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Monday, October 22, 2007

Ready...Set...Go! Palo Duro 50 Mile Trail Run


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This weekend was the 23rd annual Palo Duro Canyon 50 Mile Trail Run at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, just south of Amarillo, Texas. My running partner, let's call him Fit Club Don, and I were scheduled to leave on Friday to get to Amarillo in time to check out the park and attend the pre-race briefing/spaghetti dinner. We had been checking the weather reports for weeks and we knew it would be a scorcher. On Thursday, I obsessively checked the predicted high and each time I checked, the days predicted high was getting hotter and hotter, so I finally decided to quit checking to ensure that I wasn't personally responsible for making the days high temperature reach 100 degrees! It finally leveled off at a high temperature of 90 degrees, matching the record high for that day. Oh boy, this was going to suck.

We arrived in Amarillo shortly after noon and drove down to the actual park. It didn't do us much good to drive around as the race was going to take place exclusively on trails, but it eased our nerves a bit to see the start/finish line area and figure out the best way to get there in the morning. The park is really quite nice, which is totally unexpected if you have ever been to Amarillo, the flattest place on Earth. The canyon is actually the second largest canyon in the U.S. behind the Grand Canyon. You can see some pictures by clicking on the Palo Duro Canyon State Park website.

After a quick look around at the start/finish are, we headed back to town for the pre-race briefing and pasta dinner, which was good, but otherwise uneventful. Then it was back to the hotel to double check all clothes, food, drinks, etc. for the next day and get to bed by 8:30. Boy, those ultra guys know how to par-tay!

Rise and Shine

The alarm went off at 4:30am to give us time to get to the park and get a good parking spot. Even though the race started at 7:00am, the park gates opened at 6:00am for runners and we wanted to get as close as possible to the start area. It turns out that we got a great parking spot...the race ran right in front of the truck and we were able to keep all of our supplies in the truck and just stop there when we came through on each of the loops. I forgot to mention that the race is a series of four, 12.5 mile loops on trails through the park. So the runners actually come back to the start/finish area twice, not including the last time. This worked out nice because it meant that we could keep all of our extra clothes, food, drinks, medical supplies, in the truck without having to prepare drop bags for remote aid stations.

We checked in with the timekeeper and mulled around the park for an hour or so until the start. It was a little breezy and a nice 55 degrees or so. There was a big fire going to keep everyone warm and as an extra bonus, a guy playing the bagpipes. Very cool and actually kind of eerie, with the fire going. We got our water bottles filled with my special homemade endurance formula. I could tell you what's in it, but then I'd have to kill you. I prepared two bottles, but Fit Club Don chose to take only a single bottle. (foreboding music plays in the background) He likes to "live on the the edge" apparently. As 7:00am rolls around the 50 mile and 50k (31.25 miles) runners line up together at the start line and with a "Ready...Set...Go!", we were off.

Traffic Jam - 12.5 miles

There were a total of about 150 runners who started at 7:00am, about fifty 50-milers, and about one hundred 50k runners. That is not many racers by any standard, but this is a trail race and the trail was quite narrow. The first mile was somewhat rugged and there was quite a traffic jam and it took about 2 miles for everyone to get spaced out enough to run at our pace. Fit Club Don was a bit peeved, but I was OK with it. We probably lost about 4 minutes in the first 2 miles, a drop in the 50 mile bucket, but ultimately we made the time up because we hit our goal for the first loop with a few minutes to spare. Another factor that slowed everyone down was the fact that we started in the dark. Everyone had headlights on, but that amplified the traffic jam problems for the first 20 minutes or so. We were told that on Tuesday there had been a severe thunderstorm and that there was mud on the course, but it was easily avoidable. Well, as I plopped down into 2 inches of mud, I wished I could have seen it to avoid it. Oh well.

