Why isn’t a trail ultramarathon ever the distance it’s supposed to be? A 100 is never 100 miles, a 50K is never 31.0686 miles, etc. Do you think a 50 miler could ever be 49.5 miles? Of course not, that would make it too easy. The Jemez Mountain 50 Miler is no different and, although I signed up for 50 miles, I’ll have the opportunity to slog 52.2 up and down the high altitude skyline around Los Alamos, NM.
A damp chill is in the air when I arrive at the starting area with my loyal crew, Cara and Maddie. Rain and thunderstorms hit this area last night and the weather forecast for today is sketchy. One website says 30% chance of isolated showers while another says 80% chance of severe thunderstorms and rain. Hmmm...how should I dress? It’s cool now, but is expected to warm into the 60s this afternoon. As I look around I see a lot of shorts and sleeveless shirts. Oh yeah, and Anton Krupicka is here. You know that fast dude that only runs in shorts and shoes.
At 5am it’s still dark but, with an “alright, off you go” from the race director, we set out with headlamps lighting the way. Once past some horse corrals, we enter a single track trail where we must run in a queue. The stream of headlights twinkling through the forest is quite a sight. I pass a few folks, but mostly just go with the flow. What’s the hurry? I have nothing else to do today.
The trail is hard packed dirt intersected by tree roots, but soon gives way to volcanic tuff. The cement like ash has deep narrow grooves from years of mountain bike travel. We run through a tunnel that takes us under a neighborhood road and enter a boulder strewn canyon. I’m finally starting to wake up as the need for my headlamp wanes.
After passing through an aid station we climb for a while and then drop down into a deep canyon only to ascend a very steep trail on the other side. Soon we pass through land owned by Los Alamos National Lab where a sign prohibits photography. (You know that will be hard for me, so I’ll just take one.) Another very steep trail leads us down and across a highway where we eventually arrive at another aid station.10 miles are behind me, but the most difficult ascent awaits; 3000 ft of elevation gain which tops out on Pajarito Mountain at 10,400 ft elev.
I mostly power hike feeling pretty good except for a little rubberiness in my legs. I dropped out of this race several years ago due to altitude sickness so hope to redeem myself today. As I plod along I hear someone retching in the trees behind me and am thankful that it’s not me today. After an hour of climbing I can see the top of the ridge line and some sort of antenna so figure I’m near the peak. When I get up there, I’m greeted by Joe of Tejas Trails who points and tells me, “it’s that way.” DAMN! Not the top. I see people still climbing a dirt road up to the ski hill.
When it seems that the uphill grind will never end, I arrive at the rim of a collapsed volcano crater known as the Valles Caldera. The view is marvelous, but I notice dark clouds building to the west. Rain on the way? Well at least I get to descend now. The steep rocky ski slope is meant for skiing not running, but somehow I manage to stay upright. Eventually I make it onto a single track path that takes me down to the ski lodge aid station at mile 18.6.
|View of the Valles Caldera|
Here I eat watermelon, oranges and have a drink of ginger ale, my race beverage of choice. I slather on some sunblock for good measure and blast out of there. I have to make it to the next aid station by 12:30 or they will make me switch to the 50K distance. I look forward to running downhill, but quickly discover that I have more climbing to do. I fast walk for a while and enjoy traveling through a lush meadow framed by stands of aspen and pines.
|The slope down to the Lodge|
I make it to the next aid with an hour to spare so prepare for my descent into the caldera. The trail...um...or lack thereof, is known as Nate’s Nemesis and is little more than a crumbly rocky treacherous way to get down. If the pitch were any greater, it would qualify as a bonafide cliff. Seriously.
I start sliding down the precipice keeping my feet sideways while using my hands to grab onto rocks. Once I hit some soft sand, I turn my feet forward and, while squatting down, slide on one shoe just like we used to do at the roller skating rink while listening to “Stayin’ Alive”. Remember that “shoot the duck” move? Come on Gen-Xers, THINK! This gets me through the gnarliest part until I can stand up and flail the rest of the way down.
Once at the bottom, I get to run through the largest meadow I have ever seen. A dirt jeep road rolls gently through hill and dale with an occasional pond enhancing the picturesque scene. I make up some time on this stretch and pass a few others along the way. In no time I reach the 25 mile aid station, the halfway point of my journey. Oh wait, it’s really a 52 mile race isn’t it? Better to not think about it.
I hear thunder in the distance, the sky has darkened and volunteers are setting up tarps. Looks like rain. I waste little time and continue down the road and then follow a series of orange flags marking the way across the grassy pasture. The line runs past a small lake into the woods and up to a saddle on the rim of the ancient crater. There is no trail; just a marked route through stands of firs and ponderosa pines littered with burned logs and elk turds. It seems there is a fire in this region almost every year.
The rain starts slowly at first, but then picks up to a steady drizzle. I stop and don a waterproof jacket that I tucked in my hydration pack. Luckily this morning I decided to keep my long wind pants on. The going is slow because of the steep terrain and the need to step or climb over downed trees. Eventually I get to the top and start my descent. There is just a faint rocky pathway at first, but then it turns into a runnable trail.
|In the Caldera|
By now the temperature has dropped and a driving cold rain is spoiling my day. Nevertheless, I’m hot from the climb and my glasses start to steam up. I try to dry them with a damp bandanna, but it’s no use. I take them off and realize how poor my eyesight is. I continue running barely able to see the trail. There is a sharp drop-off to my right so I’m careful not to trip lest I end up in the gully below.
This really is not fun anymore and I have thoughts about dropping from the race. Cara and Maddie are supposed to meet me at the next aid station which will make it easy to leave the course. I have a rule to never make a decision to drop while ascending a mountain. I suppose the same could be true for making the decision during a cold downpour. I will just wait to see how the weather conditions are when I arrive.
My core is warm enough, but my hands are starting to go numb so I pull my long shirt sleeves around them to try to warm them up. Large globs of wet snow mixed with rain begin to fall for a spell but then change back to rain the lower I go. It seems to be taking forever to cover a measly six miles but I dare not look at my watch. I have to arrive by 3:30 or I’ll miss the cutoff. My spirit is broken, but I know I have to attempt to finish this race even if it does mean another climb up Pajarito.
Finally the aid station tent comes into view. It’s 2:20, but there is no sign that the rain is going to relinquish. When I arrive I don’t see Cara and Maddie anywhere; just a bunch of folks huddled under a tarp. Just then I overhear the aid station captain say, “The race director has called off the race because of heavy snow up on Pajarito Mountain.” Cara pops out from under the shelter with little Maddie draped in a huge rain coat. I was never more pleased to see my loyal crew.
I was completely shocked that the weather had turned for the worst, but was relieved that I didn’t have to trudge up that mountain through a blizzard. The safety of my fellow runners was my main concern though, as many didn’t seem prepared for the elements. Later, I did hear reports of several runners who went to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia. Stopping the race was the right decision.
|The view of the mountains from our hotel|
|Sangre de Cristo Mts near Santa Fe following the storm|
Had the race not been called, would I have finished the 50 miles...I mean 52? I believe I could have made the ski lodge cut-off by 5PM and it would have been mostly downhill from there. Of course there is only one way to find out if I have what it takes to finish a Jemez 50 mile course. Third time’s the charm.
Thanks to my lovely family, Cara and Maddie for braving the elements to support my crazy adventure and for all the volunteers and race staff who put on an outstanding event.