Deadman? I have no idea who the dead man is, but I can’t wait to start running the Deadman Peaks Trail Run a few miles outside of Cuba, NM. I have been freezing all morning since the mercury dipped to 35 F last night. What a rude awakening I had; especially since the high was 90 a few days ago in El Paso. I rolled into Northern New Mexico last night and simply blew up an air mattress that lay in the back of my hatchback. It’s surprisingly roomy and I didn’t have to worry about setting up a tent.
This morning I was greeted by a star filled sky as I did my pre-race preparation to include attempting to poop in an upended wooden coffin outfitted with a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat placed on top. I checked in at the race start and dropped off several drop-bags with some extra shirts, shoes and socks in case I get drenched by storms that might come through today. I spent the rest of the time shivering in my car trying to save precious energy.
I suppose about 50 people are here ready to start the 50 mile race in the dark. After the proverbial “Ready-Set-Go” from the race director, I promptly end up in the back of the pack. The course is an out-and-back route on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail so I will get to see my fellow runners as they are on their way back later today. We follow a dirt road while looking down at our headlamp beams careful not to trip over a rut. Pretty soon we are greeted by a nice lady standing by a warm campfire who, like a game show model, points the way onto a single-track trail. Unfortunately we aren’t bidding on a new range with self-cleaning oven, but instead about to slog our way up an 800 foot incline to the top of a mesa.
My legs feel very sluggish this morning and I remember having the same feeling when I ran Bandera last January. It must be the cold causing my blood to prioritize warming my vital organs instead of my exercising legs. It took five or six hours before I really felt “warmed-up” at Bandera, so I hope I can shake this sluggishness early on today. As we start the climb I look around to see if anyone else is nearby, only to discover that there are just a few runners behind me. Looks like I’ll have a good chance of winning the distinguished DFL award today especially if I take too many pictures.
Soon we are on top of the mesa with grand views of the surrounding mountains, desert floor and adjacent flat-topped mesas. The sun illuminates the clouds turning the sky into beautiful shades of pink and orange and lights the sedimentary layers of the escarpment. I run along the rim quite close to the precipitous edge, rock cairns marking the way.
This place is truly mystical. A rainbow appears on the horizon and I expect to see a unicorn flying overhead. Maybe I could get a ride for a few miles, but no such luck. Instead, I arrive at a table with a water cooler sitting on top so I top off my water bottles and continue on. Three runners pass me as I photograph the rainbow and then we run together for a bit. “This is it!”, one of them exclaims as she leads the way. Like traffic cones on a highway construction zone, a line of orange course flags leads us to the rim of the mesa. What are we, a bunch of lemmings? I follow right behind her of course.
Sure enough, we run to the edge and then begin down the steep slope with loose dirt. Soon it turns into a cliff face that we must scramble down using our hands in places. I hate the term “vert” when describing what trail runners really mean as elevation gain/loss, but this is about as close to vertical as you can get while still “running”. I stop to take a few pictures of the three runners below me to try to capture the vertness of the trail, but I doubt the photos will do it justice. We continue down losing around 500 ft of vert in about a quarter mile. Don’t you love saying the word vert? (You know you do.)
Anyway, once down, we run along formations of volcanic tuff, or ash that has been eroded into interesting shapes. I stop to take a few pictures and the three runners disappear from my view. I feel at home even though I’m running all alone now. The natural beauty, remoteness and quiet are just a few reasons I keep coming back to run challenging trail races in the Southwest.
In no time I’m at the first real aid station (mi 9) where I’m greeted by David, one of my running acquaintances. Along with other volunteers, he takes good care of me by finding my drop bag and filling my water bottles. I drop off my headlamp and a shirt while zipping off my pant legs since the weather will be warming up soon. I’ll pick up my light this evening since I will finish after dark.
The next leg takes me up another hill where I find myself on top of another mesa. The theme of this race seems to be: climb steep escarpment, run flat-top mesa, run down escarpment, repeat. On this mesa, the floor includes sections of polygon shaped sandstone so I occasionally get off course from looking at the interesting designs on the ground.
|Mostly hexagon patterns in the stone.|
Soon I’m running along the lip of the mesa with a precipitous cliff dropping off to my left. The tip of a prominent peak comes into view on the horizon. I descend to a bench below passing several tall hoodoos with large boulders resting on top. I’m starting to warm up finally, but this course is tough. I worry about finishing within the cut-off time. My hope is that I’ll reach the halfway point in seven hours.
Pretty soon some runners are coming toward me; the leaders of the marathon who started later in the morning at our turnaround point. It’s nice to see others since I’ve been running alone for some time. I reach the next big aid station (mi 17) where I eat a cup of fruit and drink ginger ale. All morning I’ve been drinking my chia seed/juice mixture and nibbling slices of salami to keep my energy up.
I take off running for a while and then the tip of the prominent peak I saw earlier comes into full view. El Cabezon abruptly swoops 2000 feet from the desert floor like background scenery from a Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon. It’s actually a volcanic plug where magma hardened in the neck of a volcano and then softer dirt surrounding it was eroded away leaving just the shape of the cooled magma. Devil’s tower is probably the most famous volcanic plug. El Cabezon is sacred to Native Americans and is believed to be the head of a giant that was slain on nearby Mt Taylor (11,306’ elev.). The Mt Taylor 50K is another race that I plan to run next year schedule permitting.
