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run the red desert

doug in co


I've wandered the Red Desert of Wyoming for decades now, first shown to me by my fishing/canoeing/hunting friend Ken. His father was the state geologist for Dept of Transport and knew all the good places. The Red desert is sometimes red but more often a sagebrush green and grey. This is the Great Divide Basin, where none of the precipitation drains into any ocean, directly or indirectly. The Continental Divide runs through the middle of the basin, which seems odd. Though it's a desert there is a startling amount of life in it, sage grouse, golden eagles, pronghorn, wild horses, grumpy old misanthropes like me and Ken.. 

There is of course oil and gas under them there sagebrush flats. We've seen the traffic jump from us to nearly a car per hour on the lonely dirt roads, and oil rigs ruining the skyline. Run the Red Desert races were started to raise awareness of  the desert, its fragility, and raise some money to help protect it. I've been trying to run them for several years. Finally this year I blocked off the weekend on the calendar at the beginning of the year, notified DW, and signed up. 

Ken came along as we planned a couple of days fishing and rambling around WY backroads after the race. Initial plan was to camp in Lander behind a motel, where Ken had camped before during the Tour de Wyoming. There was a new owner who gave us the hard sell and we got a room in the motel instead.  When I first met Ken he had a Cowfish sticker on his truck, fishbone skeleton with a cow's head. I always thought it was some kind of odd Wyoming thing like the jackalope, in fact it is a bar and grill in Lander. The jackalope has a page to itself on the Wyoming Game and Fish website.. 


Jackalope are most often sighted at night, typically around closing time near adult beverage establishments; the preferred habitat of this species.  Weekend sightings are much more common than during weekdays.  It is reported, but unconfirmed, that jackalope are attracted to the odor of a fine single malt.

The Cowfish is still going nearly thirty years after we met, surely we aren't that old ?  Dinner there excellent with a fine Atlantic City Gold beer from the neighbor brewery. Atlantic City is one of the ghost towns of the Red Desert. Our server was a girl from Asheville NC, who moved to Lander for the climbing and outdoor life. Next morning breakfast at the greasy spoon, we had a non-binary server. Ken said, that's a strong woman.. the local cowboys seemed fine with the whole idea. 

Race morning, Ken dropped me off in Silver Pass City, another ghost town, and went off fishing on the Popo Agie river in the red canyon. Strong cold winds. I found a bench behind some low willows as a windbreak to do the 15 minutes of stretching, donkey kicks etc that is now needed to placate my left knee before running. Race briefing included the Wyoming Rules: if you meet someone out on the trail, rancher, hunter, etc: 1. stop 2. smile 3. say hello.  They also mentioned that the half marathon is in fact 13.8 miles. Any complaint about it not being exactly 13.1 miles gets you an instant DQ. Ha. 


I did a little warmup run to get my asthmatic old lungs used to the idea of breathing hard. The lungs tend to lose the plot a bit these days and need reminders of what they're supposed to be doing. The side canyon was dense with willow, the mud was dense with moose tracks. Moose are somewhat dangerous at the best of times, now coming into the rut it wasn't a good time to be alone in moose paradise, jogged back hastily. 


There was a stream crossing about half a mile into the run, thigh deep and a couple of yards wide. I'd planned to start where I'd finish, mid to back of pack. Having designs on the age group win however, I channeled my old cross-country racing strategies and went out hard to get ahead of the bunch-up at the stream crossing. This worked well except now I was running with people much faster than me. Luckily in another half mile the route went straight up a scree slope and we were all walking.

This isn't the slope in question, rather a bit later with an actual two-track road which was also too steep to run. I took a good picture of the walkers behind me at this point, or it would have been good without the thumb over half the camera lens, oh well. 


This got us up onto the CDT (Continental Divide Trail). It wasn't your usual easily-appreciated mountain views of the CDT..


On to some singletrack through the pine and juniper, then out onto a good dirt road for a bit of cruising until the first and only aid station. Wind still blowing. 


The road stretched out.. 


It dropped over that first hill, through a barbed wire/fencepost gate, and into another stream crossing. Another rule from the race briefing was to always close a gate behind you, never mind if there were other runners coming. The young woman and I at the gate followed the rule, slamming it closed in the teeth of the group behind us, apologizing as we went. The crossing had been softened up for us by the resident cows. This produced forty feet of succulent mud knee-deep or worse. It's a good thing I had my Dirty Girl gaiters on, with wool socks below. Several of the runners at last year's Devil on the Divide run had these gaiters, I'd admired them and bought a pair. This went well until my wife picked up the package and asked, so what exactly are you buying from dirtygirl.com ? 

Now the trouble started. Six miles to go, all of it uphill, and straight into that Wyoming breeze which is a stiff gale in any other state, 20mph gusting to 30-plus. A young pup of 60 came by me near the start of this hill. It's astonishing how accurate my age-group age radar is - looked at him and thought, could be late 50s but my guess is 60. I watched the age-group winner run/walk away from me and couldn't do a thing about it. My run was faster but I couldn't keep it up for more than a couple hundred yards at best, his run was slower but went on longer before the inevitable walk. I'd have felt bad about my progress and walking here except that no-one was passing me. We ground on. The view behind, 


The view ahead, 


This went on for some time. Talked a bit with companion run/walker Jamie, next weekend doing a Spartan race 50k which sounds to me like no fun at all. 

Time and the hour runs through the roughest day, here I am dragging my pot belly across the finish line. 


Finish 2:54, 69/122 overall, 2/9 in age group. The young pup went 2:52. We were both roundly defeated by a 68-year-old woman who ran 2:45. I'd better get rid of the pot belly and try again next year. 

Talked a bit with Andy while enjoying a postrace beer. He's a chef for a private ranch near Jackson Hole, lived in Winston-Salem NC in the 90s when we worked there, except he was in high school. His parents were running the 'We Card' campaign for RJ Reynolds. In the quiet periods at the ranch Andy teaches cooking at the community college. He said he's pretty easy going, though one of the modules is run by the pastry chef at the Four Seasons and she's hardass. 

Wandered off with Ken into the Wyoming back country, the camping and fishing was good. Next year in Wyoming. 





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Love this report. And love that scenery and countryside. That's the kind of place I should be living. Big and wide open.

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Looks like a wonderful time outdoors.   Thanks for the pictures as we don't get see those big vistas here in Michigan, and the sky looks much clearer out there this year.

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love the picture of the side canyon, but all of that wide open desert scares me. No wind block whatsoever! Looks like a great weekend. The mountain picture is beautiful!


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