New Mexico may play second fiddle to Arizona as far as ultrarunning opportunities, but the Land of Enchantment does offer a little known but fabulous set of trail races, the Angel Fire Endurance Runs. The distances are 25k, 50k, 50 miles, 100k and 100 miles all staged together in mid June over two loops that add up to 25 miles.
The trip to Angel Fire, which is a ski and mountain biking resort set in a grassy valley surrounded by drop-dead gorgeous pine covered mountains, takes you through Santa Fe, Taos and a series of canyons formed by a northern tributary of the Rio Grande, the Fernando de Taos Rio, where rafts bob up and down through tame rapids. For miles you pass a mystical landscape of rocky ledges, imposing mesas, desert scrub and sand. The colors are the burnt oranges and reds, browns and turquoise blues of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, all very unique to this area. Artists’ communities are nestled in rustic enclaves around every corner.
But once you are at race headquarters at the Angel Fire Resort, you are high up in an alpine valley with the thin air of 9,000 feet and a desiccating June sun glaring down on a largely-exposed course. It’s clear that the race means business.
The runners in all distances, except the 25k, jump off to an early 5 a.m. start on Saturday morning over a mostly-gentle 6.5-mile loop around the valley floor called the Greenbelt Loop. On this more “angelic” loop, you get a chance to adjust to the altitude, enjoy the pine forest and valley meadows, and cruise by some picturesque mountain cabins and ski chalets.
Then you engage the “fire” when you begin the Mountain Loop, which is actually an 18.5-mile out and back over the top of the ski resort and down the other side, topping out at about 11,000 feet where you feel like the sun is microwaving your exposed skin. The steeper trip up the front side of this climb uses a mountain bike run called the Angel’s Plunge and a long section of the “Enlightenment Trail.” If enlightenment comes partly through suffering, this trail is a great place to find it.
The mountain bike jumps create steep, loose gravel slopes that runners literally have to scramble up and back down on all fours. Even the wooden bridges built for the bikers are treacherously steep for runners to negotiate. The actual bikers, by the way, are cordoned off onto other trails away from the course, otherwise they would be flying over your head or slamming their front tires into your chest. The altitude, heat and steepness of this section, especially the second time through in the mid afternoon, catapults this race into difficult territory and justifies a 32 hour final cutoff for the 100 mile distance.
The Start/Finish aid station and the aid station at the turnaround for the Mountain Loop are both full service, well staffed, and well supplied places to rest if need be and regroup. Food and extremely-critical ice were in good supply. Both loops are also broken up by unmanned water stations, so no stretch of trail went on over five miles before you had a chance at aid.
The race offers many rewards. The trail passes by Aspen groves and rushing mountain streams. There are panoramic vistas of sweeping valleys and distant peaks from the top of the mountain. Wildflowers line the trails. Much of the elevation change comes in long, gentle descents and climbs, and repeating the 25-mile course to fill out the longer distances helps runners navigate the course and anticipate their next moves. Having all distances jumbled up together also made for a lot of fun interaction with other runners who were at all different stages of their respective races.
But in the end, with the whole course being at a significant altitude and with a very unforgiving sun that pushed the temperatures well into the eighties, which felt more like a hundred in the thin mountain air, Angel Fire is a real challenge. The 100-mile field was small with only four starters. None of them made it, partly due to some overly-zealous midway cutoff times that the race director is going to reconsider for next year.
Runners were more successful at the other distances but it didn’t appear that anyone was breezing through this race. Still, the Angel Fire Endurance Runs are well worth considering if you have an open spot on your mid-June calendar. Just being a guest at the Angel Fire Resort itself is worth the trip, and they offer a nice discount for race participants. You also have the whole Taos and Sante Fe areas to explore before or after the race.
Finally you’re guaranteed to have an enchanting and challenging New Mexico running experience. I’m returning in 2018 to take care of some unfinished business. It seems I need to claim a certain belt buckle that got left on the table.