The trail has a downward trend for a while and then takes me through some cattle pastures and onto a dirt road. I meet a Native American lady on the trail who asks, “why are there so many runners out here.” I explain that we are running a 50 mile race having started in Cuba, NM this morning. The look on her face says it all —you all are absolutely CA-RA-ZEEEE! I bid her good day and continue down the road hoping the next aid station is at the bottom.
I see the Deadman Peaks in the distance and wonder if I’ll have to climb up there. They actually aren’t that steep or high (not much vert), but who really wants to go up a mountain with a name like that? I get lost in my thoughts for a while and then realize that I haven’t seen any orange flagging for quite some time. Am I lost? I really don’t need any bonus miles today, so I deny the fact that I may be off course and keep going. Pretty soon it’s obvious that something is amiss. I stop, look around and see no one. I decide to turn around and, in about 10 minutes, I see the trail that leads up to the Deadman Peaks.
On the way up, I realize that I’m getting a hot spot on my heel so I stop to take care of it. In my pack I have a mini first aid kit and a few Engo patches. These actually go on the inside of your shoe instead of on your skin and help prevent further friction. After traversing the peaks I descend steeply and run into my friend, Mike who is already on his way back. “This course is really brutal,” he exclaims. He is really flying to have already gained 10 miles on me. Way to go! I make it into the next aid station (mi 22.5) in six hours, one hour before the cut-off time.
After some snacks, soda and fruit, I blast off so I’m not late getting to the turnaround point. I come to a short, but very steep section where runners are struggling as they clamber up the loose rock and dirt path. I dread the return trip because every section that I run down now will mean a difficult climb later when I’m spent. I pass some beautifully eroded tuff formations that remind me of the drip sand castles we made at Virginia Beach as kids.
This landscape is completely other worldly. The region is so remote and the rock formations so strange that I may as well be on a distant planet inhabited by alien creatures. I run for a long time as I ponder this possibility and then IT comes into view. I can’t quite make out what IT is, but I’m getting nervous. The closer I get the more terrifying IT becomes. Suddenly I realize why I haven’t seen that many runners returning on the course. Their bodies have been completely consumed and only their shoes remain. A GIANT SPIDER! She’s sitting atop of her web trying to lure me into her sticky trap, but I’m too smart to fall for her trick.
Once past the arachnid on steroids, I arrive at the turnaround aid station in exactly seven hours, my goal. The wind has picked up and dark storm clouds are billowing in the distance. The volunteers tell me I have to get out of the aid station quickly so I take care of the bare essentials and am promptly on my way.
While heading out, I see just a couple more runners coming in. I believe I’m almost the last one, but am feeling a burst of energy. I do everything I can to keep a running pace or fast walk on the hills. I dawdled enough on the way out here and know that I have to make it to mile 43 by 6:30. After a while I’m able to overtake several runners; one young lady looks like she is hurting quite a bit.
The steep climbs are tougher after running all day, but I seem to manage. Once up, I recover quickly and am able to keep a steady pace. I pass through several more aid stations where the volunteers are very encouraging and helpful. They let me know that I have plenty of time to finish. Eventually I catch up and pass another guy who appears to be limping. Looks like I won’t come in last place after all unless something goes awry.
All is quiet until I approach the last aid station. When the volunteers see me coming they begin to cheer madly so I feel obligated to run faster even though all I really want to do is walk. I visit with them as I eat and then grab the headlamp that I left earlier this morning. The sun will be setting soon.
The last stretch is a gradual uphill through a cow pasture and then a winding trail along the base of the mesa past blobs of hardened eroded ash. Some of these have little caves and windows where birds are chirping. Soon I reach the obstacle that I’ve been dreading since early this morning, the escarpment that goes straight up with 500 feet of vert in a quarter mile. I start the very verty climb where I have to use my hands in places. In fact, there’s so much vert that trail workers have actually chiseled out foot and hand notches in the rocks in places to make it less vertified. Nevertheless, I must stop every few minutes to regain my breath. I look around at the gorgeous scenery and notice two hoodoos with huge boulders balanced on top that look like they could topple at any minute.
I keep climbing with rest breaks every few minutes and get to the trail that switchbacks the rest of the way up. Now it’s easy going; all except for the fact that I’ve already run 47 miles today not counting the bonus mile when I got lost. The sun disappears below the horizon so I switch on my light. After what seems like forever, I begin a descent down a grassy trail where there are white-tipped posts every 20 feet or so marking the Continental Divide Trail. My peripheral view is completely dark so all I can see is the trail and the posts. I keeping wishing I would reach the dirt road that leads to the finish. Instead, I keeping passing post after post after post never getting anywhere like I’m living a bad dream.
This goes on for eternity until the road finally appears. I turn and run the last few miles into the finish area where volunteers and runners are cheering and ringing cowbells. You can never have too much cowbell especially after running for 14 and a half hours. Several friends congratulate me and I dig into some food. This course offers some serious challenges and you will get to spend an entire day in God’s Country. Thank you to all the volunteers and staff for a great race and my family who always support my running adventures. Congratulations to my friends who finished the 50 miler or marathon today. Mike, Peter, Cliff, Constance and Kathy.
See you on the trail.