A Stroll Through the Chihuahuan Desert

There was ice on the car when I left my old Peace Corps buddy Wayne’s home in Las Cruces New Mexico. It may have warmed up a bit in the ten mile drive south to the Mesquite exit but it didn’t really matter much.  It was still cold.  Double the temperature and it would below that at almost any start from the Nature Center in Makiki.  My destination was a tiny parking lot at the end of a gravel road that wound into a lonely valley located at the extreme southern end of the Organ mountain range and in the heart of the Aguirre Springs National Recreation Area; the starting point of the 2006 Dust Devil’s Ultra race.   

Getting out of the car I found the gravel lot scattered with about six vehicles.  Mark Dorian the RD and multiple past winner was already busy explaining the course and giving final instructions to the four other runners who huddled around him in the darkness as they fought off the chill and mumbled questions about the route.  I was immediately  reminded of the kind of events that Kawika Spaulding does on the Big Island; low level support for great challenges like the Na Alapa Mohala, aka the Saddle Road Run.  Mark had cautioned us of limited support and I was prepared for a typical HURT into-the-afternoon Saturday training run, with abundant water and enough goodies stashed in the trunk to last me through the day.      

I quickly filled out the race waiver, which included such things as height, weight and hair color, feeling a bit wary about just what awaited that could necessitate such info, as I listened to Mark outline what seemed like an easy course over terrain that was almost entirely visible from the start. —Seems I’ve heard such jargon before and should have known better. (…..one easy hill and a few bumps with half of it down hill….)—   One can mentally simplify words like ‘over toward that mountain’, ‘up the valley’, or ‘just to the south’, pushing them within the horizon of one’s naïve perceptions I guess.    It seemed straight forward enough though: a loop here, two up there, some extras to the first loop, and then something off to the north that was just out and back.  It proved a bit tougher than that. 

Then, as quickly as he talked, Mark drew a line in the rocky sand with his foot, pointed at it, said ‘That’s the start and finish line’, stepped across it and was off. The Dust Devil Ultra had started. I set my watch, stumbled into the first arroyo after the rest of guys and my race was on!   

‘Either he is really excited or he is very fast.’ I said to Ed, the fellow who was striding along with me at the back of the pack.   After the first hundred yards Mark slowed a bit and started explaining the run in greater detail.  I caught bits of what he said, feeling I would rely on my ability to stay behind somebody, and the map and directions I had folded in my belt pocket. Anyway the faster we moved the colder it got and the less willing I was to stick out an ear to hear instructions better.

The trails are a mixture of hard packed sand, gravel, rocks and occasional patches of bedrock.   The rocks and washes make the trail technically challenging, but not difficult from a Hawaii perspective.  It was rocks and more rocks instead of roots, rocks and mud.  The arroyos were different and the trails offered a variety of interesting new situations. But the challenge was no more difficult than what we normally face on any particular day in Hawaii. There were of course great differences in the running experience. Above all else one quickly comes to realize that there is little in the Chihuahuan desert that does not prick, stick, scratch or bite.  Unlike Hawaii, where cool, dew soaked leaves waif across your ankles and calves as you run by in the early morning light, Chihuahua vegetation does not much like anybody at anytime, and it does its best to discourage contact and when possible leaves reminders to reinforce that fact.   There are prickly pear with three inch sharp brittle thorns that can pierce any shoe upper growing low along every path, cane cactus reach out over trails bearing two inch thorns, barrel-like fish hook cactus, true to their name, display yellow flower bait and fish the trail fringe, multiple varieties of mesquite with various kinds of long thorns hidden in wispy leaves overhang trails and roads, a few varieties of yucca with different but equally sharp pointed leaves lean into turns and twists in the paths, and some smaller cactus that grow not so soft thorny stickers carpet any flat areas along the way.   There is also a lot of Creosote bush, which lacks thorns but has leaves that can scratch if you brush hard against them.  Native grasses are like native Hawaiian grasses but can harbor nice resting places for rattlers and other snakes.  Whack any one of these just once and you likely pass with a long term reminder of the visit, if not a required stop to extract something sharp and nasty, and very painful from the ‘soft bodied’ creature you quickly realize you are.   Now, I’m not complaining. It’s just that I want to make it clear that it is not so much the need to watch the rocks on the trail as it is the necessity of  avoiding the vegetation along it that begins to determine one’s progress.   Try running up and down Manoa without touching any plant life and you get the idea of the difficulty. Any trail’s technical issues are suddenly multiplied by the nastiness of what grows and lives along it. 

