The Santa Fe Ultra: Lost, Climbs, Friends

The rocks are not so close akin to us as the soil; they are one more remove from us; but they lie back of all, and are the final source of all. … Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape, John Burroughs, early 20th century American naturalist.

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Sunset on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, as seen from near my house in Los Alamos, NM. The course of the Santa Fe Ultra went from near the top of the high peak in the right center (Lake Peak) to the valley floor.

Morning sunrise in Los Alamos is a special celebration.  No matter the season, the sun slowly ascends above the rugged horizon famed by the high country of the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Santa Fe Baldy, composed of PreCambrian gneiss and criss crossed with the wide pegmatite veins and dikes, begins the morning as a dark shade of gray.  If clouds are present — and they often are — the skyline is crowned in an orange glow.  Slowly the carved landscape of the Pajarito Plateau becomes visible; steep canyon walls framing the flat tops of mesas. Finally, the entire Rio Grande Valley nestled between Los Alamos and Baldy appears in a pastel glow.  I never grow tired of the quotidian cycle, and feel blessed to live in such a wonderful place.

Early this year the inaugural Ultra Santa Fe race(s) was announced, and I signed up immediately.  The race promised a complete tour of that distant landscape I see so many mornings.  A trail circuit from the top of the ridge line at 12,000′ to the juniper covered arroyos at 7,200′ along the easter margin of the Rio Grande Valley. When I first signed up I was in the middle of training for the San Juan Solstice 50 miler, and was assuming the Santa Fe race would be the last long run of the 2016 season.  However, as Yogi Berra said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. The wheels fell off after the San Juan, and I was forced to scale way back on my running.  No matter, I was still excited about the Ultra Santa Fe, and treated it as a true training run.  50km has long ago faded as an intimidating distance for a run, especially if there is no expectation on how fast I would run.

Many runners from Los Alamos travel over to run in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains – running from the Santa Fe Ski Valley to the top of Santa Fe Baldy is one of my very favorite training activities.  I was joined by several of my friends for the Ultra Santa Fe; we all shared the trait of being undertrained at the end of the summer, so we formed a team with the name “Team DFL”.  The moniker was at first whimsical, but it did prove prothetic! However, that did not diminish the adventure of traveling through a mountain wilderness, and the joy of friendship.

 

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Team DFL (Dave Zerkle, Terry Wallace and Dave Dogruel) at the beginning of the Ultra Santa Fe 50km (really it was 56 km).  Photo from Carl Gable.

The Race

It takes about 1hr 15 minutes to drive from Los Alamos to the Santa Fe Ski Valley, so we departed about 5 am from the hill.  This left way more time that was necessary, but it also allowed the copious consumption of coffee (not really a performance enhancing substance, but rather, the lack of coffee is a well known performance depressant).  The temperature at start time was in the mid-40s, perfect for running. The logistics of putting on any Ultra is challenging, and certainly the chance of a first-time event having a “hiccup” is high.  However, the crew that put on the Ultra Santa Fe were commendable.  A few hours earlier in the dark, 24 runners had started the 50 mile version of the race.  The 50 km and 50 mile courses shared much of the same trail, and Race Director gave detailed instructions to the runners on how “not to confuse” the courses.  A few hours after our 50 km start there would be a half marathon, which also shared some of the same trail….because it was later in the day, why listen to that instruction, eh?

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The course of the 50 km, complete with the lost spur.  The course descends from the Ski Valley down the drainage of the Rio en Medio, skirts the alluvial foothills above Tesuque, and then climbs back up to Tesuque Peak.  Mileage posting help to locate discussion in the text.

About 40 runners toed the line for the 50 km race at 7 am.  I had run on all the trails that the course covered in the past, so I knew we were in for a long day.  However, despite the familiarity with the trail network, I quickly fell into the pack mentality once the exclaimation of “GO” was shouted by the Race Director. The course loops around the Ski Lodge, and after about 1/2 of mile joins the Rio en Medio trail. A short distance after joining the trail, the actual Rio en Medio is visible, and everyone at the back of the pack settles in at a 12 min/mile pace realizing it will be a long day. Only a few hundred feet into the trail run there is a trail split – on the right hand side is the Rio en Medio trail, and on the left is a branch of the Windsor trail.  Everyone in front of me turns left (it was marked with flags, but the flags for the half-marathon course).  I am oblivious to the wrong turn, but immediately begin to question whether I have early onset Alzheimers.  The trail is nothing like the Rio en Medio I thought I knew – instead of a steep descent along a very rocky trail (the rocks are from a glacial outflow), it is a sinuous up-and-down smooth single track.  After a mile many people begin to realize something is wrong, and a group of us stop and discuss the discrepancy in direction and trail markings.  I whip out my Gaia app on my iPhone, and sure enough we are already a mile off course! I can only explain this by hiding my geoscience background, and mumbling that I am a “manager”.  About a dozen runners cut back to the hiway and run back to the beginning of the Rio en Medio trail, and start the descent again.  It ends up that we did an extra two miles, but in the scheme of events, it is just a tiny diversion!

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Dave Zerkle along the Rio en Medio trail after dropping about 1,500′ in elevation from the start line.  The river flows a well defined canyon for about 6 miles.

Rio en Medio is one of three perennial streams that drain the high country around Lake Peak; Rio Nambe, Rio en Medio and Tesuque Creek (which has two branches). The Rio en Medio is quite modest by most standards, but in New Mexico any perennial stream is a major asset!  The mean annual runoff for the stream is 1,740 acre-feet (the discharge from the Colorado river is about 20 million acre-feet).  Northern New Mexico has experienced a wet monsoon in 2016 (started late, but July and August were robust!), and the stream crossing along the trail result in wet feet.

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The Rio en Medio drainage basin. The first 6 miles of the course follows the Rio from 10,200′ elevation to 7,600′ elevation.

Around mile 5 in the race the canyon narrows and there a a number of waterfalls.  This is a truly beautiful section of the race, and does not belie the long climbs to come.

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One of several waterfalls along the Rio en Medio.  The water has carved a smooth shoot in the Precambrian metamorphic gneiss.

We arrive at the first aid station after running for 1hr and 50 minutes; the mileage is 7.76 miles, and even though we have descended 2,500′, the trail is still cool and in the shade of forest growth. However, after only a few more miles, the trail begins to zig-zags through Pinon-Juniper forest with its sparse tree spacing and low growth. It is now mid-morning, and instead of the temperatures being in the mid-40s, they are in the high 70s.

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Dogruel and Zerkle running along a short section of road into Aid Station 2. No one can carry enough water for this kind of running – thank goodness for aid stations!

Aid station 2 is only 4 miles from where the course leaves the Rio en Medio, but I end up drinking both my bottle of water in that hour long ramble. Every aid station in the Ultra Santa Fe is incredibly well stocked (and each is different) and manned by helpful volunteers.  The trail now is on the alluvial apron derived from some 25 million years of the Rio Grand Rift slowly opening up, and filled by the erosion off the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  The rocks that are visible are round cobbles, no two looking alike.  It makes for sort of boring running – but I still manage to trip along the trail at mile 14, cutting my knee, right wrist, and my cheek just below my right eye.  It was one of those falls that looked worse than it felt, but a powerful reminder that running along a trail requires full attention.  I tend to have an active imagination, and get lost in thoughts.  When I tripped I was thinking about the North Korean nuclear test the day before. My slightly blackened eye was a gift from Kim Jong-un.

After my stumble my pace begins to falter.  The fall probably only has a little to do with this – my longest run since the San Juan Solstice in June has been 17 miles, and I have been on a restrict to keep my runs under 4 hours in duration (note – the limit on the time out on a run does not easily translate to a distance.  On steep terrain 4 hours might only be 10 miles!).  I urge my team mates to power ahead, and assure them that I will finish even if I am slow.  However, they will have nothing of this blatant attempt by me to truly secure the title of DFL.

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The view towards the west at about mile 16.  The distant mountains, about 30 miles away, are the Jemez and the Valles Grande.  Home.  Los Alamos sits on the eastern flank of the giant volcanic complex.

We roll into Aid Station 3 at about 4hrs 30 minutes.  The aid station is the low point of the course (elevation wise — spirit wise the low point was still to come!), and is at the Lower Windsor trailhead, only a short distance from the paved road back up to the ski hill. The elevation is 7,200′, and for our day, this is the halfway point in the race (17.5 miles).  We have 15 miles of uphill ahead of us to climb a little over 5,000′.

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The long climb means that we all take out our trekking poles.  Over the last couple of years I have learned that trekking poles dramatically improve my climbing.  There are many testimonials to the power of poles, but surprisingly little scientific research into how much poles help.  I have found three studies in the biomechanics of pole use; the best study was done in 2010 with a small control group (Trekking Poles Reduce Exercise Induced Muscle Injury during Mountain Running, by Howatson et al.). The control groups ascended and descended steep mountain grades with and without poles, and the researchers concluded that “When hiking uphill at significant grade, under significant load,  trekking poles increase efficiency by approximately 10% and decrease perceived effort by 20%.”  

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The effect of trekking poles.  Use of trekking poles increases heart rate (so can tire you out faster) but dramatically improve speed, and something called “relative perceived effort”.

Using trekking poles is an art – it allows you to transfer workload away from your legs to your arms and shoulders, which can decrease your overall level of fatigue.  However, using your arms tends to increase your heart rate, so you do use more calories/mile.  Further, unless you practice with poles a runner’s cadence tends to slow (and your arms get really tired over 10s of miles!).  Our pace with poles as we climb the Big Tesuque Creek is steady, but pretty slow.  This slow pace is actually great for observing rocks…within a mile I find a wonderful boudinage.

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Stretching of a quartz rich band within a gneissic boulder.  The stretching pattern breaks up the quartz band into sausage-shaped boudins.

Some 1.5 billion years ago this boulder – more correctly, the formation that this boulder would came from — was subjected to extension.  The extension broke apart the bands within the rock; think of pulling a thick roll of dough. This boulder is one of the reasons I like to run in the mountains!  Only a short distance later I discovered another treasure – glacial striations!

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A medium sized boulder on the side of the Big Tesuque drainage that shows glacial striations. The groves, which run from the upper left of the photo to the center right, are scares from moving ice that was on the Sangre de Cristo mountains 12,000 years ago.

Glacial striations are scratches cut into bedrock by what is known as glacial abrasion. As the ice of a glacier moves down hill it carries debris – rocks of all sizes – and this debris is dragged across the bedrock leaving gouges.  I had heard about glacial striations near Lake Peak, but never have been able to find any.  I am not certain where grooves carved in the rock pictured above occurred; it is possible that it was far up the mountain, but the boulder had tumbled down to its present location.  No matter – the Ultra Santa Fe was getting really interesting!  Which was probably a really good thing.  By the time we pulled into the 4th Aid Station at Borrego, I was getting quite tired.  Mile 22.5, and only 1/3 the way up the hill.

Borrego is just off the paved road up to the ski hill, and thus was well stocked.  Better that “well stocked”.  There was a platter of bacon, a bowl of sliced avocado, ice cold coca cola, and for my running partners, an assortment of beers.  Dave Zerkle was particularly fond of the chocolate porter.  This aid station deserves to be in the Ultra Trail run hall of fame.  I could easily have stayed there for an hour.  Non-trail runners don’t understand the attraction of bacon after long hours on the trail, but the combination of salty crunch and nothing sweet is refreshing.  By 6 or 7 hours in a run I can’t really eat much because my stomach just does not want to be bothered.  However, bacon can go down…..

After we left the aid station we had a short climb and then a steep descent.  It was short, but it was enough to really aggravate my left knee.  This knee is about the last “natural” joint I have left in my legs.  My artificial joints always feel fine, but my left knee is long overdue for replacement.  My knee began to swell – I can control this with advil, but only so much.  I knew I could finish the run, but it was going to be slow and painful.  I urged the Daves to trek on without me.  However, they took turns rotating to pace me.  I was both a bit embarrassed and extremely grateful for the friendship.  They made the last 10 miles doable – actually more than “doable”, they were enjoyable.  I can’t thank them enough for what they did.

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Approaching tree line on the Aspen Vista trail.  Only a few miles to go from here.

Aid station 5 is at the Big Tesuque Camp ground.  Here we found out that dozens of people behind us had dropped out of the race (and others were dropping out at this aid station).  It seemed that we might be the last ones left!  Only 8 miles to go, I decided not to stop at the aid station and continued on ahead of my companions.  I knew they would catch me, but I did not want to “freeze” up.  I have done the climb up along the Aspen Vista trail to the top of Tesuque mountain many times.  The familiarity of the trail was reassuring – although it also meant I knew exactly how much longer I had to go before I finished.

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The last little climb until the top of the mountain.  It the background you can see the treeless peaks of Santa Fe Baldy (on the left) and Lake Peak (on the right).  The last aid station was at mile 33….still 2 miles to go, straight downhill.

Progress on the climb was slow, but very steady.  However, when we got to the top, and I realized we were more than 10 hours into the race and I was stunned.  I expected to finish in about 9 hours, and here we were at the top of the mountain, with two difficult miles ahead of us.  Those two miles meant a 2,000′ drop.  Sounds like it should be fast – and would be if it was the beginning of the race.  However, feet are tender, legs are shot, and it is just tough to run.  We began the descent knowing that we had locked up the DFL title, so all the pressure was off.  We did find some interesting rocks along the way down.

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Dave Dogruel touching what has become the Team DFL totem.  This is a spectacular migmatic boulder could last 1.7 billion years, so we could last another mile.

We come across an absolute textbook example of a migmatite –  a mixture of metamorphic and granitic intrusions.  This became our totem – a good luck charm.  The Precambrian gneiss, black and sparkly with biotite, had been partially melted and recrystallized after the quartz had fractionated out.  Then the rock was stretched, making for a wild pattern.

About 300 yards from the finish line the sleepy volunteers that had been waiting for the last runners were awoken, and began to cheer us on.  Really.  When we crossed the line we had been on the course for over 11 hours.  It was a long day – but I was thankful for a great adventure, and even more joyful for the friendship I have with my fellow runners.

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A Nice Way to End

I have run 25 different trail ultra races. I have run them in deserts and mountains; in snow and heat. But, I have never had a race like the Ultra Santa Fe.  It was hard and beautiful.  But it was also my last before I get my left knee replaced.  I am hoping to have surgery complete in the first week of January, and it will take me a year before I am running long distances again.  Who knows what 2018 will bring?  I am thankful that I got one last wonderful race in – even if others will scoff at the time, it was one of my favorites. Looking forward to recovery and continuing the journey!

