It was supposed to happen back in April but heavy snows got in the way of the race and it was pushed back to last weekend. Fathers Day Weekend! So in a sense last weekend ended up as my weekend, but I happily shared it with Lisa and the girls.
I was supposed to have Friday off but went in to work to re-certify my BLS and ACLS. Having accomplished that (I CAN save your life, just saying), we headed out Friday night for the caldera.
A caldera is a large volcanic crater, typically one formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of the volcano (Thanks wiki!). The Valles Caldera in northern NM is one of the largest type of calderas and measures about 13 miles across. Yeah, big stuff. and beautiful.
Our plan was to head up to a nearby campground, spend the night relaxing in the outdoors and head into the race the next morning. That was the plan. This was the reality:
We got up to the Jemez Falls and Redondo campgrounds too late, they were full. I was under the impression they were first-come, first-served but when I was looking for a spot I found a notice detailing the reservation procedures. Fuck me! This was my campsite AND my back-up site.
Thankfully we were about 45 minutes from Bandolier National Monument (another beautiful area of NM, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lisa and I retire to Los Alamos/Bandolier area). We drove over and camped in the same spot Lisa and I had the year before. More time in the car and less hang-out time, but we managed to squeeze a little in.
We hit the rack early knowing we’d have to be up early to get me into the race on time. I had one of the best nights sleep I’ve had in a long while (I didn’t even get up to pee once!) though Lisa and Sweetums had a rougher time. Animal was snoring. Happy family camping.
We got up at 5am, quickly and quietly packed up our campsite and headed into the caldera. After picking up my race bib and packet we had some time before the race start at 0730. We sat in the van and ate breakfast and chatted.
I’m Not Ready…..
Spoiler: Though I finished, this race kicked my ASS. It is easily the hardest race I’ve run, including the few ultras under my belt. I attribute this to a few factors:
- Fitness loss after injury
It’s getting hot in here….
0730 race start is a bit late for this time of year. The race was initially supposed to be held back in April but heavy snows made for difficult terrain and it was pushed back to now. While it was a nice and cool 66º at 0730, by the time I finished at 1:30 (yes you read that right 6 hours for this bad boy) it had gotten up to 88º.
I don’t have much insight on this one. I normally love running in the heat. The only thing that comes to mind is that since I’ve been working days for the last year I have not been out running during the hotter parts of the day as I have in the past.
They will see us waving from such great heights….
Here in the foothills of ABQ I generally run anywhere from 6-7 thousand feet. At the Caldera my lowest point was 7948 ranging up to 8871. 1-2k feet higher. I could feel it that’s for certain. Looks like I need to do more running higher up in the mountains. I used to run up and down Piño Trail often. Piño and La Luz here I come!
I ain’t as good as I once was….
I was running 50 mile weeks prior to my bike crash back in March and I’ve NEVER had a running injury. I took almost a month off after the crash from not only running but yoga too (I couldn’t bear much weight on that left foot). I came back slowly and intentionally wanted to listen to my Garmin and train by HR which meant moving very slow. I was at 20 mile weeks still just before the race and no more than about 7-8 miles at a time. So 26.2 was a bit of a leap I guess.
This is a very runnable race. It takes place almost entirely on current and former logging roads with a little bit of trail. Marathoners did two loops of the Half course as the initial marathon course was scrapped due to insufficient volunteers for the aid stations on that out-and-back. This meant all the hills I climbed the first time around were waiting for me on round two.
The first three miles were on actively used roads which meant they were very very dusty. Those big trucks and gear coming through just beat the roads into silt. It made for boggy running and clouds of dust in the air from all those feet coming through.
The great thing about being on those logging roads is you can’t see around the corner since the trees are cleared only as wide as the roads and vertically.
It made for a nice surprise to be running thick among the pines and piñon and come around the corner to see a wide open meadow.
From this point (the second aid station) we headed along an unused road thick with fallen pine needles and even a few downed trees we scrambled over or around. It was all generally uphill with a couple plateaus and dips though Mile 7 and 20 where the highest points in the race.
