Welcome to El Paso [Part I]
Bleary-eyed and disheveled, I stumbled into a motel lobby in El Paso, desperate for a cup of coffee.
I felt the room assessing my blotchy, windburned face and ratty hair, wrinkled gray hoodie, my swollen bare feet. I must look like the most hungover girl on earth. I slowly looked up and locked eyes with a dude wearing a shit grin.
“So, what distance did you do?” he smirked.
"100 miles," I answered.
The Lone Star 100 is a mountain footrace in the heart of El Paso. Urban sprawl consumes the surrounding mesa, but the Franklin Mountains are too steep and rugged for development. They are amazingly unpolluted and pristine. At night you can see the lights stretch for dozens of miles, across two million people in Texas, Juárez and New Mexico. The mountain is a humungous shadow. A giant blank.
The race is hosted by Trail Racing Over Texas (TROT). They are phenomenal people. By the end, the volunteers knew me by name and waited at the end to cheer.
The race is a 35-mile loop around, and across, the peaks and foothills (three loops) and begins Saturday morning at 5am. In February, that’s a balmy 50 degrees (my hometown was -15 the same morning, for comparison). Getting to the start is an easy 20 minute jaunt from the freeway, which is bizarre since the state park feels very remote when you’re inside it.
48 brave souls toed the start line. I was the youngest female, and one of the youngest runners overall. A few elite ultrarunners started in front (Karl Speedgoat Meltzer, which was thrilling and intimidating). I felt small and inexperienced, but I switched on my headlamp and settled into the middle of the pack.
The cutoff is 36 hours.
There are three hard cutoffs throughout the race, all in the final twelve hours. No one had ever finished the course in less than 24 hours. In fact, the male winner finished in 30 hours the previous year. If you’re not an ultrarunner, that math is not very encouraging – it was a red flag in my mind that the course must be tough. I was in El Paso without crew nor pacer, although I was delighted to cross paths with a great Minnesotan gal I knew (doing the 100k) and her fantastic Michigander friend (who became my friend, too).
That morning, my heart was filled with tenacity. Rob (the race director) counted us down and we trotted away from the parade of cowbells. There is a surreal moment of gravity when you start an ultramarathon, not unlike the lap bars locking just before the roller coaster jolts to life. The middle and the end of the race are a suspenseful mystery, but it’s too late to turn back. The journey either ends in receiving a medal or giving up your bib.
The race starts with a climb up the back of a ruthless section known as Tommy’s Revenge. The Revenge has three false summits that the runner crosses twice per loop. I came to adore and dread it. Strung in a line on the single-track, all you could hear was the shuffle of shoes on rocks. “You Texans don’t talk much, huh?” I joked. That broke the ice, and I started chatting with a great kid behind me named Boomer, who was attempting his first 100.
The course can be broken into three sections:
A 9-mile mini loop that returns to the start. It crosses short, steep foothills, traverses The Shaffer Shuffle (which is a mile and a half bowling ball scree section), and also takes you through the lowest elevation of the race.The second part is the climb up Mundy’s Gap, a brutal and strenuous scree field which spits you at the base of the hardest climb of the race: Franklin Peak. The 2,000′ ascent is a hard, high set of switchbacks for two and a half miles. At the very top, there are bracelets you must collect (first red, then white for your second loop, then blue).The descent back down to Mundy’s and the 19 arid, winding miles encircling the back of the mountain.
Shortly before I finished the 9-mile mini loop, after leaving an aid station called The Pavillion, the sun rose behind the mountain. I took the first few miles very slowly, passing no one and often hiking in the dark. The rocks felt unsteady under my feet.
The beauty and isolation of the park is breathtaking.
The city disappeared. “Are you Julie from Minnesota?” a volunteer named John asked me. I beamed at him and confirmed that I was. He cheered for me as I passed, and would continue to for the next day and a half. I smiled to have a friend cheering for me. I was a thousand miles from home and felt alone in the desert.
As the first light broke across my side of the mountain, I remember thinking, “Ok Jules, let’s go.” I began to race. No more shuffling in the dark, afraid of falling on the cactus that lined every foot of the trail. I picked up the pace and focused on not rolling an ankle.
The first 15 miles of the course are insanely hard. You will sweat and cough and climb and stumble. They are rugged, demanding, and require smart footwork and strong quads. You ascend and descend constantly.
It also became my favorite half.
A major mental piece of these beastly races is taking ownership of them. Two months prior, I DNF’d (did not finish) at the Hitchcock 100 for no good reason. I had and abundance of time and energy, but I lacked motivation. It didn’t feel like my race (the friends I was racing with had both dropped halfway through). I didn’t want the finish badly enough to stick it out on my own.
I had worked hard to be at Lonestar. Training in the worst stretch of winter in northern Minnesota is not easy, but not impossible. I didn’t know for certain if I had done enough, or put enough time on my feet, but I had woken up too many days at 4am to long run (in three pairs of pants and four shirts) before work, and I had too many 16-hour days on my feet to distrust my body now.
After the mini loop, the mountain makes its grand introduction.
My first impression was respect.
Mundy’s Gap is an incredibly long, steep ascent up a scree field. When you look up, it’s intimidating. Ranging in size from peanuts to footballs, it looks like the devil dumped an ocean of red rocks off the top of the mountain and they rolled into this valley. My first time up, the rocks bit my ankles. Every step rolled my joints and slowed me down. The loose rocks shifted and clanked against each other beneath my feet.
