By Bill (The Trailgeeze) Rumbaugh
Lake Texoma, TX
February 24, 2007
Yoda once told Luke Skywalker, “Do or do not, there is no try.” Today was another ‘do not’ day at the 50 mile level for yer humble scribe. This time I went out prepared (or so I thought) and at least knew how my efforts stacked up against what I would have to do, in order to get the job done.
“Start in the middle and work both ways” is one way to describe the course. The start is in the Cedar Bayou Marina on the South shore of Lake Texoma. The course goes 10 miles roughly in a Westerly direction to Paw Paw Point where you turn around and head back to the start. To finish up, there is a short but punishing 2.5 mile stretch East to Juniper Point. Total length of the course is 12.5 miles, but since you traverse it twice for each “loop” it amounts to 25 miles for a complete traverse of the trail. Two loops bring it to 50 miles, which was my goal for the day. Someone has logged the plentiful hills and determined that there is 10,900 feet of climbing in the 50 miles. That’s over 2 miles. Since you end up where you start, there is no net elevation gain, so you get your effort back with the downhills. That’s the theory anyway. On a technical course such as Cross Timbers, many of the downhills are difficult to negotiate, so you have to go slow in both directions, consuming energy both ways. There are aid stations at the Start/Finish area and at both ends of the course. 7 miles out is the Paw Paw Creek aid station. Apparently there are/were native paw paw trees in the area, don’t know that I would recognize one. There was also an unnamed A/S at about the 3 mile mark. It was said to be an un-manned A/S, but it actually was manned by a stalwart person who had his hands full the whole day. Without him there fighting a recalcitrant tarp in the wind, it would have been a long stretch from the S/F area to Paw Paw Creek. We really appreciated the efforts of all the volunteers, of course, but this guy definitely went the extra mile. On my last time through I told him how much we appreciated his efforts in our behalf, he replied, “There’s no place else I’d rather be.” What a guy.
The week prior to an event, I always watch the Weather Channel like a hawk. There was a lot of ballyhoo about a storm system coming through Friday night and Saturday morning. Causing a lot of traffic disruption in the states to the North and West. I had hiked much of the trail with the Scouts about 10 years ago, and knew a wet course would just be a mess, oh sort of like it was last year, from what I’ve read. But I’d paid my $ and was going to get out there regardless. It ended up being no big deal. There were a few places where it was muddy and you had to watch yourself, and some of the gullies had a small amount of water in them. But by the second half, things had dried out well and there were no issues to speak of from the moisture. What was a problem was the wind. The paper said this was the strongest West wind we have had in the area in over 20 years. It blew down the A/S tents (except for the one at Paw Paw Point) and generally wreaked havoc with anyone who needed to be in one place and get anything done. A lot of dust, too. Though it did not affect the runners, except for our legs getting sandblasted in a few sandy sections, I looked across the lake mid-afternoon and could not see the far shore for the yellowish dust which also tinted the sunlight. That’s a lot of dust. Gave things an apocalyptic appearance, the few times I could look up to see anything but the trail immediately ahead. We were protected by the trees, but the trees paid for it. At one point I heard a crack and looked up to see a medium sized tree toppled by the wind. Its trunk was 5 or 6 inches in diameter and it came crashing down as if felled by a chain saw. I had never seen a tree blown down before. I noticed numerous large branches had fallen across the trail as well as a couple of small trees as the race progressed. Much of the day there were odd creakings and crackings off in the trees which were brought on by the wind. It was not a good day to be a tree.
After finding the pavilion, thanks to Fred Thompson, who arrived in the dark with Char at about the same time I did, we picked up our packets and did the usual pre-race preps. I put my drop bag in the designated spot and listened to the pre-race briefing. White surveyors tape for the trail, yellow caution tape for where the trail does not go. The trail was abundantly marked, and the anxious moments wondering if I’d gone wrong were few and short-lived. It’s a good feeling to see that strip of white plastic fluttering reassuringly in the breeze during a doubtful moment. One of the better-marked trails I’ve been on, actually. There was a roll call before the briefing, to see who had actually showed up to toe the line. I heard many familiar names, some faces I knew and recognized, others I knew by name and reputation only. Two names from the Ultra List were familiar, Mariela Botella, and Dmitry Rozinsky, both from Houston. Ed Blewett from Oklahoma was said to be under the weather and would probably not make it. I believe Mariela won the women’s division, she seemed to get stronger as the day wore on. I did not get a good look at Dmitry, since it was dark when I heard him introduce himself to Mariela. Scott Eppelman was awesome all day. He was heading out on his second loop well before I had returned to the S/F area, making it look so easy, handily winning the day. Other NTTR’ers on hand were the aforementioned Fred and Char Thompson, Deborah Sexton, Marshall King, Karen Riddle, Lynn Ballard, Rochelle Frasier (I think), Matt Crownover, Lauren Kennedy, Kevin Boudreaux, Mark Blenden and Sylvia Pas. Drew Meyer and Linda Boggs helped as volunteers. I apologize to any I have forgotten, undoubtedly there were a few.
