Summer storms have really set in around Southwest Colorado. This has made the trails muddy and motivation low to go into the high mountains for all day jaunts. The close calls runners had with storms from Hardrock still resonate loudly. A few pictures from the run today are below.
Goals: Finish a 50 mile race (52 miles in this case). Finish under 12 hours. Hope to surprise myself with a better time.
Pre-race advise from Sean “The Experience” Meissner: “Go fast, run hard, take chances!”
Trail running in the Jemez mountains above Los Alamos, NM has been a very special experience for me. I haven’t quite penned exactly what it is (beautiful mountains, breathtaking caldera meadows, low key but challenging trail race, best race post food ever, awesome directing, volunteers and community) but every time I do a race here, I have a great run. Trail magic maybe. The JMTR 50 miler would be my third race in these mountains (JMTR 50k in 2013 and Valles Caldera Trail Marathon earlier in May 2014). This time, while running alone, 25 miles into the race, crossing a vast meadow in the Valles Caldera, with dark clouds building up to the west, I knew I had a special connection to this magical place.
Last year I was pretty intimidated by the 50-mile race and ran the 50k instead. The spirit of the race got me hooked that first time and I had to come back (hopefully will come back every year). This year, I was still a bit intimidated of the 50-mile distance. I started this year slow and coming off some injuries and the last time I attempted 50 miles at Deadman’s Peak (my very first race!) I did not finish and felt horrible. I knew I had to re-visit this distance in order to clear the mind. I signed up early in the year to force myself to train and be ready.
I felt ready the morning of the race. I had trained well, not stressed over the training or race, rested and eaten properly. However, I hadn’t figured out a good fueling plan but was gonna try to wing it. The pre-race breakfast was good, almond butter on a banana and rice cake with coffee. The coffee didn’t do it’s magic quick enough and I had to start the race with too full belly. The pre-race shit is such an important part of the race ritual. I was getting a little nervous but hoped I could burn or stave off the rumbling in my tummy.
My fueling strategy was no more than one gel per hour, water with Nuun in my bladder, drink Heed and eat stuff at aid stations and try to get down granola bars along the way. Last year, I ended up with a bad case of Gu belly (bound up, queasy stomach) after the 50k, so I knew I had to hold off on the gels. In training, the powder fuel options (Heed, Roctane and Tailwind) have all given me gas or upset stomach as well so I was left with few options. At the end of the day, all I wanted to eat was gels and solid foods with lots of liquid (pickles, watermelon, potatoes, Heed).
The soft-spoken call from the race director was an appropriate start to this long day of running. This race is low-key in its organization but quite intense in its challenges. I feel like it requires that soft-spoken approach and patience in order to successfully travel through the long and tough miles ahead. Despite a large portion of the runner herd taking off at the start, I went right into my warm-up pace that I knew I needed in order to feel good throughout the day. Already I was feeling good about what I had learned in my three years of running long distance trails.
This race was a special occasion for the Las Cruces crew (aka Organ Mountain Goats) as there was a good showing of goats in the 50 miler: Eugene, Clifton, Michael, Peter and myself had all made the trip. Having all my friends and other familiar faces (Marco “Speedy” Zuniga, Greg from El Paso, Ed from Albuquerque, Roger Squires from every trail race in NM, Dave Coblentz,Garth and Catron) made for good energy out on the course and a feeling of companionship despite running alone for most of the day. I had asked a few friends to pace but none of them could make the race. Clifton, Eugene and I had kidded about just running the whole thing together but knew we’d all end up running our own race. In the end I was glad to be running the whole distance alone, not even music to distract me. Even when I was running through the Caldera with Ed, we hardly spoke but the company was nice. Surprisingly, I never tired or bored of my own thoughts throughout the day. I actually don’t feel like I had any precise thoughts, just waves of living sensation. All day I felt very present and close with my body, breathing, the weather and the trail. Unknowingly, this alone experience was what I had needed for some time now. The experience was like a long, intense yoga practice. I was always checking in with my body, keeping the shoulders relaxed, keeping the breathing calm and controlled, consciously relaxing any tight muscles (it actually worked most of the time) and running on feel and not paying too much attention to time. During this time I remembered a goal from years ago, I wanted to be able to run 50 miles (or any distance) enjoyably and finish feeling good and strong.
