Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Canyon Calls - I Answer

Palo Duro Canyon awaits
 It would be easy to fill this race report with splits, gear info, and the typical summary one would expect.  I will do that.  Before I do some background, inspiration, stupidity, and fun should be offered up as an appetizer.  It may be found through-out the piece as well.

Last March I had the privilege of taking on the Race Director role for the Grasslands Trail Runs.  That weekend changed me.  I saw people I know evolve and challenge themselves over the course of the day.  Their experience was both a physical and mental challenge.  I had run marathons before but never beyond.  I saw participants on the verge of tears yet still forging on.  I knew that day I wanted to experience "that".  To go "there" and see how far the envelope could bend.  The same weekend I watched Unbreakable for the first time.  No.  This is not the Samuel L Jackson character, comic book movie.  Unbreakable is the documentary about the Western States 100 in 2010 when some slightly above average guys all happened to toe the line with the same goal.  What is that?  You say you have not seen it.  Please do take a moment and watch it.  Like any sane running enthusiast, I went home and registered for three 50k's and a 50 miler, all of course with my wife's blessing.  I was not insane, therefore, I did not register for a 100 miler.  Palo Duro, which came with sparkling recommendation, was to be the first to arrive on the calendar.


Fast-forward to August, I had found a coach (Jeremy Day) who melted seamlessly with my rambunctious consistency and seemed to be destined for me.  We discovered we are both from within miles of the same area of Arlington.  He at this point had guided me through my first four months of training which was characterized by his love for scripting back-to-back long runs into my schedule.  Motivated by the happenings in March and the unexpected passing of my brother-in-law as well as other personal factors I logged the best four months of training I have in, well, probably ever.  Then life happened.  I only ran thirteen days in August.  In September things were no better.  Only seven days had log entries for running.  I was distracted, tired, and stressed.  Not to mention it is stupid hot come August in Texas and I guess I had just had enough.

