The race, now in its 25th year, was founded by Red Spicer. In fact the entire trail system in Palo Duro Canyon was founded by him and mostly built by him. Red, who passed just last year, is famous throughout the world of ultrarunning for his witticism “I hammered down the trail, passing rocks and trees like they were standing still.”
The 50K at Palo Duro starts off with a six mile loop through the wetter and more wooded part of the canyon. The next two loops are 12.5 mile loops that include the aforementioned six miles plus 6.5 additional miles out in the juniper strewn, rocky, red soiled canyon badlands. The first three miles of the morning includes all the 50-mile and 50K runners until the two part ways with the 50-milers heading out onto the 12.5 mile loop first thing and the 50K runners turning to complete the initial six miles. The first three miles, unless you chose to literally line up in the very front row of runners, is pretty slow and involves a lot of walking. This is so because the race narrows to single track within 100 yards of the start. In many ways this is a good thing because it forces you to not go out too fast.
I completed my first six mile loop at an average pace of 13:10 per mile. The first 3 of those miles were mostly in the dark and like I said mostly walking or slow jogging but at the three mile point there is the split between the milers and the “K'ers” and there is an aid station. Not needing anything yet I skipped the aid station and fell in behind a guy with really long hair that was tied back and he was wearing an El Scorcho shirt (a very cool race by the way and where I hold my 50K PR). He looked to be a good steady runner and looked pretty strong too so I figured I would do well to hang behind him. I ran behind him all the way to the completion of the six mile loop and by the end we had dropped our average pace down to about 11:42 per mile.
As we pulled in to the mile six aid station I was thinking that this was a really nice pace and I thought that I would just hang with El Scorcho guy all day. However, he lingered at the aid station and I was ready to go so I just headed out thinking he would probably catch up. I also took this time to turn on my I-pod and test out my ultra mix. The first song on my ultra play list is Run by Collective Soul. It really puts me in the right frame of mind for a nice long run.
Of course I follow this up with several high energy songs that are either “tough” like AC/DC “Hard as a Rock” or kind of “funky tough” like Cake “Going the Distance”. Well with all that going on of course I was burning down the trail in no time passing people left and right and despite my plan to take it easy at this race by the time I had finished 18.5 miles I had dropped my average pace to a 10:47 per mile pace.
I finished up the first 18.5 feeling really good but I could feel a blister forming on the bottom of my left foot and then I had a brilliant idea. I thought to myself as I was kind of jogging over to my drop bag full of new shoes and foot care gear, “Hey, I could just skip the foot care and run the next 12.5 miles through the heat of the day on blisters! That would be great training for my upcoming 100-miler! I could practice running through the pain!” And so I veered sharply away from my drop bag and made a b-line straight for the trail and 12.5 miles of hot, dusty trail running purgatory.
Of course I didn't immediately think it was a bad idea. At first I was thinking it would work out quite well because though I could feel some pain it seemed like I was pretty much able to ignore it...and then I landed perfectly, squarely, dead-center blister on a nice sharp rock. WOW! That snapped me out of whatever masochistic crazy man land I had so recently been inhabiting and placed me squarely into the midst of reality, a reality that I was not altogether pleased with. Despite my new found dissatisfaction with my ill conceived plan I didn't immediately think, “Well, I'm two miles from the next aid station so I can get there and take care of the foot.” My thought was, “Well, it feels like that rock tore the blister open so now at least it will drain and flatten and not hurt as much.”
I really can't account for this madness so I have to believe someone drugged my Gatorade. Anyway I kept running, refueled at the next aid station and just headed back out onto the trail. I noticed three things about then, the temperature had climbed to 80 degrees, the Texas sun was now completely unencumbered by clouds and my average pace had dropped to 11:01 per mile. I landed solidly on another walnut sized rock and was rudely reminded of a fourth thing....Ouch!
I pressed on through the juniper, through the red dust, through the kamikaze grass hoppers and into the heat radiating from the canyon walls. I could have slowed down by a good 30 seconds or more per mile and been cooler, more pain free because after all I am a big guy and I generate plenty of my own heat without the aid of exertion and the Texas sun. But, you see, the thing is if I could just maintain about a 10:45, maybe 11 minute pace all the way to the finish line I just might PR, just maybe and so I gritted my teeth and leaned into the trail once more and drug my average pace back down to 10:59 per mile.
Then a long series of short, steep climbs on rocky, lumpy trail began. Before I knew it I was at 11:05, 11:10, 11:15, 11:20. I was cooked and my left foot was hurting like nobody's business.
Fortunately at this point in the run my curious I-pod fiasco began and took my mind off things. I don't know what the deal is but the longer I have my I-pod on in a run the louder it gets, or seems to get, until I feel like my ears must start bleeding at any moment and I just want to drop to my knees clutching my ears and scream at the heavens. Mind you I don't initially think, “Wow, that's loud, I should take the speakers out of my ears.” Rather, I become wracked with anguish over my predicament and lament my sorry lot mile after mile.
I should explain here that I come by this trait honestly. I really don't know if my father ever reads my blog but I know my mom does and she has already guessed what is coming next. I get this curious trait of clinging to a bad situation until it becomes complete insanity from my dear old dad. Enough said, I'm only here to air my own strangeness.
Anyhow, as my world was being snuffed out by a maelstrom of sound a mountain biker went flying past me and I lept from the trail startled to see about 10 more zooming along immediately behind him. This startled me enough to get me to stop and think what a smashing idea it would be if I were to pull my I-pod out of my water bottle holster and turn it down.
For some reason this task is almost impossible for me to accomplish. Me operating my I-pod is like having an uncoordinated, hyperactive giant with swollen fingers operate a wristwatch calculator. I can make the damn thing go “click, beep, boop”, I can move forward and backward on the song and can pull up 50 different and completely useless menus. Hell, I can even turn it up somehow far beyond what the technical specifications would suggest is possible. I just can't, for the life of me, make it nice and sweet and quiet so I thrust the whole thing, still blasting, into my water bottle holder and grimly pointed myself back down the trail. Eleven minutes, twenty five seconds per mile average!
Thirty minutes later I am done. I have run the 31 miles at Palo Duro in 5:55 and change. Do I love this stuff? Absolutely! The first and second laps were pure joy, the canyon was beautiful, the air was clean and the temperatures were mild. The last lap, well, that presented me with several opportunities to persevere, to be humbled and maybe most importantly, to just shake my head and laugh at myself. It leaves me wondering, am a smart man that sometimes does dumb things or am I a dumb man that sometimes does smart things? Am I a strong man with weaknesses or am I a weak man with strengths? These, I think, are things worth considering, things worth experiencing. These things I think are the things that keep me grounded in what it really means to be human.
Good times, great adventures and excellent friends, this is my crazy ultrarunning world.