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'm a member of Team Red, White and Blue. "Enriching the lives of America's veterans."

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Jemez Mountain 50 Miler

“Third time’s the charm”, as they say. Well, I hope they are right because I’m about to attempt the Jemez Mountain 50 mile course for the third time. My Jemez Mountain Trail Run history goes something like this: 1st year, DNF at mile 32 (altitude sickness); 2nd, DNS (Injury); 3rd, 50K finish in 8:30 (YAY!); 4th, snowstorm called off race; made it to mile 32. I have yet to finish this 50 mile course so hopefully today is my day. What could possibly stop me this year? Wildfire, earthquake, volcanic eruption?

The course partially traverses the Valle Caldera National Preserve which is one of three supervolcanos in the US, the most famous being Yellowstone. According to Fraser Goff (New Mexico Bureau of Geology), "When supervolcanoes explode, they form huge, hot clouds of pumice, ash, crystals, and hot gas, called pyroclastic flows, which radiate outward from the caldera at speeds of 50 to 200 miles per hour…temperatures may easily exceed 1,000° F when the flows come to rest.”  Hmmmmm….better stay hydrated today.

Just getting to the starting line of any ultra is a challenge in itself. Signing up for the race early enough to ensure you get a spot, arranging lodging, work and family schedules, health and other factors determine if you will even be able to run, not to mention proper training. And then there’s that having to arrive at the starting line by 5:00am part. Well I’m here and ready to go despite having my budget motel cancel my reservation two days ago for having a fire code infraction. (Note to self: you get what you pay for.) I’m groggy and nervous as I line up in front of the Sheriff’s Posse Shack in Los Alamos, NM, the “Atomic City”.

Santa Fe ski area in the distance
Without any pomp or circumstance about 150 runners head out in darkness; a train of headlamps bobbing quietly through the forest. The main part of this town is a plateau dissected by several deep canyons. We descend into one and run through it for a while before transitioning onto the Perimeter Trail that takes us around the outskirt of town. 

In less than an hour I’m able to turn off my light and then arrive at an aid station where I promptly forget to refill my water bottle before leaving. I only filled one this morning to save on weight, but now regret it. At least it’s a cool morning and the volcano hasn’t blown yet. The sun finally shows its bright face as I run across large slabs of exposed bedrock littered with fallen trees from a wildfire that impacted the area several years ago. I can hear many hummingbirds buzzing my head which sound just like George Jetson’s flying space-car.

Before long, I descend into another very steep canyon where the footing is tricky and gravity is strong causing me to lose control almost eating it several times. Once at the bottom it’s an equally steep ascent to get out of the gorge. A short trip through part of the National Lab (photography prohibited) brings me down another steep slope across a road and up another incline. Steep seems to be the theme of the day and I haven’t even begun the big climb yet. Finally I make it to the Camp May aid station (mi 10) where I fill both water bottles to get ready to tackle Pajarito Mt. 

This trail passes through a vast open area surrounded by rugged mountains that have a combination of burned dead trees interspersed with recovering new growth. By this time I’m all alone and haven’t seen another runner or route marker for some time and begin to wonder if I’m off course. Fortunately the race organizers sent a web link to a downloadable “pdf” course map and a free phone app called Avenza PDF Maps. I don’t think I’m lost, but try the app anyway to see how it works. Sure enough, it shows me right on the mark which is reassuring when you are all alone. The last thing I need today is “bonus miles”. 

The trip to the top seems to take forever and I begin to worry about my speed as many 50K racers pass me. They started an hour later, but only have to do one climb. I, on the other hand, need to save energy for the second ascent later in the day. I reach an antenna of some sort and remember from previous years that there is still another 1000’ or so of climb left to reach the 10,400’ peak. This is disheartening, but I plod on as my head begins to swim and I become very drowsy from the thin air. I eat chia seed gel, salami and crackers to try to bring my energy level up.

Finally I make it to the top where the finest view in all of New Mexico awaits. The vast caldera, a circular grassy depression surrounded by volcanic domes, spreads out as far as the eye can see. I only take in the view for a few minutes because I’m worried about the cut-off times. I have to make it back up here and to the Pajarito ski lodge (mi 38) by 5:00PM (12 hours) or I’ll DNF. 

