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."

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Jemez Mountain 50 Miler

A young lady is bent over retching along the side of the trail as I approach. A photographer walks up to her. “Are you OK?”, he asks. “Oh yeah, I’m good,” she replies. I know she isn’t. We’re at 9000’ elevation on a hot morning at mile 15 of a 50 miler and have another 1500’ of climbing ahead of us to reach the top of Pajarito Mountain (10,440’). I have a lot of pressure in my head and am definitely feeling the altitude. Hopefully she can pull it together when she reaches the ski lodge aid station in another half mile.

The Jemez Mountain 50 Mile Trail Run started at zero dark hundred this morning with about 150 runners toeing the line. They offer three distances —50 mile, 50K or 15 mile. Pick your poison. There was a bit of drama leading up to the race because the Jemez Mountains, where the race is held in Los Alamos, NM are in an exceptional drought (D4, the worst possible) with very high wildfire risk. The course was changed because the forest is in stage 2 fire restrictions and rangers wanted to keep runners closer to town. The Atomic City knows wildfires. In 2011, the Las Conchas Fire, the largest in New Mexico at the time, burned over 150,000 acres threatening the town and the Los Alamos National Lab here. In years past the 50 mile course took us through the gorgeous Valle Caldera National Preserve, but no such luck today. The good news is that we only ascend Pajarito Mountain once, although we have another significant climb up to about 9600’ later in the day.

Pajarito Ski Area
The weather this morning was perfect for running; mid 50s with little wind. We started in the dark from the Posse Shack in town and ran past horse corrals where some turkeys were gobbling. We transitioned onto a very dusty trail that took us through a canyon. The air is so dry that fine talc-like particles were kicked up by a stampede of runners creating a whiteout in the beam of my headlamp. I had trouble seeing, but worried more about my lungs so pulled my buff over my face. Pretty soon we were on the edge of town ascending into the Jemez. 

First light
We ran through Rendija Canyon passing some extraordinary pale cliffs that were riddled with holes, known as tafoni weathering. The swiss cheese like cliffs were formed from volcanic ash known as tuff. Constant wetting and drying forms the tiny caves in the soft rock. Soon the sun was rising, creating a welcoming glow over the vast landscape. Beautiful! The mountains were a combination of dead burned trees from past wildfires and lush green new growth. Despite the drought, hardy wildflowers were abundant along the trail.

Tafoni weathering on the course
The drive in to town
I was able to run, keeping a good pace for the first several hours, but then the climbing started. I packed my trekking poles, but waited for the steepest climbs to break them out. I swore off poles for as long as possible because I like to have my hands free to eat and drink while I run, but as I age, I see the value of having them along for the steepest terrain. 

Choke Cherry

I passed a few runners on the way up, one guy was burping and retching. I asked if he was OK and he replied, “Oh yeah, it sounds a lot worse than it is, I just burp and fart a lot in my races.” Well, before long he passed me and took off whizopping his way up the mountain like the BFG after a big gulp of frobscottle! Must be nice. As for me, I had to ascend the mountain the hard way. 

If you don’t know the BFG, watch this one minute video:

Eventually I came to a dirt road where I got a splendid view of the ski runs in the distance. usually the mountain has remaining snow from ski season, but this year all has melted already. I ran down the road to an aid station and then continued on a flat section and caught up to the lady who is puking on the side of the trail. This could be a sign of a rough day. It’s only nine in the morning at mile 15 and runners are already suffering from altitude and heat. 

I continue on and arrive at the Ski Lodge and get my drop bag. I strip off a layer and put it in my bag since the temperature is rising. I eat some grain free banana bread that I made especially for the race. I’m not doing sugary drinks or gels since I had some health issues last fall. (Read about it here.) Unfortunately all my race food froze in my hotel mini fridge last night and my boiled eggs and potatoes have a weird texture. (Note to self: always check the mini fridge temp in your hotel!) The banana bread never tasted better though, if I do say so myself. Anyway, a volunteer fills my water bottles as I pick over the fresh fruit at the aid station table. 

Red columbine
Now comes the hard part, a one mile, almost vertical section up a black diamond ski slope. I leave the aid station and walk to the bottom of the slope where a lady is leaning on her poles looking up at the task ahead with a look of disbelief. The grassy hill is hemmed in on both sides with pines and aspen trees with a ski lift overhead, taunting runners as they struggle upwards. Everyone has their own style of ascending —hands on hips, hands on knees, bent over, leaning on poles, but almost everyone does some version of the rest step. 

I start up with a slow pace using my poles to help keep my balance and take some weight off my legs. I catch up to a few people who are resting every few steps. I try to take at least ten before I do the same. My heart quickly thumps in my chest reverberating throughout my entire body while the pressure builds in my head from the elevation. I look at the altitude on my gps watch to see how much farther I have to go —1000’. I look up at the zig-zagging line of runners who look like a trail of ants working to get to a pot of honey. 

