Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Into the Canyon: Trail de Cañon (Peña del Aire) Race Report

Dalva Looooves the Zip Line
Scouting the first descent with Oriana

 I’m trying to understand the correlation between a terrible night’s sleep followed by a decent race. I haven’t slept so poorly before a race since the 2014 Angeles Crest 100.
 Finally fell asleep and then woke at 2:50am. Of course I fell asleep once more two minutes before my alarm sounded at 4:50am.
 The previous evening, Oriana and I had driven to Peña del Aire, which is a phallic shaped rock where the race would begin.
 We got there just before sunset. We walked down to the head of the trail that leads down into the canyon, and I was reminded of how technical this descent is. No way I was going to do this without a headlamp. I hate running with a lamp all day just for an hour of light in the morning, but I was going to have to deal with it.
 As the light faded over the canyon, Oriana and I drove back to the Cabañas: we timed it as exactly 22 minutes and 21 seconds. The plan was to leave at 5:15 in the morning. Tough to get the whole family moving at that hour, and Natalia was racing the 20k and wouldn’t start until 7, so I was looking for a ride to give the family an extra hour of sleep.

FYI: It's 22 minutes and 21 seconds from this cabaña to the race start

 No Uber in Huasca and the taxi drivers don’t get up that early.
However, the caretaker had mentioned that the folks in the neighboring cabaña were also in the race, so I went and knocked on their door to see if they were running the 40k and maybe could I get a ride? I felt like a stalker rapping on their door at night, but the couple answered --if warily-- and sure enough one of them was running the 40k. The great news is they were happy to give me a ride. Unfortunately, they were planning on leaving “around 5:30.” I politely but firmly mentioned that it just took me 22 minutes and 21 seconds to drive to Peña del Aire. They appeared unmoved by this fact, and while I had several other arguments at the ready, I really wasn’t in the best negotiating position considering that I was an uninvited stranger knocking on their door at night --possibly interrupting an intimate moment-- looking for a free ride. I also inferred it was not an opportune moment to express my reservations about Mexican concepts of time, so I just assured them I’d be outside and ready by 5:20 (hint), thanked them, and then went to bed, staring at the darkness for hours while my family slept around me.

                                                   Amazing Place!                            Photo:

 The next morning I was outside and ready at 5:12. I met my other neighbor, Horacio, who was also looking for a ride, and the couple, Diego and Erika, were happy to bring him along as well. It was foggy and dark. And 5:31. We were off.  We chatted away talking about races we had run (as always in Mexican trail running circles, it turned out we all had run several races together without knowing it) and we blew right past the turn off for the Peña del Aire.

 Despite the fog I knew we were wrong, and so we stopped and turned around. But several other cars were heading in this direction and said it was the correct way. There was some mildly panicked discussion, but we retraced our steps, found the correct turn and we were on the slow dirt roads to arrive at the start.

At about 5:57 we could see the lights of cars heading into the parking lot.

It was at this moment I thought it best resist the urge to restate the wisdom of my suggested 5:15am departure.

 We rolled into the big grassy field that was the parking lot, and it seemed they wanted us to drive to the farthest part of the lot. It was 5:59. I wondered how rude it would be to simply open the door,  jump out of the slowly moving car, yell thank you, and run to the start.

I suppressed that urge as well.

 We parked. It was 6:00 by my Suunto. I noted lots of car lights still coming into the parking lot, Probably the race would start late. Nope: the countdown had begun 10, 9, 8….
...Time to run….

  1. Kudos to Trail Run Hidalgo for starting his race on time. Some said they should have waited a few minutes, but that will just lead to all of his races starting late. They don’t; they start on time. Word will get around and people will be there when they are supposed to be.

     2. Thank you to Diego and Erika for giving me a ride.

     3. Maybe a 5:20 departure next year? ;)

 Perhaps the reason I couldn’t sleep the night before is that I had been anticipating this race for months. The canyon is well-known to many trail runners, because at kilometer 60, the UTMX 100k race descends into the canyon on the same trail where we would start our race. There are many things I love about UTMX, but the canyon section is, for me, the jewel of that race. However, at UTMX we only spend about 7 kilometers running in the canyon, and I’ve always wanted to explore 

                          Awesome descents like this all day.                   Photo: Martin Forstmann of

 I don’t want to bore anyone with a blow by blow of my race, but I knew going up the first major climb that I was going to have a good day. I was wrong: I had a fantastic day. Part of the reason I felt great is that I’m finally starting to get into some sort of shape; but the more important reason is that the route was freaking fantastic: a true adventure….a dozen river crossings, several sketchy, loose rock technical down hills, and beautiful single track all day long. Also, as usual, Trail Run HIdalgo got the important details correct: the aid stations were plentiful and had the necessities, there was beer at the finish, and the course was marked heavily. Flags all over the place. Too many, for my taste, but I understand that the organizers don’t want people getting lost down in the canyon.

