Ouch! My Jemez Half Marathon (mis)Adventures: a humbling return to racing

Part 1: The Race Report

This past weekend, I ran the Jemez Half Marathon, a trail race held in my hometown of Los Alamos, NM.  This past Saturday, a few hundred cheerful runners lined up behind a chalked-in start line to make our way through the spectacular canyons of the Jemez Mountains.  A couple of hours later, we runners trickled in to the finish line, some walking, some jogging, some limping…everyone looking hot, sweaty, dead tired and happy to be finishing.

The course is hilly, having ~2700 feet of elevation gain (and then loss).  This area was burned in the recent Las Conchas (2011) and Cerro Grande (2000) wildfires, so most of the course is bare of trees, winding over exposed volcanic tuffs.  Temperatures that crept toward 80 degrees that morning were additional challenge to the rugged terrain. The half marathon course was basically a “lollipop” course: out a flat start, up a GIANT hill (2000+ feet) of switchbacks, down a long, rolling downhill into a big canyon, back up through a series of benches, with the final quarter mile being a steep exit from canyon bottom to a road up top – basically, like climbing a flight of stairs to the finish line (Phew!).

Pre-race glamour shot with my Dad and sister, Teresa.
Pre-race glamour shot with my Dad and sister, Teresa.

I wasn’t alone in starting the race: my dad and youngest sister, my coach and many runner friends were also participating.  I started cheerfully: the air was fresh, I was rested after my first full night’s sleep in a long time (my husband, recently back from work-travel, kept our teething babe at home in Albuquerque while I went up to my parents house in Los Alamos for some pre-race zzz’s), my tight hamstring was feeling smooth, and I was excited to be experiencing my first trail race, in my hometown.

Everything was sunny at the start.
Everything was sunny at the start.

Upon the yelled “start!” I took off down the road feeling great.  I felt perky until I found myself face-down in the gravel about a mile into the race.  Shocked at my lack of coordination and realizing I probably should pay more attention to where my feet were landing, I bounced back up, brushed myself off, did a quick injury check and kept running.  A few miles later, the blood on my hands and legs congealed, I found myself at the bottom of a narrow canyon, starting a zig-zagging route up the hillside.  Around the second switchback, I realized my recent “extreme – minimalist” training regimen had not prepared me for this killer route.  By the fourth switchback, I gave up on running up the entire hill, and decided to jog the cross-section of each switchback, and walk—hands-on-thighs—each steep turn.

Finally reaching the summit, I leaned on my pounding quads, swigged some water, sucked down a tasty Powerbar fruity pouch and started downhill.  Keeping myself controlled and on the alert for the first sign of irritation from my nagging hamstrings, I skip, hopped, and danced my way down the washed-out trail.  Then, like a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky, I was struck by the mother of all side stitches and I stopped to walk. On a downhill! In a race! I gasped for breath, clutching my abdomen, trying not to keel over on the dusty trail.  Brushing the stinging sweat out of my eyes, I admired the spectacular view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As I walk-jogged the next few bare, sunny miles down the slopes, I realized just how hot I was, and how glad I was to be carrying my water belt with two full bottles—another new race experience. Eventually, I felt able to return to what I felt was a steady jog. My lack of foot-eye coordination and fatigue prevented anything from the graceful, gazelle-like feeling I might envision for myself actually running on a trail.

Zombie runner descends into canyon bottom.
Zombie runner descends into canyon bottom.

As I trotted on in the blazing sun, I realized that the powdery dust and ash had filtered into my shoes and socks, and I was rubbing nice blisters on both of my very sweaty feet. I was alone on the trail: I hadn’t seen another racer in nearly 30 minutes, and I was doggedly following a trail of bright-orange flags (excellent marking, by the way!).  Upon reaching the canyon bottom, I approached an aid station, where my brother was cheering. I think I gave him a vacant, empty stare reminiscent the “motivating” zombies from the “Zombies! Run!” app as I stumbled past.

By this point, I admit that most of my forward motion was done walking.  I was tired. I was hot.  I was bloody. I examined the cuts on my palms and removed some of the larger gravel bits.  I knew I had only a few miles to go.  So I walked. Slowly. After carefully placing my feet on solid ground, I admired the canyon scenery.  I was shamed into jogging by a group of toddlers waving “Go Dad!” signs who ambushed me off of rocks alongside the trail and came to run next to me, shrieking “You can do it! You can run! Move your feet faster!” So I jogged until I was out of sight of the little monkeys and resumed my race-pace stroll.  Mentally, I swung between beating myself up over walking (“You’re so out of shape! You can run, just gut it out!” and laughing somewhat deliriously at myself, admitting that I was having my running/racing ego handed to me.

Finally, after pulling myself up the canyon “staircase,” I glimpsed the finish line. Cheered by spectators, I summoned enough courage to shuffle my way through the last five meters to the finish line, whereupon I promptly sat down on the grass, gratefully gulping the Coca Cola proffered by another runner.

Part 2: Post-baby return to racing “lightbulb” moment: Racing is still racing, even when it’s “just a local trail race”

Sitting, salt-encrusted and exhausted, in the sunshine, I was exhilarated to have finished the race, and happy to have had the mental fortitude to pushed myself through the tough event, even though I walked approximately 40% of the distance. My right knee, which bore the brunt of my early fall, was bloody and swollen, but I was grateful the spill had not more detrimental.  I talked over the race with my husband, noting that lack of training, a fall, side cramps, heat and hills had combined to make a rather less-than-optimal race experience.  However, it was still a race: I had worked hard, pushed my body to its limit and had to pull myself mentally back to the task at hand (forward progress!) again and again. I did not perform as I had hoped, and I was disappointed.  I was also, however, relieved to have made a return to racing, and happy I managed my mental battle as well as I did.  Racing is never easy, but it is always educational.

Enjoying post-race refreshments with fellow 'Inspire Daily' athlete, Shari.
Enjoying post-race refreshments with fellow ‘Inspire Daily’ athlete, Shari.

Chatting with other racers as my friends and family trickled in, I heard “that was brutal!” repeated from nearly every competitor.  It was brutal, but the community enthusiasm and post-race energy was contagious as everyone exchanged their race stories. I had the treat of meeting fellow Brooks ID athlete, Shari Sullivan-Marshall, who had made the trip from Colorado, and I was happy to mingle with my fellow racers, scarfing down fruit, bagels, candy and best of all, popsicles!

Congratulations to all who ran the Jemez Mountain runs, whether they ran the half marathon, 50 km, or 50 mile distance.  Happy recovery, and training for your next endeavor!

3 thoughts on “Ouch! My Jemez Half Marathon (mis)Adventures: a humbling return to racing

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