A Desert High in the High Desert: Deadman Peaks

The Deadman Peaks Ultra is a trail runner’s dream: 53 miles along a remote section of the Continental Divide Trail, in Northwestern new Mexico. It’s all dirt and slickrock, mostly single track – not a step of pavement. It does not even cross any paved roads. It does not go through any inhabited area. It’s desert running, pure and simple, in a small, friendly format, with a grassroots vibe, a Dia de los Muertos theme, and really good finish line food. 

This year is colder than it’s ever been – seven degrees right before the 6 am start. I hate to admit it, but I never run in this kind of chill. Usually, temperatures below 35 send me into the gym and onto a treadmill, but today, I have to brave the elements because I love this race. Huddling around the campfire at 5:45 am, I look and feel like an onion – a tough onion: I’m bundled up in two pairs of tights, two long sleeve shirts, and two down jackets over two base layers, plus a warm hat and gloves.  

The first couple of miles go down a dirt road. I shuffle off, into the darkness, cold in spite of all the layers I’m wearing. I have my head stuck between my shoulder blades, like a turtle, as I plod along, following the glow of my head lamp. Suddenly, I realize I haven’t seen a course marker in a while, or fresh running shoe tracks in the sand. Sure enough, I’ve missed the turn onto the singletrack.  Looking back, I see dots of light moving off into the distance. I turn around, feeling demoralized. The extra mileage – it’s only about half a mile, but still – drains me of all motivation to race hard. I’m beating myself up over getting lost so early on a course I know so well. It’s still bitter cold. The water in my pack has turned solid after the first two minutes, so drinking is not an option for the first nine miles. I trudge along, through the darkness, my breath an icy cloud, my leg muscles tight, my mouth dry, my spirit not crushed, but definitely bruised. 

After an hour or so, daylight lifts my mood. The horizon turns grey, then blue, promising a spectacular sunrise in the high desert. Daylight is a good thing for practical reasons, too: around mile six, the little pink course flags disappear down a bluff, and I follow them along a near vertical incline, using my hands to stay upright. The Deadman Peaks is not for those afraid of heights. How did this race get its name? From an actual dead runner?  I don’t see any human bones on the valley floor, but I’m not sure. Three miles later the first aid station. My water is still frozen, but a kind volunteer takes my pack into his camper to warm it up while I shed one pair of tights and one of my jackets. The air still feels arctic, but the sun at least looks warm. 

Wearing only one down coat instead of two I run on, as the sun inches above the eastern horizon. I begin to feel warmer, and not just because I’m running harder. The water in my pack finally melts from slushee to liquid, so I know temperatures have climbed above freezing. It’s 8 am. I think of ultra husband David, who is starting the marathon from the opposite direction right around now, and look forward to meeting him in a couple of hours or so. 

Happy and hydrated once more, I run on, under a clear blue sky, enjoying the desert scenery. The course does not have any huge elevation changes, but the climbs, though short, are steep. Plus, there are a lot of them. The trail meanders up and down the rock formations, through sand and slick rock in shades of yellow and red., following not only the course flags, but also rock cairns and stakes that mark the CDT. Deadman Peaks shows New Mexico at its finest. 

Aid station number two at mile 17 offers all sorts of treats, from chicken to nutella wraps. I grab a handful of potato chips, shed another jacket, and run on, feeling energized by warmth and morning sunshine. Marathon runners are coming toward me, then the mid-packers. 

My competitive instinct, dormant until now, begins to stir. I know I ended up in the back of the field after going off course, but I have passed a few runners since. 

A cute guy in a zombie outfit appears in the distance. It’s my ultra husband David, who stops for a kiss and a picture. He has counted the women ahead of me and says I’m in 5th place right now. My beast mode wakes up with a roar. I gallop off, past a dilapidated windmill and empty stock tank, and past another woman, which puts me in fourth place. 

26.5 miles, the turnaround point. One marathon down, another to go. Temperatures have reached the low 50s, so I shed two more layers, have a piece of pumpkin pie, and head back out, hot on the heels of the third-place woman. Yesterday, looking at the freezing weather forecast, I seriously considered dropping down to the marathon distance. Today, I’m glad I get to do this all over, in the opposite direction. 

I catch up to another woman, whose red shorts I’ve been catching glimpses of in the distance until I finally reel her in. Up close, she’s no more than a girl, maybe twenty or twenty-five, which makes her half may age and me old enough to be her mother. We exchange names, and I realize we know each other: Mikaela was in a high school running club I coached a few years ago. She tells me, beaming, that the habit has stuck. This is her first ultra race, and she is looking strong. I tell her I’m proud of her. We run together for a bit, then I pull ahead, still feeling ambitious. 

The last aid station. I get a hug and a cup of ginger ale from my friend Gail, then run on, toward home. Nine more miles, the first three of them uphill. My undertrained legs begin to complain, so I put on my head phones and hit shuffle, hoping to tap into my secret ultra weapon. The right music gives me energy to dig deep, like it always does. On the final rocky climb up a near vertical bluff, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes, song lyrics fit the situation a little too well! I stop for a moment, to catch my breath, but also to savor the gorgeous view and to soak up the joy and gratitude flooding through my system. Hoping I don’t roll back down this rocky incline like a stone, I continue until I reach the top. Six more miles of sandy terrain, six victory laps. The afternoon sun bathes the desert in a golden light. A light breeze caresses my face. The scent of pine trees makes every breath I take aromatherapy. I know I will finish this race. Time to push the pace as much as I can while staying in my happy zone. My random playlist delivers enough energy to keep my feet moving, without breaking my serenity bubble. No other runners are anywhere in sight. I am alone in this beautiful desert, moving along from pink ribbon to pink ribbon, loving every second. I almost wish this race were longer than 53 miles, but at the same time, I look forward to the finish line, to seeing my husband, to food and beer and dry clothes. 

A dry riverbed, with a plastic skeleton and a (hopefully fake) graveyard. The dirt road. Almost home. One last uphill. A highway in the distance, then a parking lot, a tent, cars. A last push to the finish line. A hug from RD Eric, another from ultra husband David, who has changed out of his zombie outfit. 10:39, good for second place woman and a beautiful T-shirt. It’s time to rest, to refuel, to celebrate. I change into warm clothes. Eric’s dad is in charge of the taco bar. Old and new friends sit around the campfire, offering chairs and beers. We munch leftover Halloween candy for dessert. We wait for our drop bags. We cheer on finishing runners. We talk about running and the meaning of life, huddled around the flames as darkness falls once again. These are my two favorite parts of an ultra: the lonely hours immersed in pain and nature out on the trail, and the deep connection with others.

Thank you, Eric Bailey, for organizing such a beautiful race. Thank you, Gail Leedy and all other volunteers, for supporting us with food, drink, and hugs. Thank you, Clifford, Randy, Mikaela, and everyone else I shared miles with. And thank you, ultra husband and best-ever zombie, David Silva, for 27 years of shared adventures. Deadman Peaks is one of our favorite races. We participate every year, either running or volunteering. I can’t wait to return next November!       

Leave a Reply