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Corrie Cruising: Running the Alpine Loop above Williams Lake

The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask, Nancy Wynne Newhall, Ansel Adams biographer

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Panorama of the Williams Lake Cirque from Simpson Peak (7/16/16). On the far right hand side of the photo is Wheeler Peak, and the left side is dominated by the ridge connecting Simpson Peak with Sin Nombre (all a class 4 scramble). The high points of New Mexico. Click on any thumbnail to get a large version of the photo.

On September 3rd, 1964, the President of the United States signed into law “the Wilderness Act”, a profound articulation of societal values that seemed to be at odds with the 200 years of manifest destiny that had driven the country to spread from shore to shore and taming every inch of the land for the “good of man”. The act stated it was the policy of Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. Wilderness is a highly abstract concept – for some it means a place of danger and darkness, but for others, including me, it is a place where nature and the forces of nature rule supreme, and the imprint of man is superficial.

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The poetic definition of WILDERNESS from US public law 88-557, the Wilderness Act, passed in 1964. “…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Running, climbing, breathing high in the mountain wilderness is a special, spiritual joy. Away from the hubbub of humanity – the constant noise of commitments, the stress of conflict and confusion, the muddle of minutia – wilderness allows my mind to clear, and my spirit to lift. I love being alone high on a mountain with the tremendous forces of geology laid bare. Those forces, driven by the steady heat engine of Earth, constantly remake and renew the planet.  The landscape tells stories; painted with the brush of enormous time, the rocks and minerals hold the secrets of pressure and temperature. Really, I am not much of a runner or climber, but they are primal acts that allow an individual connection with something that dwarfs humanity.

Fortunately, there are many places in the southwest where it is possible to escape into wilderness.  The highest point in New Mexico is Wheeler Peak, which is located in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area – a fantastic place to experience “wilderness”.  The wilderness area is about 20,000 acres, and within this modest tract sits 5 out of the 10 highest peaks in New Mexico.  One of the very best “bushwhack” runs in the entire country connects these high points; it is called the Alpine loop, and it is a 12 mile, horse shoe shaped tract that frames a classic alpine geomorphic structure, the Williams Lake cirque. For various reasons I am restricted on how far (or how long) I can run right now, and the Alpine loop is a perfect challenge that gives the full “geology is immense” experience.

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Google Earth view from the north looking into Williams Lake cirque. Today Williams Lake is tiny – it is barely visible in the center of the field of view. 11,000 years ago an alpine glacier scoured  out the cirque. Snows falling on the high peaks compacted into a glacier that gravity constantly pulled downhill. The rubble the glacier carried with it served as a sort of “sand paper”, and carved the cirque.

Something Old, Something New

The skyline of northern New Mexico is dominated by a narrow chain of north-south trending high mountains, the Sangre de Cristo.  The Sangre are a remarkable (and often unappreciated) range; they rise in the north at Salida, Colorado, and terminate to the southeast of Santa Fe at Glorieta Pass.  There are 10 14ers in the range which dramatically towers over the Rio Grande Valley which is located to west of the range – in fact, the Sangre de Cristo owe their prominence to the Rio Grande Rift which began to open about 27 million years before the present.  As the rift developed, stretching the crust, faults fractured the crust and Sangre were uplifted to elevations thousands of feet above the rift.

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A cartoon view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains viewed from high above Los Alamos, NM. The range is very narrow in the north, and has a much broader expression near Taos. To the west of the Sangre is the Rio Grande Rift.

This uplift exposed rocks that had been deeply buried in the Earth’s crust, allowing a view into deep time – in the Taos block of the Sangre, the rocks on the tops of the high peaks are among the oldest in New Mexico, having been created some 1.7 billion years ago. These rocks were formed along the collision zones between two ancient oceanic plates. The subduction of one plate beneath the other resulted in volcanism and the construction of “island arcs” – this volcanism melted the oceanic crust and slowly separated out lighter elements and rock types and built fragments of continental crust (the crust now sits beneath all of New Mexico). The rocks of the Taos block are complex as would be expected for an island arc environment.  There are metasedimentary, metavolcanic and granitic rocks along with some diabase dikes exposed within 20 miles of the Taos Ski Valley.  Although the 1.7 billion year old rocks are exposed elsewhere in a few places in northern New Mexico, a small outcrop on Lake Fork Peak holds the record for oldest dated sample in the state – 1.765 billion years.  You have to climb high to see the birth marks of our state.

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Geologic cross-section through the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Taos. The Sangre are a large horst uplifted along the Sangre de Cristo Fault system; the rocks of Wheeler Peak have been uplifted at least 10,000 feet.

After the formation of the ancient New Mexican crust in the Proterozoic times plate tectonics cast a dynamic history for northern New Mexico.  Unfortunately, that history has been mostly erased from the high Taos mountains. Uplift and erosion have removed the veneer of sedimentary rocks that recorded the growth and breakup of ancient continents like Pangea.  Today, the geology map of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area is, well, sort of boring.

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Geologic map of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area. In faint lettering Wheeler Peak can be located in the center of the map, along with Williams Lake which is dead center in the figure. The symbols are indicators of rock type: X means proterzoic, with m,a, and g being a rock type. Q means recent – these are all talus slopes! No sedimentary rocks, almost no dirt.

But that relatively simple map belies the most recent geologic epochs that carved the present landscape. As the Sangre de Cristo began to rise with the opening the Rio Grande rift erosion also began – but overall, uplift won the competition.  However, simple “erosion” does not explain the rugged topography. The agent most responsible for today’s vista is ice. During the Pleistocene Epoch  (the last 1.8 million years) the Sangre have experience numerous episodes of cool, wet climate which saw glaciers develop and carve the mountains.  The Pleistocene is a bit of a odd epoch because it is defined by the growth and decay of continental ice sheets (ah, climate change! but climate change driven by Milankovitch cycles. By the way, I would be remise if I did not mention that the Pleistocene was named by the great Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell); the last of these ended about 11,000 years ago. When one drives up to the Taos Ski resort you travel through the Valley of Rio Hondo, which was carved by a glacier that flowed from Wheeler Peak to nearly the Rio Grande.

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A cross section through an alpine glacier carving a cirque. The glacier is fed up slope with new snowfall. The seasonal snowfall also brings boulders and detritus into the glacier which acts as an abrasion agent to carve a basin as the ice flows.

The head of this glacier is the bowl shaped valley that is framed by the Alpine Loop. This is a classic glacial cirque – in the UK it would be called a Corrie after the Scottish Gaelic word corie, meaning a pot. In the Sangre, cirques are formed on the north side of high peaks – protected from the melting heat of the sun – near what is known as the “firn line”.   The alpine glacier is surrounded by 3 high walled cliffs; as the climate becomes warmer the glacier tail melts in the valley below the cirque, ultimately leaving behind a lake which forms above a dam of detritus – the glacial moraine.  Williams Lake is all the remains of the great Wheeler glacier today, but steep topography took tens of thousands of years for the ice to carve.

The ice has passed, but the youngest feature in the Williams Lake cirque is a glacier of a different sort – a rock glacier. Below Lake Fork Peak there is a debris flow; it looks like a viscous landslide. This is a rock glacier that was probably active until the last century.  Rock glaciers are talus fields that have fallen off the sides of a cirque onto the retreating and shrinking ice glacier.  Eventually, the rock blanket has only a small amount of ice within its core – but enough ice such that the rock blanket episodically “flows”, or more correctly, “creeps”.  The rock glacier in Williams Lake cirque does not have a name (at least that I know of), but is a geologic reminder of the changing climate.

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Rock glacier flowing from Lake Fork Peak towards Williams Lake (take early in the morning, 7/16/16).

The juxtaposition of the New Mexico’s oldest rocks with one of its youngest geologic structures is compelling theater for an Earth scientist. The run of the Alpine loop affords fantastic views; it also tells a story of the tremendous forces shaping our world.

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A view from Wheeler Peak across the Williams Lake Cirque to Lake Peak. The Alpine Loop follows the ridge line all the way around the cirque.

Running the Ridge Line

Growing old(er) is a two edged sword.  The positive slice is experience and the wisdom that experience brings. The negative slice is a decline in physical abilities, and at least in my case, memories of things unpleasant or hard fades far faster than those memories of excitement and joy.  Some 42 or 43 years ago I hiked the Alpine Loop with teen aged friends; memory serves that it was an exciting backcountry adventure, and although I recall some scrambling over steep and rocky outcrops, I don’t recall it being difficult in anyway. So my expectations on starting the hike/run at about 6:30 am on a warm Saturday morning (it was 47 degrees at the Williams Lake Trailhead, which is at 10,000′ elevation) was that I would cruise along the ridgeline above Williams Lake in a couple of hours, and “run” significant sections of terrain above timberline.

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The GPS track for the Alpine Loop. Starting at the Williams Lake trailhead I went nearly straight up the steep valley that the Kachina Ski Lift now serves, and follow the ridgeline of the Williams Lake Cirque in counter-clockwise fashion. Once the ridge line merges into the high country of the eastern border the course becomes class one trail.

Kachina Peak is near the boundary between the Taos Ski Valley and the Wheeler Peak Wilderness.  The ski lift to the summit of Kachina was only built and opened in 2015 (and by all reviews, provides a spectacular ski venue).  The summit is about a 2000′ climb in elevation from the trail head over about 1.7 miles.

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The view of the climb up Kachina shortly after leaving the Williams Lake Trail Head. The chairlift at the summit is visible in the center of the photo.

There are some service roads supporting the chair lift for about half the accent.  However, I chose to go “full wilderness” and trekked straight up slope.  In places it is quite steep – my nose was only a foot away from the ground slope on some sections of the climb.  The climb is strenuous, but not really difficult.  The reward at the top is a monument of Tibetan prayer flags.  Although beaten and shredded by the strong winds, the monument pays homage to the belief that prayers  blown by the wind will spread the good will and compassion on to the surrounding land.

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The summit of Kachina Peak. Not one of New Mexico’s high peaks, but the beginning of the Williams Lake cirque ridgeline.

The summit of Kachina affords a view of the entire ridge line above Williams Lake. At 7:40 in the morning the sky is a beautiful blue, and surprisingly, there is no wind.  Only the high pitched chirp of a pair of marmots disturbs the scene.

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A view of the journey ahead. My goal is to stay as close to the ridge line as possible. The high peak on the right is Lake Fork; in the middle of the photo is Sin Nombre. From this point until the descent off Wheelers the elevation never drops below 12,200′

The pathway to Lake Fork peak is not difficult.  Within a few hundred yards of Kachina there is no discernible trail to follow, but then it is possible to run — although at a slow pace — until a scramble over a boulder field on the shoulder of Lake Fork.  Along the scramble I pass three different collapsed mine shafts; all small, but nevertheless testament to the hardy breed of prospectors that covered this area in search of gold.  In 1869 placer gold was found near the present site of Red River, about 10 miles north of Williams Lake.  Although not much mining was done for 25 years, but the beginning of the 20th century the Taos block of the Sangre de Cristo was swarming with prospectors.  The mineral potential of the Precambrian rocks of Lake Fork is actually quite small – but it did not stop fortune hunters from exploring even the most inhospitable crags and crannies.

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A small collapsed prospect on the shoulder of Lake Fork. I believe that the prospector was following the vein of white quartz scene in the left part of the photo. The rising sun makes for “interesting” photography!

I had predicted how long it would take me to run/hike the various parts of the Alpine Loop (one could argue that there was zero basis for these predictions, but that has never stopped me in the past).  I summited Lake Fork about 20 minutes behind schedule, and I was feeling that overall the route was actually easy.

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The view from Lake Fork north, back to Kachina. The dome above timberline in the near skyline is Gold Peak.

However, the ill-founded optimism was soon tested.  Lake Fork peak is a smooth summit, and once again it is possible to run along the crest.  However, the descent down, and then up, to Sin Nombre is the first real taste of route finding.  It is not overly difficult, but the progress is cautious and slow.

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Sin Nombre looking back to Lake Fork Peak. The route is along the crest that twists from left back to the center of the photograph.

The views in every direction from Sin Nombre are spectacular.  There is almost no wind, and the sun is bright – the temperature is rising, but still manageable.

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A small, unnamed lake southwest of Sin Nombre. In the distance is the Truchas Peaks, where most of the other highest points in New Mexico reside.

After a nice food break I am ready for what I know will be the most difficult part of the Alpine Loop – the scramble down Sin Nombre followed by the rough climb up to Simpson Peak.  My childhood memories of this scramble are fuzzy – somehow I did not recall that the route ahead – maybe 1.2 miles – was a solid class 4 (the rating scheme states: “Climbing. Rope is often used on Class 4 routes because falls can be fatal. The terrain is often steep and dangerous. Some routes can be done without rope because the terrain is stable”).

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The route to Simpson Peak (Old Mike is a 13er on the right hand skyline). This route alternates between very loose rock (I did take a nasty fall) and climbing. In hindsight it was fun….

It took me over 2 hours to cover the this traverse.  At sixty, and with artificial joints, I forget how inflexible I really am.  My knees barely bend; my hips even less. Climbs that younger hikers could scramble up required the power of prayer for me. I never really thought I could not make it, but it was tough.  However, my slow pace allowed me to experience the full adventure.  As I tumbled down a cornice I spied a spectacular boulder of metagreywacke!

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Precambrian metagreywacke. Ancient sand and clay eroded from an island arc.

This boulder represents the sands and clays that were eroded off the volcanoes forming the continental crust 1.7 billion years ago.  This volcanic detritus was eventually buried and metamorphosed into the banded rock I see in rock before me.

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Looking back at Sin Nombre from the low point between that peak and Simpson Peak. I left some blood on those rocks!

After the long climb back up to Simpson Peak (the peak is named for Smith H. Simpson, who moved to Taos in 1859 and served with Kit Carson), all the tough sections of the Alpine Loop were completed.  Although Simpson Peak is not far from Wheeler peak, it is usually abandoned.  Everyone wants to hike the high point in New Mexico, but ignore all the wonderful summits near by.

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The summit of Old Mike looking toward the east; Eagle Nest is visible in the center of the frame. Old Mike is the third highest peak in New Mexico

From the summit of Simpson Peak it is only a short jog to Old Mike.  Old Mike is the southern most of the high peaks in the Taos block of the Sangre de Cristo.  I love the views from Old Mike – you can see the Truchas in the south, Eagle Nest lake in the east, and the community of Red River to the north.  It is only a mile from Wheeler Peak, but I have the summit and trail back to Wheeler to myself.  Wheeler peak looks like an ant hill from Old Mike with people swarming the top (what a difference that mile makes!).  On the journey over to Wheeler I meet up with a good friend, Dale Anderson.  He is my “pacer” for the journey back to the Williams Lake trailhead.

