Everyone has a favorite place to go. A place that seems to take all your worries away and make you forget about everything but the here and now. Some people gravitate to the beach. Others go to the lake. For me, the mountains have a magnetic pull that is difficult to explain. There is something magical about sitting on top of a peak, staring down into the world below. For me, there are few things in life I’d rather be doing than bombing down mountain singletrack, just me and the critters that live there.
This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend a couple days in the mountains of West Texas (yes, there are actually mountains in Texas). Although they pale in comparison to the mighty peaks of Colorado, West Texas offers a nice change of scenery from San Antonio, with much less humidity. The elevation ranges from about 5000’ up to close to 8000’ and is only a 6+ hour drive away, making these mountains more accessible than most.
Heading into the weekend, my legs were already pretty sore. Between my workout with Joe (heavy emphasis on legs) and hill repeats on “The Wall” in Stone Oak, my quads and glutes were shot. Not a good feeling when you have 60+ miles to run over the next 3 days. I awoke early Saturday morning (3 AM to be exact) and headed to Exxon to meet the gang for our weekly Bandera fun. A little after 5, Chris, Troy, Rachel, Tim, Robert, and myself hit the trails for the first of 2 loops. Much of the first hour was spent in the dark, allowing us to ease into the run. While there was ample cloud cover, the humidity was really oppressive, soaking my shirt within the first mile. The forecast called for temps near 100, so I was glad I was only doing 16 miles and would be long gone before that hit.
The first loop (Boyle’s/Cairns/Lucky’s – about 10 miles total) passed fairly quickly, and I enjoyed catching up with everyone. I hadn’t seen Troy since our Grand Canyon trip, so it was nice to chat with him. He was getting in one last long weekend (35+ miles on Saturday) before running his first 100 mile race in June, the Mohican 100 in Ohio. We cruised into Crossroads to re-fuel and head back out for a second loop. A few miles in, Robert and I left the pack and headed back to the cars since we were only planning on doing 16 miles for the day. Overall my legs felt pretty good, but the humidity zapped my energy, and I was glad to be done.
I drove home, showered, finished packing, and was soon on the road again, headed for the mountains of West Texas. The clouds had parted, and the blazing sun was out in full force. At one point, the car thermometer read 109 degrees. Not fun. Upon arriving at the park, I noticed a car pulled over and people hanging out the window. Sure enough, there was a bear on the side of the road, digging around for food. Not counting a trip to Alaska I took with my dad (bears are as common as people there), I had only seen 1 bear in the wild in my life. This was pretty cool! We took a few pics and headed off to unpack and get ready for a long day in the mountains on Sunday.
After some breakfast, we headed in to register the car and get a permit (glad I bought that National Parks pass). On the way in, we saw another car pulled over and a guy with his camera. Now there were 4 bears! Definitely not the same one as the day before, there was a mom and her 3 little cubs. A couple of the cubs were in the trees, totally fine with having people take photos of them. My bear total was now at 5 for the trip, and I hadn’t even been there 12 hours.
After getting the necessary paperwork, I was ready to hit the trails. No sooner had I loaded up my bottles and taken a couple steps onto the trail than I stopped in my tracks. Up ahead, no more than 100 feet away, were 4 bears on the trail. I assume it was the same 4 I had seen earlier, but I’m still counting them as numbers 6-9 on the trip. 9 bears so far. After all of this, I hesitate to say the run was uneventful, but the most exciting thing I saw was a large group of boy scouts watching a snake (not sure what kind) slither off the trail. This section of trail is about 4.5 miles roundtrip (run as an out and back), with a net elevation change over 2000’. Definitely steeper than anything you’ll find in SA.
After enjoying a leisurely (for me) hike/run, I was ready to head out on my own for the real adventure of my day – another 24 miles of mountain fun. While the humidity was certainly not present, the oppressive heat was. It didn’t help that I started my solo journey at noon. I had planned on running a 12 mile loop, stopping to re-fuel and cool off, and then do it in reverse, giving me close to 30 miles total for the day. I headed off in the direction of the trailhead (close to where multiple people had spotted a large mountain lion earlier in the day).
