Category Archives: Ultra

Evolution “loop” (North Lake to South Lake) FKT (10h31)

Black Giant (c) above Muir Pass, from Wanda Lake


When Leor Pantilat’s FKT for the Evolution “loop” came up in my news feed, I skimmed it and moved on, having other things on my mind. However, on the way back from Forsyth, I had some time to think about it while dealing with trail miles. On paper, 55 miles with 10k vertical in 12h15 looks soft; Yours Truly ran 50 miles with 12k vertical in about 9 hours at San Juan Solstice, and the winner was about an hour faster.

But was it actually soft, or was it a slow course? I have often felt (or at least told people) that I should test my end-of-season shape with an actual trail run. A final few free days in the Sierra would give me that chance. The answer turns out to be somewhere in between: The course is slower than the stats (55 miles, 10k vertical) would suggest, thanks to sections of basically unrunnable trail around Muir and Bishop Passes. However, having a good day and pushing myself about as hard as I could without blowing up at the end, I was able to pull off a 10h31. I think someone else could knock another hour off this time, but not me. While better nutrition might have helped me a bit, I felt more limited by muscular fatigue and joint pain.

I woke up before my alarm in the hiker parking area at North Lake and, after eating breakfast and dithering around, left for the trailhead at 5:45. Noticing that the air was unexpectedly warm, I wore only a windbreaker over a cotton t-shirt, my warm hat, and a pair of socks on my hands (I could only find one glove in the chaos of my car/home). I reached the sign at 5:55, took the clock-starting picture, and started up the trail by headlamp. I expected my legs to feel rusty after two days’ rest, but I was soon jogging the gradual uphills, and felt that this would be a good day.

I reached the pass in the long dawn, noting that my split was about even with the FKT, then dropped through Humphreys Basin. The first part of the trail was every bit as pleasant as I remembered from previous outings. The unfamiliar trail through the woods was also quite runnable, though the drunken trail crew from the Dorothy Pass PCT seems to have added some loopy switchbacks here as well. Since I was playing by “ultra rules,” I dutifully followed them.

The downhill stretch from Piute Pass to the JMT seemed to go on forever and, as I ran out of mountains in front of me, I began to wonder if I had missed a turn, and would suddenly find myself at some west-side trailhead. This last worry was not so far off: when I finally reached the JMT, I also reached the edge of the (west-side) Sierra National Forest, and saw a sign pointing to Florence Lake. The last part of the descent had some rockier trail, but most of this long descent was fast and fun.

Turning up toward Goddard Canyon, the very runnable trail passed through turning aspens along a broad, rushing creek. This was one of the most enjoyable sections of the trail, and I was sorry to leave it at the Goddard Canyon fork, turning into the woods and switchbacking up to the hanging mouth of the Evolution Valley. I mostly fast-walked the switchbacks, jogging the longer and flatter stretches, then jogged on through the woods to the stream crossing. After a couple minutes’ search, I found the narrow logs people had been using to cross, grabbed a couple of stubby sticks, and sort-of “deer danced” my way across.

After more flat, runnable wooded trail, I hiked another section of switchbacks (probably) near the Darwin Bench cut-off, then gradually emerged from the trees near the first big lake. This section, from Evolution Lakes to Wanda Lake, was one of the best of the loop, and I jogged most of the gradual climb, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the familiar but still spectacular scenery. The trail became more annoying above Wanda Lake, with more scree and bits of the horrible rubble-box construction.

After hours of running, I began to feel my digestive system falling behind my input of pop-tarts and energy bars, and my eating slowed. Reaching the hut, I took a short break to take some pictures and get out my two gels. This seemed like a good time for 200 easily-digestible calories. From the pass to near Big Pete Meadow, the trail crosses more moraine, and though I ran most of it, my “run” was not that much faster than a walk.

After some easier running, the trail once again became tricky on the switchbacks into Le Conte Canyon, from which I could see the long drop I faced before the final climb to Bishop Pass. After the initial, steep descent, the trail along the canyon is mostly runnable, though longer than I had expected, since I initially misidentified the slabby side-valley leading to Dusy Basin. I stopped along the way to refill my water for the last time, grabbing about 2 liters.

