New Mexico – The Land of Enchantment
This was my first visit to NM and I would have to agree there is something mystical about the place. Though it could just be a dulled sense of reality that comes with being 7000-10000ft above sea level which is where I spent my three days there. I signed up for what would be the 3rd annual Jemez Mountain Trail Runs (there’s also a 50K and a 20K) back in January after a friend from Colorado emailed me about it. Kristen had planned to run it but unfortunately ankle problems prevented her from signing up. I had been looking to do a 50 miler in the first half of the year but hadn’t found one that really appealed to me. A lot of the races I’d researched had multiple loops or were in places that would make it difficult to get to for just the weekend. So when Kristen mentioned this one I immediately checked out the website and I think I was so concerned about the altitude that the elevation gain/loss didn’t really sink in. I’d run at altitude in Utah last year and while it didn’t seem to affect me the highest point on that course was 7000ft which was the lowest on this course! Still, the prospect of another trail running adventure in the southwest and the excellent reports I’d read about this relatively new event was enough for me to send off my entry and use up a few more frequent flier miles...
I flew into Albuquerque on Friday afternoon and after a quick stop in Santa Fe, arrived in Los Alamos around 4pm. I decided to take a drive out to the race start to get my bearings for the morning. It was pretty easy to find the starting area at the Posse Shack on the edge of town and would take about 10 minutes to get out there in the morning. The race started at 5am so it would be an early one. The pre-race dinner and meeting was at the local High School so I headed over there after checking into the hotel. The race director’s briefing was very helpful, if a little alarming. I discovered the course was different from last years in that a fourth ‘significant’ climb had been added. Just in case it wasn’t difficult enough already they had decided we needed another trip above 10,000ft. Also, there was quite a bit of snow remaining in some of the higher elevation and heavily forested areas. With all this in mind I began revising my goal time once more. This would be my second 50M and while the first one last November was a pretty tough course it had less than half the elevation gain/loss and started not much above sea level. I’d been telling myself 12hrs until last week when I finally got around to looking up last year’s race results and recognizing a few of the leading ladies decided that 13hrs was a more likely result. Now, upon hearing of the added difficulty and the snow I decided to add another hour.
After a pretty decent sleep I got up at 3:45am, had a light breakfast and headed off to the start. Got signed in, handed over my drop-bags and chatted to a few other runners – including two of Kristen’s friends, Brian and Theresa, who’d traveled down from Boulder for the race. After a half cup of coffee, and a quick trip to the bathroom I lined up at the start and a few minutes later we were off. I immediately regretted my decision to abandon my headlamp at the shack as it was pretty dark once we turned off the gravel road onto the singletrack. But thankfully the guys ahead and behind me had good lamps. And within about 20 minutes it started to get light – so we had no excuse for taking a wrong turn about 3 miles into the race. We’d been following the trail through a dried up river bed for about a half mile and a small group of us that were running together continued straight instead taking a left turn. Just as the trail started to get quite gnarly we heard a guy shouting at us from the turn. I guess we’d only gone about a quarter mile… but it wouldn’t be the first time I’d lose concentration that day!
I was carrying 2 hand-held water bottles with a gel and clif-blocks in each so I didn’t stop for anything at the first aid station at mile 5. By this time we were already climbing towards Guaje Ridge which took us above 8800ft. Just after leaving the aid station I needed a quick bio break – I’d been drinking water nonstop since getting off the plane as I knew I needed to be extra-hydrated for the altitude. We were running through a burnt out forest area so there wasn’t much coverage but I found a rock just large enough to hop behind. Continued up towards the second aid station where I took a few nibbles and a drink of coke. Mostly hiking along here until we reached the top of the ridge and started the descent on soft trail through thick forest and across a few streams. Along this section I chatted with 2 guys who scared me a little with their tales of 50-70 mile training weeks… my response: “Jesus, I’m in the wrong race”. Since January I’ve run 40+ miles a week on two occasions and one of them was a week with a 50K race. I know I do a lot of cross-training and it definitely helps my fitness and helps prevent injuries but I sometimes think to really improve at running I should do more of it. The pace was pretty easy at this stage and I was feeling good so I continued on ahead of these guys at the next aid station at mile 10 at the base of Caballo Mountain. Upon exiting the aid station I saw the lovely notice on the tree – 1800ft climb over 2 miles. Whoa, this will be fun. Up we went, and up and up and up. Hitting patches of snow along the way and crossing dozens of fallen tree trunks. I soon realized this section of the course was an out and back (or more precisely an up and down) as the leading guys and ladies flew down past us. Of course I couldn’t help but count the number of ladies and discovered by the top that I was in 16th place. I’d been in a group of 4 ladies for most of the climb and as soon as I tied my shoes tighter at the top and started to descend I passed these ladies and caught a few others by the bottom. I wasn’t consciously trying to catch them (me?) as it was way too early for that but I can’t help myself on the downhills!
