Early morning burn at the Jemez Mountains Trail Run. Photo: Mark Schraad
I was going to write this post last week, but I was too busy eating my weight in chocolate chip cookies and lentil salad to get ready for the Jemez Mountains 50 Kilometer Trail Run. The race, which took place on Saturday in Los Alamos, was my first “ultra.” I’ve trained for other runs and mountain bike races, and always, in the days leading up to the event, I’ve felt immeasurable gratitude at the realization that, after it’s over, I can quit training and go back to real life. Not unlike the feeling you get after you give birth, and you look down and can finally see your toenails again and all you can think is, Thank God I’m not pregnant anymore.
But not this time. I can honestly say that I’ve had a blast these past three months, logging long hours on my favorite trails in the mountains around Santa Fe. So what was different? I’m still trying to understand what happened, but the best I can describe it is: I ran for the feeling, not for the results. I ran from the inside.
The decsent's the hardest part? Coming off Pajarito Mountain. Photo: Jim Stein Photography
His-'n-hers New Year's goals. Photo: Katie Arnold
For starters, I didn’t follow a training plan. I winged it. I tried to run three or four times a week, and increased my long run by half an hour each week. (Ultra runner Darcy Africa says that for busy parents, long weekend runs should be the crux of your training.) I didn’t wear a watch and just guessed at my mileages (usually grossly overestimating them), until about six weeks before the race when I discovered the Map My Run app, and started tracking my distances and pace on my phone. When I began training, back in February, the idea of running 31 miles seemed so unfathomable that my only objectives were to a) not get hurt and b) finish. I reasoned that if all else failed, I could hike the course. But now, armed with some hard data, my expectations changed. I knew I could run 12-minute miles easily on steep climbs, 11 when I was pushing, and 10 and change if I let myself really fly on the descents. I figured with ample time for stopping at the aid stations, I’d be able to finish the race in less than seven hours.
Second, I didn’t go it alone. Back on New Year’s Day, I’d scribbled “My athletic goal for 2012 is _______________” on two pieces of scrap paper, and handed one to my husband, Steve, for him to fill out. When we compared notes, we found we’d both written the same thing: “Train and run an ultra trail race.” We taped our pledges to the fridge, so we couldn’t blow them off. We were in it together. When I talked to Dimity McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea, friends of mine who wrote the book Train Like a Mother, they cautioned against both parents in the house training for a race at the same time, saying that we’d be too tired. Oops. But for us, it turned out not to be exhausting but exhilarating—finally we had a common goal other than parenting! We indebted ourselves to our close friends, who watched our kids half a dozen Sunday mornings so we could run together, and broke our weekly babysitting budget when our long runs got too long.
Third, I listened to myself. When I needed time to think, I went out alone, fast or easy, uphill or cross-country, with tunes or without—whatever my body felt like doing. When I wanted to go deeper into the backcountry, I went with a friend or with Steve. I came to crave these runs for different reasons: the long solitary loops from my house into the foothills felt like an exercise in creativity. I could add more miles by linking up Atalaya and Double Arrow, or more vertical by doubling back for a second scramble up Picacho. It seemed like there was nowhere I couldn’t run—I had dozens of miles of trail out my backdoor and anything was fair game.
Running alone was liberating, but running with friends was social, safer, and more relaxing: I didn’t have to worry about being mauled by a mountain lion when my friend Blair’s tawny, cougar-like Rhodesian ridgeback, Millie, was on my heels. On my best training run, Blair and I left town early on a Sunday morning, before the sun inched its way over the Sangres and the trail was still eclipsed in shadow, before the day hikers were out, when the cool morning air and the 20 creek crossings numbed my bare arms and feet. We stopped for “breakfast” of honey-waffle bars in a meadow beside Tesuque Creek, long enough for me to wedge my nose deep into the thick crocodile skin of a ponderosa and smell its sweet vanilla sap. As long as I live, I think I’ve never forget the feeling of crunching up that pine needly trail, feet flying, as though no effort whatsoever was required of my body, as though powered by some other force entirely: freedom.
Fourth, I tried not to overthink it. I didn’t check the race’s website to see how many other runners were signed up, or who, or what, the winning time was. I know all too well my competitive instincts, and I wanted to go into the run with as few external distractions, and as little extraneous information, as possible. (After the race, I learned that the late Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco, called the Jemez Mountains 50-Mile Trail Run, which he ran in 2010, one of the hardest courses in the country, designed by the same masochists who created the notoriously heinous Hard Rock 100. Ignorance is bliss.)
The week before the race, we took the kids on a three-day raft trip on the San Juan River and took a hiatus from running. I got a massage, slugged back a few “Master Cleanses” (lemon juice, ginger, and cayenne pepper) at the local yoga studio to ward off the cold that was trying to catch me, and went on a slow walk with a friend and tried to visualize running with the same confidence and joy I’d felt all spring. I’d spent the past three months imprinting this sensation into my muscle memory. All I had to do on race day was remember it.
