Monday, June 26, 2017

Making Excuses: My Failure at the Taxco Skyrunning 60k

Taxco, Guerrero.             (stolen from the internet)

I was all set to sign up for Trail Run Hidalgo's 50k in the barranca de Metzitlan and then I saw the date: 9 July. I wouldn't be in Mexico at this date, and I really wanted a longer effort about a month before the Angeles Crest 100 on August 5. There were a few options: Villa del Carbon, Chico Night Race, Corral de Piedra and Taxco Skyrunning. Such is the state of trail running in Mexico right now. Too many races. 
 I chose Taxco because it looked to be a tough and beautiful course organized by Total Running. I don't really trust Total Running as a trail race organizer, as they seem focused on things like Color Runs and something called "Soul Pose" which I take to be some sort of Yoga in Neon Clothes Experience. However, Karina Karsolio had designed the course and she runs (and wins) many of the Trail Run Hidalgo races that are so well done. I trusted her to put together a tough route with lots of single track. Also, I hadn't been in Taxco  in a decade, so why not go and run some new trails. 

  Arrived at the hotel, which had Juan Gorman Mosaic by the pool, and it was a pretty spectacular place. At 8:00pm I went to the race meeting (which was packed!) and was ready to go. 
  At 5:00 the next morning I arrived in the small center in front of the famous church in Taxco only to find out the race had been postponed for 30 minutes. 

  There was also to be a gear check, and this was fine as I had everything: liter of water, whistle, emergency blanket, phone. Because of the phone requirement, I had to wear the Jurek Essential Waist belt as I haven't found a comfortable way to run with a phone stuffed in the pockets of my Patagonia Trail Shorts. 

  I said hello to some fellow runners at the start, and I couldn't help but notice that every single runner was wearing a pack. 

Even Fernando Ortega was wearing a pack. Uh oh. Usually he runs (and wins) with no shirt and a small bottle of water straight from whatever OXXO is closest to the start line.

Had I made a mistake? Did I not read the required gear list correctly? Was I underestimating the race? And then I heard the announcement being repeated that it was not acceptable to run with a handheld bottle, a pack was needed. This pissed me off, as 10 minutes before the race seemed a poor time to make this announcement. Also, I was carrying everything the race asked me to carry. I had a liter of water in my hands. Is that so different than having a liter of water on one's chest?  Or having a liter of water in a bladder on one's back? Is the difference important? Do I have to wear neon if I want to be a part of Soul Pose?
 Another announcement was made that runners who didn't have the required gear would still be able to run but would be disqualified. I was running to get a long run in to train for Angeles Crest 100, so disqualification wasn't really a concern as long as I wouldn't be pulled from the race.

  I entered the start area and passed the gear check using my Obi Wan Kenobi "these aren't the droids you are looking for" Jedi mind trick.


 And then the race was off, straight up hill. Steps were so steep at one point that a ladder would have been more efficient. We arrived at the Jesus Statue and were finally on trail. 

Christ the Redeemer. (Though this one is in Rio, not Taxco)
At some point the hill leveled out and suddenly there were no flags. Crap, I'd missed a turn. Retraced my steps with a group of runners and we saw where the course had made a 90 degree right turn. And then suddenly we were heading down. This downhill section was very well marked, but it didn't make sense to me, as I couldn't see on the course profile where the course went down before reaching the antennas. I could see the antennas up above in the distance and thought the course should be going up, not down. But we kept going down. I stopped with another runner who had the course on her phone and it showed we were off course, but we kept going down and finally the trail turned to the left towards the antennas. Relieved to know that I was on the correct trail, I began searching for a hidden area to relieve another pressing issue: my bowels. 
 With that business done, I was really ready to get this race started. There were some crazy sections on that first climb, including one climbing section that even had ropes. I made it up this "wall" and then finally to the first aid station and then looked at my watch:

  Damn: I was only 10 minutes before the cut off. 

  I sort of forgot this next section, but I remember clearly that I arrived at a very crowded aid station with runners in line, jostling for position to get water. 

  Here is a video another runner took at the aid station:


 And then I looked at my watch. 

 Shockingly, I was right at the cut off time. How could that be?? However, I wasn't too concerned as the aid station "workers" were standing around with their arms crossed watching people crowd around the water jugs. I figured if they couldn't get it together enough to get runners their water, they wouldn't be enforcing cut offs. I went around the table and found a mostly empty garafon and put that water in one of my bottles. The other bottle I filled with coca cola. I took a couple chips of watermelon out of a giant bowl and was off. I was determined to make up some time on the cut offs.

 And then I was running up a hill and saw a bunch of runners who were wearing 60k bibs coming down.... Which was weird because the hill was clearly marked. Maybe it was marked for another race? We went down together and found the turn we had missed. 

And then we were off! 

And back out on a road with no trail marks. 

At this point, Erik Aguilar, who was running the 30k said hello. It was great to see Erik out on the trail, but was sorry to see that he was also lost. I spotted an orange mark on a tree and then another on a stone, but then there was nothing else. We returned and someone was yelling something about a flag. We had found the trail again and we were off!

