"Keep Your Sh.... Together!"
I'd really enjoyed running the rolling jeep road of the gorgeous Valles Caldera section, and just come through the aid station at mile 25.4. You're in a volcanic valley a couple miles wide, surrounded by tall green mountains on either side, with occasional pools of water in the tall brownish colored grass to either side. It had been turning dark throughout that section, with a few distant rumbles of thunder, though no lightning. As it started to rain, I stopped, pulled the shell off the back of my hydration vest pack, pulled out my water-repellent EMS hat, and zipped up the jacket and put the hood over my hat.
A steady light rain turned heavier as the course markings had you make a left off the dirt road and into the deep grasslands, running maybe a mile across it toward the steep climb up the saddle between Pajarito and Cerro Grande mountains. I noticed it was raining at sort of a 45 degree angle created by the wind. Big robust drops. "Pretty cool," I thought, "feels like I'm on the moors of the Scottish Highlands." After the first few minutes going through the grass, the three or so runners way off in the distance had disappeared up the mountain, and that was the last I would see of any soul for the harrowing next five miles or so.
The calm before the storm on the Caldera
As you left the Caldera floor, the off-trail section, with its orange flags every 20-30 yards to guide you, turned steeply upward. Now it was rocks and stones, interspersed with some of the grassy stuff, along with downed trees, and was increasingly muddy. As I navigated that gnarly combination of uphill terrain making use of my trekking poles, often having to stop to figure out which was the flags were taking me in this trail-less section and having to hoist myself over downed trees, the rain turned to sleet. No biggie, I thought-- back in '08 I remembered encountering flurries under a sunny sky precisely in this area of the race, up on the top of Cerro Grande ("Big Peak") which was off and above to my right--now closed to the race due to the 2010 Las Conchas forest fire.
Soon the sleet turned to flurries, as I got higher up the mountain, the crest of the saddle and flatter ground still nowhere in sight, visibility diminishing by the minute. And then the flurries gave way to big flakes, and I noticed the white stuff was accumulating on the ground.. It was getting colder by the minute, and my fingertips and hands were getting cold with the baseball gloves I'd just bought and cut the fingertips off a day prior to leaving home in NYC (per the suggestion of a bikes sales guy at a store)--all this so I'd have a warm-weather option for resisting hand chafing with the poles. I thought, "Why did I change out of the warmer full bike gloves I'd been wearing at the 18 mile aid station?", making use of my drop bag at the Ski Lodge aid station. It had been in the mid-60s or more at that moment, sunny, and I didn't expect to be encountering snow or super chilly temps, having already been once to the highest point on the course on Pajarito ski mountain where it wasn't too nippy and I was comfortable with just my short sleeve, arm warmers, and vest.
(Springsteen once sang) I don't want to fade away...in that snow!
The white stuff is comin' down hard...and my mountaineering gear is back home in dry storage!
As I continued the ascent, I thought to myself how ironic it was to be encountering this kind of weather after a hard winter of running trails in and around New York with a lot colder temsps and more snow--and then climbing Mt. Whitney in mid-March on a four-day alpine mountaineering expedition. On all those occasions, though, I'd been prepared and had the right gear, but none of the three forecasts I checked was talking about snow in late May even up at 9 or 10K elevation! To warm my hands, I resorted to a mountaineering trick, stopping to put my poles down and stuff my hands in my crotch. Later on, in order not to lose momentum, I put both poles in one hand, and alternated stuffing one and then the other right on the skin of my belly. I kept zipping the front of the jacket until the opening for my face was as small as possible.
As I crested the saddle, the flags led me across a grassy meadow, still no trail in site, and the "path" was quite slick as it started to turn downhill. Something like an inch on the ground, accumulating fast. I flashed back to the long grassy section we'd had in this area in the '08 race, which I remembered as being pretty cool.. I should have been able to make good time and pick up the poles and glide the downhill (figuratively but hopefully not literally). I really needed to, also, as I kept looking at my glacial mile splits on my GPS and realized I needed to hustle to make the next two hard cutoffs as miles 31 and then 38. The conditions and terrain had really slowed down the great progress I'd been making for the last couple hours. But I found I needed to tread carefully and keep using the poles. The last thing I needed was to fall and hurt myself, halfway through a tough section amidst a freak May snowstorm that showed no signs of relenting.
