Race Report: Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50 mile
This is going to be a by-the-numbers race report, because that’s the kind of race it was for me. I had a plan and stuck to it really well. I ended up staying maybe a little too far on the conservative side, which resulted in a slower time than I guessed I would finish in, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
My mileage has been hovering in the mid-50 range for the past several weeks. Not a huge number, but very consistent – and it includes a lot of trail work and focus on climbing. I raced a 50 miler exactly a month ago, and I was probably not 100% recovered going into Jemez because of keeping the training load fairly high, but it was close enough. Especially since I was just using this mostly for training.
My nutrition plan was simple. Take a gel every 25 minutes, a salt cap every 50, and stay on top of my hydration level. The gel only approach has been working great. At my last race I did every 30 minutes, and it was a little too long – so a minor tweak this time around. I loaded my waist pack with 16 gels, and put 14 more in a drop bag for the Pajarito Canyon aid station at mile 28. The only downside is what to do with all of the wrappers, they add up quickly! Putting them in my shorts pocket is no good because after a while they ooze through the fabric and then my shorts are sticking to my thigh – yuck. I’ve tried putting them in one of the pockets of my pack, which worked well, but I hated to give up that storage space. I thought for a while and came up with my first ultra-running mod. I pinned socks on the back of my pack to hold the gel wrappers. The stretchy fabric was perfect for being able to shove the empty packets into and then holding on to them so they wouldn’t bounce out. It worked great!
I took Friday off of work and made the 6 hour drive to Los Alamos getting there in time to attend the pre-race briefing and dinner. The high school cafeteria was packed! The race director mentioned that the race had filled, and the Forest Service granted additional spots, and they had quickly filled as well. I think they said there were 400 runners in total (for the 50 mile, 50k, and half marathon). It was great to get a slideshow preview of the course and hear about the trail conditions. A few inches of snow on the peaks, and lots of fallen trees to climb/jump over. It was evident that there had been a TON of work put into this event.
It was great to meet and get a hug from my new Speedgoat teammate, Olga. And get some last minute words of advice and encouragment from the desert-tanned and very fit looking Coach Karl. It was obvious he’s been getting in the miles and was set for a nice little ‘training run’ of his own. I was excited and ready to take on the challenge.
With a 05:00 start time, the 03:30 wake up call came pretty early. I was already awake, and ready to get going. I made my way to the start, which I had scoped out the night before, and scored a sweet parking spot. In an effort to eliminate the bad blistering I endured at Fruita, I coated my feet in Vaseline and then put on a very thin pair of socks under a thick pair of Smartwools. I grabbed a bite to eat and hung out talking to Mike who I had run with at the Bear 100 last year. One thing I loved about this race is that even though there were 3 distances being offered, the start times were each 1 hour apart. Nice! The 50 milers were the first to go. They announced there were 130 starters and then spun us in a 180 to get us pointed in the correct direction – oops! Off into the darkness we went.
My plan was to take it really easy at the beginning, and generally easy for the whole first 35 miles. Then run it in from there with whatever I had left. Taking it really easy at the start was… really easy. Because I felt blah. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep, tired legs, or what, but my body didn’t want to move very quickly. That was ok. It didn’t bother me a bit, and I just settled in to a comfortable pace and didn’t get concerned at all when people would pass me.
The first 6 miles were gently rolling and I was able to turn my headlamp off after 30 minutes or so. The trail went thorugh some dry stream beds and some fun contours on the hillside that had me smiling. At around mile 4 I noticed a guy with purple gaiters go running by. Hey, I recognize those! It was Kirk Apt, a very accomplished ultra runner who had come flying by me with half a mile to go at the Fruita 50 miler last month. He ran a very smart race there, with just a 15 minute positive split – compared to my dismal 1 hour. I knew he would be a ‘good wheel to follow’ (in cycling lingo), but resisted the urge to speed up and stay with him. I was going to be running my own race today. It was just as well, I passed him about a mile later while he was adjusting his pack. That was a good lesson to me – breaking out of your own rhythm to run someone else’s pace is rarely a good idea in these events. There are always nature calls to answer, things to adjust, aid station stops, etc. that will make lead changes frequent. If someone is really stronger than you, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. You have to run your own race, manage the course, and let it take care of doing the sorting out.