                           Natalia at the finish!                                         Photo:

 Despite the awesomeness of the race, two or three runners still found reasons to complain on facebook after the race.

 As an old teacher friend once told me: “Guy, you could invite some people to the ice cream store every day and they’d complain because they had to walk.”

 More on that later.

During the last 15 K, I was catching people and moving well. I completely submerged myself in every river crossing to keep cool and then I rolled up to the second to last aid station. There were about 4 runners here, so I quickly refilled my bottle, chugged a coke, ate some watermelon and kept moving. I was anticipating the last climb. What I was not anticipating was the climb to get to the last climb: slippery loose gravel and just stupidly steep. Most races end with a nice downhill or a straightway. Instead we had a two plus mile climb up to the top of the canyon. After moving so well all day I was reduced to a bit of a spit dribbler, and most of the runners I had passed at the last aid station caught me, which is to say they hiked by me. The Peña came into sight, and the trail flattened out near the top and I managed some sort of shuffle jog, climbed out of the canyon, and then had about 30 yards to the finish line. A little “sprint” and then I laid down under the tent after crossing the finish line. Man did it feel good to know I didn’t have to go back down into the canyon.

Being a little overly dramatic at the finish, I think. Really just wanted a beer.    Photo:

Neither that short description of my race or the photos do justice to these trails or the rugged beauty of the Canyon. You’ll have to go next year and find out for yourself. But please, before you do: consider a few things: most of this race is run in areas of the canyon that are not accessible by car. If you twist an ankle or underhydrate or show up unprepared, you are going to have to get yourself out of trouble and get to the nearest aid station. That’s the runner’s job, not the race’s. An unsettling idea has been creeping into trail running that the organizers can (and should) make everything “safe.” That’s not going to happen without ruining the adventure of trail running. If you are uncomfortable crossing a river that comes up to your hip without a rope or someone there to watch you, or you can’t find your way up out of the canyon if your race goes sour, please choose another race.

 Trail Run Hidalgo has made a name for themselves creating races that feature lots of single track with steep climbs and descents in beautiful locations on technical trails. I’ve enjoyed their Mountain Challenge race in Chico, and the Ultratransnavajas near Tulancingo, but Trail de Cañon is now my favorite. The Canyon is truly a gem: if it were in another country we would all be saving for airfare and dreaming about running there. I think we might undervalue it a bit because it’s only a couple hours outside of Mexico City. But be warned, while this might “only” be a 40k, better to think of it as a short ultra. For comparison: In 2015 I ran the first 50k of UTMX in 7:20. It took me 7:43 to finish the 40k of the Trail de Cañon.

 Three races on the calendar: Mexico City Marathon at the end of August, Trail Run Hidalgo’s Ultratransnavajas 60k in September….And then the UTMX 100k on October 15th.

 Hoping for a few more bad nights of sleep before October.



Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Back to Jemez.

Pre-race (over) confidence: Up and down, no sweat.                            Photo: Randy Grillo

I’ve never felt good at Last Chance Saloon, the final aid station of the Jemez Mountain Run. Three years ago I was here after 50 miles in the mountains, and my stomach couldn’t take anything. At the 2016 Jemez, I wisely opted for the 50k, but when I arrived at the final aid station only two miles from the finish, I didn’t feel much better. I didn’t want to eat, but needed something so filled up my bottle with ice and coke and started marching up the switch backs that lead up out of the aid station.

Feeling Fantastic 8 seconds in! Check out that Heel Strike! Textbook.                  Photo: Randy Grillo

Jemez almost didn’t happen this year. Back in January I had made plans with Truyols to fly into Juarez, cross the border and then drive or take a bus up to Santa Fe. Stop in Alamogordo along the way and visit my sister. I’m not sure why neither one of us looked at the mileage: it’s around 300 miles from El Paso to Santa Fe. We would have to make that trip twice in 3.5 days, as I couldn’t ask for more than two days off of school. While not impossible, pretty ridiculous, especially considering I can't drive for more than three hours before my lower back starts freaking out at me.