Time passed.  I found motivation and decided it was do or die time.  Palo Duro was three weeks away.  I may not be able to salvage training for it but I can get back on the horse and ride.  I started running with focus again on September 30th with the goal to run 33 days straight for my 33rd birthday.  Today will be day 24.  I will be running shortly after this....  No hot wings and 44 oz's of Sierra Nevada tonight...
I drove to the race from my home in north Frisco.  The trek was about six hours.  I highly recommend hwy 86 just north of Childress.  The speed limit is high and they don't mind if you go a bit over.  The roads are a blast to drive plus you get to go through part of a smaller canyon, Caprock Canyon, which builds the excitement as you are within 100 miles of Palo Duro.
Spoiled and indecisive as I am, I had hotel and campsite reservations simultaneously.  I used my camp-site to get in a quick easy three mile run and pre-view of the trail upon arrival around 1:30pm.  The section I ran was just north of the aid station at the Lighthouse trail head.  It was flat and shady.  I though to myself, "there is no way all 31 miles will be this nice tomorrow." That of course would hold true.
After the short run and a preview of the terrain I made for town to meet Gates and Janet.  They would be my roommates for Friday - Sunday.  They were excellent company and experienced Palo runners.  We hit up the packet pick-up and saw our friend and race promoter Karen Roberts.  Many other familiar faces dotted the large room where the pasta dinner was being consumed ravenously by so many to be trail runners.  Mark Olateju, Bryan Thurman, Brian Galen, and Tim Steele were just a few I saw among the crowd.  We opted to appease Gates' preference for pancakes as a pre-race dinner.  Fortunately we found the diamond in the rough with the Ranch House Cafe.  This place was absolutely amazingly freaking awesome!  With their whole menu available all day breakfast was served at 5:30pm that Friday evening.  And the pancakes...wow, the pancakes...  Just go try them for yourself.  They fueled me just fine...
"Woke up. Got out of bed. Drag the comb across my head.  Found my way down stairs and drank a cup.  Then looking up I noticed I was late..."  No we weren't late.  In fact quite the opposite.  We arrived at the park entrance to Palo Duro at no later than 5:15am.  We were the fifth car in line.  Who gets there that early?  Wait my friend and fellow Run On employee Dawnn!  She was the first car at the gate. 
It was dark.  The stars lit the sky and oddly enough, it was pretty darn chilly.  The gate opened at 5:50am and we made are way down into the canyon, winding around the park roads until we reached the event site.  We parked in the first row deep in a grass field just feet from the trail head and next to a lone cedar tree.  Prime parking is apparently available for free as long as you get up at 4am...
We set-up near the drop bag area on Gates' recommendation.  Again his experience was a benefit.  We went through our pre-race rituals and jitters.  To some Black Keys I prepped my race gear one last time and decided to go with just the singlet and no toss away shirt for the start.  I also chose to leave my handheld bottles until after the first loop of six was behind me.
7AM - I had taken my place at the front of the 50 mile and 50k crowd.  After some pre-race direction from the starter, abruptly, to the sound of an air horn, WE WERE OFF!!!
Apprehensively, I was right up front.  We wound around a short asphalt road past the drop-bag area and on to the trail.  A few fast folks flew by.  I had no desire to go with them.  I led a group of what I think was about four, Martin Guthrie included, through the dark and winding trail to the light of my Petzl headlamp. 
The air was cool and crisp. My legs felt fluid.  My mind was a stirred mess but starting to relax and calculate the days effort.  Despite not knowing the trail at all other than it had rocks like my trails at home, I ran confidently and comfortably in the dark terrain.  I even turned off my headlamp at times and ran to the starlight before dawn crept in heavily.  I love the exhilaration of running under the night sky.
We hit the first aid station around three miles in.  I stopped to take a gel and got both critical looks and comments.  I blew them off and reassured myself I was doing what I should to ensure my success for my race.  Within a half-mile I was right back at the front of the group I had been with.
The first six mile loop was behind me in 51:00.  With my headlamp and singlet already off, I ducked into the drop area and released the two mentioned items to hold my seat for me.  Grabbing my ready 20 oz amphipod handheld with GU Roctane Brew mixed and ready I continued down the trail.  I was racing.  Late in that first loop I had noted and made the following decisions:
  1. I was running at the front of the race.
  2. I was comfortable.
  3. I wanted to put as many comfortable and quick miles behind me before it got hot.
  4. I would run hard now and possibly suffer later.  Better than having run easy now only to still suffer later.
  5. I would cross the finish line.  If I cramped or hurt, I would, no matter what, at least walk.  If I could walk I would run, unless it was an uphill that required hiking at that time.
With my mind made up, it was just a matter of diligence and focus.   Moving forward, I paid close attention to how much I drank and how long I waited between drinking and eating.  I also made sure I didn't get too carried away with the pace.  In addition to any other consumption, I made myself drink three cups of water at every aid station no matter what.  I did not hike or walk at all on the first small loop or the first long loop of 12.5 miles.  Sticking to my improvised race plan, fueled by a steady intake of GU Roctane gel and brew along with an awe inspiring course the second loop and the first 18.5 miles were behind me now in 2:35:46.  I had even taken time out on the lighthouse trail portion of the course to stop and take in the view as the sun was rising.  Thank you Clive for telling me to do that.  I do listen!  Just sometimes though... I also startled a young lady as I came down a decent.  I hope she is ok.  Her friends were with her and helped her up quickly.  Please know I felt bad.  I hope you had a good run.

Coming through the main aid and start/finish to begin the last loop I had no idea if I was in first, third, or tenth.  No one in the area was really informant on that matter.  It was ok.  I was still running a great race and having a blast.  I dropped my spent handheld and opened the cooler pulling the next one out of the freezer bag.  Things seemed to be going great.  By this time I was running alone.  I had not seen Martin since the aid station nine miles in and really no one else had been running with me since then.  I was passing 50 milers and 50k runners on their first big loop now.  The temps were also heating up rapidly. 

The cool temps that had been our friend in the dark was long gone.  Accordingly I increased my fluid intake and frequency for gels.  In between the lighthouse trail head aid station and two crazy sisters aid station I was evaluating my hydration scenario.  Just as I planned on downing the bottle in anticipation of refilling soon I discovered I had the wrong bottle....  I had packed two bottles with a baggy of extra Roctane powder to refill and two with extra gels.  Somehow I managed to grab the wrong bottle...  In an effort to not go south in my outlook I improvised.  Well, I have two roctane gels here, I bet if I mix that with 20 oz of water it will be kind of like roctane brew.  Right????  Not so much.  Improvised concoction prepped, I had poured a plain gel into my bottle as I came into the two crazy sisters aid station.  This was my first semi-casual aid station.  It was hot.  I didn't have my roctane brew, and oh yeah, I was about a mile away from running farther than I ever had!  I enjoyed some m&m's.  Wow how they brought me to life.  The potato chips were awesome too, except being stuck in my braces.  Though the Kahlua and Hot Damn the two sisters had looked inviting, I passed.  I did oblige their offer for some cold water on the head.  Ahhh, how refreshing that was...