The higher you climb through the gap, the more wind overtakes you. I never considered wind to be a factor in a race, but I was wrong. 30 mph gusts would be plague my progress throughout the entire race, depending what side of the range you were on. The cold rushing air pummels you the every step up until you cross the gap and suddenly, one single step on the other side, the earth is quiet. You can see forever.
The climb to the highest peak is an out-and-back with the Mundy’s Gap aid station at the base. It’s so windy at this place that they can’t have tents and all food must be kept in bins. The poor volunteers tried stacking the bins to make a wall and the wind blew them down. It’s a sharp, cold wind, too. It kicks up and levels off, depending where you are on your mission to the peak.
The view from the top displays the backbone of the mountain. You get to run up, down and around everything you can see.
I followed a strong 100k gal named Kelly on my way up, and smiled at the lead 100 mile female coming down; she had blood on her thigh. The rocky, vertical terrain claimed several bloody knees by the end. I had not fallen, but I felt my bursa complaining and a few twinges in my feet. It was hot (like, almost 70 degrees!). Most runners had long sleeves on and I was sweating in a tank top. We had some laughs about it.
At 20 miles in, on the nose, I looked down at my watch and shouted into the wilderness, “I figured out the rocks!” (I let out a little whoop, too). I finally learned to trust my feet and step evenly with a wide foot. It took one embarrassingly slow descent off Franklin to teach my brain the movement, but the rest of my climbs and descents up the gap and over the pass were amazing. I learned to float. I learned to dance with my mind turned off. I learned to look ahead instead of stare at my feet. I don’t quite know what clicked, but it did.
The sun sank low and golden. 12 hours had passed. 24 to go.
As I climbed Mundy’s gap alone, I felt watched. Paranoid. I looked around and only saw rocks, more rocks, and the chartreuse flash of a course marker every couple dozen yards. I was expecting to turn my head at any moment and be face to face with a mountain lioness. Then I saw them. Two reflective eyes. I froze. A split second later, I realized it was just a little gray fox.
There’s a small 90 degree step up on the trail that I knew about (it’s an unexpected corner in the middle of nowhere) but I wasn’t paying attention. I stepped straight and tipped over right onto a Spanish Dagger. I laughed. I knew it was bound to happen.
In the back of the mountain we picked up Alex, a 100k finisher who was walking alone out there. The three of use made great company and pushed on as a team. When one stopped to pee, we all stopped. We took turns leading. The temperature dropped and varied depending on elevation and wind. It was hot, cold, warm, freezing. We switched up our layers often and re-evaluated at every aid station. As we drew nearer to the Pavillion, we heard the yips of coyotes circling nearby.
You need to make it up to Franklin Peak, get your bracelet, and be back at the gap by 10am or you will be cut. By the time I had climbed the scree field the third and final time, I was exhausted. It’s too much vert and too slow of terrain to do efficiently. My stress level increased. I started to think about being pulled.
“I can do it,” I mumbled. I dropped my pack on the side of the trail took off my hat. At 80 miles in, I started running up the switchbacks.
Every time my left foot struck the ground, I yelled in my head I can do this! I can do this! I can do this! I can do this!
For two miles. To be honest with you, I didn’t know if I could do it, but I kept pace with my mantra. My throat kept closing up and I wanted to sit down and cry. Stop crying, keep breathing, you can’t run and cry at the same time (which is true).
The climb had taken me two hours before. I looked at my watch. A half hour had passed and I had only reached the first false summit. Keep running. I can do it. I don’t know if I can do it. I can do it.
I finally turned the long corner leading to the top, and a volunteer was putting the lid on the bracelets. “Wait!” I yelled, “I need one of those!” He let me take my blue rubber band and said, “You have to be down by 10am, 23 (my bib number). Go, go, go.”
“I can do it,” I whispered. I flew.
I made it.
The aid station came into view below me and heard them wildly banging cowbells and yelling for me. I grabbed my pack at the bottom, raised my fist in victory, and ran straight past. I needed to get off the damn mountain and start the final section.
As soon as I rounded the corner, I finally burst into tears. I have never felt more proud of myself, or pushed so hard, in my life. The relief and confidence washed over me like sunshine and everything that had been tense and choked up, loosened.
I knew I could make the rest of the cutoffs. The hard part was done, and done to the best of my ability.
That is not to say that the final miles were easy. After 95 miles, still having 10 to go, my legs started to seize up and my shuffling felt ragged. The slightest downhills felt stinging and disjointed. I no longer wanted to eat, drink, pee, stop, anything. All I thirsted for was the final descent across the finish.
I had one thing on my mind, and one only. The pink relay runner passed me one last time, and I knew I was the last man on the course. I didn’t lose heart. I started to shiver and visualize comfy warm clothes and a shower.
Finally, I saw the Pavillion. I saw Tommy’s Revenge in the distance, and I knew I was in the gnarly home stretch. The wind picked up and cut through my thin jacket and bare legs, roared in my ears and occasionally knocked me a step or two back as I climbed the ridge.
I heard the cowbells. I saw the finish line. Tears pricked my eyes. I looked at my watch and saw that I was at 35:35.
I broke into a run.