. . . And My First Was Bataan

The self doubts started on Tuesday or Wednesday before the race.  A marathon?  Can I actually complete a marathon?  Come on, my longest ever run was four weeks prior, it was 20 miles, and I barely made it.

I had kind of gotten over it by Friday.  Then someone posted on my Facebook page: “Good luck, I’ve done Bataan three times, it’s a beast.”  Oh Crap!  What am I doing?  I’m undertrained and I’ve chosen one of the most difficult marathons as my first.  Oh well, what OGRT lacks in talent is made up for in desire—I will finish this thing even if it takes me 8 hours and I have to crawl the last mile.

2013 Bataan Memorial Death March - Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremony

A bit about the Bataan Memorial Death March – in April of 1942, an estimated 11,000 US troops and 60,000 Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese after a 3-4 month battle for Bataan.  It was the largest surrender in US military history.  The Japanese forced the prisoners of war to march 80 or so miles to Camp O’Donnell.  Thousands died on the march due to disease, exhaustion, and torture by the Japanese military.

The POWs thought they had been forgotten and abandoned by the US military.  A war correspondent summed it up with a limerick that has come to symbolize the Bataan Death March:

We’re the Battling Bastards of Bataan,
No Mama, No Papa, No Uncle Sam,
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces,
And nobody gives a damn!

In 1987, some ROTC members at New Mexico State University decided they wanted to have a march to let the remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March know that they weren’t forgotten.  The first Memorial March was in 1998.  Today, this event is the largest military-civilian athletic event in the United States.

Since the starting line is a good hour away from my house, and the recommendation was to arrive at the gates of White Sands Missile Range between 4:00 and 5:00, I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping until O’dark Thirty.  After our traditional pre-race dinner of grilled salmon, I went to bed about 6:30 and set the alarm for O’dark Fifteen.  I drove over to my wife’s daughter’s house to pick up Kim who would also be attempting her first ever marathon.  We left her house and headed to the race.

Turns out we were one of the first to arrive, so after wandering to the starting field we went back to the car and dozed for an hour.  We were at the field just in time for the start of the pre-race ceremony.  An amazing version of the Star Spangled Banner was performed by a high school choir, followed by some announcements, the invocation, and a reminder that we were here to remember and honor the thousands who thought they had been forgotten.  The White Sands Missile Range Commander gave a goose bump inducing tribute to the men who marched in the Philippines in 1942.

Kim and I probably 20-30 yards before the starting line.

Kim and I probably 20-30 yards before the starting line.

Then it was race time.  A bagpipe brigade lead me and Kim and 5,800 of our closest friends from the field to the starting line, a 20 minute journey.  I was next to a leprechaun for a bit (it was St. Patrick’s day after all) and another fine gentleman kept asking people if this was their first—then when anybody replied in the affirmative he explained that “It’s not to late to quit.  Just step to the side casually, hardly anybody will notice.”  And of course there were the real heroes moving towards the start, members of the United States Military.  The line moved forward in fits and starts, Kim and I even had time to have someone take our picture for us.

Then suddenly the starting line timing mat appeared.  As I crossed over it I clicked the start button on RunKeeper and started trotting (OGRTs rarely run, just move along at faster than a walking pace—I’ll be ecstatic if I can finish with 16 minute miles).

The Leprechaun amongst us.

The Leprechaun amongst us.

The first mile was fun, along an asphalt road, bobbing and weaving around the walkers while trying to listen for real runners coming up behind me so I can get out of their way.  Then after two soft left turns, I could have sworn I heard a cowbell ahead.  As I got closer, the cowbell sound got louder.  Then, lo and behold I saw a Will Ferrell lookalike whaling on a cowbell.  I’m not sure why he was there, but his sign read “Doubter’s Can Suck It” and he put a huge smile on my face.  I shouted the obligatory “MORE COWBELL” and he turned my way to gave me an extra loud 3-beat tap.  I’m guessing The Bruce Dickinson put him up to it.

I kept running along, the first mile was being super easy, and suddenly I saw the first water station.  I was a bit surprised because I thought the water stations were every two miles.  Then I saw the mileage marker – mile 2.  I’m usually pretty good at estimating how far I’ve run, but today’s adrenaline threw my internal pedometer way off.  I was astounded to realize I had already gone two miles.

The first mileage marker I saw.  Also the point where we left the asphalt for the first time.

The first mileage marker I saw. Also the point where we left the asphalt for the first time.

Since my race strategy was to do the Galloway thing and walk for a minute every mile, I took my first walk break.  I was antsy to get running again, but I knew that I was undertrained and would be doing more walking than I wanted to this day.  I figured it was better to walk at the beginning than at the end, so I kept the walking pace up for a couple of minutes.

This was just after we left the asphalt and headed into the desert.  The next few miles were ruler straight along a dusty dirt road.  We made a sharp left just past mile 6, then a sharper left before mile 7.  I could see highway 70 to the north and I was pretty sure we were going to cross it.  I noticed a wide variety of marchers along the way.  I passed a few wounded warriors, men who had lost limbs and were marching with prosthetic legs.  I noticed people with photos on their backs, marching in honor of someone who had gone before.

