About my blog

Welcome to my trail running site. I enjoy being on the trail where I can take in nature and clear my mind. I prefer running in the mountains, but anywhere rural will do. I have completed four 100 mile trail races and many other ultramarathons. I spend countless hours running in the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, TX. I call it "going to church". I'm a member of Team Red, White and Blue. "Enriching the lives of America's veterans."

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Running Adventure Gone Wrong

Sucking wind, I plod 10 steps further up the overgrown slope nearing 10,000’ elevation stopping for five deep breaths of thin air. I take 10 more steps assisted by my trekking poles and stop again to let my thumping heart catch up. This is the brutalist 50K I’ve ever run with cross country sections, steep climbs, and 8000’ of vert on rugged unforgiving terrain. There is no trail here, just an old dozer fire line that was cut straight up the mountain. The temperature is cooling the higher I go while dark ominous clouds billow overhead. Thunder is rumbling in the distance and the last place you want be in a lightning storm is on top of a mountain. Nevertheless, I continue my upward slog towards Cerro Pelado Peak (10,112’).

Jemez Mountains and Valle Caldera Preserve, NM

The Wildland 52K Benefit Run was designed to show the rigors that firefighters go through. I’m lucky that I’m not wearing a heavy pack and humping tools and equipment through the backcountry as our firefighting heroes do. This is a small, rather low key race where half the proceeds go to two nonprofits that benefit firefighters and their families in need. A great cause that makes my misery all the more worthwhile.



About 10 of us started out at daybreak from Jemez Springs, NM and quickly reached the Jemez Historic Site, ruins of a 500 year old native village and San José de los Jémez Mission built by the Spanish in the early 1600s. I visited the day before and enjoyed meditating in the cool air of a large kiva, a circular underground room used by Native Americans in spiritual ceremonies and social events. 

The mission church
Large Kiva
Eventually we climbed a steep eroded trail with some switchbacks and entered the Santa Fe National Forest. I was running with Becky, a local runner who had run the race the year before. She is a also a biologist who did research in this area and knows the terrain well. When we crested the high point and started to run down she stopped at the side of the forest service road and pointed out an amazing sight that I would have totally missed. Protruding up from a steep canyon below were long slender hoodoos, smooth knobby rocks balancing on top of each one which looked like ET’s fingers reaching out for a healing touch.

ET Fingers

We made a few more turns onto some steep technical trails and then passed a beautiful waterfall, rock hopped across the Jemez River and headed into the Jemez Falls Campground, the main staging area and finish. This eight mile section had some tough footing and gained over 2000’.

Jemez Falls

The second leg was a 4.5 mile loop with some gullied downhill sections. I started to get hot so stopped to shed a layer and Becky passed me. Soon I came to the McCauley Warm Springs, beautiful clear pools connected by mini cascades. I had to stop for some pictures and then had a hard time figuring out which way to go. After a few minutes of scouting I found the course flagging and continued on trying to run fast to make up for my dawdling. Well this soon came to a screeching halt when I left the trail and met two volunteers who said, “You’re going up that way, we’re not kidding!” There was no trail just a steep brushy mountain. “Are you sure you’re not kidding?” I queried. “Yes”, they replied, “There’s another person at the top.” 

Springs

I started up using my poles to help keep my balance. I stopped occasionally to look for the next pink flagging so I didn’t wander off course. When I didn’t see any I simply climbed in a straight line until I spotted the next marker. A lady was taking photos at the top of the first pitch and then I followed a ridge for a while until I reached a steep escarpment where two guys were waiting at the top — or should I say rubber necking, phones in hand, waiting to capture video of one of us going ass-over-tea-kettle to the bottom of the mountain. The climb was quite ridiculous and I’m sure they were thinking, why do ya’ll sign up for this? For the free T-shirt of course! I finally made it to the top unscathed and transitioned onto a dirt road that took me back to the staging area. 



After filling up my water bottles and eating potatoes and fruit, I took off on the main loop which is 20 miles long with 4500’ of climbing mostly in the first 10 miles. I passed by the waterfall again, crossed the river and climbed back up to the "ET fingers". I reached the forest service road that I was on in the first leg, but turned left going in a counterclockwise direction this time. I ran hard because I was concerned about a 12:30 cutoff time at the next aid station. I didn’t stop to take any pictures and eventually I caught up to Becky. 