As the grassy off-trail section gave way to an actual single track trail, mostly trending downhill, the snow gave way to a steady chilly rain. Perfect hypothermia conditions, I thought, must be just above freezing, my base layers are chilled, legs cold with just Race Ready shorts, and hands f...in' freezing. It was getting really hard to grip the poles, but I wanted to keep them handy . I briefly started feeling sorry for myself and whimpering a little. Not because I thought I wouldn't make it out of there in one piece. I trusted my backwoods survival skills and cold weather experience enough there. But because I knew, with how this was slowing things down, that the smooth progress through the last two hard cutoffs and on toward a finish was increasingly in jeopardy. And I knew that a return trip to Pajarito Mountain loomed after the next aid station, cresting out at 10,400' or so, and it must be snowing like the blazes up there! I could hear the window whistling in the canyon as I headed toward Pajarito Canyon aid station miles ahead, and especially up toward the top of the mountain. Twice I yelled out loud to the forest around me, "Keep your sh.... together! Don't panic!"
I was thrilled to be back at Jemez after six years. It was going to be my final and longest tune-up race before a return date with the Bighorn 100 four weeks hence. And I was happy to be accompanied by good friend Steve Cooper from Maryland, also training for Bighorn. I was also curious about how much the 2010 fire had altered the character of the course, which I remembered as being truly epic, reaching three different peaks above 10,000 feet.
The race proved to be as well organized and marked as ever, despite a brief wrong turn I took as we entered the property of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, around mile eight;. The mountainous single track had plenty of twists and turns, and just enough rocks to satisfy an Eastern trail runner while still being conducive to running or some fascimile thereof when it wasn't too steep. The views back down toward the town of Los Alamos, and of the Sangre de Cristo mountains north of Santa Fe in the distance, were spectacular. Fortunately, I'd brought a camera this time, and was reminded, when runners craned their necks or stopped for the views or stopped to take pictures, that I should spare a few second to do the same.
Eerily beautiful--views of and from the course in the early miles
Somewhere around four and a half hours in, as it got warmer and we climbed upward over a section rising some 3000' for our first encounter with Parajarito Mountain, I had a little crisis. I was feeling a little weak, sightly lightheaded (particularly once when I bent over to pick up something I'd dropped and it hit me when standing back up), breathing pretty hard and was getting passed by a lot of 50K'ers (who'd started any hour later) and some 50 milers. Not hyperventilating or anything that dramatic, just working way harder than I thought I should be that early in the race. I also feared I was nearing dreaded DFL place. We were probably at around 88,500 feet. So I stopped to regroup and got off to the side of the trail beside a tree, reached into my pack for two Advil and half a Vivarin caffeine tablet, and took half a package of energy chews. In retrospect, it was probably a combination of the quick rise in elevation for my unacclimatized sea level lungs, not eating quite as frequently as I should with my "small frequent bites" approach, the rising temperatures, and just that point somewhere in the range of three to five hours into a race when I usually experience a temporary lull in energy.
I quickly rallied after the short stoppage and my "med break," got into a better climbing rhythm, and felt my breathing stabilizing. So I actually felt better as we topped out on Pajarito, passing four 50 milers, than I had felt most of the way up. The views from up there were primo, and it was so cool to pass chairlifts and stare down various slopes with names like "Breathless" and "Precious" (those two marked "experts only"!), as we traversed the top of the ski mountain, before heading down. "Down" meaning some steep sections right down slopes, and at other points traversing slopes and running through the woods between slopes and past and over wooden bridges designed for mountain bikers! One guy I passed said something about this not being his type of section, as he slammed on the brakes so as not to go tumbling down a 30 or more degree gradient.
The only lifts running today were of the two-legged variety!
