Friday afternoon April 10th, the goal was a 6 mile tempo run in the Big Bend National Park in West Texas. I was coming off an extra day off, and my legs felt fresh even after a morning hike. The route I was going to run was (what I thought would be) a "fairly" challenging two lane road starting at the Main Park Road in the Big Bend National Park, and ending at the Chisos Mountain Basin area. Starting elevation was around 3,800 ft or so, and ending at 5,450, though the highest point would be closer to 5,600, I'm guessing. In other words, this 6 mile route would be straight up hill--or up mountain, as it were. (I'll let the math experts out there to figure out how many feet the route climbed per mile. I almost don't want to know!)
The temperature at the start was about 82 degrees, and overcast. I really have no experience running at altitude, so I had no idea how much it was going to affect me. I just knew I planned to run the six mile route as fast as I could. I'm probably good for 7:30/mile on a flat sea level course for 6 miles at this point, so I thought this run might be more like 8:30 or even above 9:00 as the road got steeper in the later miles. But I really had no idea how fast (or slow) I would be able to run. However, I was certain that the road started off "relatively" flat, and got progressively steeper as it went along. My wife--who thought this whole thing was a really bad idea--and her parents dropped me off, and I was ready to go!
The author at the beginning of the run.
The first thing I noticed right away was that there would be a stiff mountain breeze blowing right in my face. I hadn't bargained for this aspect, to say the least. I tried to stay relaxed at the start, but it's really difficult to get into a groove when you begin a run uphill, into the wind. At about the half mile point, my Garmin had me at about 8:30ish per mile, and the effort was roughly equivalent to running 400 repeats on the track. In other words: I would not be able to keep this up for long. I realized I'd better start loosening up fast or I was going to crash. That was pretty obvious. Right about that point, I noticed the first "interesting" landmark: A dead deer carcass. Only it wasn't a carcass so much as it was a pile of white, bleached bones. I didn't take this as such a great omen, to say the least. I reached Mile 1 in a blistering 9:17. For a "relatively" easy mile, it was obvious I had grossly misjudged just how taxing this "tempo" run was going to be. Holy mackerel! 9:17 and I'm running nearly flat out? With five more miles of mountain roads to go? Dang!
I decided to slow down some more, and try to relax. However, I wasn't able to keep all sorts of negativity from dominating my thoughts. This would not be a day for "running with joy" like I hoped it might. I did not feel strong or confident in any way shape or form. In particular, I began to worry about the prospect of what sorts wildlife I might come across over the next hour or so of "running." Anyone who has visited the Big Bend National Park has heard that there is a full and stable population of about 24 mountain lions, as well as a growing population of black bears. Right about that time, I saw a dead rattlesnake belly up on the side of the road. Again, not a terribly encouraging sight, but at this point I didn't really want to see live animals. Mile 2 split was a little over 20 minutes. Yuck! That blasted wind!! Those hills! The elevation!!
The view toward my destination, at the 2 or 3 mile mark.
There was a little bit of traffic on the road, but not much, really. The thing that was a drag, though, is that this narrow two-lane road had no shoulder. Just a strip of dirt/gravel about a yard wide at best. So cars had to veer over into the oncoming lane to get around me. But those cars were very few and far between, believe me. Generally, it was just me and the great outdoors. Somewhere around this time is where I passed a huge sign with the outline of a bear and a mountain lion, warning that we are in their habitat. Funny how that sign didn't seem scary at all when I was in the car earlier. But right about now, in my condition, it was terrifying.
Maybe a half mile after that, I heard something to my left, and saw this big gray blur. Scared the crap out of me, to say the least! It was a really large deer, and apparently I really scared him/her, too! But out of the corner of my eye at first, all I saw was a gray blur that could have been anything... meaning a lion. So now my senses are on full alert, and I'm feeling more tired and fatigued by the minute. Great. As much as you'd think this irrational, panicked feeling would create adrenaline and push me uphill, it almost had the opposite effect. The wind was strong enough that it was hard to hear anything but the tall blowing grass, so I kept turning my head one way or the ohter to hear better. The grass--that came right up to the edge of the road--was about waist high. Perfect for some lion to hide and and prepare to ounce, I figured. Great!
I told myself that lions probably don't like the taste of humans that much, and prefer a steady diet of deer and javalinas, etc. But then I got these crazy thoughts like, "What if there's this lion that's really old, and can't really cut it anymore... and he knows his days are numbered, and all he really wants is that one last kill, for old times sake. I might be on his "Bucket List, as it were." Or maybe a mother lion wanted to show one of her young cubs how to kill something really easy--like me--and they wouldn't have to eat me, just leave me there once the lesson was over. This was my mindset at this point, a little over 3 miles into the run. I started taking walk breaks after mile two, and they were becoming more and more frequent. My head was going from side to side like a spinning top, looking for any sign of trouble. It also occurred to me that a lion would probably come at me from behind, so I did a lot of looking back, too.
One of the "tips" that the park service stresses if you DO happen to see a lion, is that you can you can be sure that the lion saw you long before you saw him. Great! They also say not to run away... to stand your ground. Great!
After white knuckling the "run" another mile or so (roughly 12+ minute pace by now!), I got to the highest point in the run, and began the descent into the basin, where our lodge was. This was very welcome, and I took full advantage, clocking a 6:58 5th mile. Now that's more like it! There was a little more uphill for the last half mile or so, and then I was finally done. One hour and seven minutes total for a 6.25 mile run! 10:40-something per mile! Yikes!! My wife saw me finish and said she was beginning to get worried! "Really?!" She asked if I would have felt bad if she had got in the car and come looking for me, and I said, "Hell no!"
So yes, I survived, and no, I never saw a lion or bear. (HEaven knows if one ever saw me, though!) But I certainly never plan to run that route again, at least not the uphill direction--and not alone, either! After some google searches, I found that lions are seen in that area maybe 8-12 times a month, at all times of the day. That's too many for me! I also found that the elevation of the finish is roughly the equivalent of Boulder Colorado. No wonder it kicked my ass so hard! I'm happy to be back in Austin now, with the heat, humidity, and cars, thank you very much!