It's been a few weeks since I ran the Jemez 50 - but the experience is still etched in my mind. With more races looming upon the horizon it's time to put down my thoughts - reflect on the experience - and focus my attention on the next goal.
Last year I toed the start line for the 50 miler - and dropped midway at the Pipeline Aid Station to the 50K. Being my first mountain trail run I really didn't know what to expect - would the elevation get to me? Would my legs hold up with all of the climbing and descending? Would I hold it together mentally? Perhaps I was naive - even though I hadn't really done any hill training - I thought my time in the gym would be enough to really get me through. Boy was I wrong. I ended up walking most of the 2nd half of the 50K - but rather than feeling completed defeated by the experience - I was motivated to return again and conquer the course. I needed redemption.
Getting to the starting line wasn't nearly as dramatic as it was last year when the car started smoking in the parking lot of the hotel. Instead I was at the posse shack in plenty of time - already a ton of runners huddled together on a low 40 degree morning. I decided to wear a jacket for the first part of the race and was glad I did. After training in 90 degree temps in TX, 40 degrees was cold! We took off at 5am with headlamps that quickly reflected all of the dust that the front runners had already kicked up. The first 5 miles of the course are fairly un-eventful. Sometimes you're in a single file line - other times you have enough room to really stretch out the legs and pick up the pace. This section is relatively flat and give a middle to back of the pack runner on a mountain course an opportunity to get a lead on the cut off (close to 37 miles, 12 hours).
After the first aid station there is a substantial climb up to the 2nd aid station. The trail goes up a mountain that burned during the fire - and when you look up you see runners all over the mountain. The trip up the mountain this time was significantly easier than last year - I'm not sure if it was conditioning or cooler temps - but I'll claim I'm just a better runner! Once on top of the mountain there is a nice downhill section (somewhat steep) with a lot of switchbacks - I was in a small group of 3 or 4 runners and had some great conversation which was a ton of fun. We kept this up down the mountain and then up through a narrow canyon to the 3rd aid station at the bottom of Caballo.
Caballo base to Caballo top is 1700 - 1800 feet elevation gain in just a couple of miles. These long up and downhill sections are something that you just can't simulate when you live in an area such as Texas. For me, the way up was a slow hike - sometimes with hands on hips with the really steep sections that got me winded - occassionally having to yield the right of way to faster runners that were already heading back down the same trail (boy were they flying). When the steep wooded trail finally opens up to a grassy mountain top with amazing views the effort to get up there is definitely worth it. The - turn around and head back down the same way you came - offering encouragement to those that are still heading up.
After you reach Caballo base for a 2nd time there's another climb up to the Pipeline aid station. Last year this is where I officially folded mentally. For some reason I was expecting a flat section since I had just did a lot of vertical up/down with Caballo - but nope - there's another climb. Even though it's still relatively early - this portion has some exposed spots that are in the sun and it's hot and steep. It's another slow go - but once you finally reach the top you have a nice flatish section til Pipeline Aid Station.
At Pipeline Aid Station I was able to gain access to my drop back - which was more like a security blanket with pretty much everything and anything I could possibly need. I dropped the jacket in exchange for some sleeves - snagged a new hat and some food an extra handheld water bottle and I was off again.
Dropping into the caldera/Valle Grande was every bit as steep as I had read and expected. When I finally made it to the bottom - my shoes were full of black dirt as was the mouthpiece of my handheld water bottle - yah not the greatest to get a mouthful of grit! The reward however was a nice jeep road with some gentle rollers and an opportunity to finally make up some time which I really hadn't done much of since the first 5 miles of the course. I ran most of this section til the aid station around mile 21 - refilled the water bottles for the long 8 mile stretch to the next aid station - and followed the flags through an off-road/trail section through the grass. I could see a group of runners about 1/2 mile ahead slowly heading up the mountain and I could tell by their pace that it was relatively steep. Bummer!
I expected this off road section to really be tough to navigate from what I had read - but I found the clumps of grass to not be that big of an issue. Maybe it's because I was walking :) So - the flags headed uphill and towards the trees - and not long after the trees we hit a scree field with large rocks. The flags went up and over the rocks - some which was a little unsteady and shifted when you would step - and continued to head up-mountain after the scree field. And we climbed - and climbed - and climbed. I remember asking Joe from Austin who was about 100 yards behind me "are we near the top?!" - and my spirits sank when he said "not even close." He was right - can't blame the guy for being honest! We kept going and going and going - a few false summits where I thought "surely this is the top?" - and then finally we made it. Whew! By this time Joe had caught up to me and told me there was a sweet downhill section coming up. The first 1/2 mile was steep with another scree field to traverse - but then he was right - AWESOME downhill section. I flew - made great time - felt amazing - whizzed past some people that were walking - and finally rolled into the Pajarito Aid Station feeling good and with my spirits up.
