Jemez 50: Pickin’ Cherries

A couple weeks ago I did a bit of a tester long run on my home trails in Boulder—31mi, 4h26min, 7k’ vert—to see how/if my hip would hold up on a longer effort. It did, and afterwards I started thinking about what I could race on the upcoming calendar, despite the fact that I’d only been running pain-free for all of 16 days. Originally, I’d planned on racing the Zegama Skymarathon in the Basque country in late May, but despite that being an incredible event, there was no way that I could be fit enough in time to justify the international travel.

The Jemez 50 miler in northern New Mexico, however, was the same weekend, and it is an event that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years, mostly because of Kyle Skaggs’ recommendation. Unfortunately, the original course—which reportedly featured a tasty mandatory hike up a boulder field on one of the route’s three 10k’+ summits—burned down in 2011, so the current course has seen a couple of different renditions. This year’s route would retain many of the original’s defining features: an ascent of 10,400′ Pajarito Mountain (which we would actually do twice), a loop through the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a rugged cross-country ascent to access Pajarito Canyon, and the classic 3000′ finishing descent of Guaje Ridge.

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 12.58.24 PMMy main objectives going into the race were: 1) to not lose any training before or after the race—I basically wanted to put out a solid training effort, 2) not re-injure myself. As such, I didn’t rest at all leading up to the weekend. My sister was moving into her new house in Colorado Springs, so I headed down to help her with that and took the opportunity to run up and down Pikes Peak on Wednesday, an almost 4hr effort with 8000′ of pounding on the pins. Friday morning I felt terrible on my nearly 2hr run, and I calculated that in the seven days leading up to the race I’d run 40k’ vert and 125mi. Ok, so, not rested. Let’s see if I can achieve my other goal.

I ran the first 10mi at a relaxed pace with birthday boy Joe Grant. Neither of us were feeling much pep in our legs on the uphills (and it would stay that way, at least for me), and we soon realized that this was very much a running course—there wouldn’t be many steep, hiking grades to vary the leg muscle recruitment. While I prefer the steep and techy stuff as much as Joe, I’m able to hold my own on the smoother, flatter stuff, too, so began to push out a bit of a gap as we made our way up Pajarito Mt for the first time. This climb was on a moderately-graded, but freshly cut trail before traversing over the top of the mountain past ski lifts and descending in a circuitous fashion down to the Pajarito Lodge at mile 18.6. I enjoyed this flowy singletrack downhill and felt firmly ensconced in training run effort.

Joe’s wife, Deanne, was gracious enough to hand us gels at the Lodge all day (we would pass through this aid twice), so after picking up an extra water bottle and some sugar there, it was off to the Valle Grande. I skipped the Pipeline Aid as I had more than enough water, but I doubt it was a full 4mi from there to the aid station in the Caldera (mile 25.4) as I covered this smooth double-track in only 24min (3:27 at Pipeline, 3:51 in the Caldera).

A short while later, the route left the double-track and headed across the grass and up the hill to a low pass between Cerro Grande and Pajarito Mountain. After 4hr of basically continuous, up-tempo running, I was ready for this short hike uphill. The grade wasn’t particularly steep, but the route was flagged off of any discernible trail, directly up the fall-line, over rubbly footing and many burned, downed trees. If there had been a trail (solid footing), it would’ve definitely been runnable. I’m glad there wasn’t; I was tired of running. I hit the pass at 4:18 (it was only a 1000′ climb) and immediately enjoyed a rollicking descent down Pajarito Canyon. It began as more cross-country fare over grass, but eventually we picked up a trail that only got smoother and smoother and was at the absolute perfect grade for fast, unbridled descending. This was one of my favorite sections of the course.

I reached the Pajarito Canyon aid (31.4mi) in 4:51. I was having a blast, but after a solid 50K, running starts to feel a bit redundant no matter what. Nevertheless, with a pair of full bottles and another summit of Pajarito between me and the next aid I took off with continued enthusiasm and energy. The climb back up the mountain went better than expected—I did it only 1min slower than earlier in the morning—and now there were 50K runners to exchange encouragement with along the way. When I saw Deanne back at the Lodge again (38.6mi, 6:11), I knew there was frequent aid the rest of the way, so picked up a couple extra gels and left my extra bottle. When she asked how I was feeling, though, I think I mostly responded with a desultory grunt about how it was going to be work from here on out.

It definitely felt that way on the jog back over to the Pipeline aid—I was thoroughly uninspired and just ready to be done—but if I’d known just how sweet the upcoming Guaje Ridge singletrack was going to be, I would’ve been operating with a whole lot more enthusiasm. This descent was spectacular. A carpety trail traversed along the gently descending ridge for miles and miles at a grade perfectly suited for running downhill fast. Seriously, it is one of the more quality descents I’ve experienced in the sport.

About a mile to go. Be nice, I'm still 5+ lbs over race weight :-) Photo: Jim Stein.

About a mile to go. Be nice, I’m still 5+ lbs over race weight… Photo: Jim Stein.

Eventually, the terrain flattened out for a couple of frustrating, wandering miles through an extensive burn zone, but by now I could smell the barn and soon enough I was back on singletrack dropping into Rendija Canyon (mile 50.6 in 7:48) before the interminable final two miles leading to my 8:07:07 finish in the now full-on rain. Unfortunately, it was snowing up high and they ended up having to pull runners from the course early. Considering it had been exactly only a month since my first run back from my hip injury (a flat 33min outing on the creek path the day after I got back from Japan), I was satisfied with the effort.

