Back in early November with my season winding down and the snow beginning to fall here in Sun Valley I looked around for a couple of “training races” I could do in January and February as part of an early season build-up for Western States and a chance to get out of the cold and snow. In a best-case scenario, I hoped to find an event or two that would not cause me to miss any school and that might take me to some new and interesting places.
My search led me to the Ghost Town 38.5 Mile Run in Hillsboro, NM. This four-year old race is an ultrarunning gem! Beginning and ending at the home of Race Director Susan Reynolds, the course is an interesting blend of road and trail through Southern New Mexico’s countryside. With about 5000 ft. of climbing and a distance a bit more than 50K and not as taxing as a 50 miler it was just what I was looking for in a January getaway. Plus, a stressful couple of weeks at school had made me feel like a few days away would do me some good.
The race started in the dark and for the first hour or so it was cold. A small pack of runners took the lead and hit the 6.3-mile mark in 50 minutes. Turning on to the dirt road and beginning the climb into the Gila Wilderness the race began to take shape. Tim Long was running well and was looking to capitalize on a few months of training with Dave Mackey in Boulder. Long-time ultrarunner Scott Eppelman was in the mix as was the previous year’s winner Ed Heller, Hardrock top-10’er Dave Coblenz, Leadville top-finisher Jason Halladay, fast-guy newcomer Pete Stevenson and Bobby, the Fleet Feet store owner from Albuquerque.
We spread out a bit on the climb up to the 9.6 mile aid station but the pack was all within a minute or so of one another when we reached the trail head for the 1.3 mile out-and-back technical single-track spur that would take us up to an abandoned mine shaft and the high point of the course at just over 7000 feet. This section was easily the best part of the course and served to spread us out a bit both going up and coming down.
Tim pulled slightly ahead of me on this section and got back to the bottom of the spur up about one minute. A minute back of me, Bobby was keeping us honest and the rest of the guys were not far behind him. Climbing up to the 16-mile aid station I kept my eyes on Tim but knew he was having a strong run and would probably be in the game at the end.
Shortly after the 16-mile aid we crossed Percha Creek and began an 4-mile out and back to Cave Creek. This section traversed several steep ridges on a gnarly forest service road. The sun was out in full force and I was smiling in my sleeveless shirt and shorts. I was also eating S! Caps by the handful and had gotten to that point in the race that just feels good! In fact, at that moment, I was wishing the race were longer.
At the 20-mile turnaround, which I hit in 3:00 flat, Tim had about 30 seconds on me and the other guys were spread out in 1-2 minute intervals behind us. Everybody looked good but I had the sense that Tim and I would be puling away down the homestretch. It was shaping up to be a two-man race.
On the way back to the 24-mile aid I slowly gained ground on Tim and we were together as we cruised through the aid station. For the next five miles we played tag with Tim pulling ahead on the ups and me catching up and even, occasionally, pulling slightly ahead on the downs. We arrived back at the pavement (Mile 32.5) shoulder to shoulder in 4:42. With 6.3 miles left to the finish Tim turned to me and said, “This finish could be interesting, our 5K times are about the same.”
“Great,” I thought, “32 miles into a run and we were going to hammer a road 10K at the end!” At least it was sunny and warm. “Yeah, I puffed, “it could be interesting.”
The next 30 minutes we wound down the road stride for stride. I was slowly ramping up the pace to see if I could get a gap but nothing. Tim was right there. It was like High School Cross-Country all over again. Finally, we reached the final straightaway and we could see Susan’s house and the finish line about 800 meters ahead. I tossed my bottles to the side and surged. Tim was right there. I took the foot off the accelerator and then quickly surged again. I tried to hold on. Tim was right there. Literally, with 50 meters to go we were still stride for stride. Tim took off, I couldn’t answer. He beat me by 5 seconds. Sweet finish.
In the end we were both about 45 minutes under the previous course record (5:21:01 for Tim and 5:21:06 for me). We had run the final 6.3 miles in 39 minutes. And, my goal of a mid-January run in the sun was accomplished.
The post race festivities were nothing short of amazing. Susan’s house was filled with homemade New Mexican food. Two soups, two types of homemade cornbread and the most incredible enchiladas I have ever had (complete with world famous Hatch chiles from just down the road.) I hung out talking to people, eating and drinking beer for about three hours. In fact, when it was time, it was really hard to leave. This truly old-school, low key, super well-organized ultra was perfect and I look forward to going back, if I can get in! It fills in a few days even with the expanded field of 77 for 2010.
And one more interesting tidbit: It turns out that the US Census Bureau classifies American counties into four categories; Urban, Suburban, Rural, and Frontier. Sierra County, NM, where the Ghost Town 38.5 is held is, yup, you guessed it, a Frontier county.