•  The following was written by Chris Herrera, PhD | Creator and Race Director for Trans-Pecos Ultra

 

Two days prior to March 21st, 2010 I had turned in my PhD thesis and hopped on a plane to travel from Sydney, Australia to Doha, Qatar. I was 28 years old, newly wed and blessed to be starting a a new chapter of my life. Dressed with a tie around my neck, I carried my lunch sandwich in hand, and on my first working day as a Scientific Researcher at Aspetar – Qatar’s Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Hospital I felt both excited and lost. For the first two and a half years, this work opportunity provided a unique and lived cultural experience across the Middle East, Europe and Asia, and lead to numerous bullet points on my resume, including a keynote speaking engagement at the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

 

12km SUP race at The Pearl, Doha, Qatar. 2013

 

 On paper, the packaged experience seemed unbeatable, but after 3 year, 8 months, and 4 days, the financial incentive was not enough to stay and it was time to move on. The decision to quite my job (and career) as a researcher was routed in unhappiness. For quite some time – at least one year – I was searching for more personal connection at work and at home. Although, I had successfully introduced and carved a niche topic that was beginning to gain legs, I lacked support and resources to reach my vision for a sleep research program. At home, my marriage was beginning to fail. After living in two cities across the world (NYC and Doha), we officially separated in March of 2013 and would be later divorced a year and a half later.

 

With sadness in my heart and still searching for purpose, I found respite through my efforts to engage the community outside of the corporate world. Drawing on my past lifestyle transformation and passions for health literacy and coaching, I created and led several health and wellness activities with a focus on relaxation and sleep. Specifically, these activities translated into speaking engagements, local and destination retreats, and media exposure. Or, in essence a more meaningful personal connection.

 

After successfully leading programs across Asia in Qatar, Kuwait, Indonesia, and the Maldives, it was time to make the decision in which direction would my career would continue: sitting at a desk reading and writing research or focusing on creativity and entrepreneurialism. And so the decision was made and my last working day as a researcher was October 31st, 2013. The goal was simple – create a lived experience known as a ‘professional gap year’. For 12 months, I decided that I would not take paid work and…

I would focus on three things: travel, volunteering and developing my own business ideas.

 

Last day in the corporate world. Stopped wearing ties after the first day. Doha, Qatar. October 2013.

 

Just 4 days after leaving my job, I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey where I discovered the paradoxical unity of Muslims, Europeans, and Asians living in close proximity. Next, I discovered Oman. In fact, I traveled there twice in two weeks to explore caves and canyons with my friend and adventurer, Ali (@husaak – https://www.instagram.com/husaak/). As the first ‘westerner’ in his social experiment, I participated in two different multi-day treks in a virtually uninhabited area full of wadis and oases. These amazing trips are now commercialized and known as Jebel Shams and Tahery cave expeditions (The Husaak Jebal Shams).

 

Sitting atop Jebel Shams in Oman, 2013.

 

Now, officially bitten by the travel and adventure bugs, on December 2013, I repatriated back to the US and moved home to Texas after nearly 8 years living and working overseas. The timing couldn’t have been better either as I was able to join my family to celebrate the marriage of one of my step-sisters on my dad’s side. During the Christmas and holiday season, I jumped around living in spare rooms while spending time with family and getting reacquainted with old friends.
By January 2014, after diligently studying how to start-up my first business, I had already legally incorporated an investment vehicle, Blacksmith Investment Group (the name originates from my family’s coat of arms – Herrera being related to the words Ferrera and then Ferrous, or iron – illustrated by the ‘blacksmith’; all this I had learned back in 2005 while in Spain with my father and his family – the first time I had been overseas). Next, it was time to focus my time and energy on researching and writing business plans, and scheduling out my travel for the rest of the professional gap year.

 

My first business idea came in the form of a wine touring business serving the Houston market. This decision was based solely on my growing interest in gastronomy. Having already simplified my life, and wardrobe, the name of the company was simple: White Tee Tours – and the slogan was even more practical: “Drink Local”. Although this business idea had some creative successes (and lead to some great wine drinking), it didn’t gain traction given the inability to scale the project. Plus, I thought to myself, is that really wanted I wanted to spend my time doing when there was so many places to visit in this world!

 

As February approached, I had a trip scheduled back to the Middle East where I was scheduled to volunteer at the Sahara Race, a week long foot race through the Jordanian desert. In fact, I had initially been training to participate in the event but given an annoying, (and still un-diagnosed) foot injury, I had chosen to volunteer instead. When it comes to pivotal decisions in one’s life, the decision to volunteer at the Sahara Race was one of mine.

 

I felt immediate joy upon my arrival to Jordan. Perhaps it was being back in a beautiful country I had once explored, the tea my taxi driver bought me as he stopped at a roadside cafe during the three hour drive to the hotel, or the beautiful and rustic sights along the way. Perhaps all of them. No. What really engaged me was the fact that nearly 200 ‘strangers’ from all over the world were now in one spot, mingling in a hotel lobby. Had it not been for this event, none of us would have been there to overcome fears, experience a new culture, and meet life-long friends.

