Sunday, May 23, 2010

Jemez Mountain 50 Miler

Wow, that one hurt!

Jemez is easily the toughest 50-mile race I have ever run, and the rate of attrition among runners was, not surprisingly, quite high. The race committee offered 50-mile racers the option of dropping down to the 50km race at the Pipeline (17-mile) aid station if they weren't feeling it, and it turned out that a lot of people chose that option, which is a shame because the real test/fun on this course starts about 50 meters after the Pipeline aid station and never really lets up from there until the finish. So anyway, before I get into the meat of this trip report, hats off to everyone who gutted it out in the 50-mile race and chose to experience the beauty of the Caldera, Cerro Grande (10,200') and Pajarito Mountain (10,400') - just unbelievable stuff.

So I picked up Lucho in Denver Friday morning and we enjoyed a relatively quick and uneventful trip down to Los Alamos by way of Taos and Alamosa. We had arranged to stay with Dick and Judy Opsahl who, as it turned out, were incredibly gracious hosts, making the short stay in Los Alamos that much more memorable. I'm going to have to check, but I think Dick is the oldest ever finisher of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. At the age of 66 he completed the four oldest 100-milers in the country: Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch. Not surprisingly then, the conversation at the Opsahl's house was lively and incredibly fun.

The engaging Dick and Judy Opsahl

Dick and Judy live in a beautiful location nestled on the outskirts of town in a wooded oasis, just a mile and a half from the start line. Dick has a trail that he built (the Opshal trail) leading from his back gate to the trail system that we would run on the next day. Tim and I jumped on the opportunity after our six-hour drive to run a couple of miles on the course so we could shake the inertia out of our legs and also get a little sneak preview of the course.

We got to packet pick-up soon thereafter and hung out with some of the guys we would be running with the next day: Nick Lewis, Dakota Jones, Bryan Goding, Ryan Burch, Brooks Williams, Karl Meltzer (platform shoes and all) and on and on. The hall was packed with trail running enthusiasts, which is always a pleasure to see.

Got a terrible night's seep and woke up to the sound of multiple alarms at 3:20 in the morning - quite possibly the toughest part of the whole day. Friends Pete Stevenson and Mike Priddy were also staying with Dick and Judy, and they slipped off to the race start a couple minutes before Tim and I. Soon after they left, I started looking for my car keys, and in an increasing state of panic realized that I wasn't going to find them in time. Having not found them by 4:30, Tim and I were getting ready to add an extra mile or two to our day by running to the start. Fortunately, there was another group staying at the Opsahl's and they were just beginning to rouse for their 50k race, which started an hour after the 50 miler, and were agreeable to saving us from a panic-stricken warm-up by driving us to the start.

Tim Waggoner, aka Lucho, at 4:00 am race morning.

Mike Priddy.

Last-minute preparations.

From the off, Karl took up the pace at what, to me, seemed like a completely unreasonable rate of knots for a 50 miler. Within a half mile, the lead pack of six was clearly separated from the rest of the field, and as the sun came up through the opening climb of the day, it was Tim, me, Ryan, Dakota and Nick L in that order. After leading us through the first two miles like a paid rabbit in a road race, Karl stepped aside and wished us all well, obviously deciding to take it easy with his broken arm for the rest of the run.

The 1,500' climb out of Rendija Canyon was probably the easiest of the day and was a great way to warm up. By the top, at 8 miles or so, Tim and I had put a few switchbacks on Ryan, Nick and Dakota as we began the first of many crazy, crazy descents (~1,000', 1 mile). By the second switchback down into Guaje canyon, I had lost my footing on one of the tight, tight marble-strewn switchbacks and was off down the side of the steep canyon wall. If it wasn't for some heavy brush, I would probably have gone all the way to the bottom a little quicker than planned. Anyway, by the time I came to a stop, I was entangled in brush on my back with my arms and legs flailing in the air like a beetle trying to get back on his feet. I grabbed at the brush, managing to get myself upright before hoofing it back up on to the trail just in time to see a bemused-looking Tim ease by. Ryan was right there too and I soon reestablished myself in the conga line, being sure to take things just a step or two easier than before.

Some switchbacks on the opening climb out of Rendija Canyon. Photo: Jason Halladay.