From there I went, off, onto the more exposed and rockier section of the trail.  It seemed never-ending.  I was spent at this point physically and mentally.  I was audibly telling myself what to do through each section of trail.  A rocky rise would come to me in the trail and I would say "hike.hike.hike."  I would crest the rise and acknowledge the flats and tell myself "run.run.run."  When the cramps started to be more than just nuisances and I would want to walk I would tell myself "you can still run.  keep running.  this will be over sooner if you run more. run.run.run."  The envelope was bending.  I was embracing it.  I was immersed in it and surrounded in the challenge mentally and physically.  The canyon had enveloped me and I was bending yet constantly sliding onward toward the finish.  Just a 10k, then I would be done.  Maybe I would be first I thought.  Maybe third?  I don't really care was my next thought.  I'm doing what I came hear to do.  Run, live, experience, absorb the 31 miles and all it brings with it through the trails of Palo Duro Canyon.

I could have walked and crawled my way to the finish line those last few miles and I would be just as elated with the results.  As it were, I ran and walked and clawed my way through the last six miles from two sisters through the next two aid stations; passing by my friends Elizabeth, Michael, David, and an eleven year old who I gave a tired five to as we passed. 

All I passed who were running I encouraged.  All I saw who were supporting and volunteering I thanked.  I could taste the end.  The finish was so near I could taste it in the potato chips at the second to last aid station.  I could almost feel it in my throat.  Wait that was the gag reflex from deliriously dipping the potato chips in a tub of salt.  The finish was close though, at least in distance.  Time had slowed to a crawl.  The eight minute miles were now hours behind me.  They were also still with me.  Now they were the fatigue making my muscles scream and seize.  I downed coke, m&m's, water, potato chips and gels in hopes they would transform to magical cramp eliminating particles.

Time passed with the dust my feet stirred and the yards they covered which slowly added up to miles.  Soon enough I could hear the cheers of the supporters around the finish line.  It was my third time navigating this section.  Even if it did seem like every straight away and curve was three times as long, I knew it was not.  Eventually I made the long right turn out of the woods and onto the asphalt road where I and 150 others had started the day in the dark nearly five hours earlier.  It was much brighter and far hotter now.  I made a contorted dysfunctional effort to sprint up the road and around to the finish line.  I gave that up before I turned for the home straight and settled for a solid run and a constant hope that I didn't seize up before I stopped.

I crossed what I figured was the finish line to a couple of claps and my two friends Dawnn and Janet welcoming me.  I deliriously wondered about trying to gather my head and not speak until necessary.  Were I not so spent I would have asked Dawnn what was going on sooner since she too was supposed to be running the 50k.  Shortly after, I was told I had finished second overall, official time 4:44:34, way beyond expectations.

I had set out to finish my first 50K trail run and become an official/unofficial ultra runner.  I'm stoked to say I not only did that but I crushed it.

Thank you to my family, friends, and everyone who supports my passion to run, live, and embrace the experiences that are out there waiting for us.

John & Jason - Thank you for sharing your home brew with me Sunday.  Those bacon-wrapped jalapeno-stuffed vineson and pork sausage skewers were killer!  It was a great way to refuel and recover after Saturday's race.

Montrail Mountain Masochist
Feetures Elite lite cushion socks
Brooks HVAC Split Short with gel pockets
Amphipod 20 oz handheld
Suunto Ambit
Headsweat Visor
GU Roctane Island Nectar gel
GU Roctane Brew Tropical drink mix
Body Glide
No worries
GU Recovery Brew Strawberry Watermelon
Avery Brewery - The Reverend
Mix above with good friends old and new

On the flat at Lighthouse before wrapping up my recovery run Monday.

The view looking up at Sorenson Point just a short hike from my camp-site.