Harder Than Woodpecker Lips: Thomas Karlick & The Trans Pecos Ultra Marathon

Trans Pecos Ultra Marathon

I’ve read about the ultra marathon community and watched a documentary on the annual Badwater 135 run in Death Valley. The sheer gnarliness of what was happening on TV made my knees ache and my back start to spasm. Not to mention a slight pucker factor watching these seemingly super human individuals push themselves beyond the normal boundaries of the human body.

Some people thrive on this torture. My former squad mate from 2/2, Thomas Karlick, found solace in running while trying to battle his own post-combat demons. After a second tour to Iraq, he had a tough time transitioning out of the Marines; ultra marathon running became his way to focus on something other than the past and to continue a mission. After his 170 mile self-supported ultra marathon race for the Travis Manion Foundation in 2015, I was intrigued at the preparation taken to run these races. We talked about teaming up for an ultra marathon on behalf of the 03XX Foundation which I happened to know very well.


Thomas called me in July. I could hear the excitement in his voice. “I’m running the Trans Pecos Ultra Marathon, here’s the link, check it out and tell me what you think; I want to run this on behalf of the Foundation.”

After looking at the web-site, race parameters, and the terrain I closed the browser. I couldn’t help to think “this was going to be epic.”

Alpine Texas and the Big Bend region of the great state of Texas can only be described as magnificent austerity. Every plant, animal, and blade of grass in this region wants to stick you, poison you, or bite you. Different from any other desert environment I’ve ever seen, the region was simply incredible. The mountain ridges ran as far as the eye could see and the sunsets were a sight to behold. The region is rugged, inhospitable, and downright brutal.


Thomas started training and the crew started our preparations right away. We arranged the logistics for the race and scheduled a radio spot on the Foundation CFO’s radio show. A donation page was drafted and built for the web-site, and we started promoting for donations. By the time October had arrived, we had secured sponsorships, 03 Designs & Apparel had arranged the jerseys, and we were ready to depart. The Jeep was packed for the 14 hour drive from Carthage Missouri to El Paso Texas. I picked up Ryan Paulk, our movie guru with the equipment (another 2/2 Marine) and the most important cargo, my team mate Thomas, rounding out the 2/2 trifecta.

Finally, the adventure began – three 2/2 Marines stuffed into a Jeep for four hours with essential race, survival, and film equipment, heading to Alpine, Texas. Not one of us had any idea what awaited.

Two days before the official race started we had a mandatory meeting for all volunteers. We covered the dangers of the area, emergency procedures, the communications plan, and relevant information needed to survive 10 days off-grid in the Chihuahuan desert.


The day before the race, we convoyed to Presideo, Texas, the last oasis of civilization before Big Bend State Park. We refueled vehicles and gas cans, then began the 1.5 hour trip to the starting line. I spoke with a guy in the bathroom who had asked what we were doing. After I explained what was going on, we realized we were from the same town in Missouri – thank you, Kevin Bacon.

Each day started early and checkpoint teams were typically dispatched by 7 a.m. Each team had a check point, while some had multiple. After the last runner passed each checkpoint, teams radioed forward to the next check point, pack up, and head back to camp, or to the next check point. Rinse and repeat. The runners would cross the starting line shortly after we did.

The first four days were marathon distance. The fifth day was 56 miles, with a 5K to wrap up the event. Thomas had an hour lead on the first day as the Chan brothers had gotten lost. They diligently regained the time over the course of the event. Eventually Paul Chan would cross the finish first, four minutes behind the leader. Thomas crossed the finish line after Paul, maintaining the lead, and a first place finish by four minutes. Eric Chan came in third, followed by Ann and Vaughn, an older (over 50) English couple who were incredibly impressive. I thought Vaughn was in trouble at a couple of my checkpoints but he gutted it out and finished strong. The other participants eventually made it to the finish and the race was complete. The last leg was a 5K on the very last day. Victory!


The volunteers were an integral part of the race. They work tirelessly to ensure the participants are safe, checkpoints are running smoothly, and set up base camp every day. These are the unsung heroes responsible for reporting casualties, getting to the next check points, making sure the participants have what they need, and relay important information to leadership in order to ensure everything goes smoothly.

The ultra marathon racing community is one to emulate. I imagined participants as hyper-competitive cut throats looking to augment their love for adventure and the unknown with a level of masochism most label as insanity. This stereotype, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth. I met some of the coolest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, willing to do just about anything to help their fellow participant or volunteer. As a result, this was a life-changing trip for all involved, including those who started the race (13) and went on to finish (9).


For those of you whom I had the pleasure of working with, I consider you a lifelong friend. Thomas, thank you for making this an experience of a lifetime and including us on this journey. Ryan, thank you for your time and effort in making this amazing documentary. Chris Hererra, thank you for including the Foundation and working so closely with us. To our donors–this would have never happened to the degree it did without you–you are forever in our thoughts. To those participants who didn’t finish the race, you were an inspiration more than you’ll ever know. Deciding to participate in such an event is nothing less than impressive. Making it as far as you did takes fortitude and courage most people don’t possess. You’re a reminder of how grueling the Trans-Pecos is and how a person can push himself to do great things if they truly want it.

We hope this documentary breathes new life into someone who thinks they CAN’T. This race was the perfect illustration of how you CAN.

We’re all capable of doing so much more than we think we can. The Other Side of Possible was exactly that. The documented journey of one Marine racing to defeat his demons and proving himself a victor, not a victim.

Our hope is for you to watch this movie and decide to do that “something” you’ve always wanted to do, but never thought possible. If you believe you can, you will.


Thomas Karlick trains for the Trans-Pecos Ultra with 03XX Foundation


Semper Fidelis,


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