It’s two days before the 9th annual Up & Over 10k at the Taos Ski Valley, which I’m due to run to the end of providing an inside story for Live Taos, so I’m up at the ski valley on a training run on the Bull-of-the Woods trail, trying to get accustomed to the altitude.
It’s been a wet summer and today’s no different. The day started off sunny enough, but now up here at over 10,000 feet the clouds are starting to roll in heavy from the east as a blanket of grey rapidly envelopes mountaintops. The Bull-of-the Woods trail is only 1.8 miles, so I pass it and head up on the Gold Hill trail, trying to get in at least three miles in order to simulate the grueling 2,250 foot climb in about three miles the Up & Over will offer in a couple days.
Needless to say, it’s a grind as the heavily forested trail blocks out all sunlight, adding to the frigid feeling of the day. Somehow, I grind my way up to what I feel is a little over three miles before starting the long, slow descent. At the bottom of the hill I catch my breath and robotically climb in my car, suck some water and clumsily head down the road.
As I pull out of the ski valley parking lot en route to Taos, I notice a police SUV blocking the road, lights on, officer out directing traffic, his head turned away from me with outstretched hand indicating to stop in order to let oncoming traffic pass first.
I’m in no mood for any of this, as I’m still dying from my run and am eager to get home and relax. I patiently sit there for a minute before I start to really wonder what the blazes are going on. I crane my neck around the stopped police unit in front of me but am unable to ascertain what the problem is, so I un-patiently sit cursing under my breath.
Finally the officer turns to me and beckons to proceed with upturned hand. As I drive by I’m dying to see what all the fuss was about, so I stop the car momentarily and see what’s been in front of his SUV, causing the delay.
Shockingly, two huge hooves are sticking out from the front of his unit as a good-sized buck is lying on his side, body twisted and grotesque in the last throes of his death rattle, legs spasmodically kicking at air, trying to get up one last time.
It’s evident that won’t be happening, though as his long, graceful neck attempts to hoist itself and then thuds back on the pavement and his thick torso shakes and quivers in bursts with legs continuing to spin in the air. I’m stunned by the goriness of the sight as the enormity of the moment hits me like a kick in the solar plexus.
With my car stopped, I sit paralyzed thus, when the officer shouts,”Hey!” breaking the spell, and motions for me to move on, as there are now several cars behind me. As I turn to go, the buck raises his head one last time and I catch a glimpse of his large ebony eye, glossed over in the mist of the other world. His pained gaze locks into mine momentarily and in that instant I feel his sorrow burrowing into my soul, his loss now very real.
I involuntarily start to cry as I slowly pull away, unsure why I’m doing so, but unable to stop. On the steep, curving road back to Taos, I’m trying to make sense of it all, the one thought that keeps running over in my mind that of the buck telling me, “don’t forget me, don’t let this be in vain.”
It’s the night before the run and I’m lying prone on my couch with a sore throat. Perhaps it was the morning’s run in the mountain mist sans shirt that got me sick, maybe it was my five-year old, who’s sniffling constantly — whatever the cause, I’m extremely disappointed and wondering how I’m going to finish tomorrow’s race feeling thus.
I remember there’s an Emergen-c packet in my race paraphernalia bag that came courtesy of the Up & Over folks and pull it out, mix it into water and down the concoction quickly in the hopes it will assuage my throat, which is now really hurting.
Later that night, the energy from the Emergen-c is keeping me awake and I drift in and out of sleep dreaming of the dying buck. At one point in the night I’m convinced he’s a symbol of my own life and I get paranoid about expiring up on the mountain in the morning.
Dawn comes grey and wet as I stumble out of bed at 6:30, hoping that a cup of coffee will give me the energy I need to get through the day, my sore throat now somewhat diminished but still plenty of congestion in my chest and nose. My wife gets up and wanders into the living room where I’m on the couch nursing my coffee.
She gives me a concerned look and asks if I’ll be able to run. “Yes,” I half-heartedly reply. “I have to,” I add with as much conviction as I can muster.