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Dale Anderson and I at the summit of Wheeler Peak. Windy and always, we see about 50 people on the peak or in various stages of ascent and descent.

Wheeler Peak is a wonderful place – crowded, but still wonderful.  Wheeler Peak is named for George Wheeler who lead one of the great expeditions to map the western US in the 1860s and 70s.  Wheeler was only 27 when he was commissioned to lead an expedition to New Mexico and Arizona in 1869 – he was awestruck with what he found, and in 1871 convinced congress (a difficult feat even in the 19th century!) to fund mapping of the United States west of the 100th meridian on a scale of 8 miles to the inch.  Coarse resolution to be sure, but it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken for the country.

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The view from Wheeler to the west, back over the Alpine Loop. The green marks the tree line in the Williams Lake cirque.

From Wheeler Peak it is a quick jog over to the second highest peak in New Mexico, Mount Walter.  Walter is along the Bull of the Woods trail to Wheeler, so it is fairly well traveled.  However, today no one is on the peak, and the journey of the Taos high country is complete.

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The view from Mount Walter to Old Mike.

The trail from Walter back to the Williams Lake Trailhead is about 3 miles, and drops nearly 3000′.  Some of it is runable, some of it is not when you are tired – but it is all easy.

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Elevation profile for the Alpine Loop (from my GPS track). There is some doubling back, but the profile is 8 miles well above 12,300′ What is missing is the class four scramble….

One last geologic landmark to pass on the Alpine loop is the glacial toe moraine for Williams Lake.  It does not look like much, but it is the last reminder of an ice age past.

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Williams Lake is just beyond the ridge in the center of the photograph. The rubble is the moraine that dams the drainage from the high peaks – in turn creating Williams Lake.

Short Memories for Bad Things

The Alpine Loop is a wonderful wilderness experience.  For much of the trek you are truly alone, and the geology is spectacular.  Sometimes when I plan an adventure I like to frame it in terms of a “run” or “run/hike’ – but those are just tags that really have little meaning to experiencing the wilderness.  It is as congress wrote 52 years ago a place of “other” not of man.  By the way, any memories of the difficult times I had scrambling over loose rock and wondering if this “whole thing was a good idea” are already beginning to fade – what is left is the glow of joy.

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A brief respite from the Class 4 adventure – color in the rocks.

The difference between Metric and USCU: Crashing and burning the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50 miler

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep, Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923).

Star Tracks above the JMTR course. This wonderful photograph by Jim Stein (a magnificent Los Alamos photographer) shows the night sky above the track of the JMTR 50 miler and 50 km course between the Ski Hill and Pipeline Aid Stations. Click on thumbnail photos to get larger images.

On December 11, 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter from Cape Canaveral. The orbiter was approximately a 2 meter cube that contained several instruments designed to map the details of the Martian atmosphere, and cost approximately 330 million dollars. Nine months after launch the satellite began maneuvers to assume an orbit around the red planet – but almost immediately NASA realized something had gone wrong. The orbiter was much closer to the surface of Mars than planned, and it ultimately disintegrated in the weak Martian atmosphere.  An ensuing investigation found that there was a software incompatibility in the orbiter – NASA had assumed metric units in its calculations, and controlling software supplied by Lockheed Martin used USCU (United States Customary Units). Miles vs Kilometers. Marvelous engineering, but the orbiter was lost because a kilometer is much, much different than a mile!

My home town trail ultra run, the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs (JMTR), has gained considerable fame as a challenging set of races – 50 miles, 50 km, and 15 miles (use to be a half marathon, but 13.1 miles is really just a warm up run, so it had to be stretched to 15 miles). I have run the 50 km race several times, and this year took the plunge and switched over to the 50 mile course (which is actually 52.7 miles long – ultra races have a strong culture of not wanting to “cheat” the runners and so usually run long).  It is obvious to even the most causal observer, 50 miles will be a more difficult run than 50 km.  But, it is not just miles (the JMTR 50 km race is 32.8 miles instead of the expected 31 miles – again, “more miles for the dollar”) that make the difference in a 50 km and 50 mile race – it is also time on one’s feet.  For slower runners, like myself, the body goes through stages of trauma when you run for 13 or 14 hours (or even 8 to 10 hours for a 50 km race); these include how your body processes fuel, the cumulative impact of 10s of thousands of joint jarring strikes on the ground as you run along the trail, and blood chemistry changes as muscle tissue breaks down.  A 50 miler becomes a set of different races within the overall run.  Elite runners can complete the JMTR in a little over 8 hours; very talented runners can run the course in 10 to 11 hours. Plodders like myself are several hours after that, and the extra time on the trail has significant consequences that are not intuitive (i.e., just being in the sun for an extra three hours has a tremendous impact on runners).

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Top of Pajarito Mountain, the high point of the JMTR course at 10,440 feet (photo taken the day before the race when I was practicing the descent to the Ski Hill Aid station). The climb to the top is relentless and long – and for 50 milers the climb is done twice. View to the west across the Valle Grande.

I have run about 20 trail ultras of 50 or 55 km length.  Each of these races are unique – terrain, elevation, sand (which is the single worst running surface), weather – so it is difficult to characterize what a “typical” trail race is like.  However, there are some generalities that can be made.  I have run all these races in times between 6hrs and 50 minutes and 8hrs and 55 minutes (so, on average, it takes me about 8 hours to run a trail 50 km ultra). Experience has taught me when to hike and not run, how to fuel during the race, how often I need to drink, and perhaps most importantly, how to mentally deal with being on the trail for 8+ hours. It is fair to say that 50/55 km trail runs no longer intimidate me, nor do I expect to require more than a week or two to recover from a race. But all is not necessarily well: in the last 18 months I have had a noted decline in my expected performance in 50 km races.  I have been slowing, and begun to cramp more often, and walked long sections of the course.  The leap from metric to USCU is huge – those extra 18-20 miles, at the end of a 50 mile race, are much harder than the first 50 km.  The JMTR is very known territory to me, and there is no part of the course that I have not run dozens of times. But putting those segmented runs into one long journey is a true test. 52.7 miles with 11,300 feet elevation gain (and then descent!) is a wild ride.  I will turn 60 years old in a few weeks after the 2016 JMTR – and I figured “what a way to celebrate!).  Unfortunately, NASA Mars missions and my ultra running have some things in common…….

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Running an ultra is unlike any other athletic endeavor – there are parts physical, mental, and luck. Understanding which of these categories is making you miserable is essential. Plus, being a scientist, athletic misery allows infinite analysis!

Running Long: What Happens to the Body

There is a large body of scientific work on optimizing performance in marathons.  For example this paper is a classic: Noakes, T.D., K.H. Myburgh, J. Du Plessis, L. Lang, M. Lambert, C. Van Der Riet, and R. Schall. 1991. Metabolic rate, not percent dehydration, predicts rectal temperature in marathon runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 23(4):443-449 (yes, the investigators convinced some runners to put a thermometer up their rectum….). One is tempted to use this catalogue of studies to understand what is happening to your body during an ultra marathon in the mountains.  However, except for elite runners – the best of the best – the marathon analysis are almost irrelevant.

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Running a marathon, even in a modest 4 hour time (and I say modest 4 hour with respect because it is really very difficult to run a 4 hour marathon!), is an intense athletic endeavor.  Heart rates are typically at 80 percent max or higher, the body is relying on fast twitch muscles, and those muscles are fueled by glycogen which is stored in the muscles and liver.  Typically, marathon runners store enough glycogen to run about 18 miles (and then hit the dreaded “wall” and bonk when unprepared).  Ultra runners of the run-of-the-mill variety typically run at heart rates of 60 or even 50% max.  My maximum heart rate is calculated to be about 165; when I run a competitive 10 km race on the road my heart rate is about 150.  When I run an ultra my heart rate is usually in the 120s.  This means that my body is using more slow twitch muscles, and I am burning less glycogen per mile and more fat.  The figure above is a notational comparison of fuels the body utilizes as a function of intensity of exercise.

Fueling is actually one of the lesser issues for the average ultra runner.  Consuming “real” food every 5 or 10 miles is much different that trying to get sugars into your system like a marathoner does.  The larger issues are hydration, the general breakdown of muscle tissue and the pounding joints take with 10 hours on the trail.  The impact of the muscle tissue breakdown is two fold – the muscle stop performing at their peak, and the byproducts of breakdown enter the blood stream and cause the certain internal organs to work much harder than would be expected for other forms of exercise.

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Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone – it is often called the “stress hormone – and is responsible for the stress response within the body.

There are many different things that happen with muscle breakdown – and joint pounding – but one of the most important responses in the body is the production of cortisol. Cortisol is a powerful regulator of immune response; it is a hormone controlled by the adrenal cortex.  Cortisol is absolutely necessary for normal metabolic functionality.  However, under stress — like hours into an ultra – cortisol becomes elevated. Elevated cortisol levels resulting from physical stress triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. This can be good –  however, over time the high levels of cortisol leads to a state of constant muscle breakdown and suppressed immune function, and a decay of things like “running efficiency”.  One of the biggest differences between marathon runners and average ultra runners is the time the body is exposed to elevated levels of cortisol.  Although every person responds uniquely, all humans degrade in performance over time when exposed to stress.  This is not something that easily translates from one ultra runner to another.

Hydration is an essential element of metabolism.  In general, ultra runners think of hydration as a response to sweating, but in fact, it is mostly a response to heavy breathing, especially in very dry climates. A small number of studies have been performed on ultra runners and they show that on average male runners will loose about 4.4 pounds during a 50 mile run lasting 12-15 hours.  That weight loss is largely water.  Runners probably sweat away about 8 pounds over the same run, but are able to replace about 4 of those pounds by drinking (that equates to 1/2 of a gallon of water).  The rest of the loss effects other facets of the metabolism including the ability to process food and most importantly, cool the brain.  Long runs always generate what is called “central fatigue” which is a gradual decline in the nervous system’s ability to contract muscles.  In other words, your legs stop listening to the signals your brain sends them.  “Run Forrest Run” is a pipe dream at the end of a run not only because your muscles have broken down, but also because your brain is too tired to force the issue.  If your brain gets “hot” due to lack of cooling, the fatigue is greatly accelerated.

Given all these nasty things that happen during an ultra, why run?  Good question, but not one that is easily answered.  For me, more importantly, is “how do I understand WHY I am running the way I am” given the complexity of the human system.  Running an ultra is not a controlled experiment.  Every human is different – but thoughtful analysis can help understand “what happened”.

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Dave Zerkle and I at 4:30 in the morning waiting for the 50 miler to start.

The 2016 JMTR 50 miler

Training for the JMTR 50 was an interesting endeavor this year.  Everyone in Los Alamos waited for a mega snow season promised by a massive El Nino year.  Indeed the El Nino as measured by sea surface temperatures along the equator in the Pacific was the largest in recorded history.

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Sea Surface temperature anomaly for the 1997 and 2015 El Nino cycles. 1997 was a devastating global event, and brought a tripling of normal moisture to the US southwest.

The climate system is quite complex so it is very difficult to “model” and predict the effects of a developing El Nino.  Thus, most climate scientists and certainly most amateur weather forecasters, assume that past systems will do a pretty good job of predicting consequences for the developing system.  Below are the sea surface temperature observations for 1997 and 2015 – and, indeed, they look remarkably similar.  How different could the weather be in winter/spring 1998 and 2016?

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Comparisons of the sea surface temperature anomalies for December 1997 and 2015. The dark brown colors along the equator outline the “warm water pool” that drives the weather conditions that including much more precipitation in the southwest, and generally cooler temperatures.

Well, the answer is “pretty damn different”.  Northern New Mexico got a significant increase in moisture, but it was incredibly uneven in its distribution.  Los Alamos did not get any early snow fall; in fact it only had two large events.  These storms were large enough to produce an adequate ski season, but not like that seen in 1998. The spring was colder than usual, and many small storms dumping a few inches of snow all the way up to the week of the JMTR.  The net effect was that despite the modest snowfall, many of the high country trails in the Jemez were unavailable for running until late April.  This meant training was done closer to town and at elevations that rarely exceeded 8000 feet elevation.  Many miles were run, but the climbs were less excruciating, the air was thick (instead of what we suck down at 10,000′).  When I towed the line for the 2016 50 miler I was uncertain of my fitness – the training was just different.

The JMTR starts at 5:00 am at the Posse Shack (some people get offended at the “Shack” label and prefer “Lodge”, but I grew up here in Los Alamos and we have called it the shack since the 1950s).  I am always impressed at the enthusiasm of the runners before a long day ahead.  However, I had some dread – it was 49 degrees at 5 am, which meant a warm day ahead.  I am not a warm weather runner by any stretch of imagination.  The start of the race is a dance of bouncing light beams from headlamps under a full moon sky.  The first couple of miles are along a rutted single track, and nice easy running.  My only thought was “not too fast, not too fast – it is a very long day”.  By mile three my headlamp is in my hand, but I note that the headband is soaked with sweat.  When we pull into Aid Station 1 we are 5 miles into the course — I can’t help but start the calculator in my brain and think I only have 90% to go!

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GPS track of my JMTR run. The blue line looks so trivial on a oblique view of a topographic map. However, the distance covered is 32.8 miles with 6,917 feet elevation gain.

In all honesty I knew something was not right by the time I left AS 1 – I was only 3 minutes slower than the plan, but I felt like I was wearing concrete galoshes.  My muscles did not hurt, but I was sweating way more than usual, and my face no doubt had the patina of lethargy. The real race starts at about mile 8.25 when the trail descends in Los Alamos Canyon and bottoms out at an elevation of 7,200 feet.  Over the next 8.5 miles the trail points upward to the top of Pajarito Mountain, and an elevation of 10,440 feet.  I pull out my trekking poles in Los Alamos Canyon and along steep segments I switch from a jog to a walk with an occasional power hike.

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Before the long climb up UPCT. Jim Stein photograph.

