The whole family went along for the Jemez Mountain Trail Run, making a long Memorial Day trip out of it to Los Alamos and Santa Fe. We arrived at packet pick-up/dinner just as the second race briefing was getting started, and it appeared that the information was the same as on the website. There weren’t too many runners about and I didn’t see a single familiar face.
I kept checking the weather up until late Friday night and it seemed pretty certain that we’d be getting wet at some point. The forecast was for mid to upper 50’s and a 30-50% chance of precipitation during the entire day – seemed like pretty typical spring/summer weather in the mountains, except that the chance of precipitation ran all through the night and morning. With that in mind, I threw my $0.99 poncho into the rear pocket of my shorts and also decided to throw a long-sleeve shirt into my main drop bag.
|photo by David Silva|
I didn’t want to wake the whole family for the 5:00 AM start, so I hitched a ride with Rachel StClaire and Katrin and David Silva. We got there in plenty of time and hung around for a while, waiting for the start. The temperature was in the low 50’s as the cloud cover had kept things moderate and I could feel the high humidity, but no precipitation. I looked around for Anton Krupicka at the start, but never caught a glimpse. I knew I would have no chance to see him after we started. I can’t even sprint as fast as this guy runs ultras.
|photo by David Silva|
For some reason, I decided to keep my long-sleeve shirt on at the start, which turned out to be a bit of an annoyance as I quickly began to sweat, even at a moderate pace. I stayed with Katrin for the first couple of miles, but then dropped back as I wanted to save myself for the big climbs. There were lots of other runners around at this point, though everyone seemed more serious and quiet than at most other races. Then, a few of miles in, I developed a nose bleed. I wasn’t too worried about it, but the blood certainly stood out on my white gloves. I just hoped it wasn’t smeared all over my face. It was too early for any unearned pity.
With the 5:00 AM start, we all used headlamps in the darkness. At the first aid station, I tossed mine off, along with my shirt. It was mild enough that I wasn’t worried about the potential rain. I then settled into a good, comfortable pace, as runners around me traded positions back and forth. By mile 7 I started to slowly, yet consistently pass other runners. It was a bit early into a 50 miler, but I wasn’t chasing anyone down, they were just starting to pay the price for opening out too fast. As we kept steadily climbing, the runners got more and more stretched out. Nearing the base of Pajarito, no one else was in sight, but as the climb started, I could see other runners off in the distance. Feeling good, I continued to slowly reel them in and no one was passing me! That is, until just after 3 hours in, I heard some heavy breathing closing in behind me. How could this be? As he flew by, I realized that this was a 50K runner, and a fast one at that, since he had started 1 hour later. Further up the climb, one more 50Ker zipped by.
The climb consisted of a nice single-track trail with a number of switch-backs to ease the grade. I consciously tried to stay on my own pace, yet was able to run quite a bit. The sun burned off the last of the morning clouds and the moisture off the surrounding lush vegetation, making the air downright humid. Nearing the top, I saw Katrin up ahead. This was even better motivation than all the other runners I had passed. I stayed on pace, and finally caught up to her right before the summit. She quickly deflated my ego as she informed me that she was having some issues with her quad. And here I thought that maybe I was finally becoming a faster runner than her.
A few of us were running together now as we headed down the steep ski slopes, while trying not to completely trash our quads so early in the race. We eventually turned off into the woods along the slopes and onto some nice single-track. These trails are be used by mountain bikers, and at one point, we came upon a wooden ramp going up and over a downed tree. The runner in front went up the ramp, took one step on the down ramp and instantly landed on his side. Katrin and I were smart enough to avoid the ramp and stopped to check on the fallen runner. I thought he had dislocated his shoulder but he quickly got up, was able to move it freely, and was running again within a couple of seconds.
We made our way down to the Ski Lodge AS where our numbers were yelled ahead by spotters so that other helpful volunteers could pull our drop bags for us. Awesome service! I downed a can of cola and refilled my bottles as my volunteer valet sprayed me down with sunscreen. I felt like I got out of there pretty fast, but Katrin is always quicker through the stations and I lost her again.
From Ski Lodge, we ran down a bit on service roads and then started climbing again. Once we got back onto single track and an open field, I could see Katrin up ahead with a few minutes lead. I ran right past the Pipeline AS, as it was so close to Ski Lodge and made the left turn towards the caldera. The first few hundred feet were extremely steep and loose. I was basically doing kick-turns, skiing down, more than running. One gal had stopped completely and was watching a couple of us maneuvering down, trying to figure out the safest route. There was none. I was probably one of the lucky few who didn’t end up on my butt.
Once down this section, I finally caught back up to Katrin and we ran together for a while along the gravel road through the caldera. At 9 min/mile, it felt like she was pushing the pace, and almost dropped me. I actually made it through the AS faster than Katrin for once and had the luxury of cruising for a few hundred yards to let her catch up.
