I look at my watch as I stop to catch my breath and let my heart rate slow down. This 10,400 foot mountain isn’t getting any lower and I’m not getting any younger so I better get a move on. I’m obsessed with my time today as I run the Jemez Mountain 50 Mile Trail Run. With over 11,000 feet of total elevation gain, it is one of the hardest 50 milers in the country.
The upside is that the scenery is spectacular here in the mountains surrounding Los Alamos, NM. Water and wind weathered canyons fan out from the peaks which are actually the rim of a collapsed volcanic crater or caldera. The town sits on top of a series of mesas and is divided by canyons with sheer walls made from eroded tuff (volcanic ash), pumice, lava and rock. The rock is formed into all sorts of spectacular shapes and hoodoos that are shaded with hues of red, brown, tan and gray.
The race started an hour before the sun came up so we used our headlamps for the first hour. From the Sheriff’s Posse Shack in Los Alamos, the trail dropped runners into one of the canyons for a while and then snaked around the perimeter of town. There were several short, but extremely precipitous descents and ascents as we crossed several deep gorges. We ran underneath some very tall ponderosa pines and then reached a section of second-growth forest. This area is recovering from the Las Conchas fire of 2011 and I have enjoyed watching the trees grow taller since I run this race almost every year.
I continue my upward push to the top of Pajarito Mountain, but my legs feel rubbery, my lungs are burning, and my oxygen deprived brain is making my head swim. Before long I start to feel very drowsy so I take a gel to help boost my energy. This climb is over 3000 feet in just eight miles, but that’s not all. After looping around for many miles, we come back to this section and climb the mountain again.
I finally arrive on the ridge where several communication towers are located. One would think this is the top, but I know from previous years that this is not the case. Luckily my drowsiness has subsided and my spirit is lifting knowing that I will be on the peak shortly. I continue up a steep sun exposed gravel road and arrive at the top of some ski slopes. The ski runs are aptly named Headache, Breathless and The Confusions, which is how I feel right now. The trail veers right into the forest, continues through the ski area and then takes a left onto an ambiguous vertical route over some rocky steps. In a few more minutes I arrive at the rim of the Valles Caldera.
I look at my watch again to see how I’m doing on time. I haven’t taken many pictures this morning because I’m concerned about making the 5:00PM cutoff at mile 38 (Ski Lodge second time). While peering into the expansive crater, I remember an interesting tidbit that I learned from watching Stephen Hawking’s Genius the other night on PBS. Time moves faster the further away from the center of gravity you are. In the show, a test was performed with highly accurate atomic clocks placed at different elevations (6580 ft difference for 23 hours) on Earth which showed a difference in time.
Read more here: Project GREAT 2016a (General Relativity Einstein Anniversary Test)
So that means that here at 10,400 feet, Earth’s gravitational pull is actually weaker causing my time to speed up. This is known as time dilation. So there are two things going for me right now —gravity is weaker and time’s moving faster. OK, I know, that’s completely ridiculous since the effect is so negligible, but it is still fun to think about.
Nevertheless, one very important consideration in time dilation is the global positioning system that you rely on to track your location, mileage and elevation change. GPS uses satellites with synchronized atomic clocks that are accurate to 20-30 nanoseconds (one NS = a billionth of a second). A one billionth of a second mistake from a satellite is equal to a one foot error in your location on Earth.
Furthermore, Wired Magazine writes, “The satellites are also some of the most important technology using lessons learned from Einstein, who taught us that clocks outside a gravitational well will run faster than those inside of it because of the warping of space-time. An opposite effect comes from the fact that GPS satellites move at 14,000 kilometers per hour…meaning that they experience a slight time dilation making their clocks run slow relative to one at rest on the ground. The two effects taken together mean that the clock on a GPS satellite runs about 38 microseconds faster each day than ones here on Earth.”
|Sangre De Cristo Mts near Santa Fe, NM|
After pondering all this for several trillion picoseconds, I decide that I can spare a few minutes to enjoy the view and snap a couple of pictures. The caldera is a huge grassy meadow surrounded by tree covered peaks dotted with a few remnants of snow. The wind makes it feel cool up here so I start down the mountain. The trail takes a turn onto a ski slope where another lady is side stepping down the slope because it is so steep. I opt to keep my feet straight and parallel hoping that my Altra Lone Peaks have enough tread left on them to give me some traction.
