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 spend countless hours running in the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, TX. I call it "going to church". I'm a member of Team Red, White and Blue. "Enriching the lives of America's veterans."

Friday, May 26, 2017

Jemez Mountain 50 Miler

All I want to do right now is QUIT! Sucking thin air while plodding straight up a black diamond ski slope on a Saturday morning is not even a little bit fun. While most normal people are sleeping in, I find myself at mile 15 of the Jemez Mountain Trail 50 Miler in Los Alamos, NM. The good news is that the climb will be over soon. The bad? That I’ll have to do it again later today in mile 36. The burning in my quads is so painful that I really contemplate quitting before I have to do this all over again. 

However, I remember a quote from Navy SEAL and retired Admiral, William H. McRaven. He says, “If you want to change the world, don’t ever, EVER ring the bell”, meaning the brass bell that sits in the SEAL training compound that trainees can ring at any time to quit their rigorous training program. I will be thinking about that bell all day as I try my best to finish this Jemez course that tops out at 10,400’ elevation.

Watch: Ten Life Lessons to change yourself and maybe the world by Admiral McRaven.

Read the NY Times Bestseller : Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World

The race started this morning before dark in the Atomic City where about 100 of us lined up in front of the Sheriff’s Posse Shack. Without any pomp or circumstance we took off running down a dirt road with the smell of horse manure in the air and serenaded by a rooster. After several minutes we transitioned onto a single track trail that ran along the rim of a canyon. A train of headlamps bobbed along the path and entered a canyon that took us to the outskirts of town where we climbed Guaje Ridge, a 3000’ climb in about 10 miles.

The morning was chilly; around 38 degrees, but there was very little wind. Perfect conditions for a little jaunt in the mountains wouldn't you say? I felt good and was able to pass a few runners on the way up. We passed through a little bit of fresh snow that had fallen yesterday, but most had already melted in the sun. In several hours I crested the ridge where I could see the Pajarito Mountain ski slopes in the distance, my destination. After running down for another hour I reached the ski lodge, mile 15. I ate some food, filled water bottles and dropped off a layer since it was warming up.

I’ve finished this race several times in the past, but we are running in the opposite direction so runners will be closer to town after dark and remote aid station volunteers can pack out before sundown. In addition, a lady was attacked by a bear last summer in the Valles Caldera National Preserve when she suddenly came upon a mother and cub. She survived and is actually a volunteer in today’s race, but the park officials were reluctant to issue permits for this race unless changes were made and extra safety measures put into place. For that reason we are required to wear bear bells when we enter the national preserve and the excellent race staff has established a text alert system to warn runners of any dangers or threat of severe weather during the race.

How did that rock get there?

Because of the course reversal and other changes, the race seems to be more difficult. While we used to run down the ski area on mountain bike switchbacks, we now climb straight up the Aspen ski slope where the grade is between 30-40% according to my Strava gps trackNow if I could just get my ass up this mountain right now, life would be much better. I continue the slow upward grind and reach a dirt road where I hope the climbing is over. It's not! I run down for a few minutes and then see runners clinging to a steep slope like a line of ants crawling up a sugarloaf. Seriously? Nothing to do, but suck it up and get up this hill. It’s slow going and I have to stop after every 10 steps or so to catch my breath. In the mean time, many energetic 50K runners pass me. After one hour of climbing and covering one whopping mile, I reach the top of Pajarito Mountain (10,400’). 

The steepest part
This is one of the most spectaculars views I’ve ever seen though and why I keep coming back to this race year after year. The Valles Caldera seen in the distance is a collapsed crater of a supervolcano with vast grass valleys, streams, ponds, hots springs, fumaroles and volcanic domes. Soon I will be running through there, but not if I dawdle too long up here taking pictures. 

The caldera

Time to run down. The route is cross country on a steep rocky slope interspersed with lumpy tufts of grass making the footing very tricky. I make it to a dirt road that takes me along the ridge where there are many ski slopes and then begin running down a single track trail. It feels good to be running again and I try to make up lost time, but the trail is very rocky in places. Near the bottom of the mountain are parts that have many loose round rocks that fill the rutted gully. There are several switchbacks and sharp turns causing me to lose traction in places and even roll at times on the Fred Flintstone baseball like rocks. 

