by Joe Prusaitis
May 16, 2009
There are over 400 people running today, spread across the 50 mile, 50km, and half marathon. The 50 milers start at 5am, the 50km at 6am, and the half, 2 hours later at 8am. Our group from Austin brings about 35 flat landers to try their luck on this beast of a race. Another 30 some Texans come in as well to add to the parade. Only the 50 mile group will start in the dark, and some of us will also finish in the dark. I have been looking forward to this race for a long time. I have heard how tough it is, with plenty of great climbs and descents, a great Hardrock trainer. I have no idea how I will do. I have come to give it a whirl and get what I can out of it.
Posse 0.0mi to Mitchell Trailhead 5.3mi : 907 gain / 734 lost
We begin in a mob of voices & shadows. I know quite a few of the voices, but there is nothing else I can make out. It is dark, and once we enter the trees, even darker. We bottleneck down into a narrow rock chute and are forced to stop, to wait for our section of the mob to squeeze into single file. I recognize Dalton just in front of me, without a shirt. I can’t make out much, due the tight conga line and the narrow beam of my headlamp, my attention is on a spot of trail just in front of me. We are on smooth single track, scattered with rocks, uneven, and skipping about at random. I get the gist our our route from the general direction the lights in front of me are moving, but the trail surface requires constant surveillance. It isn’t too bad, but it wont take much to put me on the ground.
Mitchell Trailhead 5.3mi to Guaje Ridge 7.1mi : 1540 gain / 170 lost
Our dry creek-bed turns to a 1500 foot switchback climb to the top of the ridge. Our 1st major climb. Most of us have bunched up as people do on long climbs. The sun rises on this climb, so it’s easy to pick out the packs of 4 and 5 people each. Matt, Henry, & Stuart are in the group with 4 others just ahead. Dalton & I are in a group of 5 also. The sun reveals a series of high ridges cascading off into the distance, each a different shade of green, with the sunlight cutting a sharp line across them from its perspective just over the horizon. Oh yea, this is what I came for: the views, the camaraderie, and the feeling of being part of it.
Guaje Ridge 7.1mi to Caballo Base 10.1mi : 835 gain / 1050 lost
The trail falls quickly off the high ridge, too quickly. it is way to steep a drop. My toes are crammed into the toe box of my shoes and canted toward the downhill side. I stop for just an instant to tighten the boa crank on my shoes as snug as I can, but that is the beauty of the boa, it only takes a second, and then I am moving again. A few people immediately in front of me are really struggling with the descent, grabbing trees, and tip toeing down a few of the grades carefully. I blow by easily, having been dealing with this process for years. I usually run very quietly, but in these instances, make as much noise as possible, just so they know I am behind them and coming fast. Some step aside and some do not. I get around them anyway. When the trail opens up in front, I stride out and go even faster. The trail is very twisted with steep loose dirt slides at almost every switch. It is too steep to descend slowly without sliding. The trick is to move quickly on steep descents, if you can. At the bottom is a beautiful narrow shaded valley, thick with trees and a dense undergrowth. The trail leads directly to a concrete dam with a 12 foot metal ladder attached. It looks so out of place. With both water bottles in one hand, I climb the ladder, one handed, swing around the side on top and continue into the dense forest growth. The trail weaves itself into the mountain stream, so I hop over the bubbling brook at uneven intervals. Its cool in here, dark and green, a lush hideaway. I catch glimpses of others up ahead as they appear and disappear as quickly: mountain spirits watching to make certain I don’t do any damage. They’ll soon realize the only the damage I’ll do is self inflicted. And then, I am find a haven of people in a place that seems to be a long way from anywhere.
Caballo Base 10.1mi to Caballo Top 12.1mi : 1771 gain / 45 lost
This is the 2nd major climb, so I sit on a rock to take a short break. Andi is working the station, so we visit while I eat. The lead 50km runners are already going up and the lead 50 milers are already coming down, so this is going to be a very awkward section, trying to climb, breathe, and dodge people going past in both directions. The dynamics of all the interaction will make it much more difficult. Its one big continuous climb to the top of the mountain, only to turn around and come right back down. I begin, and as I do, I find Henry right there with me. I try to focus on a comfortable stride that is short and easy, attempt to control my breathing, and unsuccessful at both. A comfortable rhythm evades me. It is impossible! People coming down and the people going up are all faster than me, forcing me aside again and again. No rhythm is found in the constant starting and stopping. Henry climbs much faster than me so he pulls ahead now and again, but we’re both forced to break, and the unevenness of it all keeps us close. It is good to see all the friends go by Its cold on top, the wind blowing hard through the open summit meadow. I check in, turn instantly, and start back down. The climb took 1 hour, roughly, and that surprises me. It seemed so much longer.