It seemed that events were conspiring against the trip. At school we planned our big NWEA celebration on the Thursday I was supposed to be flying. And then Truyols went back to Spain to get a job because he refused to relocate to Playa Del Carmen. If you can't understand why anyone would refuse a work relocation to Playa Del Carmen, you don't run in the mountains. 

Putting this in there because I don't run with a camera and don't have many photos. 

  One late afternoon I was sitting alone in my office at the end of the day, coming to terms with cancelling the trip. No visiting my sister in Alamogordo; no hanging out with Randy and Pati in Santa Fe; no trip through the mountains in Los Alamos. Damn, I should have just booked a ticket directly to ABQ, I thought to myself. And just for fun, I checked, expecting tickets in the 600-800 dollar range.

296 round trip from Mexico City to ABQ. Wow.

You know you are in New Mexico when...

Never seen tickets that cheap to a smaller hub in the US like ABQ, but still, 300 bucks is 300 bucks. I hesitated for a few minutes and then I remembered the ole’: “we usually regret the things we don’t do.” I pressed submit, and the trip –in a shortened version—was on. I’d be arriving at midnight on Thursday and flying out at 6:00am on Sunday.

  The original plan had been go to Jemez and run the 50 miler again. I’d finished in 15:30 in 2013, my longest 50 mile time by more than three hours. A tough course with two long climbs, Jemez is a great race but requires showing up with your A game. Two weeks before the race I ran the Mountain Challenge 33k in Chico, Hidalgo. A short run but with lots of steep climbing. I went out fairly hard and paid for it on the return: I was crawling up the climbs. I started to question whether I was prepared for 50 miles in Jemez. I also began to fret about the 6:00am return flight, so a week before the race I sent an email to the RD requesting a drop to the 50k.

  I could have dropped down distances during the race, as Jemez does a very tricky thing: any 50 mile runner can decide to run the 50k, but this decision is made 20+miles into the race after a very long climb. Many runners make this switch, and one of the great mental hurdles to finishing Jemez 50 mile is taking that left turn at Pipeline Road aid station and dropping down into the Caldera.

  By the time I got to the first aid station, it was pretty clear to me that it was not going to be a spectacular day. I felt like I was working too hard, and feeling like you're working too hard in the opening hour of a 50k is a bad sign. I arrived at Camp May ready for the long climb up Pajarito. This was a new single track trail winding between new growth trees that are returning after the 2011 fire. Warning to future Jemez runners: there is a big old false summit on this trail. When you think you are at the top, you still need to head straight up a couple ski runs. And then finally the descent to the ski lodge. Speaking about the descent: Jemez is a logical and easy course to follow, and it’s flagged fairly (though not excessively) but this descent mixes it up from cool single track in the woods between ski runs, and occasionally it just barrels straight down. It's fun to run, but not a "logical path." Pay attention here and watch the flags.

 I normally don’t use a drop bag for 50k, but they had the option so I picked up the other half of my gels, applied some more sunscreen (which they also had in the aid stations—they think of everything in this race), changed into a short sleeve shirt and I was off. I felt decent and was able to run everything until the climb up to the aid station.
Pipeline Road aid station is where the 50 milers have to make the choice: turn right and finish with the 50k, or drop down into the caldera and go for 50mile. I was so happy I’d made the choice a week earlier…

  …I thanked myself for that decision all day long.

Jemez boasts a great finish: a long 7 miles of descent on single track before arriving at the final aid station –Last Chance Saloon, or Rendija Canyon—with a two mile climb back up to the finish. I was descending decently all day, but it was not to last. This area –like almost all of the race—is totally exposed because of forest fires in 2000 and 2011. I slowed and it was a struggle just to keep running. A couple runners passed me. Not the finish I was hoping for, but you play the hand you are dealt, and I finally struggled into Last Chance Saloon, flirting with nasuea and lacking energy. It was hard for me to believe I’d finished the 50 miler in 2013. In fact, I’d felt great on this section three years earlier (despite barely making it out of the Caldera) Funny how the mind works: having set my sights on the 50k, the 50 mile seemed unfathomable. And how the hell had a completed two 100 mile races? Was I a runner in decline? Had a run my last ultra? Should I just forgo water and fill up my bottle with ice and coca cola?

I could at least answer one of those questions: it would be the coca cola train to the end.

