Lottery luck smiled on me this past winter, with the result that I am now entered in the Grand Slam of ultra running. Something I still can’t wrap my mind around: I will tackle four challenging 100-mile races this summer, starting June 23rd in Squaw Valley. For the last five months, I tried to extend the phase of all-out denial as long as I possibly can, but sometimes reality hits me hard, causing a freakout moment, or five, or ten: what was I thinking????
Five weeks out from Western States, it was time to look in the face of the monster I signed up for. I decided I needed one more long training run. So, at the last minute, I signed up for the Jemez 50 miler, a tough, technical course in the mountains of New Mexico, about two hours from home. The last time I ran Jemez was in 2014, when a blizzard came out of nowhere and dumped a foot of snow on the course. The race director made the right decision and pulled the plug, which I learned at the mile 35 aid station. A race cut short because of dangerous weather conditions is not strictly speaking a DNF, but it felt like one. I did not get to finish the 50, so the Jemez and I had a score to settle. The year’s course was a two-loop format because of fire restrictions, which meant it was more technical and more exposed than the original route, though the overall elevation gain was less. Still, 9000 feet over 50 miles is no walk in the park. My plan, based on the advice of my esteemed ultra friends and mentors, was to run this trace as a training effort instead of all-out racing it. But we all know that plans have a way of changing.
The race starts at 5 am, which means it’s dark for the first thirty minutes or so. After a couple of miles of rolling hills, runners get to enjoy the sunrise right when climbing begins in earnest, up the Guaje ridge until mile 15, then straight up the almost vertical Pajarito ski hill.
My race – er, my training run – starts according to plan in the back of the pack. I had been training hard for the last couple of months, had not tapered or rested for this weekend, and worked (which, for me means: rode horses) all day on Friday before driving to Los Alamos, with the predictable result that I feel tired from the start. Racing seems out of the question during the early miles. Climbing at a steady pace but not pushing hard, I keep repeating my mantra: “It’s just a training run! Just a training run!” A training run has its perks. I stop to soak up the gorgeous sunrise, even take a couple of pictures. Still, I move pretty well, and the leaden feeling lifts from my feet over the course of the first loop.
My low point of the race – er, the training run – comes near the end of the first loop, at mile 29. The sun is high in the sky by then, and shade is in short supply on the trail. I crash on a rocky downhill. My knee bloody, my pride injured, I contemplate dropping down to the 50k and calling it a day, when I spot David, my amazing ultra husband unexpectedly a road crossing. I’m so happy to see him that I stop paying attention to the trail and trip again, this time over a rock the size of a peanut. Another bloody knee. I feel terrible, but David says I look great. As I drag myself further along the trail, I wonder: is he lying, or does he live in a parallel universe?
The familiar figure of my friend Travis came into sight just ahead. He’s shuffling, then walking. I pass him with a few encouraging words. My competitive instinct opens one sleepy eye. At the next aid station, Travis walks in as I’m about to leave. He sits down in a chair, looking defeated. I try to motivate him to finish, without success. But though I can’t motivate Travis, I motivate myself. Telling him the the signed up to run 50 miles instead of 30 reminds me that I signed up for the same distance. I’m bleeding and hurting, but still feeling strong. I can still run. I don’t have a good reason to give up, so I do the logical thing and keep running.
On the second climb up the Guaje ridge, runners in the 15-mile race come down the hill as we 50-milers struggle up a second time in the mid-day heat. High-fives and encouraging comments flow in both directions, boosting everyone’s morale, including mine. A couple of the 15-milers have kept track of the women ahead of me. I realize I’m in 4th place. I also realize I’m still feeling pretty good when passing a couple of other runners on the long, hot uphill.
At the mile 36 aid station, my race mantra suddenly switches from “Just a training run” to an all-out “Go for it!” As I refill my pack, the 5th place woman comes running in, looking fresh and fast. I realize three things: one, I still have energy. Two, most of the last 15 miles are downhill, and three, I am in 4th place, and know I want to stay there. Ready to give the last 14 miles everything I’ve got left, I bolt out, power hike the last significant uphill part of the course, then run downhill as fast as I can.
At the mile 40 aid station, I know I need an extra boost of energy to finish strong, so I do something I hardly ever do in a race: I put in earphones and start blasting my fastest playlist at full volume. My favorite speedy songs help me barrel down the rocky, technical sections of the last ten miles on tired legs. I crash hard about six times, but keep going, wasting minimal time curled up on the ground and minimal breath on swear words. My legs keep working, fueled by adrenaline and rhythm.
At mile 43, I spot the third place woman just a couple of minutes ahead. My competitive instinct kicks into full gear while blood drips from my knees and elbows. One more crash, but like a cartoon, I tuck, roll, and spring back onto my feet, moving into third place at mile 45, which gives me a burst of extra motivation for the final kick. My competition breathing down my neck, I run right though the last aid station, then run hard all the way to the finish, which – welcome surprise – comes at mile 49.5 this year, instead of mile 52. The Jemez’ final insult – a last steep, rocky uphill – has demoralized me in the past, but this year I navigate it like a mountain goat and cross the finish line in 10:48, bleeding, battered, bruised, and bone tired, but third woman, by a scant few minutes.
Jemez is a race where everyone knows everyone else, so we hang out at the finish line, cheering on runners, sharing race recaps with old and new friends, and enjoying the best finish-line food anywhere – a full buffet including enchiladas, burgers, and pretty much anything a hungry trail runner might want.
Once I sit down, the adrenaline rush of the last ten miles wears off, which makes me feel the pain I’m in, but it doesn’t matter because it was worth it. There is no better way to spend a day. I feel ready for the grand slam, or will feel ready, once my raw knees scab over.
This race taught me a valuable lesson for my summer challenge: music is a powerful tool, a performance-enhancing drug without side effects (other than bloody knees). I usually prefer to race without it, but my playlist made me fly today. So, I will carry my favorite tunes at Western States and use them in strategic places. I hope they will work their magic in the canyons between Dusty Corners and Foresthill like they did in the Jemez mountains.
Thank you, Katie, Alyssa, Ken, Jean, Tammy, Tania, David, Susie, Tony,and everyone else who made this training run that turned into a race so enjoyable. It was good to see all of you! And, as always, a gigantic thank you to my ultra husband David Silva, aka my deluxe crew/cheerleader/photographer/life coach combo model. I could not do this without you!
Run happy, with music or without,