Mechanical engineering senior Steven Guillen will attempt his biggest challenge yet with the Hell’s Hills marathon.

Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

Last spring break, in a last-minute decision, mechanical engineering senior Steve Guillen packed a backpack, grabbed his helmet and biked 738 miles east to Destin, Fla. He had no plans and no set accommodations, just the will to challenge himself.

After getting kicked off highways and even enduring an upper respiratory infection, Guillen completed his journey in eight days.

Now, more than a year later, he has decided to up the ante. While most other college students will spend their Saturdays on the couch, Guillen will spend his attempting to run the 50-mile Hells Hills Endurance Trail Run in Smithville.

Guillen will complete his new “unthinkable challenge,” as he puts it, with no training, His only motivation is the desire to question and challenge his own perceived limits.

“Most of the time there is nothing real stopping people from doing what they want to do,” Guillen said. “It’s perceived. They make up all these excuses. For me, I always wanted to run one of these ultramarathons, so I asked myself, ‘Why am I not doing it?’ There’s not going to be a better time to do it. The time is now.”

While he has juggled the idea in his mind for quite some time, Guillen didn’t decide to participate in the run until a week ago. It was another last-minute decision, but this time he is doing it for charity and as an experiment.

Guillen is attempting to raise 50 bitcoins for the Texas Alliance for Minorities in Engineering. He said the greatest gift his parents ever gave him was an education, and now he wants to help give back.

He chose to donate in bitcoins for the same reason he signed up for the race. Bitcoin, which is a relatively new virtual currency, is still in the stages of the unknown. Many aren’t sure if it will succeed or fail, which is the same question many are asking about Guillen’s run.

Guillen is trying to challenge normal conventions. He said he wants to step away from the fear of failure and stop it from preventing his aspirations, while using his mental strength to succeed.

“I don’t want this to be a test of physical strength,” Guillen said. “That’s not the point of this unthinkable challenge. There’s an emphasis on thinking, on the power of one’s own mind and the ability [to] push themselves through barriers. I wanted this to be a mental test of whether I can succeed or fail.”

Many people train a year for the race, with some contestants spending up to 18 months in preparation for Saturday.

“At first my family thought I was going crazy and were actually concerned for my health,” Guillen said. “They asked, ‘Is this guy nuts?’ And I may be, but I like to think I’m at least a little sane.”

After he explained the reasoning behind his adventures and the goal he is striving to achieve, Guillen gained the full support of his family and friends.

“Steve has always been obviously a little bit different,” said Michael Guillen, Steve Guillen’s older brother. “He does his own thing and sets his own goals. But we’re definitely supportive of him doing it. The family is always behind him.”

The 50-mile race, which has a 15-hour time limit, will consist of 117 contestants, mostly from Texas and a few from Mexico. Guillen will travel to Smithville on Friday night and will start his race Saturday morning at 5 a.m. The course is a 16.7-mile loop that the runners will circle three times. Food stations will be posted along the way, but Guillen will also take a fanny pack with him, filled with replenishing food so he can refuel while he runs.

Guillen has had no official training for the race. While he tries to go to the gym regularly, he said it can sometimes be difficult with his tough course load. He has used this week to prepare his body mentally and metabolically, thinking about the race and changing some of his eating habits to consume about 250 calories per hour, which is his goal during the race.

“One thing I haven’t done a lot of this week is sleep,” Guillen said. “I’ve just tried to do some schoolwork and prepare mentally for the race, asking myself a lot of questions. I’ve been going to my friends and my family getting advice, but that’s pretty much it.”

Guillen has accepted the fact that he might not make it the full 50 miles. He has even accepted the risks, such as injury, that come with the race. But, despite these doubts, the simple purple and gold sign on the door of Guillen’s bedroom perfectly explains his thought process as he attempts his “unthinkable challenge.”

“Attitude + Ambition = Achievement.”

Nicholas, Tony, Alicia and Mackenzie Gust moved into a rental house in Smithsville, Texas, after losing their home in Bastrop to the wildfires. The Gust family credits their insurance, realtors, local organizations and community response for helping them resettle in new surroundings.

Photo Credit: Mary Kang | Daily Texan Staff

Tony Gust sits on a laminate floor assembling a black bookshelf while his 2-year-old son Nicholas giggles beside him.

On the porch of the wooden rental home in Smithville, plastic bags filled with clothes and shoes lay untouched. New donations come in almost every day from friends and family across the state, even relatives the Gusts haven’t spoken to in years.

“We probably have 35 new toothbrushes,” said Alicia Gust, Tony’s wife, who he calls a “professional volunteer.” “Same with tubes of toothpaste. I will never have to buy toothpaste again for the rest of my life.”

Of the 40 homes on Cardinal Loop in Bastrop, where the Gusts lived, only three remained after the fires blew through on Labor Day.

Within a couple of hours, the fire reduced their two-story limestone home to little more than a slab.

