Jemez Mountain Trail 50 Mile, Los Alamos, NM 4,4

Elevation Gain: 12,011'; High Point: 10,480'

May 16, 2009 - The perfect event, for me, is both exotic and extremely challenging. The Jemez Mountain 50-Mile Trail Run took me to exhilarating heights of emotion and exertion, and then crashed me back down into the unexpected depths of physical limitation and profound humility. I am moved to say I enjoyed this event immensely, but also humbled to admit that this type of challenge may be larger than my imagination may chase in the days ahead.

Jemez was the conclusion of a three-week foray in Colorado and New Mexico with Annie. We had a grand time, but my legs were complaining about the thousands of miles we had driven. With this in mind I decided to engage the race with more conservatism than usual, and with less reckless abandon throughout. My legs were tired from driving, and furthermore, I knew we would be driving the 1600 miles back home from Albuquerque starting the morning after the race. A slower pace would enable me to do this without significant leg trama.

Heading up to Los Alamos late Friday afternoon I managed to find a place to park at the start of the event at the Sheriff's Posse Shack on North Mesa after picking up my bib number and chowing down at the pre-race get together at the high school. Temperatures were in the mid 90's late in the afternoon, but the forecast was for overcast skies and much cooler temperatures on race day. A dozen other contestants were also parked at the start; after a bit of socializing, everyone settled down to get a short night's rest before arising at 0400 for the 5 a.m. start.

I slept alright, but was awake and ready to go at 0245, so just laid back and rested until more cars began arriving around 4 a.m. After taking care of business and double checking my gear I headed to the start with my flashlight. About 130 participants and their crews moved about in anxious anticipation. Chilly temperatures made me shiver just a bit, but that would disappear once we began to run.

A night time start is always a mass of chatter and bobbing lights as people settle down to find their place in the fray. We headed out on a side road through horse corals and the horsey odors one would expect. The bridal trail was level and rolling, alternately, requiring little effort to make a steady advance. I started slowly and didn't seem to have any difficulty breathing at the 7300-foot starting elevation.

The first five miles followed well-worn paths close to town before we hit the Mitchell Trailhead that would take us up, up, and up to Guaje Ridge, gaining 1540 feet in two miles.

Jemez Elevation Profile

The trail here wound through pine forests that had been destroyed previously by fire. Some trees remained, but most stood as reminders of nature's fury. The sun arose and made for a pretty beginning as I settled into a comfortable 4.5-mile-per-hour pace up the winding switchbacks to the Guaje aid station at 7.1 miles.

The views from here were spectacular as we looked down upon the city of Los Alamos where we began, with the Sandia Mountains nearly a hundred miles to the south.

Our ridge running didn't last long before we descended a long series of steep, slippery scree switchbacks down into Guaje Canyon. From there we followed a pretty stream to the next aid station at the base of Caballo Mountain, climbing up over a waterfall on the iron ladder seen below.

The 2-mile climb up Caballo from the base to the top gains 1771 feet of elevation to reach the highest elevation of the event at 10,480 feet. With the well-designed switchbacks it seemed to go up well, despite quite a bit of walking and time to socialize with others on the way up; as well as later on the way back down on this out-and-back section. Temperatures were chilly on top, despite the reasonable abundance of sunshine. I was none-the-worse-for-wear at the summit and still smiling as I made the turn-around to descend back to the base aid station.

Larry Creveling at top of Caballo Mountain at Jemez Mountain Trail 50M - Jedirunner

Everyone coming up the mountain had a positive greeting for those of us on our way down. My feet seemed good and I was running well within myself at mile 14.2 at the bottom. The trail continued from here up the canyon along the same stream as earlier, gaining 1169 feet in less than two miles, topping out for some flat, grassy, easier running to the next aid station at 17 miles at Pipeline Road. This was the edge of the rim of Valle Caldera and our first view of the broad interior of the volcano we would be crossing.

The trail dropped precipitously immediately out of the aid station, a virtual butt slide with few trees and limbs to hang onto for a safe descent. I watched as a couple runners ahead of me slid on their behinds in the dusty scree before reaching the bottom. I stopped, as probably did most others, at the bottom to empty both shoes of an abundance of scree. One guy with gaiters was even emptying his shoes.

