The Jemez Mountain Trail Run 50 Mile – Los Alamos, New Mexico
Sea level runner from Va.
It is sometimes amazing what we find ourselves doing when we love something and are willing to put ourselves out there to play. My Goal race for the first half of 2012 is Bighorn 100, in June, out in Wyoming. When gearing up for this distance, I like to use Ultras to train. Why you ask? Well, while I am perfectly capable of doing self supported 40, 50 and 60 mile runs, it does get old after a while. I much prefer running with others, on new trails, with the full support of aid stations. It is also a great way to see more of what is inarguable the most beautiful parts of this country, its mountains.
A couple of weeks before JMTR 50, I started looking for another race. The criteria, 50+ miles, trails, with some elevation, some climbing, and during the May 19th weekend. I did a search using www.ultrarunning.com, (love their calendar!), and I came upon two races that fit, JMTR and one in Ca. I’ve never been to New Mexico, the photos are awe-inspiring, and I would get to run in the caldron of an extinct super volcano! Wow. I sent off a few e-mails, they were all answered promptly and fully, and with a few warnings regarding elevation and such. As for elevation and such, well this sea level, hill running wimpy runner has run above 10,000 ft once or twice, so me being me, I just brush the warnings off and file them away for another time. (Please feel free to laugh at me, I am certainly laughing at myself) I am a firm believer, what I decide to ignore, will not adversely affect me. J ie: Ostrich, with head in the sand philosophy. (PS: did you know Ostriches can run 43mph? cool.) Now, I did decide to wait to sign up for the race until after Bear Mountain.
Two weeks before JMTR, I run NF Bear Mountain NY and what did I find? Instead of running a solid but tough 50 mile race, I found myself chasing cut-offs, running accumulated elevation gain of 7,000ft over some of the most technical rocky ascents and descents I have ever run. There were rock garden climbs, rock garden descents and just for giggles some nice rock filled swamps to run through. By the time I had finished the race, I knew there was no way I could recover enough to run JMTR in two weeks.
Fast forward two days, and what do I do? Yes, I find an affordable flight, and sign up for JMTR 50, and continue my recovery by working the overnight Bird Knob aid station (80.5m) at Massanutten 100 the following weekend.
It was not until a few days before the race that I realized what I’d gotten myself into. Yes, I finally got around to really looking at the maps, the photos and reading a few race reports. OMG… I’m thinking, what the heck did I get myself into? This is when I look towards a photo I took of the Craig’s Trail (10,000+) on Grand Mesa, CO, with the quote, “Don’t Limit Your Challenges…..Challenge Your Limits”. This is very appropriate for the JMTR 50 and while I did not know how I would fare, I knew I had to believe in myself. I have been above 10,000 ft a few times, at Grand Mesa and while pacing at Wasatch, I may be a poor climber, but I have a never give up determination, and I felt with the less rocky trails, the long descents and the flats within the Caldron, I had a chance to make all the cut offs. And if not, well, I could drop down to the 50k and I would still have hit 10,000ft and seen some really beautiful mountains.
The people of Los Alamos are the most amazing people you could ever meet. Most know the town only due to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. When I asked travelers at the airport what they were doing in Los Alamos, they all said, the only reason to go to Los Alamos is for the Laboratory. Then I would sit back and listen to them talk about reducing the temperature of an element to a new low, work with electrons being in two locations at the same time, and if I could, I would have asked them about Bose-Einstein Condensate (I find this fascinating), and my own personal question, is it true that Europe does not have to deal with radioactive waste because their governments allows them to take the spent fuel rods, enrich them and then reuse them? If so, why are we not allowed to do the same? Maybe it is a question of cost? Maybe enrich uranium is not the same isotope as the uranium our plants use? (Please any of you “lab rats” from Los Alamos, if you can answer this, look me up on face book or send me an email via the race director. I really want to know this.)
Well, there is a heck of a lot more to Los Alamos than “just” the Lab, there are miles and miles of hiking, biking, running, skiing and horse trails, top class ski slopes, and abundant wild life. The whole area is a geological wonder, with extinct volcanoes, mountains that top out over 10,000 ft, and is rich in archeological history. And if you think everyone who works at the Lab is stereotypical of the actors on “The Big Bang Theory” will think again, the whole town is full of outdoor enthusiast. In fact, many of the runners were people who work at the Lab.
