Wyoming Race Takes Distance Runners Off Road In Red Desert

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Runners trickled across the finish line all afternoon.

Windswept, beaming, the triumphant finishers jogged between a pair of wooden barrels marking the end of the race. They collected high-fives and congratulations and meal vouchers and the wooden course maps being distributed as trophies. They reunited with friends who’d outrun them and shared sweaty hugs with ecstatic children. They rested.

Inevitably, someone asked: How was it?

All three Run the Red races started and finished in South Pass City, a gold rush ghost town now managed by Wyoming State Parks, situated just east of the Red Desert. Half-marathoners didn’t travel deep into the remote landscape, but the 50- and 100-kilometer racers did. And they came back enchanted, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.

On Sept. 25, National Public Lands Day dawned cool and clear. The weather was perfect, especially in South Pass City, where scrubby hills shielded visitors from the wind that ripped across the desert.

Most returning runners commented on the wind. They marveled at the desert’s vastness, its openness, its emptiness. At more than 7,000 feet of elevation, fall had already come, and even before they caught their breath, they searched for words to capture the swaths of yellow and orange adorning the rusty hillsides. The dozens of miles, the hours they spent with the desert, had forged a unique bond between the runners and the land.

“It chewed me up and spit me out a little bit, but I’m better for it,” said Matt McDermit, who drove up from Laramie to run 30.1 miles with a group of friends. It was his first time participating in Run the Red — and his first 50K.

Two of his friends ran the 23-mile option in 2019, the last time Run the Red was held. The other, like McDermit, had never been before. But all four said they’d do it again.

No matter what, McDermit said, he would always remember this experience.

South Pass City is less than four hours from Laramie. McDermit and his friends can easily make the trip again. But for many of the ultra-long-distance runners who travel thousands of miles to Run the Red, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime race.

Run the Red gives runners a reason to care about the Red Desert long after the course markers have been taken down, after the crowds have dispersed and everyone has gone back to their lives. It’s a relationship participants carry home with them. And that’s exactly what its organizers want it to be.

“Running is a really wonderful way to experience the landscape,” said Shaleas Harrison, one of the race’s main coordinators. “That’s when you feel that essence of the desert. And that’s what we want people to feel, because when they feel it, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is really special.’”

Harrison works for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a conservation group that partnered with wilderness school NOLS to launch Run the Red in 2014. Then held in June, the race was originally conceived to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act.

The 2014 event attracted somewhere between 30-40 participants. It grew slowly. For the first five years, it started and ended in a parking lot in the sand dunes — “which is a great location to actually be in the middle of the desert, but not a great location to host a lot of people,” Harrison said.

Then, in 2019, Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill declaring the fourth Saturday in September — a day already recognized as National Public Lands Day — as Wyoming Public Lands Day. The groups behind the race were also vocal supporters of the bill, and they wanted to observe the new holiday.

Run the Red was soon reenvisioned as a Public Lands Day celebration. The Wyoming Wilderness Association joined the organizing effort. Activities and performances were added to the schedule. The base camp moved to South Pass City, where the infrastructure can support hundreds of racers and hundreds more visitors.

Roughly 160 runners turned out for the 13- and 23-mile races held in 2019. So did a documentary crew. The day of the race brought fog and hail and determined runners clad in ponchos, but it was still a hit. And Patagonia produced the nine-minute documentary, which was published on the company’s website the following fall.

Organizers planned to do something similar in 2020. Because of the pandemic, that race never happened. By 2021, runners from all over the country were clamoring for spots in the half-marathon, 50K and 100K.

“The Patagonia film release ratcheted up the interest in 2021’s event substantially,” said Matt Cuzzocreo, the Wyoming Wilderness Organization’s BLM wildlands organizer. “We sold out the race, that we had capped at 250 folks, we sold that out in early June.”

Days before the race, 50 registrants had dropped out, mostly because of COVID. There were more no-shows on race day, but 150 runners made it to the finish line. Another 500–700 loved ones and unaffiliated visitors explored South Pass City, watching history presentations and live music and dances by members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes as those on the course formed new connections with the rugged landscape.

Compared to other Wyoming landmarks, including the state’s two national parks, the Red Desert isn’t well known. The Outdoor Council and NOLS decided to establish a race there for a number of reasons: to offer runners a one-of-a-kind experience, to aid local economic development, to put the Red Desert on the map. But they also did it because they’re pushing for permanent protections, and they want more people to care.

“Once you experience a landscape, and you learn about various threats to it, you’re more likely to protect it,” said Lisa McGee, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

The Red Desert spans hundreds of thousands of acres in southwestern Wyoming. It’s made up almost exclusively of federal public lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Contained within that area are nine wilderness study areas, a provisional federal protection afforded to “places that have wilderness characteristics; that is a minimum size, naturalness, and outstanding opportunities for recreation which make them eligible for designation as wilderness,” according to the agency.

Under the Wilderness Act, wilderness study areas are to be conserved indefinitely until Congress determines how to proceed. The nine study areas in the Red Desert have retained their interim protections since 1991.

