The Jemez Mountain Trail Run is the only race I didn’t finish (DNF). Several years ago I attempted the 50 mile course, but only made it to mile 32 due to altitude sickness. This morning I will try the 50K course knowing that; even with nausea, headache, and rubber legs; I can make it 32 miles. The race starts in Los Alamos, NM at 7300 ft elev. and takes runners through the scenic Jemez Mountains and over the Pajarito Ski Area at 10,400 ft. The total climb and descent is 6800 ft so this will be a perfect training run before I tackle the San Diego 100 miler in several weeks.
Patriotism is high this Memorial Day weekend as one of my training partners will attempt to carry the American flag the entire 31 miles in remembrance of his shipmates who were lost on the attack of the USS Cole on 12 Oct 2000. Kyle is currently serving in the U.S. Army at Ft Bliss, TX as well as my friend, Miguel who is also running today.
A ringing cowbell signals the start of the race so several hundred runners start down a dirt road past some horse stables and then transition to a single track trail. It is hard to pass people because the trail is narrow and even rutted in areas with a foot high embankment. We run along the rim of a canyon, pass through a neighborhood and then enter a bolder strewn gorge.
I’m feeling energetic this morning doing my best to keep up with Angelica who is in front of me. She was distraught this morning because she forgot a most important race item. I figured it had to be her hydration pack, sunscreen, hat, snake bite kit, bear pepper spray or some other mountain running essential. “I forgot to put on my deodorant!” she revealed. Well, I’m sorry but there is no brand or amount of stink-be-gone to quell the fragrance of an ultra-marathoner. I prefer to go au naturel myself.
|"Can you hear me now? Bring my deodorant to the Mitchell Aid Station!"|
Juan, Kyle, Josh, Carlos, Angelica (where's Miguel? Sleeping in?)
But I digress. We run together for a while enjoying the views of the town below and then start climbing into the mountains. The scene is dominated by charred remnants of trees left from the Las Conchas Fire of 2011, one of the largest in New Mexico history. The course has changed over the last several years since some trails have been closed to help the vegetation recover.
After a while, we go down a series of steep switchbacks weaving in between large boulders. A very fine dust or perhaps ash from the fire is kicked up by all the runners slipping and sliding down the hill. When we reach the bottom, we instantly have to climb back out of the gulch that we crossed.
Soon I see about twenty vultures circling overhead and comment to my friend Juan, “Keep moving they’re waiting for us to drop.” We run some more and then reach a short but very steep dirt embankment. Juan and a few ladies are clambering up the obstacle so I banter, “Could you wait for me to get my camera out before you fall?” I’m not sure they get my humor, but soon everyone makes it up safely. We lose the trail markers for a short while, but can see people ahead running up a dirt road, so we follow in their path.
We enter part of the Los Alamos National Lab where a trail sign informs that photography is prohibited. I expect to see Dan Akroyd from Spies Like Us pop out from behind a tree and confiscate my camera. A steep bank brings us to a paved road that we cross and then climb up the other side. A dad and his young son who is perhaps only 12-13 years old are running in front of us. When we catch up to them we learn that they are running the entire 50K together. What a trooper!
For a while we run parallel to the Camp May Rd that leads up to Pajarito Ski Area and then eventually enter the 10 mile aid station. I’ve been taking my chia seed/juice mixture and eating irish soda bread along the way, but I grab some pretzels and put them in a baggie and fill my water bottle. I don’t waste much time knowing that an arduous climb is awaiting.
The trail takes us through another burned area with some young aspen groves and then we approach a ski lift. This is the exact spot where I dropped in 2010, so I will get to experience the part of the course that I didn’t complete.
I keep a steady pace for a while and pass a couple who are resting by the trail. A lady is bent over breathing hard. The trail is lined with delicate white flowers and I can’t resist a few pictures. A charred log next to the new growth demonstrates the resiliency of the forest to renew itself.
As I continue up the mountain I feel fine other than a little pressure in my head and am happy with my steady progress. I see another runner on the trail that I recognize. Dave of Endurance Buzz comments, “I don’t remember this climb being this difficult the last time.” I respond, “We put it out of our minds; otherwise why would we sign up for it again?” I keep plodding my way up and then pass another lady who is cursing under her breath as she climbs a little, rests a little. We turn a corner. “OH...HOLY...JESUS...WE HAVE TO GO UP THIS?” “Where are you from?” I ask. “Florida!” "Keep it up, good job...you can make it." I tell her and keep climbing.