Finally reaching the Dusy Basin turn-off, I noted that the sign said it was 6 miles to the pass, and I estimated that I had no more than 3 hours left in the day. As long as I didn’t bonk, I had a very good shot at a sub-11-hour time. This helped motivate me on the climb, somewhat making up for my increasing difficulty eating — though I was baking on the west-facing slope, I managed to jog short flatter sections of the switchbacks.

Topping out at the bottom of Dusy Basin, I met a couple who asked where I was coming from. When I told them, they said they had met another person doing the loop in the other direction only a couple of days earlier. I tried to remain upbeat climbing the basin, but my digestive situation was threatening to slow me down. Stopping to dig a hole, I made some more room, and was able to slowly eat most of an energy bar on the long slog to Bishop Pass. Most of the trail from Le Conte Canyon to Bishop Pass has been too damaged by packers (both their animals and their attempts at trail-work) to be usefully runnable in either direction.

I was happy with my split at the pass, then almost immediately pained by the truly wretched trail down the other side to the first lake. While I wasn’t flying after that, I had enough left in my quads to descend at a respectable rate. I passed a few fisher-folk on the way to the sign, took the “stop” picture, walked around for a minute to see if my legs would cramp, then lay down in the dirt.

While a friend had offered to give me a ride back to my car at North Lake, I had told her I expected to take around 12 hours. Rather than wait around South Lake for over an hour, I roused myself when I heard voices, and hitched a ride with a fishing couple and their dog (all of whose names I forget). They had originally planned to drop me at the Highway 168 junction, from which I could hitch back toward North Lake, but were kind enough to take me back to my car. People at east-side trailheads are usually helpful, even more so when you look half-dead and tell them you just ran 50 miles…

Splits

  • South Lake — 5:55 AM (split, vs. previous FKT)
  • Piute Pass — 6:58 (1h03, -2)
  • JMT junction — 8:48 (2h53, -20)
  • Goddard Canyon junction — 9:26 (3h31, -20)
  • Muir Pass — 12:15 PM (6h20, -54)
  • Le Conte Canyon — 1:41 (7h46, -1h14)
  • Bishop Pass — 3:28 (9h33, -1h31)
  • South Lake — 4:26 (10h31, -1h44)

Based on the splits, it looks like I was running the downhills somewhat faster, and Pantilat “positive-split” the course, usually a suboptimal pacing strategy.

Nutrition

Electrolytes? Yes. Turbolytes? Powerlytes? No. More lytes than my body had room for? Unfortunately, yes, and I had to correct the “input-output flux imbalance” in, um… Dusy Basin. Disgusted by the fact that gels (glorified Karo syrup) are down to 83 cal/$, I only bought two, instead relying on my usual mix of pop-tarts and energy bars. This proved adequate but suboptimal, as there wasn’t enough low-intensity time for my digestive system to take care of them, and I ate less than I brought.

Gear

I mostly used my usual hiking setup, but ditched a few things from my pack (sunscreen, bug spray), and wore light tights instead of nylon pants. I wore my light trail runners (the sadly-discontinued New Balance 101s) instead of the heavier ones I wear hiking. They provided adequate foot protection, albeit barely.

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2011 goals

It is traditional this time of year to set goals for the year to come. New Year’s resolutions are usually a ridiculous waste of time, but for an athlete engaged in seasonal sports, it at least makes sense to look down at one’s current state and forward to the next season.

So in the New Year’s spirit, here are some tentative goals. I may not get around to all of them, and will certainly find other things to do. While these plans reflect my focus on running, I don’t mean to neglect climbing and mountaineering.

Basics

The first step is to improve my basic fitness: by racing season, I should get my resting heart rate back to the mid-40s, my mile time down around 5:30, be able to do 8-10 pull-ups, and probably drop 3-5 pounds. If I end up doing 100 miles in big weeks with some quality efforts (intervals, tempo), I will probably be ready. I should also improve my climbing skill to lead 5.10a/b and solo 5.7 or 5.8.

