Burning through the Jemez Mountain 50 for 8th Place

May 19, 2012

I’d call my first visit to New Mexico pretty successful and even more splendid. As with many of my race, I was using the Jemez Mountain 50 as a way to get to a part of the world I’d never seen before. New Mexico itself is a friendly, fascinating, severe and bizarre corner of the world, and the race that got me there was just as friendly, fascinating, severe and bizarre.

In its seven years, the race seems to have drummed up quite a following in its hometown of Los Alamos (a city famous for essentially being a giant governmental laboratory for the Manhattan Project and atomic weapons development until the 1960s). And it’s attracted a relatively stout field to match the stout course. In previous years, the elevation gain/loss was around 12,000 ft over the 50 miles, but after last years La Concha fire, the course had to be adjusted and was right at 10,000 feet this year (although my watch recorded 12,000 ft).

Liza and I drove down from Boulder on Friday, through some beautiful landscapes and finally pulled into our B&B in Los Alamos around 10:30. I quickly laid out everything for the morning and tried to get as much sleep as I could, seeing as the start was at 5am.

This felt like a very different race for me somehow. Usually I’m a good bit nervous and plenty excited going into a race. I obsess over what goes in my drop bags, the mileage between aid stations, reading race reports, etc. I can’t focus at work for the week or two prior. But this time, I found myself gathering at the starting line, headlamp on, with 87 other runners with zero expectations. I was just going to go out and run this thing. And run I did.

Finally prep, around 4:30am.

Runners ready.

Final instructions from the race director before the start.

Jumping off the starting line. (I’m in the red and blue on the left.)

I usually get off the starting line pretty quickly and make my way to the front. Fifty miles is a long race, and the winner will not be decided in that first mile or two, but I prefer to just get out of the crowd and maintain from there. But since this was my first race of the season and really only a warm-up to my big Grand Mesa 100, my only goal was to go out and have a good run. So, I help back a bit initially. We twisted and turned through narrow, dusty single track for an hour, our headlamps throwing light wherever we looked.

I slowly moved up, until I figured I was likely somewhere in the 5th-8th position. That seemed to be the good place to be, and if I could maintain that for the rest of the 45 miles that were left, I’d be happy.

Eventually I hit stride with another guy, and we ran together for quite a while. He was from Albuquerque, and in typical runner fashion, we chatted about local trails, the course, what races we had coming up and life stuff. One odd occurrence in racing chats is that the first thing you ask someone is where they’re from. “Oh, Albuquerque? Awesome.” “What about you?” “Boulder.” “Oh nice. Great trails up there, eh?” “Oh yeah.” But rarely do you ask someone’s name. You could run with them for 10 miles and never exchange names. All that matters in running talk, races and drafting off their energy and pace. And so was the case. Albuquerque and I ran for quite a while, probably about 9 miles or so, from mile 4 to 13. He seemed like a Brian to me, but I never bothered to ask his name. I just called him Brian in my own head.

The other benefit of running with someone (beside being able to share their pace and use conversation to take your brain off the physical exertion) is a partner in case you ever take a wrong turn and get off course. Brian miss one turn, and I corrected him. I lost the trail once in deep brush and totally missed another turn-off coming out of the second aid station. Both times, my new buddy and nameless friend Brian shouted at me and got me back on track.

Soon with left the forest and out into the open, scared hills of the Pajarito Ski Area, and up we went. There are two massive climbs on this course. Both are no joke at all. This first one is more than 3,500 feet in one climb, up the side of the mountain. Normally that would be difficult alone, but the added bonus was that you’re trudging up the side of a mountain populated with nothing but small boulders, gravel and tufts of hard grasses. There’s essentially no way to take two identical steps. You’re battling the surface up the entire face. (I didn’t think it could get worse, but it did later on.)

Finally after slogging through my best attempt at a power hike, we crested the top and were greeted but a quick run down a short ski slope. But moments later, we were climbing back up at a healthy but very labored clip up trails to another peak. As we came over, we began to head straight down.

I’m not kidding here when I say we were going straight down. We literally began flying down a black diamond ski run on our legs. I’ve never run anything so steep in my life before. In the final drop, we lost 800 feet in half a mile. At that rate, all you’re doing is moving your feet and hoping the gravel and grass below you doesn’t give out causing you to tumble to near certain death.

Luckily, I’ve been reading a lot about fell running recently and have been bombing down Green Mountain on my morning runs so I took the drops as fast as I could without break my legs. Descents seemed to be a good strength of mine overall in this race, and I made up considerable time on people in front of me here.

I had a quick stop at the Ski Lodge Aid Station where our drop bags were left, dunked my head in some ice water, changed my shirt, mixed up another bottle of Perpetuem and headed out.

That’s when I met Douchebag Dan.

