2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  JOURNEY HERE TO THERE***
INTRODUCTION TO THE GHOST TOWN ULTRA

FRIDAY, JANUARY 16

 
"We actually set the alarm as there's much to do and we want to be completely ready when you arrive.
For some of you that means tomorrow. It's always good when I've seen that first runner and handed
out the first bib number. It means the weekend has officially begun. I don't know who will be the
first, there's no prize except maybe a more energized me...but I'm looking forward to seeing you!"
 
- e-mail on 1-15 from RD Susan Reynolds to Ghost Town participants
 
 
*** Journey Here to There is the name of Susan Reynolds' LLC, "which organizes and promotes walks, treks and runs of varying lengths in beautiful places." Susan, a journey walker, is the RD for the Ghost Town 38.5-mile ultra. That's our destination.

ON THE ROAD TO NEW MEXICO

We left McDowell Mountain Park near Phoenix this morning with both reluctance and anticipation. We wanted to stay longer to enjoy the nice weather and plethora of trails but we also have an agenda that requires us to be in Hillsboro, NM for the weekend. So off we went, spending most of the day on the road.

The campground was full when we pulled out. Someone saw us getting ready to leave and planned to move into our prime spot within minutes of our departure (there are no reserved sites; it's first come, first served). It was a beautiful, sunny morning: 45 F. when we left, with a predicted high of 74 F. in the Valley of the Sun. 

<sigh>  We were headed for a destination 3,000+ feet higher and bound to be chillier. It really didn't matter, though. The sky was blue and we had a fine drive through SE Arizona and SW New Mexico.


Pastel sunset colors surround Caballo Lake, NM

Our route was much the same as last year when we headed to Carlsbad Caverns from the Phoenix area: southeast on AZ 60 and 70 to I-10 in Lordsburg, NM. There isn't much traffic on these two-lane roads and we can drive almost as fast as on the freeway. We like the scenery through the Superstition Mountains, the rugged rock walls, the Queen Creek Tunnel, the Top of the World, even driving through the town of Globe.

We were happy to find diesel cheaper in Globe than in metro Phoenix, too: $2.23/gallon instead of $2.39. It was down to $2.17/gallon along 1-10 in New Mexico.

At Deming we took a pleasant two-lane tangent (NM 26) to reach I-25 north of Las Cruces. We came out at a little town called Hatch, which bills itself as the hot pepper capital of the world. Strings and bunches of colorful chili  peppers hung from storefronts and restaurants. I took this shot in front of a dilapidated wooden house next to the highway:

We were getting desperate for fuel by now and paid an exorbitant $2.59/gallon. We didn't see diesel any cheaper until after the Ghost Town race when we drove through El Paso.

Although we'd been invited to pull our camper into the race director's yard, which is the start/finish of the Ghost Town 38.5 mile race, we arrived too close to dark to make that feasible. Even people who have seen our camper don't have a realistic idea how much space is required to maneuver it in and out of a parking spot. The Reynolds hadn't seen our camper yet and we hadn't eyeballed their yard so we had no idea if that plan would work. We'd best make that determination in daylight on Friday morning. If there wasn't room at their house, we could always stay down near the interstate.

Before leaving Phoenix we called to check on campsites at Caballo Lake State Park (above), which is about twenty miles from the Reynolds' home in Hillsboro. The park is right off 1-25, about fifteen miles south of Truth or Consequences (called "TorC" by locals). We pulled in right about suppertime. We chose a nice spot overlooking the lake and watched the setting sun color the hills and sky across the water with soft pastel pinks and lavenders.

I wanted to take Cody with me to get some photos from the bluff on our side of the lake.

Oh, my. That was a mistake. There were nasty sharp little stickers all over the ground, including the gravel in the campground. They were tiny little balls, less than 1/4" in diameter, covered with many sharp spines. Cody couldn't walk one yard without several of them lodging painfully in the pads of his feet. He just stood still, shaking from pain and fear, giving me the most pitiful look. They hurt my fingers to remove them, too.

A woman in another camper saw our plight and came out to commiserate. She and her husband had to keep their dog inside, too. She showed me how the sharp stickers also stuck to the bottoms of her shoes and warned me not to track them inside the camper. Even though I couldn't see any lodged into the soles of my Keen sandals, I did manage to track some stickers inside.

The woman was right; they're even worse if you step on one in your bare feet!! Owww.

