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. My little Mexican hairless dog, Taz tags along sometimes.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Mt Taylor 50K 2021

 The muffled sound of a hundred feet padding the rocky dirt road, a whiff of dust stirred up from the forest floor and the disorienting ovals of light from runners’ headlamps greet me at the beginning of the Mt Taylor 50K in Grants, NM. I carefully scan the road for rocks lest I break my ankle in the first half mile of the race. Mt Taylor (11,306’) or Tsoodził is a sacred mountain to the Navajo and marks the southern boundary of their homeland. According to the website NavajoPeople,

“[Tsoodził ] is important in the Blessing Side ceremonies and the Enemy Side Ceremony. Mount Taylor was once the home of Yé’iitsoh (Chief of the Enemy Gods).
Once the sun is up, sunrays are all around and Mount Taylor is adorned with sunlight.

After thinking about what you want to do for the day, you start to plan your activities…Thoughts such as, “We want to progress,” grow from small plans to large plans and Mount Taylor has the power to satisfy that wish.”

View from Mt Taylor elev. 11,302

My hope is that Mt Taylor will be kind to me today and allow me to progress up her steep slopes and to safely return to the race finish line. I’m barely awake and simply keep my mind focused on the path. I share the trail with about 150 other hearty runners, but I stay in the back of the pack and pace my self. Before long the road becomes steep and I shift into power hike mode to conserve as much energy as possible. I expect my journey to last about 9 hours.

My energy flow is pretty good so far even though I’m at almost 10,000’ elevation. I ran the Cloudcroft 50K last month and also climbed Lookout Mountain (11,580’) to prepare for the high elevation of Mt Taylor. So far my hard work has paid off and I’m able to thoroughly enjoy the morning. The weather is perfect; about 45 with light wind, but the usual afternoon thunderstorms are a possibility later today.

As the sky begins to lighten we pop out of the forest and transition onto a smooth graded dirt road that leads to a lookout tower adjacent to Mt Taylor. Our beautiful sun is bathing the mountain peaks with her warm glow. Golden hour has arrived which reminds me of a poem by Talbot Mundy:

Chant Pagan

When that caressing light forgets the hills
That change their hue in its evolving grace;
When, harmony of swaying reeds and rills,
The breeze forgets its music and the face
Of Nature smiles no longer in the pond,
Divinity revealed! When morning peeps
Above earth's rim, and no bird notes respond;
When half a world in mellow moonlight sleeps
And no peace pours along the silver beam;
When dew brings no wet wonder of delight
On jeweled spider-web and scented lair
Of drone and hue and honey; when the night
No longer shadows the retreating day,
Her purple dawn pursues the graying dark;
And no child laughs; and no wind bears away
The bursting glory of the meadow-lark;
Then — then may be — never until then
May death be dreadful or assurance wane
That we shall die a while, to waken when
New morning summons us to earth again.

I feel much alive as the new day dawns and wonder what adventures may lie ahead on the good earth today. In three miles we reach a grassy plateau dotted with evergreens. From here there are grand views of grasslands blanketing the valley below surrounded by volcanic mountains. The pack of runners has thinned out for the most part so I am mostly alone as I run down the mountain. The sun has warmed me enough that I need to stop and shed a layer.

Golden hour

Several runners pass me and almost everyone comments on the jingle of my bear bell on my pack. Yes, I wear a bell to give bears a warning that I’m running through their living room. Five years ago a woman was mauled by a mother bear protecting her cub during a trail marathon in the Valle Caldera preserve not far from here. She survived the attack, but was severely injured and had to be flown to a hospital by helicopter. I’m kind of old and slow; easy to pick off like low hanging fruit, you know? I realize bear attacks are extremely rare, but wearing the bell is an easy thing to do.  

Anyway, evergreen trees give way to groves of quacking aspen that are beginning to show their fall colors. I run through mixed forest and grow euphoric for many reasons. The scent of aspen leaves and pine needles as well as the cool breeze in my face gives me a runners’ high, but I don’t grow too excited. I have done enough ultras to know the feeling will wane eventually and I will be suffering immensely, probably later when ascending Mt Taylor. But for now, I enjoy effortless downhill running.

On this beautiful path I walk in peace.
With each step a gentle wind blows, with each step a flower blooms.

