Beginner Race Guide: Desert RATS Trail Half Marathon

So. How’d my first half marathon go?

Let me back up a little bit. The second half of my training had a lot of ups and downs.

Three weeks before the half marathon, I was working toward “peak week” with my highest mileage run and feeling really strong. But then I found out I was pregnant. I’m thrilled and super excited, but was worried about what this meant for all the work I’d put in over the last six months. It was really hard to go from feeling super strong to feeling like I needed to nap 24/7. But fortunately Billy pulled me out of my pity party and convinced me to at least finish my training and see how I felt.

I initially signed up for the Desert RATS Trail Half Marathon because if I was going to do the dang thing, I wanted it to be somewhere pretty and not around a golf course in suburban Denver. Colorado’s western desert was my best bet for dry trails, decent weather, and cool scenery. Gemini Adventures puts on a real good race, so the weekend was a blast.

Registration + Perks

Desert RATS was one of the more affordable half marathons out there, particularly once I took advantage of their Black Friday sale. I signed up early and used the Black Friday code and ultimately paid $52, which isn’t nothing, but I discovered very quickly that’s quite cheap for half marathons.

I’ll be honest, though. If you’re in it for the medal, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s basically just a dog tag. However, the rest of the swag is worth it, particularly because I didn’t really care about the medal. The race shirts were a technical fabric with gender-specific sizing, and I got a free Buff and stickers at packet pick-up. Plus, there’s a free race photographer who takes pretty stunning pictures of you running above the Colorado River.

The snack spread at the aid stations and the start/finish line was SO legit. I never knew that potato chips were the perfect salty snack for running, but I discovered that at Desert RATS. Every aid station had water, electrolytes, Honey Stinger gels, potato chips, cookies, and M&Ms. Even better, there’s a breakfast buffet with a pancake spread at the finish line as well as more salty snacks (who knew that pancakes and cheese puffs went so well together?!)

The Course

The 2018 course got significantly harder as the race went on (I know, so rude, right?).

There were two hills before the 5k/3.1-mile mark, but from there to mile 7 was nice and flat, following the top of the canyon that the Colorado River runs through. The scenery is stunning, and it felt great to cruise along the mostly flat middle part. Then, you go downhill to the halfway point aid station (god bless whoever puts the port-o-potty there) before you start the big hike up. For basically the rest of the race. I packed hiking poles because I knew the giant hill was coming, and I’m not too proud to need some help hiking.

I thought the course was appropriately challenging, but it certainly isn’t a walk in the park. To me, the big hill was worth being able to run on beautiful trails in good weather.

Surface-wise, the first and last few miles are on a gravel road, but other than that you’re on glorious dirt trails. It got rocky in a few places, but wasn’t overly technical, particularly if you’re hiking most of the uphill like me.

The weather is obviously unpredictable in Colorado in the springtime, and over the years this race has seen literally all the weather you could possibly have. We had great luck; it was cloudy and in the upper 50s. I was really cold at the start (it was in the 40s then) and had a beanie and jacket on with gloves that I dumped back in the car before the start. Make sure to get there at least 45 minutes before the start so that you don’t have to talk to far from your car.

Ultimately, I ran in a long-sleeve shirt, tank top, and calf-length capris. I run cold, and that combo ended up working great for me.

Having my parents come to the race was super special! You can also tell how chilly it was based on my mom’s outfit.

Other People’s Athletic Prowess

Even if I wasn’t pregnant, I still would’ve finished in the back of the pack. Being preggo meant I walked a LOT and ended up in the last third of finishers. I took more than three hours, but I was fine with that.

I was interested to see how I’d feel about it at the end of the race, though. I knew the award ceremony would start before I even finished, and I wasn’t sure how packed up things would be. I packed enough food and water to not need an aid station in case they weren’t still fully stocked by the time I rolled in, and readied myself for a finish line that wasn’t super celebratory.

But the opposite was true.

The aid stations were totally up and running, with eager volunteers excited to see me. As I jogged the last half-mile, spectators were ringing their cowbells and cheering us on. I turned the corner to the finish line, and the race director stopped the awards ceremony, everyone turned around to face the finish, and cheered me on until I crossed the finish line. This happened for everyone who came in after me, too. The pancake breakfast was also kept in full swing until well after the last runner came in.

This may sound super simple, but I’ve read a lot of slow runners’ accounts of races that are packing up the show before everyone’s even finished. Being slow, especially somewhere like Colorado where everyone’s an elite athlete, can be really intimidating or demoralizing at races. I was so relieved and happy that us back-of-the-pack runners got the same recognition and perks as the ones that were getting awards.


The race was very well-run. It started on time, and like I said the entire operation was really beginner-friendly.

Packet pick-up did take a while on Friday night and wasn’t the most efficient, but it’s a hard thing to do and totally dependent on volunteers so I don’t fault them much for that.

The race packet said to get there early – they are not exaggerating when they say parking runs out quickly. Get there at least 45 minutes ahead of the start so your car isn’t too far away, and carpool if you can!

There were tons of port-o-potties at the start, and a port-o-potty at the halfway mark which was an actual lifesaver for me. All the port-o-potties also had hand sanitizer and didn’t run out of toilet paper, which is pretty impressive considering hundreds of people were using them.

Miles 2-3.1 were a bit crowded because we were sharing the course with the 10k folks, and after we got off the nice wide road onto the much more narrow trail, there was a bit of a bottleneck. But once we split off from the 10k, everyone got very spread out (particularly because I was at the back of the pack).

Photos + Timers

Runners that finished earlier did get finish line photos, but the photographer also sits at one of the most scenic spots on the course, so I was thrilled to just have those. Particularly for free!

Your bib has a chip in it, but since my only concern was just finishing, I wasn’t too worried with the time tracking method. I’m not sure if chips on your shoes or certain companies are better, but I was satisfied with the timer.

Overall Impression

The beginner/slow-runner atmosphere was really excellent, and you can’t beat the location and likelihood of good weather for a trail race in Colorado in the spring. The snack spread was awesome, the race shirt was high-quality, and you get great photos. The course is stunning and Fruita is one of my favorite towns in Colorado.

The race does require an overnight trip out of Denver, and driving home for four hours afterward wasn’t the *best* idea I’ve had, but it’s worth the trip for a high-quality trail race in April that’s driveable from Denver. You could also just stay the night in Fruita after the race if you’re able to get the time off.

If you’re looking for races a different time of year, make sure to check out Gemini’s fall series in Eagle and May race in Fruita, one of which I may make my post-partum running goal!

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

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