Friday, April 27, 2012

North Franklin: An Unplanned Summit

I went trail-running again yesterday morning, at North Hills. We don't get many cloudy days in El Paso, but yesterday was one of them, and it stayed cooler far longer than it has in recent mornings. So I took full advantage, by going further than I had initially intended--all the way to the top of North Franklin Mountain, the highest peak in the Franklin Mountains.

The top is always further away than it looks...

East El Paso from a little below the summit.

Summit view of Northeast El Paso

The Franklin Mountains stretching away to the north.
Desert vegetation in bloom!

 The run (and hike...and climb...) to the top took nearly two hours, and the run back down only took a little over an hour. Sections near the summit were so steep, while running down I was terrified I was going to fall. I have improved at controlling my downhill speed, and with close attention and a great deal of prayer, I managed to not fall. Near the top, that is.

Only ten minutes from the parking lot, I took what I imagine to be a spectacular fall. The ground had leveled out, so I was not paying as much attention. And I was tired. I didn't notice I had tripped until I was on my stomach with bloody knees and elbows and several bruises.

I didn't encounter anyone else during those last ten minutes, so I didn't have to explain why my knees and elbow were dripping blood. It crossed my mind to say something hilarious if I did, like "Run! The zombies are attacking!"

So, it's probably a good thing I was the only one on the trail.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Mountain-Running Morning

Most of my El Paso trail running is done in the North Hills section of Franklin Mountains State Park. For a change of scenery, this morning I drove to the top of Transmountain Road to run the Smuggler's Gap Trail, which runs south through the mountain range. And by "through the mountain range," I mean "up and down the mountains." This trail requires some very steep climbing, often on loose or jagged rocks, and is at the outer limit of runnability for me. I spent maybe half the time running, a quarter climbing, and a quarter descending carefully. It was a blast!

I saw Indian paintbrushes:

And ran on edges like this:

And climbed stretches like this:

About an hour into the run, I reached the chain-assisted section of trail. The park has bolted chains into the rock on some very steep parts of the route. Even though it wasn't runnable I descended the chains for fun, so I could climb back up.

There are three sections of chain, and after descending the first two, you reach the window, a hole in the rock face with a view of east El Paso:
Taking a good picture of the window is difficult, because it isn't possible to back up very far--the only standing room is a narrow ledge.

I turned around at the bottom of the chain-assisted section, and after climbing back up, I pulled out my burrito. That's right, a burrito. Vegetarian refried beans in a tortilla. (I also had CLIF ShotBloks for backup).

Two things about the burrito:
1. It was delicious.
2. Half a burrito is enough.

It was so handy--I was even able to run while eating it--that I think I'm going to do it again. I'll make mini-burritos next time, so I'm not tempted to eat a whole big one.

The run took me an hour and four minutes, including photo-op-stops, to get to the bottom of the chain assisted section, and 53 minutes to get back to the start. 

And then I went to Starbucks.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I had planned to run eighteen miles this week. But instead of taking another shot at the out-and-back road course I attempted during my failed eighteen-miler on Wednesday, I decided to revert to my 3.75-mile desert loop (there was more traffic on the road than I had anticipated at six in the morning). Five loops would have made 18.75 miles. At first, I thought Why not run a few extra minutes to get nineteen? But during the run, I kept thinking When I've already gone nineteen, what's one more? And that is how I ended up running twenty miles today.

It took me three hours and nine minutes. I am ecstatic to have made it over the mental hump that is twenty miles! It gave me such a feeling of I really CAN do this! But all the credit belongs to the Lord--I could not do this without Him by my side, nor would I even want to try.

I took a waterbottle and two packs of Clif Shot Bloks to the start with me. I ate at least one Blok per lap (probably 15 to 20 calories each), whereas on previous long runs, I just ate a GU near the mid-point of the run. I think eating every lap helped, if only mentally. I like chewables better than gels, but I had a problem with these in particular: they are so large and dense as to require more chewing than I want to engage in while running. GU is too gooey, the Bloks aren't gooey enough...there is a perfect solution out there, and I WILL find it!

(Side note: in the book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall mentions ultrarunners who eat real food during both training and races. This idea appeals to me, but I don't know where to begin. Peanut butter sandwiches? Bean tacos? Applesauce? I want to try it, and I guess it will just be trial-and-error).