I make it into the Nail Trail aid station (mi 21) where I have a choice to switch to the 50K race and head back into town or take the route to the caldera. I’m 30 minutes before the mandatory noon cutoff time and remember Admiral McRaven’s advice, "never, EVER ring the bell!" After eating and filling my water bottles I take off quickly because I know the next section is going to be uphill for the next five miles. 

I run down a very rutted dirt road for a while and parallel the highway before entering a canyon with a small stream singing through the cut. The trail is gradual for a while but gets steeper as I travel up the mountain. Burned trees, some standing and some prostrate, from a fire five years ago line the trail while new fresh green saplings sprout between. The bark of one large pine is charred on one side, but untouched on the other, but it is completely dead waiting for the day that a strong wind will bring it to rest. I pass through several meadows with some irises and wildflowers and finally reach the rim of the caldera where the ground is covered with dandelions and large rocks. 

The next stretch is cross country again where the ground is grassy with hidden rocks and a few marshy areas. I run down into the caldera where I can see the aid station far in the distance; one lone runner slowly making his way to the oasis. This really is one of the most beautiful places to run and very enjoyable since it’s the only flat part of the Jemez course. Sweeping grass pastures, hemmed in by pine and spruce trees, blanket the crater floor with volcanic mounds rising above. I reach a tranquil pond and stop to snap a few photos and take in the natural beauty that surrounds me. I have little time to waste though, because It’s nearing 2:00PM and I have to make it back to the ski lodge by 4:00. At least I’m past the half way point.

A lone runner making his way to the aid station.

I rest briefly at the aid station (mi 30) and then run through the Valle Grande along a dirt road. There’s a slight incline so it’s slow going, but I’m able to run most of it. I pass through a stand of pine trees and then pop out into another meadow where two Bluebirds, a male and female, are flitting from tree to tree. I can’t resist photos so I stop and watch them for a while and get a few shots. 

The Bluebird pair, male and female

I continue on and finally reach the most dreaded part of the course, Nate’s Nemesis, aka “WTF Jemez 50 Climb” on Strava. The trail goes straight up a loose crumbly cliff-like face. In years past you could simply slide down on your butt, but now I have to figure out how I’m going to clamber up this thing. There are a few tree roots to help pull myself up, but all the rocks are loose and grabbing one means losing your balance; tumbling ass over teakettle to the bottom of the caldera. Sometimes the entire ground beneath me begins to shift creating a rock slide and loose rocks cascade down the slope to unsuspecting runners below. I’m literally on my hands and knees as I continue up the mountain. I stop frequently to catch my breath and can hear the ringing of a cowbell coming from above. I make it up and am greeted by several aid station volunteers who congratulate me.

Nate’s Nemesis 
I have very little time to make it back to the ski lodge, so I take off running down the dirt road relieved to have that part behind me. I try not to think about the ski slope climb that’s coming up and just enjoy running for a while. I arrive at the lodge with just 20 minutes to spare and wonder how I’ll fare in the next two cutoff times. While volunteers fill my water bottles, I eat some fruit and grab a handful of boiled potatoes from the snack table and get a move on. I eat as I head towards the climb from hell.

When I get to the ski slope I see about four runners ahead of me who look like they are barely moving. I begin the ascent and my heart pounds out of my chest so I stop to breathe and then continue. I count 20 to 30 steps and then stop for a short rest break and then count 20 to 30 more. I look up and see a string of ski chair lifts dangling above; taunting me. Why am I killing myself trying to get up this mountain when there is a perfectly good conveyance right there? The steepness coupled with the thin air at 10,000’ elevation makes this absolutely miserable and I start to contemplate quitting again. “Don’t ever, EVER ring the bell!”
Indian Paintbrush
I feel like I’m barely moving and the one mile climb seems to go on forever, but after an hour, I make it to the top and rest for a few minutes to enjoy the stunning view. I’m all alone this time which I don’t mind at all. The solitude is completely inspiring and my mood picks up. I start down the mountain and look at my aid station chart to see what time I have to be at the Nail Trail aid station. By 6:00PM; that’s going to be close. I run as fast as I can on rubbery legs careful not to eat it on the technical trail. Near the bottom of the mountain, I analyze my situation and realize that It’s highly likely that I’ll miss the cutoff time. I dig deep and run as fast as I can hoping that I can beat the clock.

