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Ultra Canyon 47 km
Government Canyon SNA
25 March 2006
by Joe Prusaitis
Our Texas winters of late have been lasting all of 2 or 3 days and gone again on the following sunrise. The weather forecast is just so this weekend, and for a change, I even believe it. Its nippy cold this morning, but dry and clear. Although I know it'll warm quickly, I'm still too cold to start without gloves and long sleeves. Beginning at 7:30 am, we go out in waves of ten and a minute apart. Because there are only 30 of us, there are only 3 waves.
I would like to think I am growing wiser as I age, but there are times when stupid serves me much better. When I first stumbled into trail running, I had much less knowledge about the tricks of the trade. My initial forays were very successful despite my ignorance. It seems that the more I learned the worse I ran, so I can only assume that all this knowledge is too heavy for me. So it seems I have come full circle. Where I once just ran how I felt, I then learned to go out slow and conservative. Well, now I am back to running how I feel. I am again willing to let things come as they may.
Starting in the last group sets the tone for me in an odd sort of way. The people starting in front of me get my energy spun up quickly as I pass one after another. It just feels odd to pass this many people in a trail race and donít even realize that my pace is increasing. Cold as it is, I can't seem to keep my fingers warm. I move the water bottle from one hand to the other. My energy feels good. No issues with my legs. It feels great to be moving down the trail. My pace matches up with Marty, who I know is much faster than I am, but he's probably going out easy... as should be!
Never having been here before, I don't know the course, or the terrain. We pass two aid stations quickly and I wonder about that. I suspect we will be using these stations more by swinging back to them later. I'm confused right now, but trust it'll all work out eventually. The first bit of paved road turns onto a well used jeep road and this allows us to sort ourselves out regardless of the wave we started in. By the time we turn onto single track, I realize that the course markings will be arrows at the turns only. Still, it seems to be enough, as the two of us sort out every twist and turn with minimal stress. For awhile, I move ahead on the rugged descents and Marty moves ahead on the other stuff. Mentally, I drift off for awhile, focusing on my breathing, trusting my instincts to find proper foot placement, without giving it a thought. In autopilot, I don't have to worry about what is too fast, or anything else. We miss a turn and realize it without comment, turn and continue, without missing a beat. One descent is so rugged with rocks that I hesitate to make sure I am going the right way, but itís only a slight delay, no more.
For some reason, I expected a lot more climb and descent. Even without any significant hills, the trail is technical in places: full of rocks for sections and then mountain bike smooth for awhile. The trail twists around trees and rocks with minor climbs such that we really get spun up leaning into the turns. I love the rugged rocky portions and pick up pace every time I find another rocky playground. Marty backs off just a bit on these, but spins back up on every flat and also on the climbs. Regardless our differences, we seem to be balanced close enough for now. It's fast and fun and I seem to running well. My confidence takes a dive when the lead 15km runners start to pass us. I don't know what time they started or what route they ran, but still, it takes me out of the comfortable reverie I was living in. At the next aid station, we turn left while the 15km runners continue strait. I hesitate when I realize what is going on, pleased that we are finally separating from this distraction. My hesitation breaks me off alone as well. Marty speeds ahead while I take the time to ingest some salt and also some food. Is it time now, I wonder... to be smart?
Looks like winter is over! The morning's cold is gone and I'm now sweating. I peel off my soaking wet gloves and roll up the sleeves. This offers up the impression that I'm going to work. Makes me laugh as that's exactly what I'm doing. Itís been easy so far. I had six energy blocks and a dozen salt caps that I've been popping at irregular intervals: but mostly on the climbs. Funny how some things become habit and thus become thoughtless. With the variety of single track, I quickly buzz up for the rocky mix and just as quickly slow for the climbs. Alone now, I start noticing the trees and the Prickly Pear, how much there is and the wide variety: the stately Live Oaks, Mountain Laurel, Juniper, Mesquite, and the odd looking graybeard trees hanging with moss clean to the ground. The local wildlife skitters about in the underbrush but I've no time to inspect each rustling noise. Much of the course is undercover of the trees, protecting us from the sun, but not from the heat.
My erratic running style is not bringing me any closer to those in front but also is not allowing this behind to real me in either. The small field of runners will likely keep me solo for the remaining miles. Usually, I constantly fluctuate between those within the area of my pace. This loop ends with a great variety of playgrounds that gets me going again. A long rocky descent eventually flows up a creek that is guarded by long thick roots. They stretch clean across the trail such that I have to high step between root and rock alike to avoid any misery. I pass a few groups of hikers, no more than additional hazards to be avoided. During my freefalling wild descent they avoid me as much as I avoid them. And for those facing the other way, I try to make as much noise as possible so they at least know I'm there.
