Don’t let the name scare you: The Big Bend 50. No, I’m not talking about bending over and touching your toes fifty times, although for some that’s scary enough. I’m talking about perhaps the most unique race experience in Texas, an ultramarathon through desert mountain grandeur, intimate small canyons, ledges, seepages, springs sprawling over rocks that feed into a verdant explosion of cottonwoods bordered by a scrub desert pocked with creosote bush, agave, and sotol – the wildest and most picturesque borderland east or west of the Pecos River.
The inaugural Buena Suerte 50-mile ultramarathon was held in Big Bend Ranch State Park in 2015, and we’re ready to do it again. Buena Suerte—“good luck” in Spanish—is the event’s longest route at 50 miles, but there is also the Quicksilver 30k (18.6 miles) and the RockDog 10k (6.2 miles) for those new to trail running or training to run longer distances.
The biggest state park in Texas at nearly half the size of Delaware, Big Bend Ranch State Park sits adjacent to Big Bend National Park in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in the United States, covering more than 200,000 square miles. Both parks skirt the Rio Grande and feature the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states. In 2012, Big Bend National Park was given an International Dark Night Sky designation, one of 10 worldwide; it’s also the largest. This means that the skies above the park are free from all but the most minor effects of light pollution. At night you can read a book by the light of Venus, certainly by the light of the full moon. The Milky Way emerges like clouds in the sky. Even the full moon looks so much bigger in Big Bend. Without full moons, starlight isn’t just a word city dwellers have heard. Starlight illuminates the desert floor well enough for you to see your way. It’s one of the last places where we can look up and see what our ancient ancestors saw. Van Gogh should have painted this sky.
Not only are there spectacular views but a sky this dark also offers the opportunity for scientific observation. No wonder UT-Austin situated its McDonald Observatory so close by, just outside of Fort Davis, where astronomers can measure light and air quality, among their other important work.
The Big Bend 50
A 50-mile race is a long way to run. Just who runs a race farther than most people in San Antonio drive to work? Anyone could do it—with the right mindset and the right training. And once someone makes the seven-hour trek out to Big Bend, they will want to do it again. Big Bend is rugged, quiet, and beautiful. Running there is a unique experience, whether you choose to tent camp in the park, around a fire and under the stars, or sleep indoors at lodging nearby.
The first running of the Big Bend 50 took place in Big Bend National Park in 2005. It was a 50k distance/31 miles. It was held then, as it is now, on the Sunday of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. The race was such a success that we held it again in 2006 and 2007, took a break from 2008 to 2010, and resumed in 2011 with the fourth running of the Big Bend National Park Big Bend 50k and 25k.
The first two years the event was held, 100 to 125 people showed up to run. Early on, Overland Race Management, the race company I started to organize the Big Bend 50, printed newsletters that were distributed through Fleet Feet, a local running store which I owned at the time. There were no trail running groups in San Antonio in the early 2000s, so the idea of making the long trek out to Big Bend to run through the desert was a novelty to area runners.
When the race resumed in 2011, entries maxed, and have every year since then. In an effort to control and study the environmental impact of 300 pairs of feet traversing 31 miles of back country park roads and hundreds of tent campers using park services, the National Park Services limits race capacity to 300 people. Marketing for the event has changed in the 10 years since the race started. Now, social media ensures people see the beauty of the parks, the course, and the surrounding area. As much as running an ultramarathon may be physically challenging, most people are so taken by Big Bend’s beauty that they can’t wait to return. And when they go home, word of the area’s magnificence spreads like it was written on the breeze. People come back. Roughly 50% of runners come to Big Bend from Austin, and roughly 10% from San Antonio. Yet the event draws people from every state, as far away as New York, Alaska, and Washington state. Runners even come from Canada and England. The event also draws a lot of first-time ultra runners.
In 2015, the race was moved to Big Bend Ranch State Park, where an organized ultra race had never taken place. We’ve always wanted to hold a race in Big Bend Ranch State Park to introduce folks to the beauty of this park as well as Big Bend National Park. Moving the race also allowed us to increase race distance from 50k to 50 miles over an abundance of single track trails and to have a series of races for runners who wanted to increase their distances and goals.