Aid Station 2 is at an elevation of 8,000 feet and at the 10 mile mark.  I am pretty tired here, but friends volunteer at this station, and that buoys the spirit (plus, thinking that 20 percent of the race is done!).  This is a fueling stop for me, and I grab 4 peanut and jelly squares and begin a walk up the trail.  I always make the same mistake: I grab PandB because it tastes good, but it sticks to the roof of my mouth, and makes it so I can’t breath.  After all these years you would think I would learn, but alas, this year is no different than all the previous races.  At this point my running partner surged on ahead to assure that he could make all the cut off times along the 50 mile course.

At mile 12.4 the climb up Upper Pajarito Canyon Trail (UPCT) starts.  Only 4.5 miles to the top, but the climb is 2100 feet.  The grade is relentless – runnable, but barely – and there are no sections of the trail built for resting.  Unfortunately for me on this day, nothing is runnable.  I am into power hiking at best, and it takes 1 1/2 hours to reach the summit.  I feel okay, but seem to be trapped in a gravitational well – everything is heavy and time is not particularly linear. I pause at the summit, and get out my iPhone to take a picture.  However, my hands are so swollen that my finger print will not activate the phone. I fold up my trekking poles and begin what should be a quick – at least 12 or 13 minutes/mile – run down to the Ski Hill Aid Station.

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Coming into AS 3, at Pajarito Ski Hill. I am right at the time I predicted for “TROUBLE”, about 45 minutes behind schedule.

The aid station is at mile 18.1.  By my schedule I should have arrived at 9:30, and I had noted that if I arrive at 10:15 am then I am in trouble.  I arrive at 10:17 – I am pretty despondent. I have run this segment of trail (or some approximation of it) at least 20 times in the last 3 years.  Only twice before have I been slower.  My wife is at the aid station, and this always lifts my spirits.  I down a tall glass of coca cola, feast on watermelon, eat a handful of potato chips for salt (plus I love potato chips…), and ponder the rest of the run.  My joints – in particular the one knee that has not replaced – ache, and my feet hurt.  I decide to walk and trot to the next aid station and make the decision on whether to switch to the 50 km race or continue along the 50 mile route.  There is a cutoff time of 12:30 pm at AS 4 for 50 milers; any runners arriving after this time MUST change to the 50 km course.  I arrive at the AS in plenty of time – about 11:10 am.  But this is much later than I imagined I would be here.  The die is cast, and I decide I will only run the 50 km course.  Better to finish a race than be stranded at a distant aid station.  I call this the point of shame, or more categorically, the metric/english units point of debacle.  50 km is no 50 miles.  Crash and burn in the Martian atmosphere.

There is a brief bright spot at the Pipeline Aid Station. They have ice!  It seems so hot now (the weather station back at the ski hill registered a temperature of 71 degrees), and the ice is a god send.  I fill my water bottle with ice (and in my mind I apologize to all the runners that will come after me because I am hogging this crystalline commodity!), and make the turn realizing I only have 12 miles to go.  12 miles is nothing – literally, a training run of 12 miles is what I do on a short day.  However, I am incredibly slow – mostly walking for a couple of miles until I reach an important junction on the course between pipeline road and Guaje Ridge trail (which is almost exactly 10 miles to the finish).  Just a week earlier I had been marking this section of the course with flagging, and thinking that I was going to romp down this trail at breakneck speed.  Nope.  The sun was blazing, and there were strong gust of wind that were so dry I was worried about becoming a mummified seismologist.

I ran the wonderful section of single track at about 15 minutes/mile.  Occasionally walking for motivation, but most running.  Only an ultra runner would understand the difficulty with running at this point in a race.  Standing or walking there is NO pain; however, try to run, and the body just does not respond.  It is curious, but it is a response to the trauma that the joints have experienced earlier in the day. After a slow 2 miles I pull into the Mitchell Trail Aid Station, and know I am only 8.1 miles from the end!  2 weekends ago I had run this last section in 1 hr and 36 minutes.  Well, that past run really meant nothing.  The lower Guaje Ridge trail is beautiful as far as single track is concerned – but is sort of sucks as far as being a scenic racetrack.

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The 2000 Cerro Grande fire completely denuded Guaje Ridge. No trees were left alive, and most were burned to the ground. The lower Guaje Ridge is beginning to recover, but barely. It is a barren landscape.

The sun is blazing, and I am drinking quite a bit of water as I head out on the home stretch.  As often is the case in my ultras, I drink what I think is a lot of water to accommodate my ridiculous sweating.  However, I almost never have to urinate during the 8-10 hour run.  I have water sloshing in the belly, but it never makes it to the badder.  Today is no exception.  A crude calculation indicates I have consumed about 1.6 gallons of fluid up to this point, which must have come out my pores (one of the joys of being a scientist on an ultra is that you can use that long, lonely time on the trail to calculate things – lots of things.  This run I calculated the amount of fluid I consumed, the effects of Martian gravity on energy use during a run, the total amount of water I must have breathed in given a humidity of 10 percent, and of course, how I was going to survive the next four years no matter who was elected president).  Although I am running okay I am mostly irritated that this section of the course is no fun.  Mile after mile it is just exercise.  3 miles from the end I here a call of my name – it is my wife! She climbed up to the Mitchell Trail Aid Station, arrived 20 minutes behind me, and ran me down so she could pace me to the finish.  How amazing!  The last 3 miles are brutal, but as enjoyable as any I have run in the JMTR.  When we pull into the last Aid Station at 30.6 miles I see so many friends volunteering.  I feel like Norm walking into the bar on Cheers – everyone knows my name and are so kind and helpful. What a wonderful near-end to the race.

I still have 2 miles to the race end, and I decide just to walk.  It is way slower than I have ever done, but I climb up through the deep ruts carved in the Bandolier Tuff, and stumble back into the Posse Shack.  Slowest 50 km ever, but done nevertheless.

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My fourth JMTR 50 km run was by far my hardest. But, the finisher pottery — front and center — was just as sweet as all the rest.

Mind over Matter (or Madder)

The JMTR has left me with worry and concern.  I have seen a significant decline in my long distance running in the last 18 months.  I have actually improved my short distance (10 km) speed, but anything over 3 hours seems to trigger a reaction in my body and performance wanes.  I remain a determined climber, but slopes that I use to bound up I now hike up.  In a few weeks I will turn 60 so there is a tendency to attribute this decline to growing older.  However, it is much more precipitous than any maturity curve would suggest.  I have struggled with no longer having a functioning thyroid, but again, this decline seems to outsize even that.  Overtraining, under training, joint pain, workplace stress – all things that could effect my athletic performance (I barely can type athletic performance in any sentence I write about myself).  I need to refocus, and consider all the possible factors, and enter the next phase of wandering in the wilderness.

Running an Ultra at Moab; Slickrock, Arches and Salt Tectonics

This is the most beautiful place on earth…Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary…For myself, I’ll take Moab, Utah…The slick-rock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that which lies beyond the end of the roads. Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (1968).

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View across Arches National Park towards the La Sal Mountains taken the day before the Behind the Rocks Ultra. The La Sals are a Laramie laccolithic range, and sit on top of the Jurassic sandstones that have been carved into spires and arches in the Park. Click on many thumbnail photo to get a full sized view.

My first visit to Moab, Utah was in the late 1960s when I accompanied my father on a mineral collecting adventure in search of exotic uranium and vanadium minerals.  Moab was perhaps the most famous modern mining boomtown in the world in the mid-1950s, but had already begun its decline by the late 1960s.   I don’t recall much about the mineral collecting part of the journey, but etched in my mind was the magical vista of carved rocks only a few miles north of Moab — Arches National Monument (today it is Arches National Park).  Arches was pretty much the end of the world in the late 1960s, and when we pulled in to a campsite late in the evening I don’t recall seeing another sole until we left the monument late the next evening. In the morning, as the sun rose I recall seeing a bizarre landscape of red-brown spires and towers.  We hiked out a trail and saw a dozen delicate arches – improbable spans of carved rock – that defied gravity.  Today I don’t recall what trail we hiked, or which arches we visited, but it was a seminal experience on my journey to becoming a naturalist.

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Double Arch, in Arches National Park. This is a “pothole arch” that was formed by water erosion from above – not the standard way arches are constructed.

A few years after that visit to Moab I was enrolled in a contemporary literature class in High School, and I was assigned to read a modern novel;  I picked Edward Abbey’s Desert SolitaireA Season in the Wilderness. It is a non-fiction book that really is a series of essays by Abbey about his experiences as a ranger on the Colorado Plateau.  Chapter one is about Abbey’s time as a park ranger in Arches National Monument in the summer of 1956 (the year I was born).  I can honestly say that Desert Solitaire, and especially chapter one, was the first book I ever read that gripped me with emotion.  Abbey’s descriptions of Arches, and of the conflict and symbiosis between man and nature (with no answers by the way!) was pure passion.

I read an advertisement for an ultra run in a wilderness study area area just south of Moab, and decided it was something I had to do.  I imagined running on the slick rock – the recreational name of the hard sandstones of the Colorado Plateau – and pausing to take photographs of the arches and spires would be an ultimate ultra.  The race was relatively early in the year, and the miles would serve as training for the tough 50 milers to come. But the real adventure was returning to Arches.

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Google Earth image of the area around Moab, Utah. The town of Moab sits in a northwest-southeast trending valley that was created by the collapse of a salt diapir. The landscape is dominated by the reddish colored Jurassic sandstones and the tall La Sal Mountains.

Carving Sandstone

The delicate arches and spires of Moab are the result of millions of years of geologic processes — there are far more rock arches (thousands!) in the area than anywhere in the world — and the story as to “why” is quite complex. The Colorado Plateau is a unique and amazing place; and every “geology” story about the Plateau has to start with the remarkable layered cake stack of sedimentary rocks that accounts for nearly 1/9 of the entire history of the Earth.  As I have written before, these sandstones, limestones, shales and coal beds of the Plateau were  deposited along the margin of the proto-North American continent.  That ancient continent drifted from equator to equator over a period of 500 million years, but the margin of the continent was remarkably stable.  Today the Plateau covers some 150,000 square miles, and has been lifted gently up to an average elevation of about 5,200′ (the mile-high table!). Wandering through the rocks today tells the long story of the continental margin;  sometimes it was below sea level, sometimes it was a continental swap like the bayou of Louisiana, and sometimes is was a dry desert covered with sand dunes.

tectonicsParadox

Regional tectonics of southeastern Utah (from Nuncio and Condon, 1996). The Paradox Basin is an oblong, northwest trending feature that developed some 300 million years ago. The Paradox Basin was on the margin of the Uncompahgre Uplift to the northeast, and was marine basin that occasionally was uplifted and eventually filled with a thick sequence of evaporates including salt.

The present day geology of the area around Moab began to take shape about 320 million years ago.  Northeast of Moab was a large continental highlands knowns as the Uncompahgre uplift or plateau.  The formation history of this highlands was complex (and still much debated), but it clearly was associated with the creation of the super continent Pangea.  The highlands stretched for many hundreds of miles along the edge of the continent, and sediment was eroded from the mountains and hills and transported to the southwest and deposited in marine trough that today we call the Paradox Basin.  The regional geologic map above depicts the basin as an oval – about 190km in length on a northwest-southeast axis, and 95 km across at its widest point. The filling of the Paradox basin with debris occurred during what is known as the Carboniferous Period (so named because huge deposits of coal were deposited across northern Europe, Asia, and midwestern and eastern North America).  The Paradox basin had limited circulation from the ancient ocean, and would occasionally (over a period of millions of years) evaporite, and deposit salt (halite) and gypsum.  This salt would later pay an extraordinary role in shaping the topography and delicate rock architecture of Moab that we see today.

Mississippian

Notional geological cross section through the Paradox Basin about 310 million years before the present (from Baars and Stevenson, 1981). The “salt” contains both halite and gypsum.

The maximum salt thickness was on the order of a kilometer, although thinner on the southwestern margin of the basin.  Eventually the Uncompahgre uplift met its demise, and was mostly eroded away; the Paradox Basin was subsequently covered by the great sand dunes of the Jurassic and Triassic periods (250-150 million years ago), and then the shallow marine mudstones and shales of the Cretaceous (150-70 mybp).

moabvalleycrosssection

A cross section through Spanish Valley from southwest to northeast.  Arches National Park is the surface on the right hand side of the figure (from Mueller, 2013).  During the Laramide the geologic column was squeezed from left-to-right in the figure, and the layered cake geology was bent upward in an anticline.  Eventually fractures in the hard rocks at the top of the anticline allowed water to circulate into the deep salt deposits which dissolved and moved away causing the anticline to collapse.

The large stack of sediments that covered the salt and sediments in the Paradox Basin were relatively undisturbed for several hundred million years.  However, about 70 million years ago the entire west coast of the continental mass that would become North America began to be compressed and shortened. This tectonic episode was known as the Laramide Orogeny, and much of what is the western US today was faulted and thrusted into a series of basins and high mountains — imagine an accordion being squeezed.  The Colorado Plateau rocks as a whole resisted the faulting, and really acted as a nearly rigid block.  However, over the 30 million years of the Laramide, the Plateau began to deform and reactivating ancient deeply buried structures.  In the Paradox Basin this deformation was expressed as a series of folds – synclines and anticlines.  The Spanish Valley, which can be seen in the Google Earth figure above, was one of these anticlines (usually called the Moab Anticline)  The anticline had a strike of northwest-southeast, and Moab is located at the northwestern end.  Anticline-Syncline folding is known the world over, but there was a special ingredient in the Paradox Basin – salt!  When squeezed salt does not act like a brittle rock; it flows like tar.  The folding caused the salt to flow into dome-like diapirs, which further bowed up the sedimentary rocks that lay above the salt.  This enhanced doming eventually fractured the overlying sedimentary rocks, which, in turn allowed surface waters to descend and interact with the salt.  The salt slowly dissolved, and the resulting brine exited to the surface.  This eventually called the doming sedimentary rocks to collapse.  Spanish Valley is a long, collapsed anticline (the figure above shows a notional cross section near Moab).  The collapse occurred along steep faults, leaving cliffs on either side of the valley.  The cliffs to the southwest, which is called the Moab Rim, are much steeper and higher than those to the northeast.

joints

Ariel view of joints in the Entrada Sandstone along the flank on the Salt Valley anticline.  These joints serve as the seeds for erosion and the development of rock “fins” that eventually can form arches. From Mueller, 2013

The doming of the Jurassic sandstones above the salt beds of the Paradox Basin is a key ingredient in the creation of the rock arches that dot the Moab area.  Unlike salt, sandstone is quite brittle, and responds to the doming by developing cracks, or joints.  In turn, these joints allow water to penetrate into the formation, and through a process of freeze-thaw in the winter the sandstone is broken into a series of “fins” or thin slices of rock.

fins.good

A view to the northwest from Windows Arches towards a whole series of sandstone fins – future arches!

