Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears
—Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof)
I set the lofty goal of seeing a sunrise and sunset from the Franklin Mountains, preferably from the top of North Franklin Peak (7192’), the highest in the range. Last month I wrote about training for the Lone Star 100 miler that will be held here in February and completed one 50K lap that will make up the course. This month I decided to run the 50K course with an additional trip up to the peak for a total of around 40 miles.
So with that, I set off before sunrise into our nations largest urban wilderness park, the Franklin Mountains State Park. The morning is cool as I start my run on the paved park road. In one mile I reach the very rocky trailhead that will lead me up to Mundy’s Gap. It’s so quiet and dark out here that I switch off my headlamp to peer up at the star filled sky. Skies are darker out here in far West Texas and I am in awe of the many stars that I can see. No sign of our own sun yet, though.
|Light pollution map courtesy Movoto.com|
Click here for: 20 Maps of El Paso They Never Showed You in School
I start my ascent up the mountain with just a steady walking pace since I have a long day ahead of me. The wind picks up a bit as I get closer to the pass. I continue huffing and puffing up the steepest parts and wonder how I’m going to make it up here again later this afternoon after having run over 30 miles. I try not to think about it and just stay in the moment.
|N. Franklin Peak as seen from the Lower Sunset Trail|
After an hour the sky begins to lighten, but I keep plodding up the mountain. It gets windier and colder as I gain altitude. After an hour and a half the sun begins to rise above the horizon so I stop for a few pictures freezing my fingers when I take off my gloves. I keep climbing on a series of switchbacks and when I turn a corner, am just about blown off the mountain. Canyons and cuts in the rock, channel the air creating a kind of wind tunnel.
|Sunrise from N. Franklin Peak|
|Potrillo Volcanic Mountains to the West|
The sun beats me to the top, but just barely. When I reach the peak, I am rewarded with a spectacular view of the mountain range bathed in a warm golden glow and the American flag waving majestically from the antenna at the top. Even though I don’t want to, I take off my gloves again for more photos and my digits instantly turn to popsicles. After spending a few short minutes taking in the view, I get out of there to find some relief from the gusts of wind that are trying to knock me over. I find a little shelter and pull my phone out to share a few pictures of the sunrise on Facebook.
|N. Franklin Peak|
The ride down is rough and rocky and I almost fall several times. The air warms as I descend lower and lower and then I reach my water cache near Mundy’s Gap. After filling bottles I continue running down and pass the old tin mines at the bottom. Here I pick up my favorite trails, Scenic Road and Sotol Forest and roller coaster along the contour of the East side of the Franklins. As I near the beginning of the Newman Trail I realize that I’m starving even though I have been snacking on dried apricots and chia seed gel all morning.
|Newman Power Plant in the distance|
I stop to eat cheese and crackers with a few pieces of salami that I stashed in my pack. I also gobble some apple slices and a fig bar. I recently purchased an Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest so I would have plenty of storage space for going long distances. I transition onto Newman’s Trail and make a long climb up to another pass. Great views of the Northern section of the park await me as I arrive completely out of breath. The sun ducks behind the mountains and the wind picks up again chilling me to the bone as I run down the mountain.
By late morning I arrive at the Eastside water cache and, once again, fill my bottles before continuing on. Eventually I make it to Hitt Canyon and run along the deep boulder filled arroyo until the trail takes a few sharp twisty turns around the draw. At around 11:00am I make it to the Northern Pass which is the route across the mountain range to the West side. It’s extremely windy, very remote and eerily lonely out here. I haven’t seen a single person all morning.
I snap a few photos and post them to Facebook again. My trail running friends will appreciate the pictures and this will also let my wife know that I’m OK. In addition, if a mountain lion drags me off into his cave there will at least be a record of where I was last seen.
|Cougar cave (Schaeffer Shuffle)|
Anyway, I now get to head back towards the more developed section of the state park, but it’s still a good eight miles away. Once down the slope I run a dirt road to the Westside water cache and fill up again. Here I have to decide whether to take the shorter more direct trail back or the longer more challenging one. Since I have all day and am still feeling adventurous I opt for the harder route.