After the large climb we dropped quickly down into Redondo Meadow. Stepping across Redondo Creek, we find a bunch of nerdy scientists were camped out in hunting blinds. Equipped with binoculars and notebooks there were there to observe the Prairie Dogs. I can’t make this shit up.
The course follows the road a bit more and after another aid station we cut across the meadow, carefully watching our footing to avoid stepping into the numerous prairie dog holes. We cut across the creek again then followed the treeline northwest for about a half-mile before cutting up the ridge and climbing our way along a light trail back to the start/finish.
I saw Lisa and the girls at the halfway point which was just over 2 hours. We chatted while I quickly ate some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as the AS attendees refilled by hydration pack. A couple quick reluctant kisses (I was sweaty and salty) and I was back out for round two.
I knew it was going to take me much longer for the second go-round. I was already 13 miles in and the day was heating up. So my goal this time was just to pace myself to run in a finish (walking the uphills of course). I mean it was about 1500 feet elevation gain per loop of the course! Each aid station had a bucket of ice water and I soaked my buff and kept it on my head. Glorious relief!
I spent the whole race looking at the scenery (it’s why I’m there) and I enjoyed the wild-west and unique sights afforded by the setting, which included some old and current logging equipment and a number of recently cut trees. It was cooler in the morning, but by the time I came around again the sun had warmed the trees and released the strong scent of pine from the resin and each cut site smelled of fresh wood and sap.
Around mile 16 I picked up a buddy. A younger runner named Daniel had passed me at an aid station but waited for me at the top of a hill and we quickly fell into step together. This was his first marathon and major race and I think he was looking for some company to help get through the last ten miles. He was struggling a bit and stopped every so often to stretch out his calves.
I think we benefited each other nicely. I think he slowed me down so that I could finish strong. Otherwise I likely would have pushed myself a little too hard and crashed before the end. In turn I believe I helped him work on his pacing so he could keep running and finish sooner than he though possible.
When I met up with him we ran together for a bit and then he suddenly switched to a walk, which surprised me. I was ready to keep moving. I matched his walk for a while and eventually convinced him to start walk/runs. One minute walking then one minute running. It was a good compromise for the both of us and after cutting across Redondo Meadow and running through the treeline (which was now pretty sunny), we walked up the ridge and ran the last mile in straight through.
Lisa and the girls were waiting at the finish line along with Daniel’s family. I ran across and immediately slouched into a chair and dipped my buff into ice water again and set it back on my head.
I was handed a beautiful little pottery piece made by a member of the local pueblo. Say one thing about trail races, say they have fun and unique finishers awards.
Thoughts: This was the hardest race I’ve ever run. I’ve never felt this drained during a race as I had here and I attribute it to heat, elevation and fitness loss after my crash.
That being said I felt very strong as I finished and I recovered faster than expected and spent no time hobbling around over the next few days. We even did a little sight-seeing before heading home.
We tried to get into the main area of the Valles Caldera and visit the Longmire house used in the filming of the TV show. It was a no-go however. They only let 35 cars drive in a day and that mark had long ago been met. We could have hiked up to the structures, but immediately post race I was sensitive to the heat.
Instead Lisa and the girls surprised me with a trip to a natural soda dam which was right down the road. Lots of folks had stopped to use this beautiful little spot to ease the heat of the day.
The water was cold and I decided to use it as my post-run ice bath. I promise that despite appearances I am not pooping.
We all got into the fun and Animal and Sweetums were essentially swimming after that point. Animal was even brave enough to work her way up to the waterfall and plunge underneath. I dunno who the big guy is in the picture but I’m guessing he works out.
After this we packed up and headed back home to relax and clean up. I wasn’t driving so it was my turn to enjoy the scenery provided by northern New Mexico.
It was one hell of a good day and it would not have been possible without the love and support and patience of Lisa and Animal and Sweetums. I could not have done this without them and I am so grateful to be able to share this beautiful weekend adventure with my family.
On a sober note after I finished and left a runner was attacked by a black bear just a couple miles before finishing. You can read about here or in many other places I’m sure. I’m not going to go into the politics of whether races should be in The Preserve or about what happened to the bear. I am thankful the woman survived and will recover fully.