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Passion in the Blazing Heat of the Utah Desert

Adventure racers are crazy like a mouthful of jalapeno peppers.

Teams of four racers had spent years training and saving thousands of dollars to race in an adventure race that would take seven to ten days to complete as they traversed hundreds of miles of the southern Utah desert on foot, on horseback, by bike, and by kayak with thousands of vertical feet of rappelling and rope ascending mixed in between. I was stationed as a medical volunteer at a transition station. When racers arrived at my station they had already walked/run more than two full marathons, bicycled more than 65 miles, swam more than ten miles of cold whitewater, and kayaked nearly 50 miles. The top teams were arriving at this transition areas about 30 hours after the race started. Amazing. Crazy. Passionate.

Did I mention it was the last week of June?

Day-time temperatures were in the low 100s with nary a breeze, cloud, or drop of rain. The sand on the desert floor certainly was much warmer. The top teams blasted through the transition area only taking the time to down a few liters of sports drink and chow down several thousand calories from food groups like pedialite, cold spaghetti-o’s, uncooked SPAM, and any other calorie dense food you can imagine. If they were ill or injured they didn’t have time to complain or pause for an assessment. Instead they charged off for 25 miles of amazingly difficult canyoneering – much of which they would complete at night.

Over the next thirty six hours the teams of racers aspiring just to complete the race straggled into the transition area. Nearly every team sent a member to the medical area for “foot care.” At an adventure race foot care is mostly blisters with an occasional black toe nail. At this race the sand and heat conspired to create blisters orders of magnitude worse than any of the racers had ever experienced and most of the medical team had ever seen. Some of the injuries repeated over and over.

  • Circumferential pinky toe blister resulting in degloving of the toe, nail and all
  • Deep multiple layer blisters
  • Toe nails rubbing open wounds into adjacent toes
  • Multiple nails partially or fully separated from the toe
  • Toes and feet so swollen racers were cutting off the top of the shoe over the toes

And those were just the foot injuries. Everyone was dehydrated so a key task was separating the simply dehydrated from the actually sick. A racer from an Asian team, that could not speak English, managed to point to a dreadful combination of problems – significant blisters on both feet, saddle sores in his crotch from the bike ride, a deep hematoma on his upper leg from being kicked by a horse in the opening minutes of the race, and a nasty case of pink eye.

We got to get going
Despite the multitude of complaints, hallucination inducing fatigue, and aching hunger combined with unknown race course perils and searing heat every racer in the medical area had a common passion to get going. Although many times their passion waned when they fell asleep as their feet were being cleaned and taped. A dab against their raw skin would jolt them back to reality and wakefulness.

With patients teammates hovering around spooning down whole cans of cold chunky soup we worked quickly to help racers get back on the course. The determination and passsion of the ninety or so teams made up of “regular” people competing just to finish continues to inspire me as a paramedic and an athlete.

Author note: this is my submission to the February edition of the Handover Blog carnival hosted by the Notes from Mosquito Hill blog. This month’s theme was “Passion.” All submissions will be compiled into a blog post at the Notes from Mosquito Hill. Thanks to Mosquito Hill for hosting and I am looking forward to reading the other submissions.

By Greg Friese

Greg Friese, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, is an author, educator, paramedic, and marathon runner.

Greg was the co-host of the award winning EMSEduCast podcast, the only podcast by and for EMS educators. Greg has written for,, Wilderness Medical Associates, JEMS Magazine, and EMS World Magazine, and the NAEMSE Educator Newsletter.