2013 Bataan Memorial Death March -  Honoring

Marching in honor of – Father? Grandfather?

Wounded Warrior.  A hero beyond measure.

Wounded Warrior. A hero beyond measure.

There was a bit of an uphill trudge from mile 7 to mile 8, this is where I did my first longer than a minute walk.  Just after mile 8 I could see the split.  Bataan has two distances to choose from – the full 26.2 mile March and the 15.1 mile Honorary March.  Those doing the Honorary take a left at this spot and go downhill.  Those of us running the full go to the right and it’s uphill.  What am I doing?  I am way undertrained and I have no business attempting 26.2.  But this OGRT has desire, lots of desire, and before even one more iota of self doubt can embed itself in my mind, I turned right with a huge grin on my face.



And then I heard it again.  It was ahead of me.  Another cowbell.  Not sure why this cheered me up so much, but it did.  But it wasn’t a second cowbell ringer, the Will Ferrell lookalike had moved from mile 1 to mile 8.  I thanked him and took a picture and headed under Highway 70.

The next part of the course was uphill.  Three miles on asphalt with about 1,000 feet of climb.  I alternated between trotting, walking, and trudging up the hill.  Met a guy named Corey who was also doing his first marathon, and he was walking backwards up the hill.  He mentioned it gave the hamstring muscles a break and so I gave it a try.  I felt silly, but it seemed to work.

Then I met Chuck, who was carrying a replica American Flag from the Civil War.  Chuck told me he was carrying it in honor of the 106th Infantry Regiment from New York because it was the 150th anniversary of a particular battle the 106th fought in.  And the 106th was primarily made up of Irish-Americans.  And today was St. Patrick’s Day.  That’s why Chuck was carrying the flag.  By this time the wind was kicking up pretty well and holding on to the flag was taking more of Chuck’s effort than the walking was.

Chuck carrying the flag of the 106th.

Chuck carrying the flag of the 106th. Notice the flag has only 35 stars.

At packet pick-up the day before I had overheard two medics discussing how much busier than normal they would be due to the high temperatures and the high winds.  Seems wind makes your sweat evaporate faster, keeping you cooler, and making the body less thirsty than it should be.  This in turn would lead to more people getting dehydrated and more cases of heatstroke.  (As a matter of fact, an advisory had been posted on the Bataan March website the day before the race.  Seems that the possibility existed to shorten or even cancel the event – here’s the notice.)

I had made sure to force myself to drink a lot and sure enough at the mile 12 port-a-potties I needed to get rid of some of that extra water.  I was proud of myself for hydrating properly.  I had made it a point to fill my water bottle at every aid station and try to drink it before reaching the next station.  No reason to fill up at mile 12, I was doing fine.

Mile 12 also marked the end of this stretch of asphalt and we entered into some of the most beautiful parts of the course.  The route circled into the mountains.  As I passed the mile 13 marker I realized that I was essentially halfway through, I was right at the 3 hour mark, but I was also aware that the second 13.1 miles would be much longer than than the first 13.1.  My mental calculator told me that there was a good possibility that I could finish closer to 7 hours than to 8 hours since there was no more uphill to speak of.  Then the realist in me reminded me that it took me 6 hours to run 20 miles a few weeks ago, but the optimist was thinking 7:15.

Near mile 13.

Near mile 13.

The aid station at mile 14 was selling real food, hamburgers and such.  A burger was $5 and a bag of chips was $1.  I thought that was a bit odd, then realized that many people walked this course and would be arriving here at lunchtime or later.  My water bottle wasn’t even halfway empty so I figured there was no reason to refill, I was still rather proud of myself for drinking enough to need to pee a few miles back.

We continued downhill, sometimes I was able to pick up some speed.  At one point someone came up behind me and said, “You dropped your cell phone” as he handed me back my phone.  Thank you perfect stranger.

The misting station between mile 9 & 10 and again between mile 18 & 19

The misting station between mile 9 & 10 and again between mile 18 & 19

At mile 18 there was a timing mat, but no water station and I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to run non-stop from 18 to 19.  This worked out great until we got back to the asphalt a half mile later and went through the mile 10 aid station again.  My water bottle was low so I grabbed a cup of water and stopped to fill my bottle.  I continued walking and decided I would run the 19 to 20 mile stretch.

At mile 19 marker I started running and managed to have my fastest mile of the day – RunKeeper gave me an 11:28 for that mile – a great time for OGRT!  At mile marker 20 we went through the mile 8 water station again.  I started to grab some water but my bottle was still full, no reason to not wait for the next water station.