Cerro Grande and Las Conchas Fires
Last August I received a visit from hurricane Irene, who was so kind as to drop four trees on my house before heading up the coast. I consider myself very fortunate that I was not at the house when the trees fell and that while I did receive significant damage, the house was still structurally sound. What I cannot imagine is what the people of Los Alamos went through with the fire of 2000 and then another epic fire June 2011. A hurricane comes in for a day and leaves quickly, a fire can last for days, weeks or months and is very unpredictable. The Cerro Grande file destroyed 43,000 acres of land and 400 families lost their homes in Los Alamos. The Las Conchas fire was even bigger, and hotter, burning over 156,000 acres and came close enough that the town had to be evacuated again.
What is truly amazing is the resiliency and tenacity of the people in and around Los Alamos. The fire started June 26th and wasn’t considered contained until August 1. The people came back to town and it seems immediately went to work on the trails. First clearing/repairing the cross country trails and then working on the rest of the trail system. In fact, the JMTR race was in doubt, but while the race course was changed, they were able to run the race, and I can tell you, just like the fire, it was epic.
The Pre Race
The Jemez Mountain Trail Race is actually three races, half marathon (elevation gain = 2,723), 50k (elevation gain = 7,052) and 50m (elevation gain = 9,864). I am seeing more and more of this race format, and I think it is a great way to introduce new runners to the trails, and allows them to move up as they become more experienced and more confident in their abilities. I met many runners that were first time trail half marathoners and runners who were taking the next step up in distance. The JMTR is also tied into a highly competitive running series with prize money. So while this format is great for the new runner, it is also a fantastic venue for the competitive runner to come and compete against some of the best runners in their respective distance.
The race “festivities” started Friday night with a pre-race “pasta feed”, a race briefing and a briefing about the Cerro Grande (2000) and Las Conchas (2011) fires. The pre-race briefing was for the most part fairly typical, we were told to check-in in the am, drop bags, headlamps, cut-offs, course markings, you know the normal blah blah. What was not typical was the presentation showing fire damaged trails, the people who spent hours and hours of man hours repair/reclaiming the trials system, some of the many challenges they face, and what was left to do. A Volunteer award was given, and a donation check for $2,100 presented and warnings about fire related dangers to us runners:
1) Holes - left behind from trees totally being destroyed in the fire
2) Aspen Spikes – Not a good idea to trip and fall on one of these
I certainly enjoyed meeting my fellow runners, with all of us a tad worried about “what the heck” we had gotten ourselves into. A husband and wife (can NOT remember their names) from the area running the 50 miler, knew the trails and gave us his views of the trials. Not only was this his first 50 miler, but on Sunday he was doing his first bike century! As I said, you have to be impressed with the folks from Las Alamos.
I got more details from Bill G (Race Director) about how exposed the Caldara was (decided to have a second hand bottle in my drop bag), he showed me where the course briefly crossed over the Las Alamos National Laboratory property (how cool is that), I made my silly comments about elevation, flatlander and ostrich w/head in sand philosophy (I could see it in his eyes he pretty much thought I was wacked!), and came to the conclusion, while the race will be a challenge, I had a chance to make the cut offs due primarily to the descents and the flat running in the Caldera. The only thing that did not connect, running “exposed” in the Valle Caldera for hours beginning at 12:00 noon, and sun block. More on that stupidity later.
The 50m Race (I know, about time!)
The 50 mile race features several significant climbs. –Take note! This is NOT an understatement
Start – Mitchell – 7,553 ft, 5 miles, 907 gain/734 loss – This is such a lovely section. Race started at 5am, we head off into the darkness on the road, then left onto a gravel road through the horse pens, and quickly onto the trials. Running easy, nice trails with some rocks and roots, but very runnable. Biggest issue, trail dirt/ash kicked up by all the runners reflecting off the headlamps made seeing a tad difficult. I make it to the first aid station in 50 minutes or so. Feeling great. Elevation, eat my dust! J
Mitchell – Camp May – 7,925 ft, 5.4 mile, 1,454 gain/1,108 loss – Another awesome section. The sun is up, the ash in the head lamp is no longer an issue, I am just enjoying myself. I am marveling at how close the trails are to the town and how nice it would be to just roll out of bed and hit the trails every morning. I am enjoying a conversation from a local runner talking about his decision to move up to the 50 mile distance, his training and his job where he gets to blow up things. I told him I once did an analysis on the cost/benefits of using higher cost/unit emulsions vs ANFO in surface coal mining. Something about improved productivity due to water resistance and consistent and efficient fracture rates. Yeah, yeah, I digress.. Anyway, about a half mile from AS2, we hit our first “hill”, a tight switch back climb up to Camp May. This section took a hard hit in the fire. It is hard to believe how much work was done to get this section runnable. I am still feeling great, and moving well. It took me over an hour to run this section, but I am still feeling great. And yes it was around this part that the first 50k runner passed me. All I can say is WOW! Remember they started 1 hour after I did.