“Are you sure?” she asks again, her pained expression of concern now making me angry. “Yes, yes,” I say as I rise from the couch and down the last of my coffee. “Just let me get dressed and then I’m ready,” I dismissively add as I head into the bathroom to change.
Forty minutes or so later, we’re pulling into the ski valley enveloped in grey mist and bustling with activity. Runners take warm-up jogs up and down the expansive parking lot as family members and loved ones mill about, all bundled up against the cool morning chill.
I’m feeling a little better as the adrenaline starts to run through my veins and the imminence of the race approaches. As I head to the starting line I see familiar faces of Taoseños here and there among the runners and somehow feel a sense of comfort, knowing I won’t be suffering alone.
I’m talking to an acquaintance when out of the corner of my eye I see the police officer from the other day who directed me around the downed buck. I walk up to him and pointedly say, “Did you end up putting that buck down the other day?”
He’s a little taken aback by my forwardness at first and takes a minute to respond, but then finally says, “Yeah, he was suffering pretty badly.”
“Yes…I could see that,” I sadly say, the moment now grotesquely being replayed in my mind’s eye. The cop and I stand there for an awkward moment, both thinking about it before saying a quick goodbye and I move closer to the starting area.
As I pass other runners along the way, I can’t help but notice they all smile at first, then look at my feet in bewilderment and concern as I’m wearing my Luna sandals, based on the Tarahumara model used by their runners deep in the Copper Canyons of Mexico.
The sandal was created by the iconic “Barefoot Ted,” a character in Christopher McDougall’s wildly popular best-selling book, Born To Run, and was taught him from Miguel Luna (hence the name) a storied Tarahumara runner. Ted took the design home and worked on it for a while before finding a prototype he felt worked. The resulting sandal now comes in several styles, each designed for different terrains and purposes.
Although they may be a bit of over-kill, I’m wearing the Leadville model, as most of my running happens here in the mountains of New Mexico. I tried the Lunas after transitioning from a 70’s model Adidas a couple years ago when I started running again after a 25-year hiatus, following McDougall’s advice in his book. After a summer in the Adidas, I switched to Vibram’s Five Fingers in order to further enhance my barefoot technique, which has one landing on the balls of the feet, back completely erect and breathing deeply from the stomach.
After a year in the five-fingers and losing 15 pounds, increasing my distances and staying injury-free, I decided to go for broke and try the Lunas. That was a year and five months ago, and I haven’t looked back since.
The feeling of running practically naked and with the amount of sensitivity the Lunas offer is unparalleled. The minimalist nature of the sandal forces one to practice a perfect running stride, and with so little between you and the trail (or road) the margin of error for a bad stride is correspondingly minimized, as you’ll immediately feel it.
Back up in the ski valley the racers all congregate near the starting line as the announcer on the microphone warns us it’s been a wet summer and therefore the trail is rather muddy and full of rocks in certain stretches. Before I know it, the energy is starting to swell and as I look around I can see everyone start to inch forward in anticipation of the starting gun going off.
I hang toward the back of the pack and figure I’ll let the serious runners jockey for position, as the goal for me today is to merely finish in a semi-respectable time, somewhere around the middle of the pack. Last year’s winning time was 56:49:00, so I figure I’ll finish about a half-hour past that, which I’d be happy with.
The gun goes off with a resounding crack against the slate-grey sky and there’s a cheer from the onlookers and runners as the snaking pack meanders up the first hill. With the image of the buck in my mind, I truck along at a decent pace, mindful of my technique and hunkering down for the long, grueling climb. About a mile up the trail that’s mercilessly climbing by the foot, I try to maintain what I feel is a comfortable pace. I manage to pass a few people and look to situate myself from the back to the middle of the pack, the goal being to get to the front of the middle of the pack where I can jet down the backside and make up some time . . . maybe surprise a few runners (and myself) along the way.
