Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jemez Mountains Trail Run 50 Miler

Okay, I've edited this post to apologize for the's long, but hey, it was 50 you go..........

After a six month hiatus from posting, I'm back with what originally got me started with this blog, Jemez Mountains.  I first came across the craziness of the ultra world and Jemez Mountain Trail Run while reading Dean Karnazes' book Ultra Marathon Man back in 2008.  I was 40 and in the midst of training for my 2nd marathon.  The significance being that it was a Boston qualifying attempt, my goal since hitting the big 4-0. I told Gina at that time that I would run my first 100-miler by the time I was 45 despite the fact that I'd only run one 5K, one 10K and one marathon at that point.  I'm not sure either of us believed it, but it was something to shoot for as a long-term goal.  The idea of doing a 50 mile race for charity struck me at the time and while things didn't quite work out as originally planned, I ended up with both a 50 miler and a fundraising effort, but in unrelated events.

Fast forward about two years and I found myself registered for Jemez, finally. And to boot, I had four friends lining up with me, the first 50 for three of them, nice. With the exception of Amy, the rest of us had just run the Boston Marathon less than 5 weeks earlier and we  all had pretty good races.  Amy had been busy tearing up 50K trails. This would probably be the strongest overall group of runners that I had been with for a race, all of us being in the 3 to sub 3 marathon range.  Of course that meant nothing here as we are all flatlanders with minimal experience at altitude.  Jemez being arguably one of the hardest 50's was certain to provide a challenge for all of us.

We rented a loft in Santa Fe where we would have a runners haven for a few days.  We all flew in to Albuquerque Thursday from different places and then had about an hour drive to Santa Fe.  After lunch at Cafe Cafe and getting in settled in at the loft, we drove another 35 miles to Los Alamos to pick up our race packets.  Incredible views along the way with snow capped mountains.  We were all getting pretty excited just being there and knowing that we were less than 48 hours away from the toughest race we had ever done.

Team Endurasoak:  Nick, Shaheen, me, Amy and Jayna
 A 5:00 a.m. start meant a pretty early rise.  Most of us were up by 2:45 and we headed out of the loft at 3:45.  We pulled into Los Alamos about 4:25 and we had to scramble to hit the porta Johns, check in with our drop bags and get to the start. Even though we had already picked up our race packets Thursday, runners were required to check-in race morning so that race officials would know who was out on the course. After checking in, I quickly pinned my bib on my shorts and headed out the door to the start on the road just feet in front of the cabin.  I found the four others as well as a 5th friend, Edgar, also from Dallas.  He was originally registered for the 50K, but was allowed to switch to the 50 mile on Thursday so that he could join us.  Good idea? 

Amy and me

Inside the cabin just moments before the start
Seems like we were lined up for less than a minute and then we were off in the dark. I was still fumbling with my headlamp, but fortunately had already turned on my Garmin and acquired satellite signal. We quickly hit some single-track stuff that had the 6 of us backed up, to a standstill at a couple of points.  Amy and I got a little restless behind some of the crowd and we forged ahead of the crowd.  We just wanted some breathing room and we found it. In doing so, we unintentionally left the others behind as they wisely had more patience than we did.

We quickly started our first climb of the day, which I later found out was just a teaser.  It was about a 1,500ft climb to Guaje Ridge and ended up being the easiest of all the climbs due to the switchbacks, something the other climbs lacked. Once at the top, we had traveled 7.1 miles in just over 1:31.