 

Local Jordanian runners and met in front of Petra at the Sahara Race 2014.

 

For the next 10 days, these so called ‘strangers’ would form a“nomadic tribe” as I like to say, traveling more than 160 miles in the spirit of adventure, a journey that resonates with an archaic human existence: the search for food, shelter and community. The emotional ride this event provided was authentic, and just what I had been searching for at that time of my life. It was amazing to see people of varied fitness levels, people from the age of 25-74 years old, participating next to one another, covering the same marathon distance each day and supporting each other through the ups and downs. It was truly awe inspiring to witness the non-existence of cultural barriers and the level of camaraderie between the locals, participants, volunteers, and race organizers. It was then that I realized the experience was much larger than just a race. After the event was over, I traveled back to Texas, a long journey in which I realized my future was set:

I wanted to re-create and share the journey I experienced.

At this point, I knew that focusing my career on adventure, travel, and health was indeed the personal connection that I had wanted for so long. And so, I went back to researching business strategies, but this time, full of passion, I wondered if I too could start a race like that.

 

So, I spent countless hours on the internet collecting market knowledge and looking for top destinations around the world. I knew the format of the race required a special place that could draw an international audience. At the time, I thought my previous expat lifestyle was meant to serve the purpose of opening my vision to host an event in some far off place. Little did I know, the location was practically right in my backyard.

 

Sitting at Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park (before even thinking about putting on a race). January 2014.

 

By the time June rolled around, nothing had been finalized, and I had officially moved on from White Tee Tours, ready to venture off on more travels. Next, was a month long trip in which I would visit the Middle East and Scandinavia – weird combo, I know!
The first stop on this trip was back in Jordan – go figure! However, this time, armed with such fond memories of the Sahara Race, I joyously checked off a bucket-list experience in which I would see sunken ships while scuba diving in the Red Sea – side note: this was not without nearly missing a bus and a serendipitous meetup with a cousin. The next stop was Cairo, where I visited the Cairo Museum and the Great Pyramids of Giza, another bucket-list experience, before making my way to Scandinavia.

 

Sara (guide), Oscar (camel 1), me, and Bob Marley (camle 2) at the Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. February 2014.

 

Upon my arrival to Helsinki, I met up with Arnhild, a Norwegian physiotherapist and former colleague and friend from Qatar. Outside, we found Kea waiting for our arrival. Kea was a Finnish friend we’d met in Qatar through Louis, a South-African who once crashed another Norwegian friend’s birthday party at the W Doha. Ah…the joys of expat living! After a short drive, we arrived to Kea’s brothers flat as it was nearing midnight. We sat on the balcony to chat and because it was June there was still a shade of light coming from the sky. We were all very excited for the following trip so we cleared the table to inspect a large map, and popped a bottle of champagne for good measure. Our eventual destination for this adventure would be the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, a small town in the Arctic Circle.

 

Midnight Champange in Helsinki with Friends. June 2014.

 

The next day, we packed our things and headed out to collect the RV that Kea had rented from a friend on our behalf. It turned out this little trip was an adventure in itself as we meandered through city streets before reaching the highway and then a quaint country home. Once the RV was inspected, and with keys in hand, Kea informed us that we had about a 10hr drive to our first overnight spot, so we departed to stock up with the essentials: food and more champagne. After driving through lush forest land, we pulled over near to a lake to sleep. Upon arising the next morning, I went outside to inspect our surroundings some more and noticed a mist covering the calm lake. And so it was, based on the continued promise from Kea of an authentic Finish sauna, I decided then and there I would jump in a lake or otherwise find water every day for the rest of the trip.

 

Morning swim in a remote lake. Somewhere in Finland. June 2014.

 

On our way to Sodankylä, we passed through Rovaniemi, where I was determined to buy Santa Claus a beer (Note: Rovaniemi is considered by Finns as the home to Santa Claus https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rovan…). Unfortunately, when I got to his village, there was a sign that read “Santa is finished working for the day” – or something like that….so I had to settle for taking photos and buying an official ‘been there – done that shirt’.

 

Sporting my Artic Circle / Heineken hoodie. Sodankylä, Finland. June 2014.

 

The film festival itself was a whirlwind experience. Picture this – weird electronic music welcoming you into three circus tents in a school parking lot, way too many vowels in all of the Finnish signs, film screenings 24hrs a day for 3 days, revelry in the form of food, dance, liquor, and saunas – put it all together and you might come close to the Midnight Sun Film Festival (http://www.msfilmfestival.fi/index….). Kinda like multi-stage ultras, you’ve just gotta experience this one for yourself!

 

Taking in the Midnight Sun. Lapland, Finland. June 2014.

