Monday, February 6, 2012

What is it with freezing Texas marathons?: El Paso Marathon

After my Rock n Roll season in 2010, then 2011's Down, Up and Around, I decided to pull back on the number of marathons for 2012. On deck for this year I decided on the Napa Valley Marathon in March, the ET Midnight Marathon in August and the Santa Barbara Marathon in November. But on a training run in January my friend Kent mentioned he was planning to run the marathon in my home town in February. How could I possibly refuse the opportunity to show him the town I grew up in. That's how I found myself shivering and huddling in a school bus with about 300 other folks in sub 30-degree weather 5,840 feet up the Franklin Mountain pass facing down a 20+ mile an hour headwind. 

It had been nearly 4 years since I was last in El Paso, the Mexican border town where I was born. While some of my family had scattered, my favorite aunt and uncle still live there as does my middle cousin with her family. I love them dearly and feel bad every time I talk to them that it has been so long since we have been together in person. To make the trip extra special, my youngest cousin Emily and her family were coming into town from Albuquerque that same weekend.  

After rising at 4am for our Friday flight out of SFO, we arrived in El Paso at 11am and started the trip the way I recommend everyone start any visit to El Paso, at Avila's Mexican Restaurant. This institution, which is about 10 minutes from the house I grew up in, is an El Paso institution, serving up the greatest traditional Mexican food in town, as it has for over the past 50 years. My favorite dish there is their chile con queso, which is made from Mexican white cheese and long green hatch chile strips. None of this Velveeta and salsa stuff here. 

The whole family gathered for this first meal, so we took over their long table in the back. Reesa, I, and my aunt and uncle were first to arrive, followed by Katy and her three kids and Emily and her two boys. Their husbands Jay and Dan showed up shortly after; they had been busy loading up the trucks for their annual "Knucklehead Hunt." This is their annual male bonding event over guns, beer and campfires. After lunch they were off to the airport to pick up my other cousin, Kevin from Austin who flew in for the trip. 

If you come to El Paso, you have to take in three things at least: the incredible Mexican food that is plentiful everywhere, the views of three states and two nations from Scenic Drive and the incredibly colorful sunsets each evening. We did just that the following day when Kent arrived from San Jose.

 If you think you know Mexican food but haven't been to El Paso, you know nothing. Nearly every good place here makes their own tortilla chips and salsa, uses whole green chiles (not Jalapenos) and is very liberal with the cheese. It's a great place for your tastebuds - no so much for your waistline

After Kent got off the plane we drove downtown to a small local favorite called L&J's Cafe. Predictably it was packed with UTEP Miner fans and out of towners who had heard of the place from Texas Monthly, Food Network or other outlets who have helped make it famous. Kent had the mole enchiladas, covered in their homemade chocolaty chile sauce. I had tapatias, a favorite dish from my childhood. If you haven't had them (they are sometimes called Tostadas), these are fried corn tortillas, laid flat then covered with layers of refried beans, guacamole (homemade or course), shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Growing up as a kid, this was one of my favorite dinners.

After this awesome meal we hit the race expo where helpful volunteers were everywhere assisting in finding our bib numbers, getting our shirts and ushering us through the hall. We then went to the local museum of art where some cubist works from Mexico's Diego Rivera were on display. It was the first time these paintings had been shown outside of Mexico and they were part of a large collection from Mexican artists of the same era.

After this we took a driving tour of El Paso which covered the first part of the course that started at the top of TransMountain Road, a very scenic pass through the Franklin mountains that shortens the drive from east to west El Paso by a ton. It also takes you from 3,200 ft above sea level, where most of El Paso lies, to nearly 6,000 feet. The marathon would start at this highest point the following morning. 

When we arrived in El Paso, it was a gorgeous warm day in the 60s - perfect for a marathon. By midday Saturday, the famous El Paso winds had swept in and temperatures weren't getting below the 50s. Come Saturday night, these cold winds were howling. From there it just got worse.

Race morning I arose in a slight panic at 4:38am because my alarm, set for 4:15, hadn't gone off and so it was scramble time to get ready. I had to get downtown to meet Kent and get on the buses to the start line by 5:30am. Made it. Barely.

