Monday, October 22, 2012

Lesson Learned (Finally): UTMX 40k Race Report

Rancho Santa Elena in Hidalgo, Mexico
  Hidalgo, Mexico doesn't seem to get its due.  Thirty minutes up into the mountains outside of Pachuca, Hidalgo is pristine forest and mountains knifed through by rugged (and eye-popping) canyons. Rancho Santa Elena, outside of Huasca, Hidalgo, was the location for the Ultra Trail de Mexico 80k and 40k races. I've spent the past year and a half building up my running base, completing several trail runs (from 14k to 26k) and two Marathon length runs in August and September (the latter on the road), but I didn't feel ready for the 80k. So the 40k it was. I was apprehensive because my last race, a 33k run in the mountains around Mexico city, went poorly. The final 10k was especially brutal, as I could barely run and a handful of runners passed me. Walking the flats while the parade goes by=humiliating bummer. My goal for this race was to take it out easy, especially on the downhills. I love to fly down the hills, but it seems to catch up with me at the end of the race.

Omitlan, Hidalgo.

 The trip to Hidalgo from Mexico City was made more pleasant by an early departure on Friday, skipping the last interminable "professional development" meeting of the day (in the unlikely event that any administrators are reading this blog, please note that it is lightly fictionalized, ie: that part about skipping out early) . Tania and I stopped at Entre Manzanas y Peras, a little restaurant in Omitlan that has an outstanding soup: bacon and apple. Our entertainment for the evening was provided by the local butcher who hung, skinned and butchered a pig while we watched. By the end of the meal, only the head was left hanging. 
  For me, Mexico never loses its charm.

Table-side entertainment in Omitlan
After the dinner/pig-skinning, we checked into our cabaña in Santa Maria Regla and then did a test drive to the ranch as I was anxious (read: paranoid) and I didn't want to be trying to navigate unmarked back roads and pleading for directions in a got-to-get-to-a-race panicked state at 6:30 in the morning.

photo: Tania Baram
                                                                                                                                       photo: Tania Baram

This was a different crowd from the usual suspects that run the Solo Para Salvaje circuit around Mexico City. I saw a few familiar faces, but I think if people knew how outstanding this course it, more would have made the trip. There was a contingent of foreign runners and a few Tarahumara runners (who were running the 80k, except for the 12 year old Tarahumara girl who passed me at the end of the first 12.5k loop). I can now add being passed by a 12 year old girl wearing huaraches and a long skirt to my list of running achievements. I took out my camera and literally sprinted (fastest split all day!) to catch up with her to get a photo. I was fumbling with camera, trying to keep up, wondering how stupid I would feel if I sprained an ankle trying to get a photo of a young girl running in sandals and a skirt. She disappeared into the distance. As a consolation, I got a nice photo of a guy sporting a 1980's Laker-era terry-cloth-more-recently-revived-by Lebron-headband and the race-issued cotton-T. 
  To each their own.

As close as I got for a photo....coming into the 12.5k aid station/finish line for those in the 12.5k
Despite the mad pace of all the 12.5k runners around me on this first up and down leg (they started about 10 minutes after the 40k race) I kept to my plan. When it was flat I jogged, I climbed the steeps steadily and I was mellow on the descents. I didn't like stepping off the trail to let people pass me on the descents, but I kept to my plan. I knew there was a good chance I would pass the runners bombing down the hills this early, because I've been that guy before. Keep it feeling easy until the fourth and final climb and descent, which would come around the 25k mark in the race. Then I would push....if I had anything left.

Race Profile. 5,000 feet of climbing, 5,000 of descent.
The trail --and everything about this race with the possible exception of the t-shirt (though the Lebron guy might disagree)-- were spectacular. There were some two-track roads, but they probably accounted for only 10% of the race.  Everything else was winding single track. After we got past the 12.5k and headed back up the mountain it felt more like a trail race: not many people around. I climbed for a while with a gentleman from Monterrey until he twisted his ankle and had to stop to get it wrapped up. He finished the race.  

Before turning his ankle over, the gentleman from Monterrey leading through this beautiful stretch of rocky mountaintop. 