Climbing Guaje Ridge

Amy in a pose she would strike a few times, deservedly so

View from top of Guaje Ridge back down on Los Alamos

With the first small climb behind us, we had a short downhill section in which we dropped about 900ft over roughly a mile before starting the ascent up Caballo Mountain.  This was all still single track running and the first of what was considered our real climbs.  It was roughly an 1,800ft climb of what was a 4 mile loop to the top of the mountain and 1,800ft back down.  It wasn't far into it, at mile 10.6 actually, that Nick Clark passed us on his was back down.  That would have put him at 13.4, roughly 2.8 miles ahead of us.  On our way up we were passed by a handful of runners that were obviously much better at climbing than we were.  We hit the the top of Caballo Mountain, 12 miles and at 10,480ft right at 3hours. Averaging 4 miles an hour so far.
Top of Caballo Mountain, 10,460ft.
Coming back down Caballo was probably the funnest part of the day for me.  I followed Amy and she literally flew down the mountain.  We were flying by runners still on their way up as well as most of those that had passed us climbing Caballo.  It was pretty much a wreckless descent to the bottom.  The two miles that took us 50:40 to climb took us less than 20 minutes to cover on the way back down.  The crazy thing is that it felt like we were doing sub 7 pace.  Reflecting on that section, I remember that there was a fair amount of switchbacks along that section as I actually overshot a couple coming down and had to grab trees or tree limbs to keep from crashing.  At the base of Caballo we were 14.2 miles and 3hrs 22min into our day .  Still a lot of miles and climbing ahead of us.

Over the next 2.8 miles we would climb over 1,100ft before reaching the Pipeline aid station, the site of our first drop bags.  It was there that I decided to go with a 2nd handheld water bottle, pick up my first solid food, some Lenny & Larry Muscle Brownies and ditch the arm sleeves.  It felt like it was starting to warm up about now, roughly 9:15 a.m..

Just outside of the aid station was Nate's Nemesis.  I had seen pictures, watched video of a runner's descent and was warned by a friend to be careful at that spot.  Only when I actually stood in front of it did I realize the nature of the drop.  "Holy shit" was all I could think.  I've read from others that the grade decline was somewhere between 50-70%......straight down in other words.

Starting descent down Nate's Nemesis

Oh my!
Once we hit the bottom, the course opened up and we were actually able to run side by side for some length on a dirt jeep track.  The next 4 miles were some pretty decent running and I clocked two of my three fastest miles along the way, a 9:04 and a 9:39.

Valles Grande
The next aid station, Valle Grande would be at mile 21 and just over 5 hours after we had started.  It was here that I would raid the race offered food supply for the first time.  Ruffles potato chips were being crammed into my mouth as if I were in some sort of contest.  The salty chips were heaven. Overall I think I was feeling okay, but to think that I was only 40% of the way there was a bit overwhelming.  On top of that, I didn't realize what lie ahead just over a mile away.  
Aid station at mile 21, just before Cerro Grande Mountain
At the station we would head left and start our run towards Cerro Grande, our 3rd major climb of the day.  The view in this area was unreal.  Once off of the road and crossing through the valley, we commented on how the area looked as if it had not even yet been discovered by man.  We wondered when the buffalo or maybe even a covered wagon would enter our sight.  No, we weren't oxygen deprived just yet, but just amazed with the scenery.

Starting the climb of Cerro Grande
The climb of Cerro Grande was about 2 miles and 1,800ft.  It was in this section that we encountered the talus/rock field that I had seen so many times in photos.  But as with Nate's Nemesis, photos didn't prepare me for the obstacle.  Unreal!  It was in the stretch of mile 23 that we hit the rocks.  Per my Garmin, mile 23 took a mere 42:31 and we climbed over 1,400 ft in that one mile.  I can remember looking at my Garmin during that stretch and seeing a 50:xx pace, wow!

Yep, there's the orange flag, that's the right way, and that's a person up there.

Are we there yet?

No, I'm not a miniature, those rocks are really that big.
Fortunately, the course veered off to the right of the rocks and we then went straight up the mountain.  Or was that better ??  We're still debating which was more difficult. As we got higher I starting feeling lightheaded and a bit of nausea.  I could feel my pulse in my head and knew that the altitude was getting to me.  I looked at my Garmin to see that we had gone up over the 9,600ft and still had climbing to do.  I didn't think it would ever end.  At some point I took the liberty of renaming the mountain The Neverf***ingendingmountain.  I don't think it will stick, but I'm guessing I wasn't the first to come up with that name.
Somewhere near the top of Cerro Grande
In addition to the altitude bothering me, I could feel that my IT band was not real thrilled to be working on this day.  It had started bothering me two weeks prior on a 30 mile training run and I had been trying to keep it from flaring up.  What was a concern entering the day was now a reality, but how would it affect me? We made it to the top of Cerro Grande, 10,213ft in 6hrs, 3minutes and 23 miles in. Mile 23 was a whopping 42:31.  That was an uninterrupted mile, no aid stations, not stops, just slow moving.  Getting to the top and heading down brought another surprise, more of the talus field to navigate through.

