Meet Mike Popejoy, a professional runner for the Altra Endurance Team, Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier and Philosopher. He recently set a new FKT record for Wheeler Peak - the highest peak in New Mexico. Wheeler Peak may not be the highest peak out there, or the best known, but at 13,161 feet it is gnarly, wild and no joke to run up. Below we share Mike’s recounting of this awesome accomplishment, and we offer a huge congratulations from your Altra family to you, Mike!
Mike Popejoy’s Wheeler Peak FKT Report Summiting the highest point in a state is kind of an odd endeavor – its status as the highest point depends on someone’s decision to draw lines on a map in a certain way. In the case of New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak, it’s the highest you can be within a 121,000 square-mile chunk of land, and that’s still saying something.
Running up Wheeler Peak (elev. 13,161 feet) had been on my list for awhile. Last year I set the FKT (Fastest Known Time) on Hawaii’s highest point, Mauna Kea (13,771’), and since then have gotten the itch to go after others. With Wheeler being within a long weekend’s reach from Flagstaff, where I live, and given the timing with snow and summer monsoons, Fourth of July weekend seemed like a prime time to take a crack at it.
I headed out with my wife Myra and our two aussie-heeler mixes Yuku and Juma after a Flagstaff run on Saturday morning. We didn’t get to Taos Ski Valley until after dark on Saturday, but my brother Nicholas and his girlfriend Jayde were meeting us out there, and had secured us a campsite that was literally at the base of Wheeler Peak Trail.
I wanted to get good rest, so I wasn’t up and at it as early as I normally would be. I did some stretching, warmed up for 2 miles, and did a few form drills and strides. My approach gear-wise: Altra singlet, arm sleeves, shorts, and King MT shoes (which I call my rock stompers). These have some burly Vibram® lugs and are great for rugged trails while also being light and responsive. I corralled my awkward-stage afro with a headband to keep it out of my face, wore tall Swiftwick socks and strapped on the Nathan VaporAir with about 25oz. of water and two protein bars. The water turned out to be a bit on the low end, but I wasn’t planning on drinking any until after the climb, and I didn’t want to carry more than I needed to.
Around 7:30 I shoved off to the fanfare of Myra, Nicholas and Jayde. The trail split pretty quickly and I went right, only to find out not much further that I had taken the less-steep equestrian route. Wishful thinking, maybe. So I headed back down to start again, this time to less fanfare, and knowing which route to take – the one that headed straight up the slope, not switchbacking, running parallel to a stream that was flowing hard in the opposite direction downhill. I unknowingly got onto the equestrian route again a bit higher up, but suspected it fairly quickly and turned back, costing me only 30 seconds or so. This turned out to be the hardest extended stretch of trail. Although it was the lowest elevation-wise (the trail starts at 9,500’), the grade was steeper and the trail rockier than higher up. This stretch lasted for about two miles, before taking a hard bend to the right and spitting you out on a smoother two-track.
Before long it was back into the trees on single track. I knew that around 4 miles I’d get a downhill reprieve for a bit under a mile when coming off Fraser Mountain (12,100’), so I was trying to push a little more than I normally might on an unrelenting uphill. Some sections of the trail, both in the trees and without, still had some pretty serious snow. For big snowy sections I took detours off the trail, around the snow, and back on, increasing the distance I had to run but likely saving time compared to trudging/slipping through the wet snow.
I used the downhill off Fraser trying to simultaneously pick up time and let the legs recover. After the trail headed up again it was out of the trees for good, switching back up one side of the La Cal Basin, an alpine meadow speckled with fresh wildflowers; I could marvel at those on the way down, though. Once on the ridge above La Cal Basin, the trail would follow its spine to Wheeler. It got steep and rugged approaching Mount Walter. At 13,141’ it’s only 20 feet lower than Wheeler, but there was a saddle and another quick, sharp ascent to go. I thought I could also pick up some time coming off Walter, but the footing didn’t allow me to use much of the downhill gravity. I got a head of steam going into the final rocky ascent to Wheeler, and just told my legs, “Churn!” When I got to the signpost there was a couple huddled behind a makeshift rock wall, presumably from the wind, but after I clicked my watch it seemed quiet and serene to me. I was at the top of the Land of Enchantment, at 13,161’, and had made it up there in 1:25:37. The difference between where I was now and where I started was 3,700’, and had required about 4,100’ of climbing. From the brown-tan desert and it’s attendant haze far to the west, to the jagged peaks just below with snow still clinging to base of their prominences, the view was awe-inspiring.
I knew the potential of my legs to lock up if I didn’t keep moving after that kind of an effort, so I didn’t linger long. I felt pretty decent, and decided to go in search of Blue Lake, the place of emergence into this world in the Taos Pueblo tradition. So I started down the back (south) side of Wheeler, sucking in some water for the first time, towards a semblance of a trail I could see along a ridge further ahead. From this point on I was just taking it easy and taking it all in. Running hard, whether in the mountains or out, is a deeply internal endeavor, and now it was time to open up my senses a bit more, allow myself some more turns of the head to observe the surroundings, and let what was external to me wash over my altitude- and effort-numbed consciousness.
I followed the south ridge of Wheeler to Simpson Peak, then got on what seemed to be a bighorn sheep trail that skirted the upper slopes of Old Mike Peak. Heading down a bit I came to an overlook of Blue Lake. In the Taos Pueblo tradition, their ancestors emerged into this world from the waters of Blue Lake. When they die they shall return there to become spirits of the water, traveling to other sacred lakes via underground connections. One tribal elder has said, “We have no buildings there, no steeples. There is nothing the human hand has made. The lake is our church.” Both Blue Lake and Wheeler Peak are in the Sangre de Christo (Blood of Christ) mountain range. This name seems to imply a spiritual significance of these mountains to some of the earliest Europeans who set eyes on them. Perhaps the tribal elder points to something to which many people of vastly diverse worldviews can agree – that which is uncreated by man, to which humanity does nothing and leaves as it is, is sacred.
I returned the way I had come, leaving this sacred mountain haven and arriving back in the dominion of man – empty and full, grateful, and satisfied.
Link to Mike’s FKT on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1064591945