Friday, June 3, 2011

Jemez 50M Race Report

I'm often asked how I can run for 10+ hours without getting bored out of my mind. Races like Jemez make me laugh when asked such questions. This race is quite literally a rollercoaster of a ride, including climbs that give you no option but to bear down and put one foot in front the other, downhills that literally take a leap of faith to get down, absurdly technical terrain, burn areas, and even a dusting of snow.

I ran the Jemez 50K last spring, and even though I finished 2nd and had a great day, I left Los Alamos feeling like I'd missed out on the adventure. I'd heard stories of the caldera, the “butt slide” descent, and the double black ski slope decent. By the time I got in the car last year, I knew that I'd be back to see what all of the hype was about. My experience this year did not disappoint.

I carpooled down to the race on Friday afternoon with my good friend Jeremiah. He was going to run the 50K, however a slower-than-ideal recovery from his previous 50M race a few weeks back turned him into road trip buddy/race volunteer. I was also lucky enough to have a nice free couch to call my bed for the weekend, as an old college friend, Hunter, now resides down in Los Alamos. The drive down was uneventful - lots of catching up on NPR podcasts. We took 285 down, and I have to say CO is looking quite beautiful right about now. It's awfully green, and all the mountains have plenty of snow on them. Friday night consisted of the typical packet pick-up, dinner, beer, catching-up, overly planning and packing for the race in the morning, and then setting an alarm clock for a painfully early wake-up.

That wake-up was at 4am. I lubed, sunscreened, coffeed, clothed, honey stinger waffled, drove, parked, port-a-pottied, and checked-in. By 5am, we were racing.

Honey Badger Good Luck Charm given to me Pre-race.

Since it was only 5am, we actually needed headlamps at the start of the race. I intentionally brought the worst one I had for two (2) reasons: 1) I didn't want to lose a good one, and 2) the crappy light from my headlamp would force me to hang in the crowd at the start of the race instead of going out too fast. I found myself hanging onto the back of a group of runners (who I gathered later were Los Alamos XC alumni) led by sage of ultra-running, Blake Wood.

Sunrise in the Jemez Mountains

As we headed up the first of the four major climbs, the sun came out and the group broke up as each person chose his own climbing pace. I only over-ran one switchback on the first descent (an improvement over last year). A running friend, Brenden, came running by on the downhill looking relaxed and speedy. I could tell he was going to have a good day. About 2/3 of the way up the Caballo Mountain, Nick Clark came hauling down at an astonishing clip. It would be at least 10 minutes before I saw the 2nd place runner. I couldn't believe he had such a lead already. It was likely going to be a lonely day for him. After grunting up to the top of Caballo, I stopped to snap a photo, and got heckled by the volunteers as this was supposed to be a race. The view was just too good to pass up. I counted runners coming back down and estimated I was in 8th place at the top of the Mountain. I cranked “Sleigh Bells” on my ipod and started the descent back down Caballo. This stretch was a blast: the music was perfect for the situation, the downhill was steep, fun, and runnable, and I got to hi-five several friends as we crossed paths.

Rounding the tree at the top of Caballo. By the end of the day I will have ran up and down that ski hill in the background

Another four miles or so got me to the pipeline aid station (AS). When you look at the elevation profile you see four distinct climbs. These four miles go un-noticed on paper, but they are tough. The AS was a drop-bag location. I ditched my long sleeve and all warm clothes and grabbed a handful of gels and headed off. I was quite excited, as up until this point the 50K course had followed essentially the same route. It was off into the unknown, and it started off with a ludicrously steep plummet into an old volcano caldera. I went bold off the bat and just kept moving my legs as a means of survival. I'm sure I looked like an out of control ball of dust rolling down the mountain to any outsider. I was.

The next four miles or so were probably the most runnable miles of the entire course, and runners ran. I got passed I think four times along this stretch. I thought I was going at quite a respectable, not quite-lead-runner-ahead-of-the-pack, above-average pace. These people were hammering it. I wasn't going to follow them.

The nice runnable scenic caldera stretch ended abruptly. A quarter mile cross country trek through clumpy, annoying grasslands led to the hardest climb of the day. This climb was not runnable. In fact, it was so steep that even if it had been paved, I would have been reduced to a walk. Just to make sure nobody tried to run up the climb, the race course continued straight up the mountain, across a rock garden, and through more of those clumpy grass heaps. Good times. Luckily, the view at the top made the climb more than worth it.

The Caldera

Un-runnable clumps of grass

The reward for getting through the clumpy section. Rocks, lots of Rocks.

Then it was straight down another technical downhill. An amazing amount of work went into clearing this trail. Thank you to all the volunteers who likely spent several days chain sawing through fallen trees. After running down a valley, I came to the Pajarito canyon aid station. I chugged a couple Cokes and headed out, back uphill.