Tim let Ryan and I push through, and predictably enough Ryan was soon racing down the switchbacks at an insane pace. This is Ryan's bread and butter, and I don't think I know another trail runner that can negotiate technical down as well as Ryan can. If needs be, I can keep up with Ryan on the downs, but it is always way more of an effort for me, so typically I just let him go, knowing that I'll inch back to him on the flats and ups.

By the time we hit the river at the bottom of the canyon, Ryan and I had put a decent gap on the rest of the lead pack. Ryan was 50-60 meters ahead of me, but well within my crosshairs, and by the base of Caballo Mountain, we were again in lockstep. I pushed out a bit of a lead on the Caballo climb, beating Ryan to the top by a minute, maybe two. I had thought going in that this was the toughest climb of the day, so was pleasantly surprised to find that it was largely runnable. As it turned out, Caballo, while hard was by far the easiest climb of the three mountains.

Top Caballo. Photo: Pete Stevenson

Hitting the Caballo turnaround (a tree) while being licked/tripped by a dog. Photo: Rachel Leah

Coming back down on this out and back section, I got a time check on the competition. Tim and Dakota were three to four minutes back, Nick L about 10 back, with the rest of the field pretty spread out after that. By the bottom of the drop, Ryan was of course right back on my shoulder, despite the fact that I felt like I hit it pretty hard.

Pete got a shot of Ryan and I on the way down Caballo. In the next photo, Ryan is about to hurdle the downed tree behind me. Photo: Pete Stevenson

We then ran together to the Pipeline aid at 17 miles, and then jumped off the ridge into the abyss of an insanely steep scree slope. Again, as predicted, Ryan was way more aggressive on this and put another 50-60 meters on me by the bottom. Thankfully the scree drop was no more than 300 feet, and actually provided access to some of the best running of the day.

Into the abyss. Caldera off in the distance. Photo: Jason Halladay.

Photo: Pete Stevenson

Coming down into the Caldera grasslands, we hooked in with a nice jeep track, which descended at a beautiful grade and provided sweeping views of the Sierra de Los Valles mountain range. We would be hitting two of the summits on our way back to the Pipeline aid station. On this four-mile stretch of hardpack, I caught back up to Ryan and eased by him before we hit the Valle Grande aid station, which was the launching point for easily the toughest 15-mile stretch of 'running' I have ever had to negotiate in a trail race.

Basically, we took a left and headed through a marshy grassland for the mountains, following a series of flags that would mark our route. We wouldn't see trail again for a good hour and half. The hike up Cerro Grande was borderline laughable, with a little bit of everything thrown at us, including a double navigation of a huge boulder field, tons and tons of downed trees and a ridiculously steep slog to the top.

It was hard work running across the Caldera. Photo: Pete Stevenson

Some boulder action. Photo: Pete Stevenson
Looking back on the Caldera: Photo: Pete Stevenson

I was expecting some kind of trail back down Cerro Grande, but it was more of the same, just this time with gravity working in our favor rather than against us. We would pick up a bit of game trail here and there, but it was largely cross country until we hit the creek that had carved out the Canon de Valle, from where the deer trail became a little more consistent and eventually turned into something that resembled a real trail, and finally turned into some fantastic running.

Ryan, of course, had gapped me by a minute or two on the technical, cross country descent, but would pop into view frequently enough as we ran alongside the creek that I wasn't concerned about losing him for good.

Coming into the Pajarito Canyon aid station, nestled deep in the forest, I was beginning to feel a fairly serious fade coming on. I couldn't believe how long it was taking us to cover the miles. I already felt like I had run 50 miles and we were only 29 miles in, with one huge climb and descent still to negotiate, followed by a steady 3,000' descent to the finish. It was all beginning to seem like too much, and so I settled into a shuffle and started thinking about how to rally my way out of this.

Ryan was still just a minute or two up on me, so he too must have been hurting as we worked our way up Pajarito Canyon to the base of Pajarito Mountain. I eased past Ryan just as we started our climb out of the canyon, and I got to the aid station at the base of the Pajarito climb no more than 30 seconds ahead of Ryan. I guzzled four, maybe five cups of coke here in hopes of getting a good and immediate sugar rush for the opening section of the climb. Much to my surprise, the opening switchbacks were long, mellow and completely runnable, but that didn't last long. We were soon back to the insanely steep stuff, and any running that was on offer lasted no longer than 10-20 seconds at a time.