  Somewhere in there was a long, technical descent with an awesome view of a waterfall. I wanted to dig out my camera but had the nagging feeling that snapping photos while chasing cut offs was not an optimal plan. The descent ended on a road, and I was feeling good having passed some folks on the descent. 

I was ready to roll...

I crossed the road and there was a gate that was closed leading to a dirt road. There was no aid station, but there was an ambulance and a woman standing in front of the gate. She told me it was after 11:30 and I could not continue.

Somewhere in the Mountains of Taxco        Foto Credit: Martin Forstmann,

 I was in shock. It was 11:33. I felt fantastic. How could my race be over. I explained --politely-- about the time I had been lost. I asked if I could speak to the race director. I tried the Jedi Mind Trick.

The Jedi Mind trick failed me. 

Obi Wan, Why hast thou forsaken me? 

A handful of other runners showed up at this point. Finally, she said we could continue without our numbers "under our own risk." This phrase seemed ridiculous to me, as we always run under our own risk: number or no number, race or no race. I ripped off my number and handed it to her, as did another runner. We made an unspoken agreement to run together. And that's what we did, until we came to a fork in the road...with no marks in either direction. Again, really? Did I blow by another turn. Would I ever learn? 

"Obviously, you're not a golfer"

So I headed back down the road, retracing my steps to the last mark we saw. I found the mark. We hadn't missed a turn. The marks just ended. And then I looked up and four runners were heading my way. Perhaps they had decided to continue "under their own risk." Yet they all had their numbers on. I asked them how they kept their numbers, and didn't quite catch the answer. I told them there were no marks, and one of the guys said he had the course on his phone. I followed. The next section of course was unmarked, but fortunately as we were passing a campesino's field, one of the campesinos called us back and told us to go down a singletrack. And sure enough there was one ribbon marking this turn. At this point the course was marked again, so we ran together. My watch was marking 34 kilometers so I started to worry about where the hell the 31 kilometer aid station was. My coca cola was gone and I was low on water. Would there be an aid station?

 At 35k, we crossed another road, tore into the aid station and were promptly told we were twenty minutes after the cut off. Karina was there, along with the aid station workers. I really didn't understand the cut off. I had run the first half conservatively and was ready to roll. I had 8 hours to finish, there was time. Again, I was told I could continue "abajo mi propio riesgo" but I was concerned about the course marking and told they would begin taking flags down. 

I threw in the towel and got a ride back to Taxco. 
One runner in our group decided to continue unofficially. 
I hope he made it. 

Selfie I took of myself after getting cut off at kilometer 35. 

I've been reading some commentary about the race this morning and it's very tempting to blame my DNF on the race. That's a dangerous temptation to succumb to, however. If I start blaming external circumstances instead of focusing on what I could change, I lose sight of the most important factor in finishing a race: what I can control. Ultramarathons present thousands of excuses not to finish. The trick is ignore these. I failed to ignore those excuses, but I can learn from them.

Here's what I needed to do:

At the top of the first climb, when I realized how close I was shaving the cut offs, I should have readjusted my race strategy, and picked up the pace. Yeah, it's important to go slow in the first half of a long ultra, but not if it means missing the cutoffs. Also, I can't assume the cut offs won't be enforced. That was stupid. A mistake I won't make again.

  After missing two turns (turns that were marked....I didn't see the marks) I should have run more carefully. I did do a bit of this, as I was able to redirect two runners who were heading off course back onto course. I need to run more aware, especially trails I don't know.

  Lots of runners DNF'd this race, but more importantly, many finished. Congrats to everyone who toughed it out, didn't make excuses...and got it done. Like this guy:

No Excuses: Paulino getting it done in style. (Everything you need to know about finishing a tough race is in this photo).  Photo: stolen from Facebook


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Good Friday/Viernes Santo

Van Ticket: Cabañas to Race Start.
    The alarm went off at 2:45 in the morning. I hadn’t really slept, just reclined in the darkness with closed eyes while nervous energy combined with the excitement of a big race kept me tossing and turning and looking repeatedly at the clock: 11:30...1:15...2:10.

The van was scheduled to arrive at 3:15am to take me and four or five other runners (all from Guadalajara) to the start. Pentamontaña is a remote and logistically complicated race, and the race organizers have a system in place to get all runners transported to the race start. I had purchased the van ticket online back in December after I made my reservation at Cabañas Montorios. The van, a 15 passenger Toyota Hiace, arrived a few minutes late and I was the first to board among the group of runners that were staying at our cabañas. The front of the van was full, but the back was empty. The solo seat above the passenger side rear wheel was empty so I took that so I would have some space to stretch my legs. I was hoping to sleep a bit on the ride, and closed my eyes as the other runners boarded. I don’t recall putting on my seatbelt, but at some point, I later realized, I must have done so.

 We drove in a caravan, as there were cars (and another van) in front of us. I couldn’t sleep so I just mentally reviewed my nutrition plan and prepared myself for what was going to be a 30 hour effort. While I was secretly hoping for sub-30, more realistic projections were for a 31-34 hour finish. While “only” a 120 kilometer race, I knew from reviewing the previous times of other runners that with nearly 7,000 meters of climbing 5 mountains that are all well over 3,000 meters, covering those 120k would require a 100 mile (160k) effort.