Valle Caldera National Preserve

5:40: no aid station in sight…5:45: no aid station in sight… 5:50: I hear some cheering far in the distance…5:52: I see the aid station tent…5:54: I finally arrive. While I’m relieved, I know I still have one more important cutoff to make at the next aid station so I grab some fluids and start running. If I don’t keep my pace up, I’ll miss the 7:45 cutoff.  “Don’t ever, EVER ring the bell!"

In the back of my mind, I keep remembering from years past a part of the course that descends and then ascends a very steep, but short trail into and out of a canyon and a few other very steep technical sections. I hope my exhausted legs can see me through this last part of the course. I get to one of the dreaded sections, a very steep downhill with slabs of rock covered in loose sand with sharp switchbacks. It’s hard to tell which is the right path to take down so I put my foot on one of the slabs and my feet go out from under me causing me to fall on my ass. Shaken, but otherwise OK, I continue down, where I catch up to five other runners.
Elk skull 
I run with them for a while and then pass three of them. I get to the deep canyon and run down crossing the dry wash below. The climb out is excruciating and I have to stop several times to catch my breath where the three runners overtake me. They give me words of encouragement and one lady tells me that it’s only about two more miles to the aid station and that I can make it. I look at my watch with doubt, but her help motivates me and I climb up as hard as I can. I walk the uphill for a while and then run as hard as I can all the time glancing at my watch. I see a car directly in front of me parked along a dirt road and know that I’m nearing the aid station. 

The pond inside the caldera
Unfortunately, the trail takes a turn away from the car and I climb a few switchbacks. In seven more minutes I will be a DNF and I don’t see the tent anywhere. I run hard and it finally comes into view with people cheering for me. “You have four minutes”, a volunteer says. I MADE IT! I know I’ll be an official finisher unless, in the last five miles, I trip and break my ankle, tear an achilles, pass out, am attacked by a bear or there is a zombie apocalypse. A lot can happen in five miles, but I’m confident that I’ll make it. A lady tempts me with a chair, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know to never sit down in an ultramarathon especially in mile 48. 

I check out of the aid station, run for a short while and then stop to get my headlamp ready as it will be dark soon. I’m able to pass one runner, but several young ladies run past me. The sun begins to set and I can see the town of Los Alamos in the valley below and the snow capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains far in the distance. The sky turns orange and day fades into night. I chug along following the bright oval from my headlamp trying not to trip on anything.

I reach the town and run around the perimeter and then cross over a few neighborhood streets and continue on a single track trail. I take a walk break and a lady comes out of nowhere behind me. Is this the zombie apocalypse?, I think to myself. I step aside to let her pass, but she says, “OH NO!, Don’t worry; I’m going for last place.” I say, “you’re going for DFL huh?” and she replies, “I certainly didn’t come in first place so may as well.” 

With that, I run on, but she catches up to me at the last aid station where we have some food and then she insists that I go in front of her. “You know there’s one more guy out there don’t you?” I say. “What? I thought I was the last one”, she replies. I can see the look of devastation on her face and I feel terrible for dashing all her hopes of coming in dead effing last. I say, “There’s still a chance you know. You could rest here at the aid station for a while.” “I just really want to get this over with though”, she retorts. We both agree and run on where eventually she overtakes me.

Los Alamos in the valley
The last several miles are tough with a few uphill switchbacks and the last climb to the Posse Shack takes me through a steep eroded crack in the side of the mesa. When I reach the top, I’m greeted by a sign with a red “Easy” button that says, “That was easy.” Finally, I cross the finish line and my gps watch reads, 53.75 miles in 16:35. That was one long tough day!

I believe the race was harder this year and I was definitely slower than the last two times I ran the 50 miler. The straight up ski slope climbs and Nate’s Nemesis really took it out of me, but I was just happy to have survived. As much as I wanted to; many times throughout the race, I didn’t ring the bell and am a forever changed person! 

See you on the trail.

P.S. Thanks to the Jemez Mountain Trail Run staff, volunteers and fellow runners for such a great day in God’s Country. You are all top notch!


  1. This is a great report on the updated course routing for both the 50K and 50 mile races. These races are NOT easy! When I crested the top of Oops ("The Steepest Part" picture), I remember thinking how inhumane it was that 50 milers had to do this again, and AFTER Nate's Nemesis!

  2. I agree. Having to do "Oops" the second time almost broke me. Thanks for reading.