Becky, my new trail friend
Horned toad lizard
We turned off the road and went down a steep ravine and then back up the other side heading towards the dozer line. The trail took us around some private property along a fence line and we made it into the aid station at around mile 19 with 30 minutes to spare. After leaving we continued our upward trek where there were good views of the Jemez River Valley and tufa (volcanic ash) cliffs far in the distance. Soon we started climbing the dozer line miserably creeping higher and higher into dark grey skies.


The weather forecast is only calling for scattered thunderstorms, but I know from previous races in the Jemez Mountains that anything can happen. Especially at 10,000 feet, mountains create their own weather and snowstorms can happen year round. I continue my climb up the precipitous slope as thunder comes and goes. Maybe it’s moving off in another direction. Becky is behind me and we both stop frequently to let our heart and lungs recover for a few seconds before continuing on.

Ascending the dozer line
Eventually we make it to a ridge where fire scarred trees stand like sentinels guarding the sacred mountain from intruders. Perhaps we have angered the mountain gods because the thunder is growing louder. There isn’t much of a trail, but grasses and small yellow flowers blanket the ridge. Soon we reach a flat grassy meadow and then pick up a single track trail. The trail is lined with bushes teeming with bright red ripe berries; probably the kind bears like to eat. I run a little faster so my bear bell will jingle a little louder. It doesn’t seem to matter though, because the thunder is drowning out the sound. Before long large plops of rain start to fall.



A volunteer meets us on the trail and tells us that we are almost at the aid station. I stop to put on my rain shell; Becky passes me. The rain falls harder while lightning and thunder become more frequent. I run up a dirt road that leads to a fire lookout tower and get under the aid station tent where there is a massage table along with the usual snack and drink table. Hail is coming down now mixed with sideways blowing rain. “Would you like a massage?”, a lady asks. It isn’t exactly massage weather, so I take a raincheck and opt to get my water bottles filled while I eat a little bit.


We get out of there as quickly as possible while the storm intensifies. Becky shows me the way back down the fire road and trail where we continue our loop. Pea and marble size hail pelt us with vengeance stinging my hands since I’m using my trekking poles to keep my balance in the slippery mud and ice. We really must have pissed off the mountain gods, because this is truly horrible. At times the hail comes down in bursts and Becky lets out loud screams, “OUCH!!” It smarts terribly and we decide to stand under a tree for a few minutes, but this brings no relief and, to make matters worse, we begin to get chilled.


I realize that we are in a serious predicament. Two wet runners, worn out from a day of mountain running are caught in a cold hail storm and the risk for hypothermia grows the longer we stand here. Moving is the better option so we get going all the while being pelted by hail stones. How long could it last anyway? Most thunder storms move through fairly quickly. Soon the hail turns to rain for a short period only to turn back to hail, this time coming down even harder! The trail has turned into a creek and spots are very slippery with deep puddles. My toes and hands are completely numb. 

OUCH! That hail stings!  (Photo: Becky Oertel)
By now there are inches of ice on the trail that float on the deep puddles so there is no way of knowing what we are stepping in. My poles, that I almost didn’t bring, are very helpful in keeping from falling into the mud. Suddenly Becky says, “This downhill section is going to be awful.” We turn onto a power line trail that goes straight down the mountainside. I offer her one of my poles, but she declines since she has never used them before. I start the descent first and gingerly make my way down when I see a bright flash of light and hear an immediate clap of thunder. I look up and notice that we are directly under high voltage power lines.

Well, I start to realize that this might be my last day on The Good Earth and, while I am very frightened, at least I know that I’ve lived my life in such a manner that I can go in peace. I continue to clamber downward through the soup of water, mud, sticks and slush moving as fast as I can. Another flash and sudden loud shock wave motivates me to move even faster. FLASH! BOOM! CRACK! It seems to take forever, but we finally make it down the power line trail and turn left onto a dirt road. Large puddles have formed, but they are impossible to see for the layer of hail covering the ground. I run through the pea soup and my toes turn to popsicles in an instant.
The rain and hail begin to lighten up and then we reach a pond and marshy meadow. A  creek is flowing deep with many rivulets spreading out throughout the marsh. We try to cross the stream and sink down almost to our knees risking losing a shoe or both! Becky scouts around for a better route and we have to pick our way through tufts of grass covered in inches of hail. There are no trees or rocks to put course markings on so we have a hard time figuring out which way to go. Occasionally we spot some pink ribbons far in the distance and pick our way through the marsh towards them.

