April 21st I ran the Albuquerque 10K. Coming just one week at a hard but ill-fated effort at Boston I didn’t know how I would fare but it was my only foreseeable opportunity to run a fast 10K this year and possibly make the New Mexico National Guard Army 10-miler team. Last year I made an attempt at making that team at this very race. I ended up running a PR in 44:26 give or take a couple seconds but fell almost two minutes shy of making the team. This year I came back a year older but a little lighter and, I hoped, a little faster.
The race day conditions were exactly the same as last year; sunny, no wind, maybe a tad bit too warm but still very mild and dry roads. I felt good and jogged a couple miles to warm up and then did a bit of stretching. I lined up in the front row ignoring the fact that there was a guy standing next to me wearing an Ethiopia singlet. No, he wasn’t like some schlep who buys a Harvard hoodie and clearly couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag; this guy was the real deal. There was also a guy who was nonchalantly loitering off to the side near the front who drew my attention because he was wearing full black sweats and a black wool cap. He was clearly dressed too warmly for this race but he was clearly getting ready to run it.
When the horn sounded the front row of runners bolted with me in tow. I hung back from the five or so runners who in my estimation were clearly going to blow out the rest of us but I still pressed the pace hard. In my mind this was an all or nothing effort. I have now run a few short distance races and know that I can’t pace myself very well in the first mile or two but for some reason I can’t seem to learn what a good starting pace feels like when I’m only running 10K or less. It just seems like if I start out too slow there isn’t enough distance left to make up time, like your pace has to be perfect from the first step.
Anyway, I took out and my first mile was a 6:23, way too fast for what I was shooting for so I backed off a bit but still pushed. By mile two I could already feel the strain and by mile three I could feel the pain. This is the part I hate about shorter races, the pain of pushing yourself that hard for that long. My pace slowed every mile as I fought to hold it as steady as I could. By the time I rounded the corner to the finish line my breathing was raspy and my legs felt like lead. I crossed the finish line in 42:24, a huge PR for a 10K and quite possibly fast enough to get me on New Mexico’s Army 10-miler team. The Ethiopian guy won the race in something like 33 minutes and the black clad stranger came in second just a few seconds behind. I looked him up and it turns out he is a Navajo runner from Dine College who came in fourth or fifth last year at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. New Mexico is thick with elite runners, many of who are very covert.
Mother's Day I found myself running the Jay Benson sprint triathlon. I had already planned on doing the run portion as part of a team but since the race was a reverse tri where the run comes first I decided to wear two timing chips and do it both as part of a team and solo. I also thought this would be a good chance to try going full out on the run when it comes at the beginning of a race. Normally I would hold a little in reserve so I could still have a good bike split but in this race I decided that I wanted to run full tilt for the team and to try and get a 5k PR and I'd just do the rest of the race as best I could.
It turns out the best I could was pretty good. My total time was 1:06:52 with a 20:35 run split, a 34:09 (22 mph) bike split and a pathetic 9:05 (for 400 meters) swim split. I'm very happy with these numbers because I no longer ride or swim. I ended up taking 4th in my age group, which is pretty good considering the Jay Benson is THE triathlon in New Mexico where all the fastest come together to duke it out. I could have easily taken second were it not for my molasses slow transitions and swim but if you are going to do well in a sport you eventually have to make some decisions as to where you are going to commit your time and I have decided to commit my time to ultra trail running, which brings me to Jemez.
Last weekend was the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs; a 50 mile, 50k or 14 mile romp through the Jemez mountains. I always choose the 50k because it is perfectly situated as a final hard test of fitness for the various June 100 milers and is still short enough that you can recover fast and get right back to training.
Last summer there was a huge fire near Los Alamos, which burned most of the original Jemez course so this year we ran a course that was about one third new and two thirds of the old course. The new course followed the perimeter trail for about 8 miles before heading over to the Pajarito ski area. This new segment of trail traded the original steep climb up Guaje Ridge for gently rolling trails that were alternatively choked with rocks or were rock. I think the two initial trail segments are pretty equal in terms of time. The old course had the big climb but then there was a big descent followed by a gentle run to the base of Caballo peak. The new course was gentle but was often relentlessly rocky and there were a couple short, steep climbs and trail sections that were run on large slabs of bedrock, making trail finding a bit difficult.
