Trail and ultra running club in the North Texas and greater Dallas / Ft. Worth areas

Jemez Mountains 50K

by Deborah Sexton

May 16, 2009

It was the best of times, it was the worse of times. While I was often overcome by the beauty and majesty of the views, climbing up Caballo from the base, all I cared about was being able to breathe. Imagine climbing a combination of steep, straight sections and switchbacks for about 90 minutes.

I question whether anyone who ran the Jemez 50K/50 miler had ever done a harder race. At least that seemed to be the consensus from conversations I had with runners after the race and at breakfast the next day in the Best Western at Hilltop. When I finally finished, by far the longest time it had ever taken to do a 50K, I was so thankful I hadn't entered the 50 miler.

Veteran runners who never worried about cutoffs, timed out and runners who might normally do a 50 miler in nine hours were thrilled when they finished in the 16 hour range. It tested runners in ways they had never been tested before and for those who could not make the 36-mile mark in 12 hours, it was a sad day.

The race starts on the park road in front of the Posse Shack, which is the sheriff's headquarters and was the "lodge" for the race. 50K runners ran down the road about half mile and then veered off to the right. You run through a tunnel which leads to a sandy trail. And the adventure begins.

There was a slight climb into Mitchell Trail head and after 3 miles you came to Guaje Ridge. There was a 1,540 foot elevation gain so it was a steady climb. There was water and some snacks there. There was no car access to this station and everything had to be carried in. The higher you climbed, the better view you got of the surrounding tree-covered mountains. It was an incredible sight.

Coming out of Guaje was a slight climb (835 feet elevation gain), which led to Caballo Base. We came to a dam, which had a ladder we had to climb over and then followed a beautiful stream coming into Caballo. It had little waterfalls, ran over rocks, and we crossed it multiple times. This whole section was very green and lush and the trail was a little muddy in sections. It was relatively flat here with slight ups and downs.

Once you reached Caballo Base, the fun really begins. This is the toughest climb of the 50K race (1,771 feet) where you summit at 10,480 feet. (The 50 milers have a 1,598 foot climb later.) But the view from the top was breathtaking. You were surrounded by mountains, some still with snow as well as a view of the town of Los Alamos below. A lot of the buildings and structures are white so they really stood out even in the dark.

You turn around at the top of Caballo and go right back down the way you came. Then you head out for Pipeline. You don't really get a break here as this is a pretty tough climb as well. You are very happy to finally get to Pipeline. From Pipeline to the Ski Lodge, you finally get a break. This is a jeep road with little terrain. It goes for three miles. The 50K turns around there and you go back to Pipeline.

From Pipeline, you head back to Guaje Ridge. You start out on a road that goes up and up and up. Then you get a break of flat road and then another long upward climb. At Guaje Ridge, you start an endless trek across an open prairie covered in sagebrush and pine trees. It goes up and down and most of the trail was very rocky. A few little stretches of flat dirt or sand. Finally, a place to run! You travel on that for nearly 5 miles and finally you go back into the woods and into Renjiva Canyon. As the perky volunteers dressed like elves told me, only 1.9 miles to the finish.

So out of Rendija Canyon you enjoy a final breath-sucking climb. And thankfully, it's mostly flat on the rest of the way in. You run on a wide dirt road, then you climb through this pile of rocks that has a path cut through it, come out at some horse stables, and hit the road to the finish line.

The trail had pretty rough terrain for the most part. It was very rocky in places and rutted. Even flat sections, which were few and far between, usually were studded with rocks and debris.

The finisher's award was handmade mini pottery pieces of animals or coasters. The post-race meal was barbecue and chips. There was a huge selection of Daylight Donuts at the start of the race. The T-shirt was 100% cotton with a scenic mountain shot and the name of the race.

My Race

I've paced 20 miles at Hard Rock, been to Western States four times pacing and at training camp, and ran Tahoe Rim the year before. Everyone I talked to said Jemez was harder. I was trying to imagine how anything could be harder than the Red House loop at Tahoe Rim. After having done it, I have to say that that what makes Jemez at least seem harder is the number of steep climbs and the really rough terrain.

So I went into this race with the mindset that it would be the hardest race I've ever done. Complicating things was an injury that prevented me from doing speed work and hills. A MRI showed that I had ripped my hamstrings where they attach to my pelvis. My left side was much worse than my right side.

Technically, I should not be doing any hills, much less some of the steepest climbs I've ever done. But, the 50K allowed you 11 hours to reach the 18 mile point, which was about 30 minutes a mile so I figured, worse case scenario I would walk most of the way and still get it done. So I went to this race undertrained.