The sugar rush wore off about half way up the climb and I was back into the netherworld of being ridiculously tired, yet having enough energy to keep plugging. I continued to suck on my EFS liquid shot and it continued to provide me with just enough energy to keep putting one foot in front of the other. After a couple of false summits, I finally hit the top of Pajarito, and got a look at the upcoming descent, which according to the flagging would take us straight down a double black diamond ski run. I'm not much of a downhill skier, so when people were telling me about this drop before the race, I didn't really have a point of reference to understand just how steep it would be.

Let me tell you, anyone who is prepared to throw themselves off a mountain on a pair of skis at that grade has to be even more insane than us idiots who were running down it on tired legs 35 miles into a 50 mile slug-fest. While the course flagging was pointing directly down the hill, I chose to break it up a bit by cutting in my own switchbacks. Half way down, the course veered off the ski slope and into the trees where we picked up a trail that criss-crossed the ski slope at a grade that was still incredibly steep, but not quite as insane as the more direct route down the hill. A few shoulder checks confirmed that Ryan was still charging, two to three minutes back on me, meaning I couldn't let up on the gas one iota.

There was a good crowd on hand at the ski lodge at the bottom of the mountain and I got a nice energy boost from that. As I was fueling up on coke (a cola) and oranges, I heard people cheering Ryan in, so I guzzled one more cup of coke and headed out maybe a minute before Ryan pulled in. As usual, the coke gave me a good rush out of the aid station, and I was able to pick up a strong pace (all things of course being relative), which was aided by the fact that the course now hooked in with the 50km race all the way back to the finish, so there was a steady stream of runners for me to target and pick off - always solid motivation.

I felt like I put in a really solid run in the three miles between the ski lodge and Pipeline. After a few shoulder checks coming into Pipeline, I was pretty confident that I had built a good four- to five-minute lead on Ryan. I imbibed more liquid sugar at Pipeline and got out quickly, pushing hard up the last 700' grunt.

Finishing up the last grunt of the day (~mile 40). Photo: Jim Stein Photography.

Knowing that I had a 3,000' descent to negotiate back to the finish, I was far from confident that the win was in the bag, but this descent was the main reason why I had come to Jemez in the first place. Forty miles into a grueling mountain 50-miler, I was sure to have tired legs, so five weeks out from Western States, it was about as perfect a training run as I could possibly ask for, especially with a hard charging Ryan just minutes back on me. I had to keep pressing. Perfect.

Unlike some of the other descents, this one was at a very reasonable grade, and provided some glorious singletrack fun. I continued to pass 50k runners and reveled in the fact that my quads felt great, almost fresh. 'Keep hammering,' I told myself. And I did.

Four or five miles into the drop, it started getting old, but every step was a step closer to a chair and a beer, which is about as much motivation as I need late in a run like this. A few shoulder checks near the bottom, and still no sign of Ryan. I was pretty confident that with little to no more downhill, the win was essentially in the bag, so I just focused on running the last few uphill sections, and crossed the line in a pretty satisfying 8:26. Ryan came in five minutes later, closing out yet another solid 50-mile run. I almost feel guilty beating Ryan again by such a narrow margin, but fact is buddy, that's 3-0 so dinner's on you!

Hanging out with Bryan at the finish. Photo: Pete Stevenson

So anyway, a really tough race in a beautiful part of the world on some ridiculous terrain. Think carefully before signing up for this one. I got what I came for, which was a solid training run and some serious vertical loss. A bonus for me on the day was the sub-8:30, which was something of a goal going in, and the subsequent confidence boost that comes with a run like that. I'm beginning to feel like I might be ready to knock one out the park in five weeks (or at least to the warning track). Bring It!



first aid (4.9): 41:10
Guaje Ridge (7.1): 26:53 (1:08)
Base Caballo (10.1): 32:27 (1:40)
Caballo top (12.1): 33:00 (2:13)
Caballo base (14.1): 15:45 (2:29)
Pipeline (17): 31:32 (3:01)
Valle Grande (21): 31:15 (3:32)
Pajarito top (?): 1:21 (4:53)
Pajarito Canyon (28.7): 44:16 (5:37)
Pajarito base (32.6): 32:25 (6:10)
Ski lodge (36.2): 18:14 (6:28)
Pipeline (39.1): 25:37 (6:54)
Rendija Canyon (48.1): 1:12 (8:06)
Finish (50.5): 19:56 (8:26:17)


  1. Awesome, very stoked for you and excited for WS100. Recover and hope to get some miles with you next weekend.

  2. Awesome race Nick! Great race report, I wish I would have been there to see the race. Congratulations in yet another solid win and your running series victory. I'm really looking forward to see what you throw down at Western.

