Francois Jean Rochas is a true badass. Not because he is here with the rest of us to tackle the Cactus to Cloud 50K, a 32 mile journey from Oliver Lee State Park, through Dog Canyon, across the precipitous “Eyebrow”, up 5000 feet to the Sunspot National Solar Observatory and along the Rim Trail to Cloudcroft, NM with almost 9000 feet of total elevation gain. No, Francois or “Frenchy” as he was called, lived in a cabin in the late 1800s at the mouth of Dog Canyon, the starting point of our trail race this morning.
In his book, Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West, C.L. Sonnichsen describes Frenchy as the bravest man in New Mexico because he set up his cattle ranching operation in hostile Apache country where Texas cattlemen coveted the best supply of water in all the land. The curmudgeonly hermit paid no attention to warnings from others and lived a solitary life raising livestock and irrigating his fruit orchard from the pristine waters that flowed through Dog Canyon. That is, until he was shot dead by three horsemen in 1894, but not before swearing at them in French and broken English.
Well, that story kind of makes the rest of us standing here in our cushioned running shoes, short shorts and fancy hydration systems seem like a bunch of wussies. Nevertheless about 100 of us are ready to get this race underway, but not before we hear a wonderful rendition of our national anthem sung by a trained opera singer who is also about to run the race. Whoever says opera singers are wusses has never attempted the Star Spangled Banner at 6:00am on a chilly morning.
After the short ceremony, we begin our morning by running past the state park visitor center and making a steep rocky climb up to the Dog Canyon Trail. I notice several runners using trekking poles to help keep their balance on the steep sections, probably a good idea. The towering cliff walls of the Sacramento Escarpment are quite impressive and you can see where eons of flowing water have carved a deep groove into rock. A series of stone stairs leads us up to a flat runnable section through a grassy meadow flecked with cholla cactus, sotol and juniper trees.
Eventually we descend for a short while to the canyon bottom and cross to the other side where we pass the Fairchild line cabin ruin beside a spring and stream. Line cabins were used by the line rider, a very lonely job. These cowpunchers were in charge of riding the line (ranch boundary) and turning cattle back onto grazing lands so they weren’t lost in the wilderness. We begin to climb another set of stairs where the steepness absolutely takes our breath away. People stop frequently to let their heart rates settle down while I pause to snap many pictures of the surrounding box canyon.
Finally after much sweat and toil, we reach a bench known as the eyebrow for if you look at a topo map the contour lines are so close it resembles an eyebrow. We hike a narrow trail with a sheer drop-off on our left and a lofty cliff to our right. During Frenchy’s time, cavalrymen apparently suffered the raining down of boulders and arrows from Apache Indians on this stretch.
Once high enough, we can see the little pathway on the other side of the canyon that brought us here. C.L. Sonnichsen describes the trail as, “...a precarious thread of pathway which clings to the cliffs and winds among the rocks until it emerges on the pine-clad summit; and for the little river of water which skips and sings among the boulders, filling one rock basin after another until the desert below licks up the last drop.”
I stop at a natural amphitheater in the cliff side to take pictures while many runners pass me. We continue to climb the scarp and then reach another bench just below a vertical cliff. I stop again to take in the view and wait for a friend that I’ve been running with to catch up. He looks quite miserable and comments that he is suffering the effects of altitude and feeling sick. Many others are also struggling and some sit for a few minutes to recover before continuing on. No one is smiling.
|Runners dwarfed by the towering cliff wall|
The next part takes us on a forest service road that seems somewhat flat, in comparison to what we just ascended. My legs feel like rubber now and I can sense the lactic acid building up in my overtaxed muscles. My friend is still feeling ill and is considering dropping at the next aid station at the Sunspot observatory so he encourages me to run ahead. I begin to pass people and think the worst of the uphill is over. Not so!
After running along Joplin Ridge, I hit a single-track trail and continue my grueling uphill battle towards the clouds. The trail is very narrow, but completely shaded by dense trees and thick ground cover. At times you can’t see the trail for the overgrown understory, but the rocks aren’t bad; not that you could run this section anyway. I pass quite a few people on the way up including a Team Red, White and Blue member who is waiting for his daughter; she has been suffering stomach issues. The brutal ascent coupled with high altitude are wreaking havoc on runners today and I fear there will be much carnage by the time the mountains are finished with us.
I keep a steady grinding pace up the slope longing to reach the top. I approach another friend from behind who is using trekking poles. A huge log lines the side of the trail so he takes this opportunity to sit down to catch his breath. I slog on so as to not drag out my misery; I just assume get this thing over with. Although my biggest question is: Is Sunspot the end of the ascent?