Talus on the way down.
It was shortly after navigating through the rocks that I found out that my IT band was NOT going to let me run any technical downhill sections.  Amy took off as she did from Caballo Mountain and I called upon myself to do the same, but the pain shooting through my knee said no way.  I tried repeatedly, but the right knee was very unstable and there was no way I could plant on it coming down. I never saw her again until the finish line. I basically had one good leg and 27 miles to go.  Sonofabitch! 

From the downside of Cerro Grande to Pajarito Canyon, running was sketchy.  There were some stretches that were not too technical and I could actually run them as long as they weren't uphill.  The paces for miles 24-28 were as follows:  16:04, 10:27, 9:51, 11:05, and 12:16. The elevation over that distance dropped from about 9,400ft to 7,900ft.  If it was a smooth downhill, the running wasn't bad, but anything technical brought me to a walk. 
Good running trail through Canyon de Valle
Somewhere in the 29th mile I came into the Pajarito Canyon aid station.  By this time it was about 20 minutes after noon and getting hot.  I stripped off the singlet and applied sunscreen in the aid station, loaded my two handheld bottles and headed back out knowing I was on the downside of the 50 mile course, but barely.  My thinking at this point based on my ITB and knee was "one aid station at a time".  The next one was a mere 4 miles away, all uphill on the way back to Pajarito Mountain.  At some point in this climb I looked back for some reason and then did a double take.  There was Shaheen and Edgar about 50 yards behind me. I had been worried about the Dallas contingency and there wherabouts up until this point.  Seeing the two of them made me feel better.  I didn't stop to wait for them because I knew at the pace I was moving (somewhere between a snail and a turtle) they would catch me prett quick. We weren't together for very long as they were both doing better than me and I had no desire to try to keep up.  I couldn't.  Before long they were out of sight.

Those next 4 miles of virtually nothing but walking took about 1hr, 20 min and seemed like an eternity.  While trying to calculate in my head how long the remaining distance would take, I estimated my arrival to be early Sunday morning.  Actually, I was beginning to wonder at what point I would stop and call it a day.  Climbing back up over 10,400ft, the altitude once again bothering me, the heat of the day and what seemed like no hope to be able to run at all the rest of the day, I had to consider the reality of shutting it down, quitting, previously unspoken words
Townsite Lift Aid station at mile 32.6

View from up on Pajarito Mountain
The peak of Pajarito Mountain was reached around mile 34 per my Garmin reading, the 4th and final major climb. Elevation was just under 10,500ft and there was some relief that the hardest part of climbing for the day was over. It was 2:15 in the afternoon and now everything else would be at a lower elevation and for the most part, downhill. While I found relief in that fact, I was in a great deal of pain and the daunting task of running 16 more miles was almost unthinkable. The possibility of a DNF now was looming larger than ever over me and the probability seemed good.

Making my way down Pajarito I unknowingly missed a turnoff and somehow started running down a jeep track. While my knee was killing me, it was a straight downhill shot and I decided to let gravity take me and run with it. However, the lack of orange flags or ribbons had me concerned until I saw a familiar sight, trail I had already run. As I stopped in my tracks and tried to figure out what in the hell I had just done, I heard another runner yell at me from maybe 40 yards away, “hey, it’s this way” to which I disgustingly responded “yeah, I know, I’ve already been there”. He was headed up a path I had taken not so long ago. I turned around and started my walk of shame back up the hill to where I had just come from. It couldn’t have been more than a quarter of a mile from where I went off track, but it felt like forever. By the time I got there, the same runner was making his way around the orange markers and down a hill that I had missed just in front of me. Maybe a half mile total off of course so not too bad.

