Monday, May 23, 2011

The Great Awakening: Jemez Mountain 50-Mile Race Report

Where to begin? How about with a few random thoughts?

My time was 11:57 and I finished 33rd overall out of 118 finishers. I'm pissed.

I saw the winner, Nick Clark, who broke Kyle Skaggs' 2008 course record (about a month later, Kyle became the first person ever to break 24 hours at the Hardrock 100), descending Caballo Mountain (pronounced Ca-buy-yo) and was astonished by how fast he was running.

Seeing Nick and others in action, I realized yet again that I suck at downhill technical trail running. I've known this for about a year now and yet I haven't done anything about it. No more. I haven't always been this bad. I used to be a decent trail runner back when I had trails near my house in Ohio. I even won a 100-mile trail race once, but that was a lifetime ago. I'm rusty on technical trails now, and just plain bad on mountain trails, and it showed on Saturday in a big, big way.

For a while now I've been quietly rationalizing that, while I was pretty good ultrarunner out East, running out in the Mountain West isn't my cup of tea and so I should resign myself to being slightly better than mediocre. No more. While I would never delude myself into believing I can be the next Nick Clark, I do think I can improve as a runner and maybe place top 10 in races like Jemez and even Leadville. I just want my results to align with my desire.

Jemez is without question the hardest 50 miles I've ever run, and just about any Jemez finisher will tell you the same thing (including Nick Clark himself). One guy told me it's Hardrock cut in half. Unless you live and run out in the Mountain West or have done lots of races out here, you couldn't possibly imagine the difficulty of Jemez and its wicked-steep, very technical and scree-laced ascents and descents which take you above 10,000 feet. The race packs 25,000 feet of combined elevation change and is widely considered one of the three hardest 50s in the nation (along with the San Juan Solstice and Zane Grey 50s). Some people say Heartbreak Hill at Boston is hard. Compared to Jemez, Heartbreak Hill is merely a parking lot speed bump or maybe a small pile of dirt you could kick out of your way. We're talking about monster mountains here, about b-line ascents up along double black diamond ski slopes that in many areas are at a 45 degree grade. We're talking about navigating bomber drops that go on for miles, including a 300-vertical-foot drop with scree that is easily 70 degrees. Yes, I said 70 degrees. This is about what 70 degrees looks like: /.

I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow race report. The first 21 miles were great. I did the climbs and descents just fine and loved the very runnable stretch just before the grassy Caldera section. Caldera, with huge clumps of grass in a big-ass field surrounded by big-ass mountains that await you, wasn't that bad, either. It was the back-country, off-trail climb after Caldera that things started getting crazy. I navigated downed trees and an absolutely huge boulder field before climbing up a monster ascent (Cerro Grande) that in many areas was 45 degrees and went on for a few miles. When finally to the top, I gently (read: slowly) coasted down and regrouped.

The section that really finished me off was Pajarito Mountain, home of the double black diamond ski slope I referred to earlier in this post. You're talking about ~5 miles and ~3,000 feet of mostly b-line ascent (versus switchbacks). But that wasn't even the hardest part. Once at the top, you had to get back down by running straight down the damned slope to the ski lodge. My quads were screaming in agony. I felt like a broken man. Actually, I felt like a guy who for the past 6 months has been running roads in comfortable Parker.
After Pajarito, I had a tough stretch, but eventually regrouped for about 4 miles. But at about mile 45, the wheels came off and I started walking a bunch and was plenty pissed off. When I came into the last aid station at about mile 48.1, I was told I was 1.9 miles from the finish and I looked at my watch and realized I had 32 minutes to work with in going sub-12 hours--my Plan B goal (Plan A goal was south of 11 hours and the dream scenario was in the neighborhood of 10-10.5 hours). So I pulled it together and got 'er done. The winning time was 8:07 set by Superman himself, Nick Clark. Yeah, this isn't the JFK 50-Mile Race, where the winning time is around 5:50. This is a hardcore, back-country 50-mile mountain race that will make you see God and scream for your momma if you're not ready for it.


