Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Mt. Taylor 50K Race Report....Um, Finally

So, my husband and I disagree on whose idea it first was to run the Mt. Taylor 50K, but whoever the brilliant one was, it's an idea that took hold in both of our minds. So it was that after following the event on Facebook for a couple of years, in 2015 the vacation stars aligned just enough so that we could sign up.

Part of the reason for Mt. Taylor's allure was certainly timing. After all, it takes place right around our anniversary, and what better way for an ultra-loving couple to celebrate their wedded bliss but by an ultra? (I could probably draw a metaphor between ultra running and marriage, but I'll spare you...for now.) Aside from the anniversary angle and the fact that I just liked the idea of traveling to New Mexico as I had never been before, there was a cultural backstory to this event that I felt drawn to.

Mt. Taylor is considered one of the four sacred peaks to the Navajo people, the other three being Mt. Hesperus, Mt. Blanca, and San Fransisco Peak. When I read in the race literature that the race would begin at daybreak, so as to run in the Navajo tradition of running east to greet the rising sun, I just had a feeling this was something that would be completely unique to my experience, and something I wanted to take part in. Despite having a small slice of Native American heritage in my background, I cannot claim to know much, if anything, about the Native American history, cultures, or peoples of our country, and I saw this as an opportunity to learn. Proceeds from the race go to the Nideiltihi Native Elite Runners (NNER).

The Mt. Taylor 50K was scheduled for September 26, 2015. After flying into Phoenix the night before, we arrived in Grants, New Mexico, on Friday afternoon. Grants, a small town of about 10,000 people, is about 70 miles west of Albuquerque. My first impression of Grants was of a small town suffering somewhere on the mild-to-severe scale of economic depression - not unlike a lot of small towns in the U.S. Of course, that was just a quick first impression. In all honesty, Grants could have been the most charming town in the world, but I would not have noticed. My impression was carved out of a quick drive in to our hotel (the Red Lion Hotel - official race hotel), a pizza dinner at Surf Shack Pizza after the race (very tasty, by the way), and the drive back out Sunday. However, even if it would offer nothing else, Grants has what they call location, location, location. Situated in New Mexico's high desert and surrounded by the Cibola National Forest, in Grants you find yourself within driving range of a number of national monuments, forests, and historical parks in New Mexico, not to mention some of Arizona's finest treasures - such as the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest.

Packet Pickup

The first order of business after checking into the Red Lion Hotel was to go to packet pickup. Set up conveniently in the hotel, it was a short walk. Among other things, our packet included a shirt, socks, and some other goodies.
Back of shirt
Tables were set up with race information and town and regional information. There were plenty of volunteers there to answer questions. At packet pickup we were also encouraged to pick up a colored dot sticker to wear on our clothing if we were in need of a ride to the startline the next morning. Another colored dot differentiated those who needed a ride from those who had room in their car to give rides. Although it goes against my nature to seek rides from strangers, the idea of taking our economy-sized rental car up the twisting and winding mountain road, some of which was advertised as economy-car-eating rutted gravel, did not appeal. So, I proudly wore my dot in the hopes of catching a ride.

Pasta Dinner

Seeing as Grants was such a small town and we didn't know what would be available, the husband and I had selected to pay for the pasta dinner. So, when doors opened we were among the first to filter in, grab some food from the buffet of pasta, marinara (or meat sauce), baked potato, bread, salad, and a dessert. Drinks available were lemonade and water.

At the dinner, there were the usual talks given by area officials welcoming runners and some tips and directives from the race director and staff, but it is the featured speaker which makes the dinner stand out in my mind, even months later.

Shaun Martin was the winner of the inaugural Mt. Taylor 50K in 2012 and race director of the Canyon de Chelly Ultra. Being Navajo, Martin's talk centered around his roots. He gave a moving talk about what running means to the Navajo people, his family's history with running, and a brief talk about the four sacred mountains. At this late juncture, I cannot do justice to Martin's talk, if ever I could. What I do know is that I left the pasta dinner that evening feeling just a little bit wiser, a little bit humbled to be a part of such a meaningful event, and a whole lot pumped up and ready to tackle whatever would come the next day.

Before leaving the pasta dinner, the husband and I managed to secure a ride - not from the dot system so carefully implemented by the race staff - but rather a very nice Grants couple who just happened to be sitting at the same table with us and who were willing and able to give us a ride to the start. So, although they would have to get up a bit earlier to drive back to the hotel to collect us in the morning, they did offer to pick us up at o'dark thirty. 

The Race

The alarm woke us up early the next morning so that we could get up, eat breakfast (free to Red Lion Hotel guests!), and be ready to catch our ride to the 6:30 a.m. start. Because the cynic in me worried that we would be forgotten on the doorstep of the hotel, I was already making contingency plans when our ride - the nice couple from the evening before - showed up to start us on our journey.