Ultrarunning people are almost exclusively a wonderful bunch of people—insanely friendly, helpful, caring, driven, thoughtful. I’ve never met anybody at a race or on a trail who I didn’t love instantly. But in this race, I met Douchebag Dan (not his real name).

The first thing Douchebag Dan said to me was, “Ugh, are you really wearing those shoes without shoes?” I had passed him momentarily when he stopped to pee along the side of the trail. He caught up with me and was now running right behind me asking about my New Balance 110s, which, yes, I wear sockless. I responded.

"Well, they’re actually kind of designed to be worn without socks," I said being polite.

"Bullshit. I’m wearing the same shoes. They’re designed for Anton." (Anton Krupicka, he means.)

From there, the conversation went downhill. He complained about Anton being “inconsistent.” Told that he was over running. He had been doing ultras for seven years but was done with it. He hadn’t even trained for this race. “It’s just muscle memory, man.” He had gotten a sponsorship this year and took it, but that’s the only reason why he was running. After talking with him for a bit, he just seemed very petty and angry. That’s when I realized it was because he didn’t want to be running this race. If you have to run 50 miles and you don’t particularly feel like doing it, you’re going to be pretty angry too.

That still didn’t make it better though. At one point we were bombing down a soft hill and he said something to me. I didn’t quite hear what he said so I just replied, “Cool,” to which he he blurted, “Did you hear what I just said? I was giving you advice!…”

He was awful. I’ve never not wanted to run with someone in a race, but I found myself calculating whether I could speed up and lose him or whether it was worth it to slow down and drop behind.

Then Crazy Ken entered the equation, and the drama really started. Crazy Ken (maybe his real name, who knows) was this guy who had absolutely no idea what he was doing. He was dressed in basic hiking gear, some shorts, a t-shirt and running shoes. He had nothing else. No water bottle, no small pack, nothing. He didn’t look much like a runner. He was just out here running 50 miles. The thing was, he wasn’t bad. I first saw him on the Pajarito Ski hill. He wasn’t power hiking up it like the other 87 of us; he was running it. He nearly caught up to me, but as we caught the downhill, I lost him. It kept up like this for quite a while. Crazy Ken would actually blow past us on uphills. We were all hiking them like any sane or responsible or experience runners would do. But Crazy Ken would just barrel up them and leave us in his dust. This guy clearly didn’t even know enough to know not to run all the time.

So at the top of one hill, after Douchebag Dan and I had just gotten smoked by Crazy Ken again, we saw him buckled over at the top. He looked like he was in rough shape. I gave him one of my sodium tablets and Douchebag Dan hand him his water bottle for a squirt. We told him to get some calories, water and salt at the next aid station and took off.

This set off the Douchebag Dan vs. Crazy Ken conflict that lasted many more miles. As we made it into the very flat, very windy and very boring Obsidian Valley, I slowed a bit, starting to feel the mileage pile up, and I trailed a bit. (We were about 20 miles in at this point.) From behind, I could tell that Douchebag Dan was lecturing Crazy Ken on how he should be running. (I’d like to randomly interject here that Douchebag Dan had some really bad tattoos randomly placed on his arms.) At one point, as Crazy Ken was pulling away from Douchebag Dan again, Douchebag Dan turned around and exasperatedly shouted down the hill to me, “This guy won’t listen to me!”

This scene played out over and over again. On all the little rollers, Douchebag Dan would take the downhils and flats, but then Crazy Ken would catch up to him as he ran the uphills. Douchebag Dan began visibly more upset but all this over the next 10 miles. It was amusing and annoying all at once.

As for my own race, Obsidian Valley was tough. The terrain is totally open and in direct sunlight. I started cooking, and my stomach was giving me fits. For the next 20 miles or so I kept feeling mild convulsions in my stomach, and could figure out whether I needed to belch or vomit up everything. I tried to choke down a little ginger and some Coke (my favorite during races) at aid stations. That seemed to stabilize it a bit, but I was still giving up valuable positions. By the time I finally made it through the 16 flat, boring, mind-numbing miles I had dropped 2 or 3 spots. It was here that I really gave up trying to do great, which I’m a little ashamed to admit. I changed from racing mode to survival mode. I just wanted to make it through the race and have a good time.

(The random upside was that Obsidian Valley is aptly named, and the entire ground is strewn with big, thick, black pieces of beautiful obsidian. Pretty fascinating.)

With the awful, scorching, flat valley coming to an end, I was praying for the huge climb out that I knew awaited me because a) it meant something—anything—different and b) it meant that I was nearing the home stretch, relatively speaking. But once I was on the hill, I was cursing it.