Fun runs

One of the best things about ultra running is that you can train for it by wandering the wilderness at high speed. A number of one-day mountaineering objectives, such as Gannett, Moran, Devil’s Crags, and the last of the Colorado 14ers, also require substantial running. There are a number of runs I would like to do this season partly for time, but mostly for fun:

  • Joshua Tree, CA riding and hiking trail, Black Rock CG to north entrance (~38 mi): This is a relatively flat winter point-to-point in Joshua Tree.
  • San Jacinto, Cactus to Clouds (10k vertical): This is a chance to climb 10k without subjecting your knees to a 10k descent. I doubt I can come close to the FKT, but I can at least measure my sustained climbing rate.
  • Sierra, South Lake to North Lake loop (~53 mi): I have never been to the Evolution Basin, and this would be a fun way to visit. Ideally, I would take less than 13 hours.
  • Sierra, Thunderbolt to Sill traverse: I first did this classic traverse in 2008, and it is still one of my favorite routes, testing both endurance and climbing skill. With some running, it should be doable in under 12 hours.
  • San Juans, Sunlight-Windom-Eolus (30+ mi): The normal way to do these 14ers is to take a $100 train ride from Durango to Needleton, then camp out. However, for someone cheap who doesn’t like carrying a tent, there is a 15-mile approach from near Purgatory.

Races

Racing is expensive, and ultras rarely have cash prizes, so I need to choose my targets carefully. I would like to place in some 50 milers, and try my legs at the “real man’s distance” of 100 miles, though I still don’t see myself doing many hundreds. Three races in particular come to mind, with some (possibly over-ambitious) goals:

  • Jemez Mountain 50: Top 3.
  • San Juan Solstice 50: Top 3 and, if conditions are as good as last year, under 9 hours.
  • Leadville Trail 100: Under 20 hours. Extrapolating from the small overlap between last year’s San Juan and Leadville finishers, I have a chance at a top 10 or even top 5 finish. Unfortunately, it’s insanely expensive — from $250 before January 31 to $350 after May 1. That’s a big chunk of change to gamble on being motivated and uninjured 8 months from now.

Two Teats, San Joaquin, Carson

West Teat between Minarets and Ritter


After a bit of laziness and illness (and August snow), I wanted something mindless to get back in the groove. No rock shoes, no headlamp, just music and terrain I could jog. The Ritter range doesn’t offer such things, but the ridge connecting Minaret Summit to Carson Peak above June Lake looked about right. I could start at Minaret Summit (excellent dirtbag camping), do the ridge to Carson, then drop west to the PCT and cruise back to Minaret Summit via Agnew Meadow and the road.

It looked like about 20 miles (and turned out to probably be a bit more), but with many joggable sections and water sources after dropping off the ridge, I could use my running setup: a belt pack with 1 bottle (refilled twice), fig newtons (900 cal), ibuprofen, and salt pills (used 1 of each). I started with gloves and a windbreaker, but it was soon warm enough for shorts and t-shirt. The views of the Minaret range are as good as promised, and the first few miles along the jeep road are compact and well-graded enough to jog almost the whole stretch. I could have driven the road, I guess.

Once you pass the 4WD trailhead, you enter the barren volcanic hellscape: every type of annoying lifeless volcanic terrain you can imagine including sand, pumice, tufa, basalt rubble, and combinations of the above. The sand and pumice were runnable on flat and downhill sections, but running the basalt rubble was impossible.

Nota bene: What looks like two teats is not, in fact, Two Teats; rather it is a right teat and some other high point to its northwest, perhaps San Joaquin. The left teat is the pointy thing. I climbed it first, finding surprisingly exposed 3rd class scrambling going up the north side, and an unexposed 4th class move down the south. There was no register on either summit, so took some pictures of weird rocks and continued slowly along the fading use trail to San Joaquin. I found a benchmark and an old snack can, then started down the awful, loose red talus before wising up and traversing west to some pumice and sand.

