I arrived in Las Cruces bleary eyed after many hours of transit and a night semi successfully sleeping at ABQ airport. I found some coffee, then oriented myself in relation to the many mountain peaks. I knew I would be running through most of these shortly – how exciting! I was about a 7 mile hitch into town where Pablo had unbelievably offered to let me crash. I felt a bit sluggish and decided to run it. My legs felt really good. I jogged to his house, where I was greeted with the best coffee I have ever had and with two bike packers who had recently attempted the Northern Loop. Jacob and Ryan (Texas and California) had made it to the rest stop on day 2, besieged by non stop bike problems. It was hard for me to understand exactly what had gone wrong with their bikes but it sounded quite stressful. They both seemed optimistic about the idea of running the loop, and I did pick up a few key items – don’t start your day at 5pm!
I slept fitfully for a few hours before Pablo loaned me a bike (!!!!!) and we rode over for Thanksgiving with some of his friends. This was one of the best evenings I have ever had. It was lowkey, extremely carbo-loaded, with a whole load of absolutely delightful people. It was a complete treat to crash Thanksgiving and I have picked up a few cocktail recipes that I plan to make my signature Thanksgiving drink! I met Estus, a thru-hiker fresh off the PCT I also got to pick Jacob’s and Ryan’s brains in a bit more detail about the first miles of the Northern loop, and exactly what we could expect. It sounded like lots of sand was in order, along with high possibility of bike failure. Did this mean there was high possibility of body failure?
The next day I was up pretty early packing up. Brad’s bus got in at 7.30am to the same point I was at yesterday, which turns out to be super close to approximately mile 21 of the route (the murder site of Pat Garret). We arranged to meet there which would buy him some time to build his bike (is it normal to need to build a bike? Apparently so. So much left to learn about bikes) and allow me to run the full route. I started off with 3 liters of water. Pablo made me some of his legendary coffee (even back in Seattle, the apparent home of coffee, Pablo’s coffee reigns supreme in my mind), and I was off!
The route begins near the university. It was very quiet in town and made me smiles. The first few miles of any route are always a bit wild, before you are at home on a path, before you know how your footsteps will fall. After not very long I hit a nice paved bike path and cruised towards A Mountain, aka the official start of the route and super near where Matt, the creator of the route lives. A Mountain pulled into sight. I briefly detoured off route to say hi to Matt (I needed to have a face to the name I would end up cursing so often over the next few days…) then set off towards it!
It is truly beautiful running in this area, a pleasant dusty road which turned into a gentle trail around A Mountain. I instantly fell, as is my tendency – in Seattle I am a very clumsy runner. I have realized this is because the trails in Seattle are soft and welcoming trampolines, that will bounce you straight up, scratching your skin only gently in the process. This is NOT THE SITUATION in New Mexico! If you fall, you stay down, and will gingerly try to pull out the many needles from your hands and knees before concluding that they are at least holding the blood in place in your body and you don’t want to hang around so they may as well stay in your skin. I had a Pavlovian induction to trail running in New Mexico, and sure enough, I have learned how to run and stay standing! I hit a beautiful road and while I never relish road running (particularly when almost every single car that drives past stops to ask if you need a ride!) this was running right up to the Organs and they just were shining!
Miles 15-20 were a good lesson in route finding. The track was predominantly super clear, but then you would need to take a turn, heading west, but which turn? Whose bike tracks do you follow?! Then which way?! This was a part of the route I was very excited about. I have done minimal route finding in the past. The PCT is literally a yellow brick road that draws you invitingly down it, and basically every trail in WA is the same.
I was running strong and happy, aware that I was getting close to the mile 20 mark (A Mountain even looked vaguely distant!), and sure enough, out jumped Brad! I have not seen him since May when we took a super fun road trip to Oregon so I could race Smith Rock 50K (my first race!) The plan for this trip initially had been to do something a bit more lowkey that would actually be fun for him as well. How we ended up settling on this route which would undoubtedly be very challenging for me, I do not know!