At the 3km mark I’m running out of gas somewhat, as the trail just won’t stop its relentless pitch, so I draw on the spirit of the buck to help me along. The barefoot technique is what’s allowed me to run injury-free at this juncture of my life, and I’m respectful of its origins — which are rooted in Native American running.
Anyone who’s ever witnessed footraces at San Geronimo Day at Taos Pueblo knows that the runners are barefoot and run in a particular way — the way their ancestors have done since time immemorial, and it’s in this vein I go about my running — seeing each breath as a prayer that will bring goodwill to me and my loved ones.
I don’t seek to attack the mountain, to try and beat a particular fixed time, but go deeper into my reverence for the pain it doles out and correspondingly ask its permission to allow me to continue, promising that I come to it in a good way, with a good heart.
And so, with the buck as my companion on the grueling climb I continue on, trance-like until I can hopefully reach the summit. The climb seems interminable at what must be the 4k mark and I’m deep in my own thoughts as I continue to pass a straggling runner here and there, keeping the Native American picture of the deer that draws the breath of life in my mind and mimicking the way the animal navigates steep pitches as well, drawing that sweet breath of life deep into my belly slowly and surely.
Suddenly, I hit the wall. I can’t run any further, so like most around me, I resort to walking. However, among the suffering and burning legs, there’s a sense of camaraderie that’s tangible in the cold mountain mist. Up at that elevation there’s a quiet reverence that pervades the moment and the air is thick with it as we all pace each other, offering subtle words of encouragement along the way; we’re all in the same boat, and the exercise reinforces my theory that in times of suffering we all bring out our best selves.
The hump goes on for what seems like another half hour, and then, suddenly, we’re at the summit. Prior to race day, I’d imagined the view I would get from here, purportedly looking out among the entire valley in all directions, and quite stunning, but today it seems as if we’re in some Scottish Highland tableau, and I can barely see twenty feet in front of me.
Following Newton’s Law that what goes up must come down, the trail I was hoping to bomb down is disappointingly as steep as the way up, and I resort to gingerly picking my way down scree and boulders, trying not to break form and save my knees. The brutal descent goes on in similar fashion for several miles until it starts to break somewhat into small areas where I can speed up the pace and feel as if I’m making up for lost time.
The 8km mark is suddenly on me and I recognize the lower portion of the ski valley village, so I turn it on and hope to finish with a burst. I hop over a few creeks and am feeling my lungs again, so I resolve to push to the finish line, hoping to reel in the pack of runners about a quarter-mile ahead of me before then.
I run past the final water and aid station and concentrate on the energy of the buck to push me through the final pitch. In the distance I can hear cheering and a bell sounding, so I prepare myself for the last stretch, reminding myself to stay light and keep my head back. I somehow reel in two to three runners within sight of the finish line and before I know it — it’s over.
I’m tired, but not as much as I thought I’d be. Still, I walk around and suck up air and just thank the powers that be I made it. My wife and son amble up, smiling, proud that I finished so strongly. I hang about and cheer on a few others that are finishing, wanting to spread my good fortune. I recognize faces from the pack I ran with most of the way and we all congratulate one another on a job well done.
One gentleman looks at my feet and says, “Wow, I can’t believe you ran in those,” looking at my Lunas. I just shrug my shoulders and say, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” It’s difficult to have other runners believe that I made it not in spite of my sandals, but because of them. For me, my Lunas are a way of connecting to a spirit that goes beyond the mindset of modern running; of accomplished times and shoes that purportedly help one “conquer” a trail, but, rather allow me to become part of it.
If nothing else, they helped me through the day, and in the aftermath I felt no pain in my joints, knees, or feet. I realize it’s not a popular stance as of yet, but here in the Southwest, I believe that the spirit of the ancestors might help along the way, much in the way the buck helped me that cold summer’s day up at the ski valley.
By the way, my final time, 1:27:55…about exactly where I thought I would finish. Thanks Up & Over 10k…this buck’s for you!
Results from the race can be found here.