Thursday, December 13, 2012

A morning run in the Franklin Mountains

Many of my blogging buddies, for some reason, also happen to be avid runners and joggers.  They have put up their own great ‘race reports’ and stories about their running addiction.  I started running about 12 years ago, just as a way to relieve stress from all my class assignments, and I have been addicted ever since.  We have a few organized races here in El Paso, and I have run a few 10k races and a couple of marathons, but with the exception of only one, I do not have an interest in entering any more of these races.  They are just not my thing. 

Several of the people I read regularly, like DaGoodS and DoOrDoNot have written about their experiences with jogging, and joining races like the exciting ‘Warrior Dash’.  Adventure races like the Warrior Dash looks like a chance to get muddy and have great fun, but so far there are next to no races like this in my part of the country.  The Zombie Races that I saw while visiting Maryland last year looked like a blast, but so far, nothing like that is happening in El Paso.  So, I am forced to sort of do my own thing.

Not that I am complaining too much.  I live in the southwestern desert of the U.S., and I try to do the bulk of my running in the desert and away from the pavement.  If there is a cow trail, a powerline road, an old mining road, or even a gutted arroyo near my house, I have probably run on it.  I have fallen in the mud, gotten caught in hail, surprised a few bobcats and coyotes, had my legs shredded by underestimating some cactus, and have had more near-misses with rattlesnakes than I can count.  I would never give it up, even with those nasty hazards.  Those slight risks are far outweighed by the thrill of it all.

I will run on the pavement if I have to.  I am sometimes forced to jog on the hotel treadmill if I am out on business travel.  But what I really love is the desert floor – the rocks, the cactus, the sand, the dry air. I really thrive on getting back to my desert source.  I love the desert.  I love hiking and exploring, but I especially love running in it.  I find no greater sense of freedom than when I am alone in the elements, listening to nothing but my own footfalls, my own labored breathing, and the occasional coyote yipping behind that creosote bush up ahead of me.

Since it does not look like I will be reporting from a Zombie Run or Warrior Dash any time soon, I thought I would take you on a guided tour of one of my typical runs in the desert.  So put on some shorts, shoes with sturdy tread, a wide-brimmed hat and a water bottle and let’s hit the trail!  Oh – don’t forget the camera!

Never try holding a camera in front of you when you run
Last weekend I decided to take my dog and run in Franklin Mountains State Park.  A little background:  The city of El Paso has a very unusual shape.  It was founded at the southern end of a pass in the Franklin Mountain range.  The Rio Grande runs through the pass, and takes a sharp turn from south to south-east – hence the city’s name ‘El Paso’.  Over time, the city grew and spread northward on either side of the Franklin Mountain range.  Now El Paso wraps around the mountains.  That whole mountainous area, in the middle of the city limits, is designated Franklin Mountain State Park.  I believe it is, by far, the largest urban park, or city park, in the entire country.  You can hike to the top of North Franklin Peak, about 3400 feet above downtown El Paso, and miles from the nearest house, and still be within city limits.  It is easy access to get outdoors and a very popular area for mountain biking and hiking.  Every picture in this blog article is within El Paso city limits, even though it may look like I am in the middle of nowhere.

We will start our run at Chuck Heinrick Park in northeast El Paso.  There is a retaining wall just beyond the parking area that separates us from the desert trails.  The wall is there to protect the residential area from flash flooding.  When water pours off the mountain during monsoon season, it has to go somewhere, and the floods are rare, but fierce.  The trails are constantly being eroded by flood waters.

Here is my running buddy.  Sunshine is about 4 years old, and full of energy.  This little fella is always ready for a desert run!

Here is a look at Franklin State Park from the parking lot.  Plenty of space to bike, hike, jog and explore.  That is one huge city park.  It is much, much larger than Central Park in New York City, but it does not get quite as many tourists.  I am not sure why. 

hmm.. there's some trails in there somewhere.
Our jog will be a loop through that desert, and our goal will be some abandoned tin mines somewhere way up on the side of that mountain.  First we will run parallel to the retaining wall for about a mile.  Then turn a sharp left and run towards the mountain through a gutted arroyo until we hit the tin mines.  Then on a well-worn jeep trail back to the parking lot.  I have never measured the length of the trail, but I will guess about 7 miles for the whole thing and an elevation gain of maybe 1000 feet or so.  Ready?  Let’s hit it!

Oh my aching knees!  It usually takes me a while to warm up during these runs.  The first mile or so is always the worst part of the run for me.  That is OK.  I am in no rush.  We can take it easy during the first part and shuffle along.

And these blasted arroyos!  They are everywhere blocking our path!  Those rare flash floods can be really fierce.  It is really tough when they cut through the trail like this.  I have to either find a way around them or climb through them.  My days of attempting to jump over them are long gone.

After a mile, we turn a sharp left and head straight toward the mountain through a gutted arroyo. 