  3. You continue to impress, good job.

  4. I am afraid for everyone else when you finally taper for a race. Its gonna be sick.

  5. Now that's a pretty solid baseball reference for a foreigner :) You still planning on racing a bit going into states or will you clear the schedule until the dance?

  6. Great race, amazing time with all that vertical. This is setting up for a great show next month!

  7. Great race Nick!.

    Sounds like you are in great shape going into States and will have a great run there. Looking forward to helping it happen.

  8. Wow. I like the pre-race modesty coupled with a total high altitude clinic. Taper. You and JM are going to raise some eyebrows here in Cali.

  9. Congrats. That course sounds brutal. The pic of the boulder field says it all. Well done! And, what a showing for the FoCo crowd - four of the top six slots.

  10. Hey Patrick - I was a big cricket fan growing up, so baseball was an easy transition in terms of understanding a sport I'd never played. Most likely I'll run the Horsetooth trail half in a few weeks, as it starts across the road from my house, and I never really run that hard out there, so it's good excuse to do so. Might go up to Laramie to run Pilot Hill, just because I want to support a great race and a great running community, but that would be the one I'd cut of the two.

    Nick - thanks again for volunteering to sacrifice that weekend for WS. Can't wait to return the favor at Hardrock. We need to get out for that run soon.

    Jim - yeah, it was a slog for sure but as always, time ease the memory of the hurt and begins to focus on the good stuff. Not for everyone, but certainly one for hardcore mountain fans. And, yeah, thanks for bringing the FoCo showing to people's attention - can't believe I didn't mention it myself - although we really can't claim Burch anymore. That said, Dakota Jones is starting an undergrad degree at CSU this fall, so we'll soon be bolstering the ranks.

  11. Nick,

    Honestly just a fantastic performance on Saturday and solid write up. I thought running the 50K was rough but it doesn't even compare.

    It was nice meeting you after the race and digging how all this training and racing is setting up for you with WS only a month+ away. You gotta be excited about that!


  12. Where were the car keys?? RC

  13. Nick, you are killin' it, hard as a nail! Ryan must be an animal on the descents, because words is you're no slouch heading down. For me, this result has added one more to the lead pack at WS.

  14. Congratulations, Nick! Very exciting write-up!

  15. I am sure that the run up Green Mountain's front side is what set you up for success here. Well done, well run.

    Are you thinking TT on Monday night?

  16. Jaime - pleasure chatting with you too, and congrats on your strong 50k showing.

    Dad - car keys were in a bag I checked probably four times...

    Rick - easy tiger! I'll be happy to beat one of those four or five guys who'll be burning up the early going at WS, but really the clock will be the deciding factor. Not much I can do if three or four guys get close to - or go under - 16 hours.

    GZ - I think we're looking at Monday morning for the TT.

  17. Nick - I'm definitely looking forward to WS. It should be a good time helping you and I will finally get to see what all the fuss is about. A longer mountain run this weekend would be good - flat bike paths in OR are getting pretty old after a few days...

  18. Nice job Nick!! You Fort Fun guys are tearing it up this year!

  19. Congrats, Nick. This is good stuff! This is REALLY good stuff!

  20. Nick you crushed it! Good meeting you at the finish, see you at States (pacing Victor B), you'll show strong for sure, excited to see it. Way to go. - Brett

  21. Brett- good meeting you too. See you in Auburn/Squaw/somewhere in between.

  22. Very nice. And I concur that FoCo is showing some amazing running talent!

  23. Enjoyed the report and photos -- thanks for posting. And congratulations on a tough win.

  24. Hey Nick--congrats! I was amazed when I heard the winning time--that's something! I ran the 50 too, but finished near the very back of the pack. I want to thank you particularly for your first paragraph here (as well as the whole, well written report)--it made me feel just a bit better about my own tough day. Good luck at WS!

  25. Nick, great race, always great to "run" into you. Best wishes for the rest of your season. Thanks for putting together this report too! Awesome.

  26. Excellent win dude! Steve Tidball Boulder, Co.