lost, couldn’t believe she hadn’t made the cut-off time. I inquired about where she’d been, trying to figure out how she could have possibly missed the first aid station, let alone the second, and why she was going the wrong direction on the loop. She couldn’t answer any of my questions and kept saying that nothing looked familiar. I kept her engaged in conversation. She was from San Francisco and worked for Hewlett Packard, she was out here with her running friend who was doing the 33k, she had done this 55k race a few years back, her husband was going to be upset with her for getting lost. I helped her concoct a story for him about how, just upon the time she realized she wasn’t going to make the cutoff and wouldn’t be allowed to continue, she came across me and felt bad that I was out here on my own and decided to keep me company so she could get more miles in. She liked it and said she’d use it.
We were on the Metal Masher trail, which, at its high point, is 800 feet above the Gemini Bridges Road parking lot (the race start point) off Hwy 191 north of Moab. As we hiked through a dense cloud, I sensed that we were on the edge of a high cliff. The cloud broke then, and we could see the parking lot 800 feet below us as we stood just five feet from the cliff’s edge.
I asked my new friend several times if she was warm enough, if she had water, if she needed anything to eat. Her answers morphed over time as she slowly accepted the fact that she was no longer in the race. Scary though was her thinking that since she was no longer racing she didn’t need to concern herself with any of these things. “Yeah, I’m cold, but it’s just that usual post-race freezing numb feeling that you always get.” “I don’t feel like eating. I should have eaten some protein a half hour after I stopped running, but I already missed that.” “I’m not thirsty.” More red flags.
As we went along, she tried to help me gather flagging, but her cold fingers were useless with the knots. She was wearing shorts (as were most of the runners) and a light rain jacket. No hat. No extra layers, I doubted, in her tiny waist pack.
I’ve had mild hypothermia before. I know that you usually don’t understand the state you’re in and that it’s always good to have someone else there to take charge. Thus, I started to get more firm with her. I pulled food from my pack and offered her some. I pulled out and offered my dry, heavier raincoat. As we went along, I told her the story of my first Olympic-length triathlon. It was raining during that event and after I finished the swim and was 15 miles into the bike ride, a truck came along and said the race was cancelled due to lightning in the area. Of course, we all had to finish the 30-mile ride to get back to the staging area. The truck kept coming by and asking if we were okay or if we wanted a ride, and we all kept saying no, no, we’re fine. But, in truth, we were all freezing and crying and could barely move our hands to operate the gears and brakes on our bikes. I had to come right out and tell her the point of the story – when you’re hypothermic, you do not think straight. You need to listen to others who are trying to help you. Finally, she ate.
After a couple of hours of hiking with her, we came upon a vehicle. Two men hopped out. “Man, are we happy to see you two!” I’m sure by that time the race officials had figured out that this woman hadn’t checked into any aid stations. One of the men started tending to her. I told the other guy what had been going on and that it’d be best if they could take her and make sure she was thinking straight before dropping her off anywhere. Before hopping in the vehicle, she gave me a big, tight hug and said, “Oh my gosh, thank you so much for finding me and taking care of me. I hope you don’t mind if I get in with them.”
They asked if I wanted a ride, too, or if I wanted to continue on with my hike. I looked around at the incredible scenery and the clearing skies and said, “I think I’ll just continue on.”
As I finished those last three to four miles, I had a renewed sense of purpose. I wasn’t just out here looking for pink flags. I’d had to watch for red flags, too. I got the opportunity to support a fellow runner in a time of need. It’s what we do, all of us runners– we support others in the running community, in so many ways, shapes, and forms. I was glad for the opportunity to give back on this day.