I could see the the little city that is White Sands Missile Range from here, and I knew the finish line was there somewhere, and this road lead straight to it.  But the course designers had other plans.  As we ran along the road towards WSMR, they added a right turn back into the mountains—a turn that took us away from the finish line.  We went uphill a little bit and I finally was able to meet the Sand Pit, an area everybody says is awful.  It wasn’t my favorite part of the course, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

By this time I was at essentially 100% walking.  But I was OK with that.  My old record for distance was 20 miles in 6 hours, and I was currently at 21 miles in a few minutes over 5 hours.  I was also glad that it had cooled down, I noticed that I wasn’t even sweating any more.

At the 22 mile water station I was wondering if I could make it another 4 miles.  Being an OGRT means being a bit stubborn and very determined, so I told myself that even if each mile took 30 minutes I would still finish this event.  I also drank a cup of water just because I knew I should, but my water bottle was still over half full and had been since mile 18, so I saw no reason to fill up.

At this point I honestly wasn't sure if I could finish.

At this point I honestly wasn’t sure if I could finish.

Just past mile 23 I saw a small concrete wall a few feet off the road.  It wasn’t quitting if I just stopped and sat down for 3 minutes.  I pretended to be involved with some important message on my cell phone as people passed me by.  The 3 minutes probably turned into 5, but I was a little refreshed and managed to run for about 1/8 of a mile, but I was dragging.

Then the aid station that saved me appeared at mile 24.  The first person with a tray said the magic word, “Cookies?” and i took one.  Iced oatmeal cookies, a generic store brand, but at that moment they were the most delicious looking things I had seen.  My nutrition so far had been the Fig Newtons and Power Bars I had brought with me.

Not only did it look delicious, it tasted wonderful.  But it was also very dry and there was no saliva in my mouth.  Luckily water stations have water, so I grabbed a cup and chugged it so I could take another bite of cookie.  The next bite was much easier to swallow, but it made me thirsty so I grabbed another cup of water.  Then another cookie.  Then about 3 more cups of water—I’ve never been so thirsty in my life.  This water was also cold and it was hot out here.

It was on my fifth or sixth glass of water when I realized what I had done.  In the first ten miles of the race I probably drank about 100 ounces of water.  In the second 10 miles I had probably drank less than a fourth of that.  And I had gone the last 4 miles on 1 cup of water.

I started feeling better instantly.  I started running with the goal of running a complete quarter mile.  At a half mile I didn’t feel like walking so I just kept running.  And it felt good!  I also took a look at RunKeeper and knew that I was going to come in well under 7 hours.  Pretty heady stuff for someone who’s never run a marathon and was guesstimating 7-8 hours.

2013 Bataan Memorial Death March - Dad and KidsSomewhere along here I saw a soldier with two kids, holding hands.  His daughter in his left hand and his son in his right.  I chatted just a bit as I passed, he was wearing a German military uniform.  They had been marching the entire route holding hands.  I didn’t get the backstory, not sure why they were marching the entire route holding hands, but it certainly made me feel good.

Suddenly mile marker 25 showed itself.  I was tired, and I was now at something like run for 100 steps, then walk for 100 steps.  But I knew I was going to finish and a sense of giddiness overcame me.  I also checked my time and realized that if I could do a 14 minute mile I would finish under 6:35.  But could I do a 14 minute mile?  With the exception of mile 20, I hadn’t done a 14 m/m since mile 9.

Screw it.  I can do this.  My feet hurt, my legs hurt, even my arms were sore.  But one foot in front of another at a faster than walking pace would give me a 15 minute mile.  Throw in a little jogging, a fair amount of trotting, and even at this point of the march an OGRT sub-14 would be possible.

The most beautiful mile marker of them all.

The most beautiful mile marker of them all.

Then mile marker 26 showed itself.  Many of the other mile markers appeared shiny and new, put in place for today’s march.  But marker 26 obviously lives there year round, it shows signs of rust and aging.  I saw other marchers taking photos of the sign, some people were posing with friends here.  I glanced at my time and realized I could get a picture of this symbol and still finish under 6:35.

And then, with 385 yards to go—the .2 in 26.2—something happened.  My legs weren’t sore.  My feet didn’t hurt.  I was about to finish my first marathon and I could fly!  Somebody told me that the final .2 miles were the toughest.  I think they were the easiest.

We made a left turn and suddenly the finish chute was there.  People where cheering and clapping.  I was grinning from ear to ear.  The sign said “Finish” and I crossed over the timing mat and it was over.  Then a volunteer was talking to me, saying, “Bataan survivors to the left.”  I guess I’ve run too many Susan G Komen races, where they separate out cancer survivors to cross the line and be honored, so when I heard “survivors to the left” I veered to the right since I was not a Bataan survivor.

Then I looked to the left.  Then it hit me.  Like a ton of bricks it hit me.

Sitting to the left were 3 or 4 elderly gentlemen.  These were the actual men who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines 71 years ago.  Theirs was not a “Memorial” March, theirs was truly a Death March.  These were real Battling Bastards of Bataan, the ones who had No Mama, No Papa, No Uncle Sam; and they thought that nobody gave a damn.