These thin sheets can then be further eroded along the steep faces exposed.  A complex interaction between water dissolving some of the sandstone through erosion and “stress hardening” on the remaining rock, holes are carved.

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North Windows Arch. The arch was carved in a fin of Entrada Sandstone (which was formed some 160-180 million years ago from beach dunes). Below the Entrada is the Navajo sandstone.

Eventually the erosion will win, and the supporting struts of the arch will no longer be strong enough to support the span heavy rock.  There are about 2000 mapped arches in Arches National Park, and about 45 have collapsed since Edward Abbey was a park ranger.  No where else on Earth  is there a concentration of natural stone arches that comes close to matching the Park.  But the landscape is ephemeral – the great arches today will be gone in a thousand years, and replaced by new carvings.  In addition to the arches there are large numbers of impressive spires and towers – all stages of the battle against erosion.

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The Organ – an impressive tower of Entrada Sandstone.

Running the Behind the Rocks 50km Ultra

Behind the Rocks is a region south of Moab on the upturned limb of the Moab Anticline.  Much of the area of the ultra race skirts the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Area – and underfoot is almost exclusively the Jurassic age Navajo Sandstone.  The vistas are fins and arches of Entrada Sandstone, but the Navajo controls the footing. After my disastrous experience of blisters from running in exactly the same sand at the Antelope Canyon Ultra, I was fully fortified with extra socks, bandaids, mole skin, and a magic talisman. Traveling to the starting line from Moab means a very early morning drive, and the starting line is a cold 31 degrees.

moonoverstart

A crescent moon over the Behind Rocks Ultra starting line. First trail ultra I have been in where you are issued a chip for timing – really! For me an sand hour glass would do.

The cold temperature temperature means lots of hopping around trying to stay warm, but I know that cold is much better for me.  The 50 km course mainly follows jeep trails, old and new.  The newer ones are covered with fine sand, but the older ones are mostly like single track trails.  The course is dominantly downhill for the first half of the race – which, unfortunately, means that it is all uphill for the miles 16-32.25!

coursemap

GPS track for my version of the Behind the Rocks ultra – I say my version, because I was not always sure I was on the prescribed course – especially in the second half when I only briefly saw runners pass me with the standard “looking good buddy”. Lying is a skill ultra runners perfect.

I planned for the run out to the turn around point to take 3 hrs and 10 minutes (the turn around point is at just a hair under 16 miles).  In fact, it took me 3 hrs and 18 minutes, which is probably the first time one of my ultra running plans came together (I would have actually been right on schedule if the final drop down Hunters Canyon was not apparently a bouldering course).  The first 3 miles of the race are the usual madness with 150 runners sorting themselves out.  I averaged 11 min/mile (I had to hold back because I knew it was a long day).  The first landmark is Prostitute Butte – I have no idea as to the origin of the name, and no one I talked to had a plausible explanation.

prostitebutte

The sun was just raising above the La Sal mountains when we arrived at Prostitute Butte a large Entrada Sandstone rock – isolated from any surrounding fins or ridges.

Running is easy in over the first 10 miles, although I am mostly passed by better runners, and only occasionally pass a newbe that went out too fast.  The north side of Prostitute Butte has a nice arch named Picture Frame.

T-arch2

Picture Frame Arch from the ultra course. Early morning shadows subdue the contrast, but is a pretty square arch!

After mile 6.5 the course mostly follows Hunters Canyon. It is scenic and pretty easy running although there are patches that require technical acumen.  There are a couple of stream crossings – mostly because it rained and snowed this week.  The stream water served to cool my feet; as the sun rose it seemed that temperature jumped up to the 60s.  I doubt it was that warm in the morning, but I was dripping sweat from my hat.

downHC2

Descending down Hunters Canyon. There are runners ahead of me in the lower right of the photograph. I caught this group climbing out of the  aid station at the turn around…perhaps a first for me.

I kept a close eye on my pace, and was very pleased that I was right on schedule….then mile 15 came, and the trail dropped down Hunters Canyon to the turn around aid station.  The trail suddenly had narrow ledges, big drops where you hopped from boulder to boulder, and lots of scrambling that required both hands.  Unfortunately, I still have a brace on my right hand due to a fractured thumb.  It took a full twenty minutes to get to the aid station!

elevationprofile

Elevation profile for the Behind the Rocks ultra. The final descent into the turn around point is as vertical as it appears in this profile. The long climb up from miles 17-24 required me to listen to my nanopod and hope that Celtic Punk would spur me on. However, the first song that came up was AC/DC and Highway to Hell….coincidence or Karma?

My total time for the ultra by my garmin watch was 7hrs 42 minutes. But, to be honest, I turned off my watch at the Hunters Canyon aid station while I changed shoes and socks, and redid the mole skin on my feet.  First time in a race that I completely changed out my foot gear – it felt great, although it is debatable whether it had any effect on my performance.  After the change, I switched back on the watch, and now I had to scramble up the same boulder field.  Strangely, it was easier going up, and I passed at least two dozen people. But after mile 17 the course is just a grind – a constant climb. Not too steep, but relentless.  I was much slower than I planned on from mile 17-24 (at least 3 minutes/mile).  Runners began to pass me, but NOT runners from the 50 km race, but runners from the 50 mile race.  The 50 milers started 1 hour before us, and now were passing me after having run an additional 18 miles. Wow – but I was pretty sure they did not know as much seismology as I do.

LaSalwelcome

The view at mile 22 – in the background are the La Sal mountains, white capped with this weeks snow. I was hoping for some of that snow to cool me off.

The final 8 miles of the course is steep downhill, and 2 mile climb, and then what should be a nice sprint to the finish line.  I was slow – finishing about 40 minutes slower than I had planned.  However, It was just great to finish in under 8 hours. I drank an estimated 1.5 gallons of liquid during the race (and 4 cups of coffee before the start!), but I did not urinate during the race, or for 3 hours afterwards. Man I sweat a lot!

swag

The swag for completing the race is a black cow bell. I assume to cheer other racers on, but it could be to wear to ward off bears.

Perfectly Fragile

I was excited to return to Moab – the geology is fabulous.  However, it was not the experience I longed for.  It was the last weekend for spring break for most families, and Moab was crowded with adventure seekers.  Unfortunately, the adventure most of the people seek is loud and dusty.  During the last few miles of the ultra race I was constantly passed by speeding dirt bikes and modified four wheel drive vehicles with grotesquely oversized tires.  The isolated high altitude desert that Abbey wrote about is largely gone.  It is hypocritical to wish that others did not intrude on my sense of place – today the United States has 324 million; in 1956 (the year Abbey was a park ranger here) it was 180 million.  The land belongs to all the people,  and I can’t claim some sense of primacy.

What I see in Moab is a collision with the delicate and fragile sense of nature in the here and now. The arches are temporary, and are something that will only be present for a million years.  Eventually all the Entrada Sandstone will be gone.  The fact that it is spectacularly beautiful today is a happy accident – or perhaps a challenge to humanity.  I watched as families marveled at the arches; but others wanted to climb them, scuff the rock, and treat them as personal garbage.  I mostly leave Moab sad.

lastone

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Picture is taken early the morning after the race and before the crowds arrive. What I see in the picture is a sandy beach 170 million years ago that was eventually covered and compressed to a hard sandstone. 60 million years ago it was uplifted by a salt diapir, and eventually carved into the arch people photograph daily. It will be gone within a hundred years.

The Serenity of Big Volcanoes: Recovery Running around Kilauea

The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it – imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire! Mark Twain, on his visit to Kilauea in June, 1866.

Halemaumau

Halemaumau – a crater within a crater. Halemaumau is a crater within the large summit crater of Kilauea, and has been active with lava lakes rising and falling in the last 2 years. This photo is from about a mile away and 1,500 feet above Halemaumau. The smoke is one of the main reasons the crater trail is closed. Click on any photo for full sized view.

Few things are more inspiring to a geoscientist, and disappointing to the average visitor, than the volcanoes of the Big Island of Hawaii.  In the last three quarters of a million years volcanic activity has built one of the largest mountains on Earth; in geologic terms this is almost a quantum time unit! Hawaii has 5 volcanic centers (and a sixth is waiting to emerge above sea level southeast of the island) which built a land mass with a surface area of over 4000 sq miles above sea level and has two summits topping 13,600 feet (Mauna Loa at 13,680′ and Mauna Kea at 13,800′ above sea level).  However, the average person that visits the Big Island is disappointed because these giants don’t have the crags and steep elevation gradients of stratvolcanoes like Mt. Rainier or Mt. St. Helens. True to their name, Hawaiian shield volcanoes the are shaped like the overturned shallow bowl shields of ancient Roman warriors.

firstsight

First glimpse of Hawaii on a flight from the mainland. On the left is the summit of Mauna Kea, and in the distance is Mauna Loa. The distance between the coastline in the picture and the summit of Mauna Kea is only 20 miles – making for spectacular prominence! But, alas, for most this view does not captivate.

These gentle giants are formed by thousands of eruptions that pour out basaltic lava that has the viscosity of hot syrup – and when it cools it leaves a simple layered stack of black rock.  Rarely are Hawaiian eruptions violent – no towering clouds of hot ash reaching 50,000′ above the surface of the Earth, or decapitating the tops of mountains like the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  We like our geology violent…hence, the oft repeated comments at Volcanoes National Park, “is this all there is?  where is the lava?” When Mark Twain visited kilauea in 1866 he professed to being very disappointed.  He eventually warmed to the volcano, but was surprised at its “bland character”.

However, to the geoscientist, the enormity of Hawaii is spellbinding.  So much melted rock gives witness to the dynamics of a young and hot planet.  This is one of the wonders of the world that is so much bigger than mankind.  I have to frequently travel to Oahu for business, and I was able to stitch together a brief vacation on the Big Island which is coincident with the recovery period after running the Antelope Canyon Ultra.  There is no better way to experience geology than to run along the rocks;  recovery means sore legs (and in my case very tender feet), so the runs have to be short and slow (even slower than usual).  I planned a couple of short runs around Kilauea and long naps next to the wonderful beaches of the Kona Coast.  Running rejuvenated my body, but Kilauea soothed my soul.

Geologic map of the State of Hawai'i [Plate 8: Geologic map of the island of Hawai'i [scale 1:250,000]]

Geologic Map of the Big Island (scale 1:250,000).  The colors are largely related to age since all the rocks are pretty damn similar – basalt.  From the north (top of the map) the volcanoes are Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea (all the red colored units).

Kilauea – Erupting since 1983!

The geology map of Hawaii resembles the tee-shirts seen at a Grateful Dead concert.  Colorful and vaguely psychedelic, the map is mostly stripes delineating lava flows.  The figure above shows the slow and steady march of the volcanoes to the south and east.  Kohala is now extinct, and Mauna Kea’s last eruption was more than 4500 years ago.  This volcanic trend, extending to all the Hawaiian Islands and the Emperor Seamount Chain located to the northwest, was one of the most mysterious geologic observations, and awaited the paradigm of plate tectonics for an explanation.  In 1963 J. Tuzo Wilson proposed that a “hot spot” caused all these volcanic islands – this hot spot was an upwelling of very hot mantle material  that melted through the cold oceanic plate (the Pacific Plate) as it moved to the northwest.  Imagine a blow torch beneath a piece of slowing moving tar paper.  The torch will melt the tar and leave a linear scar depicting the direction of motion of the tar paper.  Although Wilson’s hot spot model was a huge intellectual leap forward during the formative days of plate tectonics, it is now considered to be a gross simplification of a very complex process.  No matter, the theory does capture the fact that huge amounts of molten rock have reached the surface and built the Hawaiian Islands – and provides insight that Hawaii will continue to grow for millions of years into the future, with land masses emerging to the southeast of today’s Big Island (a far more benign process than what the Chinese are doing in the Spratly Islands….).

thelongclimb

The summit of Mauna Loa from the crater of Kilauea. The passing of the guard – Kilauea is now the most active volcano in the world, and sits some 9000 feet between the summit of Mauna Loa.

Kilauea is now the center of volcanic activity on Hawaii.  Eruptions might still occur on Mauna Loa (likely), Hualalai (plausible) and Mauna Kea (probably not), but Kilauea is spewing out basalt at prodigious rate, and in a few hundred thousand years will have a summit about 13,000 feet.  I first visited Kilauea in 1984 as a relatively new faculty member on a boondoggle (field trips are one of the main reasons scientists choose “geology” as a profession).  My visit corresponded with the one year anniversary of the an eruption on Kilauea – an eruption that has continued to today!

halemaumaufromdistance

Peering into Kilauea Crater from smoking cliffs. The view is disconcerting – below the grassy lip of the crater there is a 1500′ drop and then a nearly flat parking lot like layer of basalt. In the distance is a second crater, Halemaumau, which presently has a lave lake 300’below its crater lip.

On that first visit I got to hike through the Kilauea Crater, and right up to Halemuamau.  The 1983 eruption was producing lava several miles to the southeast of the crater, and there was little activity to indicate molten rock was ascending from some 60 km beneath the surface and collecting in shallower magma chambers.  Once the lava erupted it flows down the slopes of Kilauea into the sea. The focus of volcanic activity then was along what is called the southeastern rift zone; there were occasional fountains of lava out of a crater called Pu`u `Ō`ō, but it was not visible from the Kilauea Crater.

kilaueacaldera_geo

Eruptions near Kilauea crater. Although only a few of the eruptions of Kilauea surface in the crater, there are numerous flows that constantly remake the landscape. Recovery Trail Runs were in Kilauea Iki, a path along Chain of Craters Road, and Keanakakoi Crater.

I have visited Kilauea many times since 1984, mostly because my wife had a post doctoral stint (1992-1994) with the USGS and worked on the geodetics of Kilauea.  Although it is common to think of Kilauea as a shield volcano, therefore, like its older brothers Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, it is in fact very different at this stage of its development.  The magma being erupted from Kilauea most closely resembles the magma erupted from Mauna Kea.  So despite appearances – and being located high on the flank of Mauna Loa – Kilauea is the southwestern extension of Mauna Kea.

riftzone.better

A tectonic map of Kilauea. There are three important features: the summit crater, the southwest rift and the east rift zone. As Kilauea builds on the slope of Mauna Loa the weight of eruptive lava flows “pull away” from the summit and slide towards the sea opening up the rift zones.