I do want to say that Jemez is a very well-organized race with friendly, supportive and helpful volunteers who are generous with their time. The post-race festivities were awesome and included a cook-out, beer and many other delicious treats. This was a first-class race put on by people who know what they're doing. Also, the city of Los Alamos is beautiful with its surrounding mountains and huge mesas. I loved New Mexico--what an outdoor paradise it is--and thought the drive from Denver to Los Alamos was spectacular, albeit very remote in certain stretches.

Also, after the race I talked for a little while with Nick Clark, who I congratulated on his win. He was one of the many who pointed out that my lack of mountain running is hindering my results. Nick is a great guy and he took a genuine interest in my race and where I thought things may have gone wrong. He'd actually heard of me, probably from this blog. But what a first-class individual he is and a true credit to this sport.


Jemez was an awakening for me. Why?
As a few runners who I greatly respect have told me in the last 2 days, it's clear I'm not running in the mountains enough. If I want results, I need to train as much as I can in the mountains. I knew this before the race but did little to rectify the problem because, in my mind, I was too busy to venture beyond the cushy confines of Parker. No more. For the next 3 months, I'll be making it a point to get to the mountains at least 1-2 times a week. This will be difficult as far as scheduling and family, but I have to get my trail legs back and I need to run some serious vertical and steep drops to develop my mountain skills. I've identified several mountains with at least 1,000 feet of vertical (the ideal amount I'll be after is 1,500 to 2,000 feet of vertical, and preferably more) that I can venture to without spending half a day away from home. I'll find time for big outings to Leadville, Pikes Peak, etc.
My failure at Jemez had nothing to do with toughness. I'm tough. It had nothing to do with mileage. I put in the miles. And it had nothing to do with speed or even lungs. It had everything to do with inexperience on technical mountain trails. As my trusted advisers have told me, the only way to get results in hard mountain races is to train in the mountains. You can't be a road warrior like I've been and expect to do anything decent at Jemez.
So there's my mandate.


  1. After running SJS 2x and now this, my first Jemez, my money goes on Jemez for the toughest 50 miler out there. (A concession that I admit to not wanting to make, btw.) The only word that I can use to describe it is "relentless." It is definitely a "Trail" Ultra and not much else. Good plan to hit more trails to get dialed in for other things... See ya out there.

  2. You probably won't post this, but here you go anyway. "My failure at Jemez had nothing to do with toughness. I'm tough." You failed because you are calling it a failure. Try to come out of this with some positives. You say that you are open to speaking engagements. Who wants to pay someone to speak that's so negative? A challenge to you Wyatt: Write a blog post about all the good and positive things in your life. Family, friends, job, health, etc....You will never finish top 10 in any of those races if you continue with such a negative mindset. Look at all the crap that goes on in this world, and think before you write. I challenge you to write a post that has nothing to do with running and everything to do with all the good things in your life....Give it a shot.

  3. Anonymous:

    Thanks for your post. I don't think Jemez was a failure since I finished. Anyone who gutted it out to finish can be proud, since it's such a tough course. I think 200~started and, of course, 118 finished. I have always been hard on myself. This has been an asset and a hindrance at times. But honestly, I feel more enlightened about my running now than I have in a while. I know what I need to do (run in the mountains more). So Jemez was really good for me. Plus, the scenery and the race itself were just awesome.

    I'm pretty leery about writing about my family, job and personal life beyond running on this blog. Everything in that area of my life is great.

    Thanks again for your insights!


  4. Good insight on the need to get out on the trails more. I had a similar epiphany last year after SJS50 (m first 50). After grimacing my way down the last two descents, I realized I needed to do a lot more quality downhill training. After all, in the mountains, what goes up...must come down. Seems like a simple thing, but in the crush of life, sometimes the simple things get obscured by what it takes just to get out the door for a run...any run.

  5. Generally agree with what Anonymous said other than that they did it Anonymously.

    Getting a little wake up call occasionally is a good thing: success through failure. Failure is a way to recognize how successes, accomplishments, and those good life things when they are there and when they come need to be celebrated.

  6. Hey Wyatt. I'm the guy that was pissing blood at the end there. Thanks for the support and concern. It was good to meet you and I'll see around. I'll most likely be at SJS as long as my ankle heels up and I'll be at Leadville so see you there?