The only thing to do in a situation like this is laugh. You better laugh at your plight during the Lone Star Hundred otherwise you will just curl up in the fetal position on the side of the trail and ball your eyes out. Everything about this race is funny. Runners signed up for it, me included, so we have no excuses. The length, altitude, total elevation gain, abundance of sharp rocks, steepness of trails and prickly vegetation are all ridiculous! Throw in some West Texas weather and you are in for a wild ride. At least the rattlesnakes are mostly dormant this time of year. Mostly.
The wonderful folks at Trail Racing Over Texas put on the Lone Star Hundred in the Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso, TX. They offer 100K and 100 mile distances as well as relays. I signed up for the 100 miler knowing damn well what I was getting myself into because I train out here every weekend. I knew I would be trying to tackle three 33.5 mile loops with about 6500 feet of vert on each lap.
About 26 runners start the 100 mile race at 5am in the dark. Negotiating these trails during daylight is tricky enough let alone in the dark. We begin our little fun run by going up the Upper Sunset trail which starts with a 400 foot climb on a very rocky shin dagger (lechuguilla) lined trail. On several occasions we have to find footholds to negotiate high steep rocky steps. When we reach the top, there are park benches and we think the hard part is over, but there is a bit of downhill and then we must climb some more. The end of this 1.5 mile section gives way to just bare rock bringing us down to a picnic pavilion.
I’m already sweating so I stop to remove my long sleeve shirt and tie it around my waist. I run down “Big Bertha”, the hill that leads to Schaeffer Shuffle trail. After running through a dry wash, I exit and begin another steep climb. The trail disappears at times and I must again climb crumbling rocky steps that lead to the top. Although it’s a relatively short climb, the steepness does a number on my legs. Coming down is worse because I'm “braking” to keep from going ass over teakettle. This starts to wear on my quads and I’m only three miles into the course!
It’s an easy downhill road for a while and then I climb back up to the pavilion and hit the first aid station. The sun has risen now so I put away my headlamp and run along Lower Sunset trail where I’m able to pass a couple of runners. I try to run as fast as I can, because I know I’ll have to climb N. Franklin Peak (7192’) soon which will practically bring my pace to a grinding halt. I eat apples and some salami because I know I’ll have to manage my calories well this weekend if I’m going to finish 100 miles.
In about eight miles I’m back at the starting line where I ditch my long sleeve shirt and grab my hydration belt with my camera. Let the serious climbing begin. The route to West Cottonwood Spring is a large scree field full of ankle twisting rocks. I laugh all the way up to the big cottonwood tree thinking to myself, who in the hell thought this was a good idea, especially when there is a perfectly good dirt road leading to the same place? What’s more, after passing under the tree I have to climb the steepest most treacherous part to the main ridge.
This is where I run into one of my trail friends and Franklin Mountain regulars. There’s a group of very hearty seasoned hikers in their upper 60s-70s that frequent these parts. I see them all the time walking the ridges with their trekking poles and they say things like, “I had my hip replaced two weeks ago…”, or “the wind storm knocked me over and I gashed my head…” “One time years ago we walked the entire Franklin Ridge descending in pitch black darkness…” These guys never cease to amaze me having explored every ridge line, side canyon, spring and cave over the years.
Anyway, I say hello to my trail buddy, hit the ridge and run down to the Mundy’s Gap aid station. I quickly grab some oranges and start the two mile climb up to the peak. I’m in the full sun now and begin to sweat as I climb on this day that is supposed to bring record high temperatures of around 85. A few friends are coming down so I give a few high fives as they pass.
In 40 long minutes, I’m standing on the peak looking at two countries and three states. Tall mountains rise up from our neighbor city of Juarez, the Potrillo Mountains are to the west, the Organ Mountains to the north and the Hueco and Cornudas Mountains to the east. On the peak is a plastic box with red, white and blue summit wrist bands. I grab a red one, for climb number one, and write my name and bib number in a notebook. Time to run down.
|Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography/Trail Racing Over Texas|
I make pretty good time going down to the Mundy’s Gap aid station where I grab some oranges. I run the rest of the way down the dirt road, pass some old tin mines and then run along the Eastside of the mountains. The trail is pretty smooth with only a few hills and an excellent view —my favorite section. The sun is getting high in the sky so I stop, sit on some rocks in a side canyon and put on sunscreen. I arrive at the East aid station by 11:00am.
After freshening up a little, I head up the Newman Trail, so named for the 80 year old hero who built it, and climb over a saddle sweating profusely. Then I continue along a windy trail that takes me beside a deep gash in the desert that leads me around the head of Hitt Canyon. I come up on several young men who are struggling quite a bit. I overhear one say, “When we get to the next aid station, you’re going to have to sit and drink for a while.”