Every time Kilauea erupts and lava pours out, it travels down hill towards the Pacific ocean.  As the lava cools it places a load on the Mauna Loa slope; this load eventually is too much for the slope to support and a wedge is “torn” away.  This wedge is defined by the summit crater, southwest rift zone, and east rift zone.  This “tearing” is really the odd shaped pie piece sliding downhill.  The tearing opens up creates other pathways for the magma stored beneath Kilauea to erupt on to the surface.  Until Kilauea grows tall enough to minimize the elevation head of Mauna Loa the rift zones will continue to have eruptions.

lavaflowsinarow

Picture a lava flows exposed on the Chain of Craters Road. This is actually a tilted stack of basalt sheets. I took this picture on the Chain of Craters run.

This means that the volcano is not growing in a simple way – it builds, slips, and starts a new cycle of building that could be anywhere along the rift zones or the summit.  What is remarkable about the present eruption is that every part of the volcano has been active at one time or another; it started in east rift zone 10 miles from the summit and over a five year period 1 cubic mile of lava poured out.  In the 1990s the Pu`u `Ō`ō crater collapsed and numerous other new, smaller craters located northwest of Pu`u `Ō`ō opened up. Eventually, the volcanic center returned to Pu`u `Ō`ō, and by 2005 another couple of cubic miles of lava had flowed forth. In 2011 the volcanic activity shifted to the Kilauea Crater and southwestern rift zone, and on April 24, 2015, lava overflowed  Halema’uma’u crater within Kilauea.  It was this event that ultimately led to the closing of the trails and hiking near Kilauea.

volume

Volume of lava erupted from Kilauea in the last 200 years. The strong uptick in volcano growth on the right hand side of the chart is due to the present ongoing eruption.

It is difficult to fathom the rapid nature of the changes on Kilauea.  For a geoscientist it is like watching a movie at 100 times normal viewing speed.  The rocks may all look the same – black basalt – but face of the volcano is changing a rate that is similar to the changes in my own face (sags here and there, some age spots, and teeth falling out).  Running on rocks younger than me – way younger in some cases – is a unique experience!

runningonKilaueasIki

Running on the floor of Kilauea Iki. The basalt beneath my feet is from the 1959 eruption. Ever so slowly, trees are trying to reclaim the landscape.

Running on Rock Younger than Me

When I first envisioned this mini-vacation on the Big Island I thought I would try the ultimate volcano trail run — up to the summit of Mauna Loa from a trail head located near Kilauea.  The run starts at 6,000′ and over 19 miles climbs 7,500′ with traverses of rough lava flows interspersed with clumps of forest.  However, a 38 mile round trip — unsupported — was a total pipe dream.  Especially after running a 55 km ultra only days before arriving in Hawaii.  My next plan was to run through Kilauea Crater and recreate the hikes I experienced on my first visit. However, the plan was foiled when I found that the crater was off limits since the Halemaumau lava lake rose, and there was a significant increase in SO2 emissions (a very toxic gas!).  This meant that I was on to plan C, the best idea anyway.  I spent 2 days on 3 runs of modest distance (4-8 miles), and just enjoyed the rocks.

kileauaIka2

The trail across Kilauea Iki. The view is approximately 1 mile to the southern rim.  A pathway can be made out streaking across the center of the frame.

The first run was down and across a crater located just southeast of Kilauea Crater, Kilauea Iki (see the map above – it is the green colored crater).  The trail is well maintained but rocky and challenging for a run.  Over a mile the path way drops 600 feet from the trail head to the Iki floor.  The Iki floor is a smooth surface, occasionally interrupted by fissures and blowouts. The age of the floor is easy to calculate – it is the 1959 eruption!  The rock is 3 years younger than me.  The race across the crater floor is easy and relatively fast (although fast is a relative term). The run from south to north in the crater took about 14 minutes – but then there is a long climb back up towards the rim.  The climb up is through thick vegetation – Iki is located right between the wet and dry side of Hawaii, and mists are a constant running companion.  The total trip is 4.5 miles; but the rain and mist meant that we had the crater nearly to our selves!

treestump

One of the many bizarre basalt structures in the 1974 flow. The hole in the lower left of the figure is where the lava surrounded a tree – it eventually burned the tree away leaving a tunnel behind, and a lava clump to mark the former timber stand.

The next day I completed two other runs along the east rift zone (or more accurately, along the Chain of Craters Road).  The trails here wander from small crater to small crater.  Any crater older than about 30 years is being reclaimed by the vegetation.  The landscape is eery and strange.  Long sheets of basalt, but occasionally these sheets are covered with mounds – it sort of looks like volcanic acne.  These mounds are monuments to former stands of tall trees.  As the lava flowed downhill the trees impeded the progress, some lava chilled and became solid around the burning tree trucks.  These chilled regions built up mounds – and today the mounds have perfect holes throughout where tree trucks where eventually burned away.  The figure above is one of these basalt pimples, and you can see the round “tube” of a former trunk in the lower left of the photo.  The most impressive flow on the run was from an eruption in 1974 (the same year I graduated from high school).  The lava is remarkable smooth, and easy running.  However, once you step off the flow it is extremely difficult running.  The total distance covered was just under 8 miles.  The run ends near a truly spectacular view of the ocean across a series of high cliffs, known as Pali.

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Looking down towards the sea – 4 miles away, and a 2000′ drop. There are a series of steep cliffs, known as the Pali, that mark the breaking and sliding away of the stack of lava flows.

The Pali are fault scraps cutting across the lava flows – these scarps are the weak zones that fail once the load of basalt becomes too large.

faults

Fault map of the southeastern side of Hawaii. The faults represent breakaway regions sliding the load created by the basalt towards the deep ocean. Each of the faults has a significant scar – a large cliff known as “pali” in Hawaiian.

Running down the scarps is easy work except the views are run-stopping.  This trail run is all on the dry side of Hawaii, so no pesky trees to obscure the view.  I was a graduate student at Caltech when seismologist began to model the seismograms from exotic sources, and the 1975 Hawaii earthquake, with an epicenter within the Pali, proved to have a source mechanism that it is consistent with a large landslide.  The 1975 event is the largest Hawaiian earthquake (or, more precisely, landslide induced earthquake), and had a magnitude of 7.2 and caused a 12 m high local tsunami.

intoseaII

The edge of Hawaii – although the flows and pali continue far out to sea.  The total elevation of Mauna Loa, as measured from the sea floor, is about 56,000 ft.  Nearly twice the height of Everest, but no high camp or oxygen is required to summit.

At the ocean my runs end – sort of trivial in terms of distance, but perfect therapy for recovery from an ultra run.  Actually, the real recovery was to my soul.  Immersed in the geologic equivalent to a black hole, all the trials and tribulations of the last 2 months seem like back ground noise.  Relaxed.

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Sunset on the Kona Coast. Waves framing a sun disappearing behind Maui off in the distance.

 

Paradise Lost: Running on the edge of Lake Powell

Light. Space. Light and space without time, I think, for this is a country with only the slightest traces of human history. In the doctrine of the geologists with their scheme of ages, eons and epochs all is flux, as Heraclitus taught, but from the mortally human point of view the landscape of the Colorado is like a section of eternity—timeless, Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire (1968).

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Horse Shoe Bend, on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. It is this narrow canyon that provided the geologic framework for a dam built in the early 1960s that flooded hundreds of canyons upstream. Click on any photo to get fill sized views.

On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and 9 other men pushed four boats into the Green River and began one of the most challenging and legendary geologic adventures in history. Over the course of a little more than 3 months, Powell explored one of the last great unknowns – the course of the Colorado River and depths of the Grand Canyon.  The journey is mostly known for its harrowing traverse of the Grand Canyon, but along the way Powell’s expedition also found many amazing geologic features of the Colorado Plateau.  On August 3, 1869 Powell entered a series of meandering canyons in carved sandstone.  From his journal: “On the walls, and back many miles into the country, numbers of monument shaped buttes are observed. So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features — carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Cañon. “

powell3

J.W. Powell’ carved his name Navajo Sandstone at Music Temple in Glen Canyon on the second expedition. Music Temple was (it is underwater now!) a large amphitheater or grotto in a side canyon that was said to echo musical notes with great fidelity.

Powell’s adventure captivated the nation, but from a scientific standpoint it was beset with difficulties – lost data, lost instruments, and deserting crew.  This motivated Powell to retrace the journey again in 1871, this time funded by a congressional appropriation, and he included a photographer. The photographs offer a glimpse into a magical landscape – one that man has dramatically altered, first with the Glen Canyon Dam, and now with a large power plant that dominates the skyline.

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Entering Marble Canyon (about 5 miles south of Glen Canyon), Powell expedition 1871. John K. Hillers photograph.

John Wesley Powell is a true hero to me.  I greatly admire the naturalists and geoscientists of the 19th century that traveled to the far corners of the world and invented a new science – geology.  Along the way these intellectual giants invented deep time, theories of the formation of the Earth and solar system, and applied mathematics, physics and chemistry to all the processes in nature; they brought rationale and order to what had previously been a mystical world. But J.W. Powell was far more than a wandering scientist – he was a leader among men, and overcame tremendous physical challenges to conquer extraordinary adventures. Powell was only 5′ 6″ tall, but projected authority and leadership.  He was born in 1834, and was exploring the Mississippi river valley by the age of 18. In 1861 he joined the Union forces and quickly became a captain; in the battle of Shiloh he was wounded in the right arm, and had to have it amputated below the elbow. However, even one armed, he continued to serve the Union. After the war he lectured on geology and mineralogy, and became the secretary of the Illinois Natural History Society. Shortly after that, the short, one-armed, middle aged man began to explore the American West.

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John Wesley Powell on the shore of the Colorado River north of Glen Canyon in 1871. With Powell is Tau-Gu, a Paiute guide.

The Ultra Adventures team first introduced an “Antelope Canyon” race in 2014 on the shores of Lake Powell.  The UA team envisioned a race that captured the unique setting on the Glen Canyon – sweeping desert vistas, slick rock running along the edge of Glen Canyon below the dam (with 800 feet shear drops!), and running in slot canyons (twisting, narrow slices in the Navajo Sandstone created by flash floods). The first two years of the race the number of runners was quite modest – less than 120 in 2015.  I wanted to run the race as soon as I heard about it – and saw the jaw dropping photographs of the course.  The extra attraction was to be able to run where Powell had explored nearly 150 years ago.  Although I have extensively explored the Colorado Plateau, I had only spent fleeting moments around Lake Powell (the giant reservoir behind Glen Canyon dam…it is unlikely that Powell would have approved of the name).  I convinced a couple of others from my home town to join me for an early season ultra, and prepared to run along a intellectual precipice; the cliff between paradise and encroachment of man.

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Lake Powell is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the world, and is capable of storing nearly 25 million acre feet of water. The “lake” is a long and twisting body that is the flooding of canyons that had been cut through the sediments of the Colorado Plateau by the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. GoogleEarth image viewing from the southeast (the town of Page, and site of the Antelope Ultras is on the far left hand side of the image).

Carving a Canyon

The Colorado River Basin stretches from the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming to the Gulf of California, draining nearly a quarter of million square miles.  Snow that falls on the southern half of the Wind Rivers or the western part of Rocky Mountain National Park eventually collects into streams, and then rivers, ultimately merging into the mighty Colorado River. End-to-end, some water travels 1,400 miles only to be emptied into the sea some 75 miles south of Yuma, Arizona.

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The Colorado River Basin covers an area larger than France. It includes most of Arizona and Utah, and large sections of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. The Colorado River Basin became part of the US after the war with Mexico in 1846, but remained “unexplored” until J.W. Powell floated from the Green River to the western end of the Grand Canyon in 1869. Although the Grand Canyon is rightfully the jewel of the Powell expedition, they also discovered and mapped many other spectacular canyons, including Glen Canyon.

The Colorado Basin is a geologic marvel.  Over millions of years rain and snow have fallen on the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains; this moisture from the atmosphere collects and is pulled by gravity down hill – from the high peaks at 14,000 feet elevation towards sea.  Along the way the water picks up particles and alters the minerals in the rocks that it passes by, slowly eroding that rock.  Ultimately that erosion carves canyons of extraordinary architecture. The time scales are geologic, and difficult for humans to fathom; however, gravity and water always win, and wear away the most resistant rock.

The story of how each of the canyons formed along the course of the Colorado River is complex – and in fact, each “canyon” is unique.  Glen Canyon is mostly carved in a red to white sandstone that is know as the Navajo Sandstone. The Navajo Sandstone is a remarkable geologic deposit – it is present over nearly 220,000 km2 of the Colorado Plateau today (a larger area than numerous Eastern US states!), and is the petrified remains of a vast ocean sand that once was on the edge of a super continent, Pangea, during the Jurassic Age. 190 million years ago this ocean of sand probably covered an area three times as large as the present day deposits; larger than even today’s Rub’ al Khali, the Arabian Peninsula’s vast Empty Quarter.

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An outcrop of the Navajo Sandstone near Horse Shoe Bend. The unique layering structure – like a stack of cards that have different angles – is fossilized crossbedding from Jurassic aged sand dunes.

The vast sand dunes moved by blowing sand from one side of the dune to the other – always with the prevailing direction of the wind. This results in a tilted layer cake structure within the dune.

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A graphic depicting the formation of cross bedding – where the “fluid flow” is wind carrying or pushing sand grains. Figure from Wikipedia.

The Jurassic aged dunes became “fossils” for a couple of reasons: first, the great sand ocean was within a basin which slowly subsided.  The sand blew in, and was slowly buried.  Secondly, the buried dunes were exposed to ground water that interacted with the sand grains – in the case of the Navajo dunes these grains were pure quartz – and started slowly chemically altering the grains into a hard, concrete like material.  Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, these frozen dunes were left undeformed for tens of millions of years, providing the vast expanse that we see today for the Navajo Sandstone.

The slow erosion of the Navajo into the present geography of Glen Canyon took at least 20 million years.  Along the way, other events occurred – like flash floods.  These flash floods pick up the quartz sand that had already been eroded and swept those hard quartz grains across the soft rock surface scouring out impossibly narrow slot canyons.

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The narrows of Lower Antelope Canyon – a slot canyon formed by flash floods. Picture taken the day before the race.

