Our trip into Los Alamos was uneventful, almost dull. We pulled out of Little Rock around noon, had a healthy lunch in Conway, and then continued onto our half-way point of Elk City OK to stay the night. We ate at a delightful restaurant in Elk City called the Portobello Grille. I Highly Recommend it if you ever end up in Elk City….if that would ever happen. J Then next morning we continued onto our final destination of Los Alamos NM.
This 900 mile trip, from East to West, across Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and then into Northern NM is a surreal experience. Someplace, half way through, the trees of the southern Mountain ranges fade into scrub. The scrub trickles into shrubs and finally, you end up gazing into miles of sand with looming monolithic mesas standing in the distance. The mesas gradually grow into mountains of gray and brown and somewhere between those places you never really see where the trees stop and the dessert starts. It’s a slow fade to endless sky, mountains and wind.
We reached Los Alamos around 4:30, checked into our hotel room, then drove the short drive to Crossroads Bible Church for our pre-race packet pickup, dinner and race briefing. My travel companion and I got our packets, picked up paper plates then preceded down the line where eager high school track team members scooped out generous helpings of spaghetti with meat sauce, salad and sliced loaves of bread. At the end of the line; oatmeal raisin cookies. All my favorites!
We loaded our plates and found a seat in the front of the hall and waited for the pre-pace briefing, door prizes (I won a headlamp!), and general “support our sponsor” type talk. The race director told us multiple times that rain was expected to pack a shell or rain jacket. Fortunately I had packed my lightweight lulu lemon rain jacket for the weekend. The race director also mentioned that there was a course change. I did run this race last year, but I was not sure on what part of the course the change would affect so I hoped that markings would be clear. As we were leaving the church, a curious storm moved through. Thunder, lightning, and then wind kicked up and hail started to fall. I looked puzzled at my friend as we darted across the parking lot and took cover in the car. She looked at me and said “Hail?”….it was an ominous sign.
The night before, there are always the general preparations: Fill the hydration pack, pack up gels, pack a bag with a towel and spare shoes. For some reason I decided not to pack a set of extra clothes. Last year we ran this race in 80 degree heat. There were no issues with needing to change clothes to stay warm after the race. We lounged around in our running clothes until we got showers at the hotel. I guess I had the same expectations of this race. It’s the same place and time of year, right? So I packed some sandals and a towel and plopped it into the back of the car. We were off to the start line.
The race starts at a facility called ‘The Posse Shack’. A single room building with a kitchen and a bathroom, and fireplaces on each end. We checked in and got our stuff together. It was chilly but not cold. It crossed my mind to leave my yellow rain shell in the car. Fortunately I decided to keep it. This turned out to be a good call….
We started the race running through some horse stables. Areas full of barns and large fenced in areas where the people from town kept their horses for riding on the trails. The horses jumped and pranced as we ran by, obviously not used to 200 runners charging down their quiet road. The rains from the previous night coated the dirt road to create a spongy soft surface to run on. The added downhill in to the valley created a lovely running experience for the start of the race. The weather was perfect. We cruised into the first aid station and I grabbed a few endurolytes then as I was leaving, I took off my jacket and tucked it into my hydration pack. I may need it later, but not now. The sun was shining and the breeze was cool, perfect for my short sleeve shirt and shorts. I Felt great and the running was good.
There were 6 aid stations. The first came and went in a flash. The second was about 5.4 miles after the first, just after a huge climb, at one point I had to use my hands to help get over some rocks. We ascended from 7553 feet to 8000 feet during that time. The Camp May Road station was the last one before we climbed up to our highest elevation of 10500 feet, and there was 8 miles before we would get to the next aid station on the other side of the mountain. I refilled my hydration pack and put Heed in my small water bottle then trekked on, still feeling good and running well, I was 10.4 miles in.
The next section of trail is where the real climbing was to begin. I crossed a road then continued up some switch backs straight up. I was in a group of runners and we hiked several feet then as we got to the corner of a switch back we would stop and catch our breath. The air was getting very thin and it was starting to wear on most of us. I eventually caught with a local woman and I stayed with her for most of the real climbing. This part of the trail was markedly different from when I ran this last year. Last year we hiked straight up a ski slope to the top. Following the path of the ski lifts that swung over our heads the whole way.
This year new trail had been blazed, dark and fresh, that looped around, gently sloping to the top of the mountain. I kept waiting for the hard part to come but it never did. I was a little disappointed that I did not get to redo the same horrendous climb I did last year to compare my performance. At this point it was mostly hiking, almost everybody was struggling, but I was progressing up. Suddenly, a man in front of us stepped off the trail and lay down. I had seen this before, dehydration mixed with altitude sickness makes a deadly combination. We went to him and asked him what he needed. He said he just wanted to lie down a while, and that he was dehydrated, and did not get enough fluids at the last aid station. I promptly handed him my bottle of heed which he downed in a couple swigs. From there we all continued on together. There were four of us traveling together at this point up over one false summit after another.Finally, sweet victory, we passed through a clearing and found the blue bench.
Steve's Bench - note the ominous weather in the background...
The blue bench is made of resourced skis, and stands guard over the tallest point of the Pajarito Mountain. The four of us stood in awe of the view, took sefies and played atop the mountain for probably longer then we should. My dehydrated friend was lounging on the bench and asked a runner who was local about which direction the weather comes in from. The local looked over his shoulder and said “West, and that is weather moving in and we should get off the mountain”.
