Running to Rachel

Story and photos by Andrew Toutain

Highway 375
Highway 375 is known as “The Extraterrestrial Highway” and runs through the old mining town of Rachel, Nev., population about 80.

I’m running along Highway 375 through the Nevada desert – it is 1:45 a.m. on Aug. 22. Two strangers ahead of me, a man and a woman, also running.

“Did you see that?” she asks. “What is that?”

Something large and dark is moving on our right side, between the shoulder of the road and a row of low ridges about a mile away. It moves quickly, parallel to us along the highway. I point my headlamp at it as I run, but bright as it is, the light melts into the shadows at 100 feet out.

The moon is just bright enough to silhouette the landscape. I’ve been running for over an hour, and I begin to wonder: why on earth am I out here doing this? Why on earth am I running?

Mile One
Joyce Forier is on the megaphone again, giving last-minute instructions to the marathoners. With a solid, athletic frame, she’s 5’4,” so when she’s standing in the middle of the crowd you can see her, only hear her disembodied voice, firm, controlled, but noticeably tense.

She’s telling us about water stations, rattle snakes, the open cattle range we will be running through on our way to Rachel, Nev., population about 80.

Forier has a lot to be stressed about; she’s responsible for bringing more than 1,000 people into the middle of the desert, in the middle of the night, to run. Despite the logistical nightmare, the 2010 E.T. Full Moon Marathon is shaping up to be a huge success, and Forier and her dozens of volunteers from Calico Racing, deserve all the credit.

Mile Five
“Is it moving away from us or toward us?” asks the woman.

The couple is still ahead of me, by about 15 feet. Her companion looks to our right again, as do I. We squint into the darkened terrain, searching for any movement. There it is. It’s hard to keep my eyes on it while I’m running, but I can just make it out and, yes, it’s definitely getting closer.

I turn my attention ahead, concentrate on my stride, my eyes forward. Whatever it is, I don’t care…if I can outrun it.

My wife Christine and I drove out from Las Vegas earlier in the day. We’re staying at the Little A’Le’ Inn Motel in Rachel – which is a half-dozen trailers that serve as hotel rooms and the small diner that serves as the front desk. The diner is also a store that offers alien mugs, alien t-shirts, alien dolls and alien ice cream.

UFO Towing
Even UFOs get towed for illegal parking in Rachel, Nev. This tow truck sits in front of the Little A’Le’ Inn Motel near Area 51 and Nellis Air Force Base.

Our room is trailer No. 5, small and with air conditioning that doesn’t make a dent in the 110-degree heat. The walls are covered with photographs of UFOs and Air Force planes.

We drive to the starting line at 11:00 p.m. to meet with the other racers. A 74-year-old, ultra-marathoner named Tom hitches a ride with us from the motel. He talks throughout the 30- minute drive, positive and energetic, with stories of all the races he’s run in the last 30 years.

“There they are,” Tom says.

Ahead, more than a dozen buses line the highway, engines running and headlights on. Across from them is the intersection of Highway 375 and Groom Road, where hundreds of people have gathered to take part in this annual event, now in its fourth year.

I park a half-mile up Groom Road, beyond scores of dirty cars with Nevada, Arizona and California plates, on a road that leads 20 to 30 miles up a winding, dusty path to the Nellis Air Force Base, in a neighborhood known as Area 51.

The secrecy that surrounds Groom Lake has turned it into a magnet for UFO sightings and led to accusations of government cover-ups, and it attracts a lot of characters into the middle of the desert. Capitalizing on its pop-culture status, Nevada has officially designated the highway that runs past Nellis, Highway 375, as the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” To Joyce Forier, there are few better places in Nevada to hold a marathon.

Forier organizes races throughout Nevada: one at the Hoover Dam, one in the Red Rock Canyon and another, called the Running With the Devil Marathon, held in the middle of the day, in the middle of Mojave Desert. The E.T. Full Moon Marathon seems tame by comparison.

Forier speaks to a bus driver, then to a volunteer holding 100 glowing plastic necklaces on her forearm, then to a man with a professional-looking camera around his neck as she points to various people in the crowd.

Her megaphone is back in front of her face. “Half-marathoners! 10k runners! Find your buses!”

We climb aboard 1 of 18 buses rented for the occasion and watch as she counts down the marathon’s start.

The full marathoners and ultramarathoners start first. As Forier yells “Go!” 254 runners take their first strides.