The fate of Glen Canyon was sealed in a deal struck only 25 miles from my Los Alamos, New Mexico home.  In 1922 representatives from the western states that bordered the Colorado Drainage Basin met and divided up the water flowing down the Colorado River at Bishop’s Lodge located near Santa Fe.  The states were thirsty  for water to spur development and the northern states (Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, along with some interest from New Mexico) wanted their “rights” in law before Californians drank up all the flow downstream.  The Colorado River Compact was signed, and the Basin was divided into two sections – a northern and a southern.  The dividing line was Lee’s Ferry, at the very end of Glen Canyon.  The die was cast – the northern states would argue for a dam near or in Glen Canyon to hold “their water”.

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Lee’s Ferry, located at the terminus of Glen Canyon (photo taken the day before the race). This is the dividing line between the upper and lower Colorado River Basin.

The story of how the dam was built is worthy of volumes – and certainly beyond anything I would write for a trail running blog.  Despite a heated debate, congress appropriated money for the Dam in 1956, and the lake began to fill in 1963.  What was delicately carved canyons became the playground of boaters, and the water was used to spur population expansion in Arizona.  It is likely that the dam will eventually go away – maybe in a millennium or two, but short in geologic time – but for now, the canyons are a place of human engineering.

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The start and finish of the Antelope Canyon ultra, separated by 9 hours. I ran much of the course with Dave Zerkle and Dave Dogruel. Carolyn Zerkle photo.

The Antelope Canyon Ultra

The 2016 version of the Antelope Canyon Ultra was actually 3 races; a 50 miler, a 55 km, and a half marathon.  Despite the name, only the 50 miler traverses Antelope Canyon, which is the most famous of the Colorado Plateau slot canyons.  Every year thousands of tourists visit Antelope Canyon and take stunning photographs of shafts of light dancing on carved red sandstone. However, despite the mis-epithet, the 55 km was every bit as spectacular as the 50 miler, and the run included a much less well known, but equally stunning slot canyon, called Waterholes Canyon.  So, really, when we lined up to run the ultra we were running the “Waterholes Canyon Ultra”! The biggest surprise to me when I arrived in Page, Arizona the day before the start was that the race had grown in size exponentially.  Between the three distances, there were more than 700 runners! Page is a small town, and February is not boating season, but it was still amazing how runners were apparent everywhere – from Subway to Safeway, people wearing Garmin watches was the norm.

The start of the race was somewhat surreal – out in the desert there were two huge and dusty “parking lots” filled with runner’s automobiles. The starting area was congested with colorful technical running clothes, more than a few plaid shirts and lots of trucker hats.  However, once the start occurred — with a casual countdown from 4 somewhere around 7 am — the carnival atmosphere subsided. The first two miles were a harbinger to come; the course was along a trail that was sand, and not sand like on a beach, but red, microscopic grained quartz sand.  Within the first two miles we were able to maintain a nice pace, but it was obvious muscles were being used to propel us that were seldom used in trail running in Los Alamos.  There was no real way to find hard packed regions, both because so many runners were ahead of us, but because the nature of the sand. Plodding forward was the mantra of the day.  We made good time to “Horse Shoe Bend Aid Station” (should have been named Band-Aid Station) about 5 miles from the start.  We arrived in 55 minutes, and in the back of my mind I was thinking “My training paid off! I must of gotten in shape!”.  Alas, when we arrived at this same aid station 12.5 miles later (at mile 17.5, or a little over the halfway point), I was thinking “I probably should improve my swimming”.

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About mile 5.5 we arrive at Glen Canyon and shear cliffs above the clear-green Colorado River below. The sun is up, but not high enough to capture the magnificence of Horse Shoe Bend. This is why trail running is so fun – great views, and you just stop and take pictures.

From the aid station to the overlook of the Colorado River is only a half of a mile.  It was spectacular to be running on the edge of the canyon, and I thought about what J.W. Powell must have imagined as he rowed on the river and looked up at the cliffs where we were now running. After leaving Horse Shoe bend the course is out of the cursed sand, and on slick rock – bare Navajo Sandstone – for about 5 miles.  The running is technical, and there are many hops and climbs up carved rock ravines.  The slick rock was most welcomed after the sand, although it can not be considered “a fast track” – at least for us.  The views down the canyon are marvelous, and at about mile 10.5 we come to the overview of the inflow from Waterholes Canyon – simply stunning.

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Dave Zerkle and Dave Doggrel running on the slick rock near the edge of Glen Canyon. Every step is different than the last.

The course follows the Waterholes canyon drainage to about mile 12.7 where there is a well stocked aid station.  This marks the beginning of the absolute best part of the course – a running experience that can best be described as ecstasy.  After fueling, runners carefully descend about 150 feet down into the bottom of Waterholes.

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Waterholes Canyon – near the Aid Station at mile 13. The canyon is alternatively narrow (so narrow that you have to turn sideways occasionally) to somewhat broader.

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The light dances off the carved faces of Waterholes – it is a sublime experience to run in nature’s artwork.

The run through Waterholes is about 1.6 miles – it is not fast, but it is beautiful.  Along the way there are steep passages that require ladders.  These ladder climbs cause bottlenecks, and it is actually more difficult to climb the metal rungs than I thought it would be. Just before I exited the canyon I was passed by the first 50 miler – he had an hour head start on us (the 50 milers started at 6 am) but he had run 16 miles further than I had. Humbling!

The climb out of the canyon is up a steep sandy hill, which marks the worst part of the course! From here there is 8 miles of running on sand.  Sometimes 3 inches deep, sometimes only an inch, but sand nevertheless.  The sand slows you down, and even more insidious, it fills your shoes.  The first 3 miles of the great sand slog is along a dirt road that was built to service the great power lines coming out of Glen Canyon Dam.  The road is straight, but the sand is soft. Upon arrival at the Horse Shoe Aid station for the second time, we have reached the half way point of the journey.  I have to sit down and pour sand out of my shoes – and even before I can put my shoes back on the fabric of my Hokas sheds more sand into the shoe.  It takes three dumps after shaking before I put the shoes back on – but the real impact of the sand is the rub it has induced on my toes and heels.

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Zerkle and I coming into the aid station at the halfway point. The sand at our feet is everywhere – and the sun is bright, and no shade of any kind will come our way for the next 17 miles.

After the aid station I have to stop twice more and empty my shoes; I put band-Aids on the blisters that are forming, and tape on my toes.  However, by mile 20 it is clear that my feet are going to be torn up by race’s end.  We are much slower in our pace now, and dealing with the sand becomes a ritual. Finally, at mile 21.5 we climb up a steep trail to the butte that is home to Page, Arizona.  At mile 22 we reach an aid station and empty the sand one last time, and prepare to run the last section of the course, which is a sweet single track trail that is called “Page Rim Trail”.  It is absolutely perfect for speedy running!

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View from the Page Rim trail at mile 27. The water is a branch of Lake Powell, and to the right of the water is Antelope Island, created by the flooding of Glen Canyon. The vistas are sweeping – but also apparent from the picture is that there is no relief from a bright sun!

I run the first mile of the Rim trail pretty fast, but my feet are killing me.  I start to try and adjust my stride to take pressure off where I think my toes are blistering.  This really slows me down, and ultimately led to the onset of cramping in my legs.  At about mile 27.5 I begin to cramp in both legs, and then, suddenly my right leg twists up in the mother of all cramps and I fall down!  I am a bit concerned that I will be paralyzed with pretzel leg, but eventually get the leg to upwind.  I decide to walk for a while….and in fact every time I start to run, I start to cramp.  Disaster – I end up walking the last 5 miles of the ultra.

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Finish line – about 8:55 for the entire run. Given the long walk at the end, I am happy to have survived. Dave Dogruel photograph.

It is disappointing to be so slow, but the course is simply stunning.I expected the Antelope Canyon Ultra to be both interesting and challenging…it was both.  I was unprepared for the sand, and I was amazed at those runners that seemed to think the sand was fairly pedestrian.  My friends and I thought otherwise.  But, despite the sand, probably the biggest challenge was staying hydrated.  By my estimation I drank nearly 2 gallons of fluid from just before the race start to the end; yet I never eliminated any of that fluid during the run.  I sweated – well, I suppose that is an understatement.  All that water went somewhere.  I wonder if Powell sweated to exhaustion during his expeditions?  It is not in his journals, but he was a polite and reserved man.

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My salty hat after I arrived home – there were some free standing salt crystals, which in retrospect, is kind of cool. The finishers award is also shown.

Paradise Lost

The vast region of bluffs and canyons around Page is beautiful today – but it looks nothing like it did when Powell first floated by in 1869.  The building of Glen Canyon Dam – which was authorized by congress only a few weeks before I was born in 1956 – changed both the landscape, but also the national psyche about conservation.  Edward Abby wrote about the enormity of Glen Canyon and how it appeared that no human had even touched the great work of art geology had wrought.  By 1963 that had changed – the lake began to fill, erasing the canyons, and bringing tourism, boaters and power plants to the barren red rocks.  It erupted a sense within the country that perhaps manifest destiny, as defined by huge engineering projects, was not the only or best use of our land.  It is too late to debate the past – it is done.  Boaters are happy (Lake Powell boasts the largest house boat in North America….can that be bad?), but I personally mourn the loss of something monumental.

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Navajo Generating Station, just east of the Antelope Canyon Ultra course. This is a 2250 megawatt coal-fired power plant and the third largest source of CO2 emissions in the US.

I fully realize that nature will win in the end – no dam will survive geology epochs, the coal will run out, and plants will be shut down and removed – but even the most isolated vista now feels polluted with humanity (including me).  It is a paradise lost – but it is also a huge classroom about the Anthropocene, the age of Man.  Running in the slot canyons reminds me of the enormity of geology, but the aluminum ladders that I climb over the steep sections reminds me we always tame nature.

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Entering Waterholes Canyon – this is a mystical land. Photo by Dave Dogruel, and to me, this is what trail running is all about.

Sacred Land: A Run Through Canyon De Chelly

Be still and the earth will speak to you – Navajo Proverb

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Spider (home of Spider Grandmother) Rock, Canyon De Chelly, Arizona. Spider Rock rises some 750 feet above the Valley floor, and is the sacred home of one of the most important deities in the Navajo culture, Tse-che-nako. The image is looking east, and shows the separation of Canyon De Chelly and Monument Canyon. The canyons drain the highlands of the Chuska Mountains on the distant horizon. Click on any figure/photograph to get a large version.

Landscapes can be spiritual.  The soaring expanse of a mountain peak can inspire; the ever shifting sands of a field of dunes makes human time seen inconsequential.  Then there are some landscapes that are interwoven with humanity. Canyon De Chelly is just such a place.  A narrow, twisting, dendritic chasm carved in the red sandstones of Permian Age located in the center of the Navajo Nation, Canyon De Chelly has been the home to humans for at least 2500 years.  A fortuitous accident of a quarter of billion years of geology, the narrow and steep canyons provide shelter and act as a cistern for precious rain and snow that falls on distant mountains.  It is impossible to peer into Canyon De Chelly and not feel the 400 generations of souls that have lived here – there are ruins and evidence of occupation in every nook and cranny; yet, the evidence of humanity blends with the landscape in a most harmonious way. It is impossible to separate rock and man; the landscape is alive.

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Landsat 7 false-color image of Canyon De Chelly (acquired in on September 12, 2000). There are two main branches in the canyon complex draining the highlands of the Defiance Uplift. The northern branch is Canyon del Muerto, and the southern drainage is Canyon de Chelly (which further branches to the south in Monument Canyon). The image color scheme is tuned to highlight vegetation – the bright green in the valley floors reflects the healthy vegetation from the perennial streams. These canyons are an oasis in a harsh environment, and have been the home of humans for nearly 2500 years.

I last visited Canyon De Chelly about 20 years ago when I led a field trip of about 40 underclassmen from the University of Arizona to the northern part of the state.  The students were enrolled in a class called “Geologic Disasters and Society”, and we visited faults, volcanoes, meteorite impacts, and sites of possible environmental collapse.  Canyon De Chelly was the focus of the last of these “disasters”.  The Canyon had a thriving – and populous – culture between 900 AD and the 13th century, and then there appeared to be a massive migration away from the Canyon, and other population centers like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon to places like southern Arizona.  Twenty years ago the popular archeologic theory was that a prolonged drought stressed the urban-like centers, forcing the population to seek more productive lands.  Indeed, tree ring and pollen studies indicate that the 13th century was a time of drought – however, today most archeologists think that drought was no worse than several decades in the 10th century, and by 1350 the drought was replaced by a wet period, but the population did not return.  The abandonment of these population centers was probably far more complex than a simple drought – and most likely had to do with social unrest and changing religions values. The Canyon later became one of the centers of the Navajo people, and they have now have lived there for hundreds of years.

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A view down Canyon De Chelly looking towards the west. The Canyon floor is verdant with cottonwoods and peach trees.

Navajo runner Shaun Martin conceived of ultra run in the spiritual lands of Canyon De Chelly in 2012.  It is a place that is sacred, and the idea of a “race” is a poor fit.  However, Martin preaches “This race is about running in the Navajo tradition, running as a prayer.”  The inaugural ultra took place in 2013, and in 2014 I learned of the run and was extremely excited about the chance to participate.  Alas, a pressing work assignment kept me from joining the 150 runners that got to view the towering cliffs and braided stream of the Canyon the way Navajos runners have done for hundreds of years.  I was determined to make the run in 2015, and when fall came I was happy to travel back to the heart of the Colorado Plateau!

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White House Pueblo, photo by Ansel Adams, 1942. The National Park Service commissioned Adams to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior Building in DC in 1941, and he visited Canyon De Chelly twice to take pictures. The White House is named for the white streaks on the cliffs above the structure, and is one of the most iconic Anasazi ruins in the west.

Canyon De Chelly – A Slice Through the Permian

The Colorado Plateau is remarkable place; there are thousands of feet of sedimentary rock that record nearly 500 million years of the Earth’s history stacked up like a layered cake. This layered cake was deposited along the margin of the proto-North American continent and today covers about 150,000 square miles; sometimes the area of the Plateau was below sea level, sometimes it was a continental swap like the bayou of Louisiana, and sometimes is was a dry desert covered with sand dunes.  Over this incredibly long time the North American continental mass suffered plate collisions, massive volcanic eruptions and huge episodes of crustal stretching and extension.  Yet, the layered cake of the Plateau escaped the massive disruption that one sees in the Basin and Range of Nevada and western Arizona, or the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico.  Large scale geology maps — like those that cover the entire USA — tend to indicate that the Plateau is extremely simple.  But one must look for more subtle features to realize that the Plateau has plenty of geologic character.