An assortment of slopes for your downhill running pleasure!
Looking back down the trail switchbacking up Pajarito Mountain
Looking down on the Valles Caldera from atop Pajarito Mountain (ca. 10,440')
After about 13 minutes at the Ski Lodge station reloading food and water, reapplying sunscreen,swapping out gloves, etc., I had a pretty good section on the nearly three miles of dirt road and then single track to Pipeline. Somewhere in the middle a shirtless guy passed me quickly, one of what I assumed were the faster of the 50k'ers who were whizzing by periodically and probably a knockoff of the "one and only" shirtless ultraunner dude. But then the two runners ahead of me asked him "Are you Anton?," he replied yes, they said excitedly "you're lapping us," and I quickly reached for my camera to try to capture the famous Tony Kripucka in the distance. He would go on to finish in a scorching fast 8:07 (the women's winner, Diane Finkely, came in in 10:23). I had just watched the gripping DVD movie of his epic battle with other top runners in the 2010 Western States 100, "Unbreakable," not three days before, where he ended up a close second.
Hey, it's the naked guy!
After Pipeline the descent to the Caldera on the infamous talus slope was even hairier than I remembered from '08 (photos like the one below just can't capture that amount of verticality--were it a snow slope and we were mountaineering, we would have been roped up in a team with ice ax and crampons, suffice to say, perhaps even on belay). Only poles and some handholding of logs and crabwalking and butt-sliding enabled me to stay upright as I SLOWLY traversed down.
Down, down, down into the abyss!
The ensuing caldera section was a highlight. I felt good and was able to run most of the rolling dirt road with the endless vistas ahead (albeit of an increasingly dark sky) and of high mountains on either side. Although a couple runners who were really booking passed me. As I came in to Valle Grande aid station, the runner coming up on me asked for the mileage, and I noticed for the first and only time in the race the official mileage coincided with my Garmin (25.4). The first raindrops fell then as I was talking to one of the young children with the volunteers there. It made me think of my 3-year-old Mihiret back home, and I was feeling strong and in good spirits. Little did I know what lay ahead! All of which brings me back to my story....
All's Well That Ends...Safe, Warm and Dry!
My exhortations to myself during the winter-like storm, as I worked my way up the saddle and then over it and toward and down Pajarito Canyon--no one in sight in either direction as far as the eye could see-- were pretty basic: "Don't panic," "Keep moving," that kind of stuff. I didn't have any more layers to put on, and my fingers and hands were getting stiff. Alternating putting one then another against the bare skin of my belly as I ran brought some temporary relief, as I kept switching my poles to the other hand. This wasn't a time to stop and stow them, and besides I wanted to have them handy as the trail was slick even as it headed downhill. The last thing I wanted was to fall and twist an ankle so far from aid, and I assumed there were no other runners behind me (though I found out later there were four of five remaining).
The change back from snow to rain as I descended into the canyon and onto an actual trail was a mixed blessing at best--my feet and legs were wet, core clammy, and I felt colder with the rain than with the snowflakes. I could hear the wind whipping above me on what I took to be Pajarito Mountain, though fortunately it wasn't blowing too strong where I was, with the protection of the canyon. Unfortunately, this was one of those interminable sections, longer than advertised (6.95 by my GPS, as opposed to the 6.0 on the official race chart). Rather than being worried I wouldn't make it to safety, my concern was really more about the time I was losing to the cold and slower conditions, spoiling what was shaping out to be a good race (I was about an hour and a half under the first hard cutoff at mile 18.6). I wondered: Would I (a) make the next cutoff at 3:30 PM at the upcoming aid station at Pajarito Canyon (official mile 31.4) and (b) make it there with enough margin to have a decent shot at making the 5PM hard cutoff back at Ski Lodge--with a cold, snowy, windy climb up Pajarito lurking to get there? Should I plan to drop at the Canyon aid station even if I had a margin, and would the Canyon aid station volunteers start quizzing me about how I felt, convincing me I should drop? This second 3:30 cutoff had only been announced race morning (or maybe at the prerace briefing the night before we didn't attend, not sure--how "hard" was it anyway?. I thought ahead to my small drop bag at this station--I couldn't remember if maybe I had another shell there (or was it at the bigger dropbag at 38?), maybe a pair of gloves, but would the bag be sitting out and would the rain have soaked through the bag and inner stuff sack? For sure, I knew I had more substantial layers and a dry pair of socks and Goretex shoes way further ahead of 38, but what good was that? Would there at least be hot liquids here at 31 so I could warm up a little?
