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Palo Duro 50-Mile Trail Run
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Canyon, TX
October 21, 2006
Palo Duro Canyon Trail Run, Some Random Thoughts
by Bill (Trailgeeze) Rumbaugh
I've finished OK and I've finished with a struggle, but this was my first bitter taste of a DNF. I take it as a lesson learned, and have nothing or no one to blame but myself. So no amount of trying to put a spin on it is going to change that.
Race day started inauspiciously, perhaps an indication of what was to come. As this was my first attempt at camping at a run, I got up early and did all the usual pre-race preparations, allowing extra time due to the minor inconveniences of the camping scenario. With 20 minutes to go, I was ready. So I decided to brush my teeth, something I usually don't get to do right before a race. Put stuff away and puttered around camp a bit, grabbed my drop bag and headed out to walk the block and a half to the S/F area intending to stash my jacket in my drop bag, see if I could get a quick swig of coffee and hunt around for any NTTR buds to chat with before the race. Pretty much like usual. About a hundred yards from the starting line, I hear a bunch of cheering and then a bagpipe playing and I see a bunch of runners heading out. The unthinkable had happened, I had missed the start! Well, it took awhile to get my jacket off and stash my stuff and head out. But then, what's 5 minutes out of an allowable 12 hours anyway? This is an ultra, not a marathon, remember. Surely it's not going to matter, I kept telling myself as I tried to hustle off in the direction I knew the race went. Only trouble was, I did not know exactly where the turn-off from the road was and the trail started. There were no other runners around, they were long gone. So I overshot the turn by some distance before I decided this was not right. I asked a couple of people if they knew where the trail was, and they told me. So I hurried down the unfamiliar trail hoping fervently that I would not get lost AGAIN before I caught up with the stragglers with nobody around to ask. Eventually I saw flashlights up ahead and began gaining on them. Passed a few of them and fell in behind a guy. Chatted with him a bit and found it was Norman Hall. He recognized my voice, amazingly enough. We chatted pleasantly until the first rest stop where the 50k'ers and the 50 milers parted. I headed left and he headed right. And so did everyone behind him. Great. I'm alone on the dang trail again. So I picked up the pace and just as the trail split I saw another runner ahead hesitating. We decided that the splitoff from the trail was just a side trail which ended at a picnic table near a dry creekbed. Indeed it was. We ran at an irregular pace and eventually caught up to a train of about 8 people. I was comfortable with the pace for the time being and was comforted by the fact that of all these folks, surely someone had been here before, and knew the trail. Besides, it was getting light out now and the orange surveyor's tape was much more visible. About the time we came upon the next aid station I noticed that heading up this train was Deborah Sexton. Everyone stopped at the aid station except for Deborah and the man behind her, who wore a shirt that said, "Mindy's Run" on it. I'm sure there is a story there, but I never found out what it was. Since I had plenty of water and my other needs taken care of for the moment, I passed by the aid station as well. Soon thereafter I decided I needed to make up a little more time and I passed Deborah and the other runner. So that put me in the lead on an unfamiliar trail. There were a few times when I wondered if I had missed a turn and the two folks behind me assured me I was OK, pointing out the next marker when it became visible. Another time I hesitated long enough for the guy behind to catch me, I let him pass, saying since he seemed to know where he was going, it made sense for him to lead. He led for awhile but his pace was too tough for me to hang on, and the woman behind him passed too at some point. So I was alone again, on a decently marked trail enjoying the run and the scenery. It continued on in this fashion for some time, most of the folks I had passed eventually passed me back. I was definitely at the back of the pack, a position with which I am getting very familiar.
The sun was completely up by this time and the landscape changed significantly. What started as a pleasant trail for the first 3 – 4 miles, fairly flat and surprisingly green with many trees at trailside, gradually changed to a more arid, rocky landscape with some hilly sections. This was more what I had expected from Palo Duro. Very scenic, interesting landscape greeted runners at every turn. The proximity of it was surprising. We tend to look down a lot (or else we pay for it) but I did look up at one point and realize that one of the colorful cliffs was only a stone's throw away, literally. The last 3 – 4 miles of the course had some significant rugged parts. Speaking of looking down, I ran past the Lighthouse (probably the most well-known landmark of the whole park) and did not even see it, if you can imagine. When the first loop was over, I felt cheated that the course did not go past it, as I had seen pictures from past runs where it was plainly visible. The next time around, duh! There it was. As Lazarus Lake (RD of the infamous Barkley Marathons) sez:
"Trail running – a combination of sight-seeing and running where you can do neither very well."
There was not a lot of shade on most of the course and I was grateful for the relatively cool temperatures. Doing the run in August would be a different thing entirely. After the last aid station (Los Locos Senoritas) it was 2 ½ miles to the finish. Seemed like way more than that, I have to say. Finally, just before all hope was lost that the current loop would ever end, the windmill comes into view and beyond it the finish line banner can be seen. Between there and the actual finish was a steep incline on which I nearly did a butt plant (to coin a phrase). That slope would make for a pretty interesting finish on a wet course. But it's all good. There were numerous people hanging out in the area ready to cheer on and encourage those sallying through for another loop, as well as to hail the finishers.