These men were the reason that today’s event existed.  It was these men the ROTC members had set out in 1987 to remind they had not been forgotten.  I walked over to shake their hands.  I was in shock, in awe.  And one man said to me, “Thanks for coming out and marching today.”

I wanted to cry.  I had just finished a somewhat difficult 6+ hours trotting along 26.2 miles with people helping me the whole way, while this gentleman had endured being forced to march 80 miles with people who would beat him—or kill him—for just stopping to rest.  And he was thanking ME?  I really couldn’t speak, there just were no words, and I didn’t want to cry.

I’ll be running the Bataan again next year.  And the year after that.  And the next and the next and the next.  And I will have the honor of shaking the survivor’s hands again, and I’ll probably choke up again.  And then one year I’ll run the Bataan and there won’t be any old gentlemen sitting there at the finish line.  And I’ll try not to cry.

2013 El Paso Half Marathon

Everybody knows you can run faster when wearing red socks, so I always wear them for races.  But on this race day morning, my red socks were nowhere to be found.  Since my race goal was to beat last year’s time, but my training has been woefully sporadic due to things being extremely busy at work (blessedly, wonderfully, and profitably busy), my only real hope was to wear the right colored socks.

El Paso's City Hall, soon to be demolished and a beautiful baseball park will arise.

El Paso’s City Hall, soon to be demolished and a beautiful baseball park will arise.

At 6:00 AM the choice was to wear black running socks or keep looking and never make it to the race start.  Black socks it was.  Since I’ve been doing so much trail running, it felt strange lacing up my Nike Free shoes, they haven’t been on my feet since the Ft. Bliss half marathon.

Arriving downtown, I parked behind the Masonic Temple and headed to the starting area.  As I meandered towards the start line, I saw downtown buildings reflected in the windows of City Hall.  There’s going to be a ballpark right here next year, I’m guessing this is the last time I’ll ever see City Hall at sunrise.  That’s OK, I’ve already got my deposit on season tickets for the El Paso Padres, we will be on the third base side for many lazy summer evenings starting in 2014.

When I arrived at the start area there was still 30 minutes to go before race time—I could have kept looking a little longer for the red socks.  But that pre-race excitement started blending in, it was time to smile, greet friends, and get ready.  It’s kind of hard to believe that this race last year was my first ever half marathon.  This year, it’s my third half marathon in two months!

Visible from the finish line, Union Station catches the first rays of the morning sun.

Visible from the finish line, Union Station catches the first rays of the morning sun.

The weather this year was a 180º improvement over last year.  Last year was cold and windy and cold.  And windy.  And cold.

This morning was sunshine, blue skies and not a drop of wind.

As start time drew near, I lined up near the back of the chute.  OGRT doesn’t need to be crushed or get in the way of the fast people.  I barely heard the Star Spangled Banner and wondered if Mike was singing it.  We were too far away to tell.

Then at 7:00 exactly the starting horn went off.  The El Paso Marathon and the El Paso Half Marathon are held simultaneously.  They share a finish line, but the half starts at and returns to the finish line, while the full marathon starts 26.2 miles away.  So when our starting gun went off, there were 1,039 of us taking off downtown at the exact same time that 321 runners were starting the full marathon at the top of Transmountain.  And just to keep it interesting, a 5K race starts 10 minutes after the half starts.  So as the half marathon runners cleared the chute, 620 5K runners lined up to start their race.

The finish chute about 20 minutes before the race started.

The finish chute about 20 minutes before the race started.

We made a sharp left turn and headed east.  One of the coolest parts of this run is the sound of hundreds of runners running through a silent downtown.  Going through the canyons of buildings, there’s a 3 block stretch where the sound of thousands of footsteps echoes forth and back.  It is an odd and unique sound, almost hypnotic and so pleasant.  Then we went past the courthouse and at the one mile mark entered the Historic Magoffin District.  At mile 1.2 we ran past the Magoffin Home (a wonderful place to visit or take out of town guests to see).

Then the route made a left on Brown and another quick left on Texas, headed back towards downtown.  Long before I got to mile 2, there was a siren behind me and the first person in the 5K followed his police escort.  We turned right on Campbell Street and started a slight incline.  I saw Rob and Nora, said “Hello” and pulled ahead.  They were lollygagging, they passed me before we hit the 3 mile point.

With 5 minutes to go before the start, the chute is getting full of runners ready to start their race.

With 5 minutes to go before the start, the chute is getting full of runners ready to start their race.

After heading up Campbell a little ways the we veered east on Wyoming Street.  We ran Wyoming all the way to Concordia Cemetery where we hooked a left, then turned right on Yandell.  We took Yandell until we got to Radford and we turned left into that gorgeous neighborhood.  Radford Street has a fairly mean uphill stretch, but somehow it wasn’t as steep as it had been last year.

The turnaround involved a loop through residential streets and many of the people living there had popped out to wave, cheer, or just watch.  Then we were back on Radford Street and the uphill stretch that was so mean became a delightful downhill thrill ride.  At the bottom of this hill is where my friend Juan caught up to me.