The meadow (Photo: Becky Oertel)
Our morale sinks very low at this point and I am really glad to have Becky’s company. The beauty of the landscape though, is unmatched and no matter how bad it gets in trail races, you are always surrounded by inspiring scenery. The snow white meadow hemmed in on all sides by majestic fir trees; fog rising slowly boosts my mood. We trudge on and find a few more course markings and become elated when we finally find a well marked trail. The rain has completely stopped and the air is warming now.


Slowly my hands and feet thaw out and I start to believe that I’m not going to die after all. Running is possible now so I pick up my pace hoping to make up for the slow going through the hail storm and marsh. Pretty soon we come to an excellent vista, The Valle Caldera Preserve with the large grassy Valle Grande in clear view. The Caldera is a collapsed crater of a super volcano similar to Yellowstone. There are large meadows,volcanic cones and many hot springs and mineral formations in this area. Along Hwy 4 north of Jemez Springs is a popular spot known as the Soda Dam, a formation made of travertine, calcium carbonate.

Valle Grande
We stop for some pictures and then continue on chatting about the harrowing storm we just survived. The route here is a mostly downhill forest service road with rocks and eroded gullies. Should be smooth sailing now and we are approaching the last aid station with only about 7-8 miles to the finish line. The steepest and most treacherous terrain is behind us.

Soda Dam on Hwy NM4, Jemez Springs, NM
Before long, I hit a steeper downhill section of run-of-the-mill fire road when suddenly, in a split second, I feel my right shoulder digging into the dirt and The Good Earth has been tilted on its side. I guess my toe caught a rock or something and with every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Gravity is definitely a thing and I didn’t even have time to know what hit me. One second I was running merrily along and the next I was on the ground. I roll over to assess the damage and don't really feel any severe pain, but my shoulder doesn't feel quite right. Becky was behind me and saw the whole thing so she quickly comes to my assistance. I sit for a minute and then stand up trying to move my arm. Any movement is really painful and so I just keep it by my side.


We continue at a walking pace until I can get my wits about me. We are no more than two miles to the next aid station so we fast walk with a little bit of light jogging. I weigh my options and consider finishing the race with a potential dislocated shoulder. After everything we’ve been through today though, I think better of it and decide to throw in the towel. I've finished a lot of tough races and know I’ll be back for more trail bliss (and misery) in the future.


I’m very grateful for Becky’s help and am glad I’m not having to walk out alone. Before long we make it to the aid station where Becky goes on to finish her race. A paramedic is there who checks me out and asks if I want an ambulance. I decline, but ask for a ride back to the finish area where I had camped the night before. My running adventure is over now. Despite the trials and tribulations of the day, I enjoyed the race immensely. We have to take the bad with the good. The friendly runners, race staff and volunteers make our sport so meaningful and I’m forever thankful for Becky, the EMT and volunteers who helped me out.


I go back to my camping spot put on dry clothes, pop a few acetaminophen and take down my little A-Frame tent with one arm throwing it in the trunk of my car. A five hour left arm-drive later I find myself in my hometown of El Paso at the emergency room where they confirm that I have a “severely dislocated shoulder”. “I’ll still be able to run tomorrow, right?”, I ask. With minimal pain meds, by my request, they start wrenching on my arm trying to put it back in place while I ponder which race to sign up for next. Soon the pain becomes too much though, and I finally cry “Uncle!” The next thing I know I wake up with my arm in a sling. 

Shortly before my fall
In 30 years of running and 15 of running ultramarathon trail races, I’m fortunate to have not suffered any major injuries. Run long enough though, and something is bound to happen, right?. The medical staff is optimistic that I will heal quickly and I can’t wait to return to the Jemez next year to see the rest of the Wildland 52K course. Congratulations Becky on winning 1st place female!