Enjoying the panoramic views (much like the poster we got with our packets), we almost missed the left turn off the road and onto a narrow trail through the grasses. The trail soon petered out as we started ascending up towards the saddle and the second big climb of the day. The climb was straight up the slope, off trail, but well flagged. Walking was a welcomed relief after Katrin’s “sprint” across the caldera. I was feeling strong, passed a couple of runners and even started to pull away from Katrin, whose quad was giving her issues on the climbs.
As I crested the top of the saddle, I closed in on another runner, Erin Phelps. Since I was making ground on her climbing, and consider myself a good downhiller, I figured it wouldn’t take long for me to pass her by. Boy was I wrong. She was flying on the downhill at a sub 9 min pace (that’s pretty fast after having just run a marathon with two major climbs). As the single-track trail wound its way down through valley, the cool shade of the trees opened up to hot sun. Fatigue, heat, and a cautious effort slowed me down a bit on the small climbs and I lost sight of Erin for a while. I caught her at the Pajarito AS and after a quick re-supply, we took off together. I stayed within sight of her for a couple of miles as we climbed another valley, above a small, flowing brook. There were a couple of rock climbers playing on some large boulders down below, and they gazed up at us passing runners with a look of combined disbelief and pity.
I just couldn’t match Erin’s pace on this climb and soon she disappeared in the distance. As I hit the trail junction and started the climb up Pajarito for the second time, the skies clouded over. What a welcomed relief. Even with the relatively cool temperatures, the sun made it feel way too warm for my liking. I was looking forward to the invigorating coolness, but soon enough, I could hear rumbling in the distance. As I climbed out of the valley and into the burn zone, the views opened up and I could see that the darkest clouds were down to the south, but having spent enough time in the mountains, I was well aware that I couldn’t see past the ridgeline to the north. I wasn’t at all concerned. This was pretty much right on the money with the forecast. I figured that even if a storm cell came over me, there were enough standing dead trees not to worry too much about getting struck by lightning, and once I hit the top, I would be speeding my way down to the finish.
It was a somewhat lonely climb up Pajarito this time, as Erin had long dropped me and there were no other runners around. I was moving a bit slower than the first time up, but still not too bad. I could feel intermittent drops of rain and within about a mile of the top, they started coming down consistently. At this time, I also passed my first 50K runner, giving me a bit of a boost, both from passing and from seeing another person. At half mile from the top, I hooked up with another 50 mile runner, right as the precipitation turned briefly to hail, and then to snow. I kept debating on whether I should pull out the emergency $0.99 poncho, or just man up and push through. Once over the top, it would be an easy 15 mile sprint to the finish. But I also knew that if I got too cold and wet, it would be very difficult to reverse. When we got up to the first part of the ski area, I finally gave in and tore out the poncho. With only a mild wind at this time, I quickly realized that you get what you pay for. Even once I was able to peel it apart and find the openings, my cheap poncho was difficult to manage. As with all ponchos, the body was way too big, flopping and blowing around quite a bit, and the hood was not exactly a tailored fit either. It would either slip down over my face so that I couldn’t see beyond my own feet, or blow back to where my head was exposed. The wet snow falling on my head was refreshing, until it dissolved all the accumulated salt and started dripping into my eyes – ouch! Every couple of minutes, I had to stop and wipe my stinging eyes.
The flakes were getting bigger and more consistent as we made it past the bench at the top. We were over the top! I was ready for some speed now. But, as usual, I got a harsh reality check. I passed a couple of more 50Kers on the short service-road section down before we got onto the double black diamond slopes. Guess what happens when a steep, grass covered ski slope gets a dusting of wet snow on it. It’s a miracle that I stayed upright. I could see runners below me, gingerly taking one small step at a time. I was doing a combination of skiing and running with micro-steps, though at a much slower pace than the first descent. And once I got into the trees, there were slick tree roots to watch for, all while trying to manage my stupid poncho.
I finally made it down to the Ski Lodge AS. I threw back my hood and reveled in the cheers from the volunteers. I think most were surprised to see a shirtless runner under a clear poncho having such a good time in the muck. As I got on the deck and asked for my drop bag, Brenda and the girls appeared out of the lodge. What an awesome surprise! I hadn’t expected them to meet me anywhere on the course, but I had left my marked-up map in the hotel room, with my estimated times on it and she took matters into her own hands and came up. It was a huge motivational lift, though I couldn’t spend much time with them. I was still in race mode, and I also knew that every second of not running was dropping my body temperature.
Brenda helped get stuff out of my drop bag, filled my bottle, and even offered me the clothes and hat that she was wearing, but I declined. I did, after some quick deliberation, decide to throw on a long sleeve running shirt that I had in the drop bag. I hesitated because I honestly thought things were going to get steadily better. There was not as much snow at the lodge as there was up on top, and though I knew there was a little climbing to the Pipeline AS, I didn’t remember it being very much. I figured I would be quickly descending out of the cold snow, through a bit of drizzle, and on to the finish. 14 miles seemed like such a short sprint. I was even thinking I could do it in under 2 hours and come close to my 10:30 goal.