This guy is about to puke!
...and so is she...
...and these two.
After 30 minutes or so and many pauses to catch my breath, I reach the top and run down a dirt road. Unfortunately, in a few short minutes, I see the ant trail heading up the steepest section yet. One guy is at the bottom getting his trekking poles back out. “I thought we were already at the top…rookie mistake.” he says. I did this hill twice last year, so I know; “it ain’t over ’til it’s over” and my gps only says 10,000’ —450' more to go. I get busy and slowly and methodically plod my way up there. Poles are a great asset on this climb and I finally top out where I start to run through a patch of forest. When I pop out I am awarded with the best view of God’s Country you will see anywhere.

The Valle Caldera
The Valle Caldera is a vast grassy bowl; a collapsed volcanic crater, rimmed with pine tree covered mounds. Streams meander peacefully through the meadows and fill ponds providing water for elk, black bear, deer, prairie dogs and a plethora of bird species including the golden eagle. It’s traditional to ask a runner to take your picture while you are up here so, even though I have one from all seven years I’ve participated in this race, I get mine taken. I soak in the stunning beauty for a few minutes and then have to quickly depart so I don’t miss any cutoff times in the race.

I start running down and get sad thinking about the fact that we are so hurried in our races that it’s hard to really cherish the best moments. Here I am in one of the most beautiful spots in the world, but I have to rush away. I vow to come back again soon when I have time to truly take it all in. 

Memories of last year’s race begin flooding my memory as I run down a twisty rocky single track. It was here, after my second trip to the peak, that I realized I may miss the cutoff time and DNF. I struggled to keep my pace up and worried all the way down and just barely made the cutoff times within mere minutes. I feel much faster this year and think I have plenty of time to make all the cutoffs. My goal is to stay about an hour ahead to avoid the stress I experienced last year.

As I continue descending the mountain the heat seems to rise with each step and my throat becomes parched even though I’m drinking plenty of water and taking electrolyte capsules. I run as fast as I can and lose control several times because of sharp turns filled with baseball sized round rocks that cause me to roll when my foot lands on them. I reach a flat stretch and then a gradual incline and make it into the aid station (mile 22). I quickly put on some sunscreen and grab a handful of apples to eat on the trail. 

Camp May aid station
At this point the course takes us very close to the Los Alamos National Lab where the smartest people in America work on research projects related to nuclear deterrence, stockpile stewardship, cyber security and energy including renewable sources. It’s not just about bombs any more. 

Eventually I descend a very steep set of switchbacks through a dense forested area. The trail is very narrow, snaking along a precipitous drop off where logs help shore up the eroded sections. I use my poles to help keep my balance as I run down uncontrollably. Suddenly I lose my balance and try to catch myself as my foot lands on some thin logs and sticks lining the trail. Well, these logs are completely rotten and my leg crashes through up to my knee almost hurling me off the mountain. Luckily I’m able to use my left trekking pole to save myself from having a really bad day.

After crossing a paved road, I ascend on a steep set of switchbacks and then come to a very deep gorge where I have to run down another steep trail and then climb out again. All the grinding up and down takes its toll on my quads not to mention the fact that the lower canyons have turned into hot dry ovens. The heat is unbearable at this point and the air is so dry that I can’t keep my mouth moist. Besides that, all this arid wind is really doing a number on my throat and lungs. I continue to drink plenty and take electrolytes to make sure I don’t become a heat related casualty. I look at my watch and still believe I can make my goal of reaching mile 30 within an hour of the cutoff time (2:30) if the heat doesn’t do me in first.

I pass through another aid station and then another. It is at around mile 30 that runners get to make a deal with the race officials. You can take door number 1 and continue on for another 20 miles to claim the 50 mile finish, provided you don’t die first, or you can take door number 2 and run the last several miles to the end to claim the 50K finish. I pass a few runners and a few pass me. We always try to encourage each other with a simple, “good job”, “nice work” or “you’re doing great.” At this point, though, I’ve completely lost my voice; my throat is completely parched. I try to say hi to a runner, but nothing comes out but a little squeak. I can only laugh at my plight.

I run along some neighborhoods on the edge of town and cross a paved road. A sign reads “Aid station, one mile ahead, beer and tequila”. That is probably a really bad idea considering the heat today, but I’m sure plenty of runners are indulging. I look at my watch which reads 1:35, I’ve already missed my goal, but know I’ll be early enough to take “door number 1”. I’m not sure if I’m happy about that or not. Another 20 miles in this heat sounds like a very daunting task.

When I arrive at the aid station, I’m greeted by my buddy Brett. He was also concerned about missing the cutoff time so was elated that we both made it in time. He takes off while I fill my bottles and eat a little bit. I run for a short while and reach the turnoff for the 50K course. A 50 mile runner tells the course marshall that he is taking door number 2, the heat is too much. I don’t blame him and think about doing the same, but I don’t have a good enough excuse. What’s eight more hours of running anyway?

The heat in the lower elevations and canyons is unbearable. I can’t really run at this point even on the flat sections. I settle in for a power hike and start my ascent up the mountain again. We climbed this trail earlier so I recognize many landmarks, except for one I missed earlier —a blooming claret cup cactus sporting vibrant red flowers. The cactus part is completely covered by leaves and other vegetation with just the blooms peeking through. Yuccas are also flowering along the trail.

