Inside the Moab 240: One of the most diabolical races in the US

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“If I get lost, hurt or die, it’s my own d— fault.” This is the solemn oath recited by those bold enough to toe the line at the annual Moab 240 Endurance Run.

It’s a rather cultish scene: Several dozen individuals bunched together, speaking in unison about their own mortality at the crack of dawn. And — in all likelihood — the 240-mile, multiday journey ahead of these runners is as absurd an activity as any ritual performed by a cult.

The fourth annual running of the Moab 240 wrapped up Oct. 13, with winner Michele Graglia finishing the course in 61 hours, 43 minutes, 15 seconds. That’s right: In this footrace, it takes the winner more than 2 ½ days to break the tape. Participants are given 112 hours — nearly five days — to finish before they are cut off.

The event is described on its website as “a 240 mile adventure through the deserts, canyons, and mountains around Moab, Utah,” with upward of 29,400 feet of total climbing. To put that into perspective, Mount Everest’s peak looms 29,029 feet above sea level.

Just after the 200-mile mark, racers reach the course’s maximum altitude of 10,000 feet. Former Navy SEAL David Goggins, who placed second in this year’s installment of the Moab 240, was forced to withdraw from the 2019 race when he came down with high-altitude pulmonary edema upon reaching that elevation.

The equally substantial downhill segments are hardly a reprieve: Many require careful movement along exposed cliffsides that are perilous for the race’s physically exhausted, sleep-deprived participants.
Many racers experience such extreme sleep deprivation, in fact, that they succumb to hallucinations. Courtney Dauwalter, who won the inaugural Moab 240 in 2017, slept for a total of 21 minutes en route to a dominating victory. As a result, she suffered from vivid exhaustion-induced hallucinations.

“There were tons of faces and animals,” Dauwalter recalled on “The Joe Rogan Experience.” “There was a guy playing a cello; there was a leopard hanging out in a hammock.”

These figments of Dauwalter’s imagination were vivid enough that she actually waved to them, unaware that they weren’t real.

UC Berkeley neuroscience and psychology professor Matthew Walker explained on a later episode of the podcast that when an individual is as deprived of rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep as Dauwalter was during the Moab 240, “it’s almost as though the veil of REM sleep gets pulled over the waking brain, so you have this mixed state of consciousness” in which dreams and reality become indistinguishable.
Beyond the seemingly endless distance, preposterous climbing, precarious footing and delirium-inducing sleep deprivation that racers must overcome, they must also be cognizant of snakes, spiders, scorpions and other wildlife that inhabit the trail.

So why would anybody ever participate in the Moab 240? Clearly, it’s not about fame. Ultramarathon running may be the worst spectator sport in existence, and the Moab 240 isn’t televised.
Similarly, it’s not a financially lucrative undertaking. Very few ultramarathoners earn even $20,000 per year from their running.

For some, such as Goggins, the Moab 240 is an opportunity to “recertify as a savage.” According to Goggins, this is something we must do periodically by forcing ourselves into uncomfortable situations. Face your demons, prove your grit and conquer a seemingly indomitable undertaking. To Goggins, this means a trip to Moab, Utah.

There’s another school of thought, represented best by Dauwalter: The Moab 240 is a euphoric adventure. Dauwalter’s mindset going into a trail race is that she’s “getting to do it as opposed to having to do it,” she told The Colorado Sun. Ultrarunning is not a time for exercising demons — it’s a joyous activity. Tough, to be sure, but joyous nonetheless.

There’s no way around it: The Moab 240 is a behemoth. Whether an individual looks to tackle it by channeling rage or joy, the race is still a massive task that only a rare breed can complete. The notion of running 240 miles is asinine; it gets uncomfortable trying to drive that distance in one go. So let’s appreciate the audacity of those willing to toe the line at the Moab 240.

If a racer gets lost, gets hurt or dies, it’s their own d— fault. But you have to admire them for trying.

Ethan Moutes covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].