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A structural map of the Colorado Plateau. Although the layered cake dominates the description of the geology, there are a series of basins and uplifts that reflect gentle folds and bends of the rocks due to episodes continental scale compressions and expansions.

There is a gentle warp that trends along a line from Black Mesa in Arizona to the San Juan Basin in New Mexico. You can imagine this “warp” as the response of firm cake that is squeezed on its sides; to accommodate the squeeze, the layered cake folds up.  Ridges rise – known as anticlines – and basins fall – known as synclines.  The cross-section (large very large vertical exaggeration) below shows an slice through Canyon De Chelly.  To the east of the town of Chinle is a broad uplift known as the Defiance Uplift; the Chuska Mountains sits atop of an anticline.

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Simplified cross section through Black Mesa, Chinle, the Chuska Mountains, and ending near Durango, Colorado. The vertical scale is very exaggerated compared to the horizontal scale.

The Defiance Uplift is the most signifiant factor in the creation of Canyon De Chelly. The highlands were slowly eroded; rain and snow that fell on the Chuska Mountains flowed in streams and rivers eroding the sediments and carving washes and canyons.

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Google Earth image centered on Canyon De Chelly and Canyon Del Muerto draining the highlands of the Chuska Mountains along the right hand side of the figure. On the left hand side is Black Mesa. The canyons are cut into the De Chelly sandstone that dips to the west and descends beneath Black Mesa.

The topography of the canyons — narrow, steep walled chasms — is controlled by the nature of the sedimentary rock that has been eroded.  Canyon De Chelly and Canyon Del Muerto are carved in the DeChelly sandstone, a nearly pure quartz grained rock, that is tough and strong, and can maintain vertical cliff faces hundreds of feet high.  The DeChelly was formed from wind blown sand dunes.  The modern day analogy for these type of sand dunes is the Namib Desert along the southwestern coast of Africa.  The desert that made the DeChelly sandstone occupied a coastal plain some 250 million years ago and was long lived — probably 25 million years of blowing dunes. Finally, that desert yielded to a more hospitable environment and rivers returned depositing sandstones and shales on top of the dunes, which we call the Moenkopi formation.  About 230 million years ago the last of the rocks from this period of time were deposited on top of the Moenkopi, the hard cobbles and boulders of the Shinarump conglomerate. The Shinarump is the “cap stone” above the DeChelly sandstone, and protected it from the forces of erosion for 150 million years.

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Unconformity between the DeChelly sandstone (pink rocks) and the hard cap of the Shinarump conglomerate (light colored rock).  Photograph taken on the north rim of Canyon Del Muerto.

The Defiance uplift bent the DeChelly sandstone and the Shinarump into a broad arch.  Eventually a weakness in the Shinarump allowed the forces of erosion to attack the sandstone, and began carving the canyons.  The canyons are odd – they have no real walls at the western terminus (at Chinle) or the eastern headwaters in the Chuska.  The height of the walls reaches 1500 feet – at the mid-point of the headwaters and terminus.

These deeply incised canyons provided a perfect refuge for humans – the steep walls are a formidable natural defense, and the drainage captures all the waters that fall on the Chuska as snow and rain, providing a perfect – if bizarre – agriculture environment.

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Mummy House, built 1000 years ago in a convex depression above the floor of Canyon Del Muerto. Photograph taken the day after the Canyon De Chelly ultra.

There is archeological evidence that humans first visited, and occasionally lived in Canyon De Chelly (and Canyon Del Muerto) a few millennia BC.  However, the first year-round inhabitants began to build pit houses along the valley floors about 300 BC.  The so called Basketmakers flourished for nearly a thousand years, but gradually disappeared and were replaced by the Pueblo culture, which constructed the large stone structures in the walls – they also built Chaco Canyon  and Mesa Verde. Most of the Pueblo culture building took place between 1000 and 1280 AD.  White House, Mummy Cave, Antelope House, and dozens of other communities supported a population of more than a thousand.

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Pueblo culture ruins occupy scores of sites – from a few scattered towers, like in this photograph from Canyon De Chelly, to larger villages like White House.

The Pueblo culture abruptly abandoned Canyon De Chelly at the end of the 13th century.  The exodus was swift and complete – and there is no consensus explanation for sudden migration.  The Hopi, and later the Navajo, began to use the Canyon, and by 1700 AD it was at the center of the Navajo culture.

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Spider  Rock, Canyon De Chelly. This stereo pair was taken by T.H. O’Sullivan during the Wheeler expedition on 1873. The photo calls the sandstone tower “Explorer’s Column”, but it has long been considered the home of Spider Woman (Na’ashjéii Asdzáá) benefactor of humans.

The first European-American visit to the Canyon De Chelly region occurred during a punitive Spanish expedition in 1805. Lt. Antonio Narbona, the future governor of Mexico’s northern outpost — New Mexico — entered the canyon looking to confront what he characterized as Navajo aggression.  Over a two day period Narbona’s troops slaughtered more than hundred Navajo women and children.  The main battles occurred in the area of Massacre Cave in Canyon Del Muerto (Canyon of the Dead).  Unfortunately, the unique character of the canyons that had protected the inhabitants for 2000 years served to trap the women and children.  The first detailed description of the Canyon preserved in modern literature came in 1849, when Colonel John M. Washington’s explored the first few miles of the Canyon – following the route of the ultra run!  In 1873 one of the great geologic surveys – the Wheeler Expedition – visited Canyon De Chelly. This expedition had one of the earliest, and foremost, photographers, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, who took some amazing photographs (the Spider Rock stereo pair shown above) that introduced the spectacular character – both geology and human – to the broader American community.

The canyon has been visited by thousands of luminaries since O’Sullivan took his photos, and the universal emotion is that this place is sacred land.  The geology has made life possible here – but the inhabitants lived in the geology not simply exploiting it.  It is difficult to capture in a few words that spirit of the Canyon.  It has to be experienced.

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A group of Los Alamos runners a few minutes before the start of the Canyon De Chelly ultra.

The Run

Most of the ultra races I enter are mountain runs with lots of climbing (which is usually done with power walking, or, not-so-power walking).  The Canyon De Chelly ultra is different – it is lots of running with a single very steep hill.  I was marginally prepared in terms of training; I like to climb hills so I tend to make that my training instead of long miles at pace.  On the other hand, this run is well know for its miles through soft sand on the valley floor, which is not exactly “running at pace” either.  No matter, early on the morning of Oct 10 I gathered with about 160 other adventures to see Canyon De Chelly the way it was meant to be seen – not from the rim peering down hundreds, or even thousands, of feet at a distance valley floor.

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Blessing of the rising sun. Facing east, the dawn to celebrated, and the runners go forth to experience the Earth.

At 6 am the runners assemble at the western end of Canyon De Chelly.  Actually, the end of the Canyon is a more appropriate moniker.  The steep walls of the De Chelly sandstone have plunged beneath the erosional cover of Chinle Wash, so the assembly area is a broad and sandy plain.  The sky is magical – there is a crescent moon, and four planets make a solar arc across the dark sky.  Mercury is just below the moon, and higher in the sky are the bright lights of Jupiter, Mars and Venus.  When the glow of the impending sunrise begins, the runners gather for a morning prayer around a camp fire.  With an opening in the circle of runners to the east, the Navajo prayer and blessing reminds all that running here is special — it is a privilege.

sandinthemorning

Running in the sand at the start of the race (and at the end!). The sand is soft, and even after a couple of miles the runner’s calves feel the effort.

Sometime after 7 the run starts in the cool glow of the rising sun.  The course follows Canyon De Chelly wash, which is a river of soft sand.  Most of the first 2.5 to 3  miles are about finding a pathway that is at least a little packed so that each stride is not an energy sucking sink into several inches of sand.  My pace is about 11:30 minutes per mile, and I know it is a long day.  Runners are soon spread out and form a long line of colorful shirts and running packs. The walls of the canyon slowly rise above the wash, and after a couple of miles there are shear cliffs a couple of hundred feet high framing the valley.  I struggle to find a good running line, and inside my head I hear my wife telling me “run the tangent”, meaning find the shortest distance for the twisting course.  Unfortunately, the tangent has nothing to do with the pathway of most packed sand!

firstruin

First Ruin, about 3.5 miles into the run. Bright run highlights why the Anasazi built on the northside of the canyon — the early morning sun warmed their homes even as the most of the Canyon remained in darkness.

After a couple of miles there are some tracks along the edge of the canyon that are not sand, but hard packed clay and the running becomes easier.  The first significant pueblo ruin appears about 3.5 miles into the run;  appropriately named “First Ruin”, the sun shining brightly on stone houses built 1000 years ago in a crease in the De Chelly sandstone.  It is pretty easy to keep a pace of 10:20-10:40 per mile from First Ruin to the first aid station at White House Ruin.

whitehouse

White House Ruin. Photograph taken the day before the race from the overlook on the south rim. The Ruin has both a series building in the cave and a pueblo below. The first aid station, 6 miles into the race is just to the right of this photograph.

The temperature at the start of the run was in the mid-40s.  That is perfect for running an ultra!  However, it is clear by 9 am that the day will bring much warmer temperatures.  The course winds back and forth across the valley which expands and contracts to distances of a few hundred yards wide to more than a quarter of a mile.  There are grooves of cottonwood and fruit trees that provide shade, as well as the towering walls of the south rim of the canyon. I maintain a good pace  to aid station 2, located about 11 miles into the run.  One of the joys to running this type of race is that the ebb and flow of pace brings you into and out of contact with other runners and you get to meet people from all over the country.  I spend a couple miles chatting with the only female sergeant in Alaskan law enforcement; another mile or two with a fellow from Salt Lake City that is running his first ultra in memory of his recently departed father.

coursemap

My GPS track for the run. The course starts and ends in the west — the left hand side of the map. The narrow canyons play havoc with the gps sync of my watch, and although the time of the run is accurate, I note that occasionally my watch thinks I am running at 8:30 or 16:30 per mile, when in fact I am just about 11 minutes per mile out to sharp bend to the south on the right hand side of the map. This where Bat Canyon begins.

I had a plan for the run – I always have a plan, but rarely execute it.  However, today, I am almost exactly on task, and at 3 hours I have run 15.9 miles.  The very first runners to pass me going back towards the start/finish are a pair of Navajo young men striding like they are floating.  They pass after I have only run 14.5 miles, but given the length of the course they are beyond 20 miles!  The course for the first 15 miles has been almost flat – an artifact of canyon floor.  The walls of the canyon now are over a thousand feet above me, and when I arrive at Spider Rock I know that I have to climb that 1000 feet.

elevationprofile2

Elevation profile of the Canyon De Chelly ultra. The section from 16.25 to 17.4 is a very steep scramble up Bat Canyon. The top of Bat Canyon is the turn-around point, and tired legs need to “scramble” down before making the way back to the finish.

From Spider Rock the course turns south and heads up Bat Canyon.  The first mile or so is a modest ascent, but mentally the pressure builds as I peer up the canyon and can see the rim far above me. Soon the trail becomes a very narrow single track with large boulders of red sandstone.  I suppose athletes could run up this, but I am reduced to walking and using my hands to scramble. In some ways it is a relief not to be running – different muscles are used for scrambling! It is a hard ascent, but I arrive at the turn around at about 3hr 40 minutes (only a little slower than I thought I would).  A good part about the scramble is that I get to look at the rocks up close, and I find large blocks of Shinarump Conglomerate, the capping rock that long protected the De Chelly sandstone from erosion.

conglomerateboulder

The Shinarump Conglomerate – ancient stream channels that brought cobbles of granite and quartz pebbles from a highlands located somewhere to the northwest. The conglomerate cemented to a very hard layer of rock that resisted erosion.

Although I have stuck to my running plan I know that the second half of the race is really what all ultras are about – tired legs, all the sins of improper hydration and fueling surface, and the mental fatigue of running for 7 or 8 hours.  I drink an ice cold coke at the Bat Canyon aid station, and begin the descent.  It is far worse that the ascent!  It is impossible to get any rhythm and the narrow track means that passing by all the runners still climbing up is like driving in stop and go traffic.

topofbatcanyon

A view back down Bat Canyon towards Canyon De Chelly. The run down this steep trail is far harder for me than the scramble up.

After losing about 250 feet of elevation as I run back down Bat Canyon, I try to hop out of the narrow single track to let a faster group of runners pass by.  Unfortunately, I stumble backwards and bend my bad (well, my knee that has all its original parts) knee backwards.  It hurts, but seems like I can “tough it out”, and hopefully it will feel well with a mile or two.  However, the knee swells, and it is quite stiff.  I decide to walk for a while, and enjoy the company of a Los Alamos colleague for 2 miles.

spiderrockbat

The “back side” of Spider Rock as viewed from the end of Bat Canyon. It is only 14.5 miles back to the finish from here – but the sky is blue, and the temperature is pushing 80 degrees.

Even with the slow pace – about 17 minutes a mile – almost no runners catch us or pass.  The slow pace allows time to enjoy the unique scenery, but I realize that I should do something to control the swelling.  I pull out my ibuprofen, take a couple, and within minutes the swelling seems better, and even more importantly, I feel like I can run at a modest pace.  I am quite relieved that I know I will make to the finish line even if my time is slower than I like.  In fact, I begin to catch a few other runners, and actually feel pretty good when I arrive at the last aid station.  The table is stacked with slices of locally grown melons – they taste of the nectar of the gods!

After the final aid station there is only 6 miles to run, but much of that is through the dreaded soft sand.  Further, the sun is overhead, and the temperature is in the 80s.  I pass about half a dozen runners, and they look totally spent.  Not much I can do for them except offer encouragement – and tell them the distance remaining based on my GPS app.  The last 3 miles three strangers come together – myself, a young and recent mother from Salt Lake City, and a grandmother (only a few years younger than I) from North Carolina.  Good conversation and mutual support makes the 40 minutes or so of sand file by, and I finally cross the finish line in about 8 hrs 15 minutes.  Tired, but elated.

award

The unique reward for completing the Canyon De Chelly ultra is a hand made turquoise necklace.

The finish line area is filled with runners celebrating a spiritual journey through a special land.  Traditional Navajo foods and more smiles than I can imagine.  I am sore and tired, and stiffen up within a hour of completing the run. But after a night of fitful sleep — trying not to let my legs cramp or my knee to swell — I arise at 5 am and head out to the north rim of the Canyon and watch the sun rise over the Defiance Plateau.  The view is wonderful, and one that I have shared with so many that passed before me in this beautiful place.

DSC00641

Sunrise over the Defiance Plateau, the day after the race.