Climbing the Grand Staircase: An ultra trail run in the footsteps of Clarence Dutton

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.  Edward Abbey, in the Preface for Desert Solitaire

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Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, just a few miles east of the trail route for the Bryce 100. The hoodoos are erosional columns in the Claron Formation, a 30-60 million year old lake limestone.

Los Alamos, New Mexico – my hometown – sits on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau, an expanse of high desert and pastel hued rocks that covers more than 125,000 sq miles.  The plateau is a geologic marvel; the entire geologic history of the Western United States is laid bare from the bottom of the Grand Canyon where 2 billion year old Vishnu Schist is exposed to the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon in Utah which are 35 million year old sediments that were deposited in a great inland lake. The nearly 2 billion years of history is stacked like a layered cake gently tilted on its side, barely disturbed by faults and folds and other signs of geologic trauma.  There is a huge gap in time – more than a billion years – between the Vishnu Schist and Tapeats Sandstone overlying it, which represents a long epoch in which the region must have stood far above sea level.  Located above the 540 million year old Tapeats Sandstone there are younger rocks, which geologists can use as  a yardstick of ocean invasion and retreat.  Thousands of feet of sedimentary rock record the slow grinding of the ancient continents into gravel and dust.  Nowhere else on Earth is the last half of a billion years of history so beautifully preserved.  The western United States has suffered continental collisions, incredible crustal stretching, massive volcanic eruptions, and yet the Colorado Plateau escaped any significant deformation.  The layered cake geology of the Colorado Plateau is clear road map to our geologic past!

I was looking for a 50 km trail run in southern Utah when I found the Bryce 100 (which has 3 different distances to run, including 50 km) – and it looked like a wonderful tour through a high part of the Colorado Plateau.  I signed up with enthusiasm, and then realized that it was in the middle of June.  I looked at the historical meteorological data at a weather station in Bryce Canyon and realized it likely to be as warm as 85 degrees on the day of the trail run.  Trail runs in the heat are very much like the old saw of the frog in a pot that is brought to a slow boil (lethal, but one in which the frog is a willing participant).  However, the idea of running in the footsteps of John Wesley Powell and Clarence Dutton, giants in American Geology, was enough to blind me to the dangers of hyperthermia and hypohydration.

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Paria Canyon is just south of Hiway 89 traveling between Page, Arizona and Kanab, Utah. Around Paria Canyon are a number of incised channels cut through the red colored Navajo Sandstone. This sandstone was deposited on land – and the fabric in the rock was formed as crossbedding is wind blown dunes. This particular wash is one of the most famous “picture” sites that no one knows how to get to on the Colorado Plateau. The erosion across the fabric gives the appearance of waves, and this is called “The Wave”. I visited this wonderful place on my journey to the start line of the Bryce 100.

For me, a trail run is more about adventure than about being in a “race”.  Seeing new places from a vantage point I have not had before, challenges, and thinking about nature are the joy of the trail.  Although I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I have spent far less time in the high desert than in the rougher mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. But I have an affinity for the Colorado Plateau also – the modern portrait of the geology of North America was laid out here by Powell and Dutton, who were inspired by the carved rock towers of Monument Valley and the vastness of the Grand Canyon.  The Bryce 100 was a trail run and a field trip!

Geologic Giants

The 19th Century was the most remarkable period of scientific discovery in history. In fact, the “profession” of science and the term scientist was first coined in 1833. This was a time of intellectual enlightenment, and the concept that laws governed every aspect of nature and life changed  human thought. Gauss, Laplace, Legrande, and Fourier invented modern mathematics; Dmitri Mendeleev invented the periodic table of elements; Lord Kelvin (Scotsman William Thomson) invented the temperature scale and formulated the second law of thermodynamics; Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology in 1830 and established the concept of uniformitarianism; Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and established the theory of evolution.

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Clarence Dutton – geophysical poet, and namer of of the attractions and vistas in the Grand Canyon

Against the heady backdrop of new theories for life and forces governing nature, the empty “space” beyond the 100th meridian drew the interest of the nation.  As the civil war ended, there was pressure to civilize and cultivate the west, but little was actually known about the region.  The U.S. government decided to fund four major mapping expeditions to western half of the country — these were lead by Clarence King, George Montague Wheeler, Ferdinand Hayden, and John Wesley Powell. All these men left their signature on geology, but it was Powell that was truly a visionary.  Powell lead the first successful traverse down the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869, and his follow-on visits to the region lead to the first modern understanding of great arid regions of the southwest.  Powell eventually convinced a  colleague to map the Colorado Plateau in detail – that colleague was Clarence Dutton.  Dutton’s accomplishments are extraordinary, but his prodigious legacy is often overlooked.

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Cover page of Dutton’s classic work on the geology of the “missing” portion of the geologic map of the USA

Clarence Dutton is a hero of mine. He had remarkable insight into “how the Earth works”, and published works on geology, volcanology, and the geology of earthquakes. In 1889 he coined the phrase “isostasy” and proposed why mountains are high and valleys have low elevation. Along with this keen scientific insight came the soul of a poet. Dutton’s words paint vivid images, and he is compared to John Muir in capturing the heartbeat of a landscape. Dutton wrote the classic paper in 1880, and it remains a masterpiece.

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The Grand Staircase – climbing out of the Grand Canyon. The 500 million years of geologic history in the rocks preserves the entire evolutionary record of life on Earth. Figure from the Utah Geologic Survey (click on figure to enlarge).

When Dutton was doing the fieldwork for the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah, he noted that the layered cake geology of the region created a series of steep cliffs and flat terraces that looked like a “great stairway” climbing north from the Grand Canyon. This description eventually morphed into the “Grand Staircase”, the name the region is known as now. The geologic cross section above shows the series of cliffs – there are 6 prominent cliffs as you travel the 150 miles north from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The final stair is the Pink Cliffs which is topped by the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The Bryce 100 is run on and around the Paunsaugunt Plateau – and the top of Dutton’s Grand Staircase!

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A small section fromDutton’s map “Geological map of the district of the high plateaus of Utah” centered on the area of the Bryce 100.

In Dutton’s 1880 work he published wonderful color maps to illustrate the geology.  The map above is a section from Dutton that is centered on Paunsaugunt Plateau and the trail for the Bryce 100.  The course travels along the western edge of the plateau, then climbs up and over the plateau to finally descends to the finish along the drainage of the East Fork Sevier River. The yellow color on the map represents the Claron Formation, which geologically is a series of lake and river deposits – sands, gravels, and cobbles along with a few limestones. The lake environment was rich in iron, and the pink color of many of the rocks is due to iron oxide staining. The rocks of the Claron are easily eroded, and the climate of the high plateau means that frost wedging plays a roll in breaking apart the strata. It is this frost wedging that produces the famous hoodoos (or rock towers) that populate the Bryce region.

Dutton wrote of the very region that the trail run traverses – the course is truly in the foot steps of a geologic giant.  One last comment on Dutton (and another reason he is one of my heroes). He was an early hire into the brand new US Geologic Survey in 1875. After his outstanding work on the Colorado Plateau he worked on earthquakes and volcanoes and was promoted to the chief of the volocanology unit at the USGS.  He eventually became disillusioned with the growing agency and wrote: “Our Survey is now at its zenith & I prophesy its decline. The ‘organization’ is rapidly ‘ per fecting’, i.e., more clerks, more rules, more red tape, less freedom of movement, less discretion on the part of the geologists & less outturn of scientific product. This is inevitable. It is the law of nature & can no more be stopped than the growth & decadence of the human body.” Not only do I get to share the Pink Cliffs with Dutton, but also his views on the crush of bureaucracy.

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The full moon setting over the start of the race. The course heads for the moon, and then wanders around the Paunsaugunt Plateau

The Race

The Bryce 100 — which is actually a 100 and 50 miler along with a 50k — is staged out of Bryce Canyon City. “City” is a misnomer – the town sites at the edge of the national park entrance, and is a collection of hotels and various adventure companies.  I chose to stay at the main hotel, Ruby’s Inn, a sprawling complex of buildings typical of concessionaire hotels in western US parks.  My room is in a remote building, and everyone in the building seems to be here for the race.  As I make my way to my room I pass countless rooms with their doors open – and there are stacks of water bottles, jugs of protein powder, and all sorts of stuff that ultra runners accumulate.  There is a major benefit to having a hotel dedicated to the runners; lights are out at 9:30 pm, and there is nary a sound until 4:30 in the morning!

