Palo Duro Canyon was amazing! For those of you who just want the down and dirty, here’s the Cliff Notes’ version: we drove all day Friday, ran all day Saturday, I finished my 50K in 7:24, and drove back Sunday.
For everybody else,
Palo Duro Canyon 2007
Well, it was 10 miles to the entrance and my God that is some beautiful land. When you drive up to the entrance, the whole canyon stretches out before you. I just can’t even describe it. We took a couple of pictures and then began the drive down to the start (LK had marked up a map with last year’s course for us, so we were going by that as there was nothing “official” from the race). Uhhh, it is a LONG way down in there; the road is at 10 percent grade and very switchbacky, so it took forever. Plus we had no idea where we were going. We drove around and had much debate over where the start/finish was, as there was really nothing set up to give you any pre-race idea. By this time, we were getting close to packet pick up time, so we skipped the walk/run and just drove back out.
We had the official race directions to the pasta dinner but THEY WERE WRONG and we drove around for 30 minutes, trying to follow them. Finally, we called LK who told us that the auditorium was within sight of the hotel and guided us in. I uttered a lot of profanity because I was sick of sitting in the car and driving around. We got to packet pickup 30 minutes late, but that was a good thing because the line had died down for food and we didn’t have to make much polite talk with all the HCTR people who were sitting around. We listened to the course talk and then SH wanted to double check on the 50-mile cut off times. We went to talk to Red Spicer, the race director, who is about 60-going-on-100 and a typical Texas good ole’boy who called us “missy.” He said the first cut off was 4:00 p.m. at the start/finish and the final cut off was at the next aid station, Phil’s, about 3.25 miles down at 4:30 p.m. SH was spazzed — who could blame her? It was her first ultra AND her first 50K (she went straight from the 30Ks at the Trail Series to the big enchilada).
We went back to the hotel to get ready. We also wanted a beer to calm down but Canyon is dry so we had to get back in the car and drive down the road to the Buffalo Chip liquor store across the county line or whatever. The guys at the store were tons of fun and there was a sampling going on, so we hung out awhile. Got back to the hotel room, had some beer, laid out clothes, tried to call some friends, watched some TV (it was this hilarious “Last One Standing” show where the guys were attempting to run in rubber sandals at 5,000 feet in Mexico, so there was a lot of laughing and yelling “pussies!” as we watched, which was a perfect stress reliever) and then went to bed.
When we got up, the temperature was 57 — not the low 40s that are more usual. We got to the park at about 6:15 a.m. and it was pitch dark, everybody walking around with their headlamps/flashlights on. We set up our little aid station near the drop bag tent (it was just a place to dump your stuff, not really a drop bag like at Bandera), hit the port-a-potties, and the next thing you know it was time to start for 50K/50 milers. VERY small group of people. Some people were bundled up because it was quite windy and I debated…I left my long sleeved shirt on because I figured it would be a slow start and I could always take it off. I had a hand-held (the bigger bottle) with my flashlight. Off we went!
The first mile was single file, walking most of the way. We split into several clumps; I was hanging up with SH and MI until a woman in front of me came to a dead stop in a downhill rocky chute, going “Oh, shit, oh shit.” I couldn’t get around her and the log jam began. Finally the trail widened and I scooted around, but by then the others were enough around a corner that you couldn’t even see their lights. I wound up with a group of about 4–5 guys and we were just moving along. After 30 minutes, there was enough light to see and then I could really begin to move. I was hot and pulled my arms out of my shirt and just let it hang around my neck because I didn’t feel like stopping to take it off, and it had become a giant Kleenex by then anyway. There was so much wind and red dust and cedar pollen (yes, cedar already — the trees were yellow with it, and I have cedar problems) that my nose was just a gd faucet. Ugh.
It was really beautiful seeing the morning light come up through the canyon. Because of the walls, a lot of the trail was in shadow. It looks a lot like Inks Lake, the red dirt granite parts. Absolutely stunning. Easy trail to run on, too. They had had a ton of rain on Tuesday so there were a couple of muddy patches, but most places you’d never know it had rained. I came into Phil’s, the first aid station, and made the 50k turn off to do the short loop. The way it worked, 50kers did one short loop and two long loops and the 50 milers did four long loops. 20kers started 30 minutes later and did one long loop. The final section back into the start/finish was along the creek and among the trees.