The water stations are themed, this was the "Grease" station, where people were dressed in character and music from the show was playing.

The water stations are themed, this was the “Grease” station, where people were dressed in character and music from the show was playing.

Juan is an ultra-marathoner.  26.2 just isn’t enough for Juan, he has started running 50 mile races and just finished his first 100 mile race—the Rocky Raccoon in Huntsville—two weeks ago.  He’s also entered in the 50 mile Copper Canyon Run next week, so his 13.1 mile run today was probably just a stroll in the park for him.

But it was great running with Juan, he helped me keep my pace up for a few miles.  We talked about triathlons and ultras and he’s got me thinking about the Lubbock half Ironman tri or the Mt. Taylor 50 KM ultra for 2014 – Juan is a bad influence.  He also presents really good race reports here.

Six Guns and Shady Ladies manned the 9 mile water station.  They were offering water "straight from the Rio Grande" to help us run faster.

Six Guns and Shady Ladies manned the 9 mile water station. They were offering water “straight from the Rio Grande” to help us run faster.

Juan stopped for water at mile 9 and I continued on.  When I got to mile 10, I checked my time and realized that with a little effort, I would be able to beat last year’s time.  This was a shock, I had to check my feet to see if maybe I had my red socks on after all.  The two miles or so that Juan paced me were what had taken me over the top, so I decided to pick it up a notch.

At mile 11 I realized I was certainly going to beat my 2012 time and at mile 12 I was ecstatic.  Once I was back in downtown, I decided to push as hard as I could for the last 1/2 mile.

And there it was.  I made the right turn onto Anthony street and it was just a few hundred feet to the finish line.  I was given my finisher’s medal by a cheerful volunteer.  When I checked the official chip times, I found out I had finished in 2:23:51, beating last year’s time by over five minutes.  I checked my socks.  One was black, the other was dark green.

My favorite water station was based on Oz.  Wizard of Oz?  Or Oz the Great and Powerful?  I wasn't sure.

My favorite water station was based on Oz. Wizard of Oz? Or Oz the Great and Powerful? I wasn’t sure, but I’m certainly looking forward to seeing Oz the Great and Powerful next week.

I felt wonderful!  My friend Kraig gave me a fantastic perspective a year or so back; he asked, “Isn’t it great when your current base is equivalent to your previous peaks?”  Yes it is Kraig, yes it is.

So it was a nice break from running trails, it was good to get back on the pavement again, but Bataan is just three weeks from today, so OGRT’s break from the trails was only for a day, and I will be back on those trails on my next training run.

The Sugarloaves’ Ultra Vista Trail Runs (An Ultra, a Marathon, a 5 Miler, and a 16 Miler.)

This Old Guy Running Trails (OGRT, sounds like yogurt) did it again.

The Sugarloaves’ Ultra Vista (S.U.V.) is a series of trail runs held on a beautiful morning in Vado, New Mexico.  With an 8:15 am start time on Saturday, February 2, it was really easy to sleep in a little and leave my house at 7:30 in order to arrive at the race site by 8:00.  People were milling around, I recognized a few faces (the more trail racing I do, the more I’m starting to see familiar faces, and soon I’ll probably start knowing some by name) and I walked over to the registration table to get my T-shirt and bib number.

The race director had set up 3 distances (6 miles, 28 miles, and 60 kilometers) but somebody on Facebook had noticed the course description mentioned that runners would pass the start line at the 16 mile mark and decided that they would run that race.  I immediately agreed.  So at least a couple of us were in for the non-existent 16 mile distance.  That caused a tiny bit of confusion at the sign-up table, but the race directors were taking everything in stride.

One thing that I noticed right away was how delightfully disorganized this event was.  No pomp and circumstance here, just a great race director, his family as staff, and about 50 people wanting to have fun running the trails.  The announcements were made and since so many runners seemed confused by the maps, the RD, Mark Dorion, announced that he would lead everyone to the first turnaround.

Heading south on the powerline road.

Heading south on the powerline road.

The race was a 1.5 mile out and back to the east, then two 2.25 mile out and backs to the south, then out and back 10+ miles to the north—twice to the north for the 28 mile race, and thrice for the 60 KM ultra.  (And just once for those of us inventing our own 16 mile distance.)

Turns out that those maps that appeared confusing actually made perfect sense, it was just that us newbies had never run events with out and backs in multiple directions.

As the starting gun sounded (actually, I think Mark yelled “Let’s Go.”) we all headed east  through some dirt so that we could get to the road and run west to the first turnaround.  This is where I met my friend Rosalba, a runner I had met at The Puzzler half marathon two weeks prior.  Rosalba caught up to me, we chatted for a minute or so, and she took off making it look easy.