Random observations of the course include one section early in the race before the sun was fully up. The trail crosses a section of oaks which were all bare. The leaves, a light brown, covered the ground and reflected the sunlight. The light in that area seemed to be coming out of the ground, giving everything a pleasant tan color. A pleasing contrast to the usual dark color of the ground. Speaking of ground color, the sand in several areas was an interesting orange-yellow color. I know reddish pink soil is caused by iron oxide. I have no idea what causes yellow (cumin?). There was a significant amount of moss in a few areas. I even noticed small clumps of it growing through cracks in a section of defunct asphalt. Later, I encountered a dachshund-sized opossum about to cross the trail ahead of me. Since animals in the wild typically see me before I see them, the thought crossed my mind that he might be rabid or otherwise “not right” so to preclude a close encounter of the unpleasant kind, I clapped my hands to hustle him up a bit. He took off across the trail as I hoped he would do, but the terrain dropped off abruptly on the far side. As I pulled up even with him I could see he had dropped down about 10 feet and was struggling to regain his footing, thrashing about in the leaves. I immediately felt badly about my impatience. The trail is a popular one and there were numerous hikers and backpackers out and about. Late in the day, several campsites were being established. I don’t believe bikes are allowed on the trail. Near the ‘unmanned’ A/S the trail runs along the boundary of the park. On the other side of the park’s fence a bigger, taller fence has been installed by the owners of that parcel of land. There is a large sign that warns of guard dogs and the perimeter, which has been cleared, gives the appearance of being occasionally patrolled. Another sign nearby sez, “No trespassing, this includes Boy Scouts.” From the Google map/satellite pictures, darned if I could see anything worthy of such paranoia. Obviously some top-secret installation that has been cleverly camouflaged.
I mentioned I had hiked the trail with the Scouts about a decade ago. Surprisingly, I remembered a few features of the trail, though I could not remember where it was we had camped. Probably on Lost Loop somewhere, a section that the trail does not include. A section of the trail goes out on a small point of land overlooking the lake and then switches back. Barbed wire had been strung between trees to prevent shortcutting the trail. I recognized that, as well as a football-shaped ‘island’ where the trail divides and comes back together near the Lost Loop section. Also a few candidate trailside campsites that we had considered.
The trail has character, no doubt about it. When you see a runner wearing a Cross Timbers Trail Run shirt, you can bet he or she earned that one. Many of the climbs are from root to root and rock to rock, quite steep, which leaves you breathing hard afterward for a long time. The short out and back section to the East of the S/F area has a steep section, that can only be described as gnarly. One of the articles in the website mentioned that S.O.B. hill was again back in the course. Undoubtedly that is the one. Parts of that section are quite runnable, but it does have more than its share of tough trail. Level ground can be easily walked to the tune of 15 minutes per mile, for an hour and a quarter for 5 miles. There have been accounts of people doing that section in under one hour. It took me about an hour and a half, and I ran what could be run. Yep, it was tough.