These were the questions swirling in my head, as I forged ahead. There were some shivers, but it never started to get uncontrollable, thank goodness. I felt like if I stopped, it would. The shell was my salvation, as was getting to lower ground, and being in a canyon. All this in a section that seemed to go on forever where I expected the aid station a full mile before it came. And one with very sparing markings, maybe only every mile or so, so I thought, not such a great place or time to get off-trail! But at least I sort of remembered the section from '08, and there were very few places where you might make a wrong turn.
My hopes of getting in by 3PM came and went, But my inclination was to at least soldier on toward the last hard cutoff at mile 38--that would be a decent amount of mileage, 50K++, on a course that was very good prep for Bighorn four weeks away. And with a good climb and descent, I might even make the 38 cutoff, who knows? Never stop running when you're ahead of the cutoffs! I thought maybe this was one of those localized, passing mountain storms, so I didn't know quite what it was like elsewhere on the course. Maybe better? And I still was moving halfway decent, though I wasn't eating or drinking much (incredibly, however, I had to stop and pee a couple times, maybe with all the rain as aural stimulation?!). I figured the temperature must have been in the upper 30s to lower 40s by that time. As I got closer to what turned out to be the aid station, the rain actually stopped, and I could even see a few peaks of sun behind the clouds. It was a few degrees warmer. Changeable mountain weather might finally be working in our favor, I thought!
As I ran the last few yards into the aid station, a friendly female volunteer came to greet me on the trail, telling me, "the race has been called." I grabbed her arm and told her, "To tell you the truth, I'm relieved." I wasn't sure what lay ahead, I told her. She explained that four of five runners had turned back down from Pajarito Mountain, facing horrendous conditions. Runners were being stopped in place in aid stations, or even asked to return to previous ones, all so that they could get to locations where they could be transported safely off the course. A male volunteer came up and gave me a welcome cup of hot chocolate. I told them I had a drop bag, they handed it to me, and they told me to get in the cab of the idling truck. In the driver's seat was one of those runners who'd turned back, a 20-something shivering uncontrollably in just a t-shirt, trying to get more heat to come out of the heater.
So, that's where my race ended, at mile 32.4 by my Garmin, and after 10:11 running time, so a little less than 20 minutes under the hard cutoff at that point. In a matter of minutes, they said we had a ride to the start/finish at Posse Shack, and we walked the quarter mile or so down the trail to the road, where two cars were waiting to take away some 5 or 6 runners. They quickly bundled us in blankets, and turned up the heat full blast in the cars. A nice young guy who'd run the half marathon earlier drove me and two other runners the 15 minutes or so back into town and to the Posse Shack. We exchanged war stories, and it was clear they had had it even rougher as they were up on Pajarito Mountain when the storm hit. I have to say, the volunteers were wonderful in every way--at the aid stations, at Pajarito in particular, the folks driving us to safety, everyone. Once we got out of the car at Posse Shack, the change in temperature really hit me, and that's when I started shivering like crazy. Till I could get into my car, crank up the heat, and change into three layers of dry clothes and dry socks and shoes.