Despite feeling prepared, relaxed, aware and enjoyable, 50 miles is still a long ways and issues can still arise. The shaky stomach came and went all day, threatening a trail side emergency until it got it’s way around mile 26. I made my contribution to the forest fertilizer and went on feeling a bit more relaxed but still unsure about what I could eat. By this point I was starting to feel slightly dizzy and a small headache was pulsing. I figure this was due to elevation since I was drinking plenty. This was a new experience since I had been doing a fair amount of running at higher elevations and altitude rarely affects me anyway. I was also experiencing chest pain while breathing that was noticeably affecting my performance. This sensation was also unusual since I had been running a lot of mountains, altitude runs and some speed work during training. I guess breathing hard for 6 hours will make the chest and lungs hurt. The head issues did subside at the bottom of Pajarito Canyon, another sign it was effects of altitude, or the onset of some muscle fatigue and looming dark thunderstorms all around distracted me from my cranial issues. I hit a patch of low energy for the first time around mile 34, on the climb back up Pajarito. I was pretty sure this was due to inadequate food but I was loosing interest in eating, especially with my intense breathing and chest pain. Interestingly, this is about the same mileage where I lost my appetite and succumbed to low fuel levels when running Deadman’s Peak. I debated doing the second climb up Pajarito since I thought lightning would be waiting at the top. No lightning at the top but a freak snowstorm was just starting as I reached the ridge! I finally got to use my jacket I’d been hauling around all day (under the advice of the race director and weather forecast). Drew from Durango was close behind and we set out in silence and in snow, traversing up and back down to the ski lodge. Throughout all these tribulations, I never once got worried or stressed. I was always able to stay present and calm as I figured out how to keep moving and correct the issue at hand. Not sure if this new experience was due to good training, experience, stubbornness or mountain magic but I sure did love it.
The snowstorm turned out to be wonderfully amazing. I know it caused the raced to be cancelled and many people to suffer but I was continually in awe of the weather and be able to move through it and with it. Within minutes of reaching the ridge, the light rain turned into heavy snow. Soon after, my jacket and hat brim were turning into snow banks. As I passed the bench facing the caldera, whiteout conditions had set in and the strong blowing snow forced my gaze downward. I kept stopping just to soak in this phenomenal moment. I thought at one point I could just sort of melt in with the storm and float out into the caldera. It was a pretty surreal experience. Like I said, these mountains are special (or maybe the long day and low blood sugar was doing a number on me). Whiteout conditions continued all the way down to the ski lodge. I could hardly see Drew’s bright orange jacket a few hundred feet ahead of me as we delicately traveled down the now snow covered, black diamond ski run. Enough snow had almost accumulated to warrant a butt slide or shoe ski but instead a slow and delicate, don’t bust your ass, pace down the mountain.
I changed into dry, warm clothes and emptied the stomach at the ski lodge as the carnage from the snowstorm was unfolding. Many of the runners were hypothermic, bundled in blankets, shivering uncontrollably, red skinned from exposure, standing in front of the bathroom driers to warm up and dropping out of the race or seriously considering it. Some were hauled off in the ambulance, while other runners and volunteers helped the fallen off the mountain. I felt good and wanted to finish this thing. I knew I could do it and was kind of enjoying running in the snowstorm (pretty rare in Southern New Mexico). One guy said I was braver than he as I took off from the station. Just more prepared and possibly more stubborn.
Soon down the trail, runners traveling the opposite direction informed me that the race was cancelled due to the storm. They had been turned back at the next aid station. We all wanted to go on but out of respect for the race directors decision and not wanting to create an unnecessary search and rescue we ran back down to the ski lodge, feeling good but a bit disappointed. After seeing more carnage unfold, the decision to cancel the race was the right one. As my friend Chris said after Zane Grey was also snowed out, “we (runners) are too stupid to stop, despite the conditions, and would just keep going if someone didn’t have the sense to stop us.” Too true.
I still didn’t get to finish a 50 mile race, this time due to a freak snowstorm on Pajarito Mountain. However, I had a great run, learned some things and my training, experience and chances coalesced throughout the day. Above all, I achieved one goal that I had forgotten about from years ago, run a long distance race and feel good the whole way. I know I could have finished this race, even in the snow, but I value the run I had and time back in the Jemez Mountains. I’ll be back.
