In real life, aka when I am not out running crazy races or playing with horses, I hold down a real job as a teacher at an international boarding school. Part of what I do there – an enjoyable part – is coaching a running club. So when a few of my students wanted to run their first trail race, I happily agreed. We settled on Franklin Mountain because it a) was only five hours away, and b) offered a 25k for my teenage newbies, along with a 50k for me. After running three tough 100-milers, a 100k, a 50-miler and assorted shorter races in 2015, I thought I would cap a successful season with one more 50k. You know, something short and easy. My husband David decided to do the same.
On race morning, we find the well-hidden entrance to the park at 5:30 am. The 50k race starts at 6 am, so David and I line up while Ana, Ivik, and Gabriel have another hour to kill before theirs. After lectures on trail etiquette, pacing, and fueling the night before, I feel compelled to dole out a few last words of advice:
“Run your own race, always. You can’t control what anyone else is doing.”
Eager nods all around. I confidently project a six-hour finish for myself, then take off, along with 160 or so other intrepid souls. Franklin Mountain State Park is a hidden gem of rugged wilderness right outside of El Paso, Texas. The Franklin Peak rises high above the city, with a network of trails all around and to the top. The pastel light of dawn illuminates a hilly, spare desert landscape, beautiful and serene. I soon find out that there is nothing harmless about this course: after a few rolling ups and downs, we head up a spur trail to the top of Franklin Peak. We do this on a steep, technical path that snakes up and around the mountain in such a way that it seems to go on forever. I keep expecting the top around the next curve, and the next, only to find out that the relentless climbing continues.
Lucky for me, I am a strong uphill hiker, and pass several runners on the way up. For the first few miles, I was stuck in the back of the pack, on singletrack too narrow to get ahead. But this is what I normally do in races: start slow, then pick off runners in the second half. In a long race, going out easy is a good thing. The bad thing is, on out and back sections of a course it’s possible to see how many runners are ahead of you. I count three . . . no, four other women, the fastest a good twenty minutes in front. And I remember, suddenly, that this is a 50k, not a 100 miler. A much shorter distance. At mile 13, we are almost halfway done. Time to get moving!
After enjoying the view from the top for a second, I fly down the mountain, eager to catch up. Because I have started slow, I feel fresh. And because I know my place in the field, I feel ambitious. A competitive instinct is a wonderful thing. It makes you push yourself harder than you would on a training run. It makes you throw all caution into the wind on steep, rocky downhill stretches.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a couple of mountain bikers ahead. Instinctively, I want to move out of their way, though the mountain bikers in Franklin State Park are the most polite bunch of people I have ever encountered on a trail system. One split second of distraction is all it takes to turn a fast, fun downhill into agony: I step on a wobbly boulder, lose my balance, and crash into the ground.The entire right side of my body makes painful contact with a pile of pointy rocks.
Maybe, just maybe, a competitive instinct is not such a great asset after all.
Curled into the fetal position and yelping like an injured chihuahua, I wave off the concerned mountain bikers. No, really, I’ll be fine, just let me lie here for a bit. After a few minutes of wallowing in self pity, I sit up and assess the damage. Bruised hip, bleeding palm, scraped elbow, all superficial. The knee is a different story. I gingerly remove the pointy rock that has lodged itself right above the knee cap. Blood pours down my shin, but I can bend and straighten my leg. No lasting damage, it seems, though I know swelling and stiffness will settle in soon. Also, the sight is an ugly one. I look away, trying to focus on getting up and moving forward. Mission accomplished, I reassess my race goals. Placing in the top five is now out of the question, but I can still finish. New goal.
I settle into a slow, painful shuffle, punctuated by many walk breaks. It’s physically bearable. The emotional pain of watching people I have passed earlier pass me back is worse. But I do appreciate their encouraging words, their offers of assistance, and of Tylenol. My friend Randy even offers to keep me company to the finish. I refuse to take him up on it. this experience is a good reminder of how I deeply appreciate the supportive atmosphere of the trail running community. I now get to do something I rarely do: chat with other runners, reconnect with old friends, meet new friends, spend extra minutes at aid stations, look around the gorgeous scenery, soak up the beauty of this day. Though my knee hurts worse once the bruises settle in a bit, I feel like the luckiest woman alive. The desert is a beautiful place in the bright November sunshine. I realize once more that what I have told others so many times is true: it’s possible to have a really good day at a trail race even when things go wrong.
The last aid station. I decline the offer of a ride to the finish. Six more miles of walking, shuffling, walking again. My leg actually feels better during the last two. Finally, the finish line, which I cross in the abysmally slow time of seven-plus hours, but still ahead of many other runners, including my husband, who, I learn later, suffers from severe cramps and severe blisters, but perseveres. My students have all finished their 25k, in 5th, 12th, and 24th place. What an accomplishment! They look relieved to see me, but also somewhat horrified. A good learning experience for them, as I point out: You see, this is what happens when you don’t run your own race. I wish I could follow my own advice.
Lucky for me, Shane Rilat, one of the many amazing race volunteers, has extensive medical training. He offers to stitch up the gaping hole in my knee right there, as long as I dont mind that he doesn’t have any Lidocaine or other pain relief. Of course I don’t mind. It beats waiting at some urgent care clinic on a weekend. Several people take pictures of the procedure, and race director Rob Goyen even presents me with a “Best Carnage” award — a good thing to offer in a race as tough and technical as this one.
I will never again underestimate the Franklin Mountain 50k. It’s not short. Really, it’s at least a 53k. And it’s definitely not easy. It’s brutal, in the best sense of the word.
Thank you, Rob, for a spectacular race on a spectacular course: organized, well marked, beautiful. This one’s a keeper. Thank you, Shane, for the seamstress work on that knee. Thank you, all my old and new friends, who helped make this day into a celebration of running, of nature, of community. Thank you, Ana, Gabe, and Ivik for daring to run your first trail race. Thank you, David, for being my partner in yet another adventure. My knee will heal, as will your blisters, and we’ll be ready for the next one.
It is a good time to be alive and running. But I might have to add one more race to my 2015 calendar now. Happy trails!