After the turnaround we headed back towards the starting point.  I then had my first encounter with the chipperest and cheeriest human on earth.  This lady was was just ecstatic to be out running this morning, and she had positive comments for every person she passed.  “Beautiful Morning,” and “Isn’t it wonderful,” and “Isn’t this great?”  were shouted to each and every person she came across.  I immediately nicknamed her Cheery.  My friend Greg is certain that her name is Perky, he has seen her at other races. Next time I see her, I’m introducing myself and thanking her for the smiles.

Bishop cap as seen from the starting area.

Bishop cap as seen from the starting area.

Just when our parked cars were in sight, some volunteers pointed us to turn right and we started another out-and-back, this time headed south along the powerline road.  There were two wonderful girls (I’m guessing the race director’s daughters?) at the turnaround point.  They kindly pointed where to turn left and we did a little loop that took us back to the powerline road and we were again pointed towards the cars.  When we got back to the paved road, a volunteer explained how to run through the starting area and then do this out and back loop one more time.

At the end of the second southerly portion the 6 mile runners were to cross the finish line and the rest of us were then pointed towards a 10 mile out and back to the north.  Our goal was to and halfway around the base of a mountain called Bishop Cap.  The trail was a combination of single track and jeep trails, with a shortcut through a worn out cattle grazing area.  Pretty diverse scenery with a great sense of desolation and intrigue.

One of the major self service aid stations. Note the pink bear.

One thing that this race had was self service aid stations.  A great idea for a low-key event and some wonderful person or people had taken the time to schlep water, power bars, Gatorade, and more out here in the middle of nowhere.  And I have absolutely no doubt that before the day was over those same people went back and removed the trash, cinder blocks and mascots and made the aid station areas appear as if they never existed.

Bishop Cap got slowly closer and before I was even halfway to the base, I saw the first runner coming back.  Common courtesy dictated that I step off the trail and let him zoom (this guy was hauling!) by me.  This stepping aside would become a common theme all the way to the turnaround point.

Once I arrived at the base of Bishop Cap, I met the race director again who had driven out to clarify a turn point.  He ran with me and we chatted for a few minutes.  It was nice to get to hear a little bit about the race.  Turns out the race is partially (mostly?) on BLM land and Mark helps with the maintenance of the trails out here.  As we crested a small hill on the jeep road I saw a guy in a red shirt in front of me, and thought maybe, just maybe, I would be able to pass someone.

Bishop Cap at the base.

Bishop Cap at the base.

Mark kept with me until the route left the jeep road and meandered around on a single track for a ways.  This was the most beautiful area of the race; nestled in the base of Bishop Cap I ran through arroyos and pristine desert amongst massive amounts of solitude.

Suddenly the guy in the red shirt was coming towards me!  I glanced at the time and was overjoyed when less than a minute later I was at the turnaround—I was less than two minutes behind this guy with five miles to go!  The turnaround was in a little grotto-like area with another self service aid station.  I stopped only long enough to take a picture and headed back with the red shirted runner firmly in my mind.

The aid station at the farthermost turnaround.  This station's mascot was an owl, visible in the upper left corner.

The aid station at the farthermost turnaround. This station’s mascot was an owl, visible in the upper left corner.

I had forgotten about Cheery, but 4-5 minutes after the turnaround there she was, headed towards me.  As we passed, I was informed (at full volume) “You are doing GREAT, isn’t it wonderful out here?”  This lady is putting a smile on my face even now, two weeks after the race as I write this.

Heading back to the finish we wove our way around the base of Bishop Cap again.  I saw the red shirt, and somehow he seemed further away.  By the time I got back to the cow-grazing area, he was out of sight—I’m guessing that his race plan involved taking it easy going north and going full out going south.  ORGT race plans involve hoping I make it to the finish line, there’s not really much strategy.

I continued plodding along, each mile taking just a little longer than the mile before.  More and more people had made their 16 mile turn around and were passing me coming towards me.  This was the second trail race of my life, and the second in two weeks, and I was really glad that my race was ending in just a mile or two, and admiring those that were able to go 28 or 38 miles.

One of the minor aid stations along the trail.

One of the minor aid stations along the trail.

And then, in site of the finish line, the first place runner came from behind and passed me again.  He was going to finish his 28 miles before I finished my 16 miles!  Wow.  I was in awe.  And he was still running just as fast as he had been the first time our paths crossed.  It turns out that his name is Marcos and he set a course record that day, finishing the 60K race with a time of 5:18:27.

When I arrived at the finish line, I was encouraged to grab some pretzels before heading out for the next leg.  I informed them that I was in the self-declared 16 mile race.

Josh, my Facebook fried who also ran the 16 mile invented race, introduced himself and congratulated me on my second place finish.  I congratulated him on his first place finish in this, the inaugural race at a made up distance.

Shiny Stuff!  My second place award.  (The picante sauce was enjoyed during the Super Bowl the next day.

Shiny Stuff!—the second place award for the 16 mile distance. The picante sauce was enjoyed during the Super Bowl the next day.

Remember at the beginning of this race report when I described the event as “delightfully disorganized?”  The lady at the timing table immediately perked up and initiated an awards ceremony for the 16 miler.  Second place was a jar of Picante sauce and a bag of Burro Droppings.