The temperature was around 42 when I got up, according to the thermometer on my tent. I noticed a thermometer at one of the aid stations on my third loop and asked what the reading was. The volunteer replied immediately without looking at it, "58." Apparently I was not the first to inquire. I doubt that it got much warmer than that all day. The wind was pretty significant in places, kicking up a fair amount of sand. I was glad that I don't wear contact lenses. Many places on the trail were protected, so the wind was not constant for the runners, as it was for the Aid Station volunteers who, in their winter coats, had to deal with it all day. We very much appreciate those guys and gals who gave up their Saturday so we could play in the dirt and sand. I noticed the PB&J's became a bit gritty later in the day, but we all need minerals in our diet, right? The clouds were threatening for a time, and it looked like a winter sky. Some folks reported a few raindrops. I pulled out my Tyvek jacket for an added layer on my 2nd time through the S/F area, but fortunately I did not need it, and it stayed tied around my waist.
If I had entered the 50k race, I would have done well, and have the finishers prize of a really distinctive running hat. (May seem trivial for all the effort, but it is well-recognized in the Trail Running Community). Unfortunately, the difference between 31 and 50 miles is pretty significant. About halfway through the third loop (of 12.5 miles) I started thinking about finishing times. And I realized that at my current pace I would not finish in the 12 hour allotted time. So I picked up the pace, running harder than normal on the flats and downhills and jogging up some of the gentler inclines, which I normally power walk. I would have finished that loop under 3 hours, leaving me with about 3 hours left to finish the last loop. I felt pretty beat at that point and did not think I could face another 12½ miles at that same pace. The last 15% – 20% of a race for me typically involves a fair amount of walking (as in, slow going). After mentally going back and forth at least a hundred times, I finally decided to call it off at the end of the third loop. The sun was well in the West at this point and there were a lot of shadows forming already. It would not have been dark at the final cutoff (7 PM) but running in the shadows down in the canyon might make footing tricky, further slowing me down in some sections. Each aid station has its cutoff times, so I would have been pushing to stay ahead of them at every stop. I really did not think I could get it done, so I told the finish line timer that I was dropping as I ended my third loop. The Race Director, Red Spicer, started to hand me the finishers hat and I told him that I was dropping and that he should keep it. I would not be able to wear something that I did not earn. He said that he would keep it for me for next year, or words to that effect. I really wanted the hat, but t'was not to be this year. (I would have taken a 50k hat, but that's not part of the deal!) I chatted with friends at the finish line while I ate a post-race hamburger, cheered on some of the finishers who came across while I was there, and then headed back to camp, since I was shivering, even with my coat on.
This was my first experience camping at a run. It adds substantially to the preparations necessary. Not to mention the 6-hour drive (each way). One of the factors in my decision to stop when I did was that I wanted to enjoy the camping/running experience. Getting into camp after sundown, completely beaten from the trail would not have been as enjoyable as getting a shower and grilling a steak while it was still light, then putting together a peach cobbler to share later with nearby campers. I saw a fox and a bobcat Friday during the day, and heard coyotes and many other critters after dark, as well as being able to see many more stars at night, something that always surprises me when I'm away from the city.
Have to tell you of one incident Friday night. As I got out my Thermarest mattress during camp setup, I noticed a rock under where it needed to go. So, rather than getting outside the tent and digging in the dirt under it, I used my fingers from inside the tent working through the floor of the tent. The rock seemed fairly loose and I managed to work it out of position and move it off to the side into a hole that was also a problem needing to be fixed. All was well, or so I thought. About 3:00 AM, I woke up with this pain in my lower back. I tried to ignore it but could not go back to sleep. So I tried my trick of working through the tent floor again and move the offending lump off to the side. No success. Tried to sleep. Still the lump. Tried to move it again. No luck. Finally, I stuck my hand in between the mattress and my sleeping bag and found that it was not under the mattress after all, but INSIDE my sleeping bag. Well, it did not take long to retrieve the offending lump – a Chapstik container that evidently fell out of my pants as I was getting ready for bed. Pitched it off to the side and went back to sleep almost immediately. How stupid was that.
Conditions this weekend could not have been better for me. First, I lucked out getting one of the few remaining campsites within walking distance of the race start. It was close, but not too close to the restrooms. It was right across from some NTTR friends who were also making a weekend of it (the Crownovers and the Teasters). The weather was cooperative, though a little windy at times. I did not know that wind could blow that hard down in an 800-foot deep canyon, the second largest in the country. Temperatures were good for running and though it threatened a bit, it never did rain. I felt good the entire race, this being only the third time I have run as far as I did. My ankle (injured a few weeks ago, requiring a brace) did not bother me and I had no issues with digestion, hydration or electrolytes. There is tiredness and a dull pain with running long distances, but as long as there is no sharp pain or other specific difficulties, you learn to live with it, and crank out the miles. I felt myself fortunate that I had no physical issues this race.
With other races, I have always finished in plenty of time, and "the clock" has not been an issue. I had become complacent, "expecting" to finish, and had not even bothered to do the simple mental arithmetic to figure the times I would need to have on each loop to finish before the cutoff. I did not respect the difficulty of running 50 miles, or the course enough, and I paid for it. End of story. Next time, I will train harder and not look upon it as a gimme.
Congrats to all who completed the course, especially Matt Ellis who stormed past me on his third loop before I could finish my second loop. He finished second place overall, a strong runner. As is Barbara Hitzfield, who placed in the women's division (2nd, I think).
I learned my lesson, at least for this round. As a chastened and contrite trail runner, I will train appropriately for future events, take them seriously and pay my dues in training currency before taking them on. I now look forward to the Rockledge Rumble 50k coming up November 11 and expect to finish in better shape.
Bill (Trailgeeze) Rumbaugh