The Caldera
The next section takes me down the mountain and onto a black diamond ski slope. There are two strategies for descending this: 1. bomb down completely out of control to save your quads or 2. put on the brakes in a controlled descent so you don’t go ass over teakettle and land face down in a heap of elk turds. Since I’m more of a “middle of the road” kind of guy, I opt for a combination of the two techniques, but run mostly out of control. About halfway down, a trail turns off into the woods and switchbacks the rest of the way down to the ski lodge.

It’s about 10:15am. It took me two and a half hours to make a measly 8 miles so now I’m concerned that I may not be able to make it back up the mountain in time. I have the option of switching to the 50K distance in a few miles and based on my lack of energy, woozy head and rubber legs, am considering the switch. It’s not the misery I’m feeling at the moment, but the pressure of the cut-off time. I know it’s a psychological problem that I have to work through. 

The aid station is bustling with lots of helpful friendly volunteers. A young lady hands me my drop bag as soon as I arrive and asks what she can do to help me. Volunteers refill my water bottles as I get my sun hat and more snacks out of my bag. I eat some oranges and watermelon before taking off which helps lift my mood. The next stretch is a dirt road with some uphill parts, but nothing too steep. I try to calculate my last split in my head. Let’s see now, thats 8 miles in 2.5 hours which is 60+60+30 minutes…hmmm…divide by 8…X squared + the square root of Y = pretty slow pace. Well, I was walking up a 10,000 ft mountain after all so maybe I can make up some time on the flat sections. 

Before long I’m at the Pipeline Aid Station (mi 21) where I have to decide to switch to the 50K or continue in the 50 miler. I ask the aid station captain if I’m early enough to continue on the long course and he lets me know that I’m an hour and a half before the mandatory switch. I’ve made it this far, may as well give it a try, right? The problem with this section is that there is a crumbly sandy cliff with loose rocks that we must descend to get down into the caldera. Lose your footing here and you just may end up at the bottom with a dislocated shoulder or impaled by a pine tree branch. Rockfall from runners coming behind is also a danger. Don’t forget to duck and cover!

My strategy is to dig my shoes into the loose sand while holding onto thin tree trunks and dead logs along the side of the route. This helps for a while, but then sand gives way to bare rock where I have to trust the Gryptonite tread on my Montrail shoes. I hope for the best while sliding, crawling, stumbling down the precipice.  The grade eventually levels out enough where I’m able to keep my feet parallel and take short choppy steps the rest of the way down. The slope transitions onto a rutted dirt road flanked by pine forest. I skirt large puddles from recent rains and snow, but am able to finally run a pretty decent pace. 

I can see several runners ahead and make it my goal to catch them. I put it in high gear and finally make it up to one. Bobby, a 60 something seasoned ultramarathoner is no less than tough as nails. He’s a rock solid runner sporting a snow white Santa Clause beard. We chat for a bit and then he encourages me to go on ahead to make it into the next aid station. I arrive at the almost halfway point around high noon which was my goal. 

I waste little time and start my way across a vast open meadow, orange course flags marking the way. Serenaded by a chorus of frogs, I pass a picturesque pond framed by green grass and blooming dandelions. The view is magnificent and I’m reminded why I run these arduous trail events. Soon I’m plodding up another steep mountain, but there is no trail, just flags marking the cross country route through the forest. At times I have to stop to catch my breath as it seems to get steeper and steeper. It’s slow going, but I finally reach the top and then start the long descent through Pajarito Canyon.

Soon I hear a trickle of water which turns into a steady flowing creek. The trail goes along the edge of the canyon with nice views of a rocky stream below. Most of the day I’ve been in long sleeves and pants which are causing me to heat up the lower I go down the mountain. In a short while, I have to stop to shed a layer. Bobby and another lady pass me. I make sure to drink plenty and continue to snack to get ready to tackle the climb up Pajarito for the second time.

I arrive at the next aid station (mi 31) just before 2:00 which leaves me three hours to make the ski lodge. I unzip the legs off my wind pants, turning them into shorts and leave the legs and a shirt in my drop bag. I slather on some sunscreen, fill water bottles, eat fruit and drink ginger ale to help cool off. Before I take off a sign reads, “Next aid station 7.2 miles, elevation gain 2900’ loss 1500’.” Wow! Hope I can get over this mountain in less than three hours.

This is a section of trail that I’ve never had the privilege of running. I reach another spectacular canyon with towering cliffs and huge hanging boulders, some perched precariously as if ready to come crashing down onto the trail. A refreshing stream flows through the rocky creek bed creating many small waterfalls. I’m tempted to take a quick dip, but can’t afford to waste any time. In a few miles I meet the trail that took me up Pajarito earlier this morning. Of course it’s tougher this time, but I make slow steady progress. I start to hear voices ahead and then see Bobby and a young runner. 