The ride to the start is, as advertised, a good 40-minute drive up a twisting, winding mountain road, the last five miles of which is gravel, the last several hundred yards of which is hardly a road - pitted as it is by huge potholes, deep ruts, and littered with football-sized rocks. In other words, if you don't have a high-rise vehicle and four-wheel drive, you would be better off parking further down the road and resigning yourself to a hike in to the start. As it was, our driver's pickup truck seemed more than adequate to the chassis-challenging task of navigating the last couple hundreds of yards to prime parking.

At that early hour, it was extremely dark on the mountain despite the strands of lights the race crew had managed to string around the start area. We found our headlamps helpful for getting around - from car to start to porta-potties, etc. After getting organized, dropping our 16-mile drop bags, and using the porta-potties one last time, it was time to go.

Since the race was following the Navajo tradition of running east into the rising sun, the start was timed to coincide with daybreak.  As we began, it was still dark enough that a headlamp seemed prudent but probably would not have been absolutely necessary as it wasn't too long before there was enough light to see by.

Starting out, I knew the race would be hard. I was under no illusion that it would not be, if for no other reason than the elevation. The entire event - all 31 miles - were to be run between 9,000 and 11,305 feet with 7,000 feet of vertical change! So, distance aside, coming from Northeast Wisconsin, where the elevation is 700 feet, I knew elevation would be a challenge. I told myself I was going to take it easy. I had plenty of time to get in under the eleven and a half hour cutoff. But, I wanted to run, too. I didn't realize how much that lack of oxygen was going to suck the run right out of me.

Being the introvert that I am, I don't know how I did it, but I somehow managed to talk my way into running with the couple who had given us our ride as well as a friend of theirs. They were planning to start out slowly (the gentleman had run the race before and said a conservative start was the way to go). They were very welcoming about me hanging out with them (or tolerant). The husband of course started more towards the front and was prepared to give it his all, as is his wont.

As the race started, we did indeed start out quite slowly. In fact, we walked pretty much all of the first three miles since they went up, up, up. A lot of that was through the trees, but by the time we emerged from the forest, the view expanded and we could see the sun had risen up beyond the mountains. As promised, it was a fantastic sight!

After taking in the expansive views, it was time to make the last slow-marching push up the first looong and steady climb.With the summit in sight, I was ready to change things up and actually run for a bit.

The first aid station came up at around mile 4.5. By then, I needed to use the porta-potty, but sadly they did not have any. Nature, they pointed to, was all around. And, indeed, most people in need were trotting off over a slight ridge behind the aid station to do their business. And, aside from that there was a toilet behind every tree. Um, no thanks. Not being a huge fan of nature squats, I took comfort in the trees being there and thought I would just press on, and if needed stop and squat when desperate.

After that first big climb which ended shortly before the first aid station, we were finally able to run steadily. And, until about mile 10 we trotted along at a modest pace.

To be honest, at this point, I was pretty pleased that I could run at all. I had run at elevation before (only 7,500 feet, to be exact) and I remember how that had sapped the energy out of me, feeling as I had that I was wearing an old-fashioned corset around my rib cage. To be able to run at all for any length of time during this event, I'm not afraid to say it...I felt pretty badass.

Seeing as they were local, the group I was running with did not have the same oxygen issues that I was having. They seemed quite comfortable maintaining a slow steady jog (averaging about 11-minute miles), walking only on the steepest inclines. I, on the other hand, found it necessary to stop quite frequently and walk a bit to catch my breath. This seemed to work out, though, since my natural running pace seemed faster than theirs. I would drop back to take a quick walk break (and gasp for air!) and then run and invariably catch up. I'd hang on for as long as I could before I had to walk again to catch my breath.

This part of the run was quite pretty, albeit without the stellar views. We alternately ran through wooded forests and open spaces. Pine and aspen were all around. It was lovely. At this point, we were on a lot of rutted jeep roads, which had been washed out in previous rains, so there were a LOT of large rocks and ruts to navigate, which slowed our progress considerably. But, all in all, it went well and I felt fairly good. Relatively speaking, of course. At about mile 10, we came into a valley at the end of which was another fully stocked aid station. They even had a porta-potty. Hurray! After doing my business and availing myself of the amenities, it was time to check out. I was still hanging on with the little group at this point, but that would soon end.

Aid station at Mile 10.
A look down the valley from Aid Station at Mile 10. Still happy!
At about mile 11.5, the race course took us off of the gravel jeep road we had been on for much of the race so far and turned us on to the Continental Divide Trail, which we would follow for the next eight miles or so. Sweet single track! It was fantastic!