Lucky for me I'm ok at running rocky trail though I do struggle with the bedrock slab sections. I can see where someone who had a hard time running rocky trail might actually have a harder time with the new first part of the race than the old first part.
The next major third of the race is the Pajarito ski area. Here the new course substitutes climbing and descending Pajarito peak for the climb and descent of Caballo peak on the old course. In my opinion, despite the fact that Pajarito is a couple thousand feet lower than Caballo, Pajarito is the harder climb and descent. The climb up Pajarito is a long grind stretching over about 6 miles. It has some shallow climbs and some steep pitches whereas the climb up Caballo is one big, steep grind that you are done with pretty quickly and then it's a nice coast back down. Large chunks of the Pajarito climb take place in burn areas and I started thinking of Jemez as the post apocalyptic run.
Apart from the blackened tree stumps and denuded ground the one thing you really notice is the toll a hot forest fire takes on the ground itself. It seems to burn away the very soil and make the rocks sharper and more plentiful. I'm sure this is a consequence of an accelerated erosion caused by the complete removal of any protection from rain or wind. The other problem was that the fire also burned out tree roots leaving behind ground with unexpected soft spots or holes. Finally, this segment also contained several parts that were either long abandoned jeep trails, little used trails or short stretches that didn't seem to be trail of any kind. This too made for difficult footing and slow going.
The descent off Pajarito was crazy. It was as if the course designers had to put so much effort into linking up the first and second halves of the race that by the time the reached the top of Pajarito their creative energies had been exhausted and the just said "screw it, let's just have them run straight down the ski slope" and that is exactly what happened. As we descended the freakishly steep ski slopes I passed a couple people and had to force myself not to do a double take as I went by because as I passed a person their body in relation to the slope of the ground gave the distinct impression that while I was upright I was passing a person who was somehow both laying down and moving down the slope. However, if I looked at anything but the ground immediately in front of me I would have been in for a fall that would have lasted a long time.
Having run other races on Pajarito I happen to know there are at least a few other trails on those slopes that zig zag across the face of the slopes and I think those would have been a better choice, they may have been able to do away with some, or all, of the mile segment of out and back that comes at pipeline but it's hard to second guess a race director because they are the one that knows the course better than anyone else.
Taken as a whole I'd say the middle third of the new course, though tough, is marginally easier than the middle third of the old course but I think this may only be the case, again, if you can run rocky and uneven trail. The only reason I think this new segment may be a bit easier is because the old course hits you with a double whammy. First you climb and descend Caballo, which I think is easier than climbing Pajarito, but then there is a nasty grind of a 1000 foot climb on the old course that immediately follows your descent off Caballo and it is as unexpected as it is unwelcome. Once you get past it you are often left walking or shuffling through some very runnable sections as you recover.
The final third of the race from Pipeline all the way to the finish is the same for both the old and new course with one exception; the old course wasn't freshly burned. On the old course it was the case that you were still running through a burn section but parts of it were coming back with fresh, young aspen. Those are now blackened, leafless sticks. This accentuates the steepness of the mountain you are traversing and the narrowness of the trail, it's a little unsettling when you are running it hard, which I was because it's a nice gentle downhill.On the whole I'd say the old and new courses are about equally difficult just in slightly different ways. Some people said the new course is faster simply based on the faster first place finish this year over last but I don't buy it, the winers are two different guys and I think that this year's runner is just faster though I do think the new course plays more to the strengths of someone who is a skilled trail runner over someone who may not have those skills. I ended up finishing in 6:51:10 and was 30th overall. That is about a 45 minute PR at this race but because they are different courses I can't claim a 45 minute improvement over last year though I do take it as evidence that I am an improved mountain runner. I'm feeling pretty good about my Western States prep so far. Now I'm going to focus on trying to run far and fast by doing two weekends of back to back marathons and when home I'll focus more on running in the heat.
This weekend, the Segahunda trail marathon in Letchworth State Park, NY on Saturday and the Memorial Day Marathon in Lenox, MA on Sunday. Great weather is predicted for both.