Poor Cody. I put him back in the camper but I still had to take him outside to do his business a couple more times. He was pretty paranoid, even on the road through the campground. The stickers were everywhere.

Even though the views of the lake are pleasant, the park is on a birding trail, the fishing is good, and the campground is inexpensive, we recommend staying there only if you DO NOT have a dog with you, at least this time of the year. Perhaps other months are sticker-free.

THROUGH THE HILLS TO HILLSBORO

Friday morning we drove up higher in elevation to the Reynolds' property just west of the little town of Hillsboro. It is a scenic drive on NM 152 through the foothills of the Black Range.

The road had so little traffic when we got to the Reynolds' house that Jim just left the camper in the right lane with the warning flashers blinking while he got out to talk to Matt and Susan about the best place to park our camper. They were very happy we'd made it to Hillsboro OK and couldn't wait to show him around.

I think we were the first to arrive for the race (see quote above) so Jim got an extra-warm welcome! We knew if we wanted a fighting chance to get our rig in their yard we'd need to be the first camper in. The Reynolds' invite runners to sleep in their campers or vehicles in the yard so they are right at the start/finish. More than a dozen runners accepted their generosity this year; some are shown in the next photo. Others stayed in the Reynolds' cabin, B&Bs in Hillsboro, or motels in Truth or Consequences, which is over thirty miles away.


Runners camp out near the Reynolds' studio. The cabin and road are to the left (not shown here).

Matt came out to the truck to introduce himself to me. I'm guessing he had a sharp intake of air when he saw just how big our camper is! It's not huge by industry standards but 32" looks pretty long when you see it attached to the truck. And it's tall, so we also have to watch for overhanging branches. I imagine Matt was thinking, "Holy crap!" or some such.

Jim and I were thinking pretty much the same thing. We scouted out the possibilities of which of the two wide gates we should enter and where we should park so we didn't take up all the space other runners would need for their campers and vehicles. Branches from a large cottonwood tree next to the main gate looked like they might damage the AC unit on the camper roof so we eliminated that option even after Matt offered to trim them back. We sure didn't want to cause such trouble!

We considered just going back down to Caballo Lake and driving back and forth to the race activities from Friday to Monday. The Reynolds wouldn't hear of it. They genuinely wanted us to stay on their property. We ended up going through another double gate that hadn't been opened for several years.  When Matt was unable to find the key to the lock he just cut it off so we could get in. We parked out of the way between the cabin and fence on the far side of the property:


Fits just fine, and out of the way.

That's just one example of how accommodating these folks are. They love to have visitors and go all out to make race entrants feel welcome. They truly made us feel "at home" and for that we are grateful. They wouldn't even accept money for a new gate lock. "I would have to cut it off when I eventually needed to get in there myself," Matt explained. "Now I have access again." He made it sound like we did him a favor.

Thank you, Matt and Susan. You guys are great.

PARTIAL COURSE TOUR

Since it was still early in the day and no other runners were expected until afternoon, Susan and Matt encouraged us to go take a look at the course.

We drove out eight or nine miles before turning back. We had 55 gallons of water stored in a tank on the back of the truck and it was shifting around as we drove on the dirt road the course follows after six miles. We didn't want it to fall off.

The course is mostly out-and-back. It follows paved NM 152 (shown above) for 6.3 miles, then turns up dirt Forest Road 157 for most of the remainder of the miles. There are also a couple little spurs off this road to add miles and interest to the course.

You can read details of the course and view a map here

There are nice views of hills and rock walls along the highway. We stopped at the parking area next to the bridge across Percha Creek. Runners cross it on the orange bridge outbound and inbound. Farther upstream they have to jump across it or wade through it, depending on rainfall. This year it was pretty dry before the race and the creek was low.


Bridge across the Percha

The running surface ranges from paved road to steep, rough trail. The course climbs from about 5,300 feet at the start/finish to just under 7,000 feet at its highest point. Susan warns potential entrants that the course is "challenging" but most runners/walkers are able to finish within the generous 12-hour time limit.

Since the part of the course we drove is out-and-back, Jim was able to see the 6.3 miles of paved road at the beginning and end of the race but only a couple miles of the dirt road section. He was willing to wait for the race to see the rest. Susan's descriptions and photos on the website, and further details in e-mails, gave a good "picture" of the course for those like Jim who were running it the first time.