 Pentamontaña is a race in the northern part of Mexico in the Sierra Arteaga in the southern part of the Coahuila. The race appeared on my radar in 2015. The timing of the race is a bit difficult for me, as I usually take a long rest after UTMX 100k, a race that I have run for the past three years. October and November are months of light jogging and little volume. And then I start ramping up in December. I’m never really fit until the summer months. However, this year I committed to continue my training following a short two-week break following UTMX. I signed up for Pentamontaña the day they opened for registration. It would be the first of my big races in 2017, followed by the 30th annual Angeles Crest 100 mile in August, Trail Run Hidalgo’s new 120k stage race in September, and UTMX 100k in October.

 The other runners emerged from their cabin and we were moving up COAH 112 towards 57. Before reaching the highway we turned right onto a dirt road, we went through at least one small pueblo (Tunal, I believe) and later I remember that we were climbing up a paved road. However, most of the trip was just a black tunnel as my eyes were closed and it was not yet four in the morning of Good Friday/Viernes Santo.

 And then we were descending a switchbacked “empedrado” or old road made of rocks that had been rounded and smoothed over time. The race start loomed closer. Later I would find out we were about 5 kilometers from the start line.

My eyes were closed, my body was at rest. Physically and mentally, I was ready.

Pentamontaña was finally here.

 Out of this silence there was yelling and commotion from the front of the van. I opened my eyes and we were driving off the side of road into the forest. I recall no panic, even as we were falling over on the passenger side. Again, for reasons I can’t understand, I remained calm despite the shattering of windows as the van began to tumble. We rolled again and seemed to hit with more force and the spinning picked up speed. I had one clear thought: “Is this how it ends?” Again we rolled and finally my side of the van came to rest against the ground. In that instant the mysterious calm that I had felt was replaced by a vicious panic and I wanted nothing more than to get out of the van. I fought a bit with the seat belt, unbuckled myself and climbed up out of the broken side windows. The shattered glass around the edges cut my wrists, and I later thought it would have been a very simple thing to ask for a coat or blanket to put over the glass, but in that moment nothing mattered except getting away from the van. A male staff member wearing a blue Pentamontaña jacket was helping me out of the window. I still had my Ultimate Direction handheld bottle in my hand. I dropped it on the road and clumsily climbed out, rushing as I was afraid of an explosion or fire. I cut my right wrist in few different places, and another Pentamontaña staff member put a tape on my wrist to stop the bleeding. I saw the van resting on it’s side and I could see that we had tumbled down the hill and come to rest just along the road below.

 There was movement everywhere: cars and a large white truck were stopped above us, and other cars and the Vertimania Humvee were stopped below us. My memory of this time is fractured and distorted. I wandered up and down the switchbacks aimlessly. I had my puffy coat on and I had opted to wear my pajama bottoms over my shorts to keep warm before the start. A fellow runner later described me as “pale, incoherent and disoriented.”

 At some point it came to my attention that there was still someone in the van. Several people were trying to push the van up, calling first for rocks, and then for “gatos” (car jacks) and spare tires: anything that could be used to prop up the van. There was a woman who was trapped and unconcious under the van. I took one glance and had to look away. I was asked to go to the hospital, but I did not want to go, as my only thought was to get back to my cabaña and see my family before they woke up. I was sat inside a car for a while, and the woman in front was complaining of pain in her neck and back and begging to go to the hospital. I was too restless to sit and left the car before staff members drove her to the hospital.

 I went back to the van and the rear doors had been opened. Without entering the van I was able to grab some runners’ packs, poles, and a floppy hat that I recalled the runner in the back seat wearing, and organized them along the opposite side of the road. I searched in vain for my Nathan Pack, hat and headlamp, and then felt ashamed for being concerned about such things when there was a person under the van.

 We were in a remote area with no cell signal. I kept waiting for the police or an ambulance to arrive. They never did. Finally, a group of volunteers and runners were able to push the van up enough to pull out the volunteer who we would all find out later was Ana Vanessa Ortiz. I estimate this took an hour, but I don’t trust my own estimations of time during this event. She was put onto a white plastic table and covered with blankets, and then put into a car and taken to the hospital. Shortly after she was finally removed from under the van, another Pentamontaña staff member drove me down to the race start in a white Nissan X-trail.

 At the race start, the scene was unreal, as I was surrounded by people who had no real concept of what had happened. They were sitting around chatting, having coffee, and waiting for the race to start. I was certain the race had been cancelled, but no announcement had been made. An eager volunteer started to check me in and I didn’t realize she was checking me into the race until she asked to take my bag of clothes which runners would pick up at the finish (the race is point to point).

 I walked around aimlessly asking for a ride back to the cabañas. I was told to wait and there would be transportation. Again I was asked if I wanted to go to the hospital and I declined. The runners were called together and the race was officially cancelled. I continued to wander and I saw a couple walking to their car and I asked them if they were going any where near Cabañas Montorios. They had no idea where that was but they were heading back to their hotel at Monterreal, which I knew was only a few kilometers past Cabañas Montorios. Jacobo and Suzy drove me back. To my relief, instead of going back up past the accident we took a longer route out to the highway 57 that we would take south to COAH 112 which would take us to our cabañas.