I continued to make my way downhill anyway that I could manage, most notably slowly. I just wanted to get to the next aid station and then weigh my options, get some G2 mix that I had because I was about sick of Heed at this point. I came to the ski slope and could see a few runners down below me. From the size of them, I could tell they were quite a distance off and more importantly, I could see just how steep this slope was. Per my Garmin, it indicated that it dropped off about 670ft in ½ mile straight down. Someone mentioned that it was like Double Black Diamond slope, but who knows, I'm not a skier so it really meant nothing to me.  It was steep and that's all that mattered.  I stepped off of the trail and opted to try to go down on the grass instead. It appeared that I’d have better footing with the grass clumps than on the narrow dirt trail with loose rocks. Being the my footing was unstable as it was, I didn’t want to end up rolling to the bottom although it would have been much faster. Earlier I had heard a lot of whooping and hollering off in the distance so I knew that I was close to the next aid station, Townsite Lift, I just wasn’t sure how close.

While making my way down the slope in a sideways and almost backwards manner at times, I was actually passed up by 4 young hikers on their way down. If that wasn’t disheartening, I’m not sure what could have topped it. Once I made it to the bottom, there was another dirt road and I could then see the Townsite Lift station. At the time, I thought it was Pipeline instead which made no sense because I had already hit that station once before. It just shows how well my mind was functioning at that point. As I made my way down the road into the station, I was literally hopping and practically skipping to get in at anything faster than walking pace. It was all I could do to get to the stairs at the decking of the lift and ask a volunteer for my drop bag. Of course the response was that our drop bags were at the next aid station. I quickly looked at my forearm where I had written down all of the aid station mile markers to see that I had about 3 more miles to go. Slight miscalculation.

When asked by the volunteer how I was, and it was quite obvious, my response was not good. He asked what it was and I explained the issue with my IT band. He told me to come up on the deck and have a seat at which point to my surprise I noticed Shaheen and Edgar sitting there. Shaheen had badly twisted her ankle and was done. She was awaiting a ride back to the start and Edgar was just hanging tight with her. Another volunteer came to my side and asked if she could massage my leg to see if it would help to which I said sure. In my head I knew it wouldn’t do much, but it bought me time to think out my next move. She too seemed genuinely concerned and if nothing else, it was at least comforting to know they were great people who cared about all of the runners.  After a couple minutes and downing 3 ibuprofen, I decided to get up so that I could stretch it and see if that helped. I had only done that what seemed like 20 times before along the way without much success, but it couldn’t hurt. The volunteer asked what I wanted to do and I said I was going to the next aid station and that I would evaluate the situation there. He looked me in the face quite seriously and said, I can’t keep you here, but if you leave your’re pretty much committing yourself to the final 14 miles. There no other place from here on in that we could send a vehicle for you should you drop. Wow, now what? I told him to let me think about it and paced around a bit in somewhat of an emotional wreck inside because I didn’t come there to run 36 miles. I asked Edgar if he wanted to go with me and he was game. Neither of us wanted to leave Shaheen alone, but we had some miles left and she was in good hands with volunteers that would take her back to the start. Edgar said to hold on until he went to the restroom, maybe the only true restroom on the course, and then we’d go. Just as we were about to head out the bell was ringing for another runner coming in and it was Nick.  Yes, he was still in it and looking pretty good.  Edgar quickly went over the situation with Nick and we took off out of there.  Nick was going to stay back for a bit. At this point, I was 36.2 miles along and about 10hrs, 15min into the race and it was about 3:15.  I had traveled 2 miles in just over 59 minutes.  Turtle.

The next 3 miles I really don't remember much about them.  About 47 minutes to cover a net gain of 670ft of gradual incline, nothing too steep.  I was able to run the some of it my with my main focus on staying with Edgar.  He did a great job of keeping us going. Before long we we made our way into Pileline Aid Station and were now only 11 miles from the finish at 5:00 p.m., 11 hours into the race.  I reached into my drop bag for the final time and grabbed my iPod.  I needed some "Pearl Jam: Live from Boston".  I thought I had two G2 powder mixes as well, but apparently not, that sucked.  Heed it would be for the distance. A coule swipes of BodyGlide on each rib cage and inside arm and we were out of there.  Well, actually I also filled a baggie of Lay's potato chips and carried that out with me. 