Back through the base aid station, quick refill of water and headed off for yet more climbing. Just under 1200ft gain for the next few miles with some downhill also. It was very pretty as we climbed the switchbacks and then later we ran through a nice soft section of trail in a heavily forested area. Our first drop bags were at the next aid station at mile 17 so I stopped to grab a stash of gummi bears (of course) and refilled my water. I’d taken one gel by this stage and a few clif-blocks so I replaced these also. And then the serious fun started. The Pipeline - it was like stepping off the edge. Down I went along a 75% grade gravel slope, sliding all over the place, bashing my left elbow on a rock one minute and then slid painfully along for a few yards on my right hip. Ow! Worst of all I got lots of gravel in my shoes. So that’s why so many people were wearing gaiters. Another quick bio break about halfway down – not exactly the safest place to stop but it had to be done! Once I finally got down the hill the trail emerged from the woods onto a dirt road and we continued along a relatively flat section for a few miles through Valles Caldera National Preserve. I felt pretty good at this stage and the weather was holding up nicely. Warm but cloudy so the sun was not too intense. I passed a few people along here and shortly after arrived into aid station 6 at mile 21. The guys here were hilarious. It goes without saying that all race volunteers are complete angels but it just seemed like every one of them at this race would not have wanted to be anywhere but here helping us get through the day. I spent a few minutes here, downed a few cups of coke, took a handfull of M&Ms and a few fig rolls and sat down to take off my shoes and shake out the gravel. My blisters from Promise Land had just started to bother me a little but I decided not to take off my socks to look at them! While I was having a seat I asked the guys what time it was. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know but was curious all the same. 10:26. WOW – I’d been out here for five and a half hours! I wasn’t happy or disappointed regarding the time, just amazed how quickly it had gone by. I took off my gloves and long sleeve and tied it around my waist – and attempted to stuff my gloves in the sleeves as I figured I’d need them again up on the snowy peaks yet to be climbed. But I discovered a while later that I’d dropped one of them.
By the time I’d left the aid station a few of the people I’d passed had already come through. We continued to trade places along the next section as we started to climb towards Cerro Grande at 10,200ft – which was the added feature this year. Along the way to the top we crossed a boulder field, quite the thing to get the heart rate going. A wrong footing here and my knees would look even less pretty. Close to the top I met up with Olga, a neat Russian lady living in Portland. Not only did she manage to take dozens of photos* while running a great race, she also seemed to be having more fun than the rest of us put together! After taking in the fabulous views at the summit, across to Pajarito Mountain and down into the valley, we then descended into Canyon de Valle – encountering a steep section of forest trail and then the other side of the boulder field. I’m not sure which was more dangerous, going up or down. Once through that we were out into a very picturesque setting running though high altitude meadows with some rolling hills. This was one of my favourite sections of the course. The trail was rough in places, the grass was quite long and there were small rocks strewn all over the place but it was so pretty. I passed a few ladies along here and figured by now I was maybe number 7 or 8 but I had lost track going through some of the aid stations. Not to mention that it was only the halfway point!