Caballo Top 12.1mi to Caballo Base 14.2mi : 45 gain / 1771 lost
We certainly make much better time going down, but still, the interruptions are almost as constant as they were going up. Its easier to breath heading down, so the misery switches from trying to breath to protecting the toes from the steep descent. My shoes seem to be coming apart, the seems have busted out of the upper around the toe box, so my feet are sliding inside my shoes, so the boa cranks are pretty much useless now. Rocks and dirt fill my shoes, but even if I stop to drain them, I’ll simply pick up more of the same. I keep going, with Henry right behind me. We pick up Fred near the bottom and also stop to kiss Joyce. She’s running the 50km, so I have an hour lead on her. She shows off a nice long bloody cut on one leg and says she is having a great time. We wish her well and continue down, as she goes up. I stop at the bottom to check my shoes, but they are hopelessly trashed, both of them. There is nothing I can do, but ride em out. I do not have a spare pair.
Caballo Base 14.2mi to Pipeline 17.0mi : 1169 gain / 222 lost
The three of us leave together, but Fred is moving much better than Henry and I, so he quickly disappears ahead of us. It doesn’t take long before we begin the long climb up out of the valley on a long set of switchbacks. the 3rd major climb has me stuck in granny gear, plodding along in a very slow and methodical manner. My speed is so slow that Henry easily walks ahead. Eventually and brainlessly, I top into a deep forest, where the trail flattens into an old logging road just under 10,000 ft. I am doing better with the altitude on a flat trail, so I start running again, but Henry is really struggling with the altitude, so I catch up to him again. Together we stroll down into the aid station. I drop my headlamp & sopping wet bandanas, drink some juice, and walk out with a turkey & cheese rollup.
Pipeline 17.0mi to Valle Grande 21.0mi : 49 gain / 1009 lost
We have been riding high up on ridge of mountains, and will circle back around to get back up to it again after 18 miles, but now we are diving off a cliff into the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The drop from the rim into the caldera is not only very steep, but also coated with loose dirt and rock. It is near to impossible to stay on your feet for the initial 30 yards. With no purchase for your feet and nothing to grab ahold of either, an incorrect route could take you tumbling down the mountain. Henry and I go over and down with water bottles in one hand and a cheese rollup in the other. A woman on the brink lets us pass, nervous about what to do. I lead, and immediately my feet slip out from under me. I hit the ground hard and slide another 10 feet further. Up again, I look for a better track, left and then right, switch back and forth a few more times before staying near to the trees on the right side. 100 yards down, I stop to wait for Henry. Another 100 yards and the ground begins to tilt up under our feet. We follow a faint single track that becomes a dirt road, flat and slightly downhill. We are in the caldera and it is beautiful all around us. The land opens up on either side, with a road going off to the right. There are no markers, but I know we need to stay left. We check the map to make certain. We are in the Valle de los Posos that should continue strait down into the wide Valle Grande. The rolling road is mostly downhill, so we run a bit and walk a bit. There are a few close behind us, but nobody out front. Looking for some confirmation we are on track and finding none leaves me feeling a little uneasy, but we agree that this looks and feels right. we keep on heading down and then a chalk arrow pointing left provides the warm fuzzy I was looking for. Not long after, the aid station. appears off in the distance.