Camp May – Ski Lodge – 9,220 ft, 6 miles, 3,047 gain/1634 loss – The first real test. As much as this was beautiful, it was also seriously difficult. From the time we left Camp May we were pretty much climbing. The climb took us through pine tree forests and aspen tree forests, open fields, burnt sections that went from minor to something that looked more like a blast zone. We crisscrossed our way across the ski slopes and at one point even saw a sign pointing the way to the ski lodge. We could hear the aid station, but were still miles away with more climbing in front of us. More and more of the 50k runners passed me, including the top women runners. Though they were moving much faster than me, it was still enlightening to see that even they have to power hike some sections. Sure they still did this faster than me, but it gave me great insight into those that have so much more talent then me. For me, I just buckled down, and kept on moving, up, up and up. It was during this section that we hit 10,400ft for the first time. I am still moving fine (for me), and while my heart rate is up (heck I just climbed 3,000ft), I did not feel I was adversely affected by the elevation (my climbing ability sucks even at sea level). Eventually we passed the big blue chair and soon we were blasting down the ski slope to the Ski Lodge aid station. Now that was a lot of fun!
Ski Lodge – Pipeline - 9,580ft, 2.8 miles, 629 gain/293 loss - Pipeline is where we decide if we want to drop down to the 50k. I made the cut-off without any issues, but during this section I was questioning if I should drop down to the 50k to ensure a strong finish or continue with the 50 mile course and risk a crash and burn and the possibility of not making the last cut-off, 5pm Ski Lodge. In fact, when I coasted into the Pipeline aid station, I had pretty much decided I was going to drop into the 50k race. Then I met Tomas from NJ, the RAT. He pretty much looked like death warmed over, had an aid station volunteer helping him, yet he looks at me and says, “come on, we have plenty of time, if you decide to go, so will I and we will run the rest of the course together”. Again the dirty RAT! So let’s see, on the one hand, if I dropped into the 50k I would soon be finished, and could relax and not sweat making my 6am Sunday morning flight out of Albuquerque. On the other hand, Tomas was correct, there was plenty of time before the next cut-off, the Valle Caldera was basically flat, and gosh darn it, I’ve always wanted to run in the basin of an extinct volcano. Hump! I agree to run with Tomas and while I continue to stock up on food and fluids, Tomas heads out and tells me I will catch up. Well, I never saw anything other than Tomas’s white shirt up ahead and as he was leaving the next two aid stations as I was arriving. The dirty Rat! J Please note, I am very proud of Tomas’s performance, he really did look like death at pipeline and did not look much better at Obsidian or Valle Grande, yet he finished strong with an excellent time. So Tomas from NJ, you may have been a “rat”, but Yahoo! what a finish! Also thank you for convincing me to continue in the 50 mile race.
Pipeline – Obsidian Valley – 8,850ft, 7.4 miles, 370 gain/1,072 loss – As I headed out to the drop off point, I pass an orange sign, it basically says “ DANGER, Skiers must maintain control at all times or risk losing their ski ticket”. I found this amusing until I looked over the edge, and almost changed my mind about changing races. The only thing that kept me going was the overall ridiculous of it all. I mean, the drop off into the Caldara was basically a 250ft steep (like vertical) drop on a rock flow of sand, gravel, pebbles, rocks, and mini boulders. Tomas was on the right, about half way down and making steady progress, and two girls from Iowa were on the left. There was plenty of good nature gripping and giggling going on so I decided to join the party. After surveying the situation, I decided to place myself between the girls and Tomas. We all had the same concerns, losing control (and apparently our ski tickets) and sliding down on our butts, and/or causing a small rock slide that takes out the runner in front. After a few moments I decide my path will not work, that Tomas is sufficiently ahead of me so I move to the far right where the rock was a bit more solid. This section was kind of fun, and luckily it was not very long before we were on grass as the steepness of the slope lessened. At the bottom, there was a metal shed and a nice metal cylinder that I promptly sat on, removed both shoes and poured out a bucket or so of sand. Oh what a relief it is…. And off I went towards the next aid station with 7 miles of exposed flat running in the basin of a volcano. Running on a gravel road in the exposed sun at 8,800ft, even basically flat was an exercise in mental toughness. The saving grace, how incredibly beautiful and enchanting it was. Whether due to grazing, or unique weather patterns or something ecological phenomenon, the Caldera is filled with savanna type grass land with creeks and small ponds. It is very peaceful, and I am sure at the right time of the day, full of elks and other wild life. Here just like everywhere else, significant signs of post fire recovery can be seen. The grass lands were in excellent condition, there were wild flowers of all types, golden rod and iris just to name a few, and all kinds of purple, yellow and white flowers that I did not know the name. There were plenty of animal (elk, bear) signs ie tracks and scat. While a difficult section for me, it was also a joy to run.