Just before I reach the antenna on the ridge, I catch the other two and ask Bobby, “Are we going to make the cut-off?” He replies, “It’s going to be close.” Nothing to do but keep moving as fast as we can. The second time up the last 1000’ is definitely harder and the weather is getting cooler as the sky grows dark. Pretty soon snow flurries begin to fall increasing the higher we go. Pea sized hail starts to pelt us then a heavy squaw of sleet, snow, hail, sneet —I don’t really know what it is. I reluctantly stop to don my rain shell.

We make it to the top of the peak around 4:00 giving us an hour to descend to the ski lodge. The precipitation stops and the sun comes out causing me to heat up again, but I dare not stop to take off my jacket. I go as fast as possible passing Bobby on the way down, but when I hit the ski run, he bombs past me like It’s nothing. I follow his lead and a group of about four of us cruise down arriving at the lodge with 30 minutes to spare. We made it!  

I get my drop bag and put on a dry shirt and grab my headlamp in case I don’t finish by sunset. After drinking and eating a little, I leave feeling much better knowing the pressure is off. There is no cut-off time for the finish of the race; you just have to leave the lodge by 5:00. I enjoy the scenery while eating some salami and crackers and then see a flash of blue fly by. I stop to watch a mountain blue bird frolic amongst some tree branches for a few minutes and then continue on making it into the Pipeline Aid Station.

Mountain Bluebird

My impression was that the last 14 miles were mostly downhill, but unfortunately that is not the case. I leave the station with Lana who I met on the trail. We chat for a while as we climb up the steep incline. We are inspired by the stunning views of the canyon and surrounding mountains so we stop to take a few photos. Once over the crest I pick up my pace and run as fast as I can for a while. I catch up to Bobby again and pass, but soon the balls of my feet really start to hurt from all the downhill pounding. 

I walk for a while and then Lana catches up. We talk for a spell and then she takes off. Bobby catches me too and then I’m all alone again. Daylight wanes and I’m really ready to have this 52 mile journey over with. The end of the course is awesome though, because of the many stratified rock formations created by layers of volcanic ash and pyroclastic flows. I stop to snap a few pictures of some porous rocks that I believe to be pumice. 

I keep running and begin to see a bright burst of light each time I blink my eyes; kind of like a camera flash going off. I must be at the upper limits of exhaustion and approaching delirium for I’ve never experienced this sensation before. I pass a sign that reads “Food, drink and tequila 1 mile at Rendija Aid Station. Finish 2.9.” I make it to the aid station where I’m offered tequila or beer. “I better not; I might puke”, I say. They recommend some ginger ale (good for an unsettled stomach) and boiled potatoes. I drink a little and take some food to eat as I walk. Only two more miles to go and the supervolcano hasn't blown yet. Looks like I'll get to finish the race this year after all. No one knows for sure when the next eruption will take place, but based on past statistics, it could be as soon as 10,000 years from now. The last few miles seem to take forever as the sky darkens. I switch on my light and hike up a steep section.

It flattens out and I run as much as possible and then start the last steep ascent toward the finish area. This is a nasty deeply rutted rock formation that resembles a dry waterfall chute. It’s hard to stay upright so I put my hands on the rock wall beside me to balance myself. Because it's dark, I can’t see where I'm putting my hands and then suddenly I grab a pin cushion. I shine my light over to see a small prickly pear cactus growing out of the rock. Glad it wasn't a rattlesnake. Finally after almost 16 hours of running I’m greeted at the Posse Shack by Bobby, Lana and a few other friends. I’m completely wiped out, but happy to have finally finished the Jemez 50 mile course.  

The finish. I took this photo a few years ago while running the 50K
The organizers of this event always put on a great race with a well marked course and fantastic aid stations. The scenery is spectacular, course challenging and volunteers top notch. Extra special is the finisher’s award which is a hand made pottery by the Toya family of the Jemez Pueblo. You can’t beat that! Congratulations to all the Jemez finishers, especially my hometown running friends Pete, Juan, Laura, Constance and Gretchen. Thanks and congrats to Bobby and Lana who helped motivate me during some trying times throughout the day. And of course my lovely family Cara and Maddie who always support my running adventures.

See you on the trail.


  1. Wow Greg. What an exciting and rewarding experience this time around!!! Congrats! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks for reading Mark. See you on the trail.