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The secret to the ultra – stuff. My stuff includes Tailwind formula for my water bottles, stinger gels, Kind candy bars, lots of sun screen, and gloves for the first couple of miles

The runners are bused to the start of the race, about 7 miles from the hotel.  The starting temperature is a brisk 39 degrees, but perfect conditions for running. There are about 135 runners in the 50 km race, mostly 20s and 30s somethings, and most are in running groups.  I am the only person from New Mexico, but as with most trail runs, everyone is very friendly and chatty.  I find 3 different geologists running the race!  Clearly, the attraction to interesting geology is a big deal for this race.  The course takes off to the west and climbs from 7600 feet elevation to about 8300 feet elevation over the first 6 miles.  The first six miles is a roller coaster – run up 50-200 feet and then descend the same distance as the course crosses dozens of small drainages.

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The Bryce Canyon Route for the 50 km — actually 32.6 km, and 5400 feet elevation gain. The course travels to west side of P Plateau, and climbs up and over into a drainage

The first two miles are on a forest service road – not too interesting for running.  However, after two miles the course follows a wonderful single track.  The track is very smooth, a consequence of the erosion of the base rock – the Claron Formation.  The Claron is about 200 m thick on the Paunsaugunt Plateau, and is composed of soft, red colored siltstones and white colored limestones that are rich in sands. These sedimentary rocks were deposited in an ancient lake that was formed due to the rise of the Rocky Mountains some 70 million years before the present. The rise resulted in a basin to the west of Rockies, and Lake Claron filled this basin – at is maximum size it was similar in area to Lake Michigan. The rocks are rich in iron and manganese oxides, which give the distinctive color. Around 30 million years before the present the Colorado Plateau began a period of uplift, and Claron Lake disappeared, and the former lake bottom rocks became exposed and formed the Pink Cliffs.

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Running among the HooDoos in the Claron Formation

Between miles 6 and 7 the trail wanders among some wonderful hoodoos.  In fact, the rocks are so interesting I am having trouble not stopping a shaping photos every couple of hundred yards!  The hoodoos form because the Clarion is relatively soft, but has thin strata that are more resistant to erosion.  Frost wedging plays a fairly unique roll in the hoodoo formation – cracks are filled with moisture, and when it freezes it parts the harder, more resistant limestones leaving small “caps” that eventually sit atop columns and chimneys.

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Graphical explanation for the formation of Hoodoos along the Pink Cliffs. The rocks of the Claron Formation are quite soft and easily eroded – but what is unique here is the roll of frost wedging breaking apart the rock. The frequent freezing in the region causes soil moisture to freeze and expand which “pries” apart blocks of rock. Repeating this process isolates pillars, or the Hoodoos (Figure from National Park Travel)

The first 10 miles are pretty fast.  I roll into the first aid station at exactly 2 hours (the station is 10.4 miles from the start).  I feel fantastic, although it is getting warm – at least to me.  It is 8 miles to the next aid station, and I have a plan to be there a little before the 4 hour mark.  All my life I have loved maps.  I am an expert at reading maps – but I fail miserably on this next section of the course.  I used the course map posted on the website for the race, which shows the elevation at a very corse scale.  I estimated that there would be modest climbing and descending over the 8 miles, but in fact this section of the trail is quite difficult.  There is much more climbing and very slippery descending than I expect.  The first thing I did when I got back to the hotel room was to download the USGS quadrangle for the region – WHAT!  At the higher resolution it is obvious that this section is tough.  I am embarrassed that I let scale screw me…

After the second aid station the climbing really begins.  It is a lot more walking than running for me.  I actually pass lots of people on the ascent of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.  But the course becomes truly diabolical at mile 23.  The elevation has dropped to 7700 feet, and over the next 2 miles the dusty and sandy trail climbs 1400 feet.  Although most of the course up to this point has had liberal tree cover, the Pink Cliffs show no mercy or vegetation. I swear it is 100 degrees, but alas, when I check the weather record at the Bryce Canyon airport station, I find it was actually 65 degrees.

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Looking north on the long climb up the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The Pink Cliffs are beautiful, and steep.

The views are breath taking, but I am toast at the final aid station, mile 25.  I refill both my water bottles with Gator aid, but it is a bit too late.  The trail after the aid station joins a hard packed BLM road.  It is not particularly pleasant running, but the home stretch is afoot.  The first couple of miles of the road actually continue the climb, and finally at mile 26.5 top out at 9200 feet elevation (by my watch).  Then it is downhill!  However, I just kind of amble down the road, and all those folks that passed going up the hill scream past me.  I got road rash from several that passed me at a high rate of speed!  I do meet several interesting people on the descent, and have conversations;  I meet a young man from Monument Valley that has never run further than 13.1 miles before today.  He is celebrating 6 months of sobriety, and was recently baptized – a joy to talk to.  I meet a couple of people from Phoenix that have only been trail running for the last year.  They are very fast until mile 29, and then absolutely die.  The final part of the course is another uphill for a mile, and it is really tough.

It took me just under 8 and a half hours to finish the 32.6 miles (I love that trail runs are ALWAYS longer than the standard amount).  Waiting for the bus back the Bryce Canyon City I talk to the other runners – as always, at the end, everyone is happy.  The relief of finishing, and the any pain fades pretty fast.  My joy was getting to wander through some unique and interesting geology.  I think I will do this again.

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Tower Bridge, Bryce Canyon.

The Jemez Mountain Trail Run 2014: Dragon Weather

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow, You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, downed the cocks. William Shakespeare

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Near the pipeline aid station on the JMTR after the storm on May 24. Photo is from Ed Santiago who posted this on the JMTR Facebook page.

The 2014 edition of the Jemez Mountain Trail Run occurred on May 24 when the average high temperature in Los Alamos is 70 degrees and the low is 45 degrees. It rarely rains this late in May, and the expected weather for this date is “perfect”. The JMTR is a tough race in the most perfect conditions – lots of elevation gain, and the race organizers always want the runners to get their monies worth so they have “long” courses; the 50k this year was just a tiny bit less than 33 miles instead of 31.07 miles. However, a strong weather system driven by a deep southern excursion of the jet stream drove a series of rain/snow storms across Northern New Mexico on Friday and Saturday (May 23 and 24), causing “imperfect” weather for the JMTR.

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Jet Stream Dip, and the weather conditions for the southwest — perfect storm!

The first wave of the storm swept through Los Alamos Thursday night and continued into Friday afternoon and evening.  It dropped a about 2/3 of an inch of rain — much to the delight of the town residents that cringe at the thought of a hot, dry summer and the possibility of wildfires.  Early in the morning of race day the weather looked exceptional – mostly sunny, cool, and the rain had removed the choking dust from the trail!  There was a chance for rain in the afternoon, but that held the promise for a “cooling sprinkle” for the later stages of the 50 km and 50 mile rambles.

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A few minutes before the start of the 50 km race at 6 am. It was cool at the Posse Shack, but the promise was for a great day! Colleagues Dave Zerkle and Eric Martens.

The 50 km race

The JMTR in 2013 was hot — the temperatures in town got to a bit above 80 degrees by 2 pm, and the humidity was less than 10 percent.  Those are tough race conditions, and I lost 7 pound during the race (which is inexcusable!) due to dehydration.  So, needless to say, I was excited about the possibility of a super race with the cool temperatures this year.  I had not trained as much as I would have liked due to extensive travel for work, but I felt good.  The course for the 50 km was different this year.  The Pajarito Canyon trail was a casualty of the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that roared across the east Jemez and Los Alamos in 2000. The fire ended up burning 48,000 acres (and 400 homes in Los Alamos), and changed the landscape of the Jemez.  Late in the fall of the 2013 the Pajarito Trail was rebuilt and provided a new pathway to climb Pajarito Mountain without trudging directly up the ski hill.

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Route of the 2014 JMTR 50 km (from my Garmin, 32.97 miles, 6812 feet elevation gain). In the lower left hand side of the map is the new trail segment ascending the headwaters of Pajarito Canyon.

The race started uneventful, but delightful.  The race heads east out North Mesa before dipping in Bayo Canyon.  Typically this trail is thick with dust, but the previous days’ rains had congealed the dust into a runner’s carpet.  No clouds of dirt in the air, the first 10 miles were a runners dream.

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Mile 2 – wow this is fun!