As I ate some of the wonderful New Mexican fare they had on store, including a delicious burger from the grill with a fried green chile, I wondered about Steve, as runners slowly got transported back (and some 50K finishers came in). As I was back sitting in the car talking to my wife Esperanza, I saw him standing outside the car, just back. His first words as we hugged: "I almost died up on that mountain." He proceeded to tell me he had been up near the top of Pajarito in the driving snow, freezing, conditions very slick, difficulty seeing the trail flags, not knowing whether to keep going toward Ski Lodge or head back to Pajarito Canyon aid station. He had loaned an extra jacket from his pack to another younger runner who was running in just a tee. Steve's a tough pediatrician and experienced ultrarunner, so no shrinking violet! In the end, he and a local runner decided to shortcut off the course down an access dirt road descending the mountain that the guy knew from mountain biking. Not only was it shorter, but the footing was also better than on the course. That way they made it to Ski Lodge, could warm up inside, change into whatever they had in their drop bags, and wait till a car could transport them back to Ski Lodge. Clearly, his experience had been even more harrowing than mine. At the same time, he was raving about how wonderful the course was, how tough, saying he had no regrets making the trip out from the East Coast for the race.
Requiem for a Freak May Snowstorm
The weather had been weird ever since we landed in the area the day before. A storm with substantial rain and some hail blew in as we got settled in our hotel room in Santa Fe. This was the first substantial rain I remember witnessing in this my fourth or so trip to New Mexico and third stay in Santa Fe since about 2000. Then a few hours later, we encountered traffic snarls as it turned out the storm had knocked out power in a section closer to downtown, and we had trouble finding an open restaurant for our pre-race dinner. As we searched along a major thoroughfare, the heavens opened again, and we could barely see the address numbers as we looked for a restaurant we'd found on our smartphones.
We all knew there was a chance of isolated thundershowers, and highs were predicted in the mid-60s for Los Alamos. None of the three forecasts I'd checked had said anything about snow or temperatures cold enough to support snow. That said, common sense as well as the race manual indicated that temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees colder as well as higher winds were common at higher elevations, and we were urged to carry layers and shells in case of t-storms. So, pretty much all of us were prepared for inclement and cooler weather...just not for winterish weather! Why oh why did I leave those Marmot precip pants, which I have used at Bighorn overnight in June, back in the hotel room?!
One thing we all knew, and no one I've heard has questioned among the racers--the organizers did the right thing pulling the plug on the race. One guy did have to get taken by ambulance and was treated for hypothermia (apparently he recovered quickly). Only 50 of the 170 or so 50 milers got to finish, and they were far enough along to either be at lower elevations or to be past any point where they could feasibly be evacuated from the course. I heard zero complaints after the race or in any online comments since. The organization of the course was stellar, the course well marked, the volunteers very helpful, and the improvised crisis management impressive. Hats off!
On a personal note, what I take away from this experience--besides some high-quality Bighorn training despite the interrupted mileage--is a sense that you can't be too careful and should always expect the worst in the mountains. Whatever the season. I'm often seen as sort of over-preparing and packing dropbags that are too large and carrying the kitchen sink in my pack (a guy literally used that term describing my pack to his running companion at the Hyner 50K in PA in April--could have smacked the smirky young "dude with the 'tude'!). But if you spare anything when it comes to warmth and weather protection, you might regret it. Sometimes even I've scraped by sections in the mountains with only a light wind or rain jacket stowed away in case, less substantial than the new Marmot jacket I was carrying that really got me through this time. I'll remember Jemez next time when deciding what to carry, and eagerly bare the burden of those extra ounces. I remember Steve debating the day before and morning of the race whether to carry his shell or put it in a dropbag, and I know he realizes he made the right decision in carrying it. I still think, however, that experiences involving lightning in the mountains are the most harrowing, and fortunately that wasn't the case there, at least for me and I don't think for many others.
The other thing--seems trivial--is to just do whatever it takes to stay calm, and try to get into a sort of problem-solving mode, and break things into segments. What lies ahead, what will it take to get me there, how can I deal with any immediate discomforts or dangers? As long as you are moving in a direction you know is likely to take you to a safer location, keep moving. I can't say I was thinking everything through in a calm, collected way, but I believe in hindsight my instincts from previous experiences on the trail and mountaineering were basically good. Now if I'd somehow gotten off-trail in the middle of that storm, and realized I didn't have a detailed course map.....well, sometimes it's better not to go there!