I reached the first aid station (Mitchell Trailhead @ mile 4.9) in 57 minutes. Wow, I really was taking it easy. Karl later told me their lead group reached this point in 32 minutes or something crazy like that. They were hauling! We had climbed a little over 900′ to that point. I topped off my bottle and was on my way in about 30 seconds.
Next up was a 1,500′ climb over 2.2 miles to the next aid station on Guaje Ridge. I was still going really slow, but starting to feel better and better. As soon as the climb got really steep, I could feel blisters forming on the soles of my feet – not again!! My feet were sliding all over inside my shoes. I pulled off the trail and completely retied them, making them snug. That felt so much better that I did it again in another half of a mile. I cranked them down so much that the eyelets were nearly touching! I couldn’t believe it. My feet aren’t that narrow, and I was wearing two pairs of socks! It was time well spent, and although it was touch-and-go at times, I never developed any real blisters.
I arrived at the Guaje Ridge aid station at mile 7.1 in 42 minutes, 1:39 elapsed. Topped off the water bottle again and got ready for the first real descent. Over 1,000′ down into Guaje Canyon. This was a really cool trail. Very narrow, and lots of short switchbacks pasted on to the hillside. It seemed like you would run straight for about 25 feet, then crank a 180 around a hairpin switchback, then repeat over and over. I was now totally warmed up and feeling fine.
There was a gentle climb up the lush canyon bottom where we hopped a small stream several times. It was very pretty in this area, and the running was great. I passed the time chatting with some other runners for a mile or two. Soon we came to a ladder next to a waterfall. I can’t say that I had ever climbed a ladder during a run before. It was a cool addition and the first of many obstacles we would face during the day.
Up you go
Photo credit: Olga Varlamova
Soon we arrived at the Caballo Base aid station (:45 split/2:25 elapsed) and a sign indicating we were facing an 1,800′ climb in 2 miles. I was second in line with a group of 4 or 5 that included Kirk, who had caught back up, and we headed up at a very consistent pace. After a few minutes Nate flew by, then shortly after that was Karl (Kyle had already finished the out-and-back by the time we started). It was only the second time I’ve seen Karl run in person, he levitated down the trail – very cool. As we got closer to the top, there was a steady stream of runners coming down the trail at us. I kept track of the count just for fun. There were also many downed trees laying over the trail that we had to climb over. The volunteers did an outstanding job in clearing much of the trail, but this section was just a little too remote for them this early in the year. They even used llamas to pack water and supplies to the top of the mountain for a small aid station there. As if a 20% slope wasn’t enough to keep us occupied, we were also going through several inches of new snow which made traction a little scarce at times. The trail leveled off for the last little bit to the turnaround at the top of Caballo Mountain which I hit in 56th place (mile 12.1 – :49 split / 3:14 elapsed).
Run to the tree and turn around
Photo credit: Olga Varlamova
Now it was time to have a little fun. I ran fairly casually for the first part of the descent and soon caught up with another runner. She offered to let me by, but I told her I was fine – unless I came rolling by… It was steep! After a minute or two, more runners started to stack up behind us so she stepped aside on a switchback. Now I was leading a train of 5-6 people, time to quit sandbagging and RUN. I was on the very edge of control for much of the descent, leaping logs in full flight, landing on snowy switchbacks, carving the corners, dodging a few rocks and all the time thinking that if I eat it there are going to be about a dozen trail shoe footprints going right up my back. That was fun!
