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.