After about 3.5 miles, we came to the first aid station and pretty much blew through it. As this stage in the game, we were fresh, had plenty of fluids and didn't need to hang around. At short, local races, most aid stations typically have water and a sports drink of some sort. Marathons might also have Gu, bananas, and pretzels. Ultra aid stations are like oases in a desert. Water, sports drink, chips, cookies, M&M's, PB&J sandwiches, date raisin bars, fig newtons, boiled potatoes, and even more things that I can't remember. Plenty of good things to eat and lots of helpful volunteers to get you what you need so that you can get going.

Now, I had been to the park before, but I don't remember it having so many ups and downs. The sections between the first and third aid stations were definitely the toughest. This section was remote, rocky, and VERY exposed without an ounce of shade. Again, not a problem for the first loop, but as the day wore on, the heat combined with the exposure in this section was BRUTAL. Once we made it to the last aid station, we had it made. The segment between the last aid station and the start/finish area was in the lower part of the canyon and ran mostly alongside the river. It was shady, cooler, not rocky, and much softer on the feet. On every loop, we looked forward to getting to that section.

Our goal time of 9:00 to 9:30 hours was probably too aggressive, even under the best of circumstances, i.e. not blazing hot, but with the heat, I think it was out of the question. In the cool early morning, it still looked doable and we hit our goal time for the first loop.

Second Loop - 25 miles

We took a minute to refill water bottles. I again took 2 bottles of my endurance drink and again, Fit Club Don, inexplicably only took a single bottle of sports drink. (foreboding music in the background, even louder this time). We reloaded up on Gu and each drank an Ensure for extra calories. Off again. The second loop went smoothly, albeit a little less quickly. Fatigue was beginning to set in, the heat was starting to increase, and I had to take pit stop at one of the aid stations. We focused on getting from aid station to aid station and just continuing to keep going. I drank one bottle of my endurance drink, but completely lost my taste for it. I ended up refilling with water at an aid station and dumping out about half of one of the bottles of endurance drink. I just couldn't stand the taste anymore. Fit Club Don did refill his one bottle with water. By the latter part of the second loop, the heat was starting to crank up. A quick check of the weather for the day shows that it was approaching 82 degrees for the last hour of the second loop and the heat was beginning to be a factor. We didn't meet our goal time for the second loop, but we didn't miss it by much, and considering the terrain and heat, we were pretty OK with how we were doing.

Third Loop - 37.5 miles

We again came into the start/finish area to refill bottles. By now both of us were drinking water exclusively. The sweetness and stickiness of the endurance drink was just too much to handle. I refilled two bottles with water. Fit Club Don, FINALLY, decides to take two bottles, one water and one endurance drink, I think. The plan was to drink an Ensure between each loop, but I just freakin' forgot to in the rush to get going. I think Don said that he did get his in. Just before we left the start/finish area, Don stopped at the aid station and got ice in his water bottle. I only remember that because about 5 minutes later, I regretted not doing the same thing. Off we go...into...the...depths...of...hell.

The third loop was brutal. By now the temperature is hovering around 90 degrees and we've got 10 miles in the most rocky, exposed area of the park. About 5 minutes into the loop, I realized that I forgot to drink the Ensure. I had an extra Gu so I went on ahead and ate it. By now, dehydration is beginning to have a significant effect on Don. He's really struggling to keep going and this is the section that is longest between aid stations. Don's figured out that it was dehydration and the heat that was getting to him and he started really drinking a lot to try and catch up on his fluid intake. We kept on plodding along until we finally reach the first aid station...and the one thing that allowed us to finish the race. At all of the aid stations, except the most remote one, showers had been setup to allow runners to drench themselves with water to stay as cool as possible.

When I got to that aid station, turned on that water and got under it, I thought I heard angels sing. It was so cold, it knocked the wind out of me, but damn, it was refreshing. The experience was every bit as miraculous for Don. We got going out of that aid station with a renewed sense of vigor, which lasted about 5 minutes, before the heat boiled it out of us, but every little bit helps. The only way that we were going to finish this race was to take advantage of the low humidity and windy conditions, by staying wet. As the water evaporated off of us, it cooled us down significantly. For the remainder of the race, I used one water bottle to keep myself wet and cool, roughly six more hours, and one water bottle to drink between aid stations. We just kept on keeping on for the last 10 miles, pushing from aid station to aid station and water shower to water shower. There was nothing exceptional to report, except that it was hot. Damn hot.

