Jemez Mountain Trail Run 50k: Best Day of Running Ever!

The thrill of the Jemez Mountains Trail Run 50k in the mountains of Los Alamos, New Mexico has not worn off yet. This race was not only my first Ultra finish but also the best day of running in my life. I know that is a bold statement. I pondered the possibility of it being true throughout the race and concluded that it was indeed the best.

Handmade finisher's bowl

Handmade finisher’s bowl

My training deserves a whole other post, so I’ll put that up soon. I went into the race with an Achilles tendon injury, but rested and felt confident that I was ready. This was a great feeling and a new experience. I had a couple of goals for this race: I wanted to be able to train adequately so I could run strong throughout the whole race and finish feeling pretty good. If I could do this under seven hours then I’d be even more excited. Everyone kept going on about all the climbing in this race, 7000+ft elevation gain, and the “big” climb up Pajarito (3000 ft. gain). I had been feeling really good on climbing and all in all this didn’t sound too bad. I’d done several training runs with 4000-5000 feet of climbing and felt good. My friend Dan, who I consider a strong runner, had done this race twice and finished just over seven hours, so I didn’t know if finishing under seven was a very feasible goal. I would just go out and run my own race and see what happened.

I had been going through my gear and tweaking it for weeks. I finally settled on a pretty simple setup. Two handheld bottles (one for water and one for HEED), a waist pack with my iPod and gels, my Outdoor Research hat with a sun shroud I’d attach at mile 19, long sleeve shirt and a change into a short sleeve and Mountain Hardwear Cool.Q sleeves at mile 19 (the rest of the race would be hot and exposed), New Balance shorts, my second pair of tried and true Montrail Mountain Masochists and my good luck socks, Damn Tough from Vermont. These socks rock and I’ve done all my long runs and backpacking trips in them. I know my feet will be happy with them and the Masochists.

Race gear

Race gear

I’d learned a few things since my last ultra, Deadman’s Peak (this also deserves it’s own post), and I’d devised a slight strategy. Although the Achilles felt good in the morning, I taped them both for preventative measures. My plan was to start really slow and warm up until the second aid station at mile 10. This is usually when I start to feel good anyway. I would eat a gel every thirty minutes and drink most of my two bottles between aid stations. I had originally planned to walk the “big” climb, but for the past two days I had been thinking I could run it. The night before I decided I’d see how I felt at the climb and try to run what I could. I wouldn’t watch my time for pace but just go off of feel, only using the watch for fuel timing. My main goal was to keep moving and not go anaerobic.

I came up with a couple of strategies to do this. One was a mantra from Yin Yoga practice, I kept reminding myself to keep my breath and relax my shoulders. This kept me going throughout the race. The other came from my first running partner, my old dog Possum (R.I.P.). She was a great runner and I learned some things from her: stay in the shade, keep a quick pace to get ahead and rest when needed, always smile, and every once in a while when you see a rabbit, chase the rabbit (i.e. have fun).

Possum dog

Possum dog

Clifton and I drove up two days before the race with a pop up camper in tow. I was all for bringing the camper. I wanted to get a good nights’ sleep and I also remembered how horrible I felt after running other long races. We were the first ones to setup camp in the parking lot across from the Posse Shack, start/finish. The camper gave us a place to comfortably hang out, take naps and fix food away from the elements outside. We did not regret having the camper and I think we were all converted to camper travelling.

Pajarito mountain, the "big" climb, taken from Los Alamos

Pajarito mountain, the “big” climb, taken from Los Alamos

On the day before the race, Clifton and I did a short hike to get the legs moving. We both had to restrain ourselves from taking off on a run or hiking all day. The rest of the day was filled with checking out the Los Alamos museum and finding all the locations for the start and pre race dinner (spaghetti and a slideshow about Marathon Des Sables). I felt my eyes itching and a scratchy throat. I knew it was some allergies acting up. I hoped they would go away by morning but had already told myself I wouldn’t let them interfere with the race.

Up early before the race (photo by Eugene Smith)

Up early before the race (photo by Eugene Smith)

We got a pretty good night’s sleep the two nights before the race, despite hearing Eugene come in around midnight on Friday night. He had driven up to pace Clifton in the 50 miler. About four hours after he arrived, we were waking up to eat and see Clifton and the others take off in the dark on the 50 mile race. Myself, along with 194 others including Larry from Las Cruces and several from the El Paso running crew would start an hour later at 6am. My allergies were still noticeable but I felt better. The oatmeal and coffee had plenty of time to work its way through before we toed the line at sunrise. I got in the pack towards the back with Glen from El Paso. Despite the bottleneck when the trail began, starting in the back has positive mental rewards. Passing people all day makes one more confident than getting passed all day.