A Race Is Born
The idea for the race came in 2004 when my fried Jim Glasscock, KSAT- TV Channel 12 news cameraman for more than 25 years now, was training for the Marathon Des Sables, a 251k (156 mile) multi-stage race through the Sahara Desert, one of the toughest multi-stage footraces on earth. It was Jim’s first multi-stage event. He would later run the Atacama Crossing, a seven-day, 250k race in Chile. I ran the Sunmart 50K in 1996, but I was primarily a marathon runner, having run three Boston qualifying times: 2001, 2002, and 2003.
In 2002, the Tarahumara, indigenous people of Northern Mexico whose remarkable running ability was made widely known by Christopher McDougall in his book Born to Run, came to San Antonio for a visit. They gave running demonstrations as well as a demonstration on how to build an adobe brick. And they invited me to the Sierra Tarahumaras, their home.
I postponed my 2003 Boston Marathon entry, feigning injury, to travel to Northwest Mexico over the Semana Santa (Easter) holiday to visit the Tarahumara. William Merrill, anthropologist for the Smithsonian Institution with decades of work on the Rarámuri, the name the Tarahumara give themselves, and Robert Hard, associate professor of anthropology at UTSA, organized the trip for me along with a handful of graduate students. I spent 10 days with the Rarámuri. We celebrated Easter together, mostly observing the group’s unique blend of Catholicism and indigenous practices.
While in San Antonio, the men were glad to get some gringo running shoes, and on my visit to Guachochi and Norogachi they shared their tesgüino, or corn beer, with me. The women cooked their traditional food, including nopales, or prickly pear with the thorns removed, shredded and boiled, plus chicken, tortillas, and peppers. They wore bright print blouses and multiple layers of skirts in which they danced and swirled, smiling radiantly. The Rarámuri men had sturdy, small feet as wide as they were long. Unlike McDougall, I didn’t run with the Rarámuri, I was only an observer and guest. But meeting them changed the way I thought about distance running.
After running the Boston Marathon in 2004, I joined Jim as a training partner for the Marathon Des Sables. He wanted some company to run with, and he convinced me to run multiple successive days of long distances—in Big Bend National Park. As we were running along together, talking some, absorbing the scenery, mostly, we both seemed to have the idea at the exact same time: let’s organize an ultra in Big Bend. Thus the idea for the Big Bend 50 was born. I thought about my time with the Rarámuri and how it altered my thinking about distance running. It has to be in open land to experience the total elimination of urban distractions. Unlike the Rarámuri, our race would be competitive. It would be a grand endurance experience on all levels, for all runners/walkers who take the desert challenge. There’s already a long history of ultramarathoning in the U.S. Our race would still be in the Chihuahuan desert in Big Bend.
We approached the National Park Services Big Bend headquarters, Panther Junction, and were directed to the Friends of Big Bend National Park, a community dedicated to preserving and promoting the beauty and spirit of Big Bend by offering programs and services that attract and educate visitors. Their efforts entail a lot of fundraising, just as organizing a race like the Big Bend 50 does.
I was recruited to join the Friends’ board of directors, a position I was happy to take on, as I love the park and all its endless diversity of landscape and geology. By 2007, I realized that I’m more comfortable as a single project manager to raise funds than as a broader fundraiser, so I stepped off the board while continuing to work with the Park. Still, all of our race proceeds have always gone to benefit the park, approximate $30,000 to date.
A Quiet Mind and an Able Body
A lot of time and effort goes into organizing an ultramarathon in the middle of an enormous remote land. The trails we run can be double or single track. Double tracks are like roads: they can fit a four-wheeled vehicle, like a truck. Single tracks are single tread and won’t accommodate any autos. Most trail runners like to run on single track trails because they tend to be more challenging and offer a dynamic running experience. Big Bend Ranch is a state park where you pack out what you pack in, bathrooms and all. We lay out the course so that there is an aid station every five miles. It takes almost a week to trek in all the race equipment along several single track trails to set up the courses.
The race itself is a loop course, one big out and back, like a lollipop. All distances start and finish at the same place, but they veer off into different loops. Even though there are aid stations along the course, runners carry water, electrolyte replacement drinks, energy food, shells (light jackets), gloves, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a cap. At night a headlamp, preferably amber, because it diffuses the light and is easier on the eyes. It’s vitally important to be hydrated. Not just the day before a race, but four days before. That’s what hydration really is: having enough water in your body four to five days ahead of the race.