Valle Grande 21.0mi to Pajarito Canyon 28.7mi : 1598 gain / 2444 lost
This next section seems like it has it all. A very large climb, a whole lot of descent, and a very long section as well. It begins so innocently, crossing a native clump grass prairie that is a lot further to cross than it first appears. It is wide open with nothing more than grass and a few rocks. The route is marked with flags and moves strait ahead towards nothing in particular. I tell Henry that I plan to take a break when we get into the tress, not realizing the trees are a lot further away than they appear. When we finally do fold into the trees. we pull up and sit down in the shade of a large pine, where I lie back on the soft grass and close my eyes. The wind is cool and it is unbelievably beautiful. What a wonderful place to be! Taking my thoughts off the task at hand for just a moment seems to give me more rest than a full blown aid station pit stop. A few people go past us before we pull up and begin again. We climb straight up through the trees to a rock field. Its a massive jumble of big jagged rocks, nothing smaller than a large suitcase and overgrown with green moss. I love to play about on rocks, and dance easily up and across, but realize it isn’t near as much entertainment for Henry. Once across, the trail continues strait up, parallel the rock flow, and relentless. Reaching the the summit proves to be just the first of a few false summits, no more than a saddle. Into a high open plain, filled with rough grass and a few scattered wind beat trees, the route turns, bending at an angle back around to the left, heading towards the highest point. Each turn, expecting to finally top out, only discovering another false summit, we seem to slog onward and upward for a very long time until Henry and I along with two others do finally find ourselves at the top of Cerro Grande. All of us stop and stare at each other for a moment, wondering if it can possible be true. And then I start down the other side. A rough, fresh made route marked thru the trees, steep in places, with fall downs to climb over and go around. It isn’t much of a trail and the flags are few, so we wonder a few times if we are still on, but I hold to the same general direction til we finally hit a wide open field down low. A guy shooting pictures waves us over in his direction. The route moves past him. We’ve already covered a good distance but we still have a long way to go. It all seems bit too much. The way our route constantly winds about, taking the most difficult ascents and descents, it doesn’t seem possible for us to get to the 5pm cutoff point in the amount of time we have left. With all the second guessing and doubts, it comes as a great relief when the trail suddenly opens up to us a glorious easy single track that bends at just the right angle to really cut loose. Our skinny single track wends its way down through an amazing oasis, a thin valley filled with tall trees and abundant shade. My legs sing with the pleasure of an easy descent to stretch out the tight muscles and relieve my aching feet. For miles we go and wonder how much longer it will stay this way. I dont want to stop, dont dare stop, and then I see the barb-wire fence dead ahead. Another runner is standing there looking at it, searching up along one side and down along the other. A single flag is on the other side waving at us, confirming that we must indeed find a way over the fence. There is no other obvious way, so we help each other across, and in the process, stack a few rocks to make the climb a little easier for the next person. There cant be more than a few runners behind us, but at least we might help them with this hurdle. Again we renew our downward flight. It all seems so easy until we finally reach the bottom and start to bend upwards once again. Its a jeep road, and a little confusing, so with map in hand, we slow down but keep going up. A few twists and turns later, we eventually wander into the longest aid station, very happy and pleased with ourselves.
Pajarito Canyon 28.7mi to Townsite Lift 32.6mi : 1281 gain / 54 lost
For the first time, we become acutely aware of the time and the thin chance we have of making the cutoff, still two aid stations away. We have 3 hours to cover close to 8 miles and 2 very big climbs. Besides the last bit of downhill, we have not been making good enough time to make it. The route out seems easy at first, a gradual climb, small ups and downs, but nevertheless going constantly up. My energy is renewed from the last long downhill, but is it enough? The trail seems to wander about in one direction only to head off in the exact opposite direction. The rhyme and rhythm of it, I just cant make out. I dont really know which direction the trail will eventually take us, and I have the map in my hand. Henry and I talk about it at length as we continue to climb and make our peace with the real possibility of not making the cut off of 5pm at the Ski Lodge. The reality of it is that we are right on the edge and depending on how tough the next climbs are will determine if we will make it or not. Making any real push seems beyond our abilities right now, but we continue as best we can regardless. The trail is dirt at first, from trail to road, then off road into a fresh cut track through a new forest of stunted trees and uneven prairie grass humps. No idea which way it will turn next, but we can hear road traffic nearby. It takes us about 1.5 hours to finally reach the next aid station at the lift. Usually, everybody is pretty upbeat when we come in, but this time, it feels different. I think they know we are too late to do the next section in time. The conversation is friendly but reserved. We’re told we have 1.5 hours and its strait up for the next 2.7 miles, and the downhill after it isn’t much fun either. I feel as they do that is not likely, but I simply have to see fro myself, so we simply check in and right back out.