5 AM start for the 50 milers  (photo by Eugene Smith)

5 AM start for the 50 milers (photo by Eugene Smith)

The start involved cruising around some horse stables and then into a narrow single track that had eroded into the bedrock. This is where the bottleneck happened. It was okay though and added to the slow start and warm up. The trail soon opened up into a wide trail in a forest of pines, through a tunnel and out by the golf course and up a road to the first aid station where we were greeted with a booming radio and great volunteers. I could tell this was gonna be fun. We then travelled along exposed and rocky single track through the foothills. So far this was great terrain for warming up.

The 50km heard begins (photo by Eugene Smith)

The 50km heard begins (photo by Eugene Smith)

We dropped down a pretty steep section of exposed rock where the trail was barely visible. This was my kind of terrain, technical and cross-country-esque. The narrow trail created another jam with about six or seven runners and I was in the back. I saw some boulders on the side of the trail and took to skipping across them and past all the runners. The burst of energy felt great and I cruised on down the steep trail, arms flailing and feet skiing down the loose terrain, chasing that rabbit!

We had dropped elevation a good bit so, of course, now we had to climb. Some narrow switchbacks caused some more jams. This was a good place to gauge how I would tackle the climbs. I would run until I caught up with someone and if they were running I would stop and hike. If I could keep up by hiking then I would keep hiking, otherwise I’d run. I was surprised at how often my hiking pace was fast enough to keep up and sometimes even pass them. Power hiking really helps a lot in these races. Usually one can hike faster than “running” but expend way less energy and even recover. My strategies were starting to come together.

We popped out of the trees again on Camp May road were a couple of girls were directing traffic. They guided us up the steep trail and said the aid station was just at the top, not down here with them. I joked with them saying, “don’t tell me you forgot to bring aid!” They giggled and I pushed on up the hill. The second station had watermelon that sounded pretty good. It hit the spot. I had purposefully drunk most of my two bottles before arriving here. I wanted to be well hydrated for the climb and I knew I could only carry two more bottles for the next seven miles and 3000 feet of climbing. Staying hydrated was going to be important today, at one point the temperature was near 80 degrees. As I left the second aid station, I put on the headphones and went into hill climbing gear. The legs felt good so I kept running. The first song that came on was “Ain’t Got No Home” by the Band and sung by Levon Helms. This one had me dancing down the trail!

Not long after the aid station, I felt a little bit of pain in my foot. It wasn’t in my Achilles but on the bottom in my Plantar tendon. It was kind of sharp and I couldn’t believe that Plantar Fasciitis might be flaring up, my worst nightmare. I didn’t freak out but slowed my pace slightly and adjusted my form to try and remedy the pain. I kept with my breath and focused the breathing to my feet and tried to relax them. A few minutes later the pain subsided and it never came back!

The “big” climb was actually pretty casual. Most of it was very runnable and rolled up and down, traversing around the mountain through meadows, aspens and pines. Logs crossed parts of the trail, where I could hop up and run down the log to the amazement of onlookers, another Possum move. I kept running most of the trail unless it was really steep and loose. About two thirds of the way up, the trail went back into some thick trees. This was the steep section. As soon as I saw it I laughed to myself and started a brisk power hike, there was no running this. It was similar to some climbs I’d done Achenbach Canyon, in the Organ Mountains, but in the shade so I didn’t mind it too much. Another strategy from training was to remind myself that nothing could be as bad as the Organ Mountain climbing approaches (steep, loose terrain, bushwacking through cat claw and cacti). So far this has held true. Again the power hike paid off and I kept passing folks as I climbed. When one pops out of this section and crests the ridge, the caldera opens up on the other side. I had to pause for a moment here and soak up the view. Most of the “big” climb was out of the way and I began to realize that I was having a special day.

Approach into Ski Lodge Aid station, mile 17

Approach into Ski Lodge Aid station, mile 17 (photo by Kelly Salopeck)

Near the top, I passed Justin from Las Cruces and exchanged a fist bump. He was moving slow and looked surprised to see me. He had 19 more miles to run than I did so I imagine he was pacing appropriately. I would later find out that he was having a rough day with knew problems, having to walk the last twenty miles! Another runner caught up with me at this point. We ran together into the ski lodge aid station. Part of this section went down the ski run and was loose and steep. I ran/skied down sideways and could barely slow down enough to make the turn. We ran fast down the steep single track, through the woods. I hadn’t realized this was where my drop bag was until someone handed it to me (great volunteers). I could feel the heat as soon as we got to the aid station and knew I would need the change of clothes, cooling arm sleeves and sun shroud. Again, staying cool and hydrated was going to be important. I changed, losing a little time, grabbed some gels and a slice of watermelon and took off.