After getting down the steepest part I’m able to run, but the footing is rough with high grass growing in between concealed rocks. There are also tufts of bunch grass increasing the threat of an ankle roll. I quickly lose a great deal of altitude and eventually transition onto a mountain bike single-track trail through the forest. Finally I arrive at the ski lodge aid station at mile 18. It’s 10am; five hours have passed.
I do my usual routine after getting my drop bag. Apply sunscreen, fill water bottles and eat lots of fresh fruit. I also grab a baggie of salami from my bag before departing. The next stretch is not too steep compared to what I just climbed, but the uphill requires some walking. Before you know it, I see a runner with a wan look on his face heading back to the aid station I just left. I can only assume that he is throwing in the towel. Having to tackle more hills after climbing over a mountain can be very disheartening. We’ve all been there or will be if you participate in this sport long enough.
In a few miles, I reach my least favorite part of the course. A crumbly near vertical rock and dirt face known as Nate’s Nemesis. Here you do a butt slide or side step down the first part until you can veer right into the trees to reach a little better footing. Trekking poles are a good idea here, but I don’t have any. I meet another guy named Skelmo before descending the treacherous slope and wait for him to get part way down lest I take a tumble and take him out with me. My feet begin to skid, dislodging a few rocks that go bouncing down to the bottom. I use my hands in places to keep from sliding too fast so I don’t lose complete control. Luckily I make it down unscathed where I catch up to Skelmo.
We run together through the caldera on a dirt road and share battle stories of some of our ultrarunning adventures. The road is mostly flat, but has a few uphills that we walk. This lush mountain meadow known as the Valle Grande has been used by ranchers since the 1800s and the surrounding forest was heavily logged until the area became a national preserve in 2000. The caldera is flecked with ponds, hot springs and volcanic domes while miles of fishing streams meander through the countryside.
Check out Skelmo’s video blog here.
We hit a long downhill section so I take advantage and keep a steady running pace for a while. In no time, we spot the aid station in the distance. I arrive at ten minutes before noon which is ten minutes earlier than last year. The next stretch takes us beside a picturesque pond and through a rutted marshy field. There isn’t a trail, just orange flags marking a way up and out of the caldera. Soon we are laboring up another exceptionally steep and rocky slope through a forest of burned trees. I can feel the burn in my quads and my searing lungs are working overtime.
Skelmo is in the lead, but soon he stops to rest on a log. Since he has never run this race he asks me, “Is that the top up there or is it a false summit?” I say, “I believe we are pretty close to the top.” He then asks, “What’s on the other side?” “We will hit a nice runnable trail that goes along a stream,” I answer. “It takes us all the way down to the bottom of the mountain.” I then ask, “Are you feeling OK?” “Yes,” he replies, “this just really sucks; I want to get it over with.” I agree with him and then we start slogging uphill again.
It’s slow going, but we finally make the top which is a great relief. We begin our descent down a grassy slope that soon turns into a trail. I can hear a trickle of water down in the canyon below that gets louder as I run. My friend is having some toe pain due to the downhill pounding so he lets me go in front. I have a really good time on this section and just let gravity do the work. A steep slope drops off to my right so I stop several times to look down into the canyon at the little stream and waterfalls below. The sun is high now, beating down and heating the canyon like an oven. I’m tempted to take a dip in the creek, but the clock is still ticking.
I keep running along the path where huge boulders are strewn about willy-nilly and cliffs line the left side. I come to a runner who is sitting on a rock and ask if he is OK. He sees the buff I’m wearing around my face to protect it from the sun. “I see you wearing that; I think I’ll dip my bandana in the stream and tie it around my neck.” The heat is definitely starting to wear on folks, but he assures me that he is all right.
Eventually I end up in the canyon bottom where I cross back and forth across the little stream for a while. I climb out and continue through a wooded section and make it into the next aid station (mile 31). My watch reads 1:34. Not bad. I have a drop bag here, so put on some sun screen and get a flask with chia seeds. I hydrate them with Tailwind sports drink and grab a few gels for the road. I spot some watermelon on the snack table and snatch some, greedily shoving it into my parched mouth. There’s nothing better on a hot day during an ultra!
I leave with a group of four, but they are faster than me and in a while I am all alone. My goal is to climb the seven miles back up Pajarito Mountain and run down to the lodge in two and a half hours. I reach a narrow craggy canyon, a brook singing through the cut; scorched half trees sticking up like toothpicks in a cheese tray.