It was a beautiful morning. The sunrise was extraordinary.  Even as we bumped along in the semi-darkness we could not help but be entranced by the Big Sky awakening that occurs in the Chihuahauan desert.  The runners were all veterans, and everyone was quite friendly.  We got acquainted and continued to trade comments on how stunning the morning was as we struggled through the first three miles.  The 2006 runners were Mark Dorion, Bob Klapthor, Ed Furtaw, Greg Helbig, Richard Harris, and myself, with Gary Cross joining us for 18 miles in the late morning. 
It warmed up as the sun rose, the sky moved from starry black toward deep translucent blue, there was no wind, but through the early morning hours any shade from the eastern hills created chill and then coolness.  The humidity was low but the air was refreshing and the recent rains had brought much lushness to the valley.  The vistas were just awesome and in some places it felt like one could see forever.   

Much of the race is run on rutted jeep tracks, where the main requirement was determining the high side, which was generally the smoother side of the track.  I found it was worth the effort to keep an eye ten yards ahead and move accordingly.   The course altitude runs from around 4200 feet up to perhaps 5700. Much of this was up and down long slopes of the valley. Total altitude change for the miles I ran was perhaps 5000 feet. There was one mountain side climb and decent that reminded me of a bare Nu’uanu-Judd trail.   It was a twice repeated steep and rocky climb up an old washed out mine road which offered great panoramas of the race route, and at the summit provided a startling early morning view to the east across the southern end of White Sands missile range and south toward the Franklin Range, El Paso and Mexico.          

Running at this altitude and humidity is quite different from Hawaii.  I found my heart rate generally higher by 10 to 15 percent for a perceived level of exertion. I didn’t have to battle wet clothing, however I quickly learned that hydration and electrolyte routines need to be just as intense as during long Hawaii run. The desert is greedy and just sucks the moisture from a soft bodied creature.  Skin accumulates a salty dust quickly which can abrade at wear points.

The greatest excitement in my race occurred at about 16 miles.  I was trailing Ed, he had just asked why people had such a problem with running the night portion of HURT, and I was on the verge of blabbing some pontifical inanity when he calmly said ‘Snake.’  I looked just ahead to see a three foot brown critter on the road where none had been on the previous loop. Watching the snake and not the road I stumbled off to the side of the trail past what I could clearly see was indeed a snake while managing to whack my right foot into one of the ever present prickly pear cactus that line every trail and road in the valley.  I remember asking Ed about whether we should ‘chase’ the snake off the road so runners behind us didn’t get surprised too.  “Seems happy right where he is. You move him if you want.” said Ed as he quickly resumed his pace down the trail.

I had quick visions of grabbing his tail while muttering ‘Krikke! He’s a fast little bugger!’ as the snake planted his fangs at the end of my nose.  The decision to leave the snake alone was a no brainer. He was happy, and I am no mad Aussie naturalist.  But when I attempted to resume running and took a few steps, I felt sharp pains shoot up my leg from what seemed like a dozen places on my foot.  In a matter of second I went from a jog, to a stumble, to falling on my ass.   Ed looked back reluctantly, I waved him on, and commenced to pulling multiple inch long thorns from my right shoe and toes.   By the time I was done with the extractions Ed was long gone. I limped on once again set on chasing him down.   

I followed him up the mine road, closing the gap and feeling better every minute. We passed on the upward slope of the crest but by the time I turned around and returned he was just a white dot far down the trail and almost to the valley floor.  I let out the stops and ‘followed Cheryl’ down the steep mine road.  I hit bottom on the fly and the run down the valley floor was great.  The blurred colors on Ed’s shirt slowly distinguished themselves into something like ‘East Texas Trail Running’ and then, just as I was congratulating myself on my astounding technical abilities, I tripped over some small insignificant rock and took a stumbling, bumbling, tumbling, crashing fall  and skid spread eagle along the rocky gravel of the jeep track.  Hands bleeding, elbow and thigh gashed, back in spasm, I got up and hobbled along slowly as I tried to wash the gravel from the scrapes and gouges. “Do this now and you will thank yourself tonight”, I kept telling myself.  I pushed the chase despite the injury.