 Natalia and the girls were still asleep and were as shocked to see me as I was relieved to see them.

 After telling my family what happened we drove the short ten minute drive into the pueblo, San Antonio Alazanas, where the race would have ended. We encountered some Pentamontaña staff members along returning drop bags. I asked about the runner who had been trapped under the van and they told me that she had passed away at the hospital in Saltillo. Stunned by this, and not knowing what to say or how to react, I gave the car keys to Natalia and just stood for a moment on the side of the road in silence with the Pentamontaña staff. Finally, we headed into Saltillo to go to the hospital. The next morning we drove 9 hours south and returned to our apartment in Mexico City.


We all know the relative dangers of long runs in the mountains, but we tend to brush aside the risks of  the statistically much more dangerous cars, vans and busses we travel in every day. There is also some irony that this tragedy happened at Pentamontaña, a meticulously organized race, and that can’t be said for many of the new mountain races that seem to pop up every month. I believe the Hunzas should continue to hold Pentamontaña, but I hope it will be renamed and held as an annual memorial to Ana Vanessa Ortiz, a runner and lover of the outdoors who drove three hours from her home in Reynosa to volunteer her Easter weekend helping others and being with her friends in the mountains. Rest in Peace.

Ana Vanessa Ortiz    1976-2017

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Full Moon Rising: UTMX 2016

Entering the Barranca                                   Photo by Martin Forstmann of

  Ultra Trail Mexico's third edition finished yesterday (today actually --runners had until 1:00am on Sunday to finish), but folks will be talking about this year's race for a long, long time. Another way to frame it: I went into the race chasing my 15:40ish from 2015. Ended up finishing around 18:25 last night. And I was happy with that time. Thrilled, really with how well things went, considering...

  ...But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

  At 2:32 in the morning I woke up to a sound test at the starting line. I had slept solidly from 10:30-2:32. After that I tossed and turned and finally got out of bed at 4:00, 15 minutes before my alarm would go off. I could hear the whoops outside, the first of the 500 runners were showing up for the start of the UTMX 2016. The previous two years I stayed in a cabaña outside of the town, and this year I finally got a hotel room right next to the start. However, at 2:32 in the morning I realized that cabañas outside of town do have their advantages. 

Hotel by the finish line. Loud. Cabaña might be the better choice if sleep is important.

  The first thing that surprised me as the race started is that the pace felt manageable and it wasn't crowded: it flowed as well, if not better, than previous years when there were fewer runners. At the first river crossing it became clear that there would be no games today trying to keep the feet dry. Water levels were very high.

  I stuck to my plan at the start: I walked some hills I could have run. I resisted the urge to pass; I stayed within myself: when the heart started pounding, I slowed. Between 20k and 30k I began working the downhills a bit, but still trying to avoid trashing my legs early. I never remember the first half of this race as well as the latter half, but I was reminded about what makes the first 45k so incredible: it's a singletrack paradise. 

 Running into the 30k aid station, one of the aid station workers came flying out, grabbed my bottles, and had them both filled before I could finish stuffing my pockets with salted potatoes. The attention at the aid stations was like this all day. Later, down in San Sebastian at 70k, the aid station workers brought everything to me, checking in to see what I might need. It as good as having my own crew.

Climbing to the top of "Moab" between 30-40k

  My first little dip in energy came after 30k in the climb up to the 35k point. And something seemed off about the route: we ran by the presa, but we didn't run along the wall as in years past. And then back into the woods, and I saw some 50k runners. I started to panic a bit: did I go off course? Where the hell was the 40k aid station? Did I miss it somehow? And then we started climbing again. I didn't remember this climb but looked down at the course profile on my bib and the climb was correct. I vaguely remembered Marcos talking about some change during the meeting the night before, but couldn't remember the details. I looked at my watch and realized I was way behind, I'd never get to the "highway" (50k) in 7:15-7:30. 15:40 was out the window. Sub 16 was probably out the window as the barranca had an extra climb in it this year.

  I finally arrived at the 40k aid station, but it felt more like 42, which is what my watch said. I needed to take some time to eat. I had made a stupid mistake with my Gu, leaving too many in my drop bag at the 70k mark, and not bringing  enough with me at the start. I started rationing them, as I didn't want to go into the barranca with less than 3, so I had to make up the caloric deficit with aid station food. Two cups of soup, chips, and a banana and I was out of there, and back on familar ground: the course was what I remembered it, and the section went by quickly, or at least it felt like it did, but I arrived at the highway aid station (run by the Solo Para Salvajes crew) in 8:30, an hour behind schedule. I questioned my training, maybe I had fooled myself and I really wasn't as prepared as I thought I was.

  After 45+ kilometers of the scenic singletrack of the mountain portion of the race, the course eventually dumps out onto a paved road that leads straight down to the 50k aid station which is just across the "highway." This section is always hot and a shock to the system after being in the woods all morning. Something strange happened here: as I was trailing another runner, she ate a Gel and then...she just threw the wrapper on the ground?! I picked up the wrapper (Honey Stinger), and picked up my pace to try and catch up with her to to return her trash. But she pulled away. I was in disbelief, and started to rationalize: maybe she dropped it by mistake? But in that moment I was sure she just pitched it on the ground, and so since my 15:40 goal was long gone, I made a new one: I would not finish behind the gel wrapper runner.*

*It occurs to me now that maybe the "gel wrapper runner" (or "Gu Girl" or "Honey Slinger") dropped it accidentally, but it just didn't seem like that at the time: it looked like she took a gel and slung the wrapper --city marathon style-- right on the road. I hope I'm wrong about that.

