Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The most difficult trail run yet

Was the Jemez Mountain Trail heavy Half.  14 miles through some very rugged but very beautiful mountains surrounding Los Alamos, New Mexico.  A number of factors lead me to the title statement, but let's start a bit further back.

Jenny and I made the choice to do this trail half marathon several months ago.  With our nephew graduating High School in Clovis (New Mexico), it seemed a great opportunity to work in a nice event and wouldn't you know it, an excellent opportunity presented itself with the Jemez Mt Trail Runs.

These runs include the heavy half, a 50km and a 50 mile run.  Neither of us are prepared for the longer distances, but we both felt we were prepared for the half.  After all, we'd just finished the Smoky Mountain Relay where my last leg was one of the harder legs on the relay (certainly not the hardest, but among the most difficult).  That last leg was 9.5 miles with about 3000' of elevation gain over about 5 miles.  Furthermore, just a couple of weeks before the Jemez, we did a little less than 11 miles with plenty of climbing at Paris Mt State Park.  Because we weren't looking to set any records at Jemez, we felt we were well prepared.

We flew into Albuquerque on Wednesday prior to the event date (event date was May 24).  Dinner with family (in Clovis) Wednesday night and in bed early to try to work out the kinks from a long day of travel.  Thursday morning we got up to do a little run just to keep the legs fresh.

In Clovis there are really no hills, but the altitude is somewhere near 5000'.  We saw this as an opportunity to begin our acclimatization.  We left direct from the hotel and within 3/4 mile I suspected I might be in a little trouble with my right calf.  My lower leg was sending me some signals that I didn't like, but I thought I'd be ok, I'd felt this same feeling before.  Unfortunately by the time we hit a mile my calf was near full lockdown.  I told Jenny about it and decided I needed to stop running.  Because she was feeling fine, she was doing laps out and back to me as I walked, then ran back towards the hotel.

I made it by mostly walking back to the hotel.  By that time my calf was VERY sore.  I did my best to stretch it out after arriving at the hotel.  I wasn't pleased.

The rest of the day Thursday and all day Friday I didn't do any running and stretched as best I could.  Friday was a lot of hanging out with family before our Nephew's graduation which started at 6pm Friday.  We didn't get out of Clovis until around 8pm.  Thankfully we have a great friend in Los Alamos who put us up for the night (we arrived at midnight) and had some nice hot coffee ready when we woke at 530am Saturday morning before the race.

DeWayne and Valeria led us over to the start line where we were greeted by the awesome volunteers at packet pickup.  All went smoothly as expected and we lined up for the start.  Both of us were equipped with 50 oz camelbak packs with three or four Gu packs each. 

We started off like many other races do, we were passing people, people were passing us.  No complaints here, it made for a nice warmup.  Downhill on the road with plenty of room to maneuver around other folks.  I was trying to get a feel for my calf and I didn't really like what I was feeling. 

I'm a natural fore-foot runner so of course my calf plays a very important part in my stride.  I could tell it was not going to cooperate with me this day.  It was still early but I could feel the soreness and I had to compensate for it in my stride.  This put me into a heel strike mode.  I've run plenty of miles using a heel strike stride but they never turn out as well for me. 

Part of my compensation was to relax into the run and forget any competitive thoughts.  While I'm not a guy who is generally looking to win any races, I am a guy who sets goals and pushes myself to meet or exceed them.  My competition is with myself.  I had to really work to put these thoughts aside.  I knew I would end up with real issues somewhere along the way if I didn't take this relaxed approach. 

Off the road and onto the trails was great.  There were a lot of people out there but all were very cordial when passing or being passed.  At times I just sat in behind a group and at others I worked my way past them.  I'm a big proponent of giving the person in front of me the opportunity to find the right place (read 'safe' place) for me to pass so I talk to them when I am ready to pass.  Others who passed me treated me with similar respect.  I like that. 

My calf was feeling well enough as we ran through some beautiful terrain and up on the lower slopes leading to Mitchell Aid Station.  Except for maybe a rare occasion when traffic caused me to have to walk for a couple of steps, I was able to run all of that terrain.  Not bad considering we come from a town whose elevation is something around 1000'.  I could feel the altitude though.  I knew it was going to play a factor in my day. 

After Mitchell AS of course the trails turns up.  It was here that the terrain combined with the altitude really could be felt.  While my calf was forcing me to run differently than my natural stride, I was able to run / walk well enough.  As with many others on the climb to Guaje Ridge I was walking the steeper parts and running when I could.  I thought it was very cool that I could look back on the trail and see Jenny coming up behind me.

At the AS at the top of Guaje Ridge, the folks were super nice.  Because I knew Jenny wasn't far behind me I decided to wait.  Of course as I waited I chatted with some of the volunteers.  THANK YOU so much to these folks who give up their day to help us out.  I hope I was able to communicate my thanks to them. 

Within a few minutes Jenny arrived at the summit.  I was glad to see her and while I could tell she was feeling the effects of the effort and the altitude, she looked to be in fine condition.  We ran for a while together, then I started to open a gap. 

Here's where my calf really started talking to me.  Normally when I am not nursing an injured calf, I can move quite quickly down a trail.  Of course I do this by bouncing from rock to rock on the ball of my feet.  My calf was having none of this so I was in short stride, heel strike mode.  Add to this the VERY narrow trail which forced me to take slightly longer strides than I would have liked and I found myself moving quite slowly down the mountian. 

It wasn't too long before I was being passed by a lot of people.  I knew that Jen wasn't too far behind so I would look back to see her occasionally.  We would run together at times where the terrain caused our paces to match and at times I would open a small gap when the terrain leveled out or the trail became wider to allow me a more natural stride length. 

We ran briefly on a fire road before turning right onto more single track.  This brought us to the top of a very beautiful canyon.  I can't find the name for this canyon, but running down through this canyon was one of the highlights of the run for me.  I was starting to feel some fatigue now and I was a little worried that my heel strike stride was causing a blister on my right foot.  Just what I needed. 

Jenny was still with me or just behind me as we ran through this canyon.  She looked like she was beginning to feel the effort as well, but as normal, she soldiered on.  We came upon the Oasis which was the last chance saloon after running past a number of signs that made me laugh.  These folks really went all out to make for a great aid station. 

Of course the route then took us up one last slap in the face of a climb.  We managed to pass a couple of folks going up this climb, then into the home stretch.  Again, some great running on some wonderful trails.  Jenny and I stuck together through this last part, although I opened a small gap before our final climb through the rocks to the finish chute. 

I waited for her at the top, and we ran through the finish chute together.  I love that we can share these events. 

In the end, I have to rate this as my most difficult trail run to date.  Combine the altitude with the elevation gain and some extremely rugged terrain with the fact I was running injured and it all adds up to a very tough day for me.  That said, I really enjoyed spending that 3 hours out on the trails in the Jemez Mountains.  Maybe next time I can do it without the injury and just battle the course.

A final note - We had it easy with the weather.  We were back at DeWayne's house, showered and having lunch by the time the skies opened up.  The folks on the 50k and 50 miler have my enduring respect for the conditions in which they had to race.  Congrats to all of you who ran in those conditions, bummed that some were not able to complete the course. 

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