Another quick water stop at the Caballo Base AS, then we continued the climb up the canyon. It was starting to get hot here, and several people were really struggling. I felt pretty good and passed several others. The rolling trail got steeper and steeper as we gained 1,000′ going up the headwall of the canyon finally reaching a nice runnable section with some amazing views into the vast Valle Grande Caldera.
Before I knew it, I was rolling into the Pipeline aid station (mile 17 – 4:24 elapsed). This was a large aid station with many people milling around. True to form, I grabbed some water and was out of there. My energy level was staying just about right so far. Sticking with the plan… A volunteer directed me to two orange flags spaced about 15 feet apart on the edge of a cliff overlooking the caldera. It looked like a launching pad for hang gliders! Unfortunately, I didn’t go very fast on this part. I wasn’t wearing any gaiters over my shoes and the dirt was soft and deep. I was being careful not to load my shoes up with rocks and junk. After the really steep descent it was pretty nice running for the next few miles across the bottom of the caldera. I wish I could have felt a little better to take advantage of it, but I was starting to struggle just a tiny bit. My legs ached something fierce. In fact, they had been waking me up at night for the week before the race because they would just ache so much. I ran the best I could and knew that things would be better if I just pushed through. I hit the Valle Grande aid station (mile 21 – :44 split / 5:08 elapsed), grabbed water and a couple of cookies, then headed through the grass for the cross-country section of the course.
Follow the flags through the grass
Photo Credit: Bill Geist
The grass was a kind of clumpy, making running a little bit difficult, but the view was outstanding and I was starting to feel a lot better. We climbed gradually through the grass and everyone seemed to slow down quite a bit. Most people were looking very worn out. Soon, we came to a large talus slope full of furniture-sized boulders. I had a blast hopping up and over the rocks. I passed several more people in this section.
Two markers are easy to spot, look really close to find the third
Photo Credit: Jeff O’Reilly
Wobbly legs + wobbly rocks made for a good challenge. This section was a new addition to the course this year. I loved it. I made it through unscathed and started up the very steep hillside through the trees. This climb was so steep in places that I was actually grabbing on to trees and using them to haul myself up. I was barely moving, but I was still passing people! I think I ended up passing around 15 or so from just before the boulders to the top of the peak. It was a 7 mile stretch between aid stations here, so I made sure to keep hydrated and fueled for the long haul. We crested Cerro Grande, which was the 2nd of 3 10k+ foot peaks of the day, and headed into a long, long, descent down Cañon de Valle. The trail was steep, snowy, and muddy at first. Soon it gave way to a gentle downhill grade and some really nice running. I held a good steady pace for several miles on this trail.
Sweet trail in the CdV
Photo Credit: Olga Varlamova
After descending the canyon, the course swung north and made its way over to the Pajarito Canyon aid station (mile 28 – 1:57 split / 7:06 elapsed). We were more or less on the way back to Los Alamos now. All of the aid stations were great, the volunteers and spectators were top notch and their support and assistance was very much appreciated. Pajarito was cool because it was one of the more easily accessible spots on the course, so there was a lot of people there. It was a blast to come running in feeling strong with all the cheering and cowbells ringing. They were scoping out our race numbers with binoculars so they could have our drop bags ready to hand to us as soon as we rolled in. What great service! This would be my longest stop of the day at about 2-3 minutes. I spent time reloading my pack with gels and having fun trading smart remarks with the volunteers. They couldn’t believe how fresh I looked.
Now I was in a bit of no-man’s land, going it alone for a while. The trail headed back up another canyon that would take us to the base of Pajarito Ski Resort. It got a little warm in this section, but I was drinking enough and generally doing alright. I caught up to a couple of guys and not much was said as we all plugged away on the incline. I was last (3rd) in line about a mile from the ski resort when I thought I heard a stick crack behind me. Feeling a little tired, I just shrugged it off and kept going. A minute later I heard it again. This time I turned around to see Kirk right there. Where had he come from!?! There hadn’t been anyone behind me for miles it seemed, then poof, there he was. Uh-oh, I thought, he’s gonna take us to school now. This time I sped up a little to keep pace and the 4 of us hit the Pajarito Base aid station together (mile 32 – 1:07 / split 8:14). I didn’t know it at the time, but Kyle Skaggs had already finished the race at this point! He ran a very strong 8:08 to take a minute of his own course record – and the course was longer and more difficult this year. Great performance!