  The section from the "highway" (it's a two lane pave road, it's not really a highway) to Peña del Aire on the edge of the canyon is my least favorite section of the course. It's almost all downhill with one climb. It's open dirt road. Should be easy, but this year was the same as the last two: I got passed by a lot of people.

The Barranca.

  I was looking forward to Peña del Aire aid station for several reasons: it's the beginning of my favorite part of the race, and I was looking forward to the new climbs and the river crossings. Also, Natalia and Dalva were going to meet me there. I hoped they would make it and hoped they would still be there: I told them the latest I would possibly get there was 2:00pm. 

  At 3:10pm I rolled in. 

I was worked and needed to sit down, drink some soup, recover a bit. I changed out my small UD bottle for a large one, as the race director had clearly emphasized the changes in the barranca. He estimated it would take 3-4 hours for most runners and he implored people to fill up their packs and bottles for this long, difficult section. After about 15 minutes, my longest aid station stop for the day, I headed down to the trail leading down to the bottom of the barranca. Down, down, down...

It was a warm one in the canyon.

  One thing I forgot to mention: at the top of the barranca, back at the aid station, I had received some news. According to Natalia, most runners were arriving later than expected. This made me realize that my race wasn't going horribly: the course had changed and the section before 40k had added more time than I thought. With my time goals irrelevant, I gave her my watch. Looking at that thing had just kept putting me in a bad mood. I didn't need a watch; I just needed to keep moving. 

Dalva and Tina coming out to greet me upon the arrival to Peña del Aire.


Dalva giving me advice: "don't run, take bubble baths."

   I finally reached the river crossing at the bottom of the canyon. I wrapped my Jurek Essential belt (ok, it's a fanny pack) around my neck and waded across. When I reached the other side the current wasn't as strong near the shore so I set the belt and my bottles on a rock and submerged myself. Felt pretty good under the water, but sadly I had to get up and keep running. 
  After the river the first of the "new" climbs began. We climbed a narrow, loose rock and crazy steep climb up to the top of the other side of the barranca. I looked across and could see the Peña del Aire on the other side. It was awesome. I never would have recommended changing the barranca section, but this was genius: all the way down one side, cross the river, up to the top of the other side. And then down this crazy downhill that we had been cautioned about in the race preview. I felt great going down and passed most of the folks who passed me on the climb. Including the gel wrapper runner.

  And then she --and everyone else-- passed me on the next climb. Again, straight up on loose shale. And here I realized I had made a mistake: I had filled both bottles with powerade. Things were out of balance. I became dizzy and slowed to a crawl. Asked those who passed me if they had "agua simple." Nope: just more powerade. So I trudged up, tried to eat, stopped drinking powerade and then realized that was stupid. Alone on the far side of the canyon. At the top of the climb I sat down and took off my shoes to clean out the rocks --more to take a break than anything else. Some old guy popped out of the bushes --seriously, out of nowhere. He spoke so quickly and with such a strange accent I couldn't understand a word he said. 

  He didn't have any "agua simple" either. 

  I picked up my pace on the downhill, hoping to catch the Gu girl. Nope. Maybe next year. I gave some powerade to a runner that was out of liquid. 

  Crossed the river again. Submerged again, and then ran the trails into San Sebastian at 70k. My drop bag was waiting. Chespiro was also there, that was cool. Years ago I was returning to an aid station, intent on quitting the Maraton del Rover because I was lost again and fed up. And then I ran into Chespiro who was fixing the marks on the course. He set me back on track and I finished that race. 

  A Chespiro sighting is always a good omen. 
  With dry socks, a fresh shirt, and full belly I headed up the long dirt road that takes us up and out of the canyon. Usually I hate this section, but I had arrived so late to San Sebastian that the sun was setting. For the first time, I enjoyed the climb. The sunset and the full moon rose up out of the clouds. And suddenly I knew one thing: I was going to finish. 17, 18, 19 or 20 hours. It didn't matter: It was night time and I love running at night and there was only 20k to go.
  At the top of the barranca, I stopped in the Mirador aid station and chatted a bit with the aid station guys. They were encouraging and in great spirits. I drank a Red Bull and one of the guys said that over 200 people missed that cut off at Peña de Aire and couldn't continue down into the canyon. That was good reminder that I should put a little "giddy up" in my step and keep moving. 

Sun sets over the Barranca

And the moon rises. Unfortunately the photo is terrible. Very nice in real life, however.

  And so I started to push. I ran through the next aid station at Ahuacatitla, stopping only long enough to  stuff my pockets with chocolate chip cookies and gummy worms and then headed straight down to the final river crossing. Passed a lot of people this way, but "gel wrapper" wasn't among them. 

 At the bottom there was surprise: first a roped rock crossing [tip: try this without the rope, I think it's much safer. The runner in front of me held on to the rope for all his life and took a pretty hard fall against the rock] and then I was at the final crossing and the river was raging. There was a large tree spanning the crossing. A rope for balance. Really?