I ran fast. Maybe not as fast as I could, because I ran as hard as I could and I was prepared for the chances I had to take.
Splits (as best I can remember):
5AM – Start
7 AM – Mile 10 aid station, on a good pace
8:30-9AM – Mile 18.6 Ski Lodge aid station, still good
9:30 ish AM- Mile 21, Pipeline aid station
10:?? AM – Mile 25 Aid station, about half way, stomach has had enough
11:46 AM – Mile 31.4 Pajarito Canyon Aid station, 50k mark and feeling ok
2:00 PM – Mile 38.? Ski Lodge Aid station, soaked from snow storm
3:00 PM – Mile 40 ish, Meet runners heading opposite direction that inform me the race has been cancelled due to snow storm and they were turned back from Pipeline Aid Station
3:30 PM – Return to Ski Lodge Aid station to get a ride. Approximately 42 miles in 10:29 hours. Still without a 50 mile finish.
Route: Dog Canyon trail. Oliver Lee State Park, Alamogordo, NM to Sunspot Observatory, Cloudcroft, NM
Distance: 21 miles with many trails at the top to lengthen the run. 5 miles from the park to the rim and 10.5 miles from the park to Sunspot. Over 5000 feet of elevation gain over 10.5 miles. 4.5-6 hours.
Summary: This was my first time on this trail but Chris had been on it many times in the past, training for various races. This is a great training run for the Jemez 50 miler coming up. I put this route in my top three trail runs in southern New Mexico, possibly number one! Desert to pine forest, sand and rock to snow and soil. Beautiful views and steep, technical trails. The route looks improbable at times but is so there. Some sections are definitely “no fall zone” as there is a steep cliff below the trail tread. It was so fun to bomb down this trail.
Most of the trail is on US Forest Service land. Oliver Lee State Park has a good campgrounds and facilities with water and bathrooms. There is a fee for overnight and day use at the park. Sunspot has snacks, water and a bathroom for a good resupply point. One can easily hit the crest trail and run to Cloudcroft. The run is possible all year but snow is likely near Sunspot in the cooler months (Oct. – March) and a summer run (not recommended) would require an early start to get out of the canyon and onto the rim before it gets too hot and expect a very warm descent. A forest closure due to fire danger is likely in the summer as well.
This is my newly favorite Las Cruces trail run. Desert to pines, granite boulders, steep ascending, ridge line running and scrambling, remnants of past military operations, great views and a good summit with friends. I would definitely call this an adventure run, as most are in the Organs.
Route: Dripping Springs Recreation Area gate to La Cueva/Crawford Trail to Filmore Canyon trail all the way to the summit of Organ Peak
Distance: 13 miles from the gate, about 10 from La Cueva (roundtrip). Approximately 4000 feet of elevation gain. 3-5 hours running.
On February 15th, I had the pleasure of pacing my good friend Eugene Smith in his first 100k and what would be his longest run to date. I wanted to run this race but injury kept me from it. Disappointed over the injury, I was glad to support Eugene in his run and still get to see the trail.
Despite getting an early departure from Las Cruces on Friday before the race, we rolled into the race area in the dark with the help of cheap gas station coffee and energy drinks and barely managed to find a cheap motel off of Interstate 15. Justin joined us later as he hadn’t left until after work. The tired and smelly three of us piled into the room for very little sleep. Hard to sleep with pre-race nerves and a belly full of road rations. Such a romantic way to spend Valentine’s Day!
The race started at 8 am, pretty late for an ultra marathon. It began at a high school track with a full moon setting over the mountains to the west near Prescott. It was a small pack of runners for the inaugural Black Canyon 100k. Unexpectedly, I ran into John “The Verm” Sherman and his girlfriend Dawn who had come down to follow and photograph a friend running the race. I’d just had dinner with John a month ago when he passed through Las Cruces. It was good to see and chat with the bouldering legend again.
The crisp air was a perfect start to the race but the temperature rose quickly down in the lower canyons. “Winter” in the southwest had brought high temperatures in the 80’s this week.
I left the course to find a real breakfast and wait for Eugene to tick off some miles before I found him. I wouldn’t start pacing until mile 36.
