Long, rambling account
I ran the Jemez Mountain Trail 50k as a pre-summer benchmark, to gauge my fitness and speed before hitting the road. Much to my surprise, I not only ran it much faster (5:29) than I had expected based on my 6:20 trial run last fall, but won by a small margin. While my time was well off the course record, I am pleased that it was on par with previous years’ winning times. I’m definitely not in better shape now than last fall, so I credit aid stations, competition, and better pacing for the 13% improvement.
The race started off comfortably, with three men going off the front almost immediately. By the time we passed the cemetery, I was leading a group of six, with the three leaders maybe 200 yards ahead. Being a novice, I felt strange leading the group, and stepped aside to let someone more experienced set the early pace. We lost sight of the leaders by the Mitchell trail aid station (why take on food and water at the bottom of a climb only a few miles in?), but spotted them again a few switchbacks ahead on the steep climb through the fire-created wasteland.
Everyone seemed to have his own idea of how to approach the climb, so the group got shuffled as people jogged and walked different sections. We caught one of the leaders, then began to catch 50 milers after the false summit. We had been running for less than an hour at this point, so at less than half our pace, these people had very little chance of making the time cutoff.
Our group had split by the aid station at Guaje ridge, where I caught one of the leaders (Brian). He was moving fast on the tricky descent into Guaje canyon, so I followed at a short distance. Other than his painful run-in with a tree, Brian set a good pace, so I was happy to tag along through the Caballo aid station, passing a steady stream of 50 milers. He seemed to slow down as the climb steepened, though, so I hiked ahead, stepping aside for the 50 mile leaders as they bombed the descent.
I crossed paths with the 50k leader (Ryan) a couple of minutes from the top, which I reached after almost exactly 2 hours. I didn’t think I could catch him, but I still opened it up on the descent, making my way back through the crowd to restock at the aid station below. It turns out I was only a couple minutes behind, but there was no place to see far ahead in the woods, and I assumed he was out of reach. The crowd of 50 milers petered out on the climb out of Guaje, and I started to feel fatigued. I was mostly by myself until near the ski area, and focused on conserving energy.
I was taken completely by surprise when, passing the gate near the ski area, I saw Ryan maybe 100 yards ahead. We crossed paths at the aid station (approximately 3h30), then he took off again while I refilled my water and searched for suitable food. The lack of fig newtons was a cruel blow, as I would have to survive two hours on gels. For the next few miles, Ryan would pull away on the hills, and I would force myself to regain ground on the flats. I was confident that I could put some time into him on the long descent of Guaje ridge, but concerned that I might bonk before getting there. I turned on my headphones, fired up some Crystal Method, and concentrated on keeping the gap below 100 yards or so.
We met at the pipeline aid station, introduced ourselves, and continued more or less together along the rolling road to the Guaje ridge trail. I was 100 yards ahead at the trail junction, where I turned on the gas and didn’t look back. This descent goes on forever, but my legs were fresh enough to keep a good pace going downhill, almost clocking some guy with a video camera. The flats and short climbs began to hurt, but I grooved to The Crystal Method and focused on extending my lead. Passing half marathoners below the aid station kept my mind occupied, and a short runner’s high at the bottom got me through the flat section to the Cabra loop trail.
I totally botched my stop at Pinky’s aid station (I hear they had popsicles, but I just wanted to be done), and the rest of the race became distinctly less pleasant. It was uphill, it was starting to get warm, and I was thirsty and drained. I at least had the wherewithal to take off my silly hat and start jogging before I turned onto the finishing stretch. Gotta keep up appearances.
The volunteers were awesome
From sawing logs, to hauling water, to camping out in the middle of nowhere, to dealing with short-tempered or spaced-out runners, the race volunteers put in an enormous amount of work. I’m not sure why they do it, but they certainly cheered me up.
Because you spend most of your time well below your VO2-max, it’s possible to have a conversation even hours into an ultra. Ryan and I even had the energy for a “hi, how are ya?” after turning onto Pipeline. Being used to shorter distances, I was pleasantly surprised.
My food/water plan mostly worked
On fast hikes and hike/runs, I have found that one pop-tart every 45 minutes (or just under 300 cal/hr) is about right to prevent bonking without causing digestive issues. I also seem to be able to last 6-8 hours without a significant source of electrolytes. With this in mind, I tried to snack every 20 minutes, alternating between gels (100-110 cal) and fig newtons (60-80 cal). This seemed to work until the final two hours, when I ran out of fig newtons and was forced to survive on gels alone. I tried to grab a variety of flavors at the ski hill aid station, but found them all equally repulsive. While I didn’t bonk, my stomach was unsettled for the last 45 minutes.
Ultras are expensive!
Running is a poor man’s sport, requiring only the time and discipline to train, the will to suffer, decent genes, and a cheap pair of shoes. Ultra running is even more so; you won’t win much money or any recognition outside the ultra running community. However, the entry fees are on par with those for big city marathons. The JMTR had some nice swag and good free food, but cost as much as the LA marathon; Solstice 50 in Lake City costs $110. Competing regularly enough to stay in form could easily cost $1000/yr. in entry fees alone, which is cheaper than some sports, but hardly chump change.