The Rim Trail in Cloudcroft, NM is 31 miles long one way and includes multiple climbs and descents between 8500-9500 feet elevation. Sunspot Scenic Byway parallels the trail so you are never too far from help if something goes awry on your journey. In addition, parking areas and access points are available along the trail which make it easy to drop food and water.
|You can see the Mexican Canyon Trestle as you drive into Cloudcroft, NM|
I recently ran a portion of the trail to get ready for the Flagstaff 50 miler that I’ll be running next month in Arizona. After reading the course description and registering for the race, reality along with a lot of anxiety has set in. The race website states,
“The course features five signifiant climbs...The combination of elevation gain/loss and Flagstaff’s high altitude [7000-9000’] makes the courses very difficult and NOT recommended for beginning trail runners.”
If that isn’t enough to scare you away they HIGHLY recommend that you’ve run a qualifying race before entering. They write,
“The Flagstaff Endurance Runs feature rugged terrain, high elevation, steep climbs, and remote trails. Experience in all of these areas is critical to ensure you are prepared to complete this race safely...The race directors reserve the right to deny entry to runners that are not adequately qualified.”
Those strong words being said, I decided to make the two hour drive to Cloudcroft for a long run on the Rim Trail. I wanted to get an early start because I planned on running for 8-9 hours so I drove up the night before and camped at Deerhead campground which is adjacent to the trailhead. To save time in the morning (and because of a bit of laziness), I decided to skip setting up my tent and opted instead to sleep in my new Honda Fit. The backseat folds down and I fit perfectly. No pun intended.
|Sacramento Mts thistle can grow 6 ft tall and is listed as endangered|
The only snag happened in the morning when I manually unlocked the backdoor to get out of the car. I’m sure the neighbors were amused when, at 6:00am, my horn started to beep. Well, what else are you going to do on a beautiful morning in the mountains? Sleeping in is highly overrated, so you may as well just get up and go hiking. Anyway, I scrambled for my key and started to push buttons until the noise stopped. I have no idea why the car decided to do that; I thought cars only beeped when someone was trying to get in; not out.
|These grow around the campground|
After completing my pre-run morning ritual of completing the three S’s (it’s actually only one S), I was on my way by 7:00am. I quickly cruised past several campgrounds and made it to the first vista where I had a grand view of the desert floor 5000 feet below. After a rocky descent, the single-track became narrow, slick and muddy from a storm that dumped a bunch of rain the evening before. Suddenly a large bird took flight followed by a kerfuffle of many vultures scattering and that is when the stench hit me like a ton of bricks. The overwhelming smell of death. Perhaps a deer or elk was hit by a car from the highway above me and nature’s cleanup crew was busy at work. Needless to say, I picked up my pace. My strategy for this run, in any case, was to keep moving as quickly as possible with minimal breaks. I even limited the amount of photos I could take. I know! Me? I wanted this run to be all about measuring my pace at high altitude and on difficult terrain.
I ran most of the downhill sections and fast walked the steep climbs. I ate salty snacks, Irish soda bread and cream cheese sandwiches while walking and took my chia seed/juice mixture whenever I felt low and needed a boost of energy.
After about three hours I arrived at a dirt road that, according to a national forest publication, should have been mile 11. I looked at my ancient handheld GPS that was jostling around in my pack and it said 8 something. Maybe I read the mileage chart wrong so decided to keep running in one direction until the GPS read 15 miles or until I hit 4.5 hours of running, my goal being a total of at least 30 miles.
I arrived at a stash of food and water that I dropped off the night before, filled up my Camelbak and kept going. Atkinson Field, a lush open meadow surrounded by trees, is a prominent landmark so I checked my GPS mileage which showed a little over 11 miles. At this point It was getting quite warm, but I thought I had enough water to keep going for some time. Soon the muddy trail revealed an interesting track that appeared to be from a barefoot runner, but on closer inspection looked more like a black bear cub. After seeing this I ran much faster, of course, until I hit the next hill.
I climbed a very steep and rocky section and arrived on top of a flat peak with tremendous views of the White Sands National Monument below. I allowed myself a few minutes to take a couple of pictures and was back on the trail. The descent was equally challenging with many tripping hazards. The hard work and humid conditions caused my socks to get damp and now hotspots were developing on the balls of my feet.
|Gypsum dunes of White Sands are in the distance|
I finally made it to the junction of Heart Attack Canyon Trail (T235) which should have been 16-17 miles, but my GPS read 13 and some change. I kept going until my watch read 4.5 hours and then turned around to head back. 14.5 miles...supposedly. I kept eating and drinking while sweating profusely and continued to have some more foot pain. To cope, I remembered a 100 mile ultra-marathon finisher telling me that he had to “disassociate himself from his feet”. I just focused on my task at hand and kept running.
Soon I was out of water though and still had 45 minutes to go before reaching my cache. I made the big climb back up to the peak and then ran down as fast as I could. I remembered a can of ginger ale that I buried under some rocks and told myself that I would take a sitting break when I arrived. I passed by the open meadow again and finally made it to my supplies. The ginger ale was gone in a few seconds and then I chased some snacks down with water. I enjoyed a little break in the shade and grabbed another flask of chia gel and a tangerine.
The last couple of hours were difficult with a few dips in my mood, but I managed by eating the orange and some candied ginger. On one rocky descent I landed wrong and a sharp rock stabbed the side of my foot in the very spot that was already tender. By this time the balls of my big toes were also sore, but I just kept going as fast as I could hoping to return in 9 hours.
I hit a long gradual smooth downhill section that seemed to go on forever and I even started wishing for a hill so I would have an excuse to walk. Well, soon it came true and I was on my way back up. Once at the top, I passed a campground and knew I was one mile away. My watch read 8:56, so I knew I wouldn’t make the 9 hours. Nevertheless, I was back in 9:12, drenched in sweat, tired and hungry.
|I saw this guy while running here last month with my friend Ryan|
When I opened my cooler to get a ginger ale, I saw a bowl of watermelon that I had forgotten about. I figured I would eat a piece or two, but once I started, I couldn’t stop and most of it was gone in less than a minute.
I was irritated about my mileage mixup and wanted to know how long I ran and my average pace. When I got home I looked at some mountain biking websites with gps tracks that confirmed the mileage from the forest service chart. I thought I ran 29 miles, but actually ran closer to 35 averaging around 16 minutes per mile. I know my overall pace will be slower in the Flagstaff 50 miler next month, but I’m still confident that I can finish within the 16 hour cutoff.
|This is how they got logs off the mountain|
The Rim Trail is perfect for high altitude training and brings relief from the summer heat. The trail’s many access points and connecting trails allow for plenty of options and I hope to go back soon to explore some of the side trails. Heart Attack Canyon sounds intriguing don’t you think?
See you on the trail.