I felt great, until the last two or three miles. And even then, I didn't feel as bad as, say, Frodo and Sam on the final approach to Mount Doom,* but I was ready to be finished. A few minutes before the end, I saw a girl walking a dog, and since I usually see no one out there, I started to think I was hallucinating. But she was real, no worries. That, or my hallucinations reply when I say hello to them.

Also, by this point, it was starting to get hot. I started at 6:20 am, comfortable in long-sleeves for the first few laps. But by the last few miles, it was after nine o'clock, and I felt my face burning in spite of the sunscreen I was wearing. Speaking of which, I am on the hunt for a new sunscreen--the one I have been using causes excessive face-sweating. The heat at nine in the morning in April makes me dread the approaching summer, when El Paso will turn into Mordor.*

Well, I'm off to begin the search for better sunscreen and running fuel! As soon as I feel like moving again, that is.
*I just finished reading all the Lord of the Rings books, and watching all three movies. And I will probably re-watch The Return of the King while icing my legs today. I guess you could say I've become slightly obsessed...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Difficult Run

This morning I set out to run eighteen miles. I had the route planned days ahead of time and I had mentally prepared for the distance the night before. Just as the sun was beginning to rise, I fueled up with a slice of toast and headed out the door.

And it was great...for the first five minutes, anyway.

Suddenly, I felt like I was trying to run upstream in a river of jello, with bricks instead of feet. My shoulders tightened up to the point they were practically touching my ears. I slogged on, periodically shaking out my arms, and repeating to myself a mantra I once read on an ultrarunning website: "It never always gets worse."

But it did. My body felt heavier and slower with each stride. I know there are times to keep going, to push through it, but after a few more miles I decided this was not one of those times. I turned around at the four-and-a-half mile mark and finished out nine miles with several two-minute walks thrown in.

I couldn't help but compare it to last week's fifteen, when I hadn't felt this bad even at the end. While my brain knows that there will be good runs and bad runs, sometimes for inexplicable reasons, my heart has yet to accept that as a fact. But I did everything right! I whined. I ate a good supper, I got enough sleep, I've even been stretching! 

Reminding myself that there is a reason for everything, that God always has a plan even when I can't see it, is a tactic I've tried lately to quiet the inner-whiner. It works better at some times than others. This time, it calmed me and helped me make peace with cutting the run short, but I couldn't stop analyzing why this had happened, and wondering what it means for my training.

Am I dehydrated? Did I not get enough rest? Did I eat too soon before running? Am I starting to get sick? Am I going to be ready for the race in five weeks? I don't know what the answers are. I don't know why these runs happen. But I know that I can learn something from every run, and hopefully today I learned something that will help me somewhere down the road. Today, I will refuel, rest, and try again on Friday.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Escape from El Paso

Most of the time, I love our home in the desert. But sometimes I find myself craving a visit to a place with tall trees and abundant vegetation.

This past weekend, my good friend Rebecca and I went camping in the Lincoln National Forest near Cloudcroft, NM. Even having seen this area before, I couldn't help but be astounded all over again that this place exists only two hours away from El Paso!

Bluff Springs Recreation Area   Image Credit: US Forest Service

There are several hiking trails in this area, and while I did not do any running on this trip, I plan to return soon for a long trail run. Although it was a short trip, it was so refreshing to relax by a campfire and soak in the beauty of the tree-covered mountains all around.

A minor downside: the state of my feet when I arrived home.

I don't think my feet had been this dirty in a long, long time. The dirt of the trails permeates shoes and socks more easily than the desert sand, and I didn't know that was possible. But the trip was well worth the grime!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sunrise at North Hills

Sunrise is my favorite time of day here in the desert. Which is a good thing, because most of the year you need to get up that early to run if you don't want to be toasted, baked, and/or broiled. But I digress...

Waking in the dark is more than worth it when the reward is an unobstructed sunrise from the North Hills section of Franklin Mountains State Park. I stashed my camera in my camelback for a seventy-five minute run, but ended up carrying it in my hand the whole time.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fifteen Miles

Yesterday, I completed a fifteen-mile run! Just being able to type those words makes me insanely happy. This was the longest run I have finished in over a year, and it was much better than I had hoped.


The Course

Our neighborhood backs up on the desert, where there is a network of seldom-used dirt roads. And by "dirt roads", I mean sand roads--there are more than a few places where the sand is deep and the footing is not at all stable. But I can't complain: I have a 3.75-mile loop with no traffic right outside my door! So yesterday morning, I planted a water bottle and a GU by a bush at the corner and set off to finish four laps.
The start of my loop. The shadows:me and my sidekicks, Bruno and Howdy, on our morning walk.



