Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Land of Enchantment Strikes Again - Jemez Mountain Trail Runs Race Report

I'll come right out and say it - I've never considered New Mexico to be one of my favorite states in the country, despite some of the obvious draws that it has for me. I think that it would rank much higher on my list if it were not located in such close proximity to so many other states with truly amazing and unique features. When compared with the rest of the four corners states - Colorado with its' striking and rugged mountainous terrain; Utah with its' mixture of mountains, canyons, and desert landscapes; and Arizona with THE canyon - New Mexico doesn't have a great amount to add, topographically, that is unique to itself.

What New Mexico does have that is somewhat unique is its' strangely designed roads. The layout of the highway system in the northern part of the state in particular has always baffled me and seems haphazard at best, and the road systems in the towns never seem to be very conducive to efficiently traveling from one place to another. The funny thing is that although the nonsense of the road systems in New Mexico sometimes annoys my sense of logic, the affected result - longer driving times between locations - has never really bothered me. The scenery and culture that is experienced when driving through northern New Mexico is always enough to keep me engaged and not let the miles wear on my mental state. I can't help but think that maybe the seemingly random road systems were actually strategically planned to route the traveler near and through all of the most scenic and interesting parts of the landscape so that the travel would become more of an experience and less of a means for getting from point A to point B.

So does all this mean that I consider the roads to be the best or most unique attribute that New Mexico brings to this country? Not by a long shot: that honor belongs to the New Mexican green chile.

The roads, the topography, the scenery, the culture, and the green chile are all things that I experienced during my most recent venture into the wild lands of New Mexico. The main event on this excursion was the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs - specifically the half marathon event which was part of the La Sportiva Mountain Cup. The friendly town of Los Alamos is home to the Jemez Mountains and, appropriately, the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs.

The course for the half marathon starts on a small mesa in town and descends into a canyon at the base of the mountains. The trail then climbs steadily through the canyon as it runs along the outskirts of town before it turns decidedly upward and begins to ascend to the highpoint on Guaje ridge, which is seen in the picture above. Once atop Guaje ridge, the trail snakes along the ridge crest descending gradually, then more steeply back into the bottom of the canyon where the climbing first began. The final two miles of the course consists of rolling uphill climbing out of the canyon and onto the mesa for the finish. The result of the course layout is a good, tough, honest challenge that makes sure you know that you've worked for the finish, but isn't so brutal that you're not able to enjoy the course.

If you look closely at the picture of Guaje ridge above, you'll notice that the mountain appears to be growing a thin covering of whiskers. Those whiskers are the remains of what used to be trees that got burned up last year in the Las Conchas fire, which at the time was the largest wildfire in recorded New Mexico state history. Because of the lack of trees, the exposure on the course was high and the temperature on the ridge got a little bit toasty during the run. I can only imagine that the 50k and 50 mile runners who descended the ridge later in the day would have been heating up as they ran this section. Along the ridge, the remnants of what used to be the forest consisted of sparsely scattered standing tree trunks that had been mostly consumed by the fire yet somehow managed to remain upright. The sound of the wind whistling along the ridge while running through the burn area coupled with the sweeping views into the valley to the east made for an interesting setting.

Due to the open terrain that allowed for good visibility, I was able to play spectator to the battle among the lead runners for all of the first half of the race. Rob Krar, Kris Houghton and Ryan Woods all went out at a steady pace on the intial road section, then started pushing the pace once on the single track. Jason Bryant fell in behind the lead group, and I stuck with a group of five other guys that kept a steady pace through the initial gradual climbs through the canyon. Once our group began the more direct climb up the slope to the ridge, I could see Rob in front with Kris close behind him. I could also see that Ryan looked to have dropped off the pace somewhat and Jason was pushing to catch him. Our following group began to string out some as we climbed to the ridge and once I left the aid station at the top of the ridge I found myself alone running through the burned forest.

As we descended off the ridge and back into the canyons, I could see that I was gaining some ground on the two runners directly in front of me, but wasn't feeling confident that I'd be able to catch either of them as they appeared to still be running strong. As we began the final rolling ascent over the last two miles to the finish, I began gaining ground more steadily. All of a sudden the guy directly in front of me seemed to hit a wall and slowed down dramatically, which allowed me to pass and put a gap on him quickly. Less than a quarter mile from the finish line we had to scramble up through a rocky washout with some pretty technical footing. As I began ascending this section I was trying to give a last hard push. I could see that the next guy ahead of me was struggling to push through that final climb, and he stepped to the side and told me to pass him. After unexpectedly gaining two positions in the last mile of the race, I crossed the finish line in what I thought was sixth place.

After doing a short cooldown run with Kris I came back to the finish line and people were starting to ask "Where's Jason?" I hadn't seen Jason since he crested the ridge halfway into the race and I assumed that he had finished well before me, but no one had seen him show up at the finish line. Shortly after, we also realized that Gina Lucrezi had not shown up at the finish line yet as people who had been running behind her were finishing. As it turns out, both Jason and Gina had missed a turnoff during the descent and had run down a canyon in the wrong direction. Jason ended up continuing down the canyon and caught a ride in a truck with a guy who was cutting fence posts, and Gina ended up reversing her path and hiking back in to the finish. At the time that they missed the turnoff, Jason was running as the third place man and Gina was running as either the second or third place woman, and they both ended up not finishing the race. Due to Jason's excursion off the course, I ended up in fifth place in the standings rather than sixth.

Once the confusion of the missing runners had been sorted out, we had a good time just hanging out eating the post-race meal (including some great spicy green chile enchiladas), drinking beer that Santa Fe Brewering Company had provided, and enjoying the sunshine. The awards for the race were beautiful handmade pottery bowls which were made by a local family. The bowls were freehand painted in a theme that depicted the race course and the effects that the recent fire had on the course.

After leaving the post-race party I started making my way out of Los Alamos and back into the valley, catching a good look back at the mountains and the runout of the canyons below them.

I drove to Taos and stopped over briefly to eat some food containing copious amounts of green chile, then continued up to Taos Ski Valley and set up camp near the ski area base. After a night of peaceful sleep, I packed up camp and got ready for my next adventure - a "run" up Wheeler Peak, the New Mexico state highpoint. After the hard race effort the day before, I wasn't pushing myself too hard on the climb up the peak, so the ascent was split into about 60% power hiking and 40% running which still made for a good consistent effort.

As I gained the ridge and began to climb toward treeline, I got some good views to the east into the Red River valley.

I also experienced a large number of the local bighorn sheep. My total count of bighorn for the day was well into the 40s.

After passing treeline, I gained the top of a ridge point and got my first view of the true summit of the peak.

I was able to make good time once above treeline and didn't feel much effect from the high altitude. After completing the roundtrip I cleaned myself up in the creek, stretched out and spent some time sitting in the sun, then hopped in the truck and booked it back north to Colorado. Although brief, my visit to New Mexico was full of adventure, good times, and green chile; which is all that one can really ask for.

No comments:

Post a Comment