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'm a free spirit who spends countless hours running in the Franklin Mountains and the surrounding desert in far West Texas. I call it going to church.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Cloudcroft Ultra 53K

A weird urge came over me one evening and I thought to myself, I wonder if there are any local road races this month. This was really strange, because I haven’t run a road race in years; hadn’t even considered it. So anyway, I jumped on the internet to search for races in New Mexico and West Texas and the first thing that popped up was the Cloudcroft Ultra Trail Race coming up in a few weeks. This race is usually held in May and I had no idea it was moved to August because I have, for the most part, turned off social media, news, TV, etc and have been happily living like a hermit while running in the Franklin Mountains.

Well, I was very excited about this gem, because I had recently done some training runs on the Rim Trail in Cloudcroft, NM to get ready for the Mt Taylor 50K next month. So, here I am at the start of the Cloudcroft 53K in the Sacramento Mountains in Lincoln National Forest. According to the race website, “The Rim Trail was the first U.S. Forest Service Trail in New Mexico to be designated as a National Recreation Trail. It is a combination of old Indian paths, railroad grades, homestead trails and logging routes linked together by newer sections built in the 1960’s and beyond.” The course is an out-and-back between 8000’-9500’ elevation with a lollypop loop. 

The weather is perfect here at Zenith Park, around 50 degrees with no wind. About 45 of us start out running through the town on a paved road lined with quaint cabins, B&Bs and inns. I stay in the back behind the main pack because I’m not in any hurry and want to make sure I pace myself. It’s going to be a long day for sure. In about a mile and a half we reach a tunnel that takes us under the highway. There are several campgrounds here, Deer Head and my preference, Sleepy Grass, which is where I camped last night. 

Once through the tunnel we pick up the Rim Trail which is very smooth, flat and runnable. However, I don’t get too excited because I know what’s ahead of me — lot’s of gnarly rocks, roots, gullies, etc. that race legal waivers refer to as “uneven ground” and “tripping hazards”. Before long I’m all alone on the trail and settle into a nice easy groove enjoying the quiet and solitude. 

In a few more miles I reach a viewpoint where I can see down to the vast desert floor and White Sands National Park. The trail here is lined with low shrubs and blooming wild roses in many hues of pale pinks and bright purples. Wild roses have been used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans; all the parts of the plant being utilized. According to the Mountain Rose Herbs blog, wild roses are good for many ailments including, “Strong or fetid body odor or breath not associated with organic disease, medication, or a particular food.” Well, I’ll be needing some of that when I return here later this afternoon. By mile 30, I’m sure to be in a “fetid” odorous state. 

White Sands N.P.
Wild rose

Now it’s time to run downhill. A few weeks ago, I ran this section very gingerly because I was recovering from a rolled ankle and there are a lot of rocks here. Today I’m able to let gravity do most of the work though, and I just ride along with whatever my body decides to do. At the bottom, I reach a smooth packed dirt section and then start a climb on a lush fern lined path. The trail is overhung with maple saplings and oaks creating a shady cooling effect which is much appreciated as the sun begins to warm the earth. This area, as well as West Texas, has seen a very wet monsoon season this year greening the desert and bringing plentiful wildflowers. The rain has intensified the fragrance of the forest creating a full bodied earthy aroma of wet detritus, notes of fungal spores with subtle overtones of unwrapped mummy.

Defiled or immaculate, increasing or decreasing
these concepts exist only in our mind. 
The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed. -Thich Nhat Hanh
This climb nearly killed me earlier this summer when I came here to run. I hadn’t been this high in elevation in a year and altitude really affects me especially the first day. On the first night I usually have a lot of head pressure, bloating and poor sleep which happened to me on my first trip this summer. The next morning I had set out for a 26 mile run and my legs felt like rubber and my energy sucked most of the day. What’s weird is that altitude affects people differently and is not based on fitness level, but the body’s ability to adapt to less oxygen in the blood. 

Here’s an article that explains:

How does altitude affect the body and why does it affect people differently? 

I power hike up this stretch without too much difficulty, which tells me my training runs here in the past several months have paid off. Nevertheless, I know I better consume some calories because I haven’t eaten any breakfast yet. I rarely have the urge to eat while running especially at altitude or when it’s hot. I have a slice of smoked turkey breast and some boiled salted potatoes with a few apple pieces. I like to eat while walking uphill so I keep putting miles behind me. Downhill running requires too much concentration especially on rocky technical trails. 

Typical trail
I continue my upward slog with a few much welcomed downhill spots and the hours slip by. I take in the scenery around me and ponder the miracle of ginormous trees that have fallen across the trail and been sawed and cleared for trail users. The amount of energy these trees contain is mind blowing. How can a tiny Douglas fir seed transform into a dense 200 foot tall organism with a girth that takes three or four humans to link arms around. Several large trees have partially fallen and are leaning precariously against other trees waiting for the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Singapore to effect the weather pattern; sending a breeze here that topples the hazard onto an unsuspecting hiker. On the plus side, I run fast under these widow makers!