Without social security cards or birth certificates, the Gusts are starting over.

They say the community response has been incredible and local organizations have tried to help the displaced families settle back into routine, but they are still restless in their new surroundings.

Alicia glances at the black table stacked with hangers and chairs set up in the middle of the room by the kitchen. It doesn’t look anything like the huge open kitchen of her old home, graced by ample counter space and a pot rack hanging over the island.

Mackenzie, their 7-year-old daughter, pops up behind the couch brandishing a pink Nintendo DS she got for her birthday a few days earlier. It’s playing a message recorded in her voice.

“I love you, Mommy. I love you, Mommy.”

Alicia cracks a smile and goes into her empty pantry to retrieve a basket of artifacts found at the site of their home. The eyes and hair of Mackenzie’s glass dolls have disappeared without a trace, leaving behind the hollow shells.

“I collected a lot of antiques, and not like Henry VIII foufy crap,” Alicia said, recalling her great grandmother’s china set she brought from Bavaria during World War II and pieces of rusted farm equipment she placed around her home.

Alicia’s father, Fred Moses, came down from California with a trailer to put on his daughter’s property while they sifted through the ashes. Now, he sits at the table entertaining his grandson and surveying the bookshelf construction.

Moses, a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years, said the average house fire usually burns at 1,500 degrees, but glass melts at 3,200 degrees.

Some pieces of a china set survived the flames to be added to Alicia’s new antique collection. Alicia says the creepiest remnant is their son’s Radio Flyer wagon, which was found behind the house — a bright red spot against the ashen backdrop.

On Sept. 5, the Gusts were celebrating when the sirens went off announcing a fire the next street over from their home in Circle D-KC Estates. They got in the pool just as the winds shifted, sending a pine tree from the forest encircling their home down almost on top of the family. Mackenzie was hysterical.

“We all got dressed and just got her calmed down when the sheriff came by and said, ‘Get out. Don’t pack your things. Get out now,’” Alicia said.

Now, an eerie quiet hangs in the corridor between Bastrop and Smithville. The forest, once lush and opaque, stands thin and pierced with blackened tree trunks.

Once Tony returns to the solar-electric company where he works in Austin, he will have to make the drive every day through what remains of their town. For now, they only have to go as far as Mackenzie’s school by their old house. Occasionally, Tony catches himself wanting to take the turn toward their old home.

“It sucks,” he said. “But the good thing is, we only lost stuff and one cat.”

Like many other evacuees, the Gusts had no time to pack and didn’t think it was necessary. Tony and Alicia grabbed the kids, their two dogs and the two cats they could find before heading out to a friend’s house, then to a shelter in Paige and eventually to Alicia’s mother’s house in Wimberley.

In a fog, Alicia remembered to grab what remained of her baby blanket, her laptop and the ashes of their first child who died at birth. The crowns and banners from her pageant days are now indistinguishable from the rubble.

Looking back, it’s apparent what they would have taken.

“My father’s gun,” Tony said. The gun and some pictures on his computer were all that was left of Tony’s father, who died about 10 years ago.

“Photos,” Alicia said, recalling the five boxes of photos from different stages of their lives that she had neatly packed away. “They would have taken two seconds to grab ... and that [cherry-red] Jeep,” she added.

Weeks later, things left at friends’ houses or at stores are beginning to surface. The silly things normally forgotten now become the most important.

“In my work truck, I just so happened to have all my rock-climbing gear and a koozie and spatula and a skillet,” Tony said. “It’s just like this silly koozie, but now it’s like, ‘This is my koozie! This is the only koozie I have left.’”

It might not seem that way, but the Gust family is lucky. For the care they received after the fire, Alicia credits their insurance and the realtors who pooled together to find the victims temporary houses. Others without insurance have not been as fortunate.

But the Gusts don’t plan to move back to the place they lived — to the house surrounded by pine trees from a different region that grew “by some fluke of nature,” Alicia said.

“I have moments where I’m so grateful for this house and this stuff and that we’re safe,” she said. “But then I have other days where I just wake up crying and spend most of the day crying and go to sleep crying.”

Tony bangs a hammer against the nails to put the finishing touches on the shelf that will house some of the donated toys.

Nicholas struts across the room splashing cereal and milk onto the floor and yelling something incomprehensible.

“Are you going to eat your cereal?” Tony asks.

“Oh, you’re going to put that bug in the cereal,” Alicia laughs.

Nicholas jumps around not bothered by the spilled milk. Oblivious to the situation, he lifts up his shirt and dances for his parents.

Even with all the donations and new things they bought, the Gusts still feel like they’re in somebody else’s house wearing somebody else’s clothes.

“You just want to lay down in your bed, lay down in your hammock and watch your TV and kick your feet up on your couch,” Tony said.

“But it’s not even about the stuff,” Alicia said. “It’s not about the couch or the hammock, it’s about the feeling of home.”

Printed on Monday, October 3, 2011 as: Family copes after fires