Near the beginning of FR 157, a dirt road

I didn't run the race or train on the course and Jim didn't carry a camera so we don't have pictures of most of the course. I'll show a few more photos I took on Friday in the race report. There are also photos on the race website.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

After our partial course tour we returned to the camper and let Cody sniff his way around the Reynolds' yard and creek. Matt and Susan have two dogs but we didn't get to meet them. They were kenneled for the weekend so they didn't get out of the yard; the main gate was open for runners and crews to come and go for four days. The Reynolds welcome runners' dogs in their yard but they aren't allowed on the course or at aid stations. 

Matt and Susan have three buildings on their property. Two of them are used for race activities.

The "cabin" is the structure closest to the road. It's shown in the next photo. The Reynolds use it primarily for meals. It is HQ during the race for a dinner on Friday night, food preparation all weekend, sleeping quarters for a few runners the night before the race, race check-in, pre-race breakfast, finish-line buffet, post-race BBQ on Sunday, and runner breakfast on Monday. It is a busy, busy place all weekend.

The "studio" is where Susan and Matt sleep and have their living room and offices; it is located near the creek at the back of the property. Susan used to do her beautiful ceramic art work in this building (she still draws and writes, two of her other creative outlets). The large room in the studio is used for packet pick-up and the pre-race briefing. There is a third building with sleeping quarters that is used by family guests but is not open on race weekend.

After we got settled in and had lunch we went out to look for Susan and Matt. Both were busy with pre-race preparations. We helped a bit with various tasks and greeted the runners who came early to register for the race.


Matt and Jim do some male bonding.

It was a pleasure to get to know the Reynolds, their young adult son Gabe, and Gabe's girlfriend Tasha throughout the weekend. We'd been in contact with Susan via e-mail since last July and felt like friends before ever laying eyes on each other. Susan writes fairly frequently to the ultra list. Her passion for ultra walking and running is obvious in her posts and in the numerous enthusiastic e-mails she sends out to race participants in the weeks and months before Ghost Town. Not only does she provide all the details runners need to know, she also adds interesting bits of history and encourages the runners to ask questions she may have overlooked. She also maintains a very complete race website (and another one for walkers).

Susan is the polar opposite of the RD for the Ultracentric races we skipped back in November, mainly because of the dearth of information we had.

Susan takes great pride in this race and understandably so. She puts in a tremendous amount of thought, time, and her unique personality to make the race memorable. She says it is the highlight of her year. She loves welcoming guests and sharing her part of New Mexico with others.


L-R: Matt, Susan, Sue, and Jim

This is the fourth year for Ghost Town. Susan has built a loyal group of volunteers over that time. At the top of that list is Matt, who provides invaluable support and help throughout the year and works hard during race week and weekend. Their son Gabe and his girlfriend Tasha returned home to assist with the race this year. Other race volunteers are mostly veterans from the three previous GT races and do a great job at the start/finish line and the aid stations. Several folks from the Sheriff's posse provide runner support on horseback on the remote sections of the course. I am one of the few newbie GT volunteers this year.

Community support for the race is spotty but I won't go into the "politics" of that. I'll just note that the  folks who own businesses in Hillsboro should be grateful that this race pulls in over seventy runners and their families/crews for several days. It's unfortunate that Susan and Matt, a local circuit judge, don't get more support for GT from the locals.

RACE REGISTRATION

Since Susan and Matt were around on Friday and Saturday to prepare for the race they opened up packet pick-up for most of both days. I think Jim and I were about the first to get our packets. I was "only" a volunteer but got almost as many nice goodies as the runners. 

Runners and volunteers received bright red long-sleeved race shirts (above) with Susan's subtle Ghost Town logo on the front. The same logo was etched into the nice aluminum thermos bottles given to only the volunteers; the bottles come with a handy zippered vinyl case:

The runners' bags were stuffed with useful gifts from a couple local businesses, running-related companies like Zombie Runner and Larabar, and Susan/Matt themselves: energy bars, delicious chocolate candies, a flat nylon "back pack," coffee, a whistle, sunscreen, lube, a knit cap, one of Susan's artistic running-related greeting cards, coupons, etc.

Only a few runners trickled in on Friday to register so Susan didn't need our help with that. It was fun to visit with runners as they came in for their packets and race numbers.

We finally got to meet "Ultrarunningmom" from the ultra list: Abi Meadows and her husband, Bob Culp. Here they are checking in at the studio. Susan is on the left next to some of the runners' packets:

Abi is a prolific ultra runner, especially considering her responsibilities as mom to six kids who still live at home! Bob more recently morphed into ultras from triathlons. He is a Lt. Col. stationed currently at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where we like to camp. They'll be moving to a post in NC this summer, so we may see them more when we go home to VA than when we're in TX. Abi's family is from southern VA and still has property there.