It must have been the adrenaline rush of the fall, or the endorphin spurt caused by the pain, but after I got unsteadily to my feet, and took those first few uncertain steps through the fiery burn of the cuts and bruises I felt stronger and had fewer muscle and tendon hurts. I was bleeding and I stung but I seemed ready to run! Giggling a bit hysterically I caught Ed at the cars about the twenty-three mile point and we started the next five mile loop together.  It was nice relaxed striding and jogging and we managed a long trail conversation.  Ed had run with PJ and John some years back, and remembers it fondly. When I asked him where he ran, he could only recollect that it was ‘some muddy steep trail’.  Ed’s love is mountains, and I tried to lure him back to Hawaii with tales of the Volcano Marathon, the Run to the Sun, and the Saddle Road run, but somehow I got the feeling that he had seen enough of the muddy trail paradise we so dearly love. When I told him I was doing the Javelina he was a bit surprised and recommended I cut my race short at 31 miles.   I’d seen the entire course, and was beginning to feel the stress of the distance; I remembered PJ and John’s warnings when I mentioned my plans to do both runs and decided to take his and their advice despite the fact that I felt fairly good considering how far I’d come.    

At the 28 mile point we joined up with Gary Cross for a five mile loop.  We ran together for a mile or so and then I decided to push a bit as it was my last five miles.   I moved on ahead and raised my heart rate into the 145 plus zone and chased a sub seven hour finish.   But it was not to be, and try as I might I settled for a 7:10 for 50 K.  As I was having a celebratory energy drink Mark blew through the lot, grabbed himself a water bottle, handed me a bottle of El Paso ‘Ketchup’, which was my finisher’s award, shook my hand and invited me back, and was off in the blink of an eye to chase the course record. 

I wasn’t wet, I wasn’t too smelly and I felt fairly good.  I said good bye to Ed and Gary who had come in, hopped into my car and bounced down the gravel road with the Who blaring  ‘Pin Ball Wizard’ from the stereo. Off in the distance there were cold beers waiting to be drunk, and many good laughs to be had with old friends before the sun set New Mexican style in the west.   Damn there’s nothing like trail running!   

And that was the 2006 Dust Devils Ultra.

I want to say that the most amazing thing about this race was that despite Mark’s repeated cautions that it was fairly unsupported there was always a large stash of water and goodies at even the most inaccessible turn-around points.  Mark Dorian almost single handedly organizes the Dust Devil, and he did a great job.  I was repeatedly struck by the effort that had been made to make the race fun, safe and successful for those who ran. This was no small task, and anybody who has carried water miles in to aid points, or done even the most minimal trail maintenance can understand this.  And Mark did all this despite the fact that he was RD and the lead runner who was bound and determined to set a course record.   Mark’s dedication to this race was just phenomenal.    Whatever they call Aloha here in the Chihuahuan desert, Mark has an abundance of it!   

All, in all, I don’t know that I could have done much better, even without the thorns and minor equipment problems I had.    It was a good intro into desert racing and I hope it has prepared me for Javelina.  We shall see.

Near Mesquite, NM                 Oct. 28-29, 2006

67.5 Mile (109 Km)/   7,700′ climb at 4,300′-5,700′

1.  Mark Dorion, 47, TX         16:08:40  CR

  50 Mile:
–Bob Klapthor, 55, TX 15:34:17

–Mike Muench, 56, HI 7:10:31
–Ed Furtaw, 58, CO 7:21:10

28 Mile:
–Greg Helbig, 49, 6:30:29
–Richard Harris, 64, 7:02:10

–Gary Cross, 45, AZ 18 Miles
–Amalia Dorion, 6, TX 2 Miles

Lacking a camera, or the inclination to take pictures I have attached a few photo albums and descriptions of the


The panoramas of the first album are the most typical of the race trails and tracks.