Today was the second time I’ve done the 15-mile Pajarito trail run and it wasn’t any easier this time. Last year my time was 3:04:14 and I was 25th of 45. This year I finished in 2:38:35 and was 18th out of 45. I recognize that an improvement of nearly 26 minutes on a 15 mile mountainous run is a pretty tremendous accomplishment so I probably sound like an ingrate saying that it was a disappointing finish but it was just one of those situations where the end of the race was so much worse than what I was hoping for that it kind of wiped out the luster of the beginning of the race.
I remember last year starting too far back and getting stuck in a long line of runners that were much slower than I wanted to be running so I spent a lot of time waiting to pass and then expending a bit too much energy on the pass. This year I started pretty far forward though it is always difficult to judge where to start on this race because you take off with 10K and 15-mile runners mixed together and you don’t know who is who. It turns out that I chose my spot just about perfectly. The run starts with almost a mile of short, gentle rollers and then a good downhill before beginning a two mile climb from 9200 feet to 10,500 feet at the top of Pajarito Mountain. During these first three miles I may have passed two or three people and was probably passed by two or three. Near the time I reached the peak I could tell that I was at the head of the runners who needed to use a run/walk strategy to make it to the top and the group of runners ahead were all ones who were able to run most, if not all, of the climbs.
Upon reaching the peak there is a spectacular view of the Valles Caldera and then you duck back into the forest for some nice flat trail and the beginning of a huge, steep downhill beginning with a run straight down the middle of a ski slope. As I went bombing downhill I hit a 6-minute mile, which is pretty scary on technical, twisting trail. I was dodging rocks, ducking under branches, leaping small boulders and vaulting fallen trees, it was a total blast. However, on one of the sharp turns I started to lose control and I rolled my right ankle and went down hard. I scraped up my left knee a bit and my right ankle was sore but I was able to get up and continue running pretty well.
During the first six miles when you have the big climb and descent there was already some snow on the trails at the higher elevations but it wasn’t enough to make a significant difference in footing. This year, however, the trails seemed rockier, like there was more loose rock on the trails, rocks that would bounce up and hit your ankles or would roll out from under your feet. Other parts of the trail just seemed more worn like there had been heavy rain erosion and this made footing more difficult as well.
Despite the issues with footing and the fall I continued to run well through the big climb and descent. The next section of the course is a long out and back with a relatively gentle 4.5 mile climb out and then a descent back. The entire way out I was looking forward to my run back to the finish line because I knew it would be a mostly gentle downhill all the way in and I was positive that I would be able to pick up a few more places before I crossed the finish line. However, at about mile 10 I started to experience the faint beginnings of pain in my stomach. I backed off my pace a little and things seemed to settle but at about mile 11.5 I was experiencing serious pain in my gut and I could not run downhill because the pain was just too intense so I was reduced to a combination of slow jogging and walking.
In short order people started to pass me but there wasn’t anything I could do because any time I tried to pick up my pace the stabbing pain in my stomach would return. Before long my right ankle started to ache as well and the ankle began to feel really unstable on uneven surfaces, which was just about every footstep of the course. I tried just being patient and hoped the bad patch would pass but then I started alternately getting cramps in my chest wall on the left side of my body and side stitches low on the right side of my torso. All the while more people were passing me cheerfully saying “Good job!” and my body seemed to be in full revolt. My mood started to darken significantly but at least the distance to the finish was still diminishing.
It was strange to have done so well at a race and end up not feeling very good about it but I guess that’s just the way it is sometimes. Still, a 26 minute improvement, I’ll take that! I just need to focus on being grateful I can run races like this.