After years of hoping to run the Mt Taylor 50K, my wish finally came true. The mountain itself is bigger than life. Not only because it’s 11,300 feet high, but also because it is sacred to the Navajo and other Native American people. Ancient myths were born here like the story about a slain monster, his coagulated blood flowing down the volcano and the head, known as Cabezon Peak flung to the east. (I saw this rock formation when I ran Deadman Peaks 50 last year.)
Our race started just before sunup near Grants, NM. I didn’t bother to bring my headlamp, just a small penlight to provide enough light to keep me from tripping in a hole. However, I am carrying bear spray in a holster attached to my hydration belt. You just never know what you might encounter in the Cibola National Forest.
Right away we climb a steep forest road that turns into a trail. The course is a figure 8 with three significant climbs, but I’m feeling up for it today. The weather is a bit chilly with very little wind. I settle into a fast walk on the really steep sections, but try to run whenever I can because I plan on taking a lot of pictures today. I meet quite a few of my running acquaintances on the trail and enjoy their company as we all try to conquer the hill together.
As we near the crest of the ridge the sun bathes the grassy slopes in a warm glow. I stop to take it all in as runners pass me. The spectacular sunrise exposes scores of mesas and peaks for as far as the eye can see. As I continue higher, the La Mosca lookout tower with its accompanying ironmongery looms before us, but that is not our destination.
The forest road finally flattens out and we run through a grassy meadow flecked with Engelmann and blue spruce. I skirt a few large mud puddles and commence the run down the long and winding road. The path takes me through the forest with large patches of beautiful fall color where quakies, or aspen trees have turned bright yellow. An interesting tidbit about quaking aspens is that an entire stand can be one organism sharing the same root system. The largest living thing on Earth is the aspen!
[Michael C. Grant of the University of Colorado] studied an aspen clone in Utah consisting of a calculated 47,000 tree trunks covering 106 acres. It is calculated to weigh 13 million pounds…He named the stand Pando for the Latin word meaning "to spread".
—Norm Vance (pagosa.com)
Once at the bottom of the mountain, I arrive at the Continental Divide Trail where a directional sign reads, “←Mexico 634M Canada 2466M→”. I've always been intrigued by our long distance national recreation trails and find it amazing that you can follow one of these trails all the way to a neighboring country.
Anyway, I head towards Mexico along the divide and run past some tall and girthy ponderosa pines and come to a grove of aspens with black splotches giving it a sort of Holstein cow look. The scars are from elk and deer nibbling on the bark. Before long I return to the starting area, the half way point of my journey. So far I feel very good, but the hardest part of the course is about to begin —the seven mile climb up Mt Taylor. Will the Mountain Gods be kind to me?
Mt Taylor is a volcano that was active between 1.5 and 3 million years ago. I begin the climb along single-track trail that becomes very rocky in parts. Soon my lungs are searing and I start to get a headache from lack of oxygen to my brain. I reach a grassy ridge where I begin to slow. Runners pass me; I have to stop to catch my breath. A tiny horned toad about the size of my thumb is right under foot. I’ve never seen one that small before and want to take a picture, but I’m too slow and he scurries into the tall grass.
As I look to my left I can see that the mountain continues rising up, up, up; no end in sight. I keep going and reach a flat part which brings a little bit of relief. I start to think the hardest part is behind me. After passing through a grassy dale I make my way past a beautiful rock outcrop and continue on. Many runners are higher on the mountain and I can see switchbacks. I wonder if I’ll ever make it because I feel dizzy and lethargic with a lot of pressure in my head. All I feel like doing is wandering off the trail to lay under a tree and sing my death song, but I keep plodding on.
Soon I see some hikers coming down from the summit and I ask, “Are we there yet?” They let me know that it’s only a quarter mile further to the top so my spirits pick up and I make one last hard effort to get it over with. After making a hard right, the peak comes into view and I see a group of people standing around taking pictures.
In no time I’m standing on the truncated rim of the volcanic crater and the view takes my breath away. My headache suddenly disappears and I decide to hang out for a while to take it all in. I take pictures from every angle and look far out to the edge of the forest and the desert floor below. After getting my fill, I run down to the aid station which is only about a mile away.
I’ve been warned by my friends who have run the race before that there is still one last tough climb ahead of me. After hitting the aid station, I travel down a jeep road that twists and turns leading me all the way down to Water Canyon. At the bottom I see a turn onto a single-track trail where a lady catches up to me. Having run the race before, she confirms that this is the most miserable climb of the race since it is extremely steep and we are 28 miles into the race.
We go it together encouraging each other up the mountain. We stop frequently, but make steady progress. After climbing about 1000’ in about a mile, the La Mosca lookout tower comes into view again, signifying that the end is near. I reach the last aid station, but just keep going knowing that I will be finished shortly. I crest the last hill and run the final few miles into the finish area.
I get my finishers medal and am greeted by some of my fast friends who already finished. They congratulate me and then I sit in the shade for 20 minutes to recover. Mt Taylor 50K is a premier race in one of the most beautiful forests in America. The course is challenging, but the aid stations are spaced well and the volunteers are wonderful. The swag and bling are pretty good too. Congratulations to all my fellow runners who finished this difficult race.
See you on the trail.