Page, Arizona: Many know the area for Lake Powell, a man-made desert ocean of islands and inlets – the Colorado River dammed, covered with house boats and water skiers. But inland, this desert draws another kind, a breed that begs for long sprees of solitude and endurance.

Meet the ultra runner.

“There’s a special connection you have with a place when you’re trail running,” said ultra runner and climber Emma Horton, having just won the Grand Circle Trail series 55K in Page, Arizona. “It’s an amazing way to get (to see) beautiful places.”

Horton said trail running is about working with the environment. She’s drawn to where long distance trail running takes her, physically and mentally.

The Grand Circle Trail series, a selection of various distance trail runs ranging from 4 to 100 miles, is gaining momentum across the Southwest, and in the Escalante Staircase in particular, where each event is located on a step of plateaus that climb from the desert floor of Arizona into the Utah mountains.

Race director Matt Gunn called the series wildly unique, with events at Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Tushar Mountains and Moab.

“These rock formations – you don’t see anything else like it in the world, and that’s what draws people here,” Gunn said.

At Antelope Canyon, runners navigate vast terrain from narrow slot canyons to cliff-hanging exposed ledges. Gunn said the conditions draw the participants.

“It’s full-on sand dune running,” he said. “Even though it doesn’t have a lot of elevation gain, it still beats people up every bit as much.”

But Gunn’s races are about more than racing. They celebrate culture and Navajo traditions. On tribal lands, Navajo tribal members bless the event, with prayers to the east and west. Hoop dancers perform ceremonial dances in front of hogans, traditional hand packed Navajo homes made of stick and mud. Dirtbag, sun-baked vagabonds in wrinkled T-shirts mingle with personal trainer-shaped CEOs.

But the desert doesn’t care how you got there. Everyone gets tired and hungry, and the Navajo tacos are delicious.

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