Running this intense Albuquerque trail race as a novice means a lot of hard work and a lot of falling

By Tina Deines

As I approached the 10,678 foot crest that marked the end of the La Luz Trail Run, I had to whisper encouragement to my reluctant legs. I couldn’t see over the ridge but I could hear the crowd’s boisterous cheers as the runners ahead of me crossed the still-out-of-sight finish line. It had been an arduous race—I’d survived a 4,000-foot altitude gain over 9 miles, scrambled over a mile of massive boulder fields and even broke up a fight as tensions flared on this single-track trail.

Although I still couldn’t see the finish line, I knew it waited just feet away. The cheers were getting louder and I could hear the emcee announcing the names of other competitors as they finished – that was going to be my name echoing over the PA system soon. As I crossed the finish line, I shifted my focus from the unpredictable, rocky terrain that lay ahead to hundreds of eyes, which were all fixed on me. I triumphantly lifted my arms into the air, proud of successfully completing what Trail Runner Magazine had called one of the “12 Most Grueling Trail Races in North America.” Moments later, I began a clumsy forward descent to the earth as I stumbled over one of the many rocks that speckled the trail. I couldn’t help but think that this was the perfect end to a rocky summer of training – one full of setbacks, perseverance and, well, falls.

Just months before, I sat on the side of the La Luz trail with my dogs, pulling inch sized pebbles out of my knee and staining the light brown dirt-packed path with my bright red blood. Several hikers and runners passed by – either thinking I had it together or not caring – as I scrambled to find something to stop the bleeding and carefully flushed my wounds out with some water (of course I had no first aid gear). I had tripped over my training partner, a rambunctious 40-pound whippet mix named Rosie (for her part, Rosie was not injured and seemed unfazed by the incident). I discovered a piece of tissue paper in my pack and held it to my largest wound for nearly 10 minutes, when a passerby finally asked if I was OK.

“My ego is bruised more than anything,” I replied.

But preoccupied with the blood, debris and rock induced indentations on my knees, I was unaware that I had also badly injured my left arm during the fall. About an hour later, now at my house, I stepped into the shower and attempted to lather my shampoo – I say attempted because as I reached back with my left hand, my range of motion stopped at 90 degrees. Worried, I wrapped up my shower as quickly as one could with one functioning arm. By the time I emerged from the tub, the adrenaline of my fall had worn off and I was in a world of pain. I wondered if I should reconsider this race.

The La Luz Trail is a strenuous hike in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. Visitors come from all over the world to challenge themselves on this daunting ascent. In turn, they are treated to magnificent overlooks, forested wilderness and steep drops along the way. All of this culminates with an incredible panoramic view of nearby Albuquerque, which sprawls to the west. Many fatigued hikers opt for a 15-minute aerial tram ride back down the mountain.

As one of the few organized races in the United States that is permitted in a wilderness area, the Forest Service limits entry to 400 runners each August. A lottery signup occurs in the spring.

Although I am no elite athlete, I took the advice of a fellow runner and entered the lottery. A few weeks later, I received a notification that my credit card had been charged $50 – I was in. A rush of excitement and fear overcame me and I started scheming a summer training schedule immediately.

Later that week, I stepped foot on the La Luz trail for the first time in my life. Armed with enthusiasm, a full CamelBak, sunscreen, two dogs and a dash of ignorance, I started an early morning training session.

It was a long day. I had to walk too many times. I discovered there was a mile-long boulder field. I had to evacuate my bowels, but had forgotten toilet paper. But alas, I finally stumbled my way to the top, weak and tired (my dogs didn’t seem downtrodden at all). During this first training run, I made several mistakes. I wore lightweight hiking boots instead of running shoes. I was carrying too much weight on my back. I took some of the inclines too fast and had run only about 25 percent of the way. My feet were a bit swollen and the descent felt like an eternity. As I neared the bottom of the trail, the ever-strong New Mexico sun drained what was left of my waning energy.

I trained throughout the summer, acquiring new trail running smarts each week. My schedule was delayed for two weeks after my clumsy dog tripping incident in June. When I stepped foot back onto the trail in early July to resume with my last few weeks of training, I was timid. I did not want to topple on the trail again. I fell several more times over the next few weeks, however. Each time I swore I would be more cautious next time. I eventually came to realize that falling was part of training for this race (I also watched another person drop, which was oddly relieving).