Continental Divide Trail
Through the aspen groves
It was turning onto the Continental Divide Trail that I finally had to let my little group, which had pulled me along for a full third of the race, go. Their ability to steadily chug up the smaller inclines (not to mention the fact that they were more acclimatized to the elevation than I could ever hope to be!) gave them a definite edge. I realized that it was becoming way too much of a struggle to stick with them, so I started falling back.  I was sad to do this, because they had been such nice company. I got a bit of a lesson, listening to them talk about local goings-ons, events, gossip, and such, as well as learned more about the Native American culture and life in New Mexico.

After losing my posse, I struggled to keep myself moving forward with purpose. Any sort of incline knocked the air right out of my lungs, so soon I found it hard to run for any length of time whatsoever. I ended up doing short little 20-50 foot spurts of a run, followed by an indefinite length of slow-march trudging to catch my breath. It was pretty, though!

At mile 16, I made it back into the halfway point aid station....this was back at the start/finish area. Although they had quite a spread there, I really did not want to linger too long, so I probably did not eat as much as I should have. The first place finisher came in right around this time, which only added to my sense of urgency to get the heck out of there and keep going. And I just didn't want to make this an all day affair. It already had taken me just over four hours to go 16 miles, and I knew there was still a long way to go with a couple of brutal climbs still ahead.

Heading out of the aid station, there were a couple of people around me, and they looked about as pooped as I felt. At that point, no one seemed to be too chatty; perhaps we had all fallen into that zone of misery and resignation when you realize that you signed up for something that is flipping hard but there really isn't a choice but to keep going.

Right as I was about to get back on the Continental Divide trail from the aid station, a couple of volunteers directing runners and cheering us on asked me if I had seen any wildlife yet. (They actually said that like that would have been a good thing!) I said, um no. Thank God. You see, the night before at the pasta dinner, we had been given a nice little lecture about the local fauna, the upshot of which was: don't wear headphones so you can hear a bear or mountain lion before they surprise you. That was it. That was the extent of their advice. After that, I was only able to go through with the event because I had decided to do a mental finger-in-ear-la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you thing. The volunteer's question snapped me out of that self-deception, so I stopped and asked her what should I do if I saw something bigger than myself and furry.  But she just laughed my question off. (I think she thought I was joking.) She said, oh, just ignore them and they would ignore me. Um, right. Those New Mexicans, I tell you. They're made of sterner stuff than I.

So, continuing the race, I ran when I could (which meant I walked much of the time), and walked when I couldn't (which meant I death-marched slowly much of the time). At about mile 19.5, the course left the Continental Divide Trail and put me on a jeep road again. This stretch would be about a mile and a half long before we would finally turn on the trail that would take us to the summit of Mt. Taylor. Don't look up, advised the sign. I looked up. And groaned.

So, you would think looking at this nice, flat stretch of road I would have been able to run a bit more consistently, but I couldn't. I wish I could have, but by this time I felt like the stuffing had been knocked out of me. It was too hard to breathe, and I had struggled too much already. I was almost 20 miles into this race, and I still had a good 11 more to go. If you are able to run at this point consistently, it is a good place to do it. As it was, I just moseyed along, running here and there but mostly in la-la land just moving forward slowly. I did pass a big pickup truck with a bunch of dogs on it and a couple of men. I was mildly curious about that but did not bother to ask about it. And, it is a good thing I didn't as I found out a couple of days later from the husband that he had asked and found out there had been a bear sighting, so the dogs and men were there to try to chase it off or round it up. Oh boy.

At mile 21, you get to the Gooseberry aid station. This is the last aid station until the Caldera Rim aid station at mile 25. The path between the two is an amazingly beautiful trail that goes up, up, up, and up to the summit of Mt. Taylor. Now, having done Pikes Peak in the past, as well as other mountain marches, I really did not anticipate the suffer fest that was to come.

The march up to Mt. Taylor I can only describe as sheer and utter, agonizing misery. I'm sorry. I guess I should dress it up a bit, but honestly I cannot think of a time when I have felt more out of it during a race. Even the last 20 miles of my failed 100 (so, between miles 50 and 70) were not as all-encompassing miserable as this slow and painful death march. During the 100, my pain was localized to body parts - blisters on the feet, IT band that was finally getting grumpy, sore quads, etc. During the Mt. Taylor 50K, I just felt generally like some ominous invisible force was pressing me down trying to keep me in one spot. Mainly, I just couldn't breathe, and the lack of oxygen was no doubt playing havoc on what my muscles felt like they could do. I slow-walked up that mountain like molasses trying to drip uphill. I would literally trudge a few steps and then stop to catch my breath, leaning heavily on my trekking poles before starting to trudge a few steps again.