This is a more scenic trail anyway with lots of turns dipping into and out of arroyos. Soon I grow hungry again so eat some mini tangerines, apples and finish the salami I brought. The sun is warm and there is less wind down here as I run along the desert floor parallel to the Franklin range. Anthony’s Nose, the second highest peak, comes into view and is a good landmark to help me gauge how much farther I have until I reach the park.
|Anthony's Nose on the right|
After winding around a few small foothills and passing through a yucca forest I reach a dirt jeep road and head up towards the main range. I pick up Schaeffer Shuffle Trail which is a short but steep 2.5 mile loop. You can climb it either clockwise or counterclockwise, so I ascend the steepest section first (clockwise) which is the only part of the Lone Star course where I have to actually stop several times to catch my breath. After much sweat and toil I make it to the top and run along a gnarly ridge line with slivers of rust colored rock.
|Schaeffer Shuffle Trail|
The descent is quite precarious because there are large steps and loose slippery rock to negotiate. By this time my feet are sore and the footing is so bad that my pinky toe keeps slamming into the side of my shoe causing me to wince in pain. Suddenly I slip, expletives flying out of my mouth; the only words I’ve spoken all day. I’m relieved when I finally reach the bottom and get back on a smooth dirt road. Well, smoother than what I just came down anyway. Nothing out here is smooth. Nothing! It's all rough, uneven, gnarly, jagged, biting, stabbing and even venomous.
The next stretch is on the Lower Sunset trail that I frequent on weekends. In fact, yesterday I ran this trail hiding a bag of fruit, snacks and water along the trail. When I reach my stash I stop to fill up my water bottles again and fuel up on fruit. In a short while Mammoth Rock comes into view so I take a few pictures to post on Facebook so everyone will know that I haven't been eaten by a large carnivore yet. Besides, what is FB really good for other than posting running pictures? Let’s face it, if it weren’t for runners Mark Zuckerberg would be out of a job.
|Mammoth Rock is part of the South Franklin range|
After more than 10 hours I complete my 50K loop and am tempted to head back to my car which is only 10 minutes away. My goal is to see the sunset from N. Franklin Peak though so I start my climb back up to the peak. It’s slow going but the angle of the sun gives the mountain range an illuminated hue that I’ve never seen before. The sheer rock face is highlighted by tawny outcroppings of tall fin-like protuberances like those seen on the back of a dragon. The sun feels warm, but the wind is picking up.
|The dragon awaits|
I quicken my hiking pace so I can try to beat the sun to the peak. My legs feel like lead, but I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. The sooner I get to the top, the sooner I can run down and finish. The sun wanes the higher I go and I see the shadowy outline of the peaks on the desert floor. Before long the sun is mostly gone and the city lights come alive. It’s rush hour traffic on a Monday evening and, as I watch the streaks of red and white car lights stacked up for miles on the freeway below, I relish the fact that I’m here; far away from the hustle and bustle and may as well be on another planet.
That is, until I turn another switchback and am nearly blown over. The gusts rip right through my shirt freezing me to the bone. I stop to put on my jacket and try my best to get a few shots of the sunset, but I can’t seem to hold the camera steady with all the wind pushing me around. I continue on, making the last steps to the peak being beat once again by the sun. It’s still a beautiful sight with an orange horizon and sea of city lights from El Paso, TX and Juarez, Mexico.
I’m relieved that the climb is over and the only thing left to do is run down to my warm car. The descent is perilous in the dark as I negotiate rough terrain and rocks with only a bobbing oval of light in front of me. It’s downright disorienting at times, but soon my senses adjust and the trail becomes easier as I go lower. The temperature also rises as I descend causing me to overheat. I think about stopping to take off my jacket, but know I’ll be finished soon so I just suck it up.
I arrive at my car utterly exhausted having met my goal of seeing a sunrise and sunset within one run. It took me over 14 hours to complete 40+ miles, but I tackled the hardest part of the Lone Star 100 mile course twice. Of course the race will require a sunrise, sunset and another sunrise so I still have more training to do. The Bandera 100K is next month.
See you on the trail.