Hi, my name is Andy, and before last Saturday I hadn’t finished a race in 54 weeks.
I dropped out of two 50 milers and didn’t start two other races last summer because I was (unwilling to acknowledge that I was) injured and (quite painfully) limping. After completely taking off a few months from running I got back into it and added a few things to my schedule. I now do some yoga twice a week and, thanks to Cindy Stonesmith, regularly complete a number of exercises in Jay Johnson’s Myrtl Routine to strengthen my cute butt.
This year’s Jemez 50 (actually 52) mile race was going to be many things for me. First, the race is an annual homecoming as I grew up in Los Alamos and was introduced to running on the trails around town. Second, it was a return to racing after my injury-forced rest and a patient ramp up of my mileage. And third, I needed a good preparation run for the Bighorn 100M in four weeks time. I wanted to enjoy the trails, take care of myself, avoid lightning, run the last descent hard, and make it to the finish to enjoy enchiladas and beer.
To continue setting the stage, Northern New Mexico had been in a major drought all winter, with only a few snowstorms and none since January. The weather leading up to the race was quite different and was full of afternoon thunderstorms with numerous nearby lightning strikes, they definitely needed the moisture but lightning in the middle of a drought is always scary. For Saturday, forecasters expected a clear morning followed by scattered thunderstorms in the afternoon, with temperatures reaching the mid 50s during the day. It ended up being somewhat different up at 10,000 feet.
The race started in the wee hours of the morning under cool conditions and clear skies. It still feels weird to say this but the first 30 miles were pretty uneventful. I was running fairly easily and eating and drinking just enough while I enjoyed the fabulous trails. A few times I was worried that my stomach would turn sour but I was able to hold it at bay by slowing down and taking additional salt and water. I had been running within shouting distance of David Coblentz all day, which was reassuring as he’s a strong runner and knows how to run the course well.
We reached the mile 31 aid station feeling slightly hot as the sun had been beating down on us for a while and the temperature was hitting the mid 60s. My parents were volunteering at the aid station and it was great to see them enjoying themselves. The beginning of the 2800 foot climb back to the top of the ski hill was warm and sunny so we dunked our hats in the little stream in the bottom of Pajarito Canyon. As we made our way towards the top, the temperature was dropping and the sun disappeared behind some very ominous clouds. We popped out onto the ridge of Pajarito Mountain and I quickly put on my lightweight shell that I had been carrying all day as I was getting slightly chilled. Then it started snowing. It was pretty light snowfall at first, but in the twenty minutes from when it began until we got to the ski lodge aid station at mile 38, the snow turned very wet and it wasn’t long before I was soaked through. The trails got slightly slick in places and we had to apply extra caution when maneuvering around the mountain-bike jumps. At the aid station I switched into my second shell from my drop bag to have something dry and also because it is slightly larger and easier to pull over my gloveless hands (shouldn’t have left my real rain jacket in the car). I had actually started the day in gloves but took them off and left them in my drop bag at mile 31. Oddly, I had two buffs in my drop bag so I wrapped my hands in those. Two buffs and no gloves? Who packed this drop bag?
It was only after I left the aid station that I thought about how the rest of the race was going to be affected by the storm which had moved in. It was much colder and wetter than I had anticipated and even though we were sheltered by the trees, I noticed the wind and began to worry. See, once you leave the ski lodge you don’t cross an accessible road until one mile from the finish, a full 12 miles. There is one near-full service aid station in this stretch, Pipeline, just three miles from the ski hill (they drive 6 miles up a gnarly jeep road to get there), and two hike-in stations. The ridge we run along for much of the way is typically brutally hot as the tree cover burned 14 years ago in the Cerro Grande fire. Of course, on Saturday, that exposure was going to make the descent tough for a different reason.
I got to the Pipeline aid station and immediately tried warming my hands and drying my hand-buffs over a small stove. Someone there, we’ll call him Hero, had a box of disposable nitrile (or latex?) gloves and offered a pair to me. These were incredible. They acted as a wind-shield and as a wetsuit, allowing a small amount of water in that then served as insulation against the frigid temperatures. The snow was coming down really hard when we left and visibility was down to a hundred yards or so (maybe much less? it’s all pretty fuzzy in my head). Just to remind you, because it was pretty apparent to me, the snow was wet slushy snow. And it was below freezing. And we were about to leave the protection of the trees and run down a windy ridge for the next six miles. This storm was lasting longer than I wanted it to!
David and I were still together and neither of us cared any longer about our finish time, the goal turned into getting down to the finish line in one piece. To this end, we ran just fast enough to stay warm but not too fast to divert all blood flow to running muscles and away from necessary organs and extremities. The gloves kept my hands warm the whole way but my lightweight jacket was totally soaked and my arms and chest were very cold, especially when we ran head on into a gust of wind. If there had been an easy place to drop I would have jumped at the chance as my teeth were chattering and I was somewhat worried about my well being. One of my main concerns was twisting an ankle and being unable to keep myself warm. I was on the verge of tears but I kept going because it just HAD to get better the closer to town we got.
Five days earlier I had run with the Rocky Mountain Runners up Green Mountain. Eric Lee, Greg Salvesen, and I were talking about how trail runners typically are not prepared for worst-case scenarios (weather, injury, etc.) when we run long distances in remote locations. I was ready for slightly different conditions than what I read on the weather forecast but we had entered into something much colder and wetter than anyone had predicted. Even in the relatively well controlled environment of a race things can quickly become dangerous, especially since we’re pushing our bodies so hard and may have limited reserves to keep ourselves safe.
The situation did improve lower down as the rain stopped and the sun came out. The view back towards the ski hill and surrounding mountains was impressive with everything covered in snow. It was the first snow since January. We picked up some chicken soup from the last aid station, took off our shells and gloves, and crossed the finish line together under blue skies 11 hours 10 minutes after setting out in the morning.
Due to the horrendous weather, the race was cancelled mid-way through the day so only 20 out of 170 50 mile runners made it to the finish line, the rest being pulled at Pajarito Canyon or Pajarito Ski Hill and driven back to the start/finish by tireless volunteers. Many runners even made it to Pipeline before being told to turn around and head three miles back to the ski hill and based on timing reports we made it through there less than half an hour before they started turning people around. It was definitely the right decision to pull runners from the course even though the weather eventually cleared. Tom Stockton and his crew did a fantastic job accounting for and taking care of all the hypothermic runners out on the course (Third-hand quote from a volunteer who took matters into his own sleeping bag: “That was the first time I’ve spooned another guy”) and it’s a testament to the wonderful volunteers that by the end of the day everyone was safe and sound. It was inspiring to hear stories of aid station workers and other runners helping people who got dangerously cold.
It wasn’t what I was expecting but I got what I came for: a good long run, serious mental training, a reminder to prepare for the worst, and some fantastic post-race enchiladas. And from now on I’ll bring my own nitrile gloves.