September 27th, 2014, Katlyn, my running partner and love of my life, and I woke up as we had done countless times before, got dressed as if by autopilot, and began preparing ourselves for the challenge of the day. The weather was much colder than we were used to from the last 4 months of training in the Arizona summer desert. There was a chance it would rain, but the sky was pretty clear that morning so it was impossible to tell. Another challenge we were expecting was the elevation of this particular race. We had trained at 1400-2500 feet above sea-level in Phoenix, Arizona and ran a couple of times at Flagstaff’s 6000-ish feet, but the 31 miles ahead of us today were all above 9000 feet with a peak of 11,300 feet. The air would be thinner than we had ever experienced, the terrain would be unknown, and the weather was uncertain. This left for very little that was under our control, but these conditions weren’t new or uncharted for us. This was an ultra, not a catered road race, and these challenges were part of the game. Overall, we were ready.
Mt. Taylor is one of the four Sacred Mountains of the Navajo tribe. It’s an 11,300-foot peak surrounded by mostly flat land between Gallup and Albuquerque, New Mexico. At the base of the mountain is a small town called Grants, which is not particularly interesting but on this September weekend, it was the host of a couple hundred ultra-marathoners and the staff of this fantastic race.
The mountain has a beautiful landscape. Tall forests broken up by hillside meadows make up the course of the race and although it looks beautiful and inviting, this mountain is very capable of breaking even the experienced trail runner. There were not a lot of rocky trails, like what we were accustomed to from running in Arizona, but the climbs and the relentless switchbacks were enough to put us to the test.
Ultra-marathoners are not regular athletes. To us, a super-challenging course makes a race more attractive, while an easy course makes a race boring. The mentality is also very different, at least for Katlyn and I. While most road runners barely slow down to drink at aid stations, ultra runners tend to stop at each aid station to eat, drink, double-check our bodies to make sure we’re still healthy, fill our bottles/camelbacks and boost our morale with a little conversation with the volunteers.
Katlyn and I like to stop every few miles to take pictures of our surroundings, too. We run to enjoy nature and enjoy our surroundings so we make sure to not lose sight of those things, even when the course breaks our spirits. There were definitely a few moments during the Mount Taylor 50K that had us struggling and getting the camera out and taking a picture helped us make light of the struggle and continue on. That’s what keeps an ultra-runner going: finding the mental tricks that keep your feet moving, despite the protests of your mind and muscles.
So back to the race: after parking, climbing up to the start line left me short of breath, so right away, I knew the elevation would be the biggest challenge of the day. Once we got to the start line and dropped off our drop-bag, we caught our breath, used the bathroom and then stood around with the other racers, watching the countdown clock to the start of the race.
In the tradition of the Navajo, the race started at sunrise and in an eastward direction, towards the sunrise, symbolizing the greeting of a new day. This was particularly meaningful to me since running has always been a metaphor for leaving any difficulties of the past behind and running towards a better future. We felt great and were ready to tackle this race and explore this beautiful landscape.
We were off! The great feeling and excitement quickly took a hit when, about half a mile into the race the course started climbing, hard. The first three miles took us an hour to complete and we quickly dropped to the back of the pack. Katlyn was definitely feeling better than me but she patiently stayed with me as we crested the first climb. From mile 3 to mile 10 we enjoyed a lot of downhill, peppered with some shorter climbs and by the time we hit the aid station at mile 10, my spirits were high and we were feeling warmed up and good.
This brings me to another quick note about ultra-marathons: Struggling during an ultra isn’t always a sign of how the rest of the day will go. These races are long enough for us to be able to experience numerous highs and lows. The key to this is never to let a low defeat you because you never know when you might feel good again. Another important point to consider is that the difficult sections are always slower than the easy sections but not always longer, so the perception can often be that the majority of the race is uphill and difficult. However, we covered ground very quickly when we felt good and covered ground very slowly when we were struggling. At the end of the day, more than half of the distance of the race was run-able and fast, while the difficult slow parts took up the most time. Does that make sense? Either way, the beginning of this race did not mean we struggled all day because descending down to the 10-mile aid station felt amazing.