The trail on this part of the run is really tough.  The trail is straight, but it is dredged out of an old arroyo, so there are loose, smooth rocks everywhere.  Running on this stuff is pretty treacherous.  You do not want to take your eyes off the trail, or you risk tripping and falling.  I have fallen on rocks like this, and it is not fun!

After a mile or two of some really rough running straight uphill through some nasty, loose rocks, we finally leave the arroyo.  Veer left.  The trail starts to smooth out a bit and makes the running a bit more enjoyable.

Look at all those bicycle tracks.  I don’t see too may bicycles out here today, but on weekends, especially in the mornings, this place is pretty popular.

Just because we left the loose rocks in the arroyo does not mean I cannot take my eye off the trail.  Whenever I run in the desert, I must constantly scan the trail ahead of me because there are plenty of creatures out here who do not care to be stepped on.  And they are not always easy to see.  Over the years, I have had plenty of close calls with these guys:

Don't tread on me
Do you see it?  They blend in so well with the ground, rocks and shadows that they are easy to miss.  Rattlesnakes are extremely dangerous, and if you get bit way out here more than a few miles away from the nearest help, you are going to be in a world of hurt.  Rosemary scolds me about not carrying my cellphone when I run out here, but I have never been in the habit of carrying gadgets with me when I run.  Just carrying this little camera with me during this run was a bit of a chore!  I admit, I am used to my desert jaunting, and I live with the risk.  Anway, as dangerous as rattlesnakes are, there is a bit of good news.  They are non-aggressive.  I have never had a rattlesnake chase me.  I have heard plenty of stories of snakes chasing people, and maybe some are true, but I have never witnessed it.  As long as I am outside of striking distance, I can watch them safely.  They will rattle and rattle and rattle and finally get bored and crawl off.  A simple rule of thumb is - if you don't bother them, they will not bother you.  Rattlesnakes basically just want to be left alone.  Don’t forget to keep your curious pets away too!  Come on Sunshine, let’s go!

We are getting closer to our goal.  Can you spot the tin mine on the side of the mountain?

After we run another mile or so, we are just below the tin mine.  I am certain you can see it now.  We just have that really steep bit of jeep trail left to muscle up. 

We have to take the steep trail to the left.  We have already run about 4 miles, and Sunshine does not look too thrilled with the idea of humping it up for the final stretch.  From the looks of the bicycle prints that obviously avoid that steep trail, nobody else was too thrilled about going up there either.

GAAG!!  This thing is steep, uneven and rocky.  Even Sunshine is lagging behind.  Screw the jogging.  I am walking up this final stretch.  I am not that crazy!

Don't try this at home
And finally, we are at the tin mine!  Abandoned mines are dangerous, and they are covered with metal grills to keep us meddlesome joggers out.  I went in there once on a guided tour.  Nothing too exciting.

A look back to the city far below us:

I need water!
Poor Sunshine looks pretty wiped out.  Fortunately I always carry a water bottle and a drinking pouch for the dogs during these long desert runs and we can take a break for a few minutes.  Don’t worry, it is all downhill from here. 

the next bit after we leave the tin mine is my favorite part of the run.  The trail runs parallel with the mountain.  I am out of those awful arroyos and the trail is smooth.  I can take in a bit of the scenery.  It is absolutely beautiful up here.  I love running in the high desert like this.  There is nothing blocking your view, and you can see forever!  I have hit my stride after running 4 miles, and I am running almost effortlessly.  I love this part of the run!  If only I did not have those tough 4 miles to run before this!

Then in front of me, from seemingly out of nowhere, the trail just disappears into another arroyo.  This one is on the side of the mountain, so it is long, deep and treacherous.  UGH!  This one is going to take some time climbing through.  Here is a shot of my feet balancing on a thin ledge on the opposite side of the arroyo.  I can handle arroyos, but this was a deep one!

Yikes!  Crossing that added about 15 minutes to our time.  Oh well, when running out here, we cannot expect to set any speed records!  But it is a straight shot down an old jeep trail for a few more miles back to the parking lot.  It is all downhill, so we can run very fast.  We blast down in half the time it took to run uphill to the tin mines.

Back in the parking lot, safety and civilization.  Thank goodness Burger King is just around the corner cause I need a Whopper.

Well, not much of a race report, but this is what a typical desert run is like for me, and I thought I would share it with you.  I love running in the desert.  I have run in many different environments, in the city streets, along mountain passes, but my favorite has always been the high desert.  It is thrilling, exhilarating, and I would not give it up for anything.  I hope you enjoyed the jogging tour of my desert home.  If you ever make it to El Paso, look me up and we can hit the trails!


DoOrDoNot said...

Thanks for the guided tour! You don't need a Warrior Dash. The desert provides a more challenging course! I know what you mean about running outside, esp at parks. I love running much more when I'm at our park surrounded by trees than when I'm in our neighborhood filled with houses, cars, and people.

... Zoe ~ said...

Good grief my knees are killing me just reading this post! :-)

I loved the tour. Thanks for sharing. I agree with DoOrDoNot. You don't need a Warrior Dash! Amazing.