This first section of trail was nice, with some runnable sections mixed in with a gradual ascent. I erred on the side of restraint, as I wasn’t sure how much of a toll the heat would take on me. Plus, I still had close to 25 miles to go. So, I ran anything that was flat or downhill and chose to power hike most anything that went up. If I were doing this run in cooler weather or as a shorter day, I would have run a bit more. The loop essentially climbed for 5 miles, leveled out for a bit, and then came back down. In all, it boasts close to 5000’ of elevation change over 12 miles! The climbing was made tougher with all the heat. It had to be 100 degrees, and much of the trail was exposed. Once I reached the top, I sat down on the rim and soaked in the views. I was hot and thirsty, but I was now on top of a mountain, my “happy place”. As I mentioned earlier, this is what I love to do. Oddly enough, I am afraid of heights, but this is somehow different. Being in the mountains lets me clear my head and think about the good things in life. Up here, everything seems to make sense. I could sit up there forever and solve all the world’s problems, or so it seems. It’s here that I look at my life and know what I want, what makes me happy. I love this place.
As much as I wanted to stay forever, I had more running to do, and I knew the descent would be fast and furious. The run down did not disappoint, but I was really glad to be at the bottom, as I was hot, tired, and in need of liquids. I had drained my 70 ounce Camelback bladder as well as my 2 handheld bottles. I quickly guzzled a couple bottles of cold water, ate a turkey sandwich, and re-filled my pack and handhelds. Up until that point I had eaten only gels, drank water, and popped 2 S!Caps every hour. For the 2nd loop, I planned on drinking some Powerade in addition to the water and eating solid food (turkey, Clif Shot Bloks, peanut butter crackers).
As much as I love the mountains, the thought of going out for another 12 miles didn’t sound too appealing as I sat there baking in the sun, but I knew the sooner I started, the sooner I could finish. The climb up to the top of the ridge was brutally sow this time, as I was really exhausted. My legs felt ok, but my energy was gone. Heat always does that to me. Luckily, what goes up must also come down. After (what seemed like) an eternity of climbing, I touched the top of the mountain, turned around, and headed back home. After a fun 5 mile descent, I was in need of more fluids. I probably drank 100 ounces of fluids in the 30 minutes after my run, and it took me some time to get cooled down. Total for the day – just under 28 miles, with over 12,000’ of vertical gain/loss. After a much needed shower and dinner, I sat under the stars and stared up into the mountains, nursing a good organic beer that I had received from my beer of the month club.
I never sleep well after a long day in the mountains, and Sunday night was no different. The dry air always creates a case of the mountain boogers, and running so long gives me the 100 mile cough. Sounds pleasant, huh? Anyway, I arose early and debated going for a quick (relatively speaking) run before heading home. After much internal debate, I decided I would head back to the first trail I ran yesterday and do a couple hard repeats up and down. When I pulled into the parking lot, I was alone. There were no cars, and yesterday the lot was full. This was either going to be a great run, or I was going to wake up all the sleeping bears and lions.
Since my legs were a little stiff from the day before, I decided I would power hike as fast as I could going up and run hard coming down. The cool morning air felt awesome, and I had no problem settling into a nice hiking rhythm, something I will do a great deal of in most of my 100 mile races. It took me 37 minutes to climb to the top, while the descent took just under 24. On the way down, I passed several people hiking up the mountain, so I felt better about my chances of not meeting the lion today. Once at the bottom, I switched out water bottles and turned around for a second trip. I got a few weird looks as I passed people again (and once more coming down). My legs felt pretty good, and my second repeat was actually a bit faster than the first. At the bottom, I jogged a mile to cool down, giving me a solid 10 miles (and over 4,000’ vertical gain/loss) for the day. Not a bad weekend.
I showered, changed clothes, and bid farewell to the mountains. Normally I am sad when I leave the mountains, but today wasn’t as bad. I knew that I would be heading out to Colorado in a couple weeks, where the fun is only beginning.