Beyond the mile 10 mark and the second aid station is the climb up Pajarito Mountain.  This is 3000 feet of climbing over 7 miles.  The new segment up Pajarito Canyon is beautiful, and easier than the ski hill….but it is very long.  I chatted with many people on this section of the course, and they were wondering if the steady climb would ever end.  Once you top out at Pajarito Mountain (10,440 feet) there is a 1000 foot descent over one mile to the Pajarito Ski Hill complex and the third aid station.  I am also amazed with how slow the descent is for me – after the long climb my legs are not designed to run downhill.  I arrive about 11 am, and the sun is shining – and I feel great!

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Coming into the ski hill aid station. At 11 am it is a perfect day! 18.6 miles done, and mostly downhill to the end.

However, there are dark skies to west, and it is clear that some sort of storm is brewing.  The skies are far more ominous than I would have expected from the weather forecast.  I don’t really have any concerns for me finishing, but I fear for the 50 milers that will likely be caught in storm on their second ascent of Pajarito Mountain.  It looks like thunderstorms to me — and no one wants to be above tree line with lightning.  About 100 people die annually from lightning strikes (although most are golfers not runners…), and isolated high elevation ridges are much more likely to attract lightning than forested valleys.  I did not really imagine that it could snow, but in hindsight the conditions were perfect for that.  As I headed out towards aid station 4 at pipeline road the wind began to really pick up, and it was clear that some rain was on the way.

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The actual weather conditions for a station near my house in Los Alamos. You can see that the temperature began to plummet after noon, and the wind began to pick up. The top red line is the temperature, and it dropped from 62 degrees to 46 degrees over 3 hours. The yellow bars in the second panel show the wind speed, and the bottom panel is precipitation (aqua) and precipitation rate.

The temperature on Pajarito mountain is usually about 10 degrees cooler than in Los Alamos, due to the difference in elevation.  With a storm that has strong winds the temperature differential came be as high as 25 degrees.  As I pulled out of aid station 4 there was some rain in the air – not much, but enough to know that the storm was serious.  More importantly, the wind began to gust strongly.  At the Los Alamos weather station there were gusts that topped out just about 30 miles per hour.  It was much cooler descending the mountain down Guaje Ridge, although I attributed much of that to not working as hard as I was when I was climbing Pajarito Mountain. When you arrive at aid station 5 you are only 7 miles from the finish line.  The aid station is at an elevation of 8800 feet, and that 7 miles means a drop of 1600 feet – a runner’s delight.  However, it began to rain much harder on the descent, and I noticed that the front of my legs were bright red.  There were not many people on the trail that I could see, although I was passed by a couple runners doing the 50 miler – and they were moving!  The three people I did catch all were suffering from the weather.  I stopped and talked to one fellow that was beginning to shiver.  I was worried that he might not make it, but finally after a slow trot together I decided that he could probably get to the 6th aid station unassisted.

Around mile 30 (not yet quite at the last aid station – station 6, where they always have pie!) I was having a little trouble running, or more correctly, stumbling.  I attributed this to fatigue, but in hindsight it was the onset of mild hypothermia.  My hands were cold, but there was only a couple of miles to go.  The excitement (or, more accurately, the relief) of finishing carried me on.  Climbing up out of Bayo Canyon back to the finish line I was soaked to the core and cold – and I noticed that all the volunteers at the finish were bundled up in nice warm rain jackets.  I stumbled across the finish line, and thought I felt fine.

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The finish line. Cold, but I thought I was doing great!

Once inside the Posse Shack I changed out of my wet shirt into a dry shirt and coat that my wife had brought me.  I felt good, although I began to shiver.  Within 10 minutes I was shivering uncontrollably, and had some trouble controlling my hands.  At that point I realized that I had moderate hypothermia.  Hypothermia occurs when the core body temperature drops below 98.6 degrees and normal bodily functions are interrupted.  Mild hypothermia is basically shivering and what is called vasoconstriction – when blood flow is interrupted, so your finger tips turn blue and your exposed legs turn red. This interruption of blood flow causes a loss of muscle coordination, and slurred words and stumbling may happen. Recovery from mild hypothermia is not too difficult, as long as you are not exposed to the elements. Several warm cups of hot chocolate and a blanket from the EMT got me back into sorts. It seems strange that hypothermia is such a danger for runners – we are working hard, so we are producing heat.  However, it is the loss of that heat with wet conditions that lowers the CORE temperature and leads to the danger.

All in all, I enjoyed the JMTR 2014 — but I was lucky.  Many of my colleagues got stuck on the mountain as the rain began to change to snow, and the temperatures dropped to freezing.  The race director eventually stopped the race, and pulled runners off the mountain.  It had to be done.  It is a mystery of nature that weather is highly changeable, and that humans can only operate efficiently within a narrow range of conditions.  Trail running is more than distance – it is a battle with nature, the mountain, and the weather.

Conventional Wisdom and Scientific Fact: The dilemma for a trail runner

It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom. John Kenneth Galbraith, Economist, 1958.

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Stephen Lee ( Dark Glass Photography) photograph of a late April 2014 snow dusting of Pajarito Mountain. The 2014 Jemez Trail Run 50 km and 50 mile runs will climb Pajarito Mountain and top out at its 10,440 foot elevation. The Jemez Trail Run is one of the reasons I “got into” trail running.

Conventional wisdom is an ancient high idol – it has been used to guide and misguide people from the beginning of time.  Conventional wisdom is sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but nevertheless shapes core values and beliefs. The power of conventional wisdom is that it sounds right and thus quashes skepticism – even among scientists.  It is surprising how often conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong, or at least miss-applied.  In my case, conventional wisdom gospel collided with a passion to run on mountain trails.

Nowhere is conventional wisdom more often evoked than with all things to do with health.  This is mostly because the human system is so complex that there is a natural desire to deconstruct it into smaller, simpler, components. Often the conventional wisdom is based on some scientific evidence; however, medicine has a long history of poorly understood experiments.  Dr. John Ioannidis, one of the world’s leading medical statisticians states that up to 90% of medical studies that are published in leading research journals are flawed – mostly because variables are not controlled or hypothesis tested were biased to desired outcome. In other words, a prescription based on a “medial study” was actually likely to be wrong……  Although this is harsh, it is not really a criticism of your local physician who is only repeating the oft-cited medical journal results.  It is stunning how often medical journals publish papers which have totally opposite conclusions.  My personal favorite are studies on whether coffee is good or bad for you – a simple google scholar search yields results for hundreds of studies – and the score?  Coffee might be good or might be bad for you.  It is good for me, I can assure you..

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Coffee is a wonder drug as far as I can tell. It certainly has made my life better…..Graphic from the Wall Street Journal

I had my left hip replaced in 1998 at the tender age of 42.  It was a life-changing event for me.  It relieved me of great pain, but it also came with the stern instruction that I could not participate in any high impact sports again.  In 2009 I had my right knee replaced.  Again, the pain it relieved was a godsend, but I was told that my “bionic” state was subject to wear, and it was only a matter of time before I would have to have the metal joints redone.  The only way to delay the return to the surgeon’s table was to minimize impact – no running, jumping, skiing, parachuting, etc.  I totally bought into this physician direction – it certainly made sense!

However, life was not that simple for me.  I could ride a bike and I could swim; but that is not what I wanted in my life.  I loved being in the mountains, on a trail, climbing a peak.  I discovered trail running, and found a special joy.  I started slowly (well, I am still a very slow runner, and will always be), but besides the spiritual peace I found with trail running I began to feel physically better than I had in decades.  Back pain disappeared, my non-replaced knee stopped aching, and I felt like a “million bucks”. At some level this made no sense, but I began to wonder if the knee replacement and the fitness from running had corrected a long present biomechanical problem.  Trail running in New Mexico is far different than road running — the trails are rough so there is no rhythmic pounding.  There is lots of “stepping” in climbs and descents.  I was pressed by many who care about me to stop the nonsense of trail running or risk the wrath of prosthesis fatigue.  I decided to really investigate the facts behind the prohibition of running with artificial joints, and was extremely surprised to find that conventional wisdom was based on flimsy evidence.

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Running in the Jemez Mountains after an early fall snow. The peace and joy of nature is an immeasurable factor in quality of life.

