A few years ago, when I ran Rabbit Peak for the first time, I called it the most challenging run or hike I’ve ever done.
At 22 miles, it’s not big compared to most ultramarathons, yet it’s incredibly challenging with roughly 8,000 feet of elevation ascent (and an equal amount of descent), technical terrain, jumping cholla cactus, and a route that is determined more by sheer cliffs than by an navigable trail. Joe and Nicole Decker of Gut Check Fitness have held Rabbit Peak almost every year since 2012, but because the race isn’t hard enough on its own, they decided to up the ante for the 2017 edition. This year, rather than start the race at 6 a.m., Nicole yelled “go” just before sundown at 6 p.m. The race would take place overnight.
Running at night can be beneficial: there’s less heat, to start…and that’s about it. Temperatures that day hovered near 90°F, but by 5:30 p.m. they had cooled down just enough that I figured I should bring a sweater. Who knew what it would be like at the top of Rabbit Peak?
A small group of us gathered around the start, acknowledging the tough men and women of the Badass Division (athletes who chose to hike a specified amount of weight up and down Rabbit) who had set off at noon. After Nicole played the national anthem, we took off, Nick leading the way through the sandy wash.
Nick has been struggling with injury over the past year, and only recently has started making big strides (done with high cadence and proper form, of course) toward his running goals again. Rabbit Peak gave us a chance to run together while enjoying the night sky. The Orionid Meteor Shower was happening throughout the weekend; perhaps, I thought on the drive out to Borrego Springs, we’d see it.
We had hoped to run as much of the course as possible, while taking advantage of the fading daylight hours. After the first mile, the route follows a steep, rocky switchback before starting the gradual climb towards Villager Peak, the first (of two) check points in the race. I delayed putting on my headlamp, but soon it was too hard to distinguish the occasional cholla from the rest of the rocky trail. Nick knew this part of the route well, having run Rabbit Peak twice before and on several adventures with our friend, Robert Hunt. Still, we zigzagged between the trail and what looked like it could have been trail, only certain one way or the other because of the occasional glow stick that Joe had set up to light our way.
Just past the 7 mile mark, I heard Nick call out. He had stopped a few feet away from a an object shaped like the head of a rabbit—the Donnie Darko rabbit. Suddenly it moved and Donnie Darko—from head to toe— appeared! It was great to see that the Deckers had gone all in for the race and the volunteers were willing to get creative and go along with it.
A few minutes later, we were standing atop the large blob that is Villager Peak, roughly 7 miles and 2 hours and 20 minutes into the race, which is fairly quick for the course. Unfortunately that would be the fastest segment of our race. After a quick break for water, we took off, attempting to navigate the best route to Rabbit. In previous years, this race has been run in February when the majority of brush is dead and gone; in late October, however, it felt like the shrubs were still alive…which meant more brush to cover the trail. From Villager to Rabbit, the route goes up and down several summits, which can be motivating in the day but less than exciting at night. Without much moonlight, we could only make out the ground in front of us and the single bright light far ahead of us: the top of Rabbit Peak. Who knew how many false summits lay between here and there?
Unfortunately, as the light appears closer and you realize that you’re nearly at 11 miles, the hardest part arrives. The final section up to Rabbit is incredibly steep, entirely impossible to follow, and more or less a straight climb up unstable rocks and around yucca. Eventually we heard the encouraging calls of the volunteers and knew we were close. Awesome, I thought as we made our approach. If we’re 4 hours up, I bet we’ll only be 2 and a half or 3 hours down. Back right around midnight!
Here’s what not to do when running Rabbit Peak: have a time goal.
After enjoying a kiss at the top of Rabbit not as boyfriend and girlfriend but as husband and wife (yay!), Nick and I made our way down, just not down the right way.
“Stay right,” Megan had warned us as we started down. Thirty minutes later, I noticed a light.
“Isn’t that one of Joe’s lights?” I asked Nick.
“Uh-oh,” he replied.
The light was on the ridge to our right; we were on our way down the wrong side of the mountain. In the daylight, we’d know exactly how far down the gully went but in the dark we were only guessing. Rather than try to retrace our steps, we hoped for the best and made the sketchy trek down to the bottom of the dark gully and back up to the proper ridge.
We had wasted quite a bit of time, but we were in good spirits—after all, we were on our way down from this cursed mountain. I chatted with Nick, happy to be out here, but still had it in the back of my mind that once we got to Villager, we’d have an easy time back to the finish. That was the second mistake—there’s no easy part at any point of the race.
After a few wrong turns, we found the trail back to Villager where the check-point volunteer immediately said, “What took you guys so long? We were wondering what happened to you.”
“Rabbit,” Nick said. “Rabbit happened to us.”
I breathed a sigh of relief at this point, thankful to be on the section I was most looking forward to. Rabbit had other plans.
Miles 15, 16, and 17 passed, and I swore we were nearing the end, but every time we looked at our watches, several minutes had gone by and yet we had hardly moved. Whereas the first half of the race was strenuous because of the climbing, the second part was slow because of the descending. The lack of light made it difficult to choose the correct trail down, and I’m pretty sure every cactus attempted to attack my legs (I have the scratches to prove it.) Eventually Nick and I were certain we had passed Lunch Rock, somewhere around the 3 or 4 mile mark, and were nearly back at the desert floor, just a few minutes away from the finish. Up ahead, I could hear the dread in Nick’s voice.
“Oh my god,” he said. “Look, Jade…”
He leaned against Lunch Rock. We were miles behind where we thought we were. We paused to stare at the yellow lights of Borrego Springs to our right, and, straight ahead, the solitary light shimmering from a random spot on the side of the S-22; in other words, the start and finish of the race.
We ran when we could and hiked when we had to, but our pace still felt tortuously slow. I prayed that I wouldn’t step on a ball of cholla, but at 2 a.m. and almost 8 hours into the race, it was hard to focus on my foot placement.
“It’s right around the corner,” I told Nick as we worked our way down. “I’m sure of it.”
“I hope so,” he replied.
Several miles later, it was there and we hurriedly stumbled our way down the crumbling rock and back to the desert.
We ran through the sandy wash, excited at the prospect of sleep. It was nearing 2:30 a.m., which meant that the way down had taken 30 minutes longer than the way up, despite the huge descent.
As we neared the finish, our headlamps, which had remained intact throughout the race, started to dim. Suddenly it became difficult to differentiate the rough trail from the variety of cactus and other thorny plants looking to inflict their weaponry on my legs. I ran into the side of one spiky plant, and ended up with three long thorns sticking out of my left quad. I pulled them out of my leg and we continue towards the finish and, at this point, sweet relief from the beast that is Rabbit.
Thank you to Joe and Nicole for putting on such a fantastic race, especially one that is so remote. Thank you, also, to the volunteers who covered the same amount of ground as all of the racers just to be able to sit and wait (in the cold, all throughout the night) for us to come through.
Congratulations to everyone who braved this race, especially this year’s in-the-dark version, and came back alive—minus a few bruises, more than a few scratches, and someone’s finger (that’s not my story to tell.)
If you’re somehow tempted to try this race, you can register for next year’s event here:
Bonus: it starts at 6 a.m. How can you say no!?