Monday, May 27, 2013

A Two-Headed Creature: Jemez 50 Mile Race Report

"What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be its opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. Yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other also, like two creatures with one head." 

--Socrates in Plato's Phaedo

                                                            5:00am start                                  Photo: David Silva

 Exposed to the sun, sprawled out on the ground on the impossibly steep, no-trail climb up the backside of Pajarito Moutain, I recalled the words of the volunteer at the last aid station: “Just keep moving.”
  I had never flopped on the ground during a race before, but there I was unable to even keep my own promise of 100 steps before taking a break. I would get to about 23 and then basically fall down. My stomach was tied in knots and had been for hours.
  Without a watch, I wasn’t sure how close I was to the 5:00pm cutoff at the ski lodge.  Ten or so hours into my first 50 mile race that I had been so resolutely determined to finish, but the doubts were creeping in: why was I doing this? All that training, all those climbs up the Cerro de San Miguel and here I was at the tail end of the race, concerned I might not be able to cover four miles in three hours.

We began in the dark.
Those first miles of the race were magnificient: rolling, rocky trails through an apocalyptic landscape brutally shaped by the 2011 Conchas fire. Trying to keep my enthusiasm in check, everything felt beautiful and easy. The 3,500 foot hike up from Camp May to the top of Pajarito was fun and I was passing people.
  Arriving at the ski lodge for the first time (mile 17), I reapplied suntan lotion, grabbed a few more GU and headed out to the Pipeline Road Aid Station eating a Cliff Bar. The first signs of unease set in here, my stomach tightened and a few runners that I had passed earlier went by at a solid clip. I wouldn’t see them again.

Feeling good early in the race....            Photo: Jim Stein

  I stopped again on the backside of Pajarito in the bit of shade offered by a tree. I was trying to eat some GU. The group up ahead of me was moving away slowly. A guy I had passed 8 miles earlier in the Caldera came hiking by: he asked if I was ok, if I had enough water. He had run the course the previous year and he assured me that he was thinking he would “peak out” in about 15 minutes. This got me up and moving.
  A few more steps.
  A bit later, during another break, a course official was slowly moving his way down the mountain. He looked worried when he saw me. He was going down to meet the course sweepers. He asked me if I was ok and I lied and replied yes. He told me it wasn’t too far to the bench near the top of the mountain and then it was downhill to the ski lodge. This encouraged me and the grade began to relent and I was able to walk.

 Looking down at the Caldera from Pajarito                                 Photo: Benedict Dugger


 The first time through the ski lodge I hiked most of the way to the Pipeline road aid station trying to digest and get my stomach back in order. The Pipeline was the turnoff for the 50k runners.  The cutoff for the 50 milers was noon, and I had made it here at 10:30. The slide down to the caldera was one of the more unusual features of this race. It was literally a rock slide straight down. The rocks were moving downhill at about the same speed that I was. I fell and thought I punctured a hand-held bottle, but fortunately that was the only mishap. Once I made it down the rock chute, I was looking at about 14 miles of flattish running. On paper, this section should be easy, but mentally it was the toughest part of the race. We were out here in the heat of the day, and while the views were spectacular, the distances seemed interminable. Like most runners, I prefer to be in the woods on winding single track that enhances the sensation of speed. The open expanse of the Caldera was a constant reminder of how slow I was moving. When I got to the Obsidian Valley aid station, I announced that that was officially the longest 6.2 miles I had ever run. I was tired of the Caldera and I wanted nothing more than to be hiking up the backside of Pajarito. Seven miles or so to go to the climb.

  After picking myself up off the ground for the last time, I saw the Bench and knew I was nearing the top of the mountain. I was moving steadily, and soon began the downhill through the ski slopes to the lodge, passing the ski signs I had seen earlier on this descent: the double black diamond runs “Little Mother” and “Nuther Mother.” The blue run asking “Why Not?” My silent answer for this sign was less certain than it had been hours earlier. But this was a fun downhill, mostly single track section and I was feeling better with each step.
  And then I saw the “Aid Station sign” and soon the cowbell started ringing. Unlike the first time I had come through the ski lodge, the place was nearly deserted: a couple of runners recovering and some very helpful volunteers. I experienced a huge burst of energy. I felt like Lazarus. I ate what I could and loaded up my bottles with ice and water and ice and coke. I had made the cutoff,  arriving at 4:10, but I spent a lot of time here soaking my head, getting my headlamp and trying to mentally get it together for the final push and I didn’t leave until 4:28. About 14 miles remained but most of the climbing was behind me.