We ran the mile or so to McDonalds, struggling to know where to catch up. It was a bit of a bummer to stop Brad before he had even gotten started but I desperately needed salt, carbs, and water. I got fries and a coke (even I knew that diet coke would be unacceptable) and we sat and chatted for a bit, planning out our days and mileages. It is so exciting starting something new, something that is truly unknown. What secrets did these remote mountains hold? What errors would we make? All to be discovered!
I eventually got my crap together and we set off at a steady clip. The french fries were sitting very heavy in my stomach. Brad stopped to look at some issue with his bike, and I kept on going. The summer sun was really beginning to beat down on me. It’s been ages since I’ve been that hot and every small sip of grape water made me feel worse and worse. I slowed to a fast moving walk and began to feel a little better, if a bit light headed. I could tell I hadn’t drunk anywhere near enough. I pulled up to Twin Peaks, a bit surprised Brad still hadn’t caught up. I checked my phone and sure enough, he had a completely flat tire and would catch up soon once he had figured things out. It honestly felt OK as I knew I would be going way more slowly than him, with 20 miles already on my legs, and just due to the fact that I was…on my legs!
I could hear lots of guns being fired which is a bit daunting for me. It’s great that this land gets used for all sorts of different things, but it’s a bit more intimidating when you’re in the firing line and can’t see where the bullets are going or coming from! I got seriously freaked out once I could hear the whizzing (I have no idea if this actually means it was close or not but it definitely sounded nearby) so I got off the path I was meant to be on and dropped way lower so I could say hi to the people shooting (they seemed to not hear me or see me as I frantically called and waved?) and go cautiously around them. As I pulled away, I thought, ‘wow, I really must be scared of guns, I feel terrible!’, which didn’t feel quite right as the situation wasn’t actually very scary. Then I puked my guts up, everywhere. This is a common occurrence with me running so I wasn’t too worried, and it was reassuring to know my gut was failing me rather than my courage. I dallied on, excited to pull to the Southern Dona Ana trailhead where Brad would be meeting me. This truly was mountain bike country! There were lots of cyclists crawling around and although I don’t know anything about biking, I think these trails are the definition of sick shred, bro. I continued to have major problems with intermittent vomiting. It was just so hot and I knew I needed to stop eating, but I had to keep the energy input in as I was approaching the 50K mark and I was just too tired to have no fuel in my body. I wended through the Dona Anas, talking to a few people and just thinking it was brilliant. Nausea is an easy problem to solve. The slower I went, the better I felt.
Going up and around the Cathedral was amazing. I was surprised Brad hadn’t caught me as I came up on mile 32 or so? I checked my phone and he had been dropped off in the wrong place and would be meeting me further down the route. I felt a slight twang of panic that I should be going faster, worried he would be bored. Then I looked around and reasoned that it would not be possible to be bored in the Dona Anas! TOO BEAUTIFUL.
I bumped into a few cyclists and watching them work reinvigorated me. I chewed on some candied ginger and was able to keep it down, very exciting. Then there was Brad, and also the sunset, at about mile 34. I definitely was feeling a little sleepy, and it didn’t feel like the easiest time to pair up – he had probably cycled max 10 miles that day, and I was worried he would have itchy legs! However he is a dream and allowed me to set the pace. It was so fun. It did get very dark, very quickly, but the stars were astounding at only 6.30pm.
We took a short break to marvel at the full moon pulling up but kept going. Navigation was very challenging as we were really following faint bike paths, of which there were hundreds, and neither of us had super illuminative headlamps. The route finding was much easier on foot – I could sort of turn myself around and figure it out without needing to stop entirely. Eventually I called it, at about mile 43, which felt very respectable. I felt quite a lot better and amazingly my muscles felt OK. I believe I ate some cold oatmeal for dinner and passed out completely.
Low: Obviously the vomiting, but which specific session? I think probably the 5th time I puked. There was nothing left to puke up apart from my grape electrolyte water. It was miserable enough tasting those electolytes drinking them the first time round; tasting it again as it came up just felt unfair.
High: pulling around the cathedral. The light was soft, the ground smelt beautiful, and I was full of hope.