Pulling the number at the finish line.

Pulling the number in the finish chute. Photo: Deanne Grant.

Even with the rain, the finish was a perfect example of the intimate, community feel to this event, which was a big reason I wanted to run it. Selfless volunteers, tables and tables of very good Southwestern food, and general mirth defined the atmosphere. I’ve always respected my friends who will run all kinds of races—big and small, local and international—while it seems I’ve mostly gravitated towards the competitive and high-profile.

Running hard and fast against the best competition will always be my number one priority in the competitive realm, but I hope to do more low-key, less intense events, too, where there is as much emphasis on the camaraderie and fellowship and community as there is on the top runners at the higher-profile races. Obviously, our sport is large enough to accommodate both types, and I hope I can begin to fit more of each into my schedule.

You could say that going to a local event like this for an easy win is cherry pickin’, but I would argue that that term works in more ways than one. Cherry pickin’ is often used to refer to scouting for weak fields where one can snag an easy victory, pad the ol’ win-loss column. A slightly different use of the phrase, however, refers to selecting the best out of a bunch, and in than sense, the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs certainly qualify. I would highly recommend them to anyone looking for a fun, flawlessly-organized, friendly race with an above-average course.

Finally, a huge thanks to all the volunteers—I mean, really, who wants to stand out in the woods all day waiting for runners to come through?!—to Deanne for putting up with Joe and I all day, and to Blake for so kindly opening his home. That shower felt incredible.

19 thoughts on “Jemez 50: Pickin’ Cherries

  1. Cherry Picking? I highly doubt it in the negative sense that is. Your a solid athlete and like you said it was test run/race as well. I’m sure it was not to stroke your ego but rather give you the confidence for the rest of the season. Fantastic run and congrats on taking top spot on a pretty daring course (10,000′ of Vert).

  2. Hello, at first congrat for your participation on a local course, it change a lot.
    So i can’t determinate your shoes on the photo, being a great fan of my mt110 could you indicate which NB is ?

    Best regard

  3. Well done…… great report too. Coming back from injury / operation is as much physical as it is mental. The events leading back up to full mental / physical condition is a careful balancing act. Sounds like this was the perfect return race for you to once again compete at the highest level.

  4. Its always nice to do some low key events when returning back from an injury. Great run and hope to see you running on a regular basis.

  5. Congrats man! I was out there and got pulled off of the course. Now I’m sorry I missed the end. Amazing to hear your description of the race. As a big longtime fan I was sorry to have missed you at the finish but was too busy shivering in the car from hypothermia. Glad to see you back at it!

  6. Congrats! And totally agreen on what you said about the volunteers. I’ll never leave an aid post without thanking everyone there, sacrificing their Sunday so some lunatics can have their weird way of having fun.

    And 5lbs over your race weight? What’s your race weight then , if you don’t mind me asking (as obviously it’s a touchy subject ;-)). I’m pretty sure my 167 to my 6’1″ will make me sound chubby compared to you :-)

  7. Big congrats!! Just ran a 10 km test run in the NB 110 and I loved it! Think it will be my choice of shoes for my first 60 km next month. Thanks for inspiring and good luck on further adventures. Namaste Michael

  8. I was one of the 50k runners you exchanged encouragement with your second time up the peak to Pajarito. This was my first 50k and I was impressed with how each of you 50m runners were so genuine, polite, and encouraging as you passed me. My shock/awe about it is due to the fact that my time in pro boxing didn’t bring with it the same level of encouragement from other boxers. Maybe the camaraderie and good manners are standard for Ultras, or maybe in this race we were graced by an amazing group of runners. Either way, thanks!

    I posted a photo on the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs Facebook page (from the backside) of you passing me on the way up Pajarito…

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  10. actually this was probably one of my favorite reads lately. not cherry pickin at all man, just simple and pure running, how it is intended to be. stoked to see you run races like this and talk more about our rad community

  11. Nice race and report! Glad to heal your injury seems to be a thing of the past. And speaking for all the ladies out here, I can tell you that those so-called 5 lbs have done absolutely nothing to lower your ranking on the smoking hot scale. It actually looks really good on you! :) Congrats!

  12. Hi Anton- I was one of the 50k runners you passed by in the Jemez and it was my first ultra-marathon, first trail run and first time running in altitude (I live in Wisconsin–> no hills to speak of really).

    Anyway, I just wanted to say you made a huge impact on me in that moment you passed by us. I asked the people I had met that I was running with whether you were human since I didn’t think a human could run that gracefully and quick on the terrain we were treading (let alone lap us at mile 18). I was only half-joking and don’t mean to gush but it was something extraordinary to run that trail with you even if for a moment. I’ve been an athlete of various sports and I am new to running but people like you with such humble approach and incredible gifts for what I’d call flight (you seemed to glide over all the obstacles and ankle-turning rocks/roots compared to my awkward trot on that mountain), are truly great to bring to the world. Thanks for being so down-to-earth with us novices and me a neophyte runner. Hope to see you again next year or at another one of these small ultras!

    Also, someday if you are ever near the Great Lakes (particularly Milwaukee), as a special education teacher here, it would be great to meet you or even have you meet our students as a guest speaker if you’re not too busy. I think the sport teaches a lot about overcoming adversity and meeting challenges, your experiences/knowledge really transforms lives. Keep up the great work! Thanks for inspiring me.

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  14. Glad to see you had NB create a shoe that actually has some support/cushion in it. Could be the reason for your injury getting better. Just my assumption considering once the MT110 came out, you kind of dropped off the racing map because of injuries.

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