Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Jemez Mountain 50m

The Jemez 50 miler was last Saturday outside Los Alamos, New Mexico. I came in 98 out of 100 finishers, starting in the dark and finishing in the dark. Over 16 hours on 50 miles of New Mexico "trail", at a starting elevation of over 7000 feet, and periodically topping out over 10,000. Dry country, high country, and 80 degree sun during the day, with winds through burnt trees. It was tough.

I am not happy with my day, but a few days later, I am content. The real story of the day for me was persevering through hardship. I felt horrible. Physically, my stomach never got it together, perhaps a victim of the high altitude, fast travel, or lack of sleep. I just don’t know. It’s troubling, especially with Western States coming next month. This was, btw, imo, the perfect trainer. By afternoon, I hit that point where I wanted to puke, couldn’t, and had no interest in eating or drinking. I just kept moving forward, most of the time. The sun was constant for the middle of the day, reaching 80s with lots of exposure. Not too bad in the moment, but a slow cooker.

My favorite parts of the race—that which I want to remember most—are my out of nowhere spurt of energy from Townsite Lift to Ski Lodge.  I made the 5 PM cutoff by just four minutes--classic. Later, the hot wind blowing strong through the charred forest as the sun set, shaking still standing trees, making a wild pipes organ. I was reminded of T.S. Eliot and Stephen King’s Waste Land writings, as well as old Apache war movies.

Additional pictures of the course can be viewed at this link.

That's the non-scientific abstract. Here’s a bit more of a mile by mile summary of my run, longer than I usually write, but I exercise Blogger’s Prerogative, like Bobby Brown:

The Jemez 50 is in the Jemez Mountains, outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Rockets. Many of the good folks of Hardrock family are associated with the event in one way or another, and Bill Geist does a terrific job directing it. There’s a 50 miler, a 50k, and a half marathon. Shirt, a poster, pre and post-race dinners, pottery to finishers, great aid stations—just a blue chip organized event. Thank you to the volunteers and Bill.

So I met my long-time friend BJ in Albuquerque on Friday. A surgical strike--- fly drive park run unpark drive fly. Like an idiot, I scheduled a 6:15 AM flight down, which I later realized meant getting up at 2:45 AM. I was tired on arrival. After a dinner at the event, and a quick hangout with Mike and Fran, it was to bed in anticipation of the 5 AM start. Note:  Mike originally was going to run Jemez too, but bailed when he got into the Massanutten 100, his first 100, which he finished and did quite well in. Mike, here’s a public congrats if you’re reading this. There's always next year for Jemez.

So, 5 AM, Saturday morning: the start. From mile 1, I felt the altitude. It’s an odd effect. You run for a while, not too long—maybe a few hundred yards, and then you want to walk. Little slopes encourage walking. Longer sustained runs on flats encourage walking. I tried to be assertive when I did walk, but running a race at altitude is a different deck of cards, completely.

The first 17 miles include a climb up Guaje Ridge, an out and back to the top of Caballo Mountain (10k+), and another slog in the warming up of the day to Pipeline. I frequently ran near friend Thomas in these early miles. Good to see him out there. My stomach felt awful, and there were some retreats into the woods. I hoped to weather my difficulty and press on, which pretty much ended up being the theme of the day for me.

Racers need to make Mile 17 by 11:00, or a 50m finish is unlikely, we were told beforehand. That’s 6 hours. I didn’t think it’d be a problem--I'm in decent shape by my usual standards right now--but I didn’t get there until 10:20 or so. Struggles here, struggles there.  On arrival, an aid station worker told me I really ought to consider switching to the 50k, as I was close to the cutoff. I didn’t want to believe that, as I knew 11:00 was the pre-race adivsed mark. Mainly though, I was in New Mexico, and the Valle Caldera National Preserve was only available via the 50m route, and so off I went.

Out of Pipeline AS, there is an immediate screamer-slider of a descent into the Valle Caldera, which was formerly a sea of molten hot lava. Sort of fun. In the Caldera, the air is large, still air where you can hear insects and see runners far in the distance, doing their best. The road looks easy to run, and maybe it is for some, but I found after a couple hundred yards I’d want to walk. Unbelievable that the next aid station was only 21 miles into the race, and I’d been on trail roughly 6.5 hours. The math seemed strange, but others were right there with me. Already quite tired, with 29 to go.

The hardest section of the course was the 7.7 miles between the Valle Grande AS and the Pajarito Canyon AS. Right out of VG AS, the course off all trail across the grassy caldera, marked only by small red flags here and there. Again, runners far in the distance, before and behind. The last picture below is of this section. From there, it's up and through a fun boulder field, with tippy rocks and lichen on lava to roughen the hands. The climb afterwards was a killer, up to the summit of Cerro Grande Mountain at 10,200 feet. A similar descent, with more bouldering. This turns into a beautiful creekside run. It just took forever.

I remember ending up at Pajarito Canyon at about 2:15 PM, beat. Two hours and forty-five minutes to make the Ski Lodge should be enough I thought, but I wasn’t sure, and so I got as aggressive as I could, just in case. Turns out that was a good move, and from here to the lodge was my best section of the event. I did get off trail once, missing a turn, and losing five or ten minutes. Still, I finally made the aid station at the bottom of the ski lifts at 3:37.

Mike and Fran were there, and so great to see. I wanted to talk, but I was in the moment of hurry, and thought I probably ought to stay focused, even though I only needed to go 3.6 miles by 5 PM. Again, turns out I was right.

The next climb is up to Pajarito Mountain, which I have renamed Venti Mountain, since it is taller than Cerro Grande at 10,400. I thought we’d just go directly up the ski slopes—tough, but over and done. Wrong--instead, the trail switchbacks all over the place, hitting a number of false and deflating summits. Time was running out—I was looking at my watch. I crested at 4:40, with only 20 minutes to get all the way back down, and the ski lodge was nowhere in sight.

The hill was straight down, and I “booked it like a mug,” as I used to say in third grade. First you go over slippery glass, then you bounce on mountain bike ramps and logs, and then you cut through rocks. Double diamonds with skulls and crossbones. I injured my back, and I can’t walk that well right now. I also lost my sunglasses, which fell off my hat. But I made it in with four minutes to spare, and sort of felt like Al Bundy in one of his finest hour moments, with everyone cheering and me reaching for the finish. I was really happy.

Make the cutoff and you can take however long you need to finish. Since I was a wreck, and my back was hurt, I pretty much took forever. Unfortunate, because even at the altitude, I think I could've ran the last sections well, and I had sort of been planning on doing it that way all day. But that's the way it is, I suppose.

Those final fourteen miles took me four tired hours of patient suffering, winding back to Pipeline AS, over a spectacular mesa, through a canyon on cliffs of orange rock, and to the finish line in the dark. Gorgeous rock formations and hot rogue winds through charred trees made the experience memorable, as did the pain.

The finish line was terrific, as I heard cheers through the trees for the runner before me, and then my own turn came with a turn of a corner, and there were Mike, Fran, and BJ, giving up a shout. Thank you friends!

I was an absolute mess--I wasn't sure what hurt and what didn't---all I knew was I wanted a seat. Also, with the finish, I didn’t know whether to be happy or not, since I came in so late and it was only a fifty miler and I'd been running well this year....but in that moment, I was just glad to be done. Sometimes the fight is just to make it through a bad day, and I know this--it wasn't my first bad day, but I have been running well lately. As BJ noted though, I've done three ultras in four weeks. A few days later, I feel pretty fine with it all. I now hope to return some year soon, just to take another crack at it and see those sights again.

Incredible life experience.

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