To prepare for the race, I created a little spreadsheet listing the mileages for each section. The entry blank sez that the 50 mile cutoff is 5:00 at the S/F area. Runners will be stopped for their own safety. If a runner feels that they can continue [in order to complete the 2.5 mile out and back], they MUST carry a flashlight and have a pacer. So that was my goal for the day. I knew it was quite aggressive, given the nature of the course and its reputation. My spreadsheet included the times I would need to have at each A/S. For laughs, I also included times based on my run of the East Texas Ultra Run 50k from two weeks prior, which was my best outing in a long time. Calculating my average time for the ETUR and superimposing it on this course (pretty laughable, I know) I came up with a “best case” time for each A/S. I printed it out and laminated it so I could carry it in my pocket and refer to it as needed. You former marathoners, remember pace bands? Same idea. To the casual runner, this seems maybe a little obsessive-compulsive, but this was the main reason for not being able to finish the Palo Duro 50 miler. I let the clock slip up on me and did not take corrective action until it was too late. I was determined not to make that stupid mistake again. Well into a race, my glycogen-depleted brain is not capable of accurately carrying out the mental gymnastics necessary to calculate whether I’m going to be able to finish in time. So I had two sets of times, one for best case and the other for a “no pacer” time that would get me to the S/F area at 5:00 so I would not need a pacer. I don’t know anyone who “owes me” enough to pull in a favor like traversing that little section of trail with me. So bottom line, I needed to get back by 5:00.
We took off in the dark at 6:30 and headed out. Ran quite a while along the park road before finally leaving for the single track. Mariela, Rochelle and Lynn were behind me and they all passed me in the first mile or so. I stayed up with Rochelle and Lynn for awhile. Rochelle, originally from PA, is quite skilled at traversing the downhills, one mark of an accomplished trail runner. She could get to the bottom of a difficult section while I was little more than halfway down it. It would take me a long time to catch back up with her. I started out with my favorite long-sleeved shirt, which was obviously too much in the 60 – 70 degree weather, even with the wind. Linda Boggs retrieved my drop bag at Paw Paw Creek so I could change to a short sleeve shirt and stash my small flashlight. I also had minor issues with the new bottle carrier belt I had bought. Could not fix them, so chalk it up to violating the old adage of never trying anything new on race day, some lessons seem destined to be re-learned over and over.
The three miles to the turnaround seemed like way more than that. In fact, the modest mileage between aid stations seemed like way more than the amount specified. Space travel undergoes something called time dilation as the speed of light is approached, according to Einstein. I encountered the earthbound equivalent of distance dilation during this event, though the speed of light was never in any imminent danger, to say the least. All of the distances seemed substantially longer. Approaching the turnaround at Paw Paw Point, I noticed an interesting flaw in my thinking process, I was wanting to see the folks who had passed me so I would know the turnaround was not much farther. But if they had opened up a significant lead, that would mean they would see me sooner, rather than later. So I was not wanting to see them at the same time I was hoping to see them. Odd the things you think of on the trail. Or not think of. I did stumble several times this race, but nothing worthy of note. Several times during the race I caught myself looking at the ground but not really seeing it in any detail. Time to refocus the concentration. This is not a trail you can zone out on. A radio commercial from years ago came to mind, “Have respect for the mine, concentrate all the time, ‘course Days’ Work is the tobacco you chew.” Same applies to the trail, only without the tobacco products.
After passing Paw Paw Creek after the turnaround, I again checked my progress. I was about 5 minutes ahead of my best case time and cruising along fairly well. I knew of course that this would not last, but I was determined to keep the minutes “in the bank” as long as possible, because they would be needed later. I kept the hammer down where the course was runnable and tried to get up or down the hills in as decent a time as I could. Rochelle passed me again, presently. She had taken advantage of an opportunity to get in a bonus mile or so near Paw Paw Creek, where trail markers were scarce. She lamented that she had a good time going until then. I’m thinking she was still doing well. As I approached the S/F area I felt the call of nature and found a “minimalist” public restroom. A sight for sore eyes, I have to add. No plethora of porta-potties on the premises and the thought of using the paw paw patch was not pleasant. I then headed into the S/F area, checked in, and topped off the water bottle. As I located the entry point for the last out and back section, I checked my time and I was about even with my best case time at that point. So I still had a cushion between where I was and where I had to be to make the 5:00 cutoff. Climbing up S.O.B. hill, there were a few Scouts coming down at the same time. One chubby fellow asked, where do you want to be? Lamely, I replied, “Anywhere you’re not.” He was trying to be helpful, but I had no clue as to the best way up that mess. We got past each other and the trail finally leveled out. There were some other sections that were challenging. Some were quite exposed to the brisk wind coming off the lake, and there was a steep drop-off in many areas. Finally, I got to the turnaround. This was the trailhead, and some hikers were getting their stuff ready for a hike. I spied the A/S on the far side of the loop and headed for it. The wind was so bad there, all the A/S goodies were in the back of a camper shell. The wind rattled parts of the shelter so much that the racket made conversation difficult. I got my water topped off and a couple of cookies and headed back past the hikers. Some other hikers were about halfway back along the trail. They were taking a break and were lounging on the rocks beside the trail. As I passed them, I said, “Tough trail, huh, guys?” Most of the way back to the S/F area I decided it was time to face facts. I fished out my schedule and found to my dismay that I was about even with my No Pacer time. Yikes! That 5 mile stretch was costly. I came into the S/F area intending to get some calories. I remember reading in Joe Prusaitis’ report of this race from a couple of years ago that he mentioned he would have done better had he eaten a proper meal at the halfway point. So I had a meaty sandwich waiting for me in the ice chest but then had second thoughts. I have not eaten a sandwich during any of my training runs, it’s been PB&J’s and Ensure, both of which had proven themselves during my 2005 Ultracentric experience. I’ve already made one mistake of trying something new, let’s not compound the situation with another. So I downed an Ensure instead, and cycled through the S/F area, grabbing a couple of home-made cookies from the table.