In training for a marathon, I usually over-distance. This can be done for races that are 25 miles or less. My training runs peak at a distance longer than the race course. So for a 30k (just over 18 mile) run, I might run 20 miles. Over-distancing gets my body used to long distances, so on the day (or days) of the race, with the added adrenalin and focus, my body is ready because it knows I’ve trained longer. Fifty mile training programs differ in that there’s usually no over distance training, but running long on successive days can achieve excellent results.
My strategy during a race is to find someone else running at the same pace as me, and just hang with them for a while, always conscious of pace. If the close group slows or picks up the pace, it’s time to hold mine and meet up with a new pace group or individual. Whatever your plan, it’s important to have one. Know what you’re going to do in all kinds of weather, for instance. Run at a slower pace at the beginning of the race and walk the early hills. Even elite runners walk the early hills. I don’t worry about what’s ahead or behind. I listen to my body. Quiet my mind.
I like the quiet before the race the best, when there’s time to clear my mind of as much noise as I can. Even though there are other runners around, on race day it’s just me. There will be plenty of thoughts running through my head soon enough. Running is a personal experience. You do this as a personal challenge for the self-satisfaction of knowing that your mind and body can reach heights you had not imagined. You’ll meet other runners there to share your same challenges. Victories will be bad days that you finish in spite of pain and discomfort, and days you move faster than you thought you would.
January in the Big Bend during the race offers cool weather, and it’s a glorious feeling. I want to share it with everyone at all levels. It’s the same challenge for all.
Pushing the Limits
Before I started Overland Race Management, my affiliation with races was primarily as a sponsor. Fleet Feet supported races through sponsorships and then by offering door prizes and space for packet pick-up. I liked the idea of race directing, the planning and organizing, and learned how to manage races from fourteen years of involvement. Creating trail runs that went as smoothly as urban racing was more of a challenge. If you get all the race elements right, it’s a gem and the race itself can recur a long time, providing excitement and memories for all ages.
Fleet Feet opened in San Antonio on March 4, 1997. I bought the store when I turned 50 and was laid off—with a slew of other 50-some-year-old employees—from the pharmaceutical company I worked for. After twenty-three years in the field, I decided it was time to try something new, and a running store seemed just the thing. I took up running in my early 30s with the Fleet Feet group in Houston, where I lived at the time. Most of the time, though, I’d run at home—in circles around a trench by my house while my daughters watched out the window. Running is a boyish thing to do, really, to go out and play. I’m still a kid at heart.
I first took up running for fitness. I wanted to be healthy, strong. But after a while I started to think about setting goals. The more I ran, the larger my goals grew, so that by the late 80s and early 90s I was running marathons. In 1996, I started toying with the idea of running a 50k. I simply wanted to see how far I could go, how far I could push my body.
Marathon training certainly pushes your body, but you’re training on roads, in and around neighborhoods, parks. Running can be joyful. Meditative. Sure, there’s the runner’s high, the endorphins released in the brain during exercise, but running makes me stronger emotionally and physically. In trail running there is the added beauty of quietness. Peacefulness. You can filter out the city noise. At Big Bend it’s so quiet you can hear people talk a quarter of a mile away. On one run, it was so quiet I could hear and feel my heartbeat and I thought, I’m redlining, and I can hear it. I wonder what I can do? How far I can push my body?
At some point in every race I ask myself, why do I feel like I have to do this so hard? Others have measured themselves this way and they are honorable people. I don’t want to come up short. I want to see what’s deep inside of me, uncover what’s there. It’s a treasure to know yourself that way. I want to be honorable too. You find out something about yourself, and you want to know and discover it. It’s a real treasure.
Find Your Own Treasure
Ready to discover something about yourself? Big Bend Ranch State Park is ready to welcome you to the other side of nowhere. A race would be a great way to get there.
The Big Bend 50 will be held on Sunday, January 17, 2016. Registration for the Buena Suerte 50M / Quicksilver 10k / RockDog 10k is now open. For more information, check out Overland Race Management’s website, www.overlandracing.com, or go to www.bigbend50.com.
*Top image: Photo by Rick Keith.
Minka Misangyi is executive director of Girls on the Run of Bexar County and contributed to this article.