A couple is roped to a precipice practicing some rock climbing moves. “Is that the shortcut to the top?” I ask. They give me a smile and do a polite laugh. Since I’m feeling better about my time, I pause to take pictures of several small waterfalls and the surrounding boulders. I start my long climb where the heat is stifling. After several miles I can see the town behind me in the distance. I approach another runner who is continuously coughing and clearing his throat. I’ll have that same cough tomorrow and for several days after. It comes from sucking dry mountain air all day.
After several hours and many feet of elevation gain, I’m back on top of the mountain having taken a minuscule leap forward in time compared to my friends at sea level. A chilly wind whispers through the trees bringing relief from the afternoon heat. After a few minutes spent enjoying the view, I run down the ski slope, wind through the forest, clamber over a fallen log and come to the ski lodge (mile 38). It’s 4:15; 45 minutes before the cutoff. I get my headlamp out of my drop bag hoping that I’ll be able to beat the sun to the finish line. After having my bottles filled and eating some fruit a lady asks if I want a popsicle. “Are you kidding?” I say laughing. I finish my business and eat my popsicle as I walk out of the aid station. I don’t like to waste time and prefer putting miles behind me as I eat.
In a mile or so, I see a race volunteer accompanying a guy with trekking poles walking towards me; another casualty of the race. I ask him what’s wrong and he replies, “I’m chafing real bad, I can’t finish.” I try to encourage him by offering the body glide that I carry in my vest but he says, “It’s too late the damage is already done.” He thanks me all the same and I continue on.
I get to another aid station with only 12 more miles to go. Just when you think all the tough climbs are behind you, they aren’t. I start another arduous climb up a rocky straight road and roll along the ridge of the mountains for a while. I transition onto a narrow single-track path that clings to the side of a tree covered mountain, the side gradient angling downward at an alarming rate. Fine loose gravel makes the footing slippery in spots; a fall here would send you ass over teakettle down the mountain, pin-balling off the trees as you go.
As soon as I think it, it happens. On a downhill part, I skid on some loose gravel which sends me backwards. I’m able to right myself, but that just propels me forward and out of control. In a flash I’m upright but trying to get my legs to catch up to the rest of my body. I get to a flat section and am able to recover. That could have really ruined my day! I come to a spot with a nice view. In the distance I can see the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site of the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos probably wouldn’t exist had it not been for this important development in a critical time in our history.
By this time I’m completely exhausted and can’t wait to get this run over with. I feel like I’m running with all my might, but getting nowhere. The trail goes on and on forever. At last I reach another aid station with only eight more downhill (mostly) miles to go. Normally that should take me several hours or less, but after climbing Pajarito Mountain twice, my leg muscles are spent.
After leaving the aid station, I become grumpy because I haven’t been eating enough. My stomach is not happy because of all the water, electrolyte drink and gels I have had today. Luckily I brought some candied ginger along which helps to settle my stomach. I run and walk and run and walk as the sun gets closer to the horizon and I begin to approach town. Surprisingly I’m able to catch up to a couple and pass them. I wind down some switchbacks into a canyon and can sense that I’m getting close to the end.
A sign reads, “Aid Station 1 Mile”. How long could it take? Well, it seems like an eternity and just when I think I’m almost there another sign reads, “Aid Station 1/2 Mile Ahead”. I continue on switchbacks that take me to the bottom of the canyon where I cross over a stream bed to reach the last aid station. Only two miles to go. Will I beat the sun or need to use my headlamp? I waste little time and get out of there so I can get this race done.
Unfortunately I have to climb up the other side of the canyon so I walk quite a bit. I move as quickly as I can and reach a flat section. I can hear cars driving along a nearby road and then approach a tunnel that takes me under it. I’m able to run for a while and then reach the last hill back up to the Sheriff’s Posse Shack. I still haven’t turned on my light. I climb up through a narrow water smoothed gully using my hands in places to help me up some rocky steps. Spectators cheer for me as I reach the top and then it’s just a short run to the finish line where I cross in 15:19:47, but it really only felt like 15:19:46 and 1258 nanoseconds (give or take ). See you on the trail.
|My finisher's collection. Handmade Toya Pottery (Jemez Pueblo).|
P.S. Thank you Toya family of the Jemez Pueblo for the awesome handmade pottery award. Congratulations to all the runners who finished Jemez this year. Thank you to the race staff and volunteers who do such a great job keeping us on course, fed, hydrated, safe and happy! As always, thank you to my family who support all of my running adventures.