See you on the trail.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

100 Miles of healing in the Borderland, El Paso Strong!

El Paso, TX is a beautiful city that wraps around the largest urban wilderness park in the US, Franklin Mountains State Park. North Franklin Peak tops out at 7192’ with views of three states and two countries. Just across the southern border is our sister city of Juarez, Mexico. Overlooking El Paso, Juarez and Sunland Park, NM is a 29’ tall statue of Jesus of Nazareth on the peak of Mt Cristo Rey. Thousands of devout Christians climb the smooth trail leading to the top several times per year. The Rio Grande slices through the middle of the two large cities and a levee trail heads north. These trails and mountains are my home and where I go for therapy and to meditate, heal, take in nature and ponder everything that is great about my life and the Borderland. I cover a lot of miles in this beautiful place and recently ran 100 miles in a week.
Mt Cristo Rey 
N. Franklin Peak

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Running Ridgway State Park Colorado

Last month I was supposed to run the San Juan Solstice 50 Miler in Lake City, CO, but like Hardrock 100, it was cancelled this year. Massive amounts of snowfall and avalanches in the San Juan Mountains have left many trails and high passes inaccessible. In addition, avalanche debris threatened to clog streams and rivers in and around Lake city which could cause flooding. This race has been on my bucket list for many years and I was excited to finally have the opportunity to run this year. Fortunately, I have the option of rolling my entry over to next year so I will get to run anyway; God willing and the creek don’t rise.

Sneffels Range, San Juan Mountains


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Bandelier National Monument

I recently had a few short adventures in Bandelier National Monument in white Rock, NM which is next door to Los Alamos, NM. I ran the Jemez Mountain Trail 50 Miler last month and decided to visit this nearby park. Parking is limited so they require you to take a free shuttle bus at the White Rock Visitor Center. Since I was saving my legs for 11,000’ of elevation gain the next day, I decided to walk the short main loop trail to see the cliff dwellings and out to the Alcove House (2.5 miles total). 
Frijoles Canyon with the Jemez Mountains in the background
Visitor Center
Big Kiva
I started my hike at the Bandelier Visitor Center that sits adjacent to cliffs of tufa or volcanic ash. The cliffs are pocked with honeycomb like weathering known as tafoni. Some of the holes were enlarged to create cavates (pronounced CAVE-eights) by ancestral pueblo peoples who lived in the cliffs and surrounding area. This indigenous population also built structures beside the caves where they thrived for many years by hunting and growing bean, corn and squash. 

Monday, June 3, 2019

Jemez Mountain 50 Miler 2019

This past Memorial Day Weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to Los Alamos, NM to run the Jemez Mountain 50 Miler. This race is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get. In this area, there can be unpredictable weather, drought, wildfires and even a bear attack. These types of events have forced the race to alter the course almost every year. This year was no different. Although we weren’t allowed to run in the Valle Caldera National Preserve where a woman was attacked by a bear during a marathon several years back, the National Forest Service allowed us to run on previously burned trails that have since been restored.


Valle Caldera National Preserve

The morning weather was a pleasant 50 degrees where about 110 of us started out in the dark with headlamps. In just 30 minutes or so the sky began to lighten and we passed some honeycombed cliffs of tuff (volcanic ash). Close by is the Bandelier National Monument with similar cliffs where ancestral pueblo people built homes carved into the tuff. The beauty of the Jemez is what keeps me coming back year after year.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Lost Dog Trailhead

One morning last year I was running my regular route from the Lost Dog Trailhead in West El Paso, TX when I stumbled upon some survey stakes along the trail. This land, adjacent to the Franklin Mountains State Park, is owned by the city and managed by the Public Service Board (water utilities). Some of it has been sold off for development in the past. I was concerned that the stakes indicated another development plan on my beloved trail system along the foothills of the Franklin Mountains. 

Development along the foothills of the S. Franklin Peak.
The red "box" shows the trails that would be lost.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Grand Canyon R2R2R 2019

A barrage of rockfall startles me as I slowly plod upwards towards the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Rocks rain down crashing through the trees landing in a pile at the base of a cliff where the trail turns a switchback. Parts of the North Kaibab Trail are littered with rocks and boulders and a sign posted earlier warned: “Look and listen for falling rocks…A trail crew is currently working on the slopes…there is a high potential for rockfall. Use caution when hiking in this zone.” Well, what does that mean? Use caution? What am I supposed to do when rocks come down? I didn’t bring my hard hat.


Rocks litter the N. Kaibab Trail