The Puzzler —the toughest trail race in Texas. Organized by the Borderland Mountain Bike Association, The Puzzler Endurance Weekend includes biking and running events that are held in the Franklin Mountains State Park in the West Texas town of El Paso. Having run most of the 26 mile course in training, I know how brutal it can be climbing over the mountains, running the western flank and climbing back over again. I know that this race is all that it is cracked up to be.
About 75 participants are lined up at the Bowen Ranch for the half and full marathons on a beautiful morning. After a patriotic rendition of our national anthem by the race director, we are off and running down a rocky rolling road. The views are so awesome that it is hard to keep my eyes on the trail, but I must to keep from tripping. There will be plenty of opportunities for sight seeing later.
I end up at the back of the pack to make sure I don’t go out too fast; a 1500 ft climb to Mundy’s Gap (6000 ft) awaits us. Soon some friends catch up to me so we socialize and solve all the world’s problems while power walking to the top of the pass. When we arrive, we forget that we are racing and enjoy the views and pose for a few pictures. We’re just getting warmed up anyway.
The downward run is quite challenging. Loose sand and gravel make poor footing, but I try not to put on the brakes for fear of slipping. About half way down we get a stretch of easy winding road and then hit a scree slope full of ankle twisting rocks, my least favorite part of the route.
|These rocks really suck!|
I pick up my pace now since the hardest part is behind me. The trail becomes twisty with lots of clambering in and out of arroyos. I trudge up a hill and look around to see where the others are, but don’t see anyone. I have only the sotol, coach whip and shin dagger to keep me company now. To boost my energy I eat a cream cheese on black bread that I stowed in my pack.
Several lonely hours pass and I imagine I’m nearing the twenty mile point. I realize that I’m hitting the wall when, not having seen any people or course markings for some time, I start to think I’m lost. A hot spot has developed on my big toe which brings a sharp pain on the downhills. The merciless desert is starting to wear on me.
I take a short break, get some water and then start the upward trek back over the Franklin Mountains. I’m feeling much better now so try to keep a slow steady jog up a dirt road until I hit a series of switchbacks. A fast walk gets me to the top of the pass and then I run as hard as the terrain will allow. The landscape is rugged here; the hills scoured to bedrock by wind and rain and unfriendly vegetation encroaches on the path.
After winding through a gorgeous canyon I come across a very small guy sitting beside the trail with an elfish look on his face. He’s only about 6 inches tall with a long white beard; wearing a green hat. Am I seeing things? Maybe, but I give him a pat on his head for good luck anyway and am on my way.
It works, because I have a lot of energy now and settle into a groove. I pass another runner who is walking off an injury and then come to a wide dry wash, Hitt Canyon. Only one more big climb to go, but I munch on another oatmeal cookie for good measure. I start up the mountain, pass another runner and finally reach the top where I can see the staging area, an island surrounded by a sea of desert.
Seeing the finish line motivates me even more so I blast down the hill. Well, at least it feels that way to me. When I get to the bottom I can see another lady ahead of me. I try my best to catch her, but to no avail. Nevertheless, I cross the finish line in 6:22 elated that I completed the toughest 26.2 in Texas without mishap.
I hear stories of other runners who had knee issues which seemed to be the theme of the day. As for the male winner, he was a 17 year old running his first marathon ever. Our friend Jim, at 50 years old, finished four minutes behind him in second place. Congratulations Jim and all the other runners who gave it their all!
After rehydrating and resting for a bit, I greet my friends who all finish strong. Thanks David, Jaime, Sal, Jim, Miguel and Angelica for your camaraderie during the run and to all the volunteers who helped make this event!