Franklin Mountains 50k
Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
Stats: Ultra #11, Lifetime overall #32, Trail race #12
This race was actually 32 miles in length, my 32nd overall marathon+ distance, when I’m 32. Go figure. Anything else this year would mean that the total count would exceed my age in years… Lol.
To be honest, I could’ve hold off on this race, because I will be moving to El Paso anyways in the year to come. But this was the race last year which I had signed up last year but deferred because of studying for the Path boards… Now that that’s over, and knowing that I will be working hard next year, I was like, eh, I’ll just do it to try it out, and this will be a good baseline for the future… And besides, it’s just a day hike, right?
That’s right… Skyrunner!!! Kiss the sky lol
I was introducted to another fellow Maniac as I came into town in El Paso on Thursday 9/8. On 9/9, after a tour of my new workplace on the west side of El Paso at the Transmountain Hospital of Providence, I headed to the east side of town for packet pickup, and then met up with that Maniac (Edward).
Forget carb loading… As I was driving around the east side of town, I saw a steakhouse which looked decent. Time to rebuild fat cells for tomorrow!!
The forecasts calls for a low in the 60’s and a high in the 80’s, winds will be ENE at 15-25 mph, but little did I know what was going to happen the next day…
The next morning, I woke up around 4am, greeted the Maniac host goodbye (for now), and headed to Franklin Mountains state park. When I got there, it was indeed WINDY!! We were on the west side of the Franklin mountains talking and at times we could barely hear each other. The wind gusts were so strong that it shook the port-o-potties and blewing down tents…
Winds were howling down with about 45-50 mph gusts as we were standing in the valley within the west side of the mountain. As the route began with a single switchback climb with little covering, people were lined up and “in queue” just to move a step further…
START TO MAIN/FINISH (mile 1.3)
As we all ascended higher onto that first peak, the winds were gushing in even stronger and stronger. It was to the point of being unpleasant in our ears. And then, we saw this scene… A trail of headlights up the mountain – instead of moving forward, the lightss started swaying sideways and people were stationary. The winds were getting even stronger. People were struggling just to keep themselves STANDING, and occasionally people were blown off the trail…!! There were times when we had to literally get down on the ground, for we had near zero visiblity beyond what our headlamps can see. For a while, I was even holding on to the runner and helping push him forward uphill… lol.
The distance to the first aid station was only 1.25 miles, but it took over half an hour to a good 45 minutes. I struggled both physically and mentally. Physically, I was trying to stay upright use every core movement that I could to keep myself from falling. At some point, I was leaning into the headwind as if I was going to fall forward. Yes, the wind was that strong that it held me up. Mentally, it was gruesome.
Nobody expected to encounter this. In fact, this is not typical El Paso weather even along the Franklin Mountains. I seriously thought about dropping out and just attepmpting it again next year when I move here. Knowing that there will be cliffs, ledges, and places high where the winds could be dangerous, for the first time ever in a race, I thought the safety was in jeopardy.
Often times we say the phrase “God give me strength” like it’s water. Today, I really meant it. By the time I reached the first aid station, the winds died down a bit. I looked around, and everyone appeared to be fine. Nobody else was dropping out. So neither did I.
MAIN – LOOP BACK TO MAIN (mile 5.3)
This 4 mile segment wasn’t too bad. The weather had been mild and cool, to a point where we could run again. We started off going down a jeep dirt road for about a mile, until we started making some climbs. As soon as we started to climb, the winds were gushing down intermittently again. But people were moving, and nobody seemed to be stopped to the point of being knocked down. As I made my way down, it was sure steep, and the first time I felt it on my knees and quads.
As we were making the way back to the aid station 2 miles later, it felt like a gradual but long climb back up. In the meanwhile, the sun was still yet to rise above the mountains from the east, so that was nice. Once again, we intermittently had wind gusts in our face, but nothing was like what we experienced in the beginning.
MAIN TO MUNDY’S TRAILHEAD (mile 8.5)
I remember the race crew giving us some instructions on how to navigate the first part of the trail.
“You take a left, right, and another left, and follow the trail up to the Aztec cave, and then you will be on your hands and knees climbing for a bit…”
Hands and knees… Hmm. Neither I, nor anyone else, thought much about that statement. I mean, I thought it was gonna get steep and that’s about it…
When I got to the aztec cave, there were some race people up there cheering us on. And surely enough, we were on all fours, for it was so steep, that we had to rock climb a segment of it!! After I flipped through that initial slab of rock, I was like.. phew! That was over… Not!
