The race starts and ends in a fitting location – a rugged, historic town often overlooked by the country. Then it takes off – wanders really – through high desert, around Oregon and Honeycomb Buttes and over the Continental Divide before finishing back in South Pass City.
For about 75 miles, competitors will run, jog, walk or saunter across the northern Red Desert, one of the nation’s last wild desert landscapes and the largest unfenced area in the lower 48.
Those who aren’t quite sure about traipsing through 120 km of high mountain desert can try the 45 km race, which is roughly 30 miles, or the 13-mile course. They could also spectate, volunteer, tour South Pass City or just drink cold beer or lemonade and listen to speakers extoll the virtues of wide open spaces.
No matter if you aren’t really a runner – the 6th annual Run the Red footrace through the Red Desert isn’t entirely about running anyway. It’s about public lands. And this year, it will be held on Wyoming’s very first Public Lands Day.
“The race isn’t political. These are our public lands. We all use them in different ways,” said Shaleas Harrison, an organizer for the Wyoming Wilderness Association. “The race is a way to raise awareness of beautiful places in Wyoming now, and to bring people together.”
Like the race, which started in 2014 with a ragtag group of people celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Wyoming Wilderness Act, Public Lands Day began with fits and spurts.
It was proposed and discussed before the 2018 legislative session, but the bill never made it to a governor’s desk.
This year was different. After much discussion about the name of the bill — including a failed attempt to change it to Wyoming Multiple Use of Public Lands Day – it finally made it through both chambers of the house and to the governor’s desk. The bill says that it is a “tribute to the importance of public lands in the state, to acknowledge the multiple use of public lands and in recognition of the value of public lands to the state’s economy, open spaces, diversity of mineral, grazing and forestry resources, wildlife and recreational opportunities.”
It makes the last Saturday of September Wyoming Public Lands Day in conjunction with the national holiday.
Newly minted Gov. Mark Gordon signed the bill into law on March 8.
The bill, while not formally changing policy or the law, was important for Wyoming’s open spaces, said Earl DeGroot of the Keep It Public coalition.
“There have been multiple attempts in the last several years for the Legislature to take over control of federal lands,” he said. “We decided to promote a public lands day as a counter measure. To go on the offensive instead of always going on the defensive with public lands.”
And fears for places like the desert, in particular, are only growing. The Bureau of Land Management has stepped up leasing options throughout portions of the desert, and their recently appointed acting head of the BLM has argued extensively for selling off public lands.
For anyone interested in running 120 kilometers through the desert in slightly less than two months – or thinking about what that would be like – race director Gabe Joyes offers a breakdown.
First, it will be hard. And if you want to run your fastest time – either as an ultra, 30-miler or half marathon – don’t expect to achieve that here.
But as far as ultras go, it could be worse. It doesn’t go up and over a mountain range like the Bighorn Trail Run. And it’s at lower elevations than races like the Leadville 100 in Leadville, Colorado.
“Expect a real wilderness running experience. There’s enormous open views where you can see for miles and miles in every direction,” said Joyes, the race director and Lander ultra-runner. “People can expect to see a beautiful landscape at a slower pace than they’re used to. It’s amazing what you can see when you are at a slow trot.”
The goal of the race is to make it as scenic as possible, featuring parts of Oregon Buttes, historic trails and the other-worldly Honeycomb Buttes.
Aaron Bannon, stewardship and sustainability director for NOLS in Lander, hopes this race, and races like this, continue to raise awareness for spectacular landscapes like the desert.
“The public lands debate is well settled, and there’s a lot to be said for having an opportunity to express these values in a shared way,” he said.
The desert, Bannon said, is critical not just for NOLS students, but for keeping Wyoming the place it has always been.
“There’s something about the vastness and openness and unprotected nature of the landscape,” he said. “To me, growing up in Wyoming, it feels like real, authentic Wyoming.”
On Sept. 28, Wyoming’s first Public Lands Day, the mood will be celebratory. The ultra racers will begin earliest, then marathoners and half marathoners.
In South Pass City, speakers include Clare Gallagher, one of the top female ultra runners in the country and a Patagonia sponsored athlete, and John Mionczynski, an ethnobotanist and Atlantic City resident who will also be playing the piano. The Low Country String Band will perform.
“The Red Desert is really the heart of our cultural and natural history in Wyoming,” Harrison. “To gather in that place specifically for Public Lands Day is special. You have miners and labor folks and conservationists and sportsmen’s groups. We have a lot in common to commemorate something we all care about.”