My alarm goes off at 6 the morning of, even though the race doesn’t start until 9. I don’t want to miss it! Coffee, yoga, rather pitiful breakfast of granola & soy milk—I didn’t feel like buying eggs and then having a ton of dishes to do. Of course a banana.
The one confirmation email I didn’t print out for this trip was the race registration. I’m pretty sure the race is at 9, but the hotel doesn’t have Wi-Fi so I can’t check. Around 7:30 I start to notice a lot of cars going by, and I get a little nervous. The hotel is only a mile from the resort (pure accident–lucked out on that one) so since I’m ready, I get in the Soul and go.
It doesn’t start until 9, so I’m early for once. I check in and wander around for awhile. One of the EMTs at the bottom took my photo for me, and told me about where we run. I went over to the big map and tried to follow what she was talking about—some trail called “Bambi.” Sounds pretty wussy but turns out it’s a Blue that would probably be rated a Black in VT. We would be starting at the bottom with a couple of windy, connecting trails—switchbacks, if you’re a hiker—then take Bambi to the top: straight. up. OK.
Finally the timers call everyone together. No chip time on this race, only 80-some people. And the leader calls roll before the gun goes off! They seem to be having a good time with it, but my legs get cold while we’re standing there waiting. Oof.
The gun goes off and I realized I haven’t set my music. Crap. The sun is blazing and I can’t see a thing on the screen. Oh well. I’m near the back and keeping off to the side like I normally do. Less than half a mile in, my heart is pounding and I’m gasping—the start is at over 9,000 feet and it climbs to 11,800. I’m still running though, and I realize I’m passing people who are walking. Forget that! I walk too and take deep breaths. Soon nearly everyone passes me. Up ahead I see the older lady I had been talking to at the start—Carol—who had run a race in Colorado a few weeks ago. There’s one other lady in front of me with long dark hair, who’s obviously having a tough time of it, hands on her knees and gasping. I trudge up to her and she groans. “Why didn’t I quit smoking last week? Damn my boyfriend for making me do this.” etc. I don’t quite have the heart to pass her—not that I would have been very much faster—so we hike together, trying to breathe.
In a minute she points out a small yellow sign, “1 km.” “And what, exactly, is a killo-meeter?” she says in between gasps. “It means nine more like what we just did.” It took us nearly two hours to get to the top, talking when we could, counting the “Kim” signs and taking a nice long break at the only water station on the uphill climb. Nearly three miles uphill with only one water stop? I had debated on whether or not to bring my own Nalgene—it’s huge, and heavy as crap—but I’m glad I did, the . The organizers said there were five water stations total, but we only saw three. I probably wouldn’t have made it without water, the air was really dry.
The hike was manageable until maybe the last 200 yards to the top. One last steep switchback, and the climb got tough. My guess is that’s where we crossed 11,000 feet. I started seeing little red flashes of light, like blips on a radar screen, and my head started pounding right along with my heart. And right at that moment, it started thundering. Great. Fortunately we were still below the tree line.
We heard a different rumble, and a beat up blue truck with a sign that said “Taos” came over the peak that we were aiming for. A couple of people piled out and cheered. We had to laugh. We had to have been at least 45 minutes behind everyone else. “Are you ladies okay? Want a ride back down?” Two ladies and two middle school boys, and an adorable young Golden Retriever. We gasped and refilled from their water jug, and I eyed the crest of the hill, only about 50 steps away. “Can you give us a ride to the top?” I laughed.
“No. We can only give you a ride down. No partial rides.” I looked at Brandi, my running buddy. “We didn’t just go through two hours of hell to NOT make it to the top, not when we can finally see it!” I said. “Thanks anyway.” We kept climbing, and just over the crest of the hill was the “5 km” sign…and right before we made the turn to the first downhill switchback, there was a huge boom of thunder and we saw a spike of lightning hit something. Time to run.
But the downhill was treacherous! So steep we kept slipping, and the trail was covered with loose rocks and scree. We both fell a couple of times, fortunately no blood. It was at least another kim before we could even think about running. And once we started we still had to stop a few times in places where there were just too many rocks to get a foothold. More than once we could see our destination straight below, but the trail turned us sideways. (Straight below, down a Black diamond trail at an 80 degree pitch, I should say.) I was tempted to cut them off more than once, but Brandi had a point. “There’s a reason they made us go this way. There might be a bear waiting, or something.” A light rain started, but it wasn’t too bad, and it only lasted about 15 minutes.
Just past the 8 km sign, the truck came back up, same people in it. They cheered and the driver called, “Less than a mile left!” That woke me up. I could run another mile, sure. My hip was pinching like hell and my quads were burning, but I pulled out some energy from somewhere. Maybe it was the Gu that I’d eaten at the first rest stop. (Side note: Not a fan.)
The 9 km sign brought us in view of the bottom, which we hadn’t been able to see since km 3 or so. A few racers were still lingering down below and they cheered as we came into sight. I whooped back, Brandi behind me, and we rounded the last switchback, then crossed the finish line together as they all cheered. I think Brandi was embarrassed but I thought it was hilarious.
And that was my first trail race. Heck, it was my first trail run, even, since I never got to practice. But as tough as it was, it was beautiful. Mountain and valley views at every turn, wildflowers in all colors lining the route. A waterfall and a few streams down near the bottom. Would definitely not recommend as a first time race, but if you’re used to running mountains, I’d say it’s worth the attempt.
A note about acclimatization. I didn’t, at all; I arrived in Albuquerque early Friday morning (6,000 feet), then drove to Taos (9,000 feet). Honestly I’m not sure it would have made a difference whether I had spent another few days at altitude. You’re still climbing as you’re running. Maybe if I’d stayed a few weeks and trained it would have made a difference, but for a weekend runner like me I think an extra day wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
And that’s 3 states down, 48 to go!