Finally I reach a flat spot where I see a white cone shaped building known as the Evans Solar Facility. A telescope sits inside that is used to observe the sun. Since the sun moves across the sky, the entire roof can rotate so the telescope always faces the sun. Scientists recently watched Mercury pass between Earth and the Sun. Anyway, I reach the aid station where I fill up with fluids and eat some fruit and other goodies and then get on my way. I see one of my Northern New Mexico running friends ahead so follow him through the Sunspot compound on paved roads. I don’t see many course markings, but know he ran the race last year so I simply follow.
|The roof can rotate so the telescope can face the sun|
I catch up to him and he comments that the next stretch is very tough with more uphill climbing and lots of rocks. Not what I want to hear having just completed ten miles with 5000 feet of gain in over three hours. I try my hardest to keep up with this sixty something year old, but he cruises up the hill as if he is taking a Sunday stroll through Central Park. My legs begin to cramp as I power hike up the hill which is unusual for me. I take a few electrolyte capsules even though I’ve read mixed reports on how effect they are at relieving muscle cramps.
The rocks are bad making the footing precarious and there are downed trees that we have to skirt around or climb over. Race volunteers along with Forest Service workers actually came up here several weeks ago to cut and clear many of the trees that winter storms dropped on the Rim Trail. Pretty soon my cramps subside and I finally reach the Cathey Vista, the highest point of the race at 9450 feet. The arduous climb was well worth it for the view here is absolutely awesome. You can see the Tularosa basin, a sea of snow white gypsum sand dunes surrounded by high mountains.
I start down the hill and roll along the ridge of the mountains for many miles. My cramps return intermittently on the run, but disappear shortly after I pop a few more electrolyte capsules. I continue to take them about every 60-90 minutes and drink plenty of water and Tailwind sports drink. Soon I have to relieve myself though, so I duck behind a bush to use the gender neutral bathroom.
I run through a treacherous rock garden where I almost eat it a few times and then reach the Atkinson Field Aid Station where I’m greeted by Perky from Albuquerque, the aid station captain. “Thanks for scattering all those rocks all over the trail; I was starting to get bored,” I say. She answers, “You’re very welcome, there are more down that way.” After filling up my water bottles and thanking Perky and company for their selfless support, I continue on my journey.
There are plenty more rocks and quite a few fallen trees that I must climb over or crawl under. I pass a man and woman resting trailside and then completely lose the trail. All I can see is an enormous pine tree that has fallen. They let me know that the trail goes straight ahead, my indication to climb over the obstacle. Pretty soon I reach another aid station and meet up with another Team RWB member. He seems to also be struggling with altitude and talks of walking the rest of the course. I take care of all my aid station needs and encourage him before leaving.
I run for quite a while and then stop to put on sunscreen and attach my sun drape to my hat. I feel good for many miles; the muscle cramps having subsided. I pass a few more runners and enjoy the forest. I come to a green grassy meadow where some spectators are waiting for their runner; ringing a cowbell and cheering. Strange to see such a sight in a remote part of the forest.
Eventually, I hear my fellow Team RWB Eagle approaching from behind. “I finally got warmed up,” he exclaims. He is running strong now and seems to have a renewed sense of purpose. Run to Cloudcroft at all cost. We run together for a while and reach the next aid station where he asks, “How much further is it?” “Eight more miles,” volunteers answer. He looks at his gps watch and retorts, “Well, it must be a 33 mile race then; we are already at mile 25.” Again, he seems concerned with his ability to finish, so I encourage him saying, “Come on you can do it; you are good for eight more miles!”
I leave alone, but he eagles up and soon catches me so we run together for a while. We descend another steep section and eventually make another climb where he asks, “Have you done this before, are there any more steep climbs?” I explain that Ive never run the race, but have trained on the Rim Trail. “I believe all the steep stuff is behind us,” I say. “You will pass a group picnic area, a campground and then go through a tunnel. After the tunnel you are very close,” He seems relieved that we are almost done.
|The tunnel means you are almost finished|
Cara and Maddie greet me and then we wait with our friends to cheer runners across the finish line including a 73 year old man. Definitely not a wuss; New Mexicans are a hardy lot. That was certainly the toughest 50K I’ve ever run and all the other runners I spoke to agreed that this was a very rugged and challenging course. I think Frenchy would agree that there were a few badasses in Dog Canyon today.
See you on the Trail.
P.S. Thanks to Dan and Chris for putting on a great race for us. We also appreciate the support of the Forest Service, radio operators, aid station volunteers and mountain rescue personnel. As always, I thank Cara and Maddie for their encouragement and support.