On a refreshingly cool Monday afternoon, Peter Olson, Taylor Pardue and a remarkably well-behaved border collie named Sten take a breather at the northernmost tip of the Dale Ball Trails, where the juniper and piñón trees recede. This clearing sits roughly halfway through the 50 miles of trails the two have mapped out as the course for an ultramarathon here, the Ultra Santa Fe.
From this spot, they can survey the mountains that make up the heart of their race. The next section is an "ass-kicker," as Pardue describes it. Runners will cross into La Piedra Trail, a link between the city and the forest that begins with 31 steep switchbacks.
Pardue leads the way down the switchbacks, peeling around each turn at such a velocity, one marvels that he doesn't fly into a tree. Olson jogs behind, as fast as someone with plates screwed above his right ankle can, while Sten hops on and off the trail like a child who has eaten too much candy.
"That's going to be tough, especially after you've already run 20 miles," Pardue says. They take another break, as Sten laps water from a nearby creek, and then continue running.
For years, Olson and Pardue talked about organizing a long race through the Santa Fe National Forest, one that would not only challenge the most hardened athlete but also highlight the diverse and sublime beauty of our city's backyard.
The push they needed came in macabre fashion. In November, while working on his roof, Olson got his foot caught in a ladder. When it toppled over, he came down with it, breaking his right tibia and fibula, and dislocating his foot.
"Taylor called me up and said, 'Hey, now that your leg is broken and you can't run, let's plan one," Olson recalls.
Within months, the duo had designed a 50-mile course encircling a wide swath of mostly forested land, passing through canyons and foothills, crossing over streams and mountain peaks. The race begins and ends at the Santa Fe ski basin, trails all the way out to Rancho Viejo and climbs up Tesuque Peak, for a total elevation change of 28,000 feet, according to the race website. Eight aid stations will provide water and other replenishments. Pacers will be allowed to join runners at the Sierra del Norte parking lot.
"I think we'll be able to provide a lot of people with their chance to push their limits," Olson says. Runners who prefer shorter distances can participate in a concurrent 50K, 13-mile, or 1-mile uphill race. About 40 people have signed up so far, including runners from California, Texas and Tennessee. The organizers are shooting for 250.
Olson and Pardue obtained permits from a long list of land managers, including the city, the county, tribes, private landowners, and most critically, the US Forest Service.
"I've talked with the mayor about it, and he's enthusiastic," Olson says. "Almost everybody we have talked to has been very enthusiastic."
Representatives from Ski Santa Fe agreed to open a chairlift for attendees. For race organizers, it's a dream location. Parking is plentiful, and portable toilets unnecessary. A band and beer garden will provide entertainment.
Ultrarunning, a sport that involves planting one foot in front of the other over unfathomably long distances, usually on natural surface trails, is in the midst of a boom. Spurred in large part by Christopher McDougall's 2009 bestseller, Born to Run, the sport has evolved from an eccentricity to a full-fledged competitive market, with corporate sponsors and professional athletes. According to Ultrarunning Magazine, there were 293 ultrarunning races in 2004. In 2015, there were 1,357.
For the organizers of Ultra Santa Fe, it only makes sense for our city to join in.
"When we first started talking about doing this race, we were thinking, Santa Fe has beautiful mountains. We have great people. There are really great athletes here. Why don't we have more of a running, outdoor culture here?" Pardue says. "A big reason why we're doing this is to help develop this culture. I don't mean moving away from this arts and culture economy, but diversifying the economy in Santa Fe. Building races like this could get people really excited and draw people in from out of state—younger people, especially."
Olson started running in junior high when he lived in Ethiopia with his missionary parents. He never stopped. Pardue started later in life, when he and his dog decided they preferred running to walking.
Last summer, the two ran from Santa Fe to the Santa Barbara Campground in the Carson National Forest.
"It was only 40 miles, but that might be what solidified our passion for wilderness running," Pardue says. "It took us a bit of time, but it's just such an experience that's hard to replace. Just being out there. Just having this simple backpack."
"Filtering water as you go, in lakes and streams," Olson adds. The run took them 15 hours.
Both favor trails over roads and share a penchant for testing how much they can punish their bodies.
"You learn a lot about your mind," Olson says. "You can push yourself to what you think was your limit, and then you can go beyond that limit and feel more confident in your everyday life to reach a challenge."
All Ultra Santa Fe races, including a 50-miler, 50K, 13-miler, and 1-miler, take place on Sept. 10, 2016. For instructions on registering or volunteering, visit ultrasantafe.com.