Townsite Lift 32.6mi to Ski Lodge 36.2mi : 1409 gain / 1173 lost
As we start out, Mike comes out of the trees and walks in. It is good to finally see him, but he is now on the same bubble we are. We dont wait for him, we cant, also figuring he has caught us and must be moving faster than us anyway. We leave the base of Pajarito Ski area and start going up, heading to the very top. Its all uphill, bending back and forth, crossing two very steep ski runs and then occasionally going strait up. Mike catches us near the summit and we take a short break. When I start again, Mike & Henry dont follow immediately. I dont want to stop again til the top, so I keep moving. Once on top, I sit down to wait for them, only to have Ulli come out on top instead. Ulli tells me we have 28 minutes and can make it if we keep moving. We must go, he says, so I get up and go with him. We drop down and then back up again, then crossways and up some more, passing a big blue bench, and then up some more. It all seems so confusing with flags everywhere and going all around the mountain top. Finally we start to drop strait down the middle of a very steep slope. Ulli says we have 18 minutes, so I start to run strait down. My toes scream, the ankles whine, my legs & knees post notice that what I am doing is not good for anything but getting off the mountain in the quickest way possible. Down and down I run until I reach a cross road that leads me round a group of trees and there is the lodge. I have minutes to spare and am completely in shock that I have made it. I am 36.2 miles in and it has taken me 12 hours to get here. Robert is there and tells me I need to hurry. Get in and get out, you have minutes! I am exhausted, but what about my friends.
Ski Lodge 36.2mi to Pipeline 39.1mi : 629 gain / 293 lost
Ulli comes in 1 minute later. I check out and walk just far enough to make certain I am removed from the station, where I stop and wait, looking back up the mountain to see if they make it. Minutes later, Mike is running in. According to my watch, it is past time, but I dont know for certain when I walk out with Ulli. Is it a done deal? Are we the back of the buss, the last people to make the 5pm 12 hour cut at Ski Lodge? There are no more cuts for the final 11 miles, so there is no longer any reason to hurry. According to the aid station chart, there are also no more climbs of any significance. Relief floods thru me and I relax. Ulli and I saunter along the trail, chatting comfortably, having a wonderful relaxing time. We hike up the trail talking of things gone by and other odd news, alongside a beautiful wide field. I wonder about Mike and the others and turn to see Mike coming up behind us. I am very surprised to also see the others too, coming up behind Mike… Henry, Diana, and Jeff. They all made the cut! And we are all together, the entire back of the pack bringing it in as one. A joyous reunion and an uplifting feeling washes over me, knowing that Mike, Henry, and Diane also made it. I had no idea Diana was even close. We catch up on each others stories on the gradual climb across the open prairie and into the forest. In short order, we all roll together into the next aid station.
Pipeline 39.1mi to Guaje Ridge 42.8mi : 316 gain / 1048 lost
Fred is there and joins us when we leave. With some warm clothes and a headlamp, our parade heads out, walking down the road with 7 miles to go. Its a rough dirt road with a few big rollers, and we split up into each of our own easy paces. Somebody says something about all of us coming in tied for DFL, which draws a good hearty chuckle, but it is no more than a thought. There is no way that this well used group of thoroughly abused runners can manage to stay together. It is beyond any of us to do any thing that requires a thought or a plan. Mike and Diana go ahead, separating from us quickly, then Ulli and me next, walking, but walking much faster than the group behind us. Henry and Jeff next, followed by Fred. The rough road turns to rough single track that bends downhill all the way to the next aid station. As we approach the station, Ulli and I find that Fred has tucked in behind us. Our mixed band of dead last runners accordions along such that Diana leaves as we come in while Henry and Jeff come in as we leave.
Guaje Ridge 42.8mi to Rendija Canyon 48.1mi : 36 gain / 1792 lost
The single track continues downhill with Fred looking for the next best place to unload himself. Fred seems to be looking for something specific, and after 30 minutes or more, I ask him about it. As trail runners, the perfect place seems to be pretty easy to find, so I’m confused why he doest just go, if he needs to take care of business. Poor Fred has been dealing with this all day, such that he is looking for the same perfect place on the return trip that he stopped on the going out trip. Fred, we have a different route going back than we have coming back. Its a different trail. The meaning of it finally hits him when he realizes that he is not going to see the same spot. Seconds later, he steps off the trail. I feel so bad for Fred, but it is funny too. Ulli and I keep going, and I try not to laugh.