The Path to Replacement

I have always enjoyed sports – almost every sport I tried.  I am not athletic, but I am dedicated.  I enjoyed running, cycling, football, etc., but after high school my passion was basketball.  I am short and slow, but if you play enough you will have seen everything and experience is a nice equalizer.  For 25 years I played basketball at least 4 times a week – and played hard.  Conventional wisdom says that if you play basketball regularly then you will be injured regularly….a stray elbow, a turned ankle, a jammed finger.  I believe that in this case conventional wisdom is a universal truth. Along the way I had several knee surgeries to remove torn cartilage, and my knees began to really get sore.  But not sore enough that I wanted to give up playing.  In 1989 I was given a prescription for indometacin (a non-steroid anti-inflammatory), and the daily doses meant that I could run up and down the court.  In 1996 I began to get numbness in my left foot, and finally went into a doctor to find out what was wrong.  After a number of diagnoses, mostly wrong, my hip was x-rayed.  In the words of radiographer “I had the hip of an 80 year old arthritic man – heavily scored and damaged”.  Only way to stop the pain was to get a total hip replacement.  My response was emotional, but the real issue for me was “why?”.  The answer always came back the same – sports damaged your joint.  I accepted this conventional wisdom, but today I believe it is far more complicated that just “sports”.

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My hip xray 11 years after replacement. The two common modes of failure are wear of the ball joint, and separation of the stem from the femur. Neither mode is present in the slightest after a decade.

Recovery from hip surgery was not actually that difficult.  I was riding a bike within 10 days, and I could not believe how much better I felt.  Mostly, I remember that I could finally sleep through the night!  My knees still hurt and I was limited in my hiking.  I never played basketball again (but had to avoid going any where near the Bear Down Gymnasium at the University of Arizona for fear that I would be sucked into a pick up game).  Over the next ten years my knees slowly got worse.  My kneecaps seemed to grow (they are/were huge), and finally in 2009 I followed the advice and had my worst knee (the right side) replaced.  Getting a knee replaced is much, much more difficult than a hip.  It took a long time to recover and be pain free.  Along the way, both my parents died, Los Alamos was evacuated due to the largest wild fire in New Mexico history, and my job seemed to consume me.  I gained weight, and physically began to feel old.  I decided to start climbing the hills around Los Alamos – slowly at first, but pretty soon I was trotting.  I lost the weight, but much more surprising, I the aches and pains I attributed to age began to ease.  By the winter of 2012 I was feeling physically strong, and able to do 20 to 25 mile trail runs with no ill effects except exhaustion.

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Xray of my right knee shortly after surgery. The “picket fence” on the right side of the image are the staples to close the incision. The replacement includes implants both on the femur and the tibia bones. The knee cap is also reshaped and spurs and growths were removed.

Biomechanics and Stress Loads on Hips and Knees

Artificial hips and knees are relatively common place in the United States; earlier this year the total number of prosthetics was estimated to top 7 million with a ratio of 2 knee replacements for every hip (in fairness, most of the knee replacements are “partials” vs total). The owners of these replacements are skewed towards those over age 60, although the demographics is shifting to younger ages rapidly.  It is very difficult to get good statistics on the failure rates of the prosthetics; there are different kinds, and all have peculiarities.  On average, about 2 percent of artificial hips fail or need to be replaced after 5 years, and about 6 percent after 15 years (so more failures early).  For knees, the 15-year failure rate is slightly lower, about 5%.  The statistics for these failures are robust.  However, there is a paucity of large scale, longitudinal studies examining the cause of failure.  Most reports are largely anecdotal, and the overwhelming correlation is with obesity and inactivity, which would seem to be counter to conventional wisdom.

There are two oft-cited studies that made an attempt to examine prosthetic failure to physical activity.  The first  is a 2010 study presented at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons that looked at knees.  The sample size was small – 218 patients – but it found that those that ran after surgery were 20 percent  less likely to have mechanical failure. The second study was done at the  Sainte-Marguerite Hospital in Marseille, France and had a similarly small sample size: 210 patients, with 70 “active” in high impact sports and 140 that were not and focused on hip replacements.  The metric was “survivability” of the hips 15 years after replacement.  80% of the active sports participants had high performing hips, while 94% of the low activity participants had high performing hips.  This would suggest that high impact sports had a negative impact on the prosthetic – the opposite of the 2010 study.  So, who is right?  Is there a difference between hips and knees?  Is there a difference between French and Americans?  I have read both studies, and a number of analysis of these studies, and am struck by the very poor quality in control of the complex variables.  Different types of artificial hips (metal-on-metal, coated metal, etc) were mixed, there was no quantification of level of activity other than self reporting, and there was no details of the type of failures.  At best, it would seem to indicate that there is NO EVIDENCE that running is worse than walking for the survivability of hips and knees!

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The simple gaits of running vs walking. When running force or stress increases and decreases throughout the gait and involves a transfer from the foot/ankle to the knee to the hip.

If the studies are ambiguous about whether running causes prosthetics to fail, where does the conventional wisdom come from?  The best explanation is in biomechanics – the human engineering of running.  The gold standard for biomechanics is a 1997 review paper by Tom Novacheck, The biomechanics of running (a pdf can be found here: http://www.elitetrack.com/article_files/biomechanicsofrunning.pdf). Stress is generated and transferred to the body in several ways. With the first strike (FS in the figure above) the full weight of the body comes into contact with the ground – impact stress – and is transferred up through the ankle to the knee and into the hip. The running gait then pushes the body off the ground (Toe Off, of TO in the figure), which generates a similar set of stresses.  The stresses on the joints are a combination of the weight of the runner and the contraction of the muscles.

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Force on impact during a running gait. There are two keys: body weight and length of time in contact with the ground.

Experimental studies have quantified the forces on a runner as the foot strikes and then leaves the ground – the figure above is a classic “average runner”.  The first little peak is due to the shock of striking the ground and then some of shock is absorbed in the padding of the running shoe.  The y axis is the nominal force which is scaled to the body weight;  it pays to be a light weight when running!

There has been much work done to see how this force load is accommodated within the body, and the classic “average human” works the hip, knee and ankle — and does this differently for walking, running and sprinting.  This figure is shown below.  The difference between walking and running is dominated by the engagement of the knee – in the graphic the overall stress is indicated by the size of the pie chart. In simple terms, more stress when running, and that stress is really experienced in the knees.

The partition of energy (stress x time) between leg joints for walking, running and sprinting.

The partition of energy (stress x time) between leg joints for walking, running and sprinting.

It is this figure more than anything else that drives the conventional wisdom that running wears out prosthetics.  Running generates more stress than walking, and this leads to the conclusion that higher stress results in more wear. But why?  That is not true in bone – in fact, for bones increased stress promotes growth and stronger joints.  Although metal, ceramics and plastic can’t “grow”, aren’t they engineered to withstand the modest stresses of a 155 pound man running at the leisurely pace of 6 miles an hour?

The question of running and artificial joint wear is murky, and there is no strong evidence that modest running leads to more wear.  I am confident that my trail running is not accelerating my demise.  On the other hand, I am equally confident that eventually my knee and hip will eventually deteriorate – maybe when I am 65, maybe when I am 70, but it will happen.  However, the quality of life trumps the possibility of extending the prosthetics a few years.  I feel I can answer the question I get all the time — aren’t you concerned that you are ruining your artificial joints by running on the trail?  The answer is “not really”.  I believe that my original joint arthritis was not caused by “sports” but by a biomechanical misalignment within my body.  Surgery corrected that (probably unintentionally) — it is a gift.  I celebrate that gift every trail run.  The surgeries did effect me in other ways – cut nerves, changed muscles, and made me weaker.  I will never be a fast runner, but that is just fine.  Conventional wisdom says a “happy man is a healthy man”.

Mark Twain was one of the most keen observers of the human condition.  He said: “When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself.”

Running along the beach – A 300 million year old beach: the Cedro Peak 45 km trail run

Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time. Comments by Red in The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

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A Google Earth view looking north along the crest of the Manzano and Sandia Mountains, just to the east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Sandia and Manzano mountains are a 75 km long north-south, and are the uplifted shoulder of the Rio Grande Rift. The Sandia and Manzano mountains are separated by the Tijeras Canyon which provides the passage for interstate 25. The Cedro Ultra is a race along the flank of the Manzanos and climbs to the top of a limestone hill, Cedro Peak.