Obsidian Valley – Valle Grande – 8,625ft, 6.6miles, 200 gain/425 loss – Obsidian was a fun aid station. There was TJ talking about obsidian stone, and me thinking, oh, that black stuff was not glass, well duh, you are in a volcano idiot. One of the aid station workers showed me on the map how big the Valle Caldera really is, and seeing Tomas head out as I was coming in. Not long after I left, I stopped and picked up two small pieces of Obsidian and tucked them away in each if my handheld zipper pocket. Yes, I ran the next 10 miles carrying rocks. Pretty silly I know, but I wanted some obsidian to remember the caldera. For the most part this was more of the same, running on a flat exposed gravel road through a grass land in the middle of a volcano. There were two things of note. One, I started thinking that wow, I am completely exposed to the sun running in the hottest part of the day, and dang, I begin to think that the thick layer of filth and ash is keeping me from being sunburned. Hey stupid, UV rays…..more on that later. The other thing of note was the sun bleached elk bones. To the right I see the upper skull with horns, just beyond it, there is the jaw and neck and back bones all in a line and on the left side of the road is the remnants of its hide. I am thinking something other than the fire did this critter in, like maybe a mountain lion. At least that is my story and I am sticking to it.
Valle Grande – Ski Lodge – 9,220ft, 3.5 miles, 1,850 gain/1,259 loss - The second ascent to 10,400ft… As I approach the Valle Grande aid station I can see a line of people heading to the right across the field and up towards the side of the Caldera. I quickly fill up, grab some grub, and head out into the grass land. The next section starts out pretty flat, with the next mile or so, slowly but surely increasing in slope as we trek ever closer to the caldera wall. The grade eventually becomes extremely steep as the flags direct us straight up the side of the caldera. I’m thinking I must not have maintained control and my ski ticket must have been revoked. Where the heck was the ski lift, what about switch backs, there was no trail, just a relentless upward climb out of the caldera. I am not sure if it was the elevation, the steepness of the climb or the fact I was getting a bit tired, but most likely it was a combination of many factors, but I finally took the strategy of walking from flag to flag, stopping, turning around, gazing back into the Caldera, turn back around and on to the next flag, repeat. Head down, back hurting, legs screaming, heart hammering…..my flag to flag strategy slowly but surely worked as I crested the summit. I stopped again and marveled at my accomplishment, standing again at 10,400 ft, the view and reflected what was left to complete. I walked over to the blue lift chair and thought about hopping up, but decided I would save the effort for another time. (I had no “hop” left) I took a deep breath and trudge onward. Finally I was rewarded with the downward descent on the ski slope back to the Ski Lodge. While I did not bomb down this sloop as fast as the first time, I still had a great time bopping my way downward.
Ski Lodge – Pipeline – 9,580ft, 2.8 miles, 629 gain/293 loss – The beginning of the end. The cut off was 5pm, I arrive shortly after 4pm… yahoo…. I made the final cut-off, I still needed to make my way to the finish line and things do happen, but I felt confident I would be successful. But first things first. Ski Lodge is an awesome aid station with plenty of people, plenty of food and fluid options, and everyone smiling, joking and happy. I came in, sat down, they handed me my drop bag, I grabbed my headlamp, volunteers try taking my handhelds to fill them up, I have to tell them to wait as I fumbled with the zippers to pull out the obsidian rocks. I get a few strange looks at this, but after carrying them for 10 miles I was NOT about to carry them for another 13 miles. I decide to drop off one handheld bottle and only use one for the final 13+ miles. There was a lot of very healthy activity that really helped fill up empty mental tanks. I took more time than I normally do at aid stations, but it was necessary and well deserved. When I head out, I am with David (Dallas) and Kyle (New Orleans) and at this point we pretty much decide to work together to get to the finish line. David ran the 50k last year so knew the final 13 miles, which was a great help mentally and physically to us all. The trip down memory lane to Pipeline was pretty uneventful. All three of us made it in good spirits. We grabbed some food, topped off our bottles and headed out with our new recruit Allen (San Antonio)
Pipeline – Guaje Ridge – 8,852ft, 3.6 miles, 316 gain/1,048 loss - Except for one mean steep hill, this was a very nice section. We got in some nice but slow running and basically enjoyed the companionship.