Taking off from the Valle Grande aid station, I struck out across a field and up the side of a huge mountain. There was absolutely zero trail. Instead we were blinding following orange flags placed sporadically apart, every 500 feet or so. Worse than that, the ground had gone from packed dirt trail to the worst ground I’ve ever run on. The only way to describe it is to say that there were thick tufts of grass, 10 or so inches in diameter and 8 inches tall, growing only a few inches away from each other. It was impossible to just take a normal step. You were dodging these awful demon grasses or just trying to plow over them but nearly twisting your ankle. And all this while going uphill.

I quickly gave up any hope of running the hill and settled into a labored but welcomed hike. Finally after 10 minutes I made it to the line of tree. Here, the only occasional relief from the grass tufts was patches of loose gravel on even steeper inclines. I was happy to be out of the valley, but this was pretty terrible. And my stomach was really turning bad.

But lo! Up ahead I say what appeared to be the top of the ridge. I knew I would come over the top, fly down a huge ski slope again and then practically be home-free. I was following the orange flags, only about to lift my head high enough to see the next one. That’s when I noticed something terrible. The next flag turned off to the left slightly. Then the next one turned left even more. And soon, I realized that I was not in fact headed over the ridge and down the other side but rather was headed directly up to the top of the peak still hundreds and hundreds of feet up FOR NO GOOD REASON. Just because. “Ugh. Why am I doing this again?” I thought aloud. Not only was that more climbing, but the grade was increasing as well. In all seriousness, we were climbing a 45-degree grade. At one point near the top, I passed a kid, younger than me, who was trying his best to puke but could only manage dry heaves. That’s almost how I felt. It could’ve become me at any moment.

But instead, I made it over the top and began coming down the other side. Because the course is a giant, 50-mile figure 8, we bombed down the huge black diamond runs from before and back into the Ski Lodge Aid Station, where our drop bags were. Here I spent a moment to chill and collect my thoughts. Since the last time I had been here, I’d taken a pretty good physical and mental battering. But after a refill of my hydration vest, some more Coke and few slices of watermelon, I took off towards the finish line.

Quickly after the aid station (and about 13.5 miles from the finish), I met up with a guy named Jacob. At first I thought he was going to blow past me, but he soon matched my pace and we settled into a friendly mutual pace. From here, it was just making it to the end.

Jacob and I pressed on. We were there were about 9 miles right at the end that were all downhill, and as soon as we hit it, we starting flying. I think it was just relief to have majority of the race behind us. We were recklessly careening down narrow single track, over rocks and through bush. It was just that for 9 miles. Pounding and pounding and pounding downhill at what frankly felt like too fast a pace. I was praying not to eat it hard, but with Jacob a body length behind me—as friendly as we were—I didn’t want to give up a place so close to the finish.

Finally, after about 8 miles of this, he just faded off and I continued on. Things felt easy.

That’s when I realized that I was in zero pain. And I had had no pain the entire race.

That’s truly incredible. After pounding your legs against the ground for 50 miles, things are bound to feel miserable. But I felt great. I think that realization gave me a little boost of confidence and I pushed the pace even further.

Coming down through Rendija Canyon, I saw my old buddy Douchebag Dan just a few hundred feet ahead. I quickly caught up with him. He saw me coming and as I got close, he pulled over to the side, put up his hands and gave his final sort of disgusted pièce de résistance, “Listen dude, I’m not trying to race you.” And with that, I chewed up the final 3 miles.

At the very end, there’s one last little steep climb (literally, as in pulling yourself up) through a narrow, rock passage way, and then you’re just sort of birthed out into sunlight and the finishing chute.

I had made it, in 10 hours, 3 minutes and 46 seconds. After wandering over to the timekeepers, I found out that I was 8th overall and 2nd in my age division. For having what I didn’t consider a very good day, I had actually done pretty well.

And maybe the most remarkable part was that I didn’t feel all that beat. Usually after races like these I’m fried, sore and in a considerable amount of pain. I felt totally fine, normal in fact. Aside from some pretty gnarly sunburn I got on my neck and shoulders, I felt totally normal. No limp or pain or anything I’m used to. Even a day later, as I write this, I feel pretty spectacular, almost no soreness. I’d never know that I had just ran into 8th place in a 50-mile race with 10,000 feet of elevation gain and loss yesterday if I hadn’t been there doing it myself.

That’s pretty encouraging news for my upcoming season. If I can go out, enjoy it, not worry about things and just relax, maybe I’ll have more races that are just as testing and enjoyable as this one. (As long as Douchebag Dan isn’t there.)

Full results here: Jemez Mountain 50.

Artsy finish line shot by Liza Behles.

Sucking down some HEED and water to rehydrate.

Watching other (slower) people finish.

These actually may be the dirtiest feet ever. The dirtiest I’ve ever seen at least.

The real reward: a Happy Camper IPA from Santa Fe Brewing Company and some chicken tortilla soup.

Because my GPS watch can’t last the entire race, I had to switch watches at mile 37, hence the two summaries