“There’s been over 100 years of conservation efforts, attempts to protect this place both congressionally and administratively, and they’ve mostly all failed,” Harrison said.

While most of the desert is federally owned, it’s not federally protected. Much of the land has been leased to oil and gas operators for exploratory drilling. Initially, those leases last a set number of years, usually five or 10. If a well is still active at the end of that duration, however, a lease can be extended for as long as it’s productive, preventing the BLM from doing anything else with the land. And more Red Desert leases could go up for sale next year.

“That doesn’t mean that those are necessarily going to be developed, but the uncertainty of those leases on the landscape really encumbers the BLM from making a different kind of management decision for at least a decade,” McGee said.

Those advocating for additional protections aren’t just worried about oil and gas development in the Red Desert; they’re concerned about the ecological impacts of renewables, too. But uncertainty about management decisions is the big issue.

The Red Desert is home to rich sage grouse habitat and the longest mule deer migration corridor in the lower 48 states. Largely untouched by white settlers’ westward migration along the neighboring Oregon Trail, it remains one of the most pristine places in the country.

“There’s a very narrow little band the Oregon Trail went through, and that was the South Pass band,” said Randy Wise, director of the Fremont County Pioneer Museum. The Wind River Range stood to the north; the Red Desert lay to the south.

“Mountains, you can’t get wagons through,” he said. “Now, you know, people can travel them on horseback or foot, but you’re not going to get your family and your oxen and all that across the Wind River mountains. And you can’t cross a desert because there’s no water.”

Before the gold rush, what became South Pass City was home to the Eastern Shoshone people, who were originally granted the land under a treaty agreement, but were forced off when gold was later discovered there. The neighboring Red Desert had no permanent inhabitants, but it was an important trade route, hunting ground and source of medicines for a number of tribes.

The Eastern Shoshone were excluded from management of their ancestral homelands for nearly 150 years. Much of that legacy persists today.

“A lot of the times when it comes to the Native historical sites here, the people, I feel like we don’t have a say in it,” said Taylor Friday, a member of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.

“It’s always after the fact they come to the Natives, after something’s already done,” added Becky Bercier, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Eastern Shoshone tribal member. “They could involve the Natives from the start.”

Friday and Bercier haven’t seen much change yet. This is the first year they’ve been invited to participate in the Run the Red events, they said, and they’re hopeful that it’s a sign of more opportunities for collaboration to come.

In the Red Desert, however, collaboration can be a challenge. Just organizing a race required consent from every rancher whose land the route crossed, Harrison, from the Outdoor Council, said. When it comes to public lands management, a whole lot of people have skin in the game.

Harrison serves as coordinator for a coalition of stakeholders called Citizens for the Red Desert, which formed in 2019. The group came together in pursuit of a common goal.

“It’s a very broad and diverse group composed of backcountry horsemen, history people, tribal advocates, wildlife biologists, retired Game and Fish folks, of course conservation advocates, and even blue collar laborers, people that work in the trona mines, from Rock Springs. And all those folks want to see some certainty on the landscape,” Harrison said.

BLM decisions about most of the Red Desert are informed by the Rock Springs field office’s resource management plan, which was last revised in 1997. An updated version has been in the works for a decade and was set to come out in spring 2020 — a timeline derailed first by federal policy changes across administrations and then by COVID.

The new plan has not yet been released, frustrating conservation advocates who want to know how much oil and gas leasing it will allow.

In the meantime, Citizens for the Red Desert is developing a bill that outlines the protections and certainties local stakeholders want to see. It’s broad, complex and not focused exclusively on conservation. The goal, Harrison said, is to help everybody while ensuring that the Red Desert can be preserved for future generations.

“It seems like people kind of are thinking about access, inclusion of multiple different interests into their needs and really the importance of protecting the cultural landscape, and there’s a lot of different ways to do that,” Harrison said. “You can really stipulate to the BLM what you want without a broad sweeping designation. It will probably be a patchwork of many different needs.”

Citizens for the Red Desert and Run the Red emerged from a decades-long campaign to save a hidden place loved, fiercely, by a few. Both groups are building bridges, Citizens for the Red Desert internally, Run the Red outward. Both are succeeding. Both face limitations.

Run the Red is quickly gaining popularity, and its strategy works, but it’s at capacity.

“I don’t think it can really grow much more,” Harrison said. “We’ll probably continue to keep it between the 200-300 mark. I mean, it’s in the middle of nowhere.”

Periodically, as she spoke, Harrison raised her voice to be heard over the nearby crowd cheering finishers on. Most were alone; some came in pairs. But the loudest celebrations were for the groups who crossed the finish line together.

A trio of former Pepperdine University cross-country teammates was one of them. After a senior season cut short by COVID, and inspired by the Patagonia documentary, they came from as far as New Jersey to run their first-ever 50K in the Red Desert.

“There’s no other reason we would’ve come to the Red Desert if it hadn’t been for this race,” said Bela Garcia-Arce, who traveled from Montana to run with her teammates.

For 30.1 miles, the three runners pointed out pronghorns, thought about public lands and took pictures along the course. Without Run the Red, they wouldn’t have visited this unknown landscape. But they did.