I flew out to Albuquerque with my running buddies Laurie Underwood, Letha Cruthirds, and Karen Riddle. Very sadly, Linda Boggs, who has been the instigator of this adventure, was injured and couldn't go. Fred and Char Thompson also were on our plane. Also coming to the race was a ton of Hill Country Trail Runners from Austin. Somebody counted 86 Texas in this race. Ye haw!

Letha had a seat in first class and I told her I would bow down to her as we boarded the plane. She promised to toast us with her Bloody Mary. She ended up having two.

It's about a 2-hour drive from the airport to Los Alamos where we checked into the Best Western Hilltop. It was a nice hotel with a complimentary hot breakfast, pool, wireless Internet, and steam room. The pre-race dinner was held at the local high school about 5 minutes from the hotel where we ate spaghetti, salad, and desserts.

After checking into the hotel, we made the traditional trip to the grocery store. I got on the Internet to find one and after driving all over town, we found it behind our hotel. I bought my usual milks (chocolate and skim) and bagel. My roommates bought bagels and three six packs of beer. As I am writing this report on Sunday night there are two beers left. Some people really do drink beer for breakfast.

The 50 miler started at 5 a.m. and the 50K started at 6 a.m. Letha and Laurie were in the 50 miler so we all got up at 2:30 a.m. to leave for the race at 3:45 a.m. The race start was about 10-15 minutes from the hotel.

We checked in and had our choice of dozens of donuts and coffee. It was pretty chilly and we were all trying to decide how much or how little to wear.

I saw off the 50 miler runners and went back to the car to nap until 6. Six o'clock came, I decided to wear a short sleeve, a long-sleeve, and my arm warmers but I was still freezing cold waiting to start.

We ran down the road and turned off onto the trail after about half a mile. About 15 minutes into the race, I finally started to warm up but I never took anything off the whole day. Running up and down mountains results in big temperature changes so I was pulling the sleeves up and down all day.

We started off with some moderate climbs almost right away into the first two aid stations. At the top of every climb, you were rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, rock formations, lots of beautiful trees. Along side the trail were yellow, purple, and white flowers and occasionally some yellow and red ones. Lots of rocks and fallen trees made interesting landscape to look at if you dared take your eyes off of the rocky trail.

The first few climbs were not too bad and I only felt a touch of altitude. Caballo was in a league of its own. It must have taken me about 90 minutes to reach the top huffing and puffing as I tried to get air and my stomach started to feel a little queasy. Laurie had a much harder time and ended finally throwing up throughout the day.

On my way up Caballo, the first group I saw was some Hill Country Runners-Joe Prusaitis, Henry Hobbs, and Diana Heynen. Fred Thompson also was with this group. I had to step aside about once a minute as a long caravan of 50 milers were coming down the mountain. I heard a lot of words of encouragement including "not much farther," for about 30 minutes.

The top of Caballo was a grassy field with trees. I had had many people tell me to expect snow and this is where I expected to find it. But there was no snow, apparently I had missed it by a week. The wind was blowing pretty hard but the panoramic view was awe inspiring. I felt sorry for the poor volunteers who looked really cold and had to haul all that water up to the top. The downhill was quicker but loose rock and scree plus the steepness of the descent made it hard to really go fast without losing your balance. So I picked my way down with my main intent to stay on my feet.

I descended with Char Thompson. Coming out of Caballo heading toward Pipeline I was expecting a break from climbs but no such luck. You get to run along the beautiful creek for a little bit but then it's back to climbing up a series of switchbacks that was once again taking my breath away and upsetting my stomach. I was getting a little tired of climbing at this point. This section really reminded me of Devil's Thumb at Western States.

I finally cruised into Pipeline which had sheep and ties as its theme. I didn't make any connection between the two but there was a giant blowup sheep there and ties hanging from the trees and some of the volunteers were wearing ties. Here I sat down and ate a turkey and cheese rollup and a coke. I complained about the lack of snow and asked if they had snow cones. Unfortunately they did not. Char came in and ate a turkey rollup also and we headed off for the ski lodge.

I ran about half a mile down this nice flat trail and passed a few people coming back. I asked them, is it like this the whole way? and they said yes. I was so happy. It was mostly jeep road, it had some terrain but no climbs. I made good time running as much as I could along this stretch. After about three miles, I got to ski lodge. I had to be there by 5 p.m. I got there about 4.5 hours ahead of cutoff so I was relieved about that. I grabbed some jelly belly beans and headed back to Pipeline.

So far so good. I felt great. No bad pain from my injured hamstrings, feet felt great, I was having a wonderful day. I get to Pipeline and ate another turkey and cheese rollup. The volunteers insisted on taking my photo with the sheep. The guy said the sheep's name was Snowball but the lady argued and said, no the sheep's name was Molly. Since it was a big white sheep, I thought Snowball was a much better name. But I had a race to finish so I didn't bother arguing about it.