The walk — most of it is unrunnable thanks to weird, intermittently-soft dirt — to Carson is long but straightforward, and the view over its sheer north face to June Lake and Mono Lake is impressive. The register also had a number of interesting entries, including one possibly from a Russian mail-order bride business. I expect that kind of thing on the internet, not in summit logs.

I met two guys hiking Carson via Rush Creek, who confirmed that the gully down to the southwest of Carson worked, then dropped down into a mixture of boulders, dirt, and scraggly meadows just north of the east-west cliffs. I eventually reached some stagnant ponds with late-blooming thistles, one of which had a trail along one side. Following a maze of trails and staying west, I eventually found a particularly dusty and manure-strewn one, and knew I was on the right path. Unfortunately, both the JMT and PCT seem to be popular horse routes here.

I had hoped to cut up from the PCT / High Trail to the ridge near Deadman Pass, but the bushwhack up to the ridge looked worse than a drop down to Agnew and a hike along the road. I kept myself amused and motivated by racing a cyclist up the road, finally reaching the car later than I had expected, sporting a robust dirt tan.

San Juan Solstice (9h08, 50mi, 12,900ft)

Despite the hefty entry fee, I decided to run the San Juan Solstice 50 because I was curious how I would handle a 50 mile race. Based on my Jemez time, I had a good chance of finishing in under 10 hours, which, judging by previous years’ results, would probably put me in the top 10. Then again, my body might give out after 50 kilometers.

The first section follows the smooth dirt road toward Engineer Pass. The pack started out surprisingly fast, and though I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the pace, I figured that 40 other runners couldn’t all be wrong. Besides, if I wanted to finish sub-10, I should try to hang with the other runners likely to do so.

The pace became more reasonable after the turn off the road onto the second section, a single-track trail up Alpine Gulch. I somehow managed to cut myself on the bridge, but didn’t notice for awhile. The stream crossings, so intimidating in previous years, mostly had nice log bridges, though in a show of ultra studliness, many of the other racers ran through the stream anyways. I tried to be a bit too clever on one of the crossings, and instead of keeping my feet dry by hopping from rock to rock, I slipped and fell into the creek, soaking my whole body. Fortunately we were going uphill and it wasn’t too cold.

After leaving the creek, the trail switchbacks up to a ridge just below treeline. The climb is mostly moderate, perfect for a fast walk with some jogging on a few flatter sections. Reaching the aid station, I foolishly assumed that I was at the top of the climb, having failed to carefully read the course description. The course actually turns right and climbs a series of ridges to reach a higher saddle well above treeline. I passed one racer on the climb, and paced off another to the summit and down the first part of a very runnable descent to the second aid station. I eventually left him partway down, as I tried to make the most of the terrain. At the second aid station, the helpful volunteers refilled my bottle while I restocked on Fig Newtons and gulped down a sandwich wedge. Ham, cheese, and mayo isn’t normally my thing, but it tasted great then. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was narrowly in fifth place.

I turned out of the aid station onto a long stretch of flat dirt road with the next runner 100-200 yards behind, where he remained for the entire hour to the next aid station. I did not remember how long this road section was, and as it dragged on, I became increasingly nervous that I had missed some subtle flag or bit of tape. With great relief, I at last reached the flags for the turn onto the next climb, and began power-walking the steep jeep road to Carson. I spoke with my pursuer at the next aid station, then took off up the road toward the long, flat section along the continental divide.

I spotted two runners on the road ahead, and caught the first (the eventual 4th place finisher) shortly after reaching the divide trail. We talked for a few minutes, and he seemed surprised that I wasn’t someone he knew; I guess, not surprisingly, that the community of people crazy enough to run ultras is small and close-knit. The divide trail follows an old road until it reaches the high ridge of the divide, then becomes a faint path along the grassy eastern side of the ridge.

