Impressive. Disgusting. I’m going back to sleep.
Those were my thoughts upon hearing the unmistakable pitter-patter of runners’ footfalls on the gravel road. It sounded like they were mere feet from my head; in fact they were about 50 feet away. I cinched the top of my sleeping bag tighter to block out the weak early morning light. As the noise faded I quickly dozed off.
The next wake-up was harder to ignore.
“Is someone getting kicked out of their site?” I woozily asked my husband. It was safe to assume he was awake; there was a man’s voice droning steadily nearby.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It sounds like an announcer.” He paused, listening. “Is he saying they only have two minutes to get out?”
Now we were both alert, clued into potential drama.
Then we heard the word: ultramarathon.
We groaned, throwing the sleeping bag over our heads, which wasn’t enough to drown out the voice or to get ourselves back to sleep.
“We deserve this, somehow,” I said.
He mumbled agreement. We unzipped the front of our tent, stuck our heads out, and watched runners file past our campsite in the shaded, cold light of a January morning in the high desert.
This was also our first glimpse of our surroundings by day.
We’d rolled in the night before, sight unseen except via the internet. Craving a weekend adventure from our monthlong setup in Silver City, New Mexico, we took off into the desert at sunset and drove two and a half hours south and just across a state border to Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso, Texas.
Anyone who has rolled into an unfamiliar campground at dark knows the disorientation of trying to locate a campsite via headlights. In the hushed, 8 p.m. darkness of a sparsely populated, 40-degree-and-cooling, star-speckled valley surrounded by steeply rising, dark mountains on either side, we cast around in the dark by vehicle and then by foot until we found our site.
We efficiently made camp as the night got colder and lit up a fire in the provided ring, sipping hot beverages and gawking at the campfire-glow on desert plant life and the brilliant stars in the sky, only matched from the distant, bright white cityscape of El Paso in the corner of our vision. Truly, the Franklin Mountains felt like a vast complex above and outside of the city.
But we didn’t sleep well that night. The first night of camping is always rough for me, getting used to the sleeping pads and spending hours convincing myself I don’t need to pee. It was also quite cold.
So the early morning surprise of an ultramarathon taking place right then and there was not how I envisioned waking up.
Still: it got us going early, and by 9 a.m. we were ready to hike.
My husband and I are both strong runners in our own right. He is much more interested in mountain running than I am, but I can appreciate the magnitude of training and effort that goes into completing a race like the one we were witnessing. We learned later that what was taking place was the Franklin Mountains Trail Runs, a series of trail races over a weekend that include everything from a 50-miler to a 5K.
It was near impossible to avoid the race route and its telltale pink flags, but due to the challenging terrain it was not at all crowded. When we came across runners, we clapped and cheered them on. Some of them mistook us for racers, since we were wearing similar gear and — let’s be real — they were likely not in their right minds after running fairly brutal distances and terrain for hours on end.
The wind picked up as we gained elevation, and the paltry warmth I’d hoped to wring out of the southern sky dropped commensurately with the wind chill and the increased altitude. At the top of North Franklin Mountain we quickly took in the incredible 360-degree panorama and snapped a few pictures before hightailing it right back where we came from.
By the end of our 9-mile hike, I was completely spent. Some of it from the distance and effort, sure, but much of it from the sustained exposure to that icy cold wind that had picked up and stayed consistent through the afternoon even as we descended.
Back at camp, we bundled up in blankets, ate snacks and drank a beer, and watched silhouettes of runners cruise straight across and down a ridge to the finish line. The sun set, their silhouettes emblazoned on an orange southwestern sky; the yucca-dotted mountains behind us were briefly alpenglow pink. Then, we saw headlamps bobbing in the distance as darkness set in.
The last round of cheering I heard was at 11:15 p.m. I was in bed.
I enjoyed seeing and cheering on the ultrarunners. And of course, it made me consider whether an ultramarathon is something I’d ever want to tackle — something I’ve put very little thought toward, because my first inclination is “no, thank you.” I was inspired by the raw human power and will on display throughout the race, but not moved to do my own. I’ve done long, grueling events. It takes significant training. I think I’m at a phase in my life where I’m less interested or in need of that kind of distance training; I find myself more attracted to short, fast efforts that leave me with energy — and help fuel energy — to do other things in my life, too.
My husband, meanwhile, took in the exact same data and casually remarked, “You know, I could see myself doing an ultra someday.”
To each their own.