Pre-dawn at the Posse Shack. Photo: Katie Arnold
I always get nervous before a race, but when we pulled up to the Posse Shack, the log cabin-y sheriff’s headquarters in Los Alamos, before dawn on Saturday, I was excited. I’d trained methodically but intuitively. I had a routine and a waist belt crammed with enough vile vanilla Gu to feed practically the entire field. My body felt strong and ready and I knew in my mind how I wanted to feel: like I was just out for another long run, on a new trail, on a beautiful Saturday morning. No biggie. The sun was just beginning to crawl above the horizon as a couple hundred runners gathered on the starting line for last-minute instructions. I took a picture, hugged Steve, and when the official yelled “Go!” took off into the light of a new day.
The race was mostly a blur, my moods rising and falling with the terrain. For the first 10 miles, the course was rolling and fun, and Steve and I ran in front of the pack together, casually cracking jokes and admiring the wildflowers. Then we started to climb, Steve dropped off, complaining of stomach cramps, and I went into attack mode for the scrambly, 3,000-foot ascent to the radio towers on top of Pajarito Mountain ski resort. Halfway up, the route took a sudden, cruel turn downhill; there went all the vertical we’d just gained. Cursing the organizers, I picked up speed, passing a guy crawling backwards down the mountain, painstakingly slowly. That pretty much summed it up.
When I finally reached the 10,440-foot summit, the descent was so steep you could barely run it. It shot straight down the grassy spine of a double-black ski run. If your legs buckled under you, you’d rag-doll straight down to the deck of the ski lodge. This is where I started talking to myself like a crazy person. My legs and lungs felt fine, but my mind was doing that weird, survival thing, sort of like in childbirth, where it wanders off for hours at a time in order to keep from going totally bonkers. Don’t fall, I coached myself, as I tried to choke down a dollop of banana energy gel. Don’t screw this up.
Next thing I knew I was on the moon. At least that’s what the scorched, barren mountainside littered with barbecued trees toppled every which way like burned matchsticks looked like to my sun-addled brain. Almost exactly a year ago, the Las Conchas Fire, the largest in New Mexico history, had raged across these canyons, burning more than 150,000 acres before it finally fizzled. The Guaje Ridge Trail was hot and dusty with white ash, and there was not a lick of shade. It seemed to go on forever, or at least eight miles, until at last we were in the trees again—regal old ponderosas—and a volunteer at the last aid station rang the cowbell for me and pressed three mini pretzels into my hand and pushed me forward for the last two miles. “It’s a climb, right?” I asked the woman who refilled my water bottle, remembering the jagged, evil contours of the course profile. “Rolling!” she replied with false cheer. “It’s rolling!”
Maybe it was the lure of the finish line or the salt from the pretzels, but I snapped out of my delirium and buckled down for the final push. I felt strangely strong again, casual almost—just like I was out for a Saturday run. The trail wound up and out of a canyon as I talked to myself. You got this! Yeah! I pictured crossing the finish line, what I would do first: cry or pee, I wasn’t sure which. I clutched the last of the pretzels in one sweaty, filthy palm and pulled myself up through a last rocky chute and back into the real world. The Posse Shack loomed 100 yards away, and I ran toward the din of clanging cowbells and a deafening chorus of hell-yeahs in my head like my life depended on it. Five hours and 50 minutes later, it was over.
50K feet. Photo: Katie Arnold
I did it. I finished. In under seven hours. My calf was cramping and I was unrecognizably filthy, but I hadn’t gotten hurt. And yeah, it was hot and hellish and for long stretches I was babbling like a lunatic, tearing in and out of aid stations with a deranged look in my eyes, wondering who was behind me and how close, the stubborn competitor in me refusing to stop or slow down for fear of being passed. But even when I was out of my mind, I was in my body, feeling my feet hit the ground, sending up poofs of chalky, white dust, inhaling the scorched summer smells, riding the waves of my breath up and over ridges and down valleys. I felt, most of the time, like the act of running was so familiar, practiced, and true that my body knew exactly what to do. I was running from the inside, and anything seemed possible.
Steve brings it home with a grin. Photo: Katie Arnold
And, as it turns out, it was. I won the race. I was the first woman finisher, and placed seventh overall. I celebrated with a slice of watermelon and sat in the dirt to wait for Steve. I won't lie: It feels pretty empowering to set a goal, do the hard work week in and out, and then blow that goal out of the water. But as I tried to bask in the glory of winning, I found myself replaying not the race itself, but all those hours I spent training for it, the sweet simple, joy of flying along my favorite trails in the mountains I love. No matter how thrilling the victory, running will always trump racing. And that’s why I run.