This was the longest section of the course without aid stations but I had plenty of supplies. The two water bottles were definitely a good idea and I didn’t seem to be as hungry as usual. Not necessarily a good thing but I felt like I had plenty of energy. I was able run at a pretty good pace for the next few miles of relatively flat section. Although I came to a sharp stop upon encountering a barbed wire fence – and not a little one you could step over. No, this took a bit of work to avoid a nasty injury. Once through that I caught up with a few guys and ran behind them for a while, listening to their stories, falling flat on my face as I started to lose concentration! I think I gave the guy in front of my quite a shock as I tumbled down and my water bottle went flying. No lasting damage. Off we went again. I stayed with these guys until we hit a few hills and they were taking it easier. The next aid station at Pajarito Canyon was a busy spot, a few people had got there just ahead of us and there were others taking a break. Our second drop bag was here but I decided I didn’t need anything from it. In retrospect I think I was a bit out of it here as I had no sooner left the aid station than I realized I was almost out of clif-blocks and really really wished I’d grabbed some more gummi bears! I started out from here feeling pretty strong, cruising through the next mile or so of forested trail. But before long the climbing started again with almost 1300ft gain and very little downhill over the next few miles. It had been pretty warm for the past few hours but the clouds were starting to gather. My legs didn’t feel awful but I was beginning to feel mentally drained. The fact that it was only around the 50K mark was getting to me. So by the time we reached the ski lift at mile 32.6 I need a boost. And what did I see as soon as I reached the food table…. McDonald’s French Fries!! Now, I know that McD’s is an evil empire. I haven’t seen Fast Food Nation. I don’t need to, I see it everyday. But at that moment in time I don’t think anything else could have tasted quite as good as those fries – complete with salt and ketchup! Did I mention how wonderful the volunteers were? Energized, if only for a brief time, I put back on my long sleeve top and faced up the mountain once more. About 10 minuntes later I caught up with a Canadian guy living in Texas and we chatted for a little while. I knew I didn’t want to hear the answer but I asked anyway – is the last of the big climbs? No. Oh dear…
I continued on but began to get more and more pissed off as the wind picked up and it got quite cold. Yet another bio break. This was unusual for me but at least my stomach was feeling pretty good and I guess I was drinking more than usual. I thought the uphill would never end. It turned out this was in fact the last journey above 10,000ft (10,441ft to be exact) but I didn’t know this as the time. Adam has an inspriring 6 word mantra he likes to use – I opted for a simpler one… f**k f**k f**k, f**k f**k f**k. My lower back was starting to ache a little. Nothing terribly worrying and I was sort of expecting it. I knew I just had to keep a good posture but that was getting more and more difficult. I regretted not doing more core work. I’d really worked on it last year and was in better shape for my first 50 miler that I felt I was for this one. My off-season layer around the middle just doesn’t want to budge. I guess opting for desert at every opportunity doesn’t help (or french fries). Finally, after passing the black diamond sign verifying just how steep the uphill had been I reached the top and it was time to see if my legs could actually run. There was quite a bit of snow and damp ground along the flat section and I had more than one flashback to Chippewa. But at least it was a good 20 degrees warmer here. Before long I hit the downhill. And I mean DOWNHILL. As in straight down the middle of the ski slope. As one guy I spoke to at the finish asked: Don't they believe in switchbacks in New Mexico? I normally love downhills but I this one took more out of me than any of the climbs. I was so scared I was going to turn an ankle. My right one is quite weak from pulled ligaments many years ago (not running related but a good story all the same…) so I side-stepped down with my left foot first, with the result that the outside of my left calf is aching even more than my quads right now.
Mile 36 aid station. If ever there was a time I wanted to drop out of a race this was it. I almost cried. I just didn’t think I had another big climb left in me. I barely spoke to the volunteers other than to take a quick look at the map and ask how far to the next aid station. Only 3 miles and thankfully not too much climbing. So on I went. The funny thing was that I knew my legs were fine. I just couldn’t get my head and body to connect. I walked several times in this section even though it wasn’t that hilly. I would tell myself I had to run the flat parts but at the sign of the slightest incline I’d slow to a walk and try to justify it to myself. The guys behind me were gaining on me but I didn’t care. After my first 50 miler my friend Susan had asked ‘What do you think about for 50 miles?’ A lot I guess but mostly (1) how grateful I am that I can do this; (2) how stupid I am that I choose to do this; and (3) how amazing I’m going to feel when I cross the finish line. Right now I was focused on number 2.