After several miles I found myself at a spot on the trail that crossed a paved road. This is the moment we all knew was coming: I was lost. I couldn't find the trail or any markings. There was some chalk on the ground heading off in a line to my left, so I ran on the road to the left. Still no markings 100 yards up. This is when I should have turned around, but I just couldn't help trying to see what was around the next curve. Another guy was following me as well. I don't mind getting lost (I might actually enjoy it a bit), but I felt bad assisting another runner in getting lost. We wandered around walking with our hands in the air as we slowly kept looking for markings. Maybe a quarter mile into my road foray, I saw course markings several yards above the road. I waved the other runner to come check it out. We were back on course, but had obviously walked on the road instead of following the intended trail that paralleled the road. What to do? We decided that in all likelihood we had gone further than the intended route to get to this point, and had walked all of it like confused idiots. We definitely hadn't benefited from our idiocy. We agreed to proceed on the trail in the correct direction to the next AS, which was maybe a half mile away. When we got there we informed the AS personnel of our detour. They seemed cool with it, so we proceeded with the race. This other guy was Rick, a 24 year old 50K? rookie. He killed it. I lost track of him shortly after the AS, and never saw him again. Quite a debut.

Soon I found myself on the last major climb of the race, up Pajarito Mountain. I should mention that I'd lost all interest in eating gels, or any food for that matter, before this climb started. With the exception of Coke and HEED, I didn't have any calories the last 20 miles of the race. Anyhow, I was feeling good on the climb, and actually started reeling in quite a few runners on the way up the ski mountain. By the time I reached the top, I think I was in 7th place, my highest placing all day. Then they sent us straight down a ski hill, a double black ski run to be exact. I managed not to fall, and was soon at the ski lodge drinking more Coke.

The ski hill I had to run down. Whoopsy Daisy.

I was once again in familiar territory, as the remaining 14 miles of the course are shared with the 50K course. This was also nice because I had a lot more company on the trail now. For some stupid reason I stopped at the Pipeline AS to grab more gels, even though I already had plenty and had no intention of eating any of them. I got passed by Blake Wood as this was all going down, and he was out of sight in no time. He'd end up finishing over 18 minutes before me. I'd get passed by one other runner as well.

As I approached the last AS with two miles to go, I knew I wasn't catching anybody in front of me, and, to be honest, I didn't really care if someone else passed me. So, when offered a cup of beer I didn't even hesitate to imbibe. It was Fat Tire, and it tasted great. Thirty minutes later I was done. Finishing in 9th place in 10:18. Decent. Not great, not a disaster. I really enjoyed the time out on the trail.

The afternoon consisted of a few sips of post-race scotch, and several beers as I socialized with friends and racers. I got a cool little pot for finishing. We sat around in the sun for several hours soaking up the great weather and atmosphere. The rapture came and went. No earthquake. We headed to Santa Fe for some great food, but I had no appetite. Then I spent the majority of the night tossing and turning and in general being wide awake. You gotta love what ultra-running does to your body. I was starving and exhausted, but was neither hungry nor sleepy. Overall, it was another great weekend.

Post Race Scotch. I'm hoping that I will actually acquire a taste for this soon, but don't I look sophisticated?

Pre-Rapture beer. Russian River's Salvation Ale.

I was actually raptured, but they didn't have any beer up there, and I was enjoying myself so much before, that I asked to be un-raptured.

End of the Report

Post Script with Feelings and Thoughts (read at your own risk-and don't judge)

This was a weird race for me. Don't get me wrong, I am content with how it went. Here's the thing- I didn't try my hardest. At times, I was racing, but in general I didn't care enough to really lay it all out there. I let people pass me without a thought of trying to hold them off. I think of myself as a pretty competitive person, but I certainly wasn't on that day. The lack of soreness in my legs goes to show that I didn't put myself through enough pain to achieve the best result possible.

I like to think I have a good grip on reality when it comes to this stuff. I'll admit, I'm not a bad ultra-runner. I'm faster than most. BUT, I'm not really that great. Another runner ran this race over 2 hours faster than me. That's a lot of time. I struggle with the idea that I should get all worked up with trying to beat a person out for 9th place. It would be different if it were 1st or 3rd place. Winning races would be great, but it's not likely going to happen. I get it.

So, I find myself wondering why I do races at all if I'm not trying to win them, and could care less if I finish 4th or 30th. I guess the answer is I like the idea of getting together with friends who like the same insane hobby that I do, and running in incredibly scenic locations. I don't need to enter races to do this though, so you may see a trend of less racing from me. I promise I'll keep the adventure level high, maybe just more unstructured stuff where I don't have to worry about the repercussions for getting lost.

Did I mention how beautiful CO is right now? Snow on the peaks, green everywhere else.


  1. Quit whining, I raced my ass off and you still beat me by half an hour. I drank a whole beer at the last aid station instead of a wussy dixie cup though, so I claim a moral victory.

    If you want non-competitive adventure, lets go do the Aspen Four Pass loop once the snow melts.

  2. Ryan, I think your attitude is perfect. The joy of being out there is enough--most of the time. I suspect there will come a time when you find yourself in a race for the lead and your competitive juices will kick in. You are certainly fast enough to be a winner!

  3. Good job, Ryan. It's an addicting insane hobby to boot. I run races because I push myself harder than if I run alone. I also love the camraderie and watching the fast guys (yes, like you) compete. Please don't stop racing! :)

  4. Great job. I ran the half marathon there that day. Great weather.