All right Trailgeeze, its time to get serious. No more time to reapply lip gloss or lollygag around addressing wardrobe issues, time is tight and you’ve got to get some more minutes in the bank if you stand a chance of getting back by 5:00. So I put the hammer down and got after it. I was by myself for nearly all the second half of the trail, so any pace I was making was my own. Through Paw Paw Creek, ‘Point and ‘Creek again, I was getting really tired but was a scant few minutes up on my No Pacer pace. I had caught up to Lynn Ballard and passed him at Paw Paw Creek aid station as he mixed up his electrolyte drink. I saw about seven others headed to the turnaround as I made my way back, among them was Marshal King. It was possible to make up a few minutes more on the next section, but I would have to run as much of it as I could, and not let the climbs slow me down any more than necessary. Late in a race, the quads start to protest mightily when you call on them to run. I was also running out of energy and breathing quite hard at the top of the many climbs. I was slowing down, despite my best efforts. The ‘unmanned’ aid station at 3 miles to go to the S/F area was a sight for sore eyes. I topped off and headed out, eating a piroulene, a type of cookie I really like but have not seen at any other aid stations. He also had Ferrero-Rocher Chocolates, what a guy. I pulled out my schedule to check time and then realized that I did not have a time for that A/S, since I was not expecting there to be one in that section of trail. In the last three miles I began to slow down even more, to the extent where I realized I was going to miss the cutoff by about 15 minutes. At that point, being tired and sore, with little reason left to hustle, I ran less and less. About a half mile out from the S/F area, Lynn caught up to me. I asked if he was going to go for it if they did not pull him. He said he would, if he could. Still had some gas left in the tank, it sounded like, whereas I was running on fumes.
Lynn had his flashlight in hand and was headed out when I came in and told the official that I was quitting at about 5:30. Several in the area tried to persuade me to go on, it’s “only” another 5 miles. True, but it’s THOSE 5 miles that are the problem. There was no way for me to complete the last 5 miles before the 6:30 cutoff. I mentioned later that, given the course, 12 hours seems a bit aggressive, something Lynn and I had discussed. He said that they agreed, that’s why they took it out of the rules. Sure enough, later I could not find anywhere that there actually was a 6:30 cutoff. They do need anyone starting out after 5:00 to have lights, though. (I had brought my headlight and flashlight and would have taken them if I had arrived by 5:00.) They let Lynn go without so much as a hint that he needed a pacer. So there you have it. Not only do they let you go without a pacer, but there is no 6:30 cutoff. Wished I had known. The body will go as far as the mind will carry it, though, and my mind was set on stopping after 45 miles. Once you decide you are quitting, it’s next to impossible to get going again. Had I been thinking straight, I would have rested up, refocused a bit and gone the last 5 miles no matter how long it took. But I was mentally done.
As I was changing clothes, Mark Blenden finished. A few minutes later, Fred Thompson came in. Both of these gents were way ahead of me all day. My plan was to change clothes, get a bite to eat and then take a snooze before I headed back to Dallas. Driving was not a good idea without some rest. While I was changing, Drew Meyer fixed a burger and a dog for me. I would have liked to hang out with the few remaining folks, but the wind made eating miserable so I headed for the car to eat in relative peace. I was snoozing when Lynn came in. I woke up at 7:30, well after dark, and as I prepared to leave, I saw the last runner making his way in from the last 5 miles