A view from up high on the trail (photo by Eugene Smith)

A view from up high on the trail (photo by Eugene Smith)

The next section of about two miles felt the hardest. It was all pretty gradual climbing or rolling terrain but I couldn’t really open up, probably from the “big” climb. Still, I kept moving along and passing folks until the next station at mile 19 and where the 50 mile and 50k courses split. This station had a bucket of cold water. Brilliant! I doused my face and soaked my head. This was so reinvigorating. So much so that I almost took off down into the caldera (the 50 mile course) but another great volunteer caught me and directed me in the right direction. Although the extra miles seemed tempting, I was glad to stick with the shorter course.

Guaje ridge

Guaje ridge

There was a pretty steep climb right out of the station, which allowed me to rest and recover a little. After running on top of Guaje ridge and enjoying the views of the Jemez Mountains, the course started the big descent. Most people’s advice was to run conservatively to the top and then cruise the downhill to the finish. I didn’t know if my quads would hold up for the twelve miles of downhill but I was able to keep a pretty good clip. Those people were right about most of the course being downhill. I was actually hoping for some more climbs so that I could recover a little, but my legs didn’t get much relief. The trail was narrow up on the ridge and dangerous since I kept wanting to gaze out into the mountains and canyons. However, only a small misstep would send one sliding down the mountainside. There were also “You know you’re an ultrarunner if…” signs posted to distract one from the effects of the race at this point. A couple of guys caught up to me at the second to last aid station. I didn’t mind having some company since I’d been running alone for quite a while. They were also moving along quickly and we ran down the ridge together for a while. It felt like we were keeping a pace in the eight minute range or maybe faster. At one point, I chased another rabbit and bounded down the steep, loose, rocky terrain and a bit ahead of the guys. This kind of terrain reminded me a lot of the trails back in Las Cruces so I felt really comfortable having fun and running fast.

Looking down at Los Alamos from the trail, a big decent (photo by Eugene Smith)

Looking down at Los Alamos from the trail, a big decent (photo by Eugene Smith)

The section between the last two aid stations felt long, and it was hot and exposed from the Las Conchas fire last year. I started to see signs one mile away from the “Last Chance Aid Station”. I then remembered that Dan had told/warned me about this aid station. It always had alcohol and I was curious as to how tequila would taste at this point in a run. The signs kept coming, reading: “Last Chance for Wine” and “beer just around the bend”. This mile seemed to take forever but the station had quite the spread with bacon, tater tots, fruit, homemade beer, wine and chilled tequila, all of which was offered generously by the great volunteers. I looked down at my watch and it wasn’t even noon yet! I only had two miles left so I was easily going to come in under seven hours so why not indulge. Here was my chance, so I ordered up a shot of chilled tequila. The volunteers and I were equally curious as I took it down, surprisingly not too bad. I was no worse for having taken it but didn’t really get a buzz either.

Shortly after leaving the aid station, I caught up with the guy I’d run into the ski lodge with. He’d been ahead of me for a while but he was slowing down a lot when we hit the tunnel again. I knew I would finish under seven hours, but I was still feeling okay and the trail was fairly flat, so I kept running.  Maybe the tequila was kicking in! The last little bit is a steep, loose, rocky section where the trail has eroded about three feet down. A lady described this as an Indian staircase and it required some more hiking. There were people at the top cheering you on as you surmounted the last climb. The last few hundred feet were flat, allowing one to run in looking strong as the crowd at the Posse Shack cheered. I looked up at the clock and I was a bit shocked to see it reading 6:22 and I still felt pretty good. I guess I underestimated myself. I ran the whole race strong without injury, finished feeling good and well under the goal of seven hours. I concluded, I had indeed had the best day of running of my life.

First time ultra finishers: Larry, Scott (did not train for this race!) and myself.

First time ultra finishers: Larry, Scott (off the couch champion!) and myself. (photo by Kelly Salopeck)

I want thank the Las Cruces running crew (Eugene, Dan, Greg, Larry, Ben and Abigail) for providing company and motivation on runs; Ryan for acupuncture and Dedra for amazing yoga practice; and Eugen, Larry and Kelly for pictures. Y’all are great!

Some more photos here: Jim Stein Photography

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