As the sun drops over the horizon and the moon begins to light our way, we drift thru a burned our dead tree forest. The thing most notable about this forest of the dead is the sound the wind makes as it whistles thru the many holes in the black hulks. It has the sound of somebody whispering just on the edge of understanding. I find myself canting my head so that I might catch a word by tuning my head at the right angle. Its not all that ugly or ghastly as much as it is interesting. Soon after the burn, we pull up on Diana. I get involved in conversation with Diana and without realizing it, have picked up my pace and dropped Ulli. Diana and I meander down a dirt road, following a few well marked turns, and then it is dark. I know that everybody is close, but in the dark, it feels as if we are all alone. We go without lights for a bit under the moons half light, until we drop down into a dark slot, where I start to worry a bit about missing a flag or a step. I’ve been dragging my feet for some time, thumping into one rock after another, without much of a concern about it, until now in the dark and a deep canyon off my left shoulder. As soon as I turn my headlamp on, i start thumping into everything. I need to get adjusted to using the light. It certainly lights the space in front of me, but everything peripheral has disappeared into blind darkness outside the beam.
The wind has been intermittently blowing off and on all day. For minutes only, it blows hard and cold, then it is gone, leaving me hot and sweaty. My gloves are either in my hands or on my hands. I left my wide brimmed hat at Pipeline and now wear a pullover do-rag with headlamp. I have 2 shirts on and a rain jacket wrapped around my waist. The rain seems to have been right on the edge all day, raining for a few drops only and then nothing. I have felt it more than a few times all day, but it has never busted loose. For me, it has been almost the perfect weather. We finally roll into the last aid station before the finish, but have no reason to stay. They are a cheerful bunch playing on a christmas them, but its only 2 miles to done, so we leave quickly.
Rendija Canyon 48.1mi to Finish 50.0mi : 426 gain / 206 lost
We start with a nice little climb, a few switchbacks, up and out. It is so dark, my world is reduced to the small beam directly in front of me, and no more. Diana and I rise up and then it becomes a gently rolling trail on in. Arrows point in both directions on the ground indicating I am going the correct way… this being the return route that was the same trail that I went out more than 16 hours ago. I didn’t see anything then and I still cant see anything now. There is little to remember and my senses are more tuned to the pain in my feet than in trying to recall bits & pieces of trail I may have glimpsed on the way out. Diana remembers this much better than me, having seen this in the daylight last year. I stay on task with the trail marking and she has good recall, so between the two of us, we manage to stay on route without any hiccups. The final climb finally does arrive as we start up and out of the creek through a tight rocky chute with so much rock on both sides that my knuckles drag on both hands. Possible I have regressed to my neanderthal roots. I hear a voice just ahead in the dark saying ‘congratulations’ and I know it is Joyce. We are pretty much done and when she sees it is Diana & me coming in, she runs ahead to lead us the final 50 yards or so, around the corner and across the finish line. Most of our friends are patiently waiting for us and have been there for many hours. It is a pleasure to be done and a pleasure to have done it. What a treat to have so many friends there to share in the accomplishment. It simply adds to the enjoyment of it all.
The course is one of the prettiest I have been on, the weather would be hard to beat, and the race one of the most difficult I have attempted. 16:40 to cover 50 miles is testament enough for me. It wasn’t my best day, my own training was lacking a bit, but we all carry a few demons on these adventures, so I was very happy to finish the entirety of it. I wasn’t sure I would make the cutoff. Actually, I was pretty certain I would not. The panoramic views were gorgeous all day long. There was not a single section I did not like. I could have stopped anywhere and did, just to enjoy the spectacular views all around. The high desert mountains seem to hold a special bond for me for some reason. I thought the scenery breathtakingly beautiful for the entire route. The Caldera, Caballo, and so on. I had the real pleasure of spending many hours with so many dear friends. Hours on end with Henry Hobbs, Mike Sawyer, Diana Heynen, Ulli Kamm, Dalton Wilson, Fred Thompson, and others. The journey was sweet, the struggle real, and the reward – priceless.