Guaje Ridge – Rendija Canyon – 7,080ft, 5.3 miles, 36 gain/1,792 loss – The Guaje Ridge aid station was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I cannot imagine what it took to lug the tent, chairs, and all the food, fluids and supplies to this remote location. The volunteers were a mother and daughter team. Mom was on the radio as we arrived. She explained to us that a runner from Texas had arrive a while back with high altitude sickness, stayed for a while in an attempt to recover but got very cold and stopped sweating. He did decide to move on and see if he could make it to the next aid station (5.3 miles distant). Unfortunately a report came back that he did not make it very far and needed medical attention. Her little girl was very concern and also very cold. I felt for both of them and was so grateful for them being there, because without them we could not run in such remote locations. We assured them we would keep an eye out for the wayward runner. About a mile from the Guaje Ridge aid station we came across the runner and we all were happy to see that medical had arrived and had him wrapped up in a blanket and hooked up to an IV drip. They had things well in hand. We must have gone another mile before we came across the ATV used to get Medical out to this location.
The section form Guaje Ridge to Rendija is really a nice mix of remote gravel roads and trails. On fresh legs I know this would be great run down, and a solid training climb/run up. Even on tired legs, I was able to appreciate the remote and rugged beauty of this area. I also learned that Allen like me, chose the JMTR 50 miler as a last tough training run for The Bighorn 100 mile run in Wyoming in mid June. What were we both thinking?
Rendija Canyon – Finish – approx 7,250ft, 2 miles, 426 gain/206 loss – The Rendija Canyon aid station was a jolly aid station with “fluids” that included beer and tequila. They were a blast. It was perfect for putting on a smile on our faces that would take us the final 2 miles that include a short climb out of the canyon. A friend of Allen who ran the half came out to greet us and was a blast as he followed behind giving Allen a jolly hard time. We four flatlanders, David, Kyle, Allen and I stayed together the whole time, slowly but surely making our way to the finish line. I cannot express enough appreciation for these guys, they were wonderful companions, strong support system and a great way to finish a tough race. At the finish line itself, all I can say, JMTR was one of the most difficult, satisfying and fair races I’ve run. It was a special joy and pleasure to get to know the people of Las Alamos and to have been able to successfully participate in such an adventure.
Post Race –
There are a lot of things that make for a successful events, both for the participant and for management. As far as this participant was concerned, I was adequately prepared for everything except for the sun exposure. I am not sure what I was thinking, or in this case not thinking, but it was not until I got back to the hotel that I realized I failed to prepare in one key area. The SUN! I am blonde with blue eyes, with fair skin. Yet for some reason, sun block never ever crossed my mind. Once I got back to the hotel I noticed what felt like a furnace emanating from my shoulders. Post shower I took stock and OMG, I believe my stupidity gave me the added bonus of the worst sunburn I have ever had. My shoulders and neck kept me toasty warm all night long. The first few days post run were rather uncomfortable, not from sore legs, but from blistered sapping skin. Even the tips of my ears blistered. Luckily I wore a hat so my face escaped without a burn. But dang it! I know better. With comments like, exposed run through the Caldera, high altitude, sunny cloud free day….how could I have failed to purchase sunblock upon my arrival in New Mexico. Stupid stupid stupid.
As for management, this was one of the best manage events I’ve run. Considering the remoteness of the trails, the three races with three different start times, there were many areas were things could have gone wrong. But for this runner at least, everything ran smooth as clock work. Other then managing myself, I did not have to worry about at thing. Perfect perfect perfect.
I heard a lot of “no way”, I did it once I am NOT coming back. I listened, but I did not comment. When I travel to a race it is rare that I travel back. Kind of like, been there, done that, plenty of other races to experience. But I so enjoyed Las Alamos, the people, the culture, the trails, and while it is too early to say for sure, but yes, as of right now, I am planning on coming back, and this time I will bring my sun block, so watch out all you runners, with sun block in hand, this hill climbing wimp will be a force to reckon with.