As we refilled, refueled and reset at mile 10, we enjoyed the company of the volunteers and our fellow runners. I do need to thank that particular aid station for being so well stocked with one of my favorite foods: Krispy Kreme donuts. If I was low on calories coming into that station, those donuts definitely caught me up!
We continued downhill for another mile or so and at mile 11 we took a sharp left turn onto the Continental Divide trail. This meant we were going back uphill and we quickly slowed back down to a hike. We enjoyed the beautiful landscape and stayed positive as we climbed up and over a few hills over the next few miles. We were pleasantly surprised to find random spectators hanging out in the middle of the woods, cheering us on and keeping our spirits high. Looking back at it now, it feels like this section went by quickly, but at about 4 hours and 15 minutes, we hit mile 16 and emerged from the trees at the start/finish line, the half-way mark of the figure-eight course.
Everyone at this aid station was delightful. A volunteer had radioed our race numbers ahead so that they had our drop bag ready for us when we arrived. The race director also came over and called us by name as he asked where we were from and how were doing. The personal touch at this race is completely unrivaled and I will definitely never forget that. The volunteers refilled our water packs, made sure we had some food and helped us get ready to head back out on the course. As we left the aid station, by the way, the leader, a Navajo runner who was running his first ultra and happens to be an Olympic hopeful, finished the race. This was amazing to witness but rather daunting because we still had at least another 5 hours to go, but I digress!
From mile 16 to mile 21 the course climbed and dropped a few times. It was a beautiful section of the course that jumped between jeep roads and single track Continental Divide trail. We came into the aid station at mile 21 with smiles on our faces but we knew what was next so we stopped, chatted with the volunteers again, ate to our hearts’ content and mentally prepared ourselves for the most grueling part of this course.
Over the next three miles, we climbed about 3000 feet to the summit of Mount Taylor. The climb started out in the woods and this helped mask the beginning of the daunting task ahead. However, it soon emerged into a hillside meadow with a trail that just climbed straight up. This was the beginning of my biggest mental battle of the day. As we hiked slowly up this trail, I had to stop frequently to catch my breath and let my legs get some oxygen. It took us a long time to crest the first false summit. I knew it was a false summit from reading other race reports but I still took a mental hit when we reached it and looked up to see massive switchbacks continuing up an even bigger hill. We put our heads down and continued on up. At this point, I found a way to breathe that helped a little and this made the next half of the climb a little easier. We still stopped frequently but I felt better and we never doubted our ability to conquer this hill. Finally, we turned a corner and saw the top of Mount Taylor at mile 24. We stopped and took in the breathtaking 360-degree view of the area around us. We were on top of the world, as far as we were concerned, and our legs were thankful for the rest we were taking.
At this point the weather started cooling down. It was windy and cloud cover was making the temperature drop. We threw our jackets on and after numerous pictures we started our descent. It was a steep, rocky descent from mile 24 to the aid station at mile 25. Here we refilled, joked with the volunteers again and it seemed like we forgot the massive challenge of the climb behind us. This particular point in the course is called Caldera Rim and it’s at the top of Water Canyon, a canyon that has formed on the inside of an ancient volcano crater. The course continued into the canyon so for the next 2 miles we enjoyed a fast, downhill jeep road that, although it was rocky, allowed us to stretch out and enjoy some speed. At 26.2 miles, I stopped and celebrated Katlyn’s longest running streak ever as this was her first ultra. She was doing an amazing job and had been my strength going up Mount Taylor. I was incredibly proud of her performance so far and I could tell she was having fun and that this was the first of many ultras that we will run together.