  Unfortunately, the only other choice was to go back up to the aid station.
  Carefully, I crossed the tree, almost losing my balance. On the other side I asked the guy holding the rope if some runners had fell. His curt response: "claro." 
  And then going up the final climb, a sort of serpentine path up through a middle earth forest. Pretty cool climb in the dark. Until my headlamp started flickering and went out. Javi was there with me at that point and gave me some light while I changed the battery. Thanks, Javi!
  I started to feel stronger, pushed harder, and ran well on the road that goes straight down to the Hacienda de Santa Maria Regla and the final aid station.  And lo and behold: there was "Honey Slinger" going down into the aid station. 


  I "sprinted" down as fast as I could and considered just going through the aid station without stopping, but I wanted a little coca cola and "agua simple" to balance it for the final push.
   Up to the Prismas Balsaticos, across the swinging bridge, across the presa (very wet this year and someone took the markings down, I think), got lost for a few minutes, some guy out there called me back, and finally hit the road back into the center of Huasca. Natalia, Dalva and Tina were there to run it in with me. It was 11:25pm. 

  Of my three finishes at UTMX, this one meant the most. It started out as one kind of race, and ended up as something else: some sort of survival adventure run. It had that epic "live a lifetime in a day" feel that one gets in a 100 miler.

bad selfies under a full moon

Postscript: There was a bit of chatter about all the runners getting stopped at the 5:00pm cut off at Peña del Aire. While the changes in the course (and the cut off) were clearly communicated (the example of arriving at 5:05, which would be too late, was given during the meeting), it was certainly not the intention of the race to have so many folks miss a cut off. A couple solutions:

  1.Start the race at 4:00am     and/or
  2.Return to the original (and faster) section between 30 and 40k.

 Just please don't change the canyon section: the river crossings and the climbs were awesome.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Ultra Trail Mexico: Take Three

Not much to do now but wait...

 Here we are again: UTMX take 3.

I received a text from my brother-in-law yesterday (he came down to Mexico last year to run the race) asking: You ready for UTMX? Part II answers that question; part I is a review of the race in its third edition.

I. UTMX overview from a middle to back of the pack perspective:

This is year three, and the race has grown up. There are 497 people starting the 100k distance. That growth is good for the long-term stability of the race, but it’s going to slow things down for the middle to back of packers in the first kilometers. However, that’s ok because every year this race goes out way too fast. It’s a 100k; it’s not a race to El Zembo, the first aid station. I’m anticipating some standing around breaks in the early part of the race before the pack splits up. I hope those easy early kilometers will pay dividends later on when climbing up to the Mirador from San Sebastian.
  Take a look at last year’s splits. Lots of folks have stellar runs to the 50k point and then tank in the latter half. Also, this year there is an added mystery bonus: The course is 2 kilometers longer and it looks like most of that distance is gained in the canyon. Comparing this year’s course profile with the previous year’s course profile, it looks like there will be more climbing in the canyon as well. Times should be slower this year.

 One takeway from the last two years is that the first 40+k of the race is mostly cool and covered. You won’t need to drink as much here. I carried two bottles, but only filled one up at the aid stations. However, when I got to the highway crossing at 49.3k, I should have filled up both bottles and drank at the aid station. The next section is hot and exposed all the way to Peña de Aire, where the course goes down into the canyon. You definitely don’t want to go down into the canyon behind on hydration: especially with the canyon section being longer this year.

 For me, the two most important aid stations are 49.3 (usually run by Pedro Fletes and the Solo Para Salvajes crew) and Peña de aire at 60k. I don’t like to waste time hanging out in aid stations, but it’s worth spending a few minutes in each of these to make sure you’ve eaten and drank what you need to.

 The canyon is by far the most technical section of the course and it comes at the point where runners are getting fatigued. My suggestion is to enjoy the beauty of the canyon, because the biggest “suck” of the race is coming: the 6k climb out of San Sebastian back up to the top of the canyon at Mirador aid station. This is an exposed road, hot and dusty. It also goes on forever. I’m not sure if Ferro just enjoys making us suffer or there really isn’t any single track climbing up out of the canyon in this area. This year I hope to get to Mirador more or less in one piece and keep moving. Last year I was wrecked at the top of this climb and had to sit down, wasting a few minutes in the aid station feeling sorry for myself and trying to recover. In 2014 I climbed well and arrived at the top to find Marcos Truyols, who I had been chasing after running with him for the first 45k. He pulled away and put lots of time on me before the finish. This serves as another reminder that a lot can happen in this last 23k or so of the race: don’t spend it all getting to Zembo or even to the 50k mark...

 The good news is that after mirador there is only one more significant climb. After some flat road running to Ahuacatitlan, the course goes straight down to the river. It’s so steep (and so late in the race) that it can be hard to go fast here. Gravity helps, but is somewhat limited by how thrashed one’s legs are. At the bottom is the major river crossing of the race and then straight up a winding goat trail. At the top the course flattens for a bit and then eventually heads down to the last aid station (Santa Maria’s right across from the Hacienda). Last year I was feeling great here and stopped for less than 30 seconds. However, in 2014 I was beat and had to sit down for a few minutes and drink a Red Bull. The dream is to have enough water in my bottle and just run straight through.