I came in for my 10k at about 1:11 and headed over to our chairs. At this point, one of the race guys came over and told me we had to move our stuff, so I fiddled with this for awhile. Sunscreened up and refilled my bottle with Nuun (and our water, as the aid station water was well water or something and tasted weird) and put on my waist pack with a Cliff bar, a bag of Cliff shots, and my pill case with ibuprophen and some Endurolytes.
Back out on the trail, doing the first section over again. This time at Phils, I went the other direction for the big loop. At the Sisters aid station, there was a short out-and-back, and then you continued on and I loved this next section — it was really the only technical part of the trail to speak of, and it was full of little rollers the whole way. Cool cliffs up all around you. Back down and into a more foresty mesquite tree section with some boggy parts and into the former start/finish, now an aid station manned by this cute old couple (all of the aid stations had older, obviously non-runners working them — an important detail for later on). From there, it was a mere 1-something mile section back to Phil’s. I came in, had my bottle filled, and checked my watch…I was just over 2:15 for the loop and had merely to finish back to the start…it looked like I was going to hit my 30k PR when I got there (3:54) and I was PUMPED and took off, running hard.
That’s funny…I kept waiting for the creek part but didn’t see it…I was trying hard not to focus on the mile markers (they had them every mile, which is very unusual for a trail race) because I didn’t want to beat myself up over a pace…it all looked very familiar and I was following the flags…holy shit, the next thing I knew I was back the Sisters aid station. I never got to the start/ finish, which had been about 2 miles from Phil’s. I was horrified; clearly, I had taken a wrong turn.
I went to the women at the aid station and said, “I’m not supposed to be here” and they said, “No, honey, you’re supposed to come here twice” and I spent the next 5 minutes explaining to them what I had done, that I had clearly made a wrong turn somewhere. I asked if they could radio the people at the finish to see what I should do and they told me there was no radio contact in the canyon, no way to communicate with anyone unless they happened to drive up. I started to freak out and asked them if they had an idea of what I had done wrong, if I should back track, etc. These two ladies had no map of the course, no idea where they were on the course (it had been changed somewhat from last year), or even how far to the next aid station. At this point, I decided to do the out and back and think about it. When I came back in, I told them I was going to go on and do the rest of the loop as it should be done and that I would let each aid station know what I was doing. I went on down the trail and began to cry.
So there I was, running along crying, when two 50-milers came up behind me. It was pretty obvious that I was crying I guess because one of the guys asked me how my day was going and the other asked me if I was hurt. I told them my little story and they asked me what I was going to do; I said, well, I’m just going to get back to start/finish and do what they want me to do to make up the difference. One of the guys said, “Hey, this is your race; who cares what they want you to do? Just enjoy your run out here. It’s your day — figure out how you want it to go. In any case, enjoy all this natural beauty.” They wished me well and went on. Just like that, I stopped crying and everything was ok. I thought I’ll just figure out what I need to do when I get to Phil’s. I picked it back up and ran on. As planned, I checked in with the sweet older couple, explained my situation, told them what I was doing, and went on to Phil’s.
At Phil’s, I got the same blank stares and “I have no idea what you should do or what went wrong” from the ladies there. In fact, they were a bit rude; I was being very pleasant and simply being informative, asking for advice, not complaining or anything. Finally, a truck pulled up and one of the ladies said to go talk to Tom. Tom Lowrey was in the truck and, along with Red Spicer, there are trails in the canyon named for him. We chatted for about 10 minutes and he told me that what I’d obviously done was turn the wrong way at Phil’s my second time, heading back out to the big loop again. He figured I was about 4–5 miles short and my time agreed with that.
I said, “Well, I guess I’ll go into the finish and tell them I need to do an out-and-back to get squared up.” Tom said DO NOT go to the finish; they’ll DQ you, like they’ve already done to others today. What to do? He recommended that I simply do an out-and-back (another big loop would be more than I needed and the other loop would take me to the start/finish) to make up the mileage and come in when I was done. His comment to me was that I needed to be satisfied in my “heart of hearts” that I had done the 50k distance. I thanked him, told the people at Phil’s what I was doing (not that it registered with anyone), turned around, and headed back down the trail, the way I’d come in. Stopped to tell the old couple why they were seeing me coming the wrong way and that I’d be back. Headed out into the technical section…I went out 2+ miles to make sure I had my 5 and then turned around. Back to the old couple who smiled and cheered me on, back to Phil’s, back through the final miles into the finish, and there I was…7:24.
