We considered staking ourselves if we couldn’t finish the run.
Here is my extremely belated race report.
My first ultramarathon is in the books!
The Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50k is reportedly one of the tougher 50k races in the country, what with the 7200+ elevation gain over the course and the fact that much of the course is run at or above 9,000 feet, meaning that there is very little air in the air.
I chose Jemez as my first 50k because it was close to home and because the course looked beautiful and challenging. I knew I wouldn’t be trying to break any land speed records with the terrain, and since I’m a pretty strong hiker, I felt confident I could finish the race in some fashion no matter what.
On the morning of the race, the alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. Ouch! I was out the door and on my way to the race by 5:15, accompanied by 1-time Jemez survivor Brenda, who was going back for a faster time and more suffering. It looked like we would have perfect race weather- low 50s at the start and getting up to the low to mid 70s by the afternoon. It was my first time officially racing for Oiselle’s team of badass women runners and wearing the team racing singlet- what a cool feeling! I was nervous and excited when we got started at 6 a.m., but the sight of the sun rising over the mountains filled me with joy and I just felt content to be out and running in such a beautiful place.
The first 4-5 miles went by quickly- they were mostly runnable on clear trails. I’d miraculously managed to avoid any kind of overuse injuries throughout my training until a 20 mile run 2 weeks out from the race- during this run, I tweaked my peroneal tendon rock hopping on a down hill trail, and it had been a bit cranky and creaky ever since. I was assuming it might complain some during the 50k, but the discomfort had been tolerable during runs, so I wasn’t too worried about it. Around mile 4, I met a woman who had broken three of her ribs earlier in the week. I ran with her for long enough to realize she was a complete badass, and I never would have seen her in this race save a glimpse of her receding pigtails had it not been for her injury. We parted ways at the first aid station because her boyfriend was waiting there to tell her he was going to drop out of the half marathon. I was cruising along at a good clip on rocky trails, feeling happy, when I landed strangely on my ankle, leading to a funny crunch sound, a searing pain, and instant swelling. This was just after I’d passed two veteran ultrarunners who commented that they were using me as a pacer since I was running/hiking so consistently.
After the crunching noise, I rapidly cycled through several or Kübler-Ross’s stages of grieving: denial (I said, “Maybe it’s fine” and tried to run on it, while trying not to scream each time my foot hit the ground), anger (once I realized running was not going to happen, I kicked a rock at the side of the trail…with my good foot. Oops.), bargaining (I beseeched some unknown Higher Power…if you just let me make it through this race, I promise I’ll rest, and see a PT, and stretch and use my foam roller every day…), depression (in which I contemplated dropping out of the race, as I couldn’t imagine surviving 25 more miles on what felt like a broken ankle, and also concluded I would probably never ever run again), and finally…acceptance.
About that acceptance. I’m pretty sure I would have limped to the next aid station and dropped out had I not encountered, once again, Badass Pigtail Girl With Broken Ribs (her actual name was Jody). I was limping along, sniffling and feeling incredibly sorry for myself, when she caught up to me. She noted that I didn’t look so hot. I affirmed the correctness of this observation. I remembered that she had 3 broken ribs, and was also from Texas, which has oxygen in the air. It put things in perspective a bit. In this moment, the Gimp Squad was born. Jody and I decided we were going to finish the race together, even if it meant we were the last ones in at the finish. This turned out to be what saved my race. Being a super type-A personality in some ways, I was obsessing over how slow I was going to go and how all of my training was wasted because I was going to be the last one to finish the race. This line of thinking would obviously get somewhat tiresome over the course of 25 more miles. Luckily, I stopped dwelling on the alternate searing pain and numbness originating from my ankle as Jody and I started talking about life, the universe, and everything else.
It was one of those funny moments in running where even as all this was happening, I was thinking to myself, “I’m learning something about how to deal with life right now.” Life is nothing if not full of unexpected and often unwanted curveballs thrown at you that, in an instant, change your trajectory. As Jody and I limped/jogged/hiked along the course, talking and laughing, I found myself thinking, “Just let yourself be here, now.” I’m pretty sure that I read that in a self-help book somewhere, or maybe it’s some great platitude of wisdom I handed to a client without actually thinking it would apply to me at some point in the near future. Strangely enough, there is actually some truth to this clichéd phrase. I felt the pull of self-pity and anger let up as I allowed myself to open up mentally to the experience that I was actually having- not the one I had imagined or hoped for, to be sure, but the one that was happening in the present.
Jody and I definitely had significantly more fun that the runners around us, probably because we had abandoned the idea of trying to be fast and had relaxed into the idea that we were going to be hiking uphill for a really long time, and it was probably going to hurt. A lot. At one point as we picked our way up a steep ascent that wound through a burn area littered with sharp stakes (we took care to avoid these), another runner said in an awed and slightly belligerent tone of voice, “are you guys actually enjoying this?” And we actually were. We stopped to revel in the incredible scenery often, and chatted with the runners that passed us. We offered encouragement to a Venezuelan runner we found sitting at the side of the trail at 10,000 feet, and got him running again. We coined a phrase for the strange type of movement that propelled us forward: “ultra slogging.”
