Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Once Again Into the Breach: A Jemez Mountain Trail 50K Race Report

This was my third year at the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs. My first year I ran the half-marathon and then the next day rode the Santa Fe Century. Back then I had done some ultras but I still really considered myself a triathlete. My next showing at Jemez was last year when I intended on running the 50K with the GeekGrl. She decided to drop at mile 6.5 and just finish her day with the half so I took off on my own and ran too hard to try and “catch up”, with what or who I don’t know. I had a good run for a while but ended up slogging through a hot wind in the exposed and rocky burn area. I was a pretty miserable for about the last 8 miles and ended up with a finish time of about 9:45.

This year I came to Jemez determined to have a good race, my own race, and see what I could do on what is widely considered to be the hardest 50K in the United States. I drove up to Los Alamos the morning of the race, which works out fine because I can start pushing food and fluids during the drive up. The GeekGrl was coming to get her revenge on the 50K and a brand new trail runner named Uneeka was also along to run her first mountain half-marathon. One thing worth mentioning about the Jemez runs is that, at least the 50K and the half-marathon are both long. The 50K is about 33 miles and the half is actually 14.

My good friend JT from Las Vegas, NV came out to challenge the 50K course as did several Outlaws including Jane, Mark, Ken, Margaret, and Nicki. I had only had two weeks rest since the completion of my four marathons in two weeks but I felt surprisingly good. At the start I rolled out easy and by the time the road gave way to single track I was at a place where I felt comfortable just running in line and I didn’t expend the least amount of energy trying to shoot past anyone. There were a couple spots before the climb up to Gage Ridge where we crossed a dirt road and I did take the opportunity to pass then but otherwise I just cruised along.

When we hit the first big climb up Gage I kicked in the climbing gear and started passing people right and left. I was very happy to see that, despite the fact I have been struggling with a hip injury ever since the Rocky Raccoon 100 and have been running a lot more flat than usual I still retained some good climbing ability. Once atop Gage I started the steep descent down to Caballo base. This was the first serious downhill running I have done in a few months, again, because of the injury, and I immediately noticed that I felt much less sure footed and less stable. Most of the actual single track at Jemez is very narrow, often rocky, often with a slope and sometimes with a crumbling edge that gives way to a steep drop off. These conditions make for tenuous footing even when I'm feeling trained up but in this case it was downright scary at times.

Last year when my mountain running skills were peaking I was screaming down these descents. This year, not so much. Once again I just fell in line and chugged on down the mountain putting way too much stress on my quads and grabbing trees so I could either swing myself around corners to make a turn or to stop myself from overshooting corners and ending up in the ravine below. The run to Caballo base was nice as always with lots of tree cover and a cool stream running alongside the trail. Once at Caballo base the major climb of the race began. I kicked in the climbing gear again and it responded nicely. As I chugged up the mountain I reflected on how much it sucked learning how to climb well in my training for Leadville. I was so slow and people who were smaller than I would just fly by. I learned to just be patient and keep moving and it would all be fine.

The trip back down Caballo was another story. I am used to being able to fly downhill but not this year, not with the lack of mountain running. So, once again, I chugged down the mountain and once again I was just hammering my quads by breaking too much with every step. By the time I got to the bottom of Caballo my shoes were full of dirt and rocks so I spent a goodly amount of time emptying them and wiping off my socks. I also fueled up and then headed back out on the trail.

After departing Caballo base heading toward Pipeline I came across a youg guy who was looking pretty good but every once in a while he would suddenly drop to the side of the trail and say something like “I’m exhausted” or “Holy cow this is hard.” I didn’t give it a lot of thought until we somehow ended up in a conversation when he told me “I thought this was a marathon, I didn’t know there were mountains. This is my first marathon.” All I could think was “What the hell?! Have you ever heard of the internet?” I generously though he must be from some distant place where they have no knowledge of New Mexico and think it’s just a big, flat desert but no, it turns out that he was from a small town not 30 miles away.

I asked Marathon Guy if he had been eating and drinking. He told me he had eaten one Powerbar. I looked at my watch and we were 3 hours and 17 minutes into the race. I stifled the impulse to say, “Dude, you are screwed. You should have eaten like three of those by now.” Instead I just said, “Ok, when you get to the next aid station (which I knew was at least a hard 3 miles away) you need to get a lot of food and water in you even if it becomes a bit uncomfortable. You need to get some salt too. You should leave the aid station feeling kind of full but you can just walk briskly until that feeling goes away and then you can start running again. By the time you get to the next aid station after that you should be ok and can just eat and drink normally.” I then left him to his own devices and wished him well. In the end he actually did pretty well finishing maybe a half hour behind me.