One of the most iconic landscapes for New Mexico is the Sandia and Manzano Mountains towering to the east of the Rio Grande Valley in Albuquerque, our state’s largest city.  The elevation of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque is a little more than 4900 feet, and the high point of the Sandias is 10,678 feet.  This elevation prominence is expressed in dramatic fashion due to the steep westward facing scarp of the Sandia-Manzano mountains – which is actually the bounding fault that uplifted the mountains beginning some 10 million years ago.  The view looking from the city to the moutains in the east is one that looks like a layered cake.  The core of the range is Precambrian granite that is 1.5 billion years old, overlain by a light colored, flat lying limestones that are 300 million years old.

sandiamountains

The Sandia Mountains as dusk – the pale red color of the 1.5 billion year old granite is source of the mountains namesake, the spanish word for watermelon. The top hundred meters is the light colored, 300 million year old limestone. The gap in ages between the rocks, 1.2 billion years, is called the Great Unconformity

The backside of the Sandia-Manzano mountains have a relatively gently dipping topography with rolling hills.  When I was planning my training for the 2014 Jemez Trail Run I wanted a long “tune up race”, and the Cedro Peak 45 km run looked like a perfect opportunity.  Cedro Peak is just south of Tijeras Canyon, a narrow valley that separates the Sandia and Manzano mountains.  I did not know much about the Cedro Peak run except that it was in a place I liked, and reports are that it was “faster” than the Jemez Trail Runs.  I have long ago given up on the idea that I would ever be a fast trail runner.  I simply don’t have the athletic ability to run miles and miles of sub 9-minute miles on rocky and uneven trails, and age is beginning to really fossilize my body.  However, I really love being out on trails, and find great happiness climbing and descending hills and smelling the desert foliage.  The last time I had been to area around Cedro Peak was as an undergraduate student in the mid-1970s on a Historical Geology field trip.  We collected trilobites within a mile or two of the race course – in fact I suspected that I would be tripping over ancient marine life in the 45 km of running!

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The geography of what will become North America 300 million years ago. There is a large continental mass to the east of the ancient New Mexico, and a shallow sea along with a few islands covered New Mexico. The Sandia and Manzano mountains were part of this shallow sea, and this Pennsylvanian Ocean (Pennsylvanian refers to a geologic era) was teaming with primitive life.

The Geology of Cedro Peak

Perhaps because I run with my head down and move pretty slowly, I am always dissecting the geology of a trail run.  The Cedro Peak ultra is no different;  most of the rocks that are along the 45 km of trail are ancient limestones and tell the story of a shallow, warm sea that existed for a 100 million years surrounding a system of equatorial islands.  The figure above provides a guess at what the region that will becomes the western US looked like about 300 million years ago during the geologic epoch known as the Carboniferous  (360 to 300 mya).  On a little finer resolution, rocks that pave the Cedro run are from what geologist call the Pennsylvanian period.

In the figure you can see the light outlines of the New Mexico – very near Albuquerque was the western shore of a large island.  This island had been above sea level for more than 1.2 billion years, slowly eroding away.  Also on the map is a projection of the equator during this time, and Albuquerque was the equivalent to the modern day Galapagos Islands – spot on the 0o latitude.  Life, both plant and animal, was very different 300 million years ago.  Amphibians were the main land creatures, and they did not venture far from the ocean.

The ocean surrounding the island was not unlike the Florida Keys today. The waters were rich with life that utilized photosynthesis for growth, which, in turn, took carbon  out of the atmosphere and produced carbonate (CO3) for their skeletons and shells.  When these organisms died their remains accumulated in giant graveyards and slowly compressed and made limestone.  To paraphrase from the The Shawshank Redemption, time and pressure turned the graveyard into a distinctive rock that will last more than a quarter of a billion years.  The  limestones in the Manzano mountains are known by several names, but the most generic and common is the “Madera Limestone”.  Most of the rock beneath the racers feet in the Cedro Peak ultra is Madera limestone, and if one looks closely at any cobble it can be seen that it is filled with fossils, the skeletal remains of creatures that lived 300 million years ago.

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Brachiopod from the Madera Limestone (collected in the Jemez Mountains, late 1960s). This is the hard shell on the “head” of a marine worm.

I collected many fossils from the Madera Limestone – although not the Sandia-Manzano Mountains, but instead a small outcrop in San Diego Canyon, north of Jemez Springs in the Jemez mountains.  The fossils in the Jemez are identical to those in the Manzanos with one notable exception – trilobites.  There are more than 90 taxa of fossils in the Madera;  most of these are brachiopods and gastropods.  The picture above is a Jemez brachiopod I collected in the late 1960s.  It looks like a modern mollusk, but it is not!  There are actually brachiopods alive today (very rare), and they are  marine worms.  In the Pennsylvanian times brachiopods dominated the shallow marine environment.

The first person to systematically collect and describe the fossils from the Madera Limestone was Jules Marcou, an extraordinary French geologist and paleotologist.  In 1853 Marcou published a map, Geological Map of the United States, and the British Provinces of North America, followed up by a book entitled Geology of North America.  These works were panned by the giants in American Geology at the time – including Dana, the father of American mineralogy, but Marcou did get much of the relative dating of geologic beds correct, including the Madera Limestone.

trilobites

Trilobites from Cedro Canyon, not far from the path of the Cedro Peak Ultra. Trilobites walked on the ocean bottom and swam short distances; they regularly molted their hard shells, which accounts for the clusters of fossils within small areas.

I first visited the region around Cedro Peak as an undergraduate student in the mid-1970s on a historical geology field trip. The reason for the trip was to visit Madera Limestone, and we ventured up Cedro Canyon, located just south and west of the peak. About 2 miles from the peak is one of the most famous New Mexico fossil localities – the Cedro Canyon Trilobite beds.  Trilobites are one of the most successful life forms ever, and even though they became extinct before the first dinosaur walked the Earth they had flourished for 270 million years!  Many evolutionary biologists consider them the foundation of all complex land based life forms today.  Trilobites are the earliest arthropods, and are a hard shelled creature with many body segments and a large number of jointed legs – they sort of look like a cross between cockroaches and centipedes.  Trilobites are relatively uncommon Pennsylvanian rocks, but this single locality in Cedro Canyon has produced hundreds of fossils.  The picture above is a well-fossilized group in the University of New Mexico collection. I was thinking of visited the locality after the race on April 12, but I was toast after the run – and I used the excuse that since my visit 38 years ago many fossil collectors have picked through the outcrop, and  I would have came up empty handed!

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Standing at the start line about 23 minutes before 7 am, April 12. The weather is near perfect, and the race was afoot!

The Run

One of the joys of running an ultra trail run is that each is different, the runners and race volunteers are mellow, and there is always something funky.  The Cedro Ultra is put on by the Albuquerque Road Runners, and has two options – a 45 km out-and-back, and a 45 miler.  It is a relatively small (or more correctly, intimate) race, with about 80 people in the 45 km, and 60 in the longer course.  Packet pickup is at an older hotel in Albuquerque near the intersection of I-25 and I-40 (which is known as the “Big-I”).  I arrived on Friday about 5 pm to pick up my packet, and was a little surprised (and probably a little intimidated) to find the parking lot filled with motorcycles and black leather.  The hotel was also hosting a get together for a veterans biker group.  At the entrance to the hotel lobby is a large stone tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments — as I said, all trail runs have their version of funk.

prerace

Entrance to Hotel Elegante MCM — Lots of motorcycles and the Ten Commandments!

Check-in was uneventful – everyone is helpful, and the runners checking in are, as always, filled with optimism about the next day’s run.  I inquired if there was a special category for runner with at least two prosthetics, and as usual, my question was met with blank stares.  It is obvious that I will never actually place in a race based on age group, so I am looking for a way to win some hardware based on my artificial joints.  Alas, I am not going be in the running for any recognition at the Cedro Peak ultra.

The 45 km race is slated to start at the Oak Flat campground south of Tijeras at 7am.  It is about a 25 minute drive from downtown Albuquerque to the campground, so we (my wife drove me down) arrived about 6:30.  The weather is perfect – temperature was 46 degrees, there was light cloud cover, and a gentle breeze.  The starting line is situated at about 7700 feet elevation, and in a nice groove of Ponderosa Pines and Gamble’s Oaks.  Ponderosa Pine have a range of about 7000 to 8500 feet elevation in New Mexico, and the starting point reminds me much of my home in Los Alamos. The volunteers for the race are friendly and helpful, and I know a few of the runners gathering for the race.  The start at 7 o’clock is low key, and about 80 runners quickly funnel onto a nice single track trail.

firsthalf

GPS track from my garmin for the first (and last) 5 miles of the Cedro Peak course. The trail descends some 350 over the first 1.5 miles making for a fast start. The first aid station is at the intersection for Juan Tomas road.

