Any race with the words “Dead” or “Death” in the title should make for an awesome running adventure, don’t you think? That’s why I signed up to run the Deadman Peaks 50 Miler, a 53 mile journey along the Continental Divide Trail in Northern New Mexico next month. To get ready, I have been putting in a lot of miles at the base of the Franklin Mountains with occasional trips to the top of N. Franklin Peak (7192’).
Training for a Fall race is challenging in West Texas though because heat is off the scale especially in August when humidity adds to the swelter factor. In fact, a French couple tragically perished this summer just up the road in White Sands National Monument while hiking in the hottest part of a 100 degree day. About once a year I have a really bad day while running at the end of the summer. This time it happened while running with a friend on the Sierra Vista National Recreation Trail in New Mexico.
Sleepy and bleary eyed, we left at 5:00am in the dark to try to be back in time before the sun started to bake us alive. The route was a 25 mile out-and-back through the desert from Anthony’s Gap to the Vado, NM trailhead where I had stashed some water and gatorade for us. After running for 30 minutes or so, my friend Kris stopped suddenly as a rattlesnake crossed the trail right in front of him. I was able to veer out of the way and run past it, but our nerves were quite rattled after that. At least we were awake and alert now.
The trail is difficult in places because of dry arroyos, deep sand and short steep hills, but we enjoyed the morning as the sun finally came up behind the mountains. When we were nearing our turnaround point and water stash though, we began to hear gunfire from some Saturday morning target shooters and were worried they may not see us coming. The trail is now part of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, but apparently shooting is allowed as long as you use a backboard and aren’t shooting near a recreation area.
Anyway, to make sure we didn’t become the headline of the Sunday morning newspaper, we decided to go off-trail toward the freeway (I-10) to skirt around the shooters. Our water was running low at this point and the stash was becoming further and further away as we ran. Had we simply turned around we most certainly would have run out of water on the way back so we had to keep going to find a convenience store in Vado.
After refilling our bottles and buying some food and Gatorade, we backtracked through the desert where we saw the shooters driving out. We felt recharged after our drinks and snacks, but Kris had to stop frequently to empty sand out of his shoes. For some reason my Altra Lone Peak shoes with Dirty Girl gaiters did a great job of keeping the sand out. By this time the sun was getting high in the sky and, as we had no shade cover whatsoever, really started to suffer from the heat. To make matters worse, I tried a different route attempting to get us on a dirt road instead of the sandy arroyo that we came in on, but instead promptly got us lost.
Our saving grace was the fact that, with no trees to obscure your view, you can see for miles in the desert. I recognized the pass and road in the distance so we went off-trail for a bit and eventually found the way leading through it. It was noon by the time we reached the top of the pass and I was seriously suffering from the heat as it must have been around 90 degrees. Kris kept a good eye on me and made sure I was OK and had enough water. All I could think about on the way back was the cans of cold ginger ale that were waiting for me in my car. I walked most of the last five miles with a few bouts of running, but finally made it back after more than eight hours on the trail having covered five more miles than intended (30 total). I shared my sodas with Kris and went home where I crashed on the sofa for an hour. I was too hot to even eat anything for several hours, but drank lots of juice with soda water.
The next week I decided to tackle the N. Franklin Peak hoping for a cooler run with more breeze. The trail is very rocky in sections with steep loose footing in places. Most of the trip up the mountain requires fast walking, but a few sections are runnable. The morning weather turned out to be beautiful and as I was running at the base of a towering red rock formation heard the distinct song of the canyon wren. I always hear the downward repeating tew-tew-tew… when I run past this area, but have never seen the bird as they are very elusive hiding in the crevices and nooks of the cliffs.
The route is on an old washed out dirt road to the top of the peak that was built by a millionaire named Dick Knapp. In the late ‘70s he had a bulldozer cut the road because he intended to develop the area to include “a 1000 unit resort hotel, a twenty-acre tennis club, a fifteen-acre man-made lake, an eighteen hole golf course, fifty acres of apartments, forty acres of shopping facilities and a radio communications tower on top of North Franklin Peak.” (Texas Monthly Dec 1978) Fortunately, the Franklin Mountain Wilderness Coalition stepped in to thwart his plan and the area eventually became a Texas State Park. It seems the only thing Knapp successfully built was the road to the top where he placed the radio communications tower that still remains today. The park is now the largest urban wilderness park in the US with more than 24,000 acres of land.
As I climbed up the steep grade, I saw lots of blooming wildflowers and watched lizards scurry out of my way. Recent monsoon rains made the vegetation look extra green and tall grass adorned the trail up on the higher slopes. The last part to the summit is badly eroded with deep gullies and large rocks from flooding that occurred around 2006 which makes it difficult to hike.
The effort is worth it though because you can see two states and another country from the top — New Mexico, Texas and Mexico! Another highlight of the peak is thousands of ladybugs that cling to the bushes. These ladybugs, known as convergent ladybug beetles eat pests so gardeners love them. Birds however, hate them because they secrete a fowl tasting chemical from their leg joints when preyed upon.
The trip down from the summit is equally challenging because of the steepness and tripping hazards, aka rocks, rocks and more rocks. At times it seems like controlled falling than running, but it takes no time to get down to the graded road. Other training runs this month included a 30 mile solo run along the base of the Franklins and back-to-back runs in the 15-18 mile range. Other wildlife spotted was a vinegaroon, a family of scorpions living in an ice chest come desert water cache and a cottontail rabbit.
If you love the Franklin Mountains as much as I do there are two things you may be interested in. One is an online petition you may want to sign to help protect the slopes of the mountains from further development. The second is the Franklin Mountains Trail Run that will happen on 14 Nov.
|Vinegaroons can squirt acid|
See you on the trail.