Spending time in the mountains definitely has a positive effect on your mood though. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. Natural areas with streams, waterfalls, forests, oceans and glaciers produce negative air ions that effect our physical and mental health. Cosmic rays, sunlight, thunderstorms and lightning also create negative ions so spending time outdoors in healthy environments makes a lot of sense, minus the lightning storms of course.  

What are negative air ions (NAI)?

According to the paper, Negative Air Ions and Their Effects on Human Health and Air Quality Improvement,

Air ions are electrically charged molecules or atoms in the atmosphere. An air ion is formed when a gaseous molecule or atom receives sufficiently high energy to eject an electron. NAIs are those that gain an electron, while positive air ions lose an electron. The natural and artificial energy sources include radiant or cosmic rays in the atmosphere; sunlight including ultraviolet; natural and artificial corona discharge including thunder and lightning; the shearing forces of water (Lenard effect); plant-based sources of energy.

I always feel a sense of well being for days after spending a long day or weekend in the mountains. For now, I just roll with my pace and enjoy the ride down into the Spud Patch aid station at mile 10. I skip the food, as I have brought apples and boiled potatoes with me, and just get my water bottles filled. 

Pretty soon I pick up the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) which runs from the border of Mexico all the way to our border with Canada. Did you know we may gain another long distance recreation trail in the US called the Great Plains Trail? This one goes from the Canadian border at either Montana or N. Dakota and ends in my neck of the desert at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in W. Texas. The trail passes through 3 national parks, 3 national monuments, 10 national grasslands, 5 state high points and 15 state parks! Sadly, due to private land, the route includes some paved roads, but it still sounds like a grand adventure, don’t you think?

The trail becomes steep right away and I struggle a little on the climb. Soon it levels out where I can run for a while, but then I have to negotiate a treacherous downhill part. Trees line the trail here so I grab onto their trunks to help keep from slipping on the slope. Other runners are ahead of me kicking up a bunch of dirt on the slide down and I inadvertently inhale some dust that sends me into a fit of coughing. Luckily it’s short lived and I am soon on my way. 

Eventually I make it back to the start/finish area at mile 15 where I get my drop bag. I eat some food and slather on sunscreen to get ready for the second part of my adventure. The course is two separate loops, the latter climbing Mt Taylor, so I pick up my trekking poles for the climb that awaits me. 

I take off and continue on the CDT where the undulating track leads me through shady pine forests. I still have a lot of energy so run when the terrain allows. I reach the 20 mile aid station and am met by a volunteer with a cowbell in one hand and a bottle of hand sanitizer in the other. Well, “cleanliness is next to godliness” as they say, so I take a hit and smear the glob around in my hands. Another guy takes care of my water bottle, but I skip the smorgasbord, because I prefer to eat on the trail to keep putting miles behind me.

Gnarly trail section

The trail through the trees is rocky in places and I start to struggle on the climb. Before long the grassy slopes of the mountain come into view and then I pop out of the forest onto the sun exposed ridge. I pull my buff over my head and cover my face to protect my skin from the sun’s harsh rays. Runners are slowly slogging up the mountain stopping occasionally. I pass a few, but become very winded from the steepness and high elevation. I have to stop every few steps to give my old heart time to catch up. I use these opportunities to turn around and peer out over the vast landscape. 

The view goes on forever; volcanic mountains rising up from the brown grassy desert floor like wrinkles in the earth’s crust; puffy clouds billowing above. After much toil I reach the volcano rim and can see an eroded grassy valley dotted with evergreens of the Christmas tree variety. Further down the valley is a forest of yellowing aspens. 

I traverse the rim and continue the steep climb passing by a rocky mound rising up from the grassy hill. I continue upwards towards Mt Taylor, switchbacking through the tall golden grass. I can see people above and below me also struggling and some look completely miserable. I’ve done this race several times before and have always gotten an altitude headache on the approach to the summit. Today, I feel pretty good though, and am able to slowly make progress even though my legs are burning. I keep plodding along and the climb levels out a little.