The steep climbs were actually the least painful part of the course for me, because my ankle didn’t complain as much. I had done a lot of fast hiking in training and so I could keep a decent pace as we hiked up the steepest parts of the course (in one mile, we climbed 1200+ feet, according to my Garmin!). But the altitude and the climbing was hard for Jody since her broken ribs made breathing painful and difficult to begin with, and even more so when she was out of breath. And, since she was from Texas, the altitude didn’t help matters much. At this point, I’d decided to stay with her for as long as I could, because I was having fun and we were distracting each other from our injuries. So I waited with her when she needed to stop seeing stars and eventually we made it to the Ski Lodge aid station, where I had two trusty running friends waiting to boost my spirits. I told them what had happened with my ankle, and told them that I was running with a woman who had three broken ribs. They looked at me like they suspected I had altitude sickness, but smiled and nodded. I think my friend Ron was prepared to pace me in if I needed it, but he told me I was looking good and making good time, so after Jody and I stuffed our faces with aid station goodies, we were off again, with “only” a half marathon or so to go.
We were done with most of the major climbs, but the rock-strewn downhills were excruciating on my ankle. Every time it wobbled, it would hurt so badly that I would get dizzy. I started to think I had actually torn a tendon or something, because I’d never had such intense pain save when I had stress fractures in my ankle. Jody showed me a way to go down the steep descents that helped minimize the wobbling, and so I slowly crab-walked down the descents I normally would have loved just bombing down as fast as possible. At this point, I told Jody she should leave me behind, because she could have gone much faster without waiting for me with my crab-walking moves. But she insisted that she was going to stay with me since I had stayed with her through the climbs, and besides, it seemed fitting that after so many hours of suffering together, the Gimp Squad was going to finish as a team. I was secretly relieved that she decided to stay with me, because between running through a severe burn area that looked like a desolate wasteland and the incessant downhills, I was struggling to keep it together mentally and knew if I was on my own, I might spiral into a dark cloud of doom.
We kept ultra-slogging along, and the tone of our conversation got more serious. We talked about overcoming adversity in our life, the losses we had suffered, the strength we had gained from the bumps in the road. When we saw on our Garmins that we had completed a marathon, we briefly cheered for ourselves for being stubborn (and stupid?) enough to keep going despite our bruised bodies. About 4 miles from the end, my friend Allison met us in the middle of another burn area to bring us in. Allison took our semi-delirious conversation and addled mental state in stride and kept us moving along. We were happy to have an addition to our deleterious duo and Allison was at least somewhat entertained by how loopy we were.
There was a funny moment at the last aid station- aptly named the Last Chance Saloon- where we for some reason decided to run up the hill as fast as we could (which was not very fast at all), laughing as we ran at the arbitrary decision. The people at the aid station told us, “We don’t see many people running up this hill looking as good as you do.” We just looked at each other and laughed some more. What they didn’t know was that was some of the only running we had managed to do over the last 25 miles! From this aid station, we supposedly had only 2 more miles to go. Jody and I decided to celebrate with a shot of tequila. At this point, we figured it couldn’t possibly hurt, and in the best possible scenario, the alcohol would numb the pain. Right?
We kept slogging, and got passed by some young shirtless guys who were actually running. Kinda fast. This inspired a rare string of curses from me, which made Jody laugh. Her broken ribs weren’t too psyched about this. We hit 31.1 miles, but strangely were not at the finish line. At this point, I think I might have thrown a miniature tantrum and threatened to park myself on a rock until they moved the finish line to the appropriate spot. Somehow, we kept moving, until we hit the celebratory “you’re almost at the end” rock climbing chute. Yes, at the end of a hellaciously difficult ultra, there is an almost straight up rock chute that you must ascend, single file, before you can run to the finish. Hilarious. Amazingly, my running crew had congregated at the top. With cowbell. They used a combination of praise, affirmations, and threats to get us up to the top. I stopped here to talk to my buddies and process the experience, until my friend Steve reminded me that the race was not actually over, and if I shut my mouth and started moving, we would finish in under 10 hours. This inspired Jody and I to suddenly bust a move and start running. My ankle hurt like hell, but I didn’t care. I was almost done. about 50 meters from the finish line, we grabbed hands and skipped in to the finish line, 9 hours and 57 minutes later.
This 50k taught me so much about myself. Even though I fell far short of my original time goal of 9 hours, I managed to enjoy what could have been a truly awful day, made a new friend, and finished my first ultramarathon despite an ankle that pretty much had stopped functioning as an actual ankle. Steve had promised that when I finished, I’d probably be cursing and saying “never again,” and by the next day I’d be wondering when I could sign up for the next year. Surprisingly, I never had the “never again” moment. Almost immediately after I crossed the finish line, I thought to myself, “setting a PR on the course next year should be easy- if all my body parts are working correctly!”
Jemez 50k 2013, here I come!