The Time

I finished the run in two hours and twenty-two minutes; about 9:30 mile pace. I'm okay with that. I wish I was a faster runner, and I know that if I work at it, I will get there, but right now I'm all about putting miles on my legs to get ready for this race, no matter how fast or slow they are.

I stopped for a few seconds per lap to drink water, and ate the GU after the second lap. I usually don't have GU on hand--I prefer GU Chomps or CLIF Shot Bloks or even gummy bears--but I must have gotten this strawberry-banana flavored one in a goody bag from a race, so I thought I would give it a try. A pleasant surprise: I enjoyed it! When it was gone, I wanted more. I'm not sure I would switch to energy gels from chewables, but it gave me hope that some gels do taste good, after a recent bad experience with a not-so-delicious flavor.



When I told my dad about these fifteen miles, he asked if I got bored running four loops. Happily, I was able to say no. This is something I have had to work at, the mental side of my running. If my mind is not focused on something other than how long I have been running, I find myself tempted to quit for no good reason. What are you supposed to think about during two hours of running? Especially when the scenery doesn't change much, and you don't want to look at your watch twelve times a minute?
Here is what has worked for me lately:

1. Gratitude: I am blessed to be part of a group of awesome ladies from my church who meet for Bible study once a week. We have been reading One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are. I highly recommend it. It tells the story of the author's journey to joy through the simple act of giving thanks. Thanks for the little things, the big things, the messy things, everything. I am trying to replicate this in my own life, on my runs especially. On this particular run, I challenged myself to think of fifty things to give thanks for. I lost count (because I don't have enough fingers...), but I found that I enjoy the run even more when I am thanking God for the blue of the sky, for my wonderful husband, for the lizard I saw...

2. Prayer: When I run, I have the time and attention to pray for people and situations that I often get distracted from in my daily life. In the day-to-day, it is so easy to slip into a rut of only praying for me and for situations that directly affect my life. When I am running and there is nothing else to distract me, I try to remember to pray for others.

3. Lists: I am a list-maker. When I run, I make my to-do list or my grocery list in my head. I list my all-time favorite foods, meals, desserts (do you see a theme here?). On particularly long runs, I alphabetize things, trying to think of a favorite food, song, or book for every letter of the alphabet. Nerdy? Probably. But it's surprisingly fun.

4. Body Evaluation: If I am feeling tired, or just want to give up for some reason, something I have started doing is evaluating how I feel physically, body-part by body-part.  
How are my toes? They feel great!
How are my feet? Fine! 
How are my ankles?
And so on.  I usually discover no pains indicating possible injury, and that helps me keep going. I think it will be a useful tool for pinpointing an injury before it becomes a major problem.


The Aftermath

I'm going to be honest: I sat on the couch with ice on my legs, eating peanut butter out of the jar, for much of the remainder of the day. But other than sore calf muscles, I felt okay. I ran a couple of miles this afternoon and am planning a trail run for tomorrow--I'll be going at sunrise, so expect pictures!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Welcome to My Blog!

A Little About Me

Hi! I’m Dana. I run.

It feels like running has always been in my life, but lately I have been dreaming of running further. So that’s the reason for the blog—I plan to document the journey to my first 50k and beyond. Along the way, I’ll review some of my favorite gear and some of my favorite places to run, among other things.

I am an Army wife, currently a desert-dweller by Army mandate rather than choice. We live in El Paso, Texas, and I have come to love it here more than I ever thought possible. Why? Well, despite the sand storms, heat, and notable lack of precipitation and vegetation, I have come to appreciate its rugged beauty. El Paso is home to the largest urban park in the nation: the Franklin MountainsState Park. The Franklin Mountains bisect the city, rising to over 5,000 feet in elevation, and nearly the entire range is a state park where, for a small fee, you can hike, run, mountain bike, or climb. Or all of the above. Nearby are Hueco Tanks State Historic Site and some beautiful National Forest in New Mexico (where there are trees—imagine that!).

The Goal

My current goal is to complete the Jemez Mountain 50k in Los Alamos, New Mexico, on May 19. Just to finish—I’m not shooting for a particular time. I will not have set foot on the course until the week before the race, and while I am able to train on rugged trails here in El Paso, I am not able to train at the same altitude, and I know the effects of running at a higher altitude will likely slow me down.