I can't even begin to describe all the thoughts going through my head during that climb. Even through the filter of several months' time, I still feel the intense level of despair that flooded me during those few miles. Looking up and seeing what I thought was the summit and how far I had to go, and wanting to cry over the work still ahead of me. The fact that I couldn't breathe well. The fact that I had no energy reserves to call upon. The idea that I had it in my head that we had to go up this mountain twice and this was just the first climb! (That was wrong, by the way.)  The fact that I couldn't move faster if I wanted to. The thought that this climb was never, ever, never, EVER going to end.

And then it did!

Quicker than I expected, the summit was there....and an official photographer. Say cheese!

The only thing that got me through this climb was the beauty. Nothing will take away from that. It was simply a stunning locale, and I so appreciate the ability to be able to do things like this and take it all in.

Heading off the summit, I immediately perked up. I don't know if it was the added oxygen I gained with every step I took on the way down, or maybe it was the high I felt having accomplished something that was so darn hard. Either way, I was virtually flying heading down the trail. (Okay, "flying" is relative, but I did feel pretty darn good.) I was even in a chatty mood. I exchanged pleasantries with more than one runner during my brief descent, and it wasn't too long before I got to the Mile 25 aid station.

At Caldera Rim the volunteers were in a jovial mood, and it was there that I learned my skewed perception of reality (namely, that I would never finish the race in time) was wrong. I was doing fine on time: not fast but with plenty of time to make the finish-line cutoff. It was also there that I learned that the next climb wasn't actually a repeat up Mount Taylor as I had somehow thought. (I cannot even explain how elated I was by that news. Even the fact that I would have to do another steeper - but much shorter climb - in a few miles could not put a damper on my mood.) So, out of that aid station I headed to tackle a four-mile loop that would ultimately lead me back to the Caldera Rim aid station.

The first three miles of the loop were not too bad. Mostly, it was either downhill or flat. I ran as much of it as I could, but again that is relative so it probably wasn't as much as I would have liked. At about the three-mile mark of this loop, the trail took a turn up a steep, one-mile climb back to the aid station. While I can't say this climb was any more palatable than the last one had been, it was shorter and it also had the added appeal of being the last major climb of the race. Also, it is at this point that I fell in behind another runner. We got to talking, and that helped pass the time.

Before I knew it, we were back at the Caldera Rim aid station. From here it was a short two-mile "victory lap" to the finish. But, wait! There was more after all. Not too long after passing the aid station and turning towards the finish, there was a downhill so steep that even digging in my trekking poles I could barely arrest my forward momentum. I managed to skid down a good portion of it and thought it a cruel joke on quads that were already pretty much shot. After such a long day, it was certainly a tough grind down the hill to "greener," more easily navigable pastures but I considered it as paying my final dues before the finish.

My new-found friend and I stuck out the rest of the race together. She couldn't manage more than a painfully slow jog, due to some leg issues. In fact, her jog was so slow I was able to fast walk next to her, which amazed her no end. (I don't think she realized exactly how slowly she was running. But, hey. Whatever gets you through.) New Friend did encourage me to run ahead, since by this point I was actually feeling pretty good. Sadly, though, that feel good was only physical. Mentally, I had played all the cards I had and I was quite happy to hang out with her. The company and the talk were much more valuable to me at that point than a slightly earlier finish.

Finally, after so many hours on the trail, we made it back to where it had all begun so many hours before. I did have enough oomph to run into the finish where I found my husband, the small circle of new running buddies I had made at the start of the day (who were also our ride back to town!), and the winner of the overall race, whom I had seen finish about five hours before. They were all just hanging out waiting for me. Well, not the winner. He was there just to cheer folks on and chat with everyone.

As a female finisher of this event, I got not only my medal, but was also able to pick out a handmade Navajo bracelet made by the race director's wife and friend.

All in all, this was a really tough race, but one that had a fantastic story behind it. It was hard, but with the passing of time, there is a part of me that wouldn't be opposed to trying it again. I know that I have limitations placed on me just because of the elevation, but the sheer beauty of the region far overshadows any of the perceived pain. Additionally, I don't think I have ever run a race where the hometown feel, the overriding friendliness of the people who put it on and the fellow participants just outshone anything else.

Happy Running!

A few more pictures from the event:

1 comment:

  1. Great race report. Thanks for sharing your story. I'm set to tackle this race in 2 months as my first 50k. Coming from 700ft above sea level sounds really tough. I'm in Las Cruces, which is at 4,000ft and a few hours from Grant, NM, so hopefully that gives me a teeny tiny edge. :) Congrats on your accomplishment!