Franklin Mountains Trail Run 50k – September 10, 2016 – El Paso, TX
Note: All photos are credit to Myke Hermsmeyer, a fantastic photographer who we are lucky enough to have at TROT events.
Let’s not call it deep in the heart of Texas, it’s too far west. Maybe high in the sky of Texas is more accurate. When one thinks of Texas, most think of the vast prairie or plains that dominate the Dallas Fort Worth area. Or, they may think of the pancake flat gulf coast extending from Brownsville to Beaumont. A more savvy traveler or a Texas resident may even think of the rolling limestone of Central Texas Hill Country, or the deserts west of the hills that extends from San Angelo far west, or the grassy plains of the Texas panhandle. But few every think of Texas and think mountains. Shit, I lived here for almost 5 years before I even had a clue. Well let me tell you, they exist and they are magnificent and rugged.
These mountains represent the final gasps of the Rockies as the meander their way south across the North American continent. They are by no means the tallest, and they do not have snow-capped peaks and forested slopes, but they are ours, and they are beautiful. They make their final stop in the border city of El Paso before they disappear into the Rio Grande valley and make a beautiful site for the sore eyes of the Houstonian that longs go play in those mountains.
The vision of a Texas mountain race was bold and daring. There were doubters and non-believers, but Trail Racing Over Texas founder Rob Goyen made this happen last November. As the race unfolded last year, many looked on and their eyes were opened that you could have legit mountain running high in the sky of Texas. The 2016 edition of the Franklin Mountains Trail Run gathered far more buzz than the inaugural 2015 event thanks to it being included as part of the US Skyrunning Series (a set of races with specific criteria that focus on mountain racing). The story of the 2016 event is amazing, and must be told…so here we go. For a change I will not focus on me, in fact I’ll make no mention of my race or how I did. I want to tell the story of the Franklin Mountains, and the feeling of running in this rugged and beautiful place.
The Franklins rise majestically from the flat desert of the Rio Grande Valley, and are the prominent feature of the El Paso skyline. They split the city in half as they ruggedly rise from the desert landscape. While one associates a desert as a baron place, these mountains are beautiful and vibrant. The greenness of the desert cacti and wildflowers draw a sharp contrast to the red sand and rocks as they rise to the sky. They make the mountains look alive, they have character. The rugged mountain slopes are dotted with caves and spectacular rock outcroppings.
The race is designed to highlight this special place, and show the world the beauty of these mountains, and make a bold statement that difficult and challenging mountain races are not just relegated to the Cascades, Sierra Nevadas or the Rockies. The race boasts over 8,700’ of vert, and unlike other Skyrunning races the course runs almost entirely on extremely rocky and technical single track trails. Hell, sometimes it’s not even on trails (we’ll get to that).
The 50k begins before dawn, in the dark, cool and dry desert air. The 2016 edition had the additional challenge of 40+ mph winds that blew hard across the trails. The race wastes no time in starting to climb, and right out of the bat you are making a heart thumping ascent up some rocky single track. After a few miles, you get a break from climbing and hit some downhills and flats that head into a less exposed canyon. As you get your first real running of the day done, you find your groove as the sky moves from dark, to pre-dawn, to dawn. You get to see the beauty of the desert, smell the wildflowers, and see the spectacularly diverse plant life that dots the desert mountain slopes. After about 5 miles, you hit the 1st aid station (which happens to be the finish line) and begin a journey on what is the toughest part of the course. The next 6 miles are the feature of the race, and define the specialness of the Franklin Mountains. As you leave the aid station, you are running east and see the rugged range out before you. You see the Aztec caves in the distance and you know you are heading there. You see North Franklin Peak towering behind those. Yes, you will climb to the very top.
North Franklin Peak tops out at over 7,100’ feet. While this number may not sound spectacular, it is a giant in the range, and is prominent over the desert below that sits around 2,000’. It is the 21st highest point in Texas, but the tallest in the Franklin range.
So the climb begins. The wind still howls into your face, the air still cool, and the sky continuing to brighten. You run for a bit, and then start to climb. The trail transitions from runnable single track, to harder climb. As you climb up to the Aztec caves the trail becomes smaller and smaller and then disappears. You approach the cave and then make a sharp left. You are now off-trail, climbing a place that few have probably been and few will ever go. It’s time to get on all fours, hands are needed to scale the rock walls that bring you to the tops of the caves. Your legs will burn, but you will feel alive. As you summit the top of the ridge, the climbing stops but the trail still barely exists. You run on shear rock, leaping over the occasional cactus. One misstep and a bad fall would be a bad day as you look to your right and look down the mountain. Run cautiously. After a few more climbs, you come to a section of downhill on a scree filled trail. This is your last break before you climb.
As you bomb down the hill and make a sharp left, you see the climb looming before you. After some more off-trail antics, you reach the top of a ridge line and get an epic view of the city below and the mountains above. You now run along the ridge to begin the journey to the top of North Franklin peak. The climb is about a mile and a half, and gains north of 1,500′ over this short distance. The switchbacks seem never ending, but every view you see makes it worth it. Climb hard, and be rewarded. As you near the top of the peak, the world is far below you. The city of El Paso but small dots. The sun is now up, but still low enough to illuminate the eastern slopes of the Franklins in a hazy morning glow. Despite the howling wind, your burning legs, and your pumping heart, the world is at peace in your mind. You’ve made it to the top, the hardest part of your race now behind you. You’d be foolish to not stop for a moment and take it all in. Look around, you have a 360 degree view of the world. You will be in awe of this moment, and your emotions will be high. You are in a special place, a place few people will ever journey to. But alas, you still have over 20 miles to go to finish this race.
As you bomb down the mountain, the views are just as spectacular, though they pass your gaze far faster than they did before. You come back down to earth and feel grounded again. The last half of the race is rolling, no where near the challenge, but spectacular in its own right. You make a journey around the mountain range, a complete circle. You will run more ridges, you will make more climbs, you will become good friends the the flora of the Franlkins as they kiss your legs. Enjoy every moment of it, because all good things come to an end. But they do not end without challenge. You will finish this race as you started, by climbing. As you make your final ascent over the last 2 miles, you keep thinking about how you want this race to end, but how you never want the feeling you are experiencing to be over. It may be the hardest thing you ever do. It may be the furthest and hardest you ever pushed yourself. You will feel accomplished and rewarded. You will look up with half a mile to go and see a pavilion hundreds of feet above you…the finish. You will doubt that you can get there, but somehow your spirit will drive your legs to push that stretch hard up those final cliffs of rock. Your race will end with three large steps. You will gasp for air, you will bend at the knees, and you will feel reborn.
All this to say that this race is more than a race, it is an experience and a journey. It is unlike any race I have ever run. It will test you, it will push you, and it will make you a believer that the mountains can cure all your ills. The mountains make man feel alive and reborn. The race was a spiritual experience for me, the race and the course an amazing story that I longed to see unfold. It was one I will long not forget. There is no question that this 50k makes magic happen high in the sky of Texas.
This race is the vision of a man who saw something in these mountains and knew how special they were. It was his dream, and a place he wanted to share with the world. He came, he saw, and he made it happen. He shared these mountains with us all, he let us all experience for ourselves what a special place they are. Summit that peak, look around, and feel alive. That is the spirit of the Franklin Mountains.
Career Marathon/Ultra Number 56 – #16 of 2016
Place: 22nd OA, 19th Male
Distance: 33.25 Miles
Challenge: It’ll fucking knock your socks off