The first part of the divide trail stays close to the ridge, affording views both east toward San Luis peak, and west, over the steep side of the divide, to Uncompahgre and the San Juans. However, the gently rolling terrain was mostly flat enough to run, and rough enough to pay attention to your footing, so there was little time to enjoy the view. Passing the next runner added to the pressure, and I spent the next few hours looking over my shoulder. Unlike in many years, the trail was almost entirely snow-free, and a slight tailwind also increased the pace.

At the next aid station, at a low point in the ridge, I found out that I was currently third, adding some urgency to my effort to stay ahead of the pursuit. There was another long stretch between this aid station and Slumgullion, but at least it was downhill overall. Unfortunately, it also stayed well below the ridge, so the western view was gone, and I could not gauge my progress toward the red cut of Slumgullion Pass. As the CDT joined another jeep road, I thought I saw another runner ahead, but it turned out to just be one of two women out for a run. Slightly disappointed, I plodded on through a gap in the divide, where Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn once again came into view, then tried to gain some time on the mostly-fast descent to the paved Slumgullion Pass road.

While temperatures had been comfortable up to this point, it was uncomfortably warm at Slumgullion, where the town librarian, working at the aid station, recognized me from my time spent using their wireless. From here, the course veered off the road onto some semblance of a path (perhaps an old road cut or a utility right-of-way), which eventually connected with the trail up to the Vickers ranch. I knew this climb gained 1700 vertical feet, and despite some wishful thinking, it took most of the hour it should have. The heat was bearable in the trees, but vicious in the open areas and, higher up, the pastures. Trying to get the last drops out of my water bottle while running along the top, I finally managed to trip on something and face-plant on the trail.

My time was 8:26 at the Vickers aid station, supposedly four mostly-downhill miles from the finish. Thinking that I had a real shot at breaking nine hours, I tried to do something like moving quickly. Unfortunately, the trail was treacherous in many places, and I was tired. Logs I would have jumped earlier in the day I stepped over one leg at a time. Soon after Lake City came into view, I knew I would be over nine hours and, not seeing any pursuers, settled into a steady plod toward the finish. The heat and headwind tempted me to walk the dirt path along the river, but pride and the finish line kept me jogging. I even managed a genuine run for the final 50 meters into the town park.

I am now the proud owner of a red-stitched cap, a fleece pullover, a small painting of a SJS runner, and a ginormous piece of wood with my name carved on it (excellent quick work by the wood-worker!). And I know I can race 50 miles. Given adequate cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, it’s about finding a manageable level of pain and staying at that level essentially “forever.” The biggest problem, and the reason I am loathe to race 100 miles, is a kind of boredom. After four hours spent mostly alone, maintaining a relatively consistent effort and eating and drinking on schedule, the thought of five more hours of the same is discouraging. Fourteen more hours is downright grim.

How do I get faster at these things? Thanks to time spent peak-bagging, my climbing pace (mostly limited by VO2-max) is probably adequate. While other racers seemed to jog more on the climbs, I could usually walk just as fast. I would probably gain the most by improving my technical downhill skill and increasing the pace at which I can jog “forever” on mostly-flat terrain.

Nutrition

Once again, I aimed for roughly 300 calories per hour, though I was not as strict about it as at Jemez for two reasons: First, the aid stations didn’t have gels, and I can’t stand pure Fig Newtons (blessedly available at every aid station) for more than a couple of hours. Second, the stations had ham-and-cheese sandwich wedges, and I found myself craving the salt and fat. I have no idea how many usable calories the sandwich wedges provided. I didn’t seem to have any digestive issues during the race, so I guess what I did was “good enough.”

Temperatures were cool enough up to mile 40 that I was fine with one bottle for the 7-9 miles between aid stations. I was slightly dehydrated by the climb after mile 40, but by then it didn’t matter.

In addition to food and water, I consumed one salt pill every two hours, and 100mg of ibuprofen per hour (twice what the bottle recommends). While I don’t feel like I injured my knees, they were definitely sore from the pounding descents.

Handicapped-accessible peaks

I spent the last two days on Colorado’s handicapped-accessible peaks, Evans and Pikes. I could have bagged both by car in one day, but that would have been cheating, so I did Evans with Bierstadt as an easy day, then did Pikes via the Barr trail as ultra training.