  Again, I hiked it from the ski lodge to Pipeline Road. This station was manned by runners from the Los Alamos track team. They pulled out some cherries that were chilled and I ate a few of those. It was an incredible relief to know that I did not have to slide down the chute to the Caldera again. There was a short hike up awaiting me, but after that it was almost all downhill until the final two miles. After the climb, the Pipeline Road eventually turned off onto single track through forest that was destroyed by the fire, but signs of new life were everywhere.
 And then it was like the beginning of the race again. I was alone, the sun was low in the sky, and the winding, single track, rocky trail and accompanying views were incredible. All my doubts about why I came to run this race vanished. I was running. Picking up speed. At one point I heard voices behind me that pushed me to run even harder. I arrived at the lonely Guaje Ridge aid station as they were packing things up. I continued to run. I met up with a runner I hadn’t seen since the Caldera. We encouraged each other and I kept moving. I thought Randy would be waiting for me at Last Chance Saloon, the last aid station two miles before the finish. He had run the ½ marathon earlier in the day: his first trail run, and I was eager to see how it went. I passed one more runner that I hadn’t seen since the climb up the backside of Pajarito, and then a few more turns and there was Randy Grillo in the middle of the forest. We caught up on the day as we ran into Last Chance Saloon. He had finished his race, driven back to Santa Fe, showered, napped, and then returned.  Last Chance had beer, tequila and food, but my stomach was struggling with water and coca cola, and I was worried about being passed late in the race so we kept moving. It was getting dark, but I didn’t quite need my headlamp. It was a relief not to have to watch for trail markers and Randy kept me moving quickly. I thought I saw someone behind me, but perhaps it was only a shadow.
  And then the final right turn and rocky climb up to the finish.
  It was dark.
  Someone was ringing a cowbell.
  Pati was there cheering.
  I couldn't even jog it in.
  I was done.
Now I could lay down and not feel bad about it. Randy handed me a Happy Camper IPA, but I couldn’t even begin to think about drinking it or eating anything.

  As I lay on the ground I thought about Pajarito. I reflected about my dream of running 100 miles. Could I really have gotten up and covered another 50?
  I thought I could.
  But I was really happy I didn’t have to.


  Every report I’ve read about the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs remarks on the beauty, brutality and spectacular organization of this race. And my Pajarito-high expectations were exceeded on all accounts. Every aspect of this race is fantastic: The landscape, the organizers, the runners, the trails.  Thanks to everyone who worked to make this race happen. And a special thanks to Randy and Pati for their hospitality and encouragement. 50 miler next year, Randy?

Happy Camper with a Happy Camper            Photo: Randy Grillo
End of a short, fantastic trip to New Mexico.  Thank you Randy and Pati!        Photo: Pati Grillo

Boring Running details I want to remember for next time:

  I went with no watch for the first time in a race and it worked. I think if I had known I had plenty of time to make the second cutoff I would have taken a long nap on Pajarito. Having the pressure of the cutoff and not knowing the time helped.

  Two hand-helds (Ultimate Direction). I ran my first two “ultras” (a 50k, a 62k) with a Nathan pack, but I tend to drink less water when I am wearing a pack and carry stuff I don’t need. I was able to carry six Gu without the pack and my arms never got tired of the bottles.

  I broke the “don’t do anything new on race day” with a new pair of Balega socks, and it worked.  Still, better to test socks out before race day…

  Zero feet problems. Cascadia 7’s are a fine shoe, even the well-worn pair I raced in. Someone else can uphold the minimalist trend: I’m sticking to my “boats.” I’ve got one more new pair of 7’s before I need to switch to the 8’s. I hope the 8’s are as good.

  Neglected to dunk head/soak cap at aid stations.

  I’ve got to figure out the stomach issue. Maybe PBJ’s instead of GU? This was the killer and I really didn’t eat enough. I won’t be able to finish a 100 miler if I can’t figure this out. I went the last 24 miles of the race on coca cola, three or four GUS, a couple cherries, a handful of M&M’s and 6 salted peanuts. Not recommended.
I took one salt table and then just stopped because I never train with those things. No cramping. I don’t think I need salt tablets. My tight stomach is not from cramping, but something internal.

  One thing that worked for me running down Guaje Ridge was keeping an open GU packet in my left hand taking a drop at a time instead of trying to suck down a full packet. My stomach felt better here, but it could have been a million other things. Need to keep experimenting.

 As an after thought I threw an extra shirt in my drop bag which at the time I thought was superfluous. Wrong: changing from my snot/sweat/GU/dirt stained shirt into a clean short sleeve was magical.


  1. Great job and great writeup!!! I was right behind you (well, not quite close enough behind you -- I didn't make the 5pm ski hill cutoff). I really enjoyed the run and your writeup!

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for the comment. I hope to make it out to Jemez again one of these years. Hope to see you there!


  3. Guy, thanks for sharing your story!

    I'm in my first year of doing ultras and have been fortunate to finish all three so far, but my biggest puzzle is still figuring out the food/fuel/stomach issue. I did switch away from GU's/gels towards nutbutters, trail mix and low glycemic bars, and felt a lot better for it. I'm convinced that when I get this part down I'll be able to do most 50s and 100s reasonably well.

    Good luck with your next runs and races!

    1. Benedict,

      Yeah, the stomach thing is a mystery. I've run a few trail marathons and a 50k on vanilla gu with zero problems. However, I ran a 62k race a month before Jemez and had some issues as well, though nothing like at Jemez. It's hard to experiment because there are so many factors that could contribute to the problem. It could have been complications of dehydration. I have a terrible time drinking enough water, I think. Thanks for the advice,