 After this there is a short climb up to the Prismas Balsaticas and we enter the park through a back entrance, run along the cliff, cross the swinging bridge and then head out of the park, around the presa and through the back streets of Huasca before arriving at the finish. There is a little hill in here about a kilometer or two from the finish. If someone is chasing you at this point, that hill is where you can lose them.

 Enjoy the finish: it’s one of the best.

Part II.

 Back to the questions Jeremy asked me: am I ready? Sure, I’m ready to finish, and I’m mentally prepared as well. My training has been consistent, but the miles haven’t been huge, and as always, getting climbing in is difficult: midweek I run in Parque Hundido and then on the weekends I get out to Bosque del Tlapan, Desierto or Ocotal. I did do a few tune up races. I’ll log them here because depending on how things go on Saturday I may do it differently next year.

August 20: 20k Arcos de Sitio in Tepozotlan.

 This is a newer race in the Salvajes line up and it’s awesome: very technical and hilly, lots of rocky single track, plenty of climbing and a cool finish across an ancient viaduct. I had a great time running, but my time was something like 15 minutes slower than when I ran in 2014.

August 28: Mexico City Marathon

 Each year I sign up for the marathon and then hem and haw about whether or not I really want to run it. For me to run a marathon well I need to do long runs on pavement, and I just don’t do it: on the weekends I head for the hills. I convinced myself about three days before the race that I was going to sell my bib and go run long in desierto. But then the guy I was going to sell my number to already had found one so I decided to run it. I ran slow, but steady splits until the final 10k where I fell off the pace a bit, but it was still faster than my time from 2015. However, it took me forever to recover. Marathons are brutal. I lost 4-5 days of training, and I wonder if the marathon was a mistake. Always fun to run the race however.

Sept. 11: Ultratransnavajas 60k

 Five weeks before UTMX, I thought this would be the perfect long effort. I was a bit worried about the extra 10k, as the previous year it was 50k. The smart thing to do would have been to run a hard 35k. Apparently I can’t seem to do the smart thing very often. As it turned out, I should have been more worried: this race was an absolute beat down. I ran 7:26 for 50k last year so I thought I’d run around 9 hours. Andoni loves to make brutal races with ridiculous climbs. Just over 11 hours later --totally humbled, and feeling stupid for telling a few people I thought I’d finish in 9 hours-- I stumbled across the finish line. My one positive take away from this race was that when things go bad --it felt like work right from the starting line-- I can gut out a finish. But man, I’m not going to lie: I hope UTMX goes better.

 I’ll find out on Saturday...

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Into the Canyon: Trail de Cañon (Peña del Aire) Race Report

Dalva Looooves the Zip Line
Scouting the first descent with Oriana

 I’m trying to understand the correlation between a terrible night’s sleep followed by a decent race. I haven’t slept so poorly before a race since the 2014 Angeles Crest 100.
 Finally fell asleep and then woke at 2:50am. Of course I fell asleep once more two minutes before my alarm sounded at 4:50am.
 The previous evening, Oriana and I had driven to Peña del Aire, which is a phallic shaped rock where the race would begin.
 We got there just before sunset. We walked down to the head of the trail that leads down into the canyon, and I was reminded of how technical this descent is. No way I was going to do this without a headlamp. I hate running with a lamp all day just for an hour of light in the morning, but I was going to have to deal with it.
 As the light faded over the canyon, Oriana and I drove back to the Cabañas: we timed it as exactly 22 minutes and 21 seconds. The plan was to leave at 5:15 in the morning. Tough to get the whole family moving at that hour, and Natalia was racing the 20k and wouldn’t start until 7, so I was looking for a ride to give the family an extra hour of sleep.

FYI: It's 22 minutes and 21 seconds from this cabaña to the race start

 No Uber in Huasca and the taxi drivers don’t get up that early.
However, the caretaker had mentioned that the folks in the neighboring cabaña were also in the race, so I went and knocked on their door to see if they were running the 40k and maybe could I get a ride? I felt like a stalker rapping on their door at night, but the couple answered --if warily-- and sure enough one of them was running the 40k. The great news is they were happy to give me a ride. Unfortunately, they were planning on leaving “around 5:30.” I politely but firmly mentioned that it just took me 22 minutes and 21 seconds to drive to Peña del Aire. They appeared unmoved by this fact, and while I had several other arguments at the ready, I really wasn’t in the best negotiating position considering that I was an uninvited stranger knocking on their door at night --possibly interrupting an intimate moment-- looking for a free ride. I also inferred it was not an opportune moment to express my reservations about Mexican concepts of time, so I just assured them I’d be outside and ready by 5:20 (hint), thanked them, and then went to bed, staring at the darkness for hours while my family slept around me.

                                                   Amazing Place!                            Photo:

 The next morning I was outside and ready at 5:12. I met my other neighbor, Horacio, who was also looking for a ride, and the couple, Diego and Erika, were happy to bring him along as well. It was foggy and dark. And 5:31. We were off.  We chatted away talking about races we had run (as always in Mexican trail running circles, it turned out we all had run several races together without knowing it) and we blew right past the turn off for the Peña del Aire.