I downed a full can of cola and said a quick goodbye to Brenda and the girls. I carefully made my way across the wooden deck, which was now becoming quite slick, and plopped down onto the muddy service road. My shoes were already wet, but they now got thoroughly soaked. I was keeping a decent pace, as I tend to run faster in the cold, and was additionally spurred on by the threat of hypothermia.
The snow was not letting up as I had hoped. It was actually coming down much heavier and the wind was now blowing harder. I had a choice of running through the couple of inches of slushy water in the narrow trail, or the wet snow on the grassy sides. I did a bit of both, and though I could feel my feet sloshing around in my shoes, they didn’t get cold. I wish that I could say the same for my hands. I had on my $0.99 disposable, cotton gloves, which are perfect for those brisk, early morning starts. They are definitely not suited to long periods of, cold, wet running, especially for someone with poor hand circulation like me. I kept the hands tucked in under the poncho, but that wasn’t enough to keep them warm or dry. I tried to tuck the bottles under my armpits so that I could warm my hands a bit, but somehow, my arms were getting wetter and colder. By the time I figured out that one of the bottle tops was not screwed on properly, any remaining dry portions of my shirt were long gone. On the open-field climb up towards Pipeline, the snow was building up and the wind getting worse. It was now a full on blizzard. As I passed a runner in a tee shirt, with no gloves, I could offer nothing but encouraging words. At least he looked young and tough. Norman was 29 and passed me later on, beating me by 12 minutes.
I ran right past the Pipeline AS, without even stopping and the volunteers yelled after me to get my bib number. As I ran on up the hill, I saw Erin again, leaving the AS with a cup in her hand. It gave me a bit of a boost to know that I had caught up to her, but as we trudged up the road, the weather kept deteriorating – more snow and more cold wind. I kept fumbling with my bottles and poncho and eventually Erin passed me. We were periodically passing 50K runners, but they were much slower and I didn’t want to be out there all alone in those conditions, so I pushed myself to keep close to Erin. Once we topped out and started contouring the ridge, she really picked up the pace. It felt like we were flying, though looking at the splits on my Garmin, we were only running 10 to 12 minute miles. I was keenly aware that in these conditions, a simple slip on the slick trail, or a missed turn would have spelled disaster. I was literally running for my life!
My stupid poncho was really a chore to manage in the wind and though it probably saved my race (and my life), it also cost me at least 15 minutes and lots of frustration. I stayed on Erin’s tail until we passed the next aid station. The volunteers were huddled in a tent and I only made a quick stop to ask them to fix one of my bottles. The bottom strap had slipped off and I had been gripping it with my frozen hands for the last few miles. By this point, the wind was dying down, the snow had changed over to drizzle, and the temperature was slowly climbing. The weather was finally improving! Unfortunately, I had not eaten anything for quite a while and had drunk very little. With the adrenaline easing back, so was my pace and just as Erin was disappearing into the distance, Norman, the young, gloveless runner that I had previous passed came flying by. He had survived and recovered marvelously and it was now his turn to throw some encouraging words my way.
At this point, I was able to finally take off the aggravating poncho, yet started to feel an unpleasant stinging on my chest. That wet shirt, which kept me from getting hypothermic for the past couple of hours, had done a number on my nipples – ouch! Just what I needed. These last 5 miles were tough for me. Though the weather was now perfect and the course mostly downhill, I was working hard, running slow, and couldn’t wait to cross the line. The scenery was stunning and even though this section of the trail was slick with sloppy clay mud, being able to look around made it enjoyable. The mountains behind were now out of the clouds and covered in white. The steep walls of the surrounding valleys were highlighted by rays of sunlight. Absolutely beautiful!
Based on comments from previous AS volunteers, I was expecting the course to be a bit long. What a pleasant and unexpected surprise when I came up on a sign that read “1 mile to go!” What a cruel joke! The sign was apparently referring to the Last Chance AS, not the coveted finish line. I hope the comment I made to the volunteers about false advertising came across with the intended humor. They certainly redeemed themselves with the hash browns and chunks of burrito they offered me. They also told me that the race had been shut down due to the weather and I was the last 50 miler. That was somewhat a relief as I had been worried about friends and other runners further back. Conditions were downright dangerous.
I threw my shirt, poncho and gloves into the trash and headed down the trail towards the finish. I passed a few more 50Kers and came to the final climb – a couple of hundred feet up a steep, narrow, 3’ deep swale that had been worn into the rocks. I popped out onto the road and mustered up enough energy to run through the finish chute.
I stumbled into the Posse Shack at the finish so I could grab a shirt before my body totally shut down and started to shiver. I found David and Katrin Silva and Rachel StClaire sitting around, exchanging stories of the crazy day. David had run the 50K and took every opportunity to happily rub in the fact that he and I were the only two of the group to actually finish the race as Katrin and Rachel been pulled off the course. I was quite thrilled with my first ever DFL (dead f’n last). For the 50 miler (53.25 miles by my Garmin), 210 had registered, 174 toed the start line, and I was the 20th (and last) to cross the finish line, despite being ranked 66th by Ultra Signup. What an adventure!