First place was a rock.  A rock with a smiley face on it and memorialized with the date and time of finish.  These people just redefined awesomeness—they were there to have fun, bring some people together, and while doing it hold a trail race.

Will I do this race again?  Absolutely!  There’s something wonderful about low-key events and I certainly enjoyed the Sugarloaves’ Ultra Vista event.

Race Description – Here
Race Results – Here
Download the route as a kml file that can be opened in Google Earth – Here

The Puzzler Half Marathon – 01/19/2013

For reasons unknown I’ve been bitten by the trail running bug.  My first ever full marathon will be the Bataan Memorial Death March on March 17, so I’m trying to do as much off road training as possible.  The Puzzler HM fits perfectly into the training schedule, so I put it on my list.  This would be my first ever trail race and I couldn’t have picked a better race to cut my teeth on.

The Puzzler has been a bike race for the past 5 years, 2013 marked the introduction of a running race.

Are you Puzzled by which way to go?

Are you Puzzled by which way to go?

Packet pickup the night before was uneventful, but I did get to ask the question that had been on my mind – why is this race called The Puzzler?  By the way the three people behind the tables responded, I obviously wasn’t the first to ask this question.  Turns out that when you overlay the bike race routes (13, 35, and 50 miles) together, the view from above looks like a giant puzzle.  The alternate version is that people get to forks in the trails and scratch their head in puzzlement over which way to go.

I had my map and driving directions in my car, but I was still a little unclear on exactly where the race was going to be held.  To get to the venue, you drive to the middle of nowhere and take a left.  Drive a few hundred yards along a dirt road going uphill until you get to some water tanks and a parking corral.  The scores of people milling around in running shorts/tights was a great clue that I was in the right place.  I arrived about 7:40 and took the second to last parking space in the corral, then wandered over to the stage area.  I didn’t know anybody there and started talking to a tall guy named Josh.  Josh was from Pennsylvania and was also running his first ever trail race.  We discussed the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other Philadelphia tourist spots.

Being a Philadelphian, Josh was also amazed at our weather that morning.  The sun was out and warm to the skin, the temperature was probably in the upper 30’s or low 40’s, and there wasn’t even a hint of wind.  It doesn’t get any better than that for a January morning.

I'm sure there is a story behind this cactus wearing a T-shirt, but I'm not sure what it is.

I’m sure there is a story behind this cactus wearing a T-shirt, but I’m not sure what it is. And I’m guessing he has a name too.

When it was time to start, the announcer asked everybody to gather near the finish line.  The full marathon people were set up on the south side of the arch, and the half marathon people were asked to stay on the north side.  I thought it was discrimination, or some sort of a caste system, but turns out they wanted a count of the full marathon people before sending them out into the wilderness.

A gentleman named “Senorita” Salvador kept asking where the 5K runners were supposed to line up.  The announcer was of no help, he couldn’t find anybody else to join Sal in a 5K run this morning.  Sal continued to whine, pout, and caterwaul about the lack of a 5K race this morning; but to no avail.  It was obviously a put-on and maybe an inside joke, Sal does 5K’s in his sleep and finished his 100th marathon at last year’s Michelob El Paso Marathon.

Just as everything appeared to be ready for the start, someone convinced the announcer, Mike Coulter, to sing the national anthem.  There, from a tall guy using a speaker’s mic and some tinny speakers, came a remarkably wonderful voice.  Who knew Mike could sing so well?

After the national anthem, the marathon runners had an unceremonious start—Mike said, “OK, go” and 27 people (6 women, 21 men) headed south.  Then Mike turned around and gave a short description of the HM course and said something to the effect of, “Half marathoners; ready, set, go” and 52 of us headed north.  The first mile or so was a gradual incline along a Jeep trail.  Since my race strategy (which is to finish, and hopefully not dead last) causes me to be near the back of the pack, I was able to watch the group spread out.  One guy took off like a rabbit, he was at least 200 yards in front of second place runner before the first half mile ended.

Then we turned left and started some serious climbing as the trail quickly became a single track.  I took a quick glance over my shoulder as I turned, there were maybe 7 people behind me.  As I wound around the bends and curves of the trail  I could see a few people in front of me, but only 2 or 3 at a time as the pack was well spread out by this point.

At the top of the first loop.  Really hard to believe you are well within the El Paso city limits.

At the top of the first loop. Really hard to believe you are well within the El Paso city limits.

During the second mile I started leapfrogging a girl in purple.  It was still uphill and I had fallen into a run/walk routine.  The girl’s strategy was to run one song, then walk one song.  This girl and I were polite, stepping aside to let each other pass, and near mile 3 we were no longer climbing and managed to synch our run/walk.  Turns out the girl’s name was Hailey and this was her first ever half marathon.  Hailey was an interesting person, at 14 years of age she had a thought on just about everything.  We had some rather pleasant conversations and since we were no longer going uphill, there weren’t any walking breaks, we just ran.  When RunKeeper announced the five mile mark, Hailey informed me that this was the farthest she had ever run.  I also learned that she would be going for the Half Mad award by riding a mountain bike over these same trails the next day.  I learned that she wants to attend the Air Force Academy, she was also signed up for the Bataan March, and heard a whole bunch of her dreams and aspirations.  It’s nice to see teens with their head on their shoulders.