 Despite the fog I knew we were wrong, and so we stopped and turned around. But several other cars were heading in this direction and said it was the correct way. There was some mildly panicked discussion, but we retraced our steps, found the correct turn and we were on the slow dirt roads to arrive at the start.

At about 5:57 we could see the lights of cars heading into the parking lot.

It was at this moment I thought it best resist the urge to restate the wisdom of my suggested 5:15am departure.

 We rolled into the big grassy field that was the parking lot, and it seemed they wanted us to drive to the farthest part of the lot. It was 5:59. I wondered how rude it would be to simply open the door,  jump out of the slowly moving car, yell thank you, and run to the start.

I suppressed that urge as well.

 We parked. It was 6:00 by my Suunto. I noted lots of car lights still coming into the parking lot, Probably the race would start late. Nope: the countdown had begun 10, 9, 8….
...Time to run….

  1. Kudos to Trail Run Hidalgo for starting his race on time. Some said they should have waited a few minutes, but that will just lead to all of his races starting late. They don’t; they start on time. Word will get around and people will be there when they are supposed to be.

     2. Thank you to Diego and Erika for giving me a ride.

     3. Maybe a 5:20 departure next year? ;)

 Perhaps the reason I couldn’t sleep the night before is that I had been anticipating this race for months. The canyon is well-known to many trail runners, because at kilometer 60, the UTMX 100k race descends into the canyon on the same trail where we would start our race. There are many things I love about UTMX, but the canyon section is, for me, the jewel of that race. However, at UTMX we only spend about 7 kilometers running in the canyon, and I’ve always wanted to explore 

                          Awesome descents like this all day.                   Photo: Martin Forstmann of

 I don’t want to bore anyone with a blow by blow of my race, but I knew going up the first major climb that I was going to have a good day. I was wrong: I had a fantastic day. Part of the reason I felt great is that I’m finally starting to get into some sort of shape; but the more important reason is that the route was freaking fantastic: a true adventure….a dozen river crossings, several sketchy, loose rock technical down hills, and beautiful single track all day long. Also, as usual, Trail Run HIdalgo got the important details correct: the aid stations were plentiful and had the necessities, there was beer at the finish, and the course was marked heavily. Flags all over the place. Too many, for my taste, but I understand that the organizers don’t want people getting lost down in the canyon.

                           Natalia at the finish!                                         Photo:

 Despite the awesomeness of the race, two or three runners still found reasons to complain on facebook after the race.

 As an old teacher friend once told me: “Guy, you could invite some people to the ice cream store every day and they’d complain because they had to walk.”

 More on that later.

During the last 15 K, I was catching people and moving well. I completely submerged myself in every river crossing to keep cool and then I rolled up to the second to last aid station. There were about 4 runners here, so I quickly refilled my bottle, chugged a coke, ate some watermelon and kept moving. I was anticipating the last climb. What I was not anticipating was the climb to get to the last climb: slippery loose gravel and just stupidly steep. Most races end with a nice downhill or a straightway. Instead we had a two plus mile climb up to the top of the canyon. After moving so well all day I was reduced to a bit of a spit dribbler, and most of the runners I had passed at the last aid station caught me, which is to say they hiked by me. The Peña came into sight, and the trail flattened out near the top and I managed some sort of shuffle jog, climbed out of the canyon, and then had about 30 yards to the finish line. A little “sprint” and then I laid down under the tent after crossing the finish line. Man did it feel good to know I didn’t have to go back down into the canyon.

Being a little overly dramatic at the finish, I think. Really just wanted a beer.    Photo:

Neither that short description of my race or the photos do justice to these trails or the rugged beauty of the Canyon. You’ll have to go next year and find out for yourself. But please, before you do: consider a few things: most of this race is run in areas of the canyon that are not accessible by car. If you twist an ankle or underhydrate or show up unprepared, you are going to have to get yourself out of trouble and get to the nearest aid station. That’s the runner’s job, not the race’s. An unsettling idea has been creeping into trail running that the organizers can (and should) make everything “safe.” That’s not going to happen without ruining the adventure of trail running. If you are uncomfortable crossing a river that comes up to your hip without a rope or someone there to watch you, or you can’t find your way up out of the canyon if your race goes sour, please choose another race.

 Trail Run Hidalgo has made a name for themselves creating races that feature lots of single track with steep climbs and descents in beautiful locations on technical trails. I’ve enjoyed their Mountain Challenge race in Chico, and the Ultratransnavajas near Tulancingo, but Trail de Cañon is now my favorite. The Canyon is truly a gem: if it were in another country we would all be saving for airfare and dreaming about running there. I think we might undervalue it a bit because it’s only a couple hours outside of Mexico City. But be warned, while this might “only” be a 40k, better to think of it as a short ultra. For comparison: In 2015 I ran the first 50k of UTMX in 7:20. It took me 7:43 to finish the 40k of the Trail de Cañon.

 Three races on the calendar: Mexico City Marathon at the end of August, Trail Run Hidalgo’s Ultratransnavajas 60k in September….And then the UTMX 100k on October 15th.

 Hoping for a few more bad nights of sleep before October.