When I’m almost at the top, a photographer comes over so I take the buff off my head and face and try to “freshen up” to get my picture taken. He’s very friendly and has me pose by the Mt Taylor elevation sign. It is tradition, you know. By this point the wind is howling briskly, the air is cool and I can see bands of rain off in the distance. The view is spectacular though and so I snap some photos with my camera. I don’t stay too long because thunder is rumbling in the background and the weather appears to be taking a turn for the worst. Negative air ions are doing their thing.

I take off and the trip down is perilous in spots so I use my poles to keep from tumbling down the mountain. The path is dirt for a while but then transitions to crumbly rock that is very steep and slippery. I take my time so I don’t lose traction. I then reach a narrow path lined with tall grass on each side which makes it hard to see my footing in places. There’s a precipitous downward slope to my right that’s making me anxious. A slip here would make for a really bad rest of my day. Therefore, I remind myself that Mt Taylor has the power to grant my wish of safely making it back to the finish line. 

From here, I can see the aid station and hear the whooping, cheering and clanking of the cowbell. There’s no such thing as too much cowbell in an ultramarathon. Before long I’m down on safer ground, but thunder rumbles in the distance. Can I make it six more miles before the sky opens up? I attach my poles to my pack, and leave the aid station (mile 25) as quickly as possible to do a four mile loop. I’ll pass back through here in just a little while.

Storm clouds building

This part is a windy dirt road lined with aspens. I still feel strong and am able to pass a few people on the run down. The wind picks up and the temperature seems to be falling quickly. In three miles I reach a series of switchbacks from hell that lead back up to the rim of the caldera. A caldera, Spanish for boiling pot, is the collapsed “mouth” of a volcano and I’m actually down in a large bowl. If you look at Mt Taylor in google maps (satellite view) you can actually see these features. 

Switchbacks near Mt Taylor summit

Anyway, I start the climb without my poles because I’m being lazy and it is “only” one mile back to the top. Well, I huff and puff up the trail, legs burning with each step. My breathing becomes very labored, but I keep a steady grind upwards. Pretty soon the trail grows so steep that I give in and take my pack off to get my poles. They are a huge help, my arms taking some of the weight off my legs. The sky darkens as I go higher while the sound of thunder grows louder. It starts to rain and looks like it may downpour. 

Lupine or bluebonnet?

I hate the little annoyances of having to stop and take my pack off again and again, but I know the only way to make the rain stop is to don my rain shell. I used this strategy in the Cloudcroft ultra last month and it worked! Can I repeat my performance? It takes a while to accomplish this task and several runners pass me as I fumble with my gear. I waste precious time getting everything situated; camera in a waterproof bag, jacket on and zipped, rain hood, etc. It seems like a lot of trouble to go through, but I’ve been caught in my share of rain, hail and snow storms in the mountains and know the dangers of hypothermia. 

Finally I get moving again and the sky spits and drizzles, the wind blows and everything pretty much sucks. I keep plodding upwards and grow clammy and claustrophobic in my hood because my glasses keep fogging up. My body has created its own atmosphere inside my shell and I imagine it feels similar to the inside of a wet baby diaper. Yuk! In a while, I approach the top of the bowl and realize the rain has mostly stopped. I reach the rim where the trail intersects with a dirt road and I approach the aid station. Almost home! I cruise past the smiling, cowbell ringing volunteers and put some pep in my step. 

Soon I come to a Vegas style sign with an arrow pointing the way to Mt 50K Cafe, so I follow it to heartbreak hill, a treacherous descent. My poles are very useful here, but a flying squirrel wing suit would be much more effective in getting off this mountain. There are deep ruts with slippery footing, but I manage alright and when the slope becomes runnable, I bomb down. The rain has completely stopped by this point, but I am overheating now, so I unzip my jacket to get some relief. I’m too close to the finish to bother stopping though, so I just suffer. I run down the mountain, through the forest and onto the final dirt road that brings me into the finish area. My time is 9:11, almost the same as last month’s 50K in Cloudcroft, NM. 

It was another grand running adventure and Tsoodził was gentle on me today. My energy was high throughout the day and I never felt too much misery. The scenery is unsurpassed here and the race staff and volunteers are outstanding. I love the layout of the course especially since you conveniently return to the start/finish area half way through the race. The post race food was amazing too and it was so great to be able to finally catch up with friends and other runners that I haven’t seen in several years. I’ll be enjoying the benefits of negative air ions for days to come. 

See you on the trail.

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