The course is a perfect setup for access and crews. A trail weaves back and forth across a gravel road that is only a 5-10 minute drive between each aid station. When I first saw Eugene he was looking great and pushing a good but perhaps quick pace as he ran into mile 12 at just a little over 2 hours.
I saw him next around mile 18. The temperature was starting to climb and Eugene came in with his typical white crust of sweat forming over his face. He still looked and felt good. I gave him some encouragement and drove down to mile 36. This would be the longest stretch without a crew for runners.
Crews and pacers are probably not necessary for races, especially ones with adequate aid station locations. However, after crewing and now pacing, I can really appreciate the presence of a crew and pacer. At Speedgoat last year, Marco was able to cruise right through aid stations as I handed off refills of fuel. This quick exchange easily shaves off minutes. I know I spent at least 20 minutes grazing and chatting at aid stations at Jemez. Sometimes visiting at stations is part of the fun but if one is looking to have a fast time, a crew can really help. If for nothing else, I’m sure seeing and chatting with friends as you come into each station and along the route is a good boost. Personally, the stretch through the night at Black Canyon would be a lot harder and spookier if I were running alone. After hours and hours of running, just moving forward can be a arduous thought so a pacer to keep moving can really help.
I arrived at the mile 36 aid station pretty early but in time to see the top runners come through. The temperatures had really risen and the top three really showed it. The fast pace and exposure had them sitting in shade and dumping ice water over their heads for some time. News was start to trickle in about the temperatures really affected the runners and some were already dropping out. I started to worry about Eugene a little bit but knew he is not the type to drop out of a race despite how hard or painful it may be.
I expected to pick up Eugene around one or two in the afternoon. I waited around for hours with Tim and Maxette, Eugene’s uncle and aunt, and started to worry a little more as two turned into three and then almost four o’clock. My friend Sean came in earlier but was dropping out due to a knee injury. He was hot as well and had been pouring water over his head all day. We all were getting a bit concerned about Eugene but came strolling in, a little slow but still ready to go. He slowly fueled up, rested, changed shoes and headlamp batteries. I too was raring to go for a nice long run through the night with Eugene as well.
From the beginning of our run together, this course was so beautiful. Dropping down into a river bed with exposed rock faces and sagauros all around. After a few miles in, 40 something miles for Eugene, he was starting to eye the Hoka shoes on other runners. His feet were sore and rightfully so. This trail is rocky and he just ran over 40 miles! We joked about what size each runner wore and thought of turning into desert bandits and jumping someone for their cushy Hoka One One sneakers!
As we were about to crest the longest climb of the race, a girl passed us going in the other direction and in tears. We finally put it together and she must’ve missed the spur trail down to the last aid station and had turned around, adding at least 5-6 miles, another big climb and most likely forced to drop out of the race. Although the turn was marked pretty well, the same fate would meet Justin as well. The cutoffs were tight already without adding extra miles. We felt pretty bad for her.
We kept a good but slow pace, always moving forward. We hiked the climbs but jogged most of the other terrain. We joked and chatted a lot of the run but I think the most fun and interesting times were when we said nothing. Our breathing and steps were connected. I could tell how Eugene was doing just by listening to his breathing. Occasionally looking back and saying, “Good pace”, “How you doin?” or “Relax, let’s just push to the bottom of this next hill.” The experience was similar to playing music with others when everyone has an unspoken connection and everything just keeps moving with no verbal direction. Pretty amazing.
As the sun went down, we ran for a while in the twilight and dark but soon had to switch on the headlamps. I love running at night. The field of focus is narrow, limited to lumens and battery life, and the clarity of the sky and brightness of the moon. The saguaro cacti were a bit spooky. The looked like silhouettes of large beings as we weaved through them all night. Campers shot off guns, coyotes howled in the distance (if only they knew how slow and easy of prey were running by them all day) the glowing pink eyes of night hawks shown on the trail like jewels and they quickly took off before us as we approached, piss puddles turned into hallucinatory gila monsters for Eugene. We both had several startled moments throughout the night and I know I enjoyed the company.