After leaving Marathon Guy behind I continued the long climb up to Pipeline. Most people are unprepared for this climb because they are so focused on Caballo and when you look at an elevation profile it doesn't really stand out because your eyes are drawn to Gauge and Caballo. However, if you focus on the elevation changes listed in the course description you will see that the climb to Pipeline is not insubstantial and it can really suck once you have spent you climbing legs. As I was heading up this climb there was a small train of us moving about the same pace though I did pass a few people. One guy stopped and leaned against a large boulder and said, "I'm just going to hold this boulder here for a bit so it doesn't roll down on people." It was a pretty funny excuse for a rest.

For some reason I have never liked the entire section between Pipeline out to the turnaround at the Ski Lodge and then back to Pipeline. It's not that it is bad running, it is actually some of the best footing and most runnable area of the entire course, it's just, I think, that it occurs during the middle low points of my race. This is a section that you run not only in the Jemez 50K and 50 mile but you also run it during the 15-miler at the Pajarito Trail fest. I like both of these races but this one section takes place when I am at a low point and so I think I have permanently associated the section with "bleh." I mostly focused on just putting this section behind me but it was during my return from the Ski Lodge to Pipeline when the eventual 50-mile winner, Nick Clark, passed me.

Being passed by Nick was a pretty impressive sight. It's not because Nick is an imposing figure, it's because he was obviously struggling as his pacer verbally flogged him onward and he was able to respond. When he passed me he was at about mile 41 after having completed all the major climbs of the course. He was running uphill and his pacer was ahead of him saying, "Come on, were running slow 8s, let's go!" and there was Nick with sweat drenched hair and his beard to his chest just powering along.

After inbound Pipeline there were a couple of short but very steep climbs that I had forgotten about and that were definitely unwelcome. It was here that I got passed by who I suspect were two of the top women's 50K finishers. They were both exceedingly small and moving up the steep hill quite briskly. Though they were only walking I would not have been able to match their pace had I been running. I finished off the two climbs and then began a long, gradual descent back to the Gauge Ridge aid station. This section of the course is very runable trail and is mostly in dappled sunlight so the growing heat wasn't too bad. Unlike last year when I was already pretty much finished by this time I was still running comfortably if not speedily.
Back at Gauge Ridge aid station I grabbed a quick bite to eat and refilled my water bottles in preparation for the part of the course that makes me question why I do this race. The burn area is rocky, dusty, completely exposed and hot, always hot. The other problem with it is that it is long, one of the longest stretches between aid stations in the race. I'm sure the section is only made longer by my constant complaining about how hot and dusty it is and the continuous question, "Why am I doing this race again!" but this year I fared much better than in previous years and only got passed once and was never reduced to a true slog.

Once off the ridge and back into the canyon I actually passed a couple people that had obviously been scorched by the burn area and while I felt for them I was very glad not to actually be one of them. The final aid station of the race was called Last Chance this year, last year it was called Pinky's. From the last aid station to the finish line it is only about 2.5 miles but about ¾ of a mile of it is a pretty good uphill climb so I took some extra time at the aid station refueling, filling a water bottle with ice cold water and drinking some soda. I know that a little extra time here makes the journey to the finish line far more pleasant.

I was able to pass about three more people between the last aid station and the finish and was closing in on a fourth person but he looked back and saw me and still had enough of a gap on me to finish first. I finished my own race in 7:35:42, which is a pretty good time for Jemez. To provide some perspective on just how hard Jemez is, this year I set a new 50K PR at Mt. Si with a time of 4:18:47 and that course had just over 1000 feet of climbing. I think the Jemez 50K has something like 8,000 feet of climbing and considerably harder trails.

Will I do this race again next year? Who knows, probably but I really don't want to. Don't get me wrong, it's a great race but it's one of those deals where it is practically in my backyard and I run very similar terrain throughout my training season. I like to travel around and mix it up. However, it's convenient and perfectly positioned as a final hard training run for some of the mountain 100s that I have my eye on. This year that 100 is Bighorn where we will be running on an alternate snow route and will get to experience snow, mud, flooding and possible thunder showers….yea!


  1. Your race reports are always great and thorough. Without pictures for mine, I have a hard time remembering what happened when, and most of my races are waaaay shorter distances (and therefore times) to remember. Sounds like a pretty brutal race but great accomplishment (again). Congratulations!

  2. Great report man. I think this distance was good but when you throw in the climbing, it gets pretty brutal. I am impressed with your time!