In it's sixth year, the El Paso marathon is still a small event with about 3,000 runners spread across a marathon, half and 5K fun run. Only about 350 hardy soles were on the buses with us heading up TransMountain. We arrived about an hour before the start and were very worried the buses might leave us there, because the winds were still howling, it was pitch black out and the temperature had dropped below freezing. Add on the wind chill factor and even the woman who had come in from Minnesota for the race was cold. 

I don't know what it is about me and Texas marathons. My first, in Austin, also took place during a freak winter storm that put that start line below freezing too. 

Thankfully the buses stayed put with the heaters on to shelter us until the start. With just five minutes before the gun, we piled out of the buses and became a huddled mass in the middle of the road. We were tightly grouped, seeking each other's body heat as we listened to the national anthem then waited for them to find the starting gun and fire it off. Then we were off. As we started to spread out so we could run, the winds ripped right through us. I ran the first mile breathing into my gloves to keep my hands and face warm. 

The sun was just rising as we headed down the hill giving us a fantastic view of east Texas and, to the South, Juarez Mexico. The race course dropped over 1,100 feet over the first 4 miles and we were all running faster than we probably should have just to stay warm. I traded leads back and forth with a woman who eventually would win the race as we came down the hill. I was able to stay with her until around mile 8; by mile 10 she was completely out of sight. 

As we came off the mountain, we snaked around the highway and over to Fort Bliss, the local army base, which is in heavy use due to its terrain that looks so much like Iraq and Afghanistan. Cheering, friendly El Pasoans were stationed every mile or so along the course making us all feel welcome. Volunteer groups set up some really creative and fun water stops. Among my favorites were the Wizard of Oz stop where the Cowardly Lion was handing out high fives while Dorothy and the Tin Man passed out Gatorade. Just past the entrance to Fort Bliss the soldiers manned a rocking station with big speakers blasting out hip hop toons while troops in fatigues and holding M-16s bopped to the beat. It looked like a scene right out of Apocalypse Now. A few overly-enthusiastic soldiers gave us the basic training routine, so I wasn't sure if I was being yelled at or yelled on. 

As the race headed through the main post I started to feel the affects of blasting down the mountain and slowed from 7 minute miles to the mid 8s. But I picked up the pace at each water stop. The Sun City Roller Girls were super enthusiastic and dressed in vintage (and way over the top) 70s garb. The Humane Society had an arch for us to run through along with great upbeat rock n roll blaring. Atop their arch was the name, Shelbie, a local rescue dog available for adoption.

The course wasn't a complete down hill as there were some rollers as we passed by the Radford School for girls. I cherished the downsides of these and took advantage to pick up some time. As we turned toward downtown, the winds moved from in our face, to cross winds in Fort Bliss to now, at our back. As I came down the hill along Wyoming street, I came upon the Six Guns and Shady Ladies water stop, filled with a team of folks in vintage old west duds, replete with horses and a jail. Their water stop was fittingly opposite the Concordia Cemetery. Established in the 1880s this is the final resting place of John Wesley Hardin, the Buffalo Soldiers and many Texas Rangers who fought the rebel Pancho Villa and settled West Texas. 

We turned the corner past the cemetery and headed back towards L&J Cafe. A taco stop would have been great but we sadly turned away one block before the restaurant and headed into the main town. The tailwinds made the final 4 miles much more enjoyable until a final blast in the face crossing over I-10. When we passed by the downtown square I picked up the pace to below 7 minute miles and began looking for my family. I found them at mile 26, huddled in the still cold morning but enthusiastically waving their homemade signs and cheering me on. I dumped the last of the cold weather clothing I had with them and sprinted for the finish line, coming in at 3:26. Kent came in just after I did. The marathon organizers thankfully had chocolate milk waiting for us - you can't beat that recovery drink.

After a warm shower and lots of stretching we returned to my uncles house to get ready for the Super Bowl. It was still windy and cold at his place and I needed an ice bath to speed the recovery of my aching legs and hips. So I put my race shorts back on and several coats and sweaters and stepped into the pool. Yikes! The Pacific Ocean has nothing on a freezing cold pool in El Paso winter. I lasted only about 10 minutes before I could no longer feel my feet and legs. But today I feel great as a result.

As they say, pain is temporary - and so is numbness. And it was nothing a good cold Negra Modelo couldn't fix. 

On to Napa.