We also created a goal, Hailey and I, to catch the lady wearing a bright green shirt that was about 500 yards in front of us.

Just before the 7 mile mark, Hailey announced that she was going to have to start walking again—she hadn’t had enough breakfast and was getting a queasy stomach.  She had also forgotten to bring any water on the run.  At this point we were back on the original outgoing Jeep trail, headed back towards the starting area, and I kept running while leaving my temporary trail companion to her walk.

Near the start of the second loop.

Near the start of the second loop.

With the finish line arch in site, there was still a five mile loop to go, so I entered a chute and made a right hand turn.  This second (different) loop took us up another single track, and this was where you could really see the harsh beauty that is the Franklin Mountains State Park.  The trails smoothed out for a bit, lots of twists and turns as we wound our way around the rugged terrain.  I think this part of the race was my favorite area, it was just downright pleasant to run back here.

And then it happened.  I went around a curve and noticed that the green shirt lady was only 100 or so yards in front of me.  With four miles to go, maybe just maybe I could pass someone.  Remember, an OGRT like me is always found near the back of the pack and passing people is not a common occurrence.  As the trail twisted, the green shirt came in and out of sight.  Then around one bend I saw her walking!  You know what that meant; I could take a walk break too.  I found after the race that she ran multiple marathons in her 20’s and 30’s and had gotten out of the running routine.  As a recent entrant into the ranks of the 40 something’s, she decided to get back into running and this was her first race in about 5 years.  I’m quite sure I’ll never pass her in a race again.  (Update – I saw her at the Vado SUV trail race two weeks later, she had the same green shirt, I learned her name is Rosalba, and I never caught up to her.)

I just had a tiny bit more stamina than she did and at the 10 mile mark I caught up, we ran together for a few hundred yards, and I slowly pulled away.

A water tank of sorts.

A water tank of sorts.

Then somewhere between the 11 and 12 mile mark I saw another runner in front of me.  This one in a yellow jacket.  I decided that I could forego walk breaks for the rest of the race and possibly pass another runner.  As I caught up she asked me how much further I thought it was.  RunKeeper told me were almost to the 12 mile mark.  When I told her we were way past 11 and almost to 12, she kind of slumped her shoulders and slowed down a half notch and allowed me to pass.

As I hit the 12 mile mark, I did some quick calculations and realized that if I could just pull together a 14 minute mile I would beat the 3 hour mark.  Now anybody who runs regularly might scoff at a 3 mile HM, but the “O” in OGRT stands for Old and I’m happy when I beat the 2.5 hour mark on the road.  Add in my training misses in December due to illness and work overflow, and my goal was 3 hours for the Puzzler.  But I knew there could be no walk breaks from now to the finish and I had to pick up the pace by a small notch.

Ever feel you are so close to the mountains that you can touch them?  Well you can as you run The Puzzler.

Ever feel you are so close to the mountains that you can touch them? Well you can as you run The Puzzler.

And suddenly the finish chute was in sight.  It had been about 5 minutes since I passed the 12 mile point.  I pulled out my phone and it told me that we had run 12.4 miles.  I was surprised but sure enough there was only another hundred yards to the familiar Race Adventures red finish arch.  I clocked in at 2:50:35 on RunKeeper at a distance of 12.47 miles.  As I crossed the finish line, there was someone holding my finisher’s medal and I had completed my first ever trail race.  (And this finisher medal is by far the nicest looking one I have in my meager repertoire.)

The Puzzler was an absolute blast.  The terrain we ran through was varied and beautiful.  The Puzzler is a very well organized and well run race.  The Puzzler started life five years ago as “The toughest mountain bike race in Texas.”  In 2013, the organizers decided to add a marathon and a half marathon on Saturday before the bike races (13, 35 & 50 miles) on Sunday.  Now it is called The Puzzler Endurance Weekend.

For those wanting to run the race on Saturday and ride the mountain bike race on Sunday, they offer the Half Mad awards for those running the half marathon and riding the 35 mile bike race.  There’s also the Completely Insane category for those running the full marathon then riding the complete 50 mile bike course.  Since the run and the ride are under the umbrellas of two different organizations, you can’t register for the dual race.  The Puzzler website says it best:  Register for each event separately, then email to notify us that you are planning to attempt this foolish stunt so we can give you a special award for completing something that we think is not very smart.

After I finished my race and was driving home, there was a little voice in the back of my head saying, “Go buy a mountain bike.  It will be fun Jim, go buy a mountain bike and ride tomorrow.

I managed to ignore the voice this beautiful Saturday, but The Puzzler Endurance Weekend will happen again in 2014, so . . .