Putting on my iPod at Pipeline. Ready to be done with this thing. 
Coming out of Pipeline aid station was a good feeling.  I had been there once before and finally got the feeling that the homestretch was nearing.  The view up that long road wasn't all that great, but I'd been over worse so I'd deal with it and I felt like with just under 11 miles to go and most of it in the downhill nature, I would make it.  Having Edgar there to run with certainly help me stay focused on getting it done.
View of jeep track out of Pipeline Aid Station

View from Guaje Ridge heading back towards Los Alamos
The rest of the trek in was long. The next 8 miles dropped about 2,600ft and we covered it in 1:30:30, roughly 11:20 per mile, well below the average pace per mile for the entire race.  After that stretch, we were able to get in just over one more mile before my Garmin gave out, battery dead.  Woo hoo, I outlasted the Garmin. While most of the final couple miles seemed to be runnable, there was a lot of walking the last couple of miles on some uphill stuff, including another 15+ minute mile, #48.

Coming back down Guaje Ridge............I think?
 I don't really remember a whole lot other than the fact that Edgar had pulled away at some point and I was content just to finish. I didn't try to keep upwith him, besides the ibuprofen had wore off and my knee was really hurting again.  I once again started to have some concern that the finish I recently thought was a certainty might not be.  However, as we winded our way down Guaje and back towards Los Alamos, he came back into my sight and there we were again.  I was his shadow over the course of the last 5 or 6 miles we and passed 5 runners that I specifically remember passing me somewhere earlier in the day.  While I didn't feel like it was some great accomplishment at the time, it at least reminded me that I wasn't the only one struggling to finish.  Along the way I had been keeping an eye on my watch with hope of breaking 13 hours.  The goal at the beginning of the day of sub 12 was long gone.

As we continued to make our way in, it seemed like we'd never get there and the hopes of sub 13 seemed to be getting slim.  We hit the last aid station and had 1.9 miles to go and just over 30 minutes time to get there. I didn't want to to stop because I was concerned about time, but Edgar needed water and I wasn't going on without him. One of the volunteers convinced me to drink a cup of Coke while they refilled Edgar's water and that was a good move.  Coke never tasted so good.

Sub 13, surely we could do it?  Easier said than done.  It was a struggle as it seemed quite a bit of the last two miles were uphill or rolling hills which brought on a lot of walking by both of us.  As we had left the station I heard one of the runners we had passed coming in so it seemed that he was gaining on us, incentive to try to keep moving, but there was only so much we could physically do.  Did it even matter what placement or time we finished?  For some reason it did to me, I couldn't help it. Coming to the top of every hill and every corner I kept expecting to see something that resembled the finish line or buildings or people or anything that indicated we were close to the finish. Instead, it would just bring another turn, more hills, more trail, a 50K runner. Anything but the finish line and I was growing frustrated.  And to boot, one of the other runners passed us.  He appeared to be paced in for the last mile by his girlfriend or wife as wehad  passed her just after leaving the last station.  I yelled to Edgar "let's go, we gotta break 13" and found one final surge.  Besides that, I didn't want to give up that spot and I ended up getting it back.  I apologize for still being competitive at that point, but a spot in the standings was a spot in the standngs. 

