My heart drops, knees buckle, and I stop dead... staring at the front of my pack, where I had attached my wedding ring. It was gone. The strap was gone too. I was stunned. My hands had swollen very early on, so I had to take my ring off and attach it to my pack. Casting my thoughts back, the last time I knew it was there, was back at Caballo Base. My ring and the strap it was attached to had most likely snagged somewhere between Caballo and here in the Caldera. Rarely did I ever take it off my hand in 17 years.
There is something about Los Alamos and the Jemez Mountains that lights me up. These mountain races are what trail running is all about... to me! Elevation hangs entirely between 7000 and 10000 feet, with three 10-ers and a few other significant ascents, as well as a few tasty descents as well. The weather is to die for... between 40 and 60 degrees and gusting cool now and then.
The first 25 miles are forgettable, Guaje Ridge, Caballo Mountain, the high ridge overlooking the grand valley, and the steep drop down onto the Caldera. I forgot it all when I realized I had lost my ring. My perspective shifts, my eyes open and refocus, I wake up! My hands are still swollen, but my feet and stomach are fine. I realize I'm hungry, so I pull out the trail mix and shove some down, wash it down with half my bottle of water... and start running.
The Valle Grande aid station volunteers are in a fine mood and helpful. I have some food while they top off both of my water bottles. A track wore down by all those before me is beaten into the grass for more than a mile across the open meadow. The rock flow waits just inside the trails: big rocks, huge rocks, busted, and piled one on the other, and the flags mark our route directly up over them. My climb is slow and methodical, determined and patient. After the rocks, then the timbers, and after the timbers, the grassy tufts of the wind swept upper reaches of Cerro Grande. Only one hour to the summit, but it seems to go well.
Losing the ring has lit a fire in me, but this downhill is where I get back in the game. Six miles of downhill. I start easy and slowly get faster. My momentum slowly builds til I'm running full out... for the first time today. I haven't seen many people in a long time, so it feels strange to see each of the people I pass. Pajarito Aid Station is a full-on aid with a big crowd and lots of activity. I ask for a beer and get one. They top off my water bottle while I stash the spare bottle and get a bit to eat too.
The next section is not very tough, a gentle four mile rise, up along a creek, a shallow ridge, then along the Camp May Road. Power hiking keeps me moving well from Pajarito to the Townsite Lift. Ann offers to help and again I ask for a beer. I'm in an odd mood it seems, but beer seems the right choice. So, I have another while they top off my water and eat some orange slices. All the while, I listen to a guy who has decided to quit and is explaining why to his family. I ask him to come with me... but no.
Its all up from here. This is the last big climb and the final cutoff that needs to be made. Pajarito Mountain is the final test, so I dial in a good cadence and start moving. I'm bone tired, but it really feels good.... all of it. Being in the mountains, being this close to the final climb, knowing that I will get it done, it's exhilarating. I cross over and up a few ski runs, all of it steep, toes pointing at the sky. Into the tall trees, then in the open, back into the trees again, and repeat. Hard to say which way the trail will turn, but it's always up. I top out and thick the climbing is done, but I'm a fool for even thinking that way, because it has not been that way at any time today. One false summit follows another endlessly over and over again. The top of the ski lift is also not the top, even though I think this is it again. Past the green chair, and then a bit more up again. Then when we start down, we go back up again. It all seems to be twisted up in circles and I'm surprised that we don't cross over our same path.
The path does eventually go down a steep chute, then a bit more, and then the big laundry chute strait down the mountain. Its marked right down the middle, so thats where I go... right down the middle. The wind is gusting, so I pull off my visor and spin on down, passing a couple of people along the way. I roll into the Ski Lodge with 30 minutes to spare on the 5:00 PM cutoff. It feels so damn good to be here, right now. I am only 36 miles into the 50 miler, but because there are no more cutoffs, I feel like I'm done. Now, all I have to do is walk home the final 14 miles.
Mark Blenden is getting ready to head out and says he's not doing well, so I agree to hang with him. I'm no longer in a hurry, and figure to have a nice stroll and visit. Takes us about 45 minutes to reach Powerline, where we sit down to make ready for the night. I load my pack with jacket, gloves, and light, then change my shoes as well.
I force a brisk walk and hold to it, going up or down the rolling jeep road. There's a few climbers, but nothing really bad. The brisk conversational walk keeps us from thinking much about the time of day, but the sun is surely sinking. With lights in hand, its irrelevant really, but more of a curiosity. We leave the road for single-track trail that wraps around another ridgeline and deposits us into the Guaje aid station. Two people manage the station with one remaining silent and the other in a very talkative mood. It's very pleasant.
We enter the burnt out haunted forest next, but it's not so spooky in the daylight. I start pushing the walk pace a bit more now that we have tilted downhill again. I begin to wonder if we will reach the Rendija aid station at mile 48 before dark. I have heard that this canyon is beautiful and I'd love to see it. Los Alamos peeks at us now and again off to the right. With every step, we keep dropping down. Mark is having a really tough time, but mixes running and walking. He talks about backing off, but refuses to turn lose. I have it down, the high cadence forced downhill walk that keeps us rolling. Our trail becomes a road and then a mile later, back to a trail again. The small slot canyon is gorgeous, rock formations, and rock faces. It's a generous downhill that I am hard pressed not to run... so I walk even faster.
The light is fading quickly now, but we roll into Rendija with the last rays. Deb & Steve greet us with a cold beer, a warm hug, and friendly smile. It sure is nice to be with friends. It's a cozy gathering but we don't stay long. One last climb, a short set of switchbacks, and we're out and completely in the dark. With two miles to go, we have finally lost the light.
I like to play this little game where I go as long as I can without a light, so I keep moving. It lasts for 15 minutes before I turn on my light... more out of concern for missing a turn than I am about tripping. Funny how it is that when you turn on your light you see so much less. What I do see is one small spot just in front of me.... and thats it. Reminds me how much my focus shifted today.
After the tunnel, its lots of reflective markers, intersections, and choices. We mosy along taking our final mile casually... comfortably. Life is good... but what am I going to tell my wife?