Bierstadt/Evans (6h, 10.3mi, 3900ft)

Bierstadt (r) and sawtooth from the trailhead.


I had two interesting incidents on the way up US-285 to the south Guanella Pass road (badly washboarded). First, some crazy in an official-looking green truck tried to pass with an oncoming car and, rather than pulling back into his lane, pulled in only halfway, forcing the oncoming car to a complete stop on the shoulder. Both I and the driver ahead had slowed way down, expecting a spectacular crash, so I got a good look at the woman driving the oncoming car as she sat behind the wheel looking shocked.

Second, in a section with fences on both sides, a deer somehow got onto the road, but couldn’t seem to jump back out on either side. Panicked, it ran from one side of the road to the other, approaching the fence and turning back, as drivers crawled by. I’m not sure how things could have turned out.

Boardwalk to Bierstadt.


This was another easy day, though longer than I had expected. The trail up Bierstadt was well-maintained at first, with a much-appreciated boardwalk making the bog-crossing a cinch. It deteriorated above maybe 13k feet, where snow had forced people to choose their own routes. The register was intact, and there had been a half-dozen visitors to this popular peak the day before.

Sawtooth, looking toward Bierstadt


The sawtooth was disappointing: while staying directly on the ridge made it spicy and interesting, there was a use trail on the east side that (with no view) kept it at class 2. I kept to the ridge for the first part, but dropped down to the ducked trail when the teeth got larger. The last part was interesting, with a ducked route along a series of improbable ledges and blind corners leading to an easy class 2 exit to the plateau west of Evans.

View east from Evans' summit.


Evans was the downer one might imagine with tourists able to drive within 100 vertical feet of the summit, and a graded trail taking them those last feet. There was a register canister (two, in fact), but I didn’t bother signing in. As I had a snack and admired Evans’ impressive north face, one tourist asked another if the canister was a time capsule.

Typical bog-trail back from Evans.


I crossed the plateau and found the use trail down to the bog without too much trouble. The guy I met on the way down the chute confirmed my suspicion that the bog crossing would be ugly. After an hour following animal paths, stomping on willows, and hopping gingerly on tufts of grass, I reached the Bierstadt trail and cruised back to the car.

Antique ice axe.


While cleaning up, I spoke to a man who had done Bierstadt, and who was carrying a cool antique Charlet Moser ice axe with a long wood haft and a leather wrist-strap on a sliding metal ring. Amazingly, it was perfectly usable after 40-50 years.

Pikes (5h14 (3h15 ascent), 25.2mi, 7300ft)

Background

The town of Manitou Springs is unpleasant in a way that makes it popular, and popular in a way that makes it unpleasant. There are two parts of town: the gingerbread tourist section near the trailhead, and the part with useful businesses like grocery stores and Taco Bell. The former is full of lumbering tourists wandering between eateries and kitsch stores, at least two of which include “Taos” in their names to indicate the presence of Authentic Native American Crafts. Parking is tight (a full day in a lot costs $5), so the streets are full of cars circling for a spot. It’s not the kind of place I would visit, but there’s a peak to bag nearby. The latter part of town is like most other suburban cities, but more expensive: the 99-cent menu at Taco Bell cost $1.09, despite the “99 cents, why pay more?” decals on the windows.

The Barr trailhead, on the west end of town, feels more like a gym than a trailhead. There are a fair number of people whose freakish fitness marks them as runners and ultra-runners; I saw one woman who might have been an elite marathoner. But there are also plenty of what could be gym bunnies, with perfect hair and coordinated outfits. The parking lot at the trailhead itself is empty at night, but full by 6AM, so every evening there is a steady stream of people walking back from the gym to cars parked for almost a mile down the street. Everything is normal a few miles up the trail, but it’s weird down below.

Climb

THIS WAY.