After finishing the first two major climbs, the trail went around and then across a lake. After about two steps both I and the guy behind me realized the bottom was sandy and we could have taken of our shoes for this crossing. Note for next year?

trail (?)
Perfect day in the mountains

  After slogging through the lake, I approached the final climb. My feet were heavy from the lake water but I tried to keep the pace up (read: not walking) and knew my shoes would eventually dry out. The trail started going up and this was where I needed to make a move. A group of four or five runners in front of me were hiking the trail. I had been passing them on the climbs all day and then they would pass me on the descents. I hiked quickly past the group and then started running to get put some distance between us. 
 Man does it feel good to have a little gas this late in a race.
 On that final long climb I hiked everything as hard as I could and ran when the grade permitted. I arrived at the 30k aid station and ate a couple orange slices, took a few more potatoes, drank some gatorade and moved out. The aid station workers assured me the major climbing was "almost" done. I hiked to the peak, passing two more runners. And then it started going down. The trail was less technical in this last section,  and that had me worried as I thought someone with a little more leg speed would catch me here. The early descents had been really rocky and I was hoping for this type of terrain for the final descent, but it was not to be. Damn. Was I going to get passed again in the final part of a race? I tried to push it on any sections that had a long range of visibility, reasoning that if I kept out of view of anyone behind me, that would be to my advantage. I was totally alone in this section, running scared and not sure if anyone was behind me, but I wasn't going to look back.  I continued to descend until I could hear the speakers at the finish and there was one more runner ahead of me. I didn't have much speed left, and I wondered how hard he would fight when I passed him. We were on a dirt road at this point, but then the last part of the race was a steep, grassy incline that climbed up to the last flat stretch before the finish.  We hit this last little hill at the same time I started running up it but then I realized I could go much faster doing a hands-on-knees power hike, which seemed to pull me to the top, where I resisted a final look back, and "sprinted" to the finish. 5:45ish. Forgot to stop the watch and the official results haven't been posted yet.  Here's the garmin data for the race.

                                                           Happy Face at the finish.                                                                   Photo: Tania Baram

  I finally got it right this race, and it paid off in the end as no one passed me in the latter half of the race. Patience. All of the runners I had been leap-frogging with all day I passed for good on the final climb. I kept up with hydration and though I lost two GU in the early part of the race I was able to keep up with nutrition with the potatoes from the aid stations. And I got lucky: zero stomach issues (which plagued me at the last race and the legs never turned to iron like they did at the end of the Mexico City Marathon.
  Of course, that leaves me with a lingering doubt: how much harder could I have completed the first portion of the race and still had enough in the tank for the strong finish. I'll be sure to ruin my race next time trying to find out.

 I stopped taking photos after the lake crossing, but here are some I took during the first part of the race and some that Tania took as well.

The real deal; winner of the 50 mile race, I believe.            Photo: Tania

"Deer"-in-the-camera-flash-look that I rationalize posting here only because my grandmother (Nina Carlin; Nina Cheney doesn't use a computer) is one of the 5 regular readers of this blog and she is the one person in the world who might be interested in seeing a picture of me even if it is an awkward self-portrait that, in retrospect, I was only using as an excuse to stop because I was tired.

Next year I will be back, and I'll be back for the 80k because humans have no good memory for pain. At least I don't. Also, this race is too beautiful to miss. The trails are so stunning you don't want the race to be over 
(honest qualifer: almost). Bet you can't say that about your last road race. I certainly can't, anyway.
 No races on the calendar right now other than a 10k with some of the runners from the school team next weekend. It's time to stay off the legs for a bit before ramping up the mileage again. I'll spend some time on the bike, stairmaster and those ridiculous looking "elipticals." Or maybe I'll just drive out to Desierto and run for 4 hours in the mountains and screw up my recovery and get even slower.....
 Future plans include the Jemez 50 in Los Alamos, New Mexico on May 25 with Randy Grillo and, if I can swing it, a trip out to LA to run the Ray Miller 50k or 50mile, possibly with Jeremy if these photos can convince him that running in the Santa Monica Mountains is going to be so much more awesome than running past The Gap and BillABong in the surf city marathon.... 


  1. I enjoyed your write-up and photos. My description of the race echoes yours (including the t-shirt part). I even had the same thoughts about the lake crossing and the same experience of passing / staying ahead of runners over the last 15K. The big difference is that I managed to enjoy the scenery for considerably longer than you did - 7 hours. :-)

    1. Mike,

      Thanks for the comments. Incredible course. I hope to get out there and spend some time at Rancho Santa Elena and run those trails again. Take care, and perhaps I'll see you at a one of the solo para salvajes races if you do some trail racing around Mexico City.