I don’t understand some folks running races. One lady was pretty short with volunteers when asked if she wanted a seat. She replied, “sitting is death!” in a snide tone. Another couple bickered along the trail. The husband was pacing and in a cheery mood but the wife was not having it. Both parties motivated Eugene and I to move along a bit faster. Do these people forget they voluntarily paid to run this race?! I think many miss the beauty and enjoyment of trail and long distance running. We moved along smiling.
At an aid station, 10 miles from the finish, the volunteers gave us some incorrect information and said the finish was closer to fourteen miles away. I could see some of Eugene’s moral fade as we were already pushing the cutoffs pretty close. We quickly grabbed some aid and took off with Eugene leading the way. The new urgency put some boost in his pace and we moved along quickly. We figured we would keep pushing the pace to make the finish or if the volunteers were wrong, give ourselves a cushion for the last few miles. At this steady pace we started passing several folks. I think this boosted Eugene’s moral a little bit and I think got the other runners to moving a little faster as well.
The volunteers at the last aid station looked tired as they blasted some hard rock from a radio. They had been out there for a long time and look almost as tired as the runners. Trail race volunteers are an awesome and tough bunch. They confirmed that we only had three miles left (fortunately the last aid station volunteers had been incorrect). The news was very much welcomed and we jogged in with coyotes howling and the city glow of Phoenix in the background.
Jamil Coury, race director and trail badass, greeted us across the finish line and handed Eugene his well-earned belt buckle. Justin and Uncle Tim were there as well to welcome us in. Eugene and I hugged in congratulations. Other familiar faces were at the finish eating food and sharing stories and goals. As has been said many times, the trail community is one of the best.
This run was inspiring in many ways: the distance Eugene ran and be able to support him, great race organization, night running, effectiveness of slow pace running, old school trail race vibe and the beautiful Sonoran Desert.
From January 2013
Gertch’s Folly has been on my list of Organ “to do” climbs for a while. It is considered one of the classics but is seldomly climbed. I had once tried to figure out the approach from the west side but spent a solid three hours with Andy and three dogs, wading through gully after gully of cat claw. I couldn’t even force my way through. We never reached the rock before deciding to turn around. Probably the worst day of bushwacking in the Organs. Hard to believe this was once considered one of the easiest approaches, according to Reed Cundiff. A lot of cat claw has grown over the trail since those days.
Marta, once again, knew a better approach to Gertch. This time I would try from Aquirre Springs, on the east side of the range. She had hiked up to the saddle of Big Windy Canyon on the way to the Low Horns. From this saddle, I figured we could drop down Big Windy on the west side and make our way to Gertch. We would also be walking off to the saddle after the climb, making for a convenient location to drop our packs.
Michael Baker was my latest victim/partner for climbing in the Organs on this occasion. Enthusiastic and willing partners for Organeering are hard to come by but Michael fit the bill. We hiked up Pine Tree Trail for a little ways and then headed up a gully following Marta’s directions which included: a big log, a balloon in a tree and advice not to get out of the gully too soon or otherwise we’d be scrambling up loose ground or wading through brush. I thought this was mandatory for any approach in the Organs. We found the log, no balloon and got out of the gully too soon and slowly crawled up the loose ground, rocks and prickly vegetation to the saddle. This only took a little over an hour but felt longer. We ate, dropped packs and oogled at the Pyramid of the South Rabbit Ear.
The way down Big Windy Canyon wasn’t really hard but not that easy either. There were cairns scattered in the boulder scree but also a lot of trudging through scrub oak, apache plume and rocks. Again we bailed out of the gully, probably too soon, and hacked our way across some prickly stuff and up to the base of the climb. Two hours and forty five minutes, but still not bad.
I led the first pitch that turned out to be pretty chossy and cold (holds ice in the winter after precipitation). The bottom of this route stays in the shade for most of the day. The belay, at an small tree, was in the sun though. It starts on some chossy rock, moves into a chimney and then busts out to the left and a tree for a nice belay.
Michael took us on up and into the sun on a large, grassy belay ledge at the top of pitch two. The rock was slowly improving but still a little chossy.
Third pitch had a little bouldery start through an overhanging crack, with an old pin in it. Looked like one could also go straight up on some run out slab as well. The overhang wasn’t bad and protected well. The fourth pitch goes up a right facing corner.
The fifth pitch traversed out a slab and turned a corner with a tricky step over move and some great exposure. There are some old bolts at this belay. Fortunately, a good gear anchor can be built above them.