When I’m almost at the top I meet a couple who offer to take my picture. They are from Albuquerque and recognize the Sandia Mountains in the distance. We power hike the rest of the way to the top and then stop to enjoy the view of the Valles Caldera, a collapsed volcanic crater. The center is an expansive open meadow surrounded by high mountains and flecked with volcanic domes.
Just when you think you can’t go any higher, we climb some more. Finally we get to descend by running straight down a grassy ski slope with the caldera in the background. We continue by switchbacking across various ski runs with names like Easy Mother, Little Mother and Nuther Mother. Two and half hours and 6.5 miles after leaving the last aid station I arrive at the ski lodge which marks the halfway point of the race.
I’m surprised to discover that I’ve caught up to some of my faster friends who are resting at the lodge. Angelica and Miguel comment about the difficulty of the climb and give me some words of encouragement before taking off. I use my rest time to put on sunscreen, drink some ginger ale and eat watermelon which never tasted so good. I grab some more pretzels and water for the trail and keep moving.
The day is warm now, but a breeze is kicking up especially when we are on the upper slopes. A lone purple iris catches my eye. More up hill climbing and then some rolling single track. Rocky mountain clematis, a climbing vine with dangly pink flowers, adorn the trailside bushes.
We run a seemingly endless narrow pathway with a precipitous pitch on our left. This is not a place you want to fall otherwise you will tumble all the way down the mountain and end up in the canyon below. Fire stripped limbless trunks of pine trees stand tall and a strong wind whistles eerily through them like a spirit song.
A fast runner approaches me from behind and quickly passes me. I presume he is one of the lead 50 mile runners. One of my fellow trail partners, Carlos is up ahead and, before I can warn him of the approaching leader, he becomes startled and takes a nasty digger. I shout out and ask if he is injured, but he quickly announces that he is fine. We have less than 6 miles to go and, this being Carlos’s first ultra, I would hate to see him not finish due to a fall.
As I’m running behind him, Carlos slips again, but catches himself and then starts to run more cautiously. He tells me to go in front of him so I pick up my pace. The scenery is spectacular with stratified cliffs of alternating red, white and gray rock and sections of hardened volcanic ash known as tuff. The tuff is almost like a soft cement and is worn away from foot traffic in spots creating deep grooves in the trail.
I reach the bottom of the mountain and begin to run in a canyon where the breeze has subsided and the air feels like a hot dry sauna. Nevertheless, I make it to the last aid station and inquire about the distance to the finish and the terrain. “It’s just two miles, but it runs like four.” a volunteer reports. I better fill my water bottle. It’s a gradual bit of uphill, a flat section and then a nasty steep climb to the finish.
I spot some delicate looking purple wildflowers and stoop over for a picture. A young lady sees me and I say, “You caught me taking pictures of the flowers instead of running.” I thoroughly enjoy running in the mountains and can’t resist stopping occasionally to take in nature. Everyone has their own reason for running an ultra-marathon whether it be to win, achieve a personal best or run in remembrance of a loved one or for a cause. Personally, I love the beauty of the course, the friendly atmosphere, the volunteer support and the challenge of the journey.
I start to see more hikers and spectators walking along the trail so I know I’m approaching the finish. The last stretch requires runners to climb up a smooth water eroded slot in a rocky outcrop; a challenging ending to a spectacular course. I finish in 8:31 and am greeted by Angelica and Miguel who are enjoying the food and drink provided. I recover with a can of Jamaican ginger ale and lots of watermelon. Carlos and Juan arrive shortly after and we enjoy the party.
|The last climb is through this.|
|The finisher’s award is this pot handcrafted by the Toya family of the Jemez Pueblo.|
Congratulations Josh, Angelica, Miguel, Juan, Carlos, and Jim (50 mile) on running a strong race. Of course we cannot forget Kyle who carried the American flag the entire 50K in over 13 hours and finished in the distinguished DFL (Dead F***ing Last) position. You are an inspiration to us all!
See you on the trail.