Photo by Cyndi Wells (the Local Woman) :)
I know lightning is dangerous anywhere, but in the mountains, where weather can go from great to grim in about 10 minutes I got scared. We scampered down the trail taking us down a double black diamond ski slope, down we ran until we reached mile 19.5, at 9220 feet I rolled into the Ski Lodge. A huge oasis of an aid station with water and electricity and plumbing. I got some Soda to drink, went to the bathroom and quickly moved out of the aid station. They checked me off the list as I left.
I ran about a mile out of the aid station. The next aid was about 3.5 miles away, back up to 9580 feet above sea level so I had some significant climbing to do again. The pipe line aid station was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. As I was traveling through a pretty well tree-sheltered area, I heard a loud rumbling and a large gust of wind whipped around me. I stopped and pulled my jacket out of my hydration pack and got myself covered. I could feel the temperature dropping quickly. How a day can change in the blink of an eye.
At this point the really speedy 50 mile runners start coming around. The Local fast guys who practically live in the mountains and run these trails every day. They waved and said hello as they passed. I replied “good job!”
The clouds grew as I traveled through some clearings and grassy areas. I finally made the last climb where I saw the pipeline aid station in the distance. They cheered when they saw me coming up the hill. It was very welcoming. The aid station was a lone shelter with a table, some water, heed, and some food. I asked what the weather forcast held. One volunteer told me it was raining at the next station. I asked him about lightning and he said, “yes, there is probably lightning”. He gave me some tips on how to not get struck, and told me I only had 9 miles to go. That made me happy. I smiled and said “I got this” and trucked on.
After pipeline is a huge climb. I looked back a couple times and saw another lone runner coming up behind me. I climbed and climbed and as I progressed I heard a drizzle starting to pick up and rain began to speckle the rocks. “Here it comes” I thought to myself. I finally reached the summit again and traveled along a flat area and stopped. No rain, but something was falling. It was soft and quiet. Snow! Snow in Los Alamos in late May. I had to take a photo. As I was standing there with my jaw swung open the other runner caught up with me. “I left Wisconsin to get away from this!” he yelled with a smile. We laughed and continued.
As we descended to lower elevations the snow turned to rain and the temperature continued to drop. It was cold and we were wet and miserable. My goal was to continue to run fast enough to keep from shivering. If you start to shiver you’re finished. We circled some smaller hills, the path carving one tiny flat runnable area of single track to run on. Drop off to the left, cliff to the right. Fast 50 Milers were continuing to come from behind and we passed a couple 50K runners who were succumbing to the cold. The next aid station was at mile 25, 8852 feet of elevation, much lower and wetter. The ground began to flatten and there was more water pooling in the path. The aid station was a tent with a small canopy. It was welcome to get out of the rain and inside I saw dropped runners shivering against the cold, under dressed for the situation and they had given up their chances of completing the race. I asked the volunteers how long until the next aid: 5 miles to the next aid and 7 to the finish. I was still feeling strong, slightly cold, but still strong. They checked me out of the station and I continued.
This is where all hell broke loose. Wind, rain and another temperature drop. I passed two more runners, one guy wearing a tank top. The course wound around the flat wild fire burned terrain. No shelter, no trees, not even a hole to climb into…I was looking. I wasn’t feeling strong any more, my legs were beet red and I was close to shivering. Two more 50 milers passed me, they looked worse than I felt and I figured I probably looked just as bad.
It seemed like forever, I was knocked around by wind and rain and finally I saw the sign “1 mile until Last Chance Saloon”. I began to descend into a valley. I was watching my step on the slippery rocks, trying not to fall because a broken or sprained ankle would be very bad in cold wind and rain in the middle of nowhere.
Finally I heard the cheering from the last aid station. In the very bottom of the valley sheltered somewhat from the wind. It was still raining. I heard them cheering. I made it carefully down the hill and they read off my bib number as I came in. Checking me off the list. They asked me what I wanted. I said “Do you have anything warm?” They said “how about some soup?” I was saved! The soup was hot and salty and it hit the spot. I knew I only had 1.9 miles to go and only one significant climb left. I was actually looking forward to it because it may help warm me up. I checked out of the aid station and started my final climb.
I continued running toward town and was on some lovely patch of trail. The rain had slacked up. Suddenly I stopped. In the distance I saw two large dogs….dogs? Can’t be dogs…too big. Could they have been wolves? I don’t know. They were traveling together, large gray wolf like creatures. They looked at me and I stopped. I figured if they came toward me I could scream, or blow my whistle. My hydration pack came equipped with a whistle you are supposed to blow if you get lost. I figured it would scare wolves also. Fortunately they saw little interest in me and they trotted off the course and into the woods.
It looked like this! really!
I ran on, finally, the last small climb up some rocks back into the horse stables. It was drizzling; I looped around the parking area and into the finish line. They pulled my tag and I was officially done, completed, a finisher! And I say that because when I got inside the posse shack I found out they had cancelled both races due to weather. I was fortunate enough to be already passed the cutoff point when they closed the course. Consequently I was running through the worst of it. I entered the Posse shack and an EMT gave me a jacket and a volunteer gave me a shirt to change into. Volunteers here are great. I had two cups of hot black coffee and sat by the fire. AT that point I knew I had accomplished something rare that day. I got through it. I did not even care how fast or slow I was. So many others were not able to finish due to the weather. Snow had covered the trail so much that it was dangerous to let them continue. Markings can be easily lost and runners can become disoriented in the snow covered ground.
In 30 minutes I transitioned to “I’ll never do this again” to “I can’t wait to come back”. I have really grown to love this race. I may never attempt the 50 miler, the k at altitude is probably all I need to do, but each year I want to come back and do better. Go faster, and run stronger. That is all.