Git 'R Done - 50 miles

We didn't come rolling into the start/finish so much as limp in, battered and beaten. Physically, we were still in pretty good shape. Soreness, yes, but 37.5 miles had a tendency to do that to you. Otherwise, just fatigued, and tired of fighting the sun. We both refilled water bottles, with ice this time and consciously passed on the Ensure. The thought of drinking it almost made me puke, so that was as close as I got to actually drinking it. After a quick drench we were off to get the last loop done. This was what we paid for (yes, we PAID to suffer through the race). The last loop was slow and steady. The first half was still pretty hot, but we finally started to get some relief from the heat as the day wore on and the shadows got longer. We just continued dumping water on ourselves and it got us through this thing. By the tail end of the fourth loop, most runners were toast, and we were no exception, but we did manage to pass a few people.

Don was now fully recovered from his dehydration and I was just keeping up. The focus was still on making it from aid station to aid station, particularly waiting for the aid station that marked the beginning of the trail that ran alongside the river. We would be out of the heat and on soft trail for the last 3.5 miles and by this time we needed both. We finally got there and we were able to pick up the pace a little bit due to the mental boost. These two horses could smell the barn and they had a little more giddy-up left after all.

We got to within the last mile, when, out of nowhere, one of the runners that we had passed about 5 miles back, came up behind me like a rocket. I told him, "Knock yourself out." and let him pass. Don was a few steps ahead of me and the trail was pretty tight, but Don wasn't letting him pass. We come out of the woods, and as we pass the truck, Don chucks his water bottles and takes off with this guy right behind him. Wow, they are actually racing! I also toss my water bottles at the trucks and try to let them pull me in a bit quicker than I would have done otherwise, but I don't have much pep left so I'm not actually in the race. As Don and Rocket Guy get to the last turn, Rocket Guy turns on the afterburners and smokes Don like a cheap cigar. Ha ha!

A few seconds later I come through the finish line and I walk up to Don. "What the **** was that all about?" When Rocket Guy passed me, Don glanced over his shoulder and thought that he might be in the same age group, so if they were, they might be competing for an actual age group placing. It turns out that they were! Rocket Guy got second place and Don placed third. Everyone who knows Don...if you see him, make sure and congratulate him for his effort! (or at least rag on him for losing second place).

Post Race Observations

  • Fifty miles is a helluva a long way. Sure, we trained hard for it, but you still must continue to push on long after most sensible people would stop.
  • Those Injinji toe socks kick total butt! Fifty, dusty, sandy, water-soaked miles and not a single blister!
  • We didn't run anywhere near our predicted time, but we ran hard and more importantly SMART. Conditions could have easily stopped us from finishing but we changed our plan and still ran a good strong race.
  • Total calorie burn during the race: 6000 calories! Sweet!
Next race...The Rocky Raccoon 100 (as in 100 miles) in Huntsville, Texas in February. Pray for my knees.


Bryan said...

Dude! You are a running Ninja! Congratulations on the accomplishment. Very impressive.

Kristen said...

I can't even imagine! That's an amazing feat to accomplish. Way to go!!

Fit Club Scott said...

Thanks. I'm just an average joe with a crazy hobby.

R3dcurlz said...

Wow, what a fantastic play-by-play. My boyfriend is just as crazy as you and so I got to experience my first ultramarthon as his pit crew and personal sports photographer (no running shoes or supercool toe socks for me!). I sat at one of the aid stations for a while and no one wanted a shower so it never occurred to me how helpful they might be. Seems like it was a smart move. I think the woman who finished first in the 50 mile didn't even carry water with her. Heck, I just did a little hiking and dehydrated right up.

It's such an impressive feat. Congratulations! And good luck with the 100!