Although this may have been a tropical beach 300 million years ago, today it resembles nothing “oceanic”.  The course follows a soft trail for about 2 miles with minimal rocks, and drops in elevation about 350 feet. This makes for a very fast start, and spreads out the pack.  I am able to easily keep my pace at 11 mins/mile for the first 4.5 miles, and am feeling great.  The drop in elevation takes us out of the Ponderosa into Pinyon-Juniper forest.  Pinyon-Juniper is the defining forest cover for the high New Mexico desert (elevations of 6000-7500 feet).  The problem with Pinyon-Juniper forest is that Juniper trees are prolific pollinators, and April is within the period of spewing out a strong allergen.  I am not alone among the runners with a dripping nose by the first aid station located about 4.5 miles from the start.  Junipers are a variety of cedar, and it is this tree name that gives Cedro Peak its name (cedro is spanish for cedar).

seondhalf

The second part of the out-and-back course, from the first aid station, summiting Cedro Peak, and going to a turn around to the west. The course follows a high ridge line before diving down into a canyon.

Beyond the first aid station the course follows a ridge line that ascends to 7800 feet elevation, the high point along the course.  The trail now has much more exposed geology – i.e., rocks and cobbles.  It is all gray limestone, which erodes as sharp and angular fragments that are unforgiving to ankles.  The entire region, from start to finish is criss crossed with many trails.  Fortunately, the race crew has done an outstanding job of flagging the course (and I am quite thankful that in places they over flagged because when I was coming back I was tired and alone, and easily confused at every intersection!). At mile 6 the trail drops off the ridge line for a rapid descent into a canyon.  I am not very good at steep descents, and fear for a bad stumble.  However, my phobia is not shared by many of the younger races who just fly past me hopping from rock to rock.  After the 1.75 mile descent, the course is rolling until aid station 2, located at the base of  Cedro Peak.  I am more or less running with a group of about 10 people into the aid station.  I pass most of the people on the uphill sections, and get passed on the downhill or flats.  The second aid station is located about 11.9 miles from the start, and just as I am coming into the aid station I get passed by the first runners on their way back to the start line (that means they are at mile 16 when I am at mile 12).  I have to admit that the fast runners look much fresher and better than I do even though I am way behind them.

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Elevation Profile along the Cedro Peak Ultra. The course is an out and back, so the climbing is “symmetric”. The killer climb starts after 20 miles – between mile 21 and 21.7 you climb about 600 feet, so the grade is above 15%

At the Cedro Peak aid station I am feeling pretty strong, and fuel up on some of the best home made chocolate chip cookies that I have ever eaten.  The course elevation profile (from my garmin) is shown in the figure above.  The profile is symmetric reflecting the out-and-back course.  The sharp climb from miles 12 to 13 is ascent of Cedro Peak.  This is walking territory for me — not too difficult, but no sense in running up this hill.  The top of the hill is covered with telecommunication equipment, and too my surprise, it is yellow with spring flower blooms.

floweratcedro

Cedro Peak is a prominent point in the area, and is used for communications towers. The top was covered with spring flowers – a splash of yellow in the other wise drab Pinon-Juniper forest.

The climb up Cedro peak brings a relief from the monotony of gray limestone cobbles and blocks.  The top of the peak has an exposure of the Burson formation, which marks the retreat of the ocean from the surrounding island, and the limestone is replaced by rocks deposited on land.   The rocks becomes interbedded black shales and some red sandstones that are detrital (erosional) fragments cemented by authigenic quartz.  The sandstones are a beautiful pink-bed, and sparkle in the mid-morning sun.  The sandstones and shales are a signature of alternating swamps and dry alluvial dunes during a period of time lasting a few million years. Once at the top of Cedro Peak it is a quick descent to a service road and a plod of about a mile to the course turn-around.  I am still pretty much with the same 10 people, although I am definitely beginning to tire.  I reach the turn around (14 miles) at just under 3 hrs, right on the pace I had wanted.

The turn around is mentally challenging — it is nice to be heading towards the finish line, but I can remember the big climbs to come.  First, up Cedro Peak (another walk), down to the aid station (all the chocolate chip cookies are gone!  how can that be?), and then only 12 miles to go.  My group is beginning to stretch, and I am definitely taking up the rear.  The rolling hills are just drudgery but not too difficult.  Then, mile 21 – the “hill”.  I can see three runners in front of me on the start of the steep ascent, but within 5 minutes I see no one!  This is a steep section, and using my garmin I calculate that there are sections of the grade that are approaching 20 percent, and the entire mile (mile 21 to mile 22) averages just under 15%).  I feel okay, but I am going so slow.  It takes me 24 minutes to climb the mile up the hill!  By now I am totally alone, and I am wondering if I made a wrong turn (of course not, the race organizers have done a great job marking the course).

At the top of the ridge I try to speed up, but there seems to be a disconnect between my brain and my legs.  I feel okay, and I am not breathing hard; however, my legs are ignoring the command to start a more rapid turn over.  I begin to wonder if my artificial hip and knee have some kind of computer chip that has been hacked by Russia cyber criminals with a denial of service attack.  This thought is delusional of course, because my hip was replaced when Yeltsin was president, and surely the Russians did not have that capability then….. I simply can’t run any faster than about 16 mins/mile.  However, the slow pace has a benefit — I begin to see and identify fossils in the limestone rocks.  I see lots of crinoids, a couple of brachiopods, and lots of unknown shell fragments.  I don’t stop to pick them up because I fear that I will never be able to start running again, but I plan a future trip here with my grandkids to collect fossils.

At the last aid station I drink a half dozen cups of coke, and eat some potato chips.  There are 12 people manning the aid station, and I am the only runner there.  I think they are waiting for me to move on so they can go home.  The last 4.5 miles is painfully slow but the climb up 350 feet really is not difficult. I am alone until the last 500 yards when I am caught by another runner, but is polite enough not to race past me at the finish line.

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The finish line – back at Oak Flat, some 7 hours later, and running is sloooow motion.

I finish in over 7 hours, meaning it took me more than 4 hours to run the return 14 miles.  I am quite disappointed with my time, but on the other hand I enjoyed the course.  I can’t really say why I transformed into a slug, but hopefully this will help prepare me for the Jemez Trail Run in a month.  There is a wonderful band playing at the finish line, and the hosts have a nice grill.  I can’t eat for at least an hour after running, so the food is not for me — but that is a mute point any way as the reward for an ultra run is going to Maria’s in Santa Fe and feasting on carne adovada.

The Cedro Peak ultra is a nice, well run race. As the Shawshank Redemption quote says — all it takes is pressure and time.  A New Mexico treasure less well known.

Trail Running Time Travel: Three hours in the Cretaceous

Try to imagine yourself in the Cretaceous Period. You get your first look at this “six foot turkey” as you enter a clearing. He moves like a bird, lightly, bobbing his head….Because Velociraptor’s a pack hunter, you see, he uses coordinated attack patterns and he is out in force today. And he slashes at you with this- a six-inch retractable claw, like a razor, on the middle toe…He doesn’t bother to bite your jugular like a lion, oh no… He slashes…you are alive when they start to eat you. So you know… try to show a little respect.  Dr. Alan Grant, Jurassic Park Image

A view of the Hogback Monocline west of the town of Durango — the Hogback provides the terrain for the Durango Double TR. The race starts at the point marked with the “A” and climbs up and down the ribbons of rock to the east.

I have been coming to Durango, Colorado for at least 50 years.  Durango is the gateway to the towering peaks and deep valleys of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado.  The town is only a few hours from Los Alamos, and on many Fridays during my youth my father would pack my brothers and I up for a weekend trip to collect minerals in the La Plata Mountains (just west of Durango), or the San Juan Triangle (Silverton-Ouray-Telluride).  Durango was the perfect place either to bed down before exploring on the weekend or to buy supplies for longer stays in the mountains.  These trips to the mountains were probably the single most influential activity in my youth – they made me an Earthscientist, a mineral collector, a connoisseur of mining history and infected me with a love for high mountain peaks.  This October I came back to run in “The Durango Double” – at least the trail run (TR) portion.  The Durango Double is a celebration of running, and on Saturday there are trail runs of 25 and 50 km length, and on Sunday there are road races – a marathon and a half marathon.  I came to run the 25 km TR mostly to keep in shape, and to visit one of a favorite place. My version of the “Double” will be to ride my bike on Sunday up to Molas Pass on the road to Silverton.  A nice ride with an elevation gain of about 4600 feet.