Soon I reach the mile seven aid station and only stop for water since I am carrying  my race food in my pack. I keep climbing for quite a while and my mc2 begins to wane. The tryptophan in the turkey is making me very drowsy, or maybe that’s a myth and it’s really the potatoes that are causing it. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I didn’t sleep well in my tent last night, not only because of the altitude, but also because I heard a strange growling noise in the middle of the night. I tried to ignore it, but I was too curious to see if there might be a bear lurking about. I unzipped my tent, bear spray in hand. I scanned the dark of night with my headlamp and saw three sets of glowing eyes close to the ground. Bear cubs? No, fortunately they were just raccoons. As for the growling, it was just the dude in the next campsite snoring. Well by this point, I was already awake so got up to pee and then I looked up. I was gobsmacked beyond belief! The heavens were filled with bright stars that seemed so close to earth — like I could reach up and touch them.
Anyway, I eat some apple slices in hope that the sugar will perk me up a little. After a while, around mile 12, I reach a dirt road where a shelter is set up surrounded by cars. A table with water coolers sit under the canopy but no volunteers. I become confused. Is this the aid station? Seems to just be campers so I keep going, crossing the road and following the course flagging back onto the Rim Trail. I keep plodding upwards and finally reach the mile 13 aid station in around 3:15 , 45 minutes before the cutoff time. I’m greeted by my running friends from Albuquerque who I haven’t seen in several years. Perky and her crew are always upbeat and a welcome sight. They take great care in filling my water bottles and sending me off with a smile on my face.
I keep going for awhile on the Rim Trail and skirt Atkinson Field, a cattle grazing pasture, and then pick up the Pipeline Trail. I’ve been dreading this lollypop loop because we go down, down, down and then up, up, up. About 1500’ in a small number of miles which means steep, steep, steep. Well, the sooner I get going the quicker it will be over. 

The steepness is only part of the trouble. The Pipeline Trail is full of eroded gullies littered with softball sized white caliche rocks. According to gelogy.com, Caliche, also known as hardpan “…is a shallow layer of soil or sediment in which the particles have been cemented together by the precipitation of mineral matter in their interstitial spaces.” OK, but what does that mean for the runner? It means there will be "uneven ground" and "tripping hazards" that might send you ass-over-teakettle all the way down the mountain. BE CAREFUL!. It’s as if a dump truck poured a load of broken concrete all over the trail. 

I pass several runners on the way down who are cautiously picking their way through the debris field. The sun is high in the sky by now and there’s no shade so the sun’s energy radiates off the caliche creating a convection oven like effect. A rusted iron water pipeline snakes along the old road on the way down. After what seems like an eternity, I take a right turn onto Alamo Peak Trail and begin the ascent. My legs are pretty rubbery by this point, so I just put my head down and give it all I got. 
I forget about the task ahead and just focus on each tiny little step forward. Inch by inch I slowly creep higher. Occasionally, I stop in a shady spot to let my heart catch up and eventually the two runners that I passed earlier overtake me. The upward slog also seems to last an eternity, but what motivates me is knowing that once I’m at the top, the worst will be over. Soon I hear a trickle of water and realize there’s a stream below the trail and then I come to a series of springs that are surrounded by chain link fence. Perhaps the spring water is piped down the mountain through the pipeline, I don’t know. It would be nice to take a dip in that water about now, but I just keep plodding on. 

Eventually I make it to the top where the trail spits me out onto the Alamo Peak Rd in a not-so-fresh state. The road is paved, not too steep with no “uneven ground” or “tripping hazards” so I should be running. Sadly my legs refuse, so I walk them out for a little while until I’m able to run again. Finally I make it back to the 20 mile aid station where I again see Perky from Albuquerque and her crew. I’m extremely hot and the first thing I spot when I reach the goodie table is fresh cut watermelon. There’s nothing better than watermelon after a long hot grind up Alamo Peak Trail in August! I visit the crew for a little bit while they fill my water bottles and I head back towards town on the Rim Trail.

Soon the sky starts to darken and I hear thunder in the distance. Showers are wicked here in the Sacramento Mountains during the monsoon and they pop up almost every afternoon. After some time, big drops of rain start to fall so I pull out may rain shell. I run in the drizzle and start to overheat from the humid air. Fortunately it doesn’t turn into a gully washer and eventually subsides.
I roll along the trail for hours on end sweating profusely even though it’s below 70 degrees. A niggling ache I’ve had between my shoulder blades all afternoon has turned into a full blown stabbing pain. My body’s way of screaming at me to quit. The sun is back out and I reach the last big climb. The one with no shade, but lined with wild roses.

It’s a laborious grind, so I muster all my physical strength while tapping into my inner self. I think of all the others all over the world who are suffering much more than I am right now. My pain is self inflicted; I signed up for this torture! But if we don’t experience the occasional discomfort how do we know when we feel good? By pushing ourselves and testing our mettle, we can strengthen our fortitude. I remind the one that I call my self that the pain and suffering is temporary and will end on its own. There is nothing I need to do but simply smile at my plight and it shall pass.

I finally reach the top and the tree canopy brings some relief from the sun. I walk while lifting my arms over my head; bending my neck down to quell the muscle tension in my shoulders. Only three more miles of mostly flat terrain to go, I tell myself. I run twice that distance every morning. I reach the series of campgrounds and realize I’m almost there. I go through the tunnel and along a soft groomed walking path and reach the town. Nine long hours have passed, I’m completely beat and extremely hot. Even so, I pick up my pace and run as hard as I can to the finish. When the park comes into view, emotion sweeps over me. How great it is to be suffering through ultramarathons again after so many months of isolation! I cross the finish line in 9:08.

Everything was just right for the Cloudcroft Ultra. The organizers did a great job making sure the course was well marked and aid stations were manned with cheerful volunteers. Hopefully I’ll be back next year for another grand adventure. 

See you on the trail.

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