 

After the film festival, we drove back to Helsinki, but on the first evening we made an overnight stop somewhere in an undisclosed place for that ‘authentic Finnish Sauna’ I was promised. Walking up to a converted school house in the woods…

We were greeted by naked Finns who leisurely gave Kea a hug.

It turns out they were on their way to the sauna, which of course one must do naked, with champagne, or some other alcoholic beverages. And so it happen – when in Rome, right? Inside the sauna house, I was greeted by 5-6 naked Finns (guys and girls), who cordially asked if I wanted to be hit over the back with birch. “Yes, of course”, I said. Sitting there sweaty, in a small boxed room with ‘strangers’, being hit over the back with birch, I could only close my eyes and smile. After some time, we exited the sauna house to cool off. But remember that lake, and the promise I made to myself about jumping in water….well, it was time. That was cold water!
The day after a shorter drive, Kea dropped me and Arnhild off at the airport and we flew to Oslo, Norway. Arnhild, being native to this land, showed me her flat and some great urban sites before we boarded the train and traveled to the country side where her parents lived. For the next 3-4 days, I enjoyed some of the most spectacular nature I’ve ever experienced. I went on alpine hikes on snow capped mountains, mountain biking along cliff side roads, and hiking in remote areas. It was there, sitting atop a mountain and speaking to my friend Arnhild that I decided without a doubt I would follow this passion for adventure, travel, and health. I decided then and there that I would create a race in Texas to share with others and provide a means for personal discovery.

 

The moment I said ‘YES’ to create Trans-Pecos Ultra. Trolltunga, Norway. June 2014.

 

So it turns out there was no need to scour the world trying to find a site to host the newest self-supported ultra marathon. The answer:

It was time to bring multi-stage racing to Texas.

And so, that summer, I set out to re-discover remote parts of the state with a purpose – to develop a race course. After some great road trips, I settled on Big Bend, a place my dad had told me about as a child – though we had never went. Specifically, I went to discover Big Bend Ranch State Park and met with Barrett Durst, the park superintendent to share with him my idea for the race. He was equally excited and baffled that people would actually run 150+ miles in the desert while carrying a 20lb pack. I assured him they would!
After this fruitful trip I worked with the park to develop the course and proceeded to plan the logistics needed for the race – hotels, food, transportation, equipment, race bibs, etc. I found myself creating massive spreadsheets, documents, logos, websites and presentations as well as meeting with county judges, sheriffs, and others. All the while, though, I was enjoying time outdoors and training for my own ultra races.

 

Scouting the South Leyva campsite at Big Bend Ranch State Park. August 2014.

 

In September 2014, after finishing the first iteration of my future race, I was fortunate to have been accepted as volunteer Grand 2 Grand Ultra, the first self-supported 6-stage foot race in America (then in it’s 4th year). Before I arrived to Las Vegas, I had reached out to Jennifer, a friend and fellow volunteer from the Sahara race. It turns out she too was volunteering and that she had invited me to stay with she and her husband for a night before the race. That same day we went to REI to stock up on last minute items (her husband was racing in the ‘G2G’) and later they cooked a delicious BBQ dinner for us to share. I too shared, but it was not in the form of food, but in food for though: I shared my plans to put on a multi-stage race in Texas.
The next morning we met the organizers at the airport where others were meeting, and just then I felt a similar feeling to what I felt in Jordan – a sense of community, adventure, and the excitement around the unknown as the impending 150+ mile race still lied ahead. In those next 10 days, I would fall in love with the experience all over again and reaffirm my goal to put on my own race. My future race was now imminent.

 

Sweeping the course at G2G. September 2014.

 

Immediately upon my arrival back to Texas I began to travel more frequently to Big Bend and within a few months came up with the event name, Trans-Pecos Ultra, to pay homage to the remote and sparsely populated regions in the USA, located ‘west of the Pecos river’ in Far West Texas. It was also then that I realized no other trail running event but a multi-stage race like Trans-Pecos Ultra could properly showcase the rugged beauty of the Big Bend region, and the Chihuahuan Desert, the second largest desert in the Northern Hemisphere. And so it was, right in my own back yard – albeit a large Texas-sized yard, Big Bend would provide the personal connection I had been looking for, a place I now call home.

 

The finish at the inaugural 2015 Trans-Pecos Ultra. The original ‘TPUtribe’.

About the Event

Trans-Pecos Ultra is a unique and life-changing 10-day adventure featuring the only self-supported multi-stage ultra marathon in Texas. The 6-stage, 7 day foot race traverses approximately 170 miles across Big Bend, a remote and rugged region within the high desert ecosystem of the Chihuahuan Desert, the second largest desert in North America. Join us as a participant or volunteer in Far West Texas to experience ‘The Ultimate Big Bend Adventure®’. Learn more: Registration Details | Become a Volunteer

Written in Alpine, Texas, the ‘Gateway to Big Bend’. May 2016.