Hands and knees we were… on the left: apparently he’s a urology resident back in San Antonio. I asked him, how do you have time to do all this?? He’s like, yeah I don’t ever sleep. Lol.
The next half a mile seemed like 3 miles, as we flipped through some of the most treacherous appearing portions of the trail. We were literally going along the crest of a mountain ridge. The view of down below of El Paso was gorgeous and it was some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen on an ultra race. And every now and then, we’d experience a gush of wind.
There was literally one short segment (too far to hop over…) where the trail was on a slanted slab of rock that led to a dropoff if you mis-step, but on the left, there were only… cactus plants to grab on to for support…!!! All of a sudden I got so scared. And once again, I called upon God for strength and for a split moment imagined what it must have felt like when Peter was sinking (Ref: Matthew 14:22-33).
After the treacherous segments, we started descending down towards the trailhead aid station. We all had a gorgeous view of the El Paso sunrise looking into the Juarez mountains.
For the last half mile or so, the trail became nothing but a “bunch of rocks”. Literally.. the size of one’s fist or larger… Talking about ankle strengthening exercises.. LOL
The watermelons at Mundy’s Trailhead tasted sooo good!!
MUNDY’S TRAILHEAD TO MUNDY’S GAP (mile 10.6)
Incidentally, I realized that my car was parked at Mundy’s Trailhead aid station. I had initially left my hiking sticks in my trunk, but decided that it might be worthwhile carrying them for the climb up to North Franklin peak.. And I carried my drop bag just in case I decided that hiking sticks weren’t useful after all…
I left Mundy’s trailhead with several people along the way. Of course, our speeds varied a little, so we played a game of cat ‘n mouse chase. Until we came across this junction in which I call a “decision point”…
Oh great, I was lost, or it felt like I was lost. So I waited around to see the next runner come through, and figured, there’s power in numbers…
It made sense for us to continue forward on the trail, but where the blue ribbons were actually up the mountain. Once again, it appeared vertical, and the trail was nothing but a bunch of loose large rocks the size of a fist… But we figured, this must be the right way, for people were up there walking. And besides, we were supposed to hop over this mountain at some point anyways, so might as well take our chances now… So we began, the 3 of us, ascending up the loose pile of rocks.
And eventually, we appeared to hit the trails again. After a short burst of short and long climbs, we finally made it on top of the mountain ridges.
After a photo-op, the guy on top told us that Mundy’s Gap aid station was only less than a mile away. It was a net descent to Mundy’s Gap.
MUNDY’S GAP – OUT & BACK TO NORTH FRANKLIN PEAK (mile 14.5)
Now came the tough part. This is when I was glad I had hiking sticks ready. At this point, we are about 5,100 feet in elevation (approximately 1,000 feet higher from where we started). It as a straight up 2.2 miles of climbing, gaining about 2,000 feet in elevation. At this time, it was getting a little warm. From time to time it was still windy, but for the most part, the wind died down.
Those hiking sticks really came in handy at this point as I plowed my way up to the top, switchback after switchback. Surely enough, there was another guy who was standing on top probably waiting to take our picture or cheer us on. He ended up giving each one of us a bracelet for climbing North Franklin peak, which is 7,100 feet in elevation. The winds were blowing hard up there.
The views were spectacular, I could see far out into the west side and the east side of El Paso. I even was able to see the new hospital which I will be starting at next January, and it sure looked tiny but nonetheless it’s there! Right next to Transmountain Road.
Can’t leave without a panoramic!! 7,100 feet, overlooking the west (left) to the east (right)
The descent back to Mundy’s Gap aid station took a lot less time, of course, but it was getting toasty, and I had lost my visor along the way because of the wind… And worse of all, I forgot to put on sunscreen…
And this is where the heat kicks in…
MUNDY’S GAP TO EAST AID (mile 20.4)
This was a 6.5 mile stretch from Mundy’s Gap to the East aid station. The first 2 miles were practically downhill and fairly easy to manage. The sun, however, was shining brightly down on us, as we were panning out along a trail that runs parallel to the foothills of the Franklin Mountains.
Occasionally we’d go down, and back up, and down, and up again. There wasn’t as much of climbing in this segment, but the heat was definitely taking it toll making its way across… And now, we wished we had a little breeze, but we would intermittently hit pockets of “dead air” without any flow..
Thank goodness the East aid station had some cover from the mid-day sun.
