It still hasn’t sunk in. I did it. I am an ultra-runner. It’s all strangely anti-climactic, but I suppose it’s no surprise. I approached this race nonchalantly. Not that I trained poorly or got cocky or anything like that. But I really played down the ultra part in my mind. I looked forward to my first 50K as just another opportunity to do what I love: go for a long trail run. I especially looked forward to running in a beautiful place, Palo Duro Canyon. All I had to do was execute my critical race day tactics of fuel and pace. Anything else that might prevent me from conquering my first ultra was out of my control.
Maybe I was slightly too laid back? I camped out the night before the race in Palo Duro State Park, a couple miles from the race start. I resisted engaging in my usual night before OCD organizing mode. Of course the rural night sky distracted me. Sure, I’ve seen stars like that before, but it’s no less enthralling. I spotted a few satellites and even saw two shooting stars. Anyhow, I left a few too many chores for the morning. Close call #1 – After parking the car, I made my way completely across the parking lot before I realized I forgot to attach my bib. Close call #2 – Then I found myself still standing in line for the toilet with just 9 minutes till the 7AM start. Thankfully, I was able to take care of business and arrived at the starting line with a couple minutes to spare. Other close calls that morning included losing my headlamp on the 5 minute drive from my campsite to the race parking lot and forgetting to apply sunscreen or put it in my drop bag. Luckily, I was able to borrow some.
The Main Event
Running in a beautiful place and starting just before sunrise is something every runner should experience. Occasionally you could see the line of headlamps strung out before you a quarter mile or so, bouncing and bobbing in a sea of darkness. I turned my headlamp on for a bit. But I found myself staring at the heels of the runner in front of me, so I turned it off. Instead I paid attention to the few people in front of me for signs of troublesome rocks and used a short stride with light steps to successfully avoid tripping. With the headlamp off my eyes were better adjusted to sneak glances at the marvel developing beyond the southeast end of the canyon. High clouds on the horizon serendipitously greeted the morning’s first light; the sky glowed pink. At one point someone shouted, “Everyone turn around right now and look!” I was surprised as I continued turning to look at the spectacle to find it hadn’t yet climaxed. Larger swaths of the sky turned brighter and brighter pink announcing the sun’s arrival. Soon, the darkness gave way to morning light and the beauty of the canyon engulfing us became apparent.
The 50km course consisted of one 6 mile loop and two 12 ½ mile loops (the six mile loop was a subset of the 12 ½ mile loop). I took it extremely easy for the first two loops (30km). I probably stopped to take a leak 3 or 4 times (TMI). I wasn’t in any hurry and apparently my ritual race morning coffee wasn’t done with me. I focused on fuel and hydration, not afraid of over hydrating since that problem had a simple solution (see above). At the aid stations there were some amazing cookies made by a local bakery. Those, plus occasional gels kept me well fueled. I also had some calories from Coke, Gatorade, and Hammer Heed. I tried something that worked well with my 4 x 8 oz. Nathan fuel belt. I started the race with 50 calories (half a scoop) of Heed powder in each flask, without any water. Then at each aid station I would fill one with water and drink those calories on my way to the next aid station.
At the end of my second loop (30km) I felt good. I wanted to start switching to fuel that had some protein. I had Hammer Perpetuem powder in my drop bag, but figured grabbing PB&Js at the aid station would be faster. I chomped another cookie, drank some coke and Gatorade, and had a PB&J wedge before embarking on my final lap.
The temperature was starting to rise but wasn’t oppressive yet. I decided it was time to ratchet up the pace a bit. The course thinned out, and at times it was as if I had the canyon to myself. I really enjoyed this section of the race. Running hard (relative to earlier) and having vistas of sandstone canyon walls all to myself was great. I picked people off one by one. Around 40km (25 miles), the heat really started getting to me. The course is very exposed through that section. My pick-up was pretty much in the toilet. But so was everyone else’s, so I was able to easily hold my place in the field. All I wanted to do was get back to where I knew there was some tree shade around mile 28.
Only two people passed me the entire race (both in the last 4 miles), but I think one of them was the lead 50 miler. My push fizzled, but I knew I could finish. I had enough energy for a strong kick on the last stretch. And that was it, I crossed the same line I did 31 miles, five hours, forty eight minutes earlier. I placed 14th out of 92 finishers, fifth in my age group. I enjoyed a hamburger (with jalapenos) and a hotdog. Though I enjoyed my ribeye steak 6 hours later much more.
This race gives me a lot of confidence in chasing my ultra-running dreams. I finished comfortably. I had a blast. I already knew I loved trail running and this race proved that over a handful (literally) more miles than ever before. I hope I’ll run Palo Duro Canyon many more times in my life, but I don’t want to drive all 13 hours (including both ways) of it again by myself. It’s tempting (as it was this time around as well) to consider doing the 50 mile. But I’m so glad I didn’t. The high was 85 and I definitely wouldn’t have been happy about running19 more miles on that particular day.
This race also confirmed what it is I love about running most: experiencing the natural beauty of God’s creation while exploring the limits of my physical and mental endurance. Don’t get me wrong, running fast is fun. Setting personal records is satisfying. And breaking through new distance goals is rewarding. But running just for the aesthetic pleasure of the endeavor itself is best of all.