Out of Pipeline, the path was another jeep road. That went straight up. Betsy Kalmeyer (eventual 2nd place women's winner of 50 miler) passed me and I watch her literally run right up the road like it was flat. I sighed a deep sigh and started up. I got to the top of it and looked ahead. Oh look another long steep climb. Imagine that. I really didn't want to walk up that road but I figured if Betsy could run it after going 40 miles, I could walk it.

At this point I was being passed regularly by finishing 50 milers. Some of them were pretty cute and they were all really fit so it was pretty entertaining. I had my head phones on at this point as I didn't like to hear my labored breathing. One guy passed me and startled me. He says, "Did I scare you?" I said, "No," then I said, "Yes." Another guy shouted at me before he got to me and that startled me. He said, "I'm sorry I was trying not to startle you" and I said, "Well you did."

I was listening to Vol Beat's "Wild Rover From Hell" which is a very motivational song to listen to when you are climbing another hill after a day of climbing hills.

This road took me back to Guaje where I saw the same two people who had been there that morning. What a godsend these volunteers were. They looked so cold and I told them how much I appreciated them sitting out there all day. They also had graham crackers with peanut butter, a favorite food so I was happy about that.

The next stretch went on forever. It was only five miles but it never seemed to end. It was through an open prairie area and the path was strewn with rocks and boulders. It was very windy and I felt a few drops of rain. I ran most of this part as I was ready to finish, I was worried it was about to storm, and still feeling pretty good. I guess because I had hardly been able to run all day with all the climbs.

I finally ran past a sign that said "Are you naughty?" as I continued on I saw another sign that said "Or are you nice?" The final aid station had a Christmas theme and a bunch of elves jumped up and down as I ran in clapping and cheering. I was told I had 1.9 miles to go and I needed anything? I said, "Well, to answer your question, I am naughty and all I need is to run 1.9 miles."

Never even stopping I ran through and started the last steep climb of the day. Fortunately it was not long and it finally leveled out to mostly flat dirt trail.

I finished in 12 hours 7 minutes. Char was right behind me in 12:13. Karen Riddle and Julie Bryant came in at 15:08. Laurie and Letha came in shortly after I did by car as they had missed the cutoff at the ski lodge about about half an hour.

I had a fantastic day. I felt good all day. I was very worried about my hamstrings and it was a non-issue. I have to assume my slow pace kept me feeling good and did not overstress my injury. The volunteers and aid stations were awesome. I was so happy all day. This is what I love. I loved this trail, the scenery was awesome and I had a great day.

Heard but not seen

This was the funniest story I heard from other runners. Fred Thompson was running with Joe Prusaitis. As so often happens in a race, you have a sudden urge that you must pay immediate attention to or suffer awful consequences. Fred apparently had used a bush on the way out to Ski Lodge that he especially liked. On the way out of Ski Lodge, he felt an urge again and was frantically looking everywhere for this specific bush that had served such a noble purpose. Joe finally asked Fred: What are you looking for? Fred revealed he was looking for his bush. And Joe says, "Fred, we didn't go out on the same trail we came in on." Fred immediately chose a new favorite bush to serve his purpose.

I don't know why but ultra runners love to talk about going to the bathroom on the trail. Letha had one especially humorous experience as she was parked on a log when a gentleman ran by. Letha requested that he not look. Well, he followed her up the trail with lots of questions. First, he said, how come your butt is as tan as your legs? Do you tan in the nude? Then he said, since I've just seen your butt, I feel like I should at least know your name. Then he said he wanted to follow her pretty legs up the trail since he'd seen her backside.

Another big exciting moment during this race was a little brown bear. As the volunteer was trying to shoo it away from the trail, Julie Bryant was telling him to leave it alone so she could get a picture. She didn't get the pic, but Diana Heynen's is posted on her Facebook page if you want to see it.

The 50-miler finishers were truly heroes in my book. More people than this finished but these are the ones I know about. Glenn Mackie (10:26:07) came in ninth. He was one place ahead of the women's winner Darcy Africa (who lives in Colorado by the way a huge advantage because of the altitude) Matt Crownover finished in 13:56 even though he got lost on top of the mountain. Mark Blenden (14:43:40), George Hitzfeld (13:47:53), Joe Prusaitis and Diana Heynen (16:40:30) and Fred Thompson (16:54:01). When Henry Hobbs came through, they said he made it and I heard he said, "Not by my watch." Apparently he was hoping to be pulled but Diana pulled his butt back out of there. He was the last person to "make" the cutoff. Fred, Jeff Synder, and Henry all came in at the same time and they made Fred go first and Henry and Jeff shared the honor of DFL (did finish last) in 16:40:03. Finishing this race in the allotted time was a huge accomplishment as many did not. Congrats to all these hard-core crazy people who take suffering to a whole new level!

Updated: May 19, 2009 @ 15:37 EDT