Dehydration is definitely taking a toll on runners. I pass them asking if they are OK or need anything. They assure me they are fine, but I still wonder. 85 degrees is not hot for El Paso, TX, but we aren’t acclimated to the heat this time of year. Soon my two 20 oz. bottles and two 8 oz. flasks are completely empty and I still have 1.5 miles to go to the next aid station. There’s no use whining about it, so I just laugh.
I climb over the Northern Pass which brings me back to the Westside of the mountains. With a parched throat, I run down a series of switchbacks which dump me out on a dirt road. I struggle into the West aid station running on fumes. I take a few minutes to drink a bunch of gatorade and eat plenty of fruit. With all my bottles topped off, I set out on “Tommy’s Revenge”, my friend Tommy’s least favorite part of the course. I know he’s disappointed he had to work this weekend and couldn’t run, but know he’s glad he’s not running this stretch right now in the intense heat.
Everyone hates this part of the course because it is so remote, boring and the last seven miles of the 33 mile loop. It’s also on the desert floor and goes through deep arroyos that turn into ovens when it’s hot because there is no breeze. As I slog along miserably through the hot dry landscape, I think about cursing Tommy or Rob, the race director, but remember that I’m the fool who hit the “Register” button last month. All I can do is curse myself and let out a hearty laugh.
My time goal to finish loop one is ten hours knowing that I will slow on loops two and three. I have to start loop three by 5:00am (24 hours). As I look at my watch, I believe I can make it. I finish “Tommy’s Revenge” and arrive back at the dirt road I ran this morning. With less than two miles to go, I come up on a few runners, one sitting on the side of the trail. He looks like he is in bad shape and is completely out of water. He asks if we have any to spare. I feel fine and know that the aid station is only a short distance up the trail so I give him the rest of my water. He assures me that he can make it on his own so I continue running, but report his bib number to the volunteers when I arrive at the next aid and tell them to keep an eye on him because he is most likely dehydrated.
I start the climb on Upper Sunset trail towards the finish line and that’s when it hits me. I feel completely nauseous and woozy. I’m probably not eating enough because it’s so hot. Is this the end of my race? I plod along and make the final climb and then start down the mountain following another runner. I can see and hear the crowd cheering at the finish, but all of a sudden I find myself completely surrounded by cacti and lechuguilla. Where’s the trail? The guy in front apologizes for losing the path, but we turn around and see that it turns and climbs down the escarpment. I have to use my hands in places to get down, but then am able to run the rest of the way home.
When I get there, I immediately lay down on my back and prop my feet up on a picnic bench to get blood flowing to my oxygen starved brain. My friend, Mike is there to crew me so he brings me a can of ginger ale to help settle my stomach. I lay there for a while and then eat a little trying to figure out what to do next. Should I drop while I’m ahead or go out for another loop? After 15 minutes, I’m able to sit upright, so I decide to go for one more lap because I have plenty of time before the cutoff. Soon I feel better so grab my headlamp and take off. The guy that I gave the water to is coming into the finish, so he must have stayed at Pavilion aid to rehydrate for a while. Lucky for him, he is a relay runner and his race is over. I only wish that was my case, so I just let out a great big belly laugh and keep moving.
A hot breeze blows across the ridge making the air feel like a convection oven. The second loop is in the opposite direction so, after traversing the ridge, I run back down to the desert floor where a distressed runner, having just completed Tommy's Revenge, comes towards me. “How much farther is it to the aid station?” He asks. I point to the Lower Sunset trail and tell him it’s only about a mile or so with an uphill climb. Then he asks, “How much past that to the finish?” “Another 1.8, you are almost finished”, I respond. “JESUS CHRIST, YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!” It probably isn’t the most encouraging thing to follow up with, but I declare, “Yeah, these mountains will eat you alive, but you can make it!”
And with that, I take off running along Tommy’s Revenge wishing the sun would go to sleep. Just before arriving at the West aid station the sun begins to finally set and it is one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever seen; the blowing dust and haze coloring the orb a deep orange. If only I had my camera with me, but I left it in my drop bag because I didn’t want to carry the extra weight all night. As beautiful as it is, I’ve never been so glad to see it sink behind the mountains so I can try to catch up on hydration.
When I get to the aid station, several runners are sitting around in chairs eating and drinking but mostly just looking miserable. When I leave, a guy tags along with me and we commiserate while hiking the many switchbacks up the Northern Pass. Once over, we watch a most amazing moon rise above the mountains. The huge full moon has a golden hue striped by clouds. The only thing missing from this scene is the werewolf. I can’t take my eyes off the moon and begin to trip all over myself.