ImageGeology Map of the Area traversed by the Durango Double.  The colors denote geologic “units” or rocks of a particular age and character.  The dark brown, olive, ochre colors are upper Cretaceous and mostly the Fruitland Formation.

Durango really is a gateway; it sits between the San Juan Basin to the south and the San Juan Mountains to the north.  The San Juan Basin is a tremendous energy warehouse.   Sedimentary rocks that were deposited in an ancient Cretaceous ocean that ebbed and waned along a continental highland are rich in coal, natural gas and petroleum.  The San Juan Basin is centered on Farmington, New Mexico, and forms a broad oval with Durango sitting at the Northern terminus. One geologic unit within the rocks of the San Juan Basin, the Fruitland Formation, has been a major source of coalbed methane – in fact in 2007-2010 the Fruitland rocks annually produced more than 1.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it the richest source in the United States.  It also just so happens that most the Durango 25 km TR is on the dark shales and sandstones of the Fruitland formation and adjacent Kirkland formation. Image

A view across the Animas River (looking to the north) at the real start of the Durango Double TR.  The hills are part of a major structure called the Hogback Monocline, and formally horizontal rocks dip sharply (35 degrees!) to the south towards the center of the San Juan Basin.  The dark bands in the hill are black shales from the Kirkland and Fruitland formations.

The San Juan Basin covers about 4,500 square miles in Northwestern New Mexico and a sliver of southwestern Colorado.  The Basin is like a giant thumbprint pressed into a layered cake.  The edges around the thumbprint are bent up and away from the center.  These upturned edges are called monoclines;  the Hogback Monocline runs along the northwestern margin of the San Juan Basin, and dominates the eastern and southern skyline of the town of Durango.  The Durango Double TR travels along the axis of the Hogback Monocline – the ridges are formed by erosion resistant sandstone and the valleys are soft shales.  The geologic cross section below shows a notional north-south slice through the San Juan Basin, and the Hogback Monocline is the upturned rocks on the right side of the figure. sanjuanb

Geologic cross section through the San Juan Basin.  The Hogback Monocline is shown on the right hand side of the figure

The Fruitland Formation is a series of shales, and sandstones, and coal seams that were deposited in a marsh delta – not unlike the Mississippi Delta of Louisiana today.  The ago of the rocks in this formation are about 75 million years, and they were deposited over a period of a couple million years.  The coal is an indicator of the large amount of plant materials that decayed within the ancient marsh.  There are a large number of dinosaur fossils, egg shells and tracks within the Fruitland included hadrosaurs and teeth from carnivores (thought to be from the genus of dromaeosurid theropod, which includes the velociraptor that lived 75-71 million before the present). When I run among the rocks during the Durango Double TR I can’t help but imagine what this place looked like 75 million years ago.  Probably not nearly as habitable, probably more dangerous, and definitely more damp!

A storm blew through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado on Thursday and Friday, and my journey up to Durango saw quite a bit of snow on the ground near Pagosa Springs.  I like “weather” when I run, but I was unsure what the TR would bring.  It was 30 degrees when we lined up for the start – too cold for shorts, but the cloudless sky promised by the end of the race it would be in the 50s, which is too warm for tights.  The sky was powder blue and it was a perfect day for a run!

beforetherace

The starting/finishing line is on an alluvial terrance above the Animas River.  This photo also documents that I showed up a full hour before the race started, which is not a good idea when it is 30 degrees.

There were about 150 people in the 25 km TR, and mostly serious runners.  The race starts along the road for a mile and then begins a major climb up the Carbon Junction trail.  As is usually the case, I planned to go out at a steady pace and make sure I had plenty for the climbs and the end of the race.  Also as usual, my plans failed me;  the first mile was at an 8:55 min/mile pace, which is way too fast for me (I am a plodder not a runner).  There were people all around me running fast, and like a tide I got swept up.  However, once we were on the Carbon Junction trail all the pace stuff sorted out.  In the second mile the trail climbs 500 feet, and it is a grind.  The trail is on the Hogback now, but the material exposed is glacial outwash — a wonderful menagerie of granite boulders, schist cobbles, and even chunks of limestone.  The trail surface is wonderfully soft, and easy to run.

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The vista to the north at about the end of the second mile.  The highest of the snow covered peaks in the distance is Engineer Mountain — the target of tomorrow’s bike ride.  Not a cloud in the sky.

After mile 2 the trail is within the Kirkland and Fruitland formations.  Yesterday’s snow has made the trail very muddy, and the clay content of the shales is high.  There were several times that the mud actually “sucked” off my shoes.  Still a nice trail, but  by the top of the pass I was carrying an extra 3 pounds of the Cretaceous!  At five miles the TR tops out on one of the Hogback ridge crests, and the total climb is a little over 1000 feet.  A very fast decent into a closed valley called Horse Gulch.  The valley is beautiful — and although most of the runners are heads down and really running, I am looking at all the remains of old coal mines.  They are everywhere – but you do have to know what you are looking for.  As noted, Durango is the bridge between the San Juan Basin and the San Juan Mountains.  It owes its very existence to both.  Durango became the smelting center for Silverton and the La Platas — trains ran down the Animas and from Hesperus bringing ore to Durango, and the abundant coal fueled smelters to process the gold and silver ores.

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This is a picture of the American Smelting & Refining Company (ASARCO) Smelter in the early part of the 20th century. It was built on the southern side of the Animas River, and dominated the Durango skyline – it was incredibly toxic also!  By the time I visited as a child the smelter had been removed, but there were huge piles of black slag (rock that was processed and melted to extract the precious metals).  Today all that is gone, and unless you know Durango you see no sign of its glorious mining past.

The TR does a loop through Horse Gulch, and then heads back over the ridge – so another 600 foot climb.  After reaching the ridge line I was pretty much running alone — not fast enough for the athletes, but too fast for the college kids that thought it would be cool to run a 25 km TR.  The mud on the way down had just as much suction as coming up, but it seemed easier because gravity was helping pull me along to the finish line.  I finished in 3 hr 9 minutes;  I had really hoped to break 3 hrs, but it just wasn’t to be.  At the finish line the organizers served a lunch of tacos (how can that ever be bad).  I enjoyed the run most because I knew its geology, and I knew of the history of Durango.  It was a visit to place in my life’s past.  I did not have time to find any Cretaceous fossils, but I did ponder the sucking mud and wondered if the swamps of 75 million years ago were as sticky.

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The Jemez Trail Run: A good run gone long

In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks – John Muir

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Los Alamos is my home; I grew up in this town perched on flat mesas dissected with steep canyons cut in the volcanic tuff by a million years of rainstorms.  I loved the mountains of the Jemez and the thick forest of ponderosa pines, and I loved the town populated by special and odd people.  In the 1950s and 60s the town was “science USA”, and nearly everyone was an “outdoor buff”.  I moved when I graduated from high school in 1974, got my academic degrees, and went on to a 20 year career as a professor at the University of Arizona – but I always yearned for home. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to return a decade ago, and love my town more than ever.  It has changed – gotten lots older (people and homes), the lab is different, and the landscape has been ravaged by two horrendous fires (first in 2000, and then again in 2011 – both were the largest fires in New Mexico history at the time).  But the geology is the same – the high mountains are the rim of a super volcano that erupted and collapsed into a series of calderas during episodic activity 1.5 mya to about 600,000 years ago.  Los Alamos is built on the pale volcanic rocks that were erupted around the caldera;  these rhyolites were laid down like a snow fall building a large flat plain which we call the Pajarito Plateau today.  This Plateau has been eroded so there are a series of mesas and canyons giving the landscape a rugged feel.  It is through these canyons and mesas, and beyond to the rim of the caldera that the Jemez Trail Run is conducted every May.

I decided to participate in the 50 km version of the Trail run last December (2012). I have always loved to hike and bike but I was not a runner.  In 1998 I received an artificial hip on my left side, and in 2009 I received an artificial knee in my right leg.  Strong instructions from everyone – do not ever run!  But life caught up with me.  In 2011 both my parents, Los Alamos residents, died.  The 2011 Las Conchas fire roared across the Jemez mountains in late June and burned more than 150,000 acres of our beloved pine forest.  I gained weight and was not particularly happy.  So in 2012 I decided to reconnect, and running through the mountains was a big part of that.  By the time the Jemez Trail Run was open for registration I was on the path to adventure.  When May 25 rolled around I was ready for the 31 miles with nearly 7000 feet elevation gain! Until I read the weather report, and it was going to hot, very dry, and windy – I don’t like hot!

