Palo Duro Canyon 50K–What a Race!

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

We left Austin about 6 a.m. (actually, that’s when we left Cedar Park. My friend Marcia came over to my house, left her car, and we drove out to Stephanie H’s house to pick her up). The drive was relatively uneventful but exceedingly long. We stopped at Lubbock to eat lunch and walk around so it was 3ish when we hit Canyon, TX.

Our plan was to dump out our stuff, drive to Palo Duro Canyon, take a look at the start/finish, and walk/run for about 30 minutes on the trail–just to get a taste. Then, we were going to either come back to the hotel and change or drive straight to packet pickup/pasta dinner at 5 p.m., depending on how long everything took. Signage told us the park was only 10 miles from our Best Western, so how long could that all take?

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 (another runner, Larry, 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 driving 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 Larry, who told us 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 Hill Country Trail Runner (HCTR) people who were sitting around. We listened to the course talk and then Stephanie wanted to double check the 50-mile cut off times. We went to talk to Red Spicer. Spicer is the race director, who is about 60-going-on-100, 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–and who could blame her? It was her first ultra AND her first 50 miler (she went straight from the 30Ks at the Trail Series to the big enchilada).

Marcia, Leah, and Stephanie before the Palo Duro Trail Run
A trail race with friends is a great way to experience your first canyon. Marcia, me, and Stephanie enjoyed some down time before the run.

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 stuff, not really a drop bag like at Bandera), hit the port-a-potties, and the next thing you know it was time for 50K/50 milers to start. 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 Stephanie and Marcia 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 around a corner, far enough ahead I couldn’t see their lights. I wound up with a group of four or five guys and we were just moving along. After 30 minutes, there was enough light to see and I could begin to move. I was hot and pulled my arms out of my shirt but left it hanging around my neck; 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. The terrain reminded me a lot of Inks Lake State Park, 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 short loop turn-off. The way it worked, 50Kers did one short loop plus two long loops; 50-milers ran 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 (time, about 1:11) and headed over to our chairs. At this point, one of the race guys 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 that tasted weird) and put on my waist pack with a Clif bar, a bag of Clif 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, full of little rollers the whole way and cool cliffs all around. 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 five minutes explaining what I had done. I had clearly made a wrong turn somewhere. Could they radio the people at the finish to see what I should do? They said 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 if they had an idea of what I’d 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 I was crying because one of the guys asked me how my day was going and the other asked if I was hurt. I told them my little story and they asked, “What are you going to do about it?”; 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 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 informative, asking for advice, not complaining or anything. Finally, a truck pulled up and one of the ladies said,”Go talk to Tom.” Tom Lowrey was in the truck along with Red Spicer; now, trails in the canyon are named for these men. We chatted for about 10 minutes and he told me 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 disagreed strongly. He said DO NOT go to the finish; they’ll DQ you, like they’ve already done to others today. What to do? His recommendation: do an out-and-back to make up the mileage (another big loop would be too much and the other loop would take me to the start/finish) and come in when I was done.

His advice 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 more than 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. Marcia, Stephanie, and Noelle are all women I coached through Trail 101 and Trail Series Prep running groups, so I helped introduced 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.

Marcia 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. Noelle wasn’t racing (she’s had an injury), so she was out there helping everyone, and everybody else I cared about was doing the 50 miler. Larry, who also coached the TSP group, came in 3rd in the 50K. The big focus, then was on Stephanie–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; one friend was severely cramping, another struggling with the heat from the beginning; somebody  was running with pneumonia (!!); but all I cared about really was little Stephanie Huie. 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 Noelle laced up her shoes to run. We convinced her 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; Marcia, BB (Noelle’s husband, who just ran his first 20K out there), Larry (who put on shoes and grabbed water so he could relieve Noelle 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, Joe Prusaitis was sitting in a chair, vomiting. It was pretty bad but he sat for awhile and then staggered off.  Sure enough, Stephanie came in about 2 minutes past cut off. The medical guy (bike) was there and they all agreed to let her go out with Larry. She looked sooooo much better and she and Larry 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 no one think I’d cheated, so spending all that time talking to the aid station workers had clearly paid off; they vouched for me).

We waited there and saw the HCTR guys come through: Henry, Mike, and then there came Stephanie! She was smiling, 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 Noelle jumped back in to run with Larry and Stephanie. Larry told the aid station folks that Joe was about 15 minutes back; he’d been vomiting and then laid down on the trail. Off they went.  Marcia, Ben, and I decided to wait until 6 p.m. for Joe 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.

Stephanie wound up passing Henry and Mike (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. Joe DNFed at Phil’s and rode in with the volunteers, just in time to give Stephanie 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!

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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

0 thoughts on “Palo Duro Canyon 50K–What a Race!

  1. Acronymned people

    Maybe it\’s because this whole LJ/blogging thing is new to me, but I feel funny putting other people\’s names in my reports who may or may not feel great about having their race details spelled out. I debated this with myself and went to the 2-letter names. whyiron, you probably know SH (Stephanie Huie).

    1. Re: Acronymned people

      No, I think that\’s fine. Privacy issues and social-engineering and what-not. Just because you\’re/we\’re paranoid, doesn\’t mean \”they\” are not out to get you/us!

      What will need the most recovery time? Legs from the trail-running? Or butt from the car-driving? 😉

  2. If I ever find myself in a situation like you did where I went the wrong way, I\’m gonna put on my big girl panties and figure out and answer just like you did!

    Way to go! What a fun experience doing that with so many people you care about. 😀

    I thought about you a lot during my ride on Saturday. I was doing a 100K bike and it boggled my mind that you were running half that distance.

  3. traininglog told me a little about your run – i loved reading your report.
    you wrote …I coached through Trail 101 and the Trail Series Prep group… what training group do you work for? the reason i ask is, i would like to complete my first 50miler next year (Nov 2008) and want to make sure that i\’m fully prepared for it.

    1. Getting ready for your first 50 miler

      Hey, deankat! I coached those groups through Rogue Training Systems. At that time, Trail 101 was a 4-week program just to introduce people to the trails in Austin and TSP got folks ready for the Trail Series races (any combination of distances up to all 3 30Ks). I wrote the macros for those programs, so I don\’t really know what they\’re like now that I\’m not there and someone else is coaching.

      Rogue is one way to go to get ready for your 50 miler. Pros: fair sized group of people, variety of goals/paces, VERY experienced coach in Joe Prusaitis, exposure to a variety of places to run in and around Austin. Cons: expensive, there is not a dedicated 50 miler program per se but a continuous getting-ready for a variety of races, and a pretty agressive schedule.

      Another route to go is through Hill Country Trail Runners. If you go to their website ( you will find that they have a list of mentors. These are folks who are there to answer questions and guide the new trail runner; Diana Heynan is one person I regularly turn to for advice, as she is an amazing trail runner and just an all-round nice person. Unlike road running, trail running is really best learned through a mentor, someone who will show you the ropes (and the trails and the stuff,etc.). I can\’t say enough good things about HCTRs; at membership price it is an absolute STEAL, the people are incredibly supportive, runs are free, club meetings are fun, and good advice is plentiful. So, at the very least, I recommend you join HCTRs.

      I don\’t know your experience with Austin trails, but I am more than happy to show you around, run with you, and help out in any way I can. You have plenty of time to get ready for your 50 miler…I\’m thinking my first 50 miler may be Palo Duro next year, so we could train together! Feel free to drop me an email at

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