I have no doubt that without my screw up I’d have been in right around 7 hours. Oh, well…it’s still a PR and I know I did the 50K. I didn’t care if they DQed me; it was still a finish in my book. I may not show up in the official results but I think, as Tom and my 50-miler angels said, what matters is how I feel in my heart of hearts. And I feel good.
Because a huge focus of this for me was to be there with my friends, the rest of the report is about them. MI, SH, and NB are all girls that I coached through Trail 101 and the Trail Series Prep group, so I helped to introduce them to trail running. They had picked Palo Duro as a fun first ultra, so it was important to me that they have a great day.
MI came in about 6:30 and was ecstatic; I had seen her on the trail as I headed out to make up my miles, and she looked amazing. It was a great run for her. NB wasn’t racing just running around, helping (she’s had an injury), and everybody else I cared about was doing the 50 miler. LK, who also coached the TSP group came in 3rd in the 50K. The big focus, then was on SH–would she make it through the 50 miler?
Now, the day was extremely hot — it got to 93 degrees. The humidity was so low that it really didn’t bother me. When I finished, all of my clothes were dry; people were crusted in salt. Shade was pretty limited on the course, and the 50 milers really began to suffer as the afternoon wore on. There was lots of vomiting; HH was severely cramping, JP was struggling with the heat from the beginning; MS was running with pneumonia (!!); but all I cared about really was little SH. She came in after her third loop, ran up to me, burst into tears and said, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
Everybody sprang into action. I managed the mental and got her calmed down, fed her ibuprophen, stuck her head under the shower, and NB laced up her shoes to run with her. We convinced her just to get to Phil’s and quit thinking about the big picture…but she only had 40 minutes to get there before the final cut off. They took off; MI, BB (NB’s husband, who just ran his first 20K out there), LK (who put on shoes and grabbed water so he could relieve NB as pacer, even though he’d already run a 50K hard that day), and I jumped in the car to get to Phil’s, thinking if she were just a minute of two off, we could sweet talk them into letting her go on since she would have a pacer (the cut off issue is to due to sunset at the canyon).
When we got to Phil’s, JP was sitting in a chair vomiting. It was pretty bad but he sat for awhile and then staggered off. Sure enough, SH came in about 2 minutes past cut off. The medical guy (bike) was there and they all agreed to let her go out with LK. She looked sooooo much better and she and LK headed off down the trail. The rest of us went back to start/finish, got her supplies (the volunteers at Phil’s had said the next aid station was shutting down and they couldn’t guarantee that anyone would be there, so we decided we’d just man it ourselves), and drove back to the old start/finish, the aid station with the sweet little old couple. I went to tell them what we were doing and their response was, “we’re not going anywhere until the last runner comes through.” I thanked them for all their support, especially with me earlier, and they laughed and said the race officials had come back asking about me —“Oh, that girl ran by here about a dozen times doing extra” is what they told him. Yea! Second to knowing I’d done the distance was the desire that noone think I had cheated, so it appeared that spending all that time talking to the aid station workers had paid off in that they could vouch for me).
We waited there and saw the HCTR guys come through: HH, MS, and then there came SH!! She was actually smiling and not staggering like some of the others. From this point, she had about 3–3.5 miles to the finish. We cheered like maniacs and NB jumped back in to run with both LK and SH. LK told the people at the aid station that JP was about 15 minutes back; he’d been vomiting and then laid down on the trail. Off they went. MI, BB, and I decided to wait until 6 p.m. for JP to make sure he was ok. Finally he came in, sat down, and threw up some more (Lord only knows where that stuff came from, as I couldn’t imagine anything left in his stomach). He looked like shit and said the heat was killing him. We took care of him and he decided to go on. We drove back to the finish.
SH wound up passing HH and MS (if I remember correctly) and finished 30 minutes ahead of the 7 p.m. cut off. She came in 4th, just minutes behind the 3rd place woman. JP DNFed at Phil’s and rode in with the volunteers, just in time to give SH congratulatory hugs for her first 50 mile finish. Everybody else made the cutoff. There were lots of tears, lots of pictures, general packing up, etc.
We drove back to the hotel, cleaned up, hit dinner, and then went to bed. Got up the next morning and drove all day.
I feel amazing. It was an awesome run and a hell of a three days. WAHOOOOOOO!