We continued on through the canyon but at mile 28, the course once again turned on us. We turned onto a trail to the left and immediately we knew that the last 3 miles of downhill were about to cost us. Ahead was another brutal climb up to the aid station at mile 29. This time, I was able to return the favor to Katlyn for pulling me up the Mount Taylor climb and helped pull her through this last hill. She never complained but I could see the struggle hit her, just as it had hit me. I didn’t have to do much though, because she soon looked up and just said, “Bring it on Mount Taylor!” This is the sign of a true ultra-marathoner: when a massive challenge that would defeat a normal person becomes the very motivation that helps you conquer it.
During the climb, we felt some water droplets and then, to add to the mental struggle of the climb so late in the course, we were hit with hail. Our jackets were on and our hoods were up but luckily this didn’t last very long. After a hard 30-ish minute, 1 mile climb out of the canyon, we reached the aid station at mile 29. With only about 2 miles to go, we refueled one last time and headed out. After about a quarter-mile of gentle climbing the course veered down the hill to the right and it was go-time. The trail got rocky, which we are used to from our Arizona desert training and as it sloped down the hill, we let gravity take us on a ride. We call this type of running, “riding the wave” and boy did we enjoy it! Our feet and legs seemed to forget the last 30 miles of struggles and I even laughed out loud a few times from the fun we were having.
Throughout the course, there were 3 banners hung on trees that had motivational quotes on them. These were very well placed because the quotes coincided perfectly with whatever we were experiencing at the time and naturally, we took pictures of all of them. The last one of these banners came during this particular descent. We knew the finish line was close, but we had to get the picture so we stopped to take it and the volunteer sitting by the banner said, “you’re only 300 yards from the finish line! Go!” This made me laugh because it didn’t matter to us; we needed the picture!!
We snapped a shot of the banner and took off like bats out of hell. With the yards flying by, I smiled with satisfaction and couldn’t help feeling intense pride as I saw Katlyn sprinting through the finish line. I came in with her and we were very enthusiastically greeted. Everyone recognized us from when we went by at mile 16 and the race director personally shook our hands and handed us our beautiful medals. Katlyn also received a gorgeous Navajo bracelet (each female competitor got to pick one). We were done and we were happy!
A quick word about the organization of this race: I have experienced a lot of different types of events. From a massive, impersonal production like Ironman, to a small ultra-marathon like this one, I have seen good and bad events. The Mount Taylor 50K has been one of the best, if not the best, organized race I have ever experienced. The course was impeccably marked and impossible to get lost on, the volunteers were perfectly placed, amazingly supportive, enthusiastic and totally on point with what we needed as participants, and the race directors were personal, caring and wonderful. Most of the participants and volunteers/staff were strangers from the Albuquerque area but they all made Katlyn and I feel like a part of their community and a part of their family.
This type of community-centered event has become increasingly difficult to find as the running/endurance industry has grown. With massive, corporate events popping up all over the country, races like this have become rare, and organizers have lost touch with the community in exchange for chasing profits. The love and passion that the Mount Taylor 50K crew has for the running community was very apparent and it made for an incredibly pleasant experience. For that, I want to thank everyone involved with this amazing race.
Most of all, however, I want to thank Katlyn Evans, my partner in crime and my wonderful girlfriend. There are very few couples out there that can tackle challenges like this together and I am eternally thankful to have you at my side. You helped me through my challenges that day and I hope I was able to help you through yours. We conquered Mount Taylor together and I hope we get to conquer countless more mountains and challenges for years and years to come. Thank you for being my strength out there and for making me look up at our beautiful surroundings when I was struggling and staring at my feet. Thank you for being you and for being my best friend. I love you and I’m very proud of you!
Katlyn's Race Report
Mt. Taylor 50K website
Katlyn's Race Report
Mt. Taylor 50K website
The first big climb, right out of the start line
Aid Station at Mile 10 - see the Krispy Kremes? So good...
First quote on the course...
Continental Divide trail!
One of my favorite shots of the course.
Second quote on the course.
This is during the massive climb to the top of Mount Taylor. See the struggle in our faces?
Top of the Mountain!
Mile 26.2! We didn't do it right... hahaha!
Last quote, 300 yards from the finish. Gordon is the pioneer of ultra-marathons and he raced too!
At the finish line! All done!