I probably spent longer in the aid station than I should have - but I needed to catch my breath and refocus mentally. I knew I'd have to push ahead the next 8 miles to get to the cutoff in 12 hours - and I've learned that a few extra minutes at an aid station can yield good results if the time is spent wisely. Potatoe soup hit the spot and was a few minutes spent wisely :) Leaving the aid station there was a short downhill section and then the trail started to climb. It was another canyon - some of it exposed and in the sun - warm. I started wondering how long the sunny, warm climb was going to last - but it wasn't too bad. It was uphill but it wasn't steep - and so I power walked and made great time. I passed a few more people - and actually ran some of it til we made it to the aid station at the ski area.
I snagged some goodies at the aid station - cheese and tortilla and ginger chews. Yah! Then started the slow climb up the mountain. Yes, this climb is another hand on the hips - steep - go on forever kinda climb. I could never really tell where on the mountain I was - sometimes we would be winding up through the trees - other times we would traverse a ski run. We finally made it to what I thought was the top - oh no just a false summit - and then we finally hit the top - oh wait another false summit - haven't we played this game before?? You really do keep climbing and climbing - always thinking that you've reached the top. Finally once you're at the top it's time to come down. The first few downs are pretty steep - then there's some gradual slope - and then you get to the actual ski run that you run straight down and it's crazy. Reading other race reports I didn't think there was a trail of any kind - I thought you were just runnning down the grassy slopes - but there's actually a trail. I am NOT a good downhill runner so I took it slow and steady but I knew I was ok with the cutoff since I had about 20 minutes to make it down.
Boy was I ever glad to make the cutoff. To me, this was pretty much finishing the race. I knew the rest of the course from last year - a gentle up back to the Pipeline Station - a steep short uphill and then downhill all the way to the finish. Simple enough. I ran/walked the uneventful section to the Pipeline Aid Station where I sat down and refueld. I grabbed my headlamp, ate a little bit, dropped my hydration pack for a waist belt - and I was off.
I started down Pipeline Road and immediately saw the steep uphill. Ok - here we go - walk, walk, walk. Made it to the top and down the other side and actually felt pretty good. I was able to manage a decent jog at this point - and being on the gravel road it was a time to mentally relax and enjoy some mindless running. I'd been up for 14 - 15 hours and have been running for about 13 so I was wiped. I kept going and going waiting for the 3.9 mile aid station. I finally realized that I hadn't seen a flag in a while. Where the heck is the cutoff back to the trail? How long have I been running? I kept going thinking it had to be soon. Eventually I realized - I was lost! I had no idea where the trail was or how far past the trail cutoff I was. I have no idea why I kept thinking that if I just kept going I would eventually find a trail. I think it was the mental fuziness of the moment - because now being rested and lucid the logical thing would have been to turn around and go back until I found a flag. I know this. This isn't my first long run. But at the moment the only thing that sounded reasonable was to continue to go and go and go. Finally I realized there was no trail ahead of me - and the trail behind me was too far to go back and find now that the sun was starting to set. I had picked up my phone at the Pipeline Aid Station and even though I was way up on a mountain - I got cell signal! I was able to talk to someone with the race that said my best bet was to follow the gravel road all the way down the mountain until I hit pavement and someone would be there to grab me - about a 5 mile run down. So - I started running - knowing that I wasn't going to get an official finish but wanting to get the heck off of the mountain. About a mile into my run - I hear a truck pull up behind me. The aid station volunteers from Pipeline Aid Station were heading back to town! I put my hitchhiker thumb up and grabbed a ride back to town. I couldn't have been happier for the lift - even though there was some dispappointment that I didn't make it down on my own two legs.
The whole experience at Jemez was awesome despite the finish. I've found that during long races you measure success in so many different ways. Your time, your time compared to previous attempts, your nutrition and hydration, your recovery after the race, your place in the pack, etc. Though I ended up getting lost (duh!) there were a lot of victories for me. First, I was fairly steady throughout the race. Some races I have ups and downs and am all over the place - but mentally I was completely dialed in. On the steep sections - where last year I mentally caved - I was able to keep plugging away and really tackle the terrain. I remember last year after the first climb to the 2nd aid station I was ready to throw in the towel. This year I just stayed focused and kept plugging way. I also did MUCH better this year with nutrition.hydration - which is probably why I didn't have the wild ups and downs and ran a better race between the ears. Another difference is understanding that it's important to have trail comraderie - but not to the point where you start running someone elses race. Last year I met a running buddy on the course which was great - but I lost track of running my own race. I had a lot of conversations this year with people on the trail - but I didn't start running their race - and they didn't start running mine. Most importantly - I had fun. I just had a great time out on the trails. I really wanted to make the cutoff at the ski area in 12 hours - but it wasn't an obsession. If I dropped a few minutes in a section - or if it took my longer to get to an aid station than I thought - I didn't beat myself up about it.
If you haven't run the Jemez and are looking for a well organized, tough mountain trail run I highly recommend signing up. You'll have to make a decision early as the race sold out well before the race date this year. The course will challenge you - the elevation gain/loss is substantial at around 12K - but the trail itself is runnable and a ton of fun. The aid stations and volunteers as all ultras I've run are top notch. There's also a lot of info about the race (umm, this post as an example?) which I like - I enjoy reading about people's experiences and then comparing them to my own when I'm out there. Who knows - maybe I'll read one of your reports one day...