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Trail map – the course starts/ends at the bulls eye, and the red line is the 50 km course.

 

Running the Jemez Trail Run 

The Jemez Trail Run has three races – a 50 miler, and 50 km, and a half marathon.  All are in the Jemez, mostly single track, and all have at least one horrendous climb. All the races start on one of our mesas – in this case on North Mesa at an historic building called the Posse Shack.  The 50 milers start in the dark at 5 am;  the 50 km folks start at 6 am, but most are checked in and ready for action by 5:30.  I was quite excited and ready to go – I was geared up with water bottles, gels, energy bars, my trusty garmin watch, and most importantly, my lucky hat.

The race is put on by locals that devote a tremendous amount of time and effort.  The race support is absolutely first class, and the aid stations are certainly better than most school cafeterias!  Everyone  was supportive, and certainly everyone had advice for me.  “Don’t go out too fast”, “triple the amount of electolytes you think you need”, “walk every hill!”, “EAT”, and so on.  I appreciated the advice, but I had a plan – I had covered the course numerous times in the last 5 months and had figured the pace for every single mile I needed to make a time of 8 hr 30 minutes.  That is not a great time, but it was something I though I could do.  My back ground is theoretical science, so it is fair so say I had analyzed everything I could, but lacked practical experience…..

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Tom Stockton (the Race Director!) started the race – all the runners were ready, but sort of chaotic.  Tom wandered to the front and asked “Is everyone ready to go?” That was met with a nervous “sure” from the nearly 200 runners. So Tom said “Okay, go”.  That was it – suddenly everyone was running and I was picked up in the laminar flow, not really sure how to execute my plan.  Mile 1 drops down off North Mesa into Bayo Canyon.  It was fast – I was running a 9:30 minutes/mile pace which was not to plan.  The dust from the faster runners hung in the air like a fog.

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I felt comfortable, and tried to ease back into a 12:30 pace that I had planned.  The first aid station was a mile 5, and I felt great – ran right past the station, sucked down a mocha power gel, and started thinking about how easy this was actually going to be!

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At mile 7 the course is running the Perimeter Trail only a few hundred yards from my house.  I had a quick flash that maybe I should just go home, but I was feeling way too good.  The first difficult part of the course is a very steep and slippery descent into Pueblo Canyon, and steep ascent, and then a steady climb for a mile up a small mestia of rhyolite called Quemazon Mesa (appropriately named – translates as “big burn” and it did burn in 2000).  Finally this drops back down into Los Alamos Canyon at near our local ice skating rink.

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The elevation at the bottom of the canyon is 7200 feet and change.  Now the run, at mile 8 or so, really begins.  The next 7 miles is a climb of about 3200 feet. After climbing the 250 feet out of Los Alamos Canyon the trail heads toward Pajarito Mountain and our local ski hill.  The climb starts steady, but at mile 9 it runs into a cliff a couple of hundred feet high.  This is the scarp of the Pajarito Fault, and dominates the lower Los Alamos landscape.  I was definitely walking the Fault!  Finally, at the top of the scarp is the second aid station – 10.6 miles into the race.  The food there was a godsend, and I drank like a camel at the oasis in the desert.  I was still feeling pretty good, and thinking I was right on course with a time of about 2 hrs and 10 minutes for 10.6 miles.  I knew the next portion was a grind, but I was thinking perhaps I was actually a runner!

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A couple of miles beyond the aid station the trail breaks out into a flatish region known as “Geist Gap” (after one of the many great Los Alamos runners). This section was burned both in 2000 and again in 2011, and the land scape is barren.  There is still soot on the trail, and the sun beats down on you in full glory.  I began to wilt, and wondered if some how I had eaten something bad at the last aid station (no way was that true, but my energy was draining fast).

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Geist Gap intersects the Pajarito Ski Hill at about mile 13 at an elevation of 8,800 feet.  Here the trail becomes both spectacular and sinister.  The trail is wonderful single track that is not rocky, and soft with matted vegetation.  However, over only 2.5 miles the climb is 1,600 feet.  I had practiced this climb many times, and was sure that I was prepared – but I was wrong!  The climb took me over an hour, and when I peaked out on top of Pajarito Mountain I was exhausted.  The view from the top is spectacular, but I don’t really remember it at all.  The descent to the ski lodge and aid station 3 is steep, and should be swift.  It was just steep.  I stumbled into the 17 mile aid station at 5 hrs and very tired.  My wife was there waiting and giving me support, and the aid station was enormous – filled with all sorts of food and drinks.  I refilled my water bottles, ate what I could (my stomach wanted nothing to do with the food), and drank cold water.  Finally, my wife dosed me with ice water, which is probably the single best thing that has happened to me in a year.  My core began to cool, and I decided that I could make the last 14 miles easy.  I grabbed some food, and decided to walk a couple of miles to regain my composure.

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It is a lovely walk from the Ski Hill through a large meadow that is called Canada Bonita.  This is where we locals snow shoe in the winter – no sign of snow now though.  I began to feel much better and actually began to pass people even though I was walking.  About 3 miles from the Ski Hill is the fourth aid station – known as the pipeline station after the road that was built to bring a natural gas line into the Lab back in the 40s.  This aid station was manned by the Los Alamos High School cross country team, and I was feeling good enough to eat and chat about the end of the school year.  I knew it was almost all down hill from here, and only about 12 miles.  Anyone can go 12 miles I thought.  When I say “almost” all down hill, the almost is because there is one ugly climb, locally known as “kick-ass hill” that is about 300 ft high in less than a third of a mile.  Today though, kick-ass was no problem.  Climbed that devil and was flying down hill towards home!  Now, by flying, I mean I was holding a 13 minute per mile pace.  But I felt great.  This section of the course descends the Guaje Ridge trail.  It is a beautiful trail, but the ridge was ravaged by both fires.  After about mile 23 there is no vegetation except scrub.  Charred stumps of formerly mighty pine litter the mountain side.

Aid station 5 is at the intersection of Mitchell Trail and Guaje Ridge Trail.  The folks that run the ½ marathon run up Mitchell Trail, and then back again along Guaje ridge.  It is a heck of a challenging 13.1 miles, and I am shocked when I see the winners can do it in a little over an hour and a half plus change.  Most of the runners take more than 2 and a half hours.  I fill up at this aid station only 7 miles from the finish.  I am confident, but I can’t seem to cool off.  I drink lots of water, refill my bottles, and dose my head.  I take off at a good pace – down to 12 minutes a mile, certain that I will make a time of 8 hrs and 18 minutes (I have done this before so I know that answer!  I was wrong).  The sun is beating down on me, and I realize that the humidity is probably in the single digits.  I drink every 5 minutes.  Even though the course is down hill my pace begins to fad.  About 3 miles from the finish, and 1 mile to the last aid station, I stumble and as I catch myself both of my legs cramp in the upper thighs.  The pain is intense.  I stop and massage my thighs – everything is slowly relaxing, so I can begin a waddle down the trail.  Carefully, I ramble into aid station 6, and eat some of the best tasting watermelon I have ever had.  Only 2 miles to go – and I have run this part of the trail dozens of times.  I start in a walk, and slowly ease into a shuffle.  I am cooking now – cruising at a 15 minute per mile pace.  I am almost there!  The last 1/3 of a mile is a climb back up North Mesa along a trail carved in the soft rhyolite.  The trail is really a deep rut – in some places the rut is 3 feet deep and only 15 inches across.  In the middle of this climb my legs cramp – crap, I am stuck in the rut and can’t move!  This is terrible – what if I have to be rescued from the rut!  Mustering all the Zen I can imagine, I relax my legs and slowly finish the climb.  I cross the finish line a little under 8 hrs 36 minutes.  My wife this there, as are many of my friends that are actually runners or athletes.  All offer congratulations, but I just grunt and head for the ice water coolers.  9 cups of water later I am starting to realize that I did survive.

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I am joyful for the experience, and loved every minute of the run.  Los Alamos is blessed with people to make this even happen – the town is filled with trails for running, and the community takes care of all this.  Although it was not particularly easy, I am happy.  Now I have to get on my bike and ride the Tour de Los Alamos in two weeks (I wish I had ridden my bike in the last three years….but that is a new adventure).