Those were the thoughts I had as I primarily hiked up to the finish. There were a couple times I swung my arms and shuffled my legs in an attempt to mimic jogging. Unconvincing. A dude passed me just shy of the final steep climb up to the Possee shack. A dude I hadn’t seen all day. Nothing quite like being passed by a dude you haven't seen all day. There was a fleeting thought of chasing him. Fleeting. Apparently I'm afraid to vomit, or just like to avoid pain.

And then I put my hand on a cactus trying to pass a couple 15 mile racers who were still on the course.

 There would be no glorious recovery.

 However, picking the spines out of my hand turned out to be a great diversion, and I ran up to the Possee Shack for the finish and there was Grillo already a few beers in after his 15 mile finish. I had to lay down for about 30 minutes, but I eventually recovered and began drinking the excellent Session IPA that Bathtub Brewing, a local brewery and sponsor of the race, was pouring for free.

  Randy and I stayed to watch runners from the 50k and 50 mile finish.  While it wasn’t great running weather, it was world class beer drinking and veggi burrito eating weather, and we made the most of it.

 if I can find 297 dollar round-trip tickets I’ll be back next year.

Leaving Jemez

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A River Runs Through It (Travels with Martin): Sierra Gorda 50k "Race" report

Sierra Gorda 50k:    Photo by Martin Forstmann of
 No way I was pitching a tent in a parking lot.

  Forstmann –of fame-- and I had driven about 4 hours to the tiny, remote town of Higueras de Peñamiller for the Reto Sierra Gorda 50k. We stopped for carnitas in Peña Bernal, a well-known tourist trap where people go to look at a big rock, and then we drove about an hour into the semi-desert, mountainous region known as the Sierra Gorda.

Peña de Bernal: Keep driving and send your last texts
  Higueras is no pueblo magico. It’s a dusty outpost without so much as a single restaurant. But it’s surrounded by the pristine Sierra Gorda. But the race has to start somewhere and so a big dirt parking lot that doubled as the center of town would be that somewhere. The promised “camping area” was a corner of this dirt parking lot offering an evening of Dusty, Loud and Hard. There was also zero shade.

The sun would go down and eventually someone would turn off the music, but dusty and hard weren’t going away. I was prepared to drive up into the hills and find a place on the side of the road.

  After asking around a bit, we heard that “the Oasis” was a nice place to camp and not too far, so we drove up out of the town and on a dirt road inside a canyon. Someone had painted “Oasis” and an arrow on the side of the canyon so we headed down an even narrower road would soon turned into a river. Wondering how wise it was to be driving down a river as the sun set, I stopped the car and ran ahead to check out the road/river. A guy with a machete popped out of the woods, and I asked him about the Oasis and he told me to keep on driving down the river.
The "road" to the Oasis     
  And so we did.  And sure enough, the river flowed down to the left, and a sort of path led to the right and up to a red gate: inside was grass, tents, pools, and a little tienda that I later found out sold Victorias for 17 pesos.

  After setting up the tent, Martin made his magical camp pasta sauce which we enjoyed with the Victorias. I was so happy at the Oasis that I momentarily forgot that I would be running a 50k the next morning after the 5 weeks of rest, easy jogging and pastries that have been my focus since running UTMX on October 10.
Chef Martin

Martin’s Magical Camp Pasta Sauce
Preparation and Cooking Time: 2 minutes, 41 seconds

1 Jar of Pasta Sauce
1 can of black olives
1 can of tuna
1 yogurt size jar of cream

Recommended Beer Pairing: 17 peso Victorias. 

 The meal and the beer put me in a great mood, and I set out to prepare my stuff for the race while Martin took some night photos.

Under the moon at the Oasis                Photo: me
It was tough to say what the course would be like. Martin went on a reconnaissance mission and talked to some of the other campers. He returned and I asked him what he found out.

He laughed. “Nadie Sabe Nada.”

Well, we all love a good mystery, and I had just driven my family car at dusk down a sketchy canyon road into a river in an area that was at good hour from cell phone reception, and stumbled upon the Oasis, so maybe the race would work out as well.

  However, just in case the race didn’t work out, I opted for my pack (something I don’t even use for the 100 mile distance) to make sure I had what I needed in case aid stations didn’t materialize when they were supposed to or the course wasn’t properly marked.

 After a terrible night of tossing and turning and looking at my phone 19 times to see if it was 4 AM already so I could just get up and get this over with, I looked at my phone for the 20th time, and it was 3:37. I stayed horizontal for 23 more minutes listening to the sounds of the river and then we both got up, packed up, made a coffee and hit the road/river. My car made it back up the river/road without issue. Things were looking up.