EAST AID TO WEST AID (mile 26.4)
There were a few climbs in this segment that was significant (>800 feet), but the rest of the way… it wasn’t too bad, except that it was HOT. HOT. HOT. But here is when I started my second win… as I started passing people.
Towards the end of this segment, I remember a huge descent that we took over the course of half a mile in switchbacks. I was chatting with a guy from Dallas who came out here and did this. About half a mile or so after the descent, we approached the final aid station before the finish – the West. This one was uncovered, but thank goodness they had ice!!
WEST AID TO MAIN/FINISH (mile 32.5)
This final 6 mile segment was… TOUGH and HOT.
It was flat, but the afternoon sun was beating down on us. And man… the heat and the trails and the rocks… I was so glad to be almost done.
I can see people along the way walking and slowing down. And ironically, this is where I maintained speed and perhaps even ramped it up a notch. It has been about 9 to 9 1/2 hours into the race. Most of my Capt’n Karls races have gone past the 10 hour mark, which turned out to provide some extra stamina training which came in handy on this race. And I’m thinking to myself,
“this is ONLY a 50k, not a 60k…”
Well, the final 2 miles was pretty rough, as it was the same segment as the initial loop to the Main/Finish aid station. The climbing seem to get intensified as we saw the finish line waaay up ahead in those hills.. At this point, I think I’ve already passed at least a dozen people, maybe even 20 total.
Right before the finish were… stairs!! OMG, that was brutal.
I finished in 11 hours and 12 minutes, ranked 94 of the 177 that finished (probably 200 total started). No wonder they called it Skyrunning. The freakin’ thing had about 8,500 feet in elevation gain.
To my surprise, I saw the former race director of Tejas Trails, Joe Prusaitis, taking pictures at the finish line, and I was like… whoa!! Joe what are you doing here? He said he was simply coming out to support and take pictures and hanging out with the folks here at Trail Racing Over Texas.
This was the toughest 32 mile “50k” I’ve ever done. Never before had I got down on all 4’s and started rock climbing. Never before had we’ve struggled so intensely to keep ourselves from falling. Never before had I went through treacherous portions with a drop off right in front of you. Never before did we climb up a mountain and have such a gorgeous view of the surrounding city (and my future hometown).
AT THE FINISH (shortly after 5pm) – SUNSET
Munching on their snacks and empanadas disguised as watermelons… then I bought a plate of gorditas and man they never tasted so good!! As I was chatting with a few other folks, I had to eat them behind a wall or something for I didn’t want the wind to blow away the source of protein… hah
People, whether they’re from El Paso or not, had similar experiences as me – those who did it last year said the race this year was a lot tougher because of those climbs at the Aztec cave and the ascent/descent up and down North Franklin peak. And nobody had ever seen or experienced wind with that magnitude… I even talked with a few people that ended up DNF’ing because of how tough it was in the afternoon (the HEAT…). But everyone who finished truly deserves a solid pat on the back…
After chatting with folks at the finish and sharing our experiences on how tough it was and how nice the scenery, for the first time, I decided to hang around the finish site, where the sun was setting and the El Paso skyline was before our eyes, and watching people come in, one by one.
As the sun was setting, we could start seeing people’s headlamps, one by one, as they approached the finish on the trot uphill. Eventually, it became pitch dark, and all we could tell are people’s headlamps (those tiny lights in the background) slowly but surely, making their way up to the finish. The looks on people’s faces, the exhaustion, that moment of joy when you complete something at this difficulty level. Also, I was helping the race people hold down the chair so that the medals won’t get blown away… lol, for the winds picked up their speeds again as the sun went down.
I could only feel for the people who are still out there… Apparently there were people still out there even past the 15 hour cutoff…
Once again, this was my 32nd overall race, 32.5 miles, when I am currently 32 years old. This was also a make-up for last year, but I’m glad that I waited until this year to do it. I have heard that the course changed from last year and added the extra 2,000 feet in elevation gain in order to qualify this as a “Sky” race.
Just earlier in the day, i had seriously considered quitting. Now, I stand before the Franklin Mountain ranges and proud to call myself a Skyrunner lol. I have made new friends and several good conversations along the way. And most importantly, I thank the Lord my God for keeping me safe, guiding every step along the way, and thankful that I suffered no injuries, not even a fall in this mountainfull of rocks!!
And I want to say thank you again for all who supported the Capt’n Karls series this summer, for without me knowing or realizing at the moment, have trained me well for this event this summer. Amen.