I was first out of the aid station and started to push the pace just a little bit. Kirk came cruising by me and I couldn’t keep up, he looked like he was really in his element now. I did what I could and tried to keep a steady pace going. There were some very steep snowy sections of trail that wound through the trees before we ended up on one of the ski runs and just headed straight for the top. I was beginning to feel the effort of the day, and started to feel tired for the first time. I was glad to top out on the climb, then had to hustle out of there as a hail storm was whipping things up. Thankfully it didn’t get too bad.
Reaching the top of Pajarito, feeling a little beat at this point
Photo Credit: Jim Stein
The course came around some trees and then pointed straight down a double black diamond run. I was glad to still have some quads left, I was going to need them! It was really really steep for a while, then mellowed out to just really steep. I soon caught sight of the ski lodge at the bottom and knew that would be my next stop. I reached the ski lodge aid station (mile 36 – 1:10 split / 9:25 elapsed) and looked at my watch for the first time all day. 9:25! No wonder I was just now getting tired, I really had been taking my time. In planning for the race, I had loosely estimated 8 1/2 hours to get to this point (I also forgot to factor in the 2 additional miles and 3rd 10k’ peak). Oh, well. Just a good training run in the mountains.
Now it was time to run it in with whatever I had left. I put my iPod on for the first time all day, slammed a gel, and started running. Next stop, finish line!
I ran all the way to the next aid station (Pipeline – :39 split / 10:04 elapsed) which was all uphill, and kept right on going. I had enough water to get to the next one. There were two more hills coming out of Pipeline that caught me a little bit off guard. They looked pretty intimidating, but went by pretty fast. After that, it was back on singletrack through the forest and down, down, down. This part of the course was really cool, there were sections that felt and looked like Oregon – then you’d round a corner and be in the middle of a desert. A very fast bottle fill at the Guaje Ridge AS and I kept right on going, jamming to the tunes and feeling a little tired – but good.
The Rendija Canyon aid station (:55 split / 11:39 elapsed) came at 2 miles to go. I stopped for another bottle fill, but should have just kept on going. I thought it was very strange now that I was ‘racing’, I saw basically no one. I think I only passed 2 or 3 people in the last 15 miles of the race. Ocassionaly I would glance back and see nothing but empty trail. I kept a strong pace up the little canyon that led to the final climb before the finish. As I was negotiating the final steep section of trail, I looked back and there was Kirk. Only 20 yards behind me! For about the fifth time today, he had materialized from out of nowhere right on my heels. I had visions of me eating his dust at the Fruita finish line and kicked it in with all I had for the last 1/3 mile. It was enough, and I came across the line in 12:04, 26th place. It was great to finally meet Kirk and talk about our races. I’ve learned a lot of good things by watching how he approaches racing. I felt very satisfied with the day. When Karl asked how it went, my one word answer was ‘textbook’. I was hoping to have finished a little faster, but wouldn’t go back and change anything. It turned out just right. Moving up 30 spots after mile 12 was a good outcome. Karl had a good training day of his own, cruising to a second place 8:58 – nice!
I can’t say enough good about the race and the organization. The guys and gals down in Los Alamos really know how to do it right! The hand crafted pottery and commemorative poster were excellent finishers awards. The volunteers were outstanding, and the trails spectacular. Hanging out with Karl, Kirk, Kyle, Olga, and Roch in the beautiful evening weather was a perfect ending to a nearly perfect day. This race had me smiling for many days afterwards, I kept wishing I was back in Los Alamos. I loved it!
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