About 40 minutes later I got to the next aid station at Pipeline Road where we’d been before. This was a cross-roads on the course. On top of everything my blisters had gotten quite painful so I decided to sit for a few minutes and check them out. I patched them up and changed my socks. Olga and a few others had come through in the meantime. I took another gel with me and a bag of gummi bears (anything to cheer me up) and as I was leaving asked one of the volunteers how bad the next section was – assuming that I was facing into the last big climb. But I was told it was nothing compared to what I’d just done. Weird. I took off anyway and wracked my brains trying to visualize the course profile. I knew the last 10 miles were practically all downhill. The next section had a few big hills but they were short and on a dirt road so it wasn’t too bad. I could see several runners spread out ahead of me. The temperature had picked up again and I was starting to feel a lot better. I slowly began to convince myself that climb up the ski hill must indeed have been the last trip to 10,000ft. But it wasn’t until the next aid station at mile 42.8 that I knew for sure I was done with the uphill. Hooray!!!! This next section was awesome. If I’m allowed to say that after 40 miles on the go! But it was truly beautiful and I was feeling stronger with each step. It is amazing how quickly my mood had changed. 50 miles can be one hell of an emotional roller coaster. We had a mile of nice soft trail through some woods but mostly it was out in the open on rocky terrain, quite similar to sections of the Moab race last year. The guy behind me (chatted to him at the finish - Aaron from CO) was catching me but I didn’t really mind. I’d passed him earlier so I figured he was allowed to pass me back! If he’d been a girl it might have been a different story. Just was I was thinking that I spotted a girl up ahead and immediately sped up – seriously I don’t even think I processed the thought but my legs just picked it up. Turns out she was a 50K runner but I had discovered my legs had some juice left so I kept it up… I found that I was running all the little uphills that a few hours earlier I would have walked without question. This really motivated me and before long we were descending into the canyon. I decided to take another gel at this stage with about 4 miles to go. Just in case. Along here a guy who I’d passed way back flew by me – what a super finish he had! It is so cool to see people having fun like that at the end. Though if I hadn’t been feeling good myself I guess I might have looked at it in a different way…
It was getting very hot again now so I stopped to pull off my long sleeve. And to take in the view. But not for long. I decided no one else was going to pass me! A few minutes later I was running through the floor of the canyon along some sandy trails – just as well I was nearly done as sand is my least favourite running surface. I passed a guy here and soon arrived at the last aid station at 48.1 miles – to the sound of U2’s “Beautiful Day” – there is nothing quite like that song to get you in the mood for a good finish! Not to mention the great volunteers – like at all of the aid stations they were friendly, helpful and fun. Myself, the guy I’d just passed and Aaron all left the aid station together and started out on an uphill. Once it flattened out I took off again and the guy told me I’d finish in under 13hrs. Ohmigod. I realized I hadn’t been thinking about my time for the past several miles. I was just so glad to be enjoying myself again. No stopping me now. It amazes me as I write this but I practically bounced up a few of the little climbs as we wound our way back onto the start of the course that we’d covered in the dark earlier that morning. Just as I was coming up to the tunnel which ran under the road at about 1 mile to go I saw Olga up ahead. Part of me didn’t want to pass her but she was full of encouragement and after a quick exchange of words I continued on. I think I passed one more guy after that and soon started to see the houses up on the hill to the right. I got a little confused in this section as it looked nothing like it had in the dark that morning! After a moment of panic I spotted the chalk markings and knew I was okay as I emerged out onto the gravel road, a hundred yards or so and there was the finish line. The glorious finish line. What a day. 12:49:18.
I’m not sure I ever want to repeat some of the experiences I had that day but knowing I can feel so low at one point and a few hours later run as strong as I’m ever likely to at the end of an ultra is one heck of a confidence booster. Olga finished a few minutes later. I loved chatting to her and hearing about her vast résumé of ultras. More and more to put on the calendar. Short term memory or what! I chatted to Brian and Theresa from Colorado who finished either side of me. I tried to eat a bit but didn’t have much of an appetite (don’t worry it came back with a vengeance later). The guys from aid station 6 were there and as soon as they spotted me asked if I’d lost a glove - I couldn’t believe it when one of them pulled my glove out of his pocket. Now that’s what I call service! I told him I’d dumped the other one but that I’d keep this one as a souvenir.
It was so much fun relaxing in the warm sunshine chatting with everyone I'd met along the way and sharing stories. I couldn’t stop smiling. Especially after I checked out the results posting a little while later and saw I’d finished 4th! Very cool - I’d totally lost track by the end and just thought I was somewhere in the top ten. I probably went into this event over-raced and under-trained. But I emerged feeling stronger and more in love with trail running than I can describe in words.
*All pics on this page are courtesy of Olga.