As I came up a hill I saw the sign I had been looking for all along.  Volunteers or spectators letting us know the finish was just around the corner, and it was.  As I rounded that final corner I came up on a female runner that I had traded places with a couple of times earlier in the day.  I probably could have made a complete ass out of myself and sprinted past her as well, but opted not to do so.  She had run a strong race and was really nice to me with concern earlier in the day when I was struggling (I know, at this point you're saying to yourself  "Could you be more specific? Wasn't that pretty much all day").  I was satisfied crossing the line just behind her, done finally, 12:58:15, 54th place overall and an average pace of 15:34 per mile.  Just over 9 minutes per mile slower than my marathon pace. 
Just feet from the finish line

Edgar finishing strong, thanks for the company buddy!
As I came across the finish line there was Amy with her camera and big ol' smile. Looking like she had just finished a 10K. It was so good to see her and know that we had made it. She ended up 5th female with a time of 12:21.......quite studly, but I would expect nothing less from her.  She is the Real Deal for sure!  Edgar was right on my tail at 12:59 and inside the cabin were our two other girls, Jayna and Shaheen, both in safely, but not feeling so well due to their injuries.  They both ended up dropping at the 36 mile aid station. Nick came across not long after at 13:31 with a grin from ear to ear and at that point we were all present and accounted for.  That's what mattered most.

Twinkies?  Tough Twinkies for sure, Jayna and Shaheen.
Once in the cabin it was time to fuel up, I was tired, but so hungry.  I actually had 3 green chili cheeseburgers, sugar cookies, chips and God knows what else.  More junk food in the next hour than I had eaten in the whole year and I didn't even feel remorse.  I must have had lingering altitude issues I guess? 

While I didn't get my goal time, I was okay with accepting that for the time being I am just a middle of the road ultra runner.  What I had done in Boston last month was thrown out the window here.  But that's okay with me because that's what will motivate me for the time being.  Practically the whole time out there on the course I was telling myself "never again will I run Jemez, never ever never".  But it wasn't long after finishing that I started thinking, I can break 12 out there, maybe even 11?  We'll see about that next May.

In the meantime, I want to congratulate all of those that gave it their best shot out there on Saturday whether they finished or not.  Just attempting to tackle such a challenge is awesome and quite respectable.  I always pride myself on being mentally tough, but I don't know that I could ever put into words how difficult that was, both physically and mentally. Not many would even consider attempting such a day. 

I also want to thank Amy for her pictures.  Most of those above are her work as I gave up on my camera at mile 17. It was too much trouble.  So on top of being an ultra All-Star, she's a pretty damned good photographer.  I kidded her that she could have probably knocked off 20-30 minutes had she not taken picutres.  I'm glad she did.  Also major thanks to Edgar.  A guy I just met the day before was a major help in my getting to the finish line Saturday night, thanks man!

Thanks for stopping in for the read and I promise it won't be six months until the next one (I'm sure you can't wait).  I've got something brewing that I want to share with you when all the details are figured out. 

Take care!


Girl In Motion said...

Everytime I see more photos of your adventure, my heart jumps out of my chest from abject fear. Congratulations, Steve, I always think of you as pure stud in a bottle, and you prove yourself to be every time. Love how "I'll never do this again" turns into "hmmm, next year, 11 or 12!" Looking forward to seeing what crazy adventures you have between now and then. Tons, I'm sure!

ExSoccerGuy said...

E-P-I-C race and report. If you ran 15+-minute miles, what the hell can a mere mortal expect from that course. Way to HTFU and finish with a very respectable time.

Cheers, ESG/Ron

AgileToes said...

Battling the emotional highs and lows of an already near-impossible race is like a kick in the teeth. Add to that the obnoxious pain in your knee, and I'm damn impressed at how well you did. Of course, quitting is one of those words that registers in our vocabulary but will never resonate in our minds. It was an honor to run the first half with you! I look forward to our next adventure =)

orten leadership study said...

Incredible! It was painful and inspiring to read about your journey. Thanks for sharing. I'm looking forward to hearing about you breaking 11 there next year.

Steve Berrones said...

Thanks so much you guys. As Amy can attest, this was as much mental as it was a physical challenge. I never in my life would have expected 15+ before running this type of race, but all in all, I was satisfied it came out as well as it did. Although 12-13 minute miles next year would be nice :-).

Thinky Doer said...

Great race report. Stumbled onto your site and was both enthralled and scared senseless by your experience. I am training for my first marathon in July and first ultra in December (North Face Endurance 50 miler). Thanks for the report, i'll be stopping by to check on your progress regularly to get some tips.