Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Jemez Mountain 50 km race report
The Jemez Mountain 50 km was enticing because it promised dry heat. After the abysmally wet, cold winter that continues to hang over the Pacific Northwest, I would have taken any excuse to go somewhere warm and dry. It wasn’t until one week before the race that I pulled up the race website and had a look at what I had signed up to run. That was when I realized that I was in for a lot more than a warm, dry weekend away.
Firstly, there was the course profile. This is where I learned that New Mexico is high (pardon my ignorance).
Our starting elevation would be 7500 ft. This sea level dweller would begin running at altitude a mere 21 hours after leaving the comfort of thick, oxygen-rich sea air. Oi.
Then, I perused the race results from previous years. There, in print, was a 14+ hour for a 50 km finish. Unbelievable!
Next, I saw the chart of course elevation gain and loss. There would be over 7700 ft of climb and descent. Our highest point would be 10 480 ft on the summit of Caballo Peak. This ascent would be a climb of over 1700 ft. There would also be two other significant climbs of 1500 ft and 1169 ft. This casual, fairweather runner was facing more climbing in a single day than she had put into training so far this year. Yikes!
Finally, I read through a few of the blogs posted on the website. “comparable to Hardrock” “toughest races in the country” and two DNF reports. Mercy….
Needless to say, I was intimidated. But my wise friend Marie gave me a pep talk and put the race into perspective.
(please read with endearing French Canadian accent)
It is same elevation gain as the Frosty 50km, but at altitude. Conserve on the downhills. Save your legs for the climbs. Reel in those who don’t know how to conserve.
And so I decided not to worry about it. It was actually kind of nice to know that I could take 14 hours to finish if I wanted to. My approach was to climb only as hard as my lungs could take and to run only when it was runnable. Simple, really.
The course was beautiful and the weather was perfect. There were eerie burned sections which reminded me of the Scorched Sole course in Okanagan Mtn Park in Kelowna. The soil was dusty and I enjoyed that dry taste on my lips that I get when running WITP in Kenna Cartwright Park in Kamloops.
The first climb, aka MitcHELL climb, was over even before I had found my own space among the 180 50 km starters. When I got to the first downhill switchbacks on the other side, I was trapped behind some pussy-footing, technical scaredy-cats, but I reminded myself that blasting downhill so early in the day would only hinder my climbs later on. As we cruised through the canyon bottom, I stopped to deal with nagging heal blisters which persisted all day.
After re-taping my feet at Caballo Base aid station, I headed up on the biggest climb of the day. Marie’s voice reminded me that I would be climbing for an hour, so just put my head down and get it done. With the constant stream of downhill runners, both 50 milers and 50 km, the hike went by quickly with little time to reflect on my shortness of breath. In less than an hour, I summited and was greeted by many hardy volunteers who had spent the night out in the sub-zero temperatures just for us.
I soaked in the views, posed for an impromptu photo shoot, thanked the vollies and headed on down. By now, the crowds had finally dissipated and it was easier to find a comfortable pace. I took the opportunity to open up my stride and fly down the hill. Only once did I catch my toe and have my life flash before my eyes, before regaining my balance and continuing on.
The next climb, called Pipeline, caught me by surprise. Everyone had talked about the challenges of Mitchell and Caballo, but no one had groaned about Pipeline. It went on and on and on. There were switchbacks (which were a nice touch) but they were steep. I tried to keep sight of the woman in front of me, but I had to rest and catch my breath fairly often. It was a welcome relief to finally see a rock cairn and a viewpoint as we levelled off. I rolled into Pipeline aid station and analyzed my water intake. I was still carrying around some full water bottles from the last aid station, so I knew that I needed to get smart about my electrolytes. Then, stupidly, I ate a piece of watermelon. It was the wettest, juiciest, reddest watermelon that I have ever seen and it was the first watermelon that I had seen since last summer. Too tempting to pass by. That watermelon succeeded in halting all digestive progress for the rest of the day. It sat there in my gut, reminding me that, although it is a beautiful looking fruit, it is poison to me while running. Note to self – never eat watermelon.
The next section or two are a bit of a blur. I felt wobbly as I rolled into the Ski Lodge station. It felt like my eyeballs were too big for my head and I wasn’t quite able to focus on the people speaking to me. The first aid guy spotted me right away and sat me in the shade, asking me what I needed. What I needed was an oxygen tank and some thick sea air. I sat for a while, drank a whole lot and eventually got myself back together. I knew that getting off this mountain was the ticket to feeling better. As soon as I got going again, I felt good. In fact, I was running strong and even keeping pace (for a little while) with the fourth place 50 miler who had just passed me.
The best part of the day was yet to come as there were 10 miles of mostly downhill ahead. I honestly felt like I flew through this part and I passed a whole lot of runners. Although the reported mileage in this section was inaccurate, I ran well, getting passed only by speedy 50 milers on their way to top ten finishers. (Way to go, Blake!)
I rolled into the final aid station, manned by Steve and Deb Pero, with 31 miles already done. I still had 1.9 miles to go but it seemed safe to take them up on their offer of tasty beer. I had a cup of chicken soup and 3 glasses of beer (not full pints, mind you!), hoping that would ease the pain of my bloated watermelon gut. As a gaggle of racers arrived, I suddenly felt competitive and had to skedaddle. I ran most of the way in, hoping to stay out of sight from the followers. With a final grunt up a cool narrow chute, I recognized the stables by the Posse Shack and the finish line. The clock read 8:51 which was exactly what I had hoped for. This put me at 80/148 overall, 24/54 woman and 9/22 in the W 40-49 age division.
Overall, it was an awesome day on a beautiful course. It is such a treat to run in places with geology so different from that at home. The climbs were tough and the altitude posed a new challenge, but I would not say that this was the toughest race I have ever done. The race is so well-organized with amazing volunteers and ‘sumptuous’ aid stations. I hope to return another day.