I ran the trail with an untrained partner one weekend. He beat me by 15 minutes. I ran the worst time of my training schedule that day, and it was two weeks before the race. I blamed it on poor nutrition the previous night, but I felt deflated and scared. Would the race crush me? Two more weeks passed as I very willingly tapered.

On a warm August morning I stood at the starting line at last. My biggest race fear is having to pee midway through a race, so I postponed my visit to the smelly outdoor latrines until the last reasonable moment. Now, the only full bladder in my possession was my CamelBak, and it was making an awful creaking noise as I moved. I had slipped a little pink electrolyte tab into my water, which was somehow causing a disturbance. My ever supportive boyfriend eased the noisy bubbles out to ensure I had a creak-free running experience. I applied laser-like focus to monitoring the task, which helped distract me from the fact that I was about to embark on one of the most serious running endeavors of my life.

I looked around and saw a variety of runners – some appeared to be serious athletes while a few looked like they had just rolled off of their sofa one day and decided to run one of the most difficult races in the country. Many runners looked like me – fit, but not overwhelmingly so.

Bam! My thoughts were disrupted by the pop of the starting gun. The noise cut through the pre-race chatter and jolted us all to action. As the pack began making its way up two miles of paved road, we all adopted different race strategies. My goal was “run when you can, walk when you have to.” Around 1.7 miles – after about a 700 foot elevation gain – I transitioned between walking and running for three or four sets.

Soon we were on the trail and I realized how important the first two miles had been in terms of setting a race pace. The first few miles of the hiking trail only really accommodate a single file line. Passing was incredibly difficult and if you wanted to overtake another runner, your move had to be very strategic. At mile one of the trail, a racer aggressively attempted to pass another, bumping into him in the process.

“Do that again and I’ll knock you down,” the slighted runner barked, along with some other choice words. An exchange ensued between the two and I couldn’t believe two racers were actually arguing while running a race. We were only 2.5 miles in. The rest of the racers remained silent, but I decided to mediate.

“Hey guys, let’s try to get along. We’ve got a long way to go today,” I offered. My effort appeared successful and the two fell into silence, hopefully feeling a bit ashamed of their behavior.

The next few miles were difficult – a serious set of strenuous switchbacks pushed my body to the extreme. As I had planned, I walked when necessary and ran when possible. Eventually, I came to one of the most difficult areas of the course – a series of boulder fields around mile seven.

It was here that a thin, fragile looking man passed me. He appeared to be using walking strides, although his pace surpassed mine. As he made his way uphill, over the 3-foot boulders, he took the time and energy to offer motivation to every runner that he passed. I smiled at his courtesy and wondered if he had the opportunity to spread his good manners to the childish competitors that I’d encountered earlier in the race.

Despite his kind words, I had to speed walk several times as I attempted to conquer the boulder fields. At this point, exhaustion and altitude were starting to overcome me and I had to negotiate each stride with my body, which was telling me that this race was nonsense and that I needed to sit down and take a break.

Stubbornly, I ignored my body’s self-absorbed complaints. Eventually, I put the boulder fields behind me and pushed myself to jog through a few more inclines. Shortly after that, something amazing happened. One of the early finishers – a thin, long legged dark complected man – came down the mountain to encourage us. His thumbs up and kind words gave me the motivation I needed to force myself through another series of daunting switchbacks that would lead me to the final leg of the race – a steep staircase followed by a final push to the top of the mountain.

A man stood at the top of the stairs, looking down at us with his hands on his hips.

“Hey come on, you can take the escalator tomorrow,” he yelled as we all struggled just to progress our feet without falling over.

I couldn’t help but notice he looked like he took the escalator everyday. And he wasn’t sweating at all. Internally, I cursed him, but his rude tactics were oddly helpful, though eye-roll inducing.

In fewer than five minutes I would cross the finish line and come full circle, falling to the ground just as I had many times during the summer. As I received my official finisher’s t-shirt, medal and commemorative cowbell, I felt like superwoman. I had surpassed my expectations on this grueling race. Not to mention I finished without seriously crippling or killing myself.

I fell a lot that summer. I fell on the trail. I fell at the finish line. I fell for La Luz. Every time I return to the trail for a hike, I smile to myself as I remember that one time that I conquered the mountain.

Written August 2016