The final aid station arrives unexpectedly. I have no idea where I am, not in miles, or in location. I don't even know if I've been here before or not. Quite a few 15km runners are coming down the jeep road on the right. I ask and get an answer that makes no sense, and resolve to not ask any more questions. I think I'm close to the main turnaround point from which we started, but I'm not certain. A few 47km runners running back towards me lead me to think they are starting their second loop, but then I see 2 people with 15km bibs as well. Don't even think about it, I tell myself. Just run and take what you get. Not thinking has been working well so far. The clock at the turn reminds me how fast I've been running. 2:11 is fast for me.
Dan-O is there, on his way to the hospital with a sliced open finger. Cathy is out of the race also to provide taxi service. I get the story while I reload my depleted store of food and salt caps. I finally ditch the gloves and swap the long sleeved shirt for a much lighter short sleeve technical top. A glug of ice cold Gatorade is my last move before I waltz back out for round two. It's even hotter now. I can feel the sunburn on my neck. Not so easy now, I try to get myself motivated again. I simply make myself start to run and then increase the pace. I few others come in as I start back out, including Robert. The next station isn't that much further and I see Steve come in from the other side as I get there. He's leading the pack and well in front of all of us.
I realize now that we do a large loop and come back to this same point. That is the work that I have in front of me, so I get after it. I pick up the pace, telling myself that I have to run all the easy flat sections. The downhills are my bread and butter, but I have to think about the rest of it now. Funny how things have changed. Earlier, I didn't have to think at all. Now, I partake in a running argument with my body. It wants to stop or at least walk, but I refuse to accept that it is necessary. I argue that if it would only run faster, then we would be done sooner, and then rest all we want. I seem to win the argument for awhile, but as soon as I lose focus for a moment, I'll wake up to find myself walking again. I chase the demons with a grunt and then hop back into action as soon as I realize Iím walking. I have to focus and remain focused. I am pleased to be running alone right now as I'm not so sure that some of this heated argument is not verbalized out loud. Imagine the poor unsuspecting hiker should they happen upon a raving lunatic. The humor of this only serves to speed up my pace once again. But all I see are the occasional mountain bikers who all seem to be checking on us. Yes, I am fine and no I don't need a thing, I hope!
I begin to recognize some of the trails, but most of it is as new as it was on the first loop. I even hesitate at the same exact spots that I did on the first loop. The rock sidewalk and the windmill are easy to remember but not in the order Iíll see them. I find and pass the couple with the 15km bibs and wonder why they're out here on the second loop. They're in a heated discussion but I'm past them quickly and have no idea what any of that means. Back on the long jeep road, I pass quite a few hikers, and then back to the station where I saw Steve. A different couple is working this time. Itís good to have that loop behind me. I think this means I have roughly 5 or 6 miles left. Still, I don't know this for certain and they don't either.
With my logic, this is the last section, so I treat is as such. I go after it. I start running and push the pace. At least, I feel like I am. Likely as not, I am moving much slower than I think I am. Still, the effort is there and I begin to think I might break 5 hours. For the first time, I start thinking about the time. I seem to be trying every possible type of motivation today, one strategy playing into the next. I'm tired, bone tired. The heat, the sunburn, the ache that seems so deep inside and all over. The body is on full tilt whine and misery now: an orchestra of agonies. I ignore it all, choosing to pick up the pace instead and shove the symphony to background noise. I create a new motivation by deciding that I want to be at the next aid station by noon. For some reason, this allows me to think I'll finish under 5 hours. Buzzed up and dialed into the latest fantasy motivation, I fly past the only other 47km runner I see on this entire loop. Down the rocky descent, through the root and rock creek bottom, and then one long descent after another which seems endless. Each time I think I'm at the end of it, I roll through another section I had forgotten about. Noon goes by and I begin to think that my imagined goal is gone, when the aid station appears suddenly out of nowhere. Not knowing any of this course has made everything a surprise and this again is no different. I spend precious little time before I turn for home.
There are no other runners on the road this time, but plenty of hikers, all oblivious to me or the race going on around them. I'm forced to take the more rutted and muddy route around each group but I don't mind. I didn't come here for the easy flat sections. I cut between two women in animated conversation just before hitting the road. Less than a minute later, I cross the finish... well under 5 hours. My mind won this time. Game over!