After seeing the trailhead circus, I hung out in town until 8:30 or 9, then easily found a place in the trailhead lot to sleep. Unfortunately, doing the Manitou Incline at night seems to be popular, so I got only limited sleep. I gave up at 5, and hit the trail around 5:20, at which point the lot was mostly full. I carried 2.5l water, a pack of strawberry Cheap Newtons (18 x 70 cal, one every 15 min. on the climb), ibuprofen, sunwear, a shell, and a long underwear top.

I thought I might be able to run all the time at lower elevations, but after the first mile or so started walking the steeper sections when I felt myself working too hard. The grade is moderate and consistent, but I’m not quite in shape to run it. I saw the sun as it rose, but it quickly disappeared behind the low cloud layer.

After an uneventful climb, I reached Barr Camp after 1h30, and spotted a fast climber ahead. I caught him after a few minutes and, after learning that he had climbed the Barr Trail 57 times, asked how long it should take to reach the summit. He thought I might take about 2 hours.

Chicken-sized bird on the trail.


Shortly after pulling away from him, I saw a chicken-sized bird in the middle of the trail, and managed to take a couple pictures from 15-20 feet away before it disappeared into the woods. The trail is rougher, but still well-graded, between Barr Camp and tree line.

Rock garden above tree line.


Cloud layer east of Pikes.


The trail above tree line was smooth and moderate, but slightly sandy, making it difficult to run uphill. Walking through the strange rock garden between tree line and the summit scree, I finally emerged from the cloud layer, and was treated to warming sun and great views. Around 13k feet, I began running into snow on the trail, but it had well-worn steps and was hard enough not to posthole.

Somewhere between 3 and 2 miles to go (there are signs), I spotted someone ahead on a long switchback. Feeling my second wind, I turned on the gas to try to catch him. Where before I had been walking most of the time, I began jogging flat and even slightly uphill sections. Snow and running water on the trail slowed both of us, but he stayed ahead to the summit. He turned out to be training for Hardrock, one of the toughest 100-milers in the country, and was encouraging about my foray in ultra-land.

The summit features donuts and novelties.


After he took off, I spent a couple minutes exploring the gift shop and looking for the highest rock, then took off after him. I caught him shortly before the smooth, sandy section of the descent, and pulled well ahead before the woods. The knees ached later in the descent, but not in a worrisome way. I reached the trailhead without incident in 1h47.

This was both encouraging and sobering. It was encouraging that, after spending my time hiking, I could still run, and that my performance didn’t degrade too badly at altitude. It was sobering to realize that both the men’s and women’s winners of the Pikes Peak race (which starts a mile down into town rather than at the trailhead) would utterly slaughter me, both for the ascent and for the full marathon. Nick Clark, the winner of the Jemez 50-miler, would have beat me by about an hour on the ascent. Matt Carpenter, the record-holder, was almost twice as fast as I was both uphill and downhill.

Jemez Mountain 50k

What a goof.

Note to self: trying to mug for the camera only makes you look ridiculous.

Long, rambling account

I ran the Jemez Mountain Trail 50k as a pre-summer benchmark, to gauge my fitness and speed before hitting the road. Much to my surprise, I not only ran it much faster (5:29) than I had expected based on my 6:20 trial run last fall, but won by a small margin. While my time was well off the course record, I am pleased that it was on par with previous years’ winning times. I’m definitely not in better shape now than last fall, so I credit aid stations, competition, and better pacing for the 13% improvement.

The race started off comfortably, with three men going off the front almost immediately. By the time we passed the cemetery, I was leading a group of six, with the three leaders maybe 200 yards ahead. Being a novice, I felt strange leading the group, and stepped aside to let someone more experienced set the early pace. We lost sight of the leaders by the Mitchell trail aid station (why take on food and water at the bottom of a climb only a few miles in?), but spotted them again a few switchbacks ahead on the steep climb through the fire-created wasteland.

Everyone seemed to have his own idea of how to approach the climb, so the group got shuffled as people jogged and walked different sections. We caught one of the leaders, then began to catch 50 milers after the false summit. We had been running for less than an hour at this point, so at less than half our pace, these people had very little chance of making the time cutoff.

