They say the hardest part is getting there—including months of training to run this celebrated half-marathon in West Texas.
By Hannah J. Phillips, Photos courtesy of Hannah J. Phillips
Standing at the starting line of my first half-marathon in the wilds of West Texas, I knew one thing for certain: Whatever I would face for the next 13.1 miles, I only had myself to blame. As a strip of red sky outlined the dark silhouettes of desert mountains, I shivered in the morning cold. Looking around at 100 other bundled runners, all lunging and stretching and queuing up their playlists, I confirmed a growing suspicion: My love of West Texas is officially out of hand.
Tracing a scenic stretch of U.S. Route 385, the Marathon 2 Marathon finishes in the historic railroad town of Marathon, Texas. Founded in1882, the town is surrounded by plains that reminded seafaring Capt. Albion E. Shepard of the Grecian village where a fabled messenger once sprinted news of victory to Athens. Now in its 17th year, M2M recalls that famous run, with all race proceeds directly benefiting local groups, including the Marathon Volunteer Fire Department and the Marathon Public Library.
“The hardest part is getting there,” notes the M2M website, but I found the opposite to be true. While I don’t enjoy running, I’ll take any excuse to visit the Big Bend region. My obsession started two years ago. Alpine, Texas, was my first stop on a road trip to Montana, and I’ve made a point to go back to the area as often as possible. Each visit adds a new reason to return: Alpine’s Annual Artwalk, for example, or the long-standing chili cook-off in Terlingua, Texas. So, when a friend shared she was training for a half-marathon, I sent her the M2M link and told her to come to Texas. Before I knew it, we had both signed up.
The problem, of course, is that this was in April, when Austin mornings still bear the promise of an occasional breeze. By May, even the wind gives up and stays inside. As a result, my summer “marathon program” consisted almost entirely of cross-training at Camp Gladiator in Austin. (I did sprint 3 miles through tall grass in San Angelo State Park in August, but I blame the overzealous ranger who warned me about snakes. That’s a story for a different time.)
By September, the weather hadn’t changed, but I had to face the reality of my predicament. I had already paid the registration fee and agreed to host my friend from California. I knew it was a bad sign when the Nike Run Club app wouldn’t let me download training programs within eight weeks of race day, but there was no turning back.
Starting out slow, I kept up my CG workouts, punctuated by neighbor-hood runs averaging 2 1/2 miles. My proudest training days were when I still managed to squeeze in a run during trips to Colorado and Canada. I couldn’t deny I was far behind the distance I needed to reach, but overcoming the mental hurdle of simply lacing up shoes and getting out there ended up being half the battle.
“It’s all mental,” Travis LaFaitte, my CG trainer, told me two weeks before race day. By then, I was up to only 4 miles and worried my lack of preparation could result in injury.
“If you can’t run, walk. Don’t jog,” he said, reminding me poor form is the biggest culprit.
He affirmed my CG training would take care of the rest. I was less certain but did manage to clock 6 1/2 miles around Lady Bird Lake the Tuesday before the race. For better or worse, I decided since I had visualized at least half the time and distance, my brain could double it. Was that a scientific fact? Perhaps not. Did it help? Absolutely.
Arriving the night before M2M, my race buddy and I traced our path down U.S. Route 385. Together, we made a race plan, picking out landmarks to celebrate along the way and deciding our main goal was simply to enjoy a beautiful morning in a place I hold dear. If that meant slowing down to take a better look, so be it.
As it turns out, that permission gave me the momentum to run all 13.1 miles, coupled with the incredible camaraderie of the race itself. This year, there were more registrants in the race (500-plus) than permanent residents of Marathon (about 400), with the whole town either volunteer-ing at water stops along the route or cheering at the finish line. The event is a Big Bend community affair: During the race, we met the principal of Marfa High School and ran a mile with a gallery owner from Alpine. One local police officer jogged the 5K in full uniform “on a dare.”
Those last few miles were the most difficult. U.S.Route 385 slants ever so slightly uphill before descending to meet U.S. 90 into Marathon. An old hamstring injury started nagging me near mile 9 about the same time a 40-mile wind came up from Big Bend. After mile 12, even Beyoncé couldn’t save me. But as Marathon came into view, with blue mountains beyond and a beer waiting at the Brick Vault Brewery, I did pick up the pace for that last mile.
Crossing the finish line, we proudly received our half-marathon medals before collapsing on the lawn in front of the Gage Hotel. Watching the rest of the runners pour in, we cheered as two local women in their 90s walked the 5K with their families. Afterward, everyone feasted on barbecue while the organizer, who owns the local grocery store, awarded custom M2M belt-buckle medals to winners from each age bracket. This year, a woman won the overall race for the first time, a historic moment I witnessed through tears, thanks, in part, to post-race endorphins.
Full of barbecue, beer and peach cobbler, we spent the afternoon resting up for a Big Bend adventure the next day. After a short recovery hike and visit to the scenic loop along the Rio Grande in the state park, we relaxed at El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas, relishing outdoor showers and the cozy bed in our safari tent. Packing up on our last morning, I routed us through Fort Davis, Texas, resisting turns that would double back toward Marathon or buy us just a few more hours in Big Bend. The hardest part isn’t getting there; it’s having to head back home.
BEFORE THE RACE: TIPS FROM A NONRUNNER
Real talk: Chafing is a fact of life on long-distance runs. To avoid it—or at least stave it off—run at least 6 miles in leggings of your choice before race day to test out the material, and give Body Glide For Her a try.
Fun fact: Before 1972, men barred women from major marathons, apparently for fear their uteruses might fall out mid-race. Yes, that was less than 50 years ago, and no, your uterus will not fall out during a marathon—but your organs do take a beating. Among other unpleasant symptoms, nausea can last as long as a day, so post-race hydration is key.
The right choice of shoes is the most important decision you can make. Even with the right pair, you may lose a toenail or two. They’ll grow back. And it’s all worth it, right?
AFTER THE RACE: TIPS FROM A WEST TEXAS LOVER
Drive some dirt roads in Big Bend Ranch State Park. With less traffic than the nearby national park, it offers equally magnificent hikes and views. We found two dog-friendly trails along River Road, which traces the Rio Grande between Presidio, Texas, and Terlingua, Texas, and makes for an excellent scenic loop back to Marfa, Texas.
Relax in Marfa at El Cosmico, where accommodations include trailers, teepees, yurts and safari tents. Serving excellent morning coffee, the hip hacienda is the perfect place to unwind before a day of exploring the nearby Chinati Foundation and local galleries.
Leaving Marfa, take another scenic route toward Valentine, Texas, to check out the famous Prada Marfa installation before circling back on Texas 166 toward Texas 118 and backup Texas 17 to I-10. Passing Mount Livermore, Texas, this dramatic drive curves through the highest point on Texas highways.