It was cool to think about running across the inside of a volcano. The mostly level, dusty trail lasted for a full four miles before we reached the aid station in the middle at Valle Grande. I managed to maintain an even tempo while enjoying the views and taking time to think about it.

After tanking up at the aid station we bush-whacked another mile and a half through stubble grass and range cow pies to the base of Cerro Grande. Climbing out of the caldera for our fourth significant climb proved to be very challenging. With no defined single track trail we weaved our way through aspen and pine forests, around and over windfalls, scrambling across a boulder field...

...before finally reaching the final climb that would take us up nearly 1600 feet, most of it in less than a mile, topping out at 10,200 feet. My climbing legs and back were good as I put some distance on all but one of the people I had been competing back and forth with.

At the top I paused for a few minutes to chat with a guy named JT and girl named Shannon before leading the descent on the other side toward Panjarito Canyon. Again, the views were worth the time it took to look around and say "wow". We dropped quickly through the woods and across meadows before reaching the stream below. Stopping to cross a barb-wire across the path, I looked back to see that JT had disappeared somewhere on the way down (later to find out he had gotten lost after we separated). Shannon and I held the wire for each other to cross and continued a a very quick tempo toward Pajarito before I had to let up and yield to her young legs.

The aid station at 28.7 miles at Pajarito Canyon was where I switched into my red jacket and picked up new supplies from my drop bag before continuing. I reached Pajarito in seven hours as planned, a four-mile-per-hour pace, so was satisfied with my progress. Sitting down felt good - real good - but getting up brought to my attention that my feet were sore and tired, probably from the quicker-than-planned tempo down from Cerro Grande. I had lost contact with other runners and proceded alone for the first time in the race across a nearly four-mile expanse in open fired-damaged terrain. Temperatures were heating up and I was feeling it as I ran out of fluids before reaching the Pajarito Ski Resort.

I was feeling fragged here and definitely dehydrated. Fatigue was taking its toll on my pace and ambition. The fifth and final climb up the ski slopes to the top of Pajarito Mountain, while only 1400 feet of gain, seemed to me to be the most difficult of the five climbs I would make this day. From running the catwalks to switchbacks across various ski slopes to ascending straight up black diamond slopes I had to take pause several times to catch my breath, even while walking. The wind, which had been gusting all day, reached 40 to 50 mph blasts at the top, bringing the wind chill down below comfort levels. Several times I crossed remnant piles of snow. Half a dozen people passed me going up, before I was again able to return to some sense of strength on the way back down to the Ski Lodge, seen here at the bottom.

At the Ski Lodge I again sat down for several minutes and had some chicken broth, potatoes, and several cups of Mountain Dew. Sensing the waning of what was left of any competitiveness in me, I was not in any hurry to cover the remaining 14 miles. From here the terrain was much milder back to Pipeline Road, again across the caldera, but the trail had already defeated me at this point and I continued without much ambition in my last-resort ultra shuffle.

Actually, it is too bad I didn't have enough left to race to the finish because, except for three steep, but short hills, the last eleven miles is nearly all down hill, usually my forte. I casually covered the distance, passing a few, but mostly being passed by others, taking my time to socialize and eat at aid stations, and generally enjoying the balance of the race at my sluggish but safe tempo. The gusty wind had picked up out in the open and made mysterious music as it whistled through the burned trees that stood sentinal over the high ridges. I was charmed by the beauty of this unique sound; I can't say I've ever heard it before.

The trail may have bested me this day, but it did not get the best of my attitude. I had a great day, just not a fast time, finishing in the middle of the pack at 14 hours, much slower than ever before for the distance. But this was a course worthy of the description TOUGH. I have run many hard courses, and backpacked and climbed many hard mountains, but this had to be one of the more significant challenges I've taken on in my life.

My feet were sore, my right knee was torn up a bit from the descent on the ski slopes, and I was a bit dusty from taking two hard falls, but I felt well enough to drive straight through to Pennsylvania in 26 hours the next morning. I braved the storm and lived to record clear memories, as Hunter S. Thompson would have hoped for, and am the better man for it.

Larry Crevelng at Jemez Mountain Trail 50 Mile - Jedirunner

Jedirunner at Jemez Mountain Trail 50M - Larry Creveling
Running in the Valle Caldera

the butt slide into the caldera

meadow trail  descending Cerro Grande


Jemez East


Jemez West