Lower canyon. Can you spot the runners?
Claret cup cactus
The ridge is completely exposed at the moment and I’m in full sun with no breeze. I eat a hard boiled egg and some banana bread and keep plodding along. Soon my stomach starts to go south. A runner catches up to me and trails along behind. “How are you doing?” he asks. “Oh, not too bad.” I reply. (I completely lied.) “How are you?” I say. “Fair”, he says. I know we both feel terrible, but don't want to acknowledge the misery. I am completely dizzy and nauseous while the pressure in my head increases with each foot of altitude I gain. And then the negative thoughts come. This race is too hard for you. You should only try the 50K next year. Why didn't you take door number 2? Never sign up for a 50 miler again. Nevertheless, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other regardless of how terrible I feel. Stopping to rest will only delay the finish, I think to myself. Hopefully It will pass and I’ll be able to pull out of it soon.

I reach another aid station and Brett is there. “I’m really nauseous and had some ginger ale to try to settle my stomach,” he says. I croak out a reply. “Me too, I think all of us are suffering right now.” Just then the guy who was trailing me comes in and plops down on a chair. “How’s that beer sittin’ with you now?”, Brett asks jokingly. Poor guy looked really green in the face and I knew he was having a terrible afternoon. We all were at this point.

Anyway, I grab some fruit and take off in hopes of reaching the top of the climb. I keep grinding upward and finally make it to the dirt road that we ran this morning; elevation 9600’. I turn left this time though and start running back down towards town. There are a lot of rocks underfoot, but the views are spectacular. The Sandia mountains near Albuquerque, the Sangre de Cristo near Santa Fe and the Jemez are all in view while colorful striped mesas line the desert floor. Only 10 more miles to go, but I have to keep reminding myself that a lot can happen in 10 miles. 

Sangre de Cristo Mts
I feel much better now and the time passes quickly. This will be my fourth 50 mile finish here in the Jemez in as many consecutive years. My confidence has pushed all the negative thoughts out of my mind. This race is a true test of my ability since I’m recovering from my health issues that I experienced last Fall. It feels good to be able to function this well especially since walking from the parking lot to my office was a struggle six months ago.  

I continue down the mountain as the sun sinks lower in the sky and a cool breeze picks up occasionally bringing some relief. Running is easier now and I increase my pace. The sun dips behind the mountains and the temperature drops dramatically. Temperatures swing wildly here in the mountains and high desert especially when the humidity is so low. I really turn it on now and run as hard as I can reaching 5.5-6 mph on the downhills. 

Eventually I catch up to Brett and we run together for a while. He is suffering some knee pain though and tells me to go on. My goal is to beat the sun home so I don’t have to pull out my headlamp. I reach the last aid station where I eat a few slices of watermelon and get out of there. I make the last turn (door number 2-second pass) to the finish line and start up a hill. A mule deer doe bounds up the slope like it’s nothing. I stop and watch her for a minute while she keeps a close eye on me. 

I make it to a pedestrian tunnel that goes beneath a road and pop out on the other side. This is the point that I realize I’m almost done and so I pump my arms up and down over my head. I’m really excited now so twirl my right fist in a circle. I scream, “YES!” because I’m certain that no one is around to witness my foolishness. I feel like clicking my heels together like a tiny leprechaun, but think better of it lest I break my ankle in the last mile. So instead, all the while pumping my arms and twirling my fist, at the top of my lungs, I yell, YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! That’s when I look over and see a family of deer browsing in a meadow beside the trail. They look at me like I’m crazy which, at this point in the race, I am, but they just go back to their evening meal.

I continue on, running the last half mile through a dark scary forest as night quickly approaches. I see a 50K runner walking up ahead and run as fast as I can to try to beat nightfall. My lungs are burning and so I clear my gravelly throat creating a loud guttural rasp. Well, the guy in front screams, twirls around and almost poops his pants. “Sorry, Brother, I didn’t mean to frighten you”, I say. “You scared the crap out of me; I thought you were a bear!” he says. I finished the last bit of the course which is a steep, deep and narrow gully of eroded rock that leads to the Posse Shack and finish line. I beat the sun, but just barely; finishing in 15:28. 

My Jemez Mountain Trail Runs pottery collection
Even though the course was “easier” this year with less vertical gain, the heat took its toll on runners and around 50 people opted for door number 2 with only 90 finishing the entire 50 mile course. As always the volunteers and race staff were wonderful as were the runners. I saw a lot of my local running friends on the trail and really enjoyed the day. Congratulations to everyone who toed the line and completed one of the distances this weekend. Jemez is truly a gem of a race and they have the sweetest awards; hand made pottery by the Toya family of the Jemez Pueblo.

See you on the trail. 


  1. Awesome job, Greg! Very well written, as usual. The race certainly was great, even from my spectator's view. Good seeing you out there. --Mark W.

  2. Thanks Mark for reading. Nice seeing you on the trail. -Greg