The bus my wife and I are on drives past the first group of runners to the half-marathon start line, about seven miles up the highway. Three hundred eighty-three runners spill out onto the dark, two-lane highway. We will run 13.1 miles before the night is over.

Forier’s disembodied voice rises from the midst of the crowd, with warnings of snakes and cattle.

“Thirty seconds!” she yells. “Get ready!” It’s 12:29 a.m. and 55 seconds—we’re right on time.


We go. Some of us are dressed in traditional running gear, with the glowing necklaces handed out by the volunteers. The runners wrap the necklaces around their arms, legs and heads, creating an other worldly aura appropriate to the circumstances.

Many runners are in costumes, most with an alien theme—antennae, green face paint, that sort of thing. Nearly all of us wear headlamps strapped to our foreheads.

One brazen soul is wearing a space suit, complete with a huge, fishbowl helmet. Idiot, I think, but then, looking around at where I am, at what I’m about to do, well… Who am I to judge?

Mile Six
Although I can’t see it, I know I’m running up along, long hill. I raise my knees higher, pump my arms faster and control my breathing. I can hear my heart and the sound of my running shoes marching out a rhythm. I’m having fun. Nobody is ahead of me for at least 100 yards and no one is behind me for almost twice that distance; I feel alone in the middle of the desert. I look back as I climb and see, stretched out for miles, a silent string of headlamps and green glowing necklaces.

My breathing is easy. I stop counting the shooting stars after the third or fourth one. I stop thinking about how clean the air is. I stop searching for rattlesnakes. I just run.

In Discover magazine in May 2006, Ingfei Chen reported on a study conducted by Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard anthropologist, and Dennis Bramble, a University of Utah biologist, that concluded humans evolved into humans because of our need to run. We weren’t fast, compared with the cheetah, nor formidable like the lion, but we could run over long distances, scavenging carcasses left behind by other beasts or wearing out tamer animals with our endurance before we could get close enough to club them with a rock or tree limb.

“Running has substantially shaped human evolution,” Bramble says in the article. “Running made us human—at least in an anatomical sense. We think running is one of the most transforming events in human history.”

People have been running for sport for thousands of years. Foot races were recorded as part of festivals taking place in what is Ireland as far back as 1829 B.C. Competition, for survival and sport, can explain a lot about why humans run—but why do I run?

I’m not doing it to hunt, and I’m not particularly competitive. I know it is good exercise for the heart, but so is riding a bike, or swimming. Why run?

Mile Seven
I’m passing the couple in front of me. She’s young, with Asian features; he’s older, with a professor’s beard. Both look thin and strong. The three of us decided, about a half-mile back, that the black form we have been seeing must have been a bull, or cow—not an alien monster. Better bull than snake, I think, and pull ahead of my fellow racers.

Mile 11
As we hit the peak of the last hill, we can see the lights of Rachelbelow—from the Little A’Le’ Inn and a few dozen trailers scattered nearby. The moon has dipped beneath the mountains. I can see the dark outline of dust and gas in the center of the Milky Way, stretching diagonally across the sky. I haven’t seen the Milky Way so clearly since I was a kid in high school.

Mile 13.1
Coming into Rachel, crossing the finish line, a group of runners who have already finished have gathered to cheer us on. It’s all smiles and pats on the back, firm handshakes, high fives and hugs. Someone hands me water, someone else says, “Congratulations!” and puts a die-cast medal around my neck.

I look at it; it’s a picture of a green alien jogging through the desert at night. A breakfast buffet awaits us inside. I stretch, get some food and go to the finish line, clapping for everyone who crosses. When my wife comes in, we mingle with the other runners for hours, trading stories and tips; Christine says it’s the community that she loves most about running.

ET medal
The medal given to the finishers of the E.T. Full Moon marathons held at midnight on August 22, 2010.

What other activity would bring all these people out here, with different backgrounds and skill levels, to do something so difficult and strange? We have this in common: we run. At 5:30 a.m., my wife and I take a couple of chairs and beers and sit in front of an old, broken-down tow truck that permanently parked in the Little A’Le’ Inn. It’s towing a flying saucer.

Runners are still coming in from the marathon; my wife claps and hoots for each one. Exhausted racers come over to the tow truck at regular intervals and ask us to take their picture in front it.

It’s strange: people come to Rachel all the time to search for UFOs trying to get closer to something alien. But these runners came here to be closer to other humans. My wife and I sit at the edge of the highway for another hour, watching the sun rise over Rachel with our medals hanging around our necks.

I’m no longer thinking about why I run. I’m just glad I did.