When we presented Susan and Matt with a bottle of wine from Chateau Morrisette, our favorite Virginia winery, Abi was surprised. Her grandfather lives across from the winery! Small world.


Bob and Abi

It was fun to get to know Abi and Bob throughout the weekend. Abi is a great story teller -- and with the life she leads, she has plenty of great stories to tell. If you're on the ultra list or have met her at one of the many ultras she runs, you know what I mean.

We also got to talk with Tim Long throughout the weekend and enjoy his little dog, who he brought with him from Colorado. Tim quietly helped the Reynolds and kept the buffet line moving on Saturday night at the community center. He was so humble that he would surprise us before the weekend was over! Tim is the second person from the left in this photo from Friday night's dinner:

 

We were delighted to spend more time during the weekend with Sandy and Dick Powell, who live in northern New Mexico. We first met them at Bighorn several years ago when they were camped near us at the Foothills Campground. Dick drove me back after I missed a cut-off and had to drop out of the race. We've never had much time to talk, so it was nice to have more of an opportunity to socialize with them at Ghost Town.


Matt (L) talks with Sandy and Dick Powell

Sandy's running the race this year and Dick is volunteering at one of the aid stations. "Magical Matt" will be out at the most remote aid station that is a real challenge to reach in his four-wheel drive truck. He always amazes Susan and whoever else is in the truck with his skill negotiating that stretch of "road." The description sounds like the equivalent of orienteering.

DINNER IS SERVED!

One of many perks at this race is the complimentary Friday night supper Susan and Matt graciously provide in the cabin for runners who have arrived early and want to socialize around the table. Meal and lodging options are limited in Hillsboro and it's over thirty miles to TorC so this is a very nice gesture on their part.

As new participants in the race, Jim and I were surprised to receive an e-mail from Susan in early December outlining the various meals she was planning for the weekend. She wanted to know how many people would be coming for which meal and what foods they would prefer. Her letter read in part:

"It's the holiday season, so naturally I'm thinking "food." As we near Ghost Town weekend, I think "food" even more. Now it's time for you to participate in a small way. Please review the info. below and respond by indicating your preferences, the number of others in your party, and if you've any dietary concerns that relate to what gets put on the table . . .

. . . the following is for both the runners and the volunteers. Family and friends are welcome at the Fri. night supper, the pre-race pasta meal, the post-race bbq, and Mon. morning breakfast. Just please let me know they're coming when it's a meal I'm cooking! My mama would roll in her grave if I ran short of food. Actually, my pop would roll too, for that matter!"

She also asked for input re: the pre-race breakfast, aid station offerings, and finish-line food. That's a lot of food! Susan gave examples of types of food she was considering for each meal and asked for as much input as we'd give. Wow. We've never been given such an opportunity before any other race. I can tell you that Susan and Matt spent a great deal of time preparing all the food before and during race weekend. Their refrigerator, freezer, and pantry were stuffed.

The only meal runners and their families have to pay for is the Saturday night pasta meal. It was worth the $12 for adults ($8 for kids under 12). Before coming to the race we offered to pay for Friday's supper and Monday's breakfast but the Reynolds wouldn't hear of it. It is their gift to their guests. We showed our appreciation by helping before and after all the meals and sharing some of our wine stock that we take on trips for just such occasions.

About eighteen runners and volunteers accepted the Reynolds' invitation to join them for supper Friday night (above). My photos didn't come out very well but dinner did! We enjoyed grilled herbed chicken breasts, vegetables, a tasty tossed salad with blueberries, and sweet cornbread. Dessert was apple cobbler.

Everything was fresh, homemade, and delicious. Susan and Matt are great cooks!


L-R, Bob Culp, Jay Cochran, Paul Grimm, Abi Meadows, and Susan Reynolds

Before and after dinner conversation flowed easily and it was about 9 PM before most of us left the warmth of the kitchen in the cabin to return to our overnight accommodations. It was indeed colder in Hillsboro than it had been at McDowell Mountain Park but Jim and I slept solidly for about ten hours. Although it was only 29 F. when we got up Friday morning at Caballo State Park, it was 35 F. on Saturday morning in Hillsboro (a couple thousand feet higher in elevation).

Race weekend was looking great!

Next entry: more pre-race activities for Ghost Town on Saturday

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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