 We arrived back at the dirt parking lot and were among the first to arrive. Suddenly I was freaking exhausted. Martin trudged back up the hill and back down to the Oasis. Apparently, the race would head right down the river. Neither of us recalled seeing any course markings.
  I tried to sleep fitfully in the car until it was time to line up. The sun was coming up and I cursed the organizers for requiring a headlamp for a race that starts at 6:30. And then I cursed myself for being such a rules follower, stuffed the useless headlamp in my pack and we were off…

  We headed down the same river/road that led to the Oasis, and then followed the river further down.

  A kilometer or so later we took a left out of the river and started heading up a canyon. Here there were more water sections, including one that came up to my neck if I stood on my very tippy toes. We followed this river for a while, and then, mercifully headed up out of the canyon onto a trail.

Tough to keep the shoes dry through here
  Sadly, the trail didn’t last long and then we were running in a dry, rocky river bed, heading up. This went on for maybe an hour? I tried to occupy my time by checking out what packs people were wearing and what they were carrying. One guy had a tube of Neosporin I could see through the mesh of his new Salomon pack. Why?

 In the distance I could see the clouds covering some mountain peaks. I really hoped we were heading up there, as it looked awesome.  Also, I’d about had it with rivers.

Heading up to the clouds      

Climbing up to
  The course climbed out of the river bed (yay!) and started heading up a dirt road (boo) that looked to be heading straight up to the peak (yay!).  As we got higher the road turned to trail (yay!).  I was feeling good, back on familiar terrain. Near the top I stopped to read a bit about the Mission Bucarreli and I took a photo of this map.

Hey, a map!

 On the back side of the mountain, the trail turned to single track cut out of the side of the mountain (double yay!) and it reminded me very much of the Sam Merrill trail in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California.

  We took this single track down for over an hour. Definitely the best part of the race for me. Something like 9 kilometers of downhill. I was passing people and feeling good. At one point I saw a group of people gathered a few switchbacks below. Perhaps someone had twisted an ankle?

  When I arrived I knew there were too many cooks in the kitchen but it didn’t feel right just to blow by. I stopped and asked if I could do anything to help.

  Holy shit. A woman had clearly fallen and her face and one had were badly cut up. Wait, I suddenly remembered the Neosporin guy, couldn’t be too far….
  Then I noticed the Salomon pack. Neosporin Guy was right next to me saving the day. She still looked a bit shocked, but the group assured us they had the situation under control and so a few of us that had just arrived kept running. 

Long descent on singletrack like this...

  As the trail began to flatten out it got really hot, and I started to struggle. Things slowed down. A few of the folks I’d passed on the downhill passed me here. We arrived at a grassy paradise that was out of place in this desert terrain. I drank a terrible tasting electrolyte drink made for babies with diarrhea here and kept moving.

  And once again: a river crossing. My feet had finally dried so I stupidly tried to step across some rocks to keep my feet dried. Note to future runners: don’t bother…the next hour or so was crossing the river, running along the river or running in the river. Amazing views here, and though I felt low and was moving very slowly, it was worth the effort to see this canyon.

  A while later I finally came upon Martin taking photos. I pretended to run for the camera. I’d been doing a lot of walking in this section. It’s hard to run in a river. It’s also hard to run when you are really tired, but it’s more satsifying to blame it on the river.

Photo by Martin Fortsmann
                                                         Pretending to run                                        Photo: Martin Forstmann,
And then we ran through some small settlements before we descended, for the last time into –you’ll never guess—a river.  After a short bit I realized this was the same damn river we started on. This thrilled me for a couple reasons:

1.     It was the last river I would run in.
The final stretch of river (again)

2.     The race was nearly finished.

And the dirt parking lot came into site.

Damn I’m glad we didn’t camp there.

Other Random Thoughts:

   Incredibly beautiful area to see and if you are looking for a race that breaks the mold, this might be the one. I don’t mean to be a grump, but for me the river running did get a bit old. The mountain pass was fantastic, however, and would make for a great run from the Oasis. My fears about the aid stations and/or course markings were completely unfounded paranoia: course was marked relentlessly, and the aid stations were Spartan, but sufficient. 

The Sierra Gorda: A spectacular place to run

  I don’t know if I’ll be back for the race (though I probably will be), but I’ll definitely return to camp at the Oasis and drink a few Victorias.