The sixth pitch is the “money pitch” and where the 5.9 rating comes from. It is a serious of small, clean roofs with a reachy move to a blind hold at the top. All this with great exposure.
The summit is hardly a summit from any other perspective except the one of the route. The Gertch summit is just below the northern most low horn and can actually be easily scrambled from the Big Windy Canyon saddle. At least it makes for an easy descent. Climbing doesn’t always mean taking the easiest route up!
*Note: This post has been festering for a while. My mood has changed (for the better) since I started writing butI feel like I should go ahead and put this up as a reminder of those tough times.
From Nov-Dec. 2013
Naturally, Autumn is a time of harvest, death, decay, hibernation and hopefully reflection. Maybe this explains my time of loss or perhaps it’s the astrological event of Mercury being in retrograde. I don’t completely understand this but several friends have mentioned it and supposedly, one should not make any big decisions or expect clarity. This is a time of large-scale change and uncertainty. Sounds about right.
No one close to me has died, fortunately, but since the end of October I’ve experienced loss in several ways. Here’s the short list:
- Job-seasonal work ended with the onset of cold weather and fatigue.
- Ability to run or climb due to IT band issues and tendonitis in my big toe
- Partial vision loss and a week of extreme migraines due to spontaneous onset of uveitis
- 12 hours of expelling everything from my body due to food poisoning while #3 was happening
- Steady home, albeit the truck has been my home through the field season but now is no longer feels like a justifiable (to myself) way to live and a steady parking spot for the camper has not been established
- Direction and purpose in life, due to all of the above
*I know these are mostly first world problems but still…
Through the loss, I’ve realized that I do not do well with injury or idle hands. No moss on this rolling stone or friends of the devil! I hadn’t realized how much I was wrapped up in physical activity until it came to an abrupt, forced halt. Thinking back on the summer, I can’t believe that I was able to hold the body together as long as I did. Starting in May, coming off an injury:
-I ran a mountain 50k (Jemez)
-Worked 10-14 hours a day in the desert while hiking 5-20 miles a day and living out of my truck, 10 days at a time, for 5 months
-Tried to continue training for races, while working, thus running 30-70 miles a week on top of work hikes (20-40+ miles per week)
-Ran another mountain 50k (Mt. Taylor) in September and went hard and bonked hard, thus causing extreme fatigue
-Continued working until the end of October
So, it seems like my body held out until the last days and then everything crashed at once, causing deep confusion and despair. I felt like I’d become the target of some cruel lesson arranged by “the Universe.”
Usually, these forced breaks are welcomed with a focus on other hobbies or physical activities but the current combination of losses seemed to strip everything away. And I couldn’t seem to gleam any type of lesson or find some deeper meaning from pain and loss. My optimism started to be tested to it’s limits and as the days went by with only being able to lay in my camper, parked in my friends driveway, eyes closed due to light sensitivity and migraines and body hurting from fatigue and injuries, I started to believe that there is no lesson to be harvested from this, only that sometimes life is shit and you just have to deal.
There are some certainties though: time is going to pass, there is nothing to stop it and this will bring about change of some kind.
After two months of little physical activity, things have started to improve. Vision is better and I can run a little bit but that whole purpose and meaning is still a lost idea, maybe it was never really there anyway. Actually, after reading this now (I started writing this a few weeks ago) I can see I’m doing much better. I was in a pretty nasty spot back then.
When one is near the bottom and about to explode, perhaps the only way to go is deeper and let it all blow up. I don’t think I completely hit bottom or really blew up, more like a slow trickle in different directions, but I’m starting to gain steam. Most of the illnesses have resolved, at least I’m just dealing with injuries that I think I can manage. As the new year is upon us, I have quite a few new ideas for projects and adventures. These may not involve as much travel or running but the possibilities are exciting.
2014 thinking: lots more climbing, especially adventure mountain climbing (barely did any climbing in 2013), bikepacking (almost have my bike built up), backpacking (several trips in mind), writing and recording more music, building stuff including a physical base/home, motorcycle touring and growing in all ways.
Perhaps there will be a late season harvest after all.
As my great uncle Sheal (and Taoist philosophy) use to say, “keep moving forward.”