Eventually my friend takes off running, but he is sitting by the time I reach the next aid station. In fact, there are bodies all over the place bundled up in sleeping bags or curled up in the fetal position whimpering on the floor. It looks like a triage center following a battle. At this point in the race, most of us feel like we have endured a battle against the mountain. A few of my local running friends are volunteering here so they hook me up with some mashed potatoes and hot broth. I dare not sit because I don’t want to become one of the casualties. Not yet anyway.
I get out of there going at a fast walking pace running when I can. Soon I look at my new gps watch and it reads 50 miles. I’m half way there! My spirits improve, I get a burst of energy and then arrive at the tin mines. I plod up the Mundy’s Gap road slowly making it to the aid station. I waste no time and keep hiking up towards the peak. At this point I’m moving at a snail’s pace and have to stop frequently to catch my breath. I reach a saddle where I can see out across the brightly illuminated city. I stop to take in the view sitting on a makeshift log bench that has been here for years.
Quite a few runners are coming down from the peak and they try to motivate me to get moving again, so I stand up and keep grinding upwards. It takes longer than usual, but I finally reach the antennae on the peak and take a white summit band (for loop two) out of the box and scrawl my name, bib number and the words “This Sux” in the notebook. Although the ascent was extremely tough, the view at night is worth the effort. The border region of El Paso and Juarez is populated by about two million people so there are city lights for as far as the eye can see. I look at my watch and discover it’s midnight and become alarmed that I’ll be able to make the 5am cutoff to start the third and final lap so I take off down the mountain.
The trip down is just that — a lot of tripping because it’s hard to negotiate all the rocks in the dark, even though I have a very bright headlamp. At least the trail smooths out the lower I go. When I get back to the Mundy’s aid, I eat a grilled cheese sandwich, which is about the best food in the entire world when you have been expending calories in the mountains for 20 hours.
I run down the road and then clamber up onto the rough ridge that takes me to Cottonwood Spring. I’ve been dreading this part all day. The extremely steep trail leading down is not much more than a game path with loose gravel that causes you to slide out of control. At one part there’s a large Spanish bayonet yucca where a bad fall could mean impalement by vegetation. What’s more, after passing under the tree, very high log steps lead down making it hard to stay upright on weak sore legs. Trekking poles would be very handy here, but I don’t have any.
I reach the scree field where I continuously twist my ankles on teetering bowling ball sized rocks. It seems like forever, but I finally get to the bottom of the mountain. I look at my watch again and know that I’m moving too slowly to finish loop two before the cutoff. My spirit is broken and the thought of climbing Schaeffer Shuffle and then traversing the ridge on Upper Sunset is more than I can bear. I’m not laughing any more and this isn’t even a little bit fun.
I run down the park road and am greeted by one of my Team RWB members who agreed to pace me on my third loop. I’m disappointed because I’ve never had a pacer in my life and was finally able to line someone up who was willing to endure the trails all night with me. It’s painful, but I tell her that I’m going to drop. She tries to talk me out of it, but I don’t feel I can safely continue on. Instead, we hang out at the finish line with some of our fellow Team RWB Eagles and support the remaining runners.
|Marco of the Colorado Running Ranch|
Soon I go home for some much needed rest, but early the next morning, I’m woken by howling winds and my lawn furniture being tossed about my backyard. I can’t stop thinking about the few runners that are left on the course, battling high winds and their demons to finish the race.
I drive over to the park to support the finishers and the wind is absolutely off the scale. This is when I realize that I made a smart choice by dropping out of the race. A wind advisory is in effect with sustained winds of 35 mph with gusts of over 50 and I would bet the wind on the mountain range is higher than that. Heavy duty aid station tents were destroyed overnight and Porta-potties are tipped over near the finish line. All I can do is laugh.
Here's a video of the windy finish line:
|Even the Porta-Potties couldn't survive the Lone Star Hundred!|
In the end, there were eight 100 mile finishers out of 26 (30%) and two finishers came in after the 36 hour cutoff. Anyone who completed this course is a hero. With over 20,000’ of elevation gain and descent coupled with harsh West Texas weather, it’s the toughest race in Texas and perhaps one of the hardest in the country. One friend said it best, “This course, in those conditions eats its young!” More runners finished the 100K and those that ran the relay fared somewhat better, but overall, the mountain won. Even though I DNFed, I still had a great time and was simply happy that I made it to mile 60.
Congratulations to all the finishers and to those who were brave enough to start. The volunteers did yeoman’s work hauling gear up and down the mountain to remote aid stations, staying out in the wilderness day and night to make sure the runners were well taken care of. Trail Racing Over Texas did a great job overcoming the many challenges of putting on this inaugural race. One last heartfelt thanks and congrats to all my fellow Team RWB Eagles who volunteered or ran the race!
See you on the trail.