Our group had split by the aid station at Guaje ridge, where I caught one of the leaders (Brian). He was moving fast on the tricky descent into Guaje canyon, so I followed at a short distance. Other than his painful run-in with a tree, Brian set a good pace, so I was happy to tag along through the Caballo aid station, passing a steady stream of 50 milers. He seemed to slow down as the climb steepened, though, so I hiked ahead, stepping aside for the 50 mile leaders as they bombed the descent.

I crossed paths with the 50k leader (Ryan) a couple of minutes from the top, which I reached after almost exactly 2 hours. I didn’t think I could catch him, but I still opened it up on the descent, making my way back through the crowd to restock at the aid station below. It turns out I was only a couple minutes behind, but there was no place to see far ahead in the woods, and I assumed he was out of reach. The crowd of 50 milers petered out on the climb out of Guaje, and I started to feel fatigued. I was mostly by myself until near the ski area, and focused on conserving energy.

I was taken completely by surprise when, passing the gate near the ski area, I saw Ryan maybe 100 yards ahead. We crossed paths at the aid station (approximately 3h30), then he took off again while I refilled my water and searched for suitable food. The lack of fig newtons was a cruel blow, as I would have to survive two hours on gels. For the next few miles, Ryan would pull away on the hills, and I would force myself to regain ground on the flats. I was confident that I could put some time into him on the long descent of Guaje ridge, but concerned that I might bonk before getting there. I turned on my headphones, fired up some Crystal Method, and concentrated on keeping the gap below 100 yards or so.

We met at the pipeline aid station, introduced ourselves, and continued more or less together along the rolling road to the Guaje ridge trail. I was 100 yards ahead at the trail junction, where I turned on the gas and didn’t look back. This descent goes on forever, but my legs were fresh enough to keep a good pace going downhill, almost clocking some guy with a video camera. The flats and short climbs began to hurt, but I grooved to The Crystal Method and focused on extending my lead. Passing half marathoners below the aid station kept my mind occupied, and a short runner’s high at the bottom got me through the flat section to the Cabra loop trail.

I totally botched my stop at Pinky’s aid station (I hear they had popsicles, but I just wanted to be done), and the rest of the race became distinctly less pleasant. It was uphill, it was starting to get warm, and I was thirsty and drained. I at least had the wherewithal to take off my silly hat and start jogging before I turned onto the finishing stretch. Gotta keep up appearances.

Notes

The volunteers were awesome

From sawing logs, to hauling water, to camping out in the middle of nowhere, to dealing with short-tempered or spaced-out runners, the race volunteers put in an enormous amount of work. I’m not sure why they do it, but they certainly cheered me up.

Conversation!

Because you spend most of your time well below your VO2-max, it’s possible to have a conversation even hours into an ultra. Ryan and I even had the energy for a “hi, how are ya?” after turning onto Pipeline. Being used to shorter distances, I was pleasantly surprised.

My food/water plan mostly worked

On fast hikes and hike/runs, I have found that one pop-tart every 45 minutes (or just under 300 cal/hr) is about right to prevent bonking without causing digestive issues. I also seem to be able to last 6-8 hours without a significant source of electrolytes. With this in mind, I tried to snack every 20 minutes, alternating between gels (100-110 cal) and fig newtons (60-80 cal). This seemed to work until the final two hours, when I ran out of fig newtons and was forced to survive on gels alone. I tried to grab a variety of flavors at the ski hill aid station, but found them all equally repulsive. While I didn’t bonk, my stomach was unsettled for the last 45 minutes.

Ultras are expensive!

Running is a poor man’s sport, requiring only the time and discipline to train, the will to suffer, decent genes, and a cheap pair of shoes. Ultra running is even more so; you won’t win much money or any recognition outside the ultra running community. However, the entry fees are on par with those for big city marathons. The JMTR had some nice swag and good free food, but cost as much as the LA marathon; Solstice 50 in Lake City costs $110. Competing regularly enough to stay in form could easily cost $1000/yr. in entry fees alone, which is cheaper than some sports, but hardly chump change.