Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Palo Duro 50

There was a single goal coming into this year’s Palo Duro 50 Miler: finish under 11 hours for a Western States qualifying time. To be sure, my history with gaining a Western States entry has been somewhat tortured. Unsuccessful lottery entries for the 2008 and 2009 races meant that with the so-called Two-Time Loser (“TTL”) rule, my spot would normally have been assured for the 2010 race. Except that there was no 2009 race. Cancelled due to wildfires. With the folks originally entered in the 2009 now guaranteed entry in the 2010 race, the backlog of TTLs had to be split into two groups – half get in the 2010 race, the other half (my half) in the 2011 race. It was just as well, because I was plagued with injuries through much of 2009 and early 2010. By last spring, I had managed to become reasonably healthy and started training in earnest, with my sights on either Dick Collins Firetrails or Palo Duro as my qualifying race (Palo Duro won out). Thus began a long training slog through our horrendous Houston summer. As anyone who logged many miles through the summer can attest, it was utterly miserable. But train I did. And, in some ways it was the most consistent and satisfying training cycle I’d ever had. By the first weekend in October, I had notched something approaching a 70-mile peak training week, with plenty of solid weeks leading up to it. I felt fit and strong and ready to roll. Still, I knew going into Palo Duro that there would be little margin for error.

I’d never run Palo Duro before, and coming into Amarillo and driving down to the town of Canyon (home of West Texas A&M University – whoop!), it’s easy to see how this race might be overlooked. I mean, seriously, there’s NOTHING but flat, empty space. Then, when you’ve almost made it to the park entrance, you get your first glimpse of the canyon, and a quarter mile later, the entire vista opens up before you, utterly shocking in its sudden beauty. But as I looked out across the canyon from the scenic overlook Friday afternoon, the excitement of running through such a gorgeous environment was tempered with the realization that it was hot. Really hot. Not Houston hot, mind you. But bone-dry hot. Clearly, heat management was going to be a huge part of race day.

When I stepped outside of my hotel early Saturday morning, it wasn’t nearly as cool as the forecast originally called for. Instead of 47, it was 55. By the time I parked inside the canyon, it was 57. It was obviously going to be a long day. Race organization was excellent – quick parking, easy check-in, convenient spot for drop bags right along the course, no-frills start. All things I’ve come to value in races. Found Les, then Kevin W., and finally Kim. We tucked in toward the back of the combined 50M/50K pack and in no time we were off. Well, sort of. Probably should have started farther up, because almost immediately we were funneled onto deeply-rutted single-track in a molasses-slow conga line. We’re talking walking for much of the first mile or so. Very frustrating. Once we broke free, I felt the need to make up for lost time, and probably put the hammer down a little too hard. Despite a solid perceived effort, my first loop split was close to 2:25, which put me a bit behind the eight ball.

The second loop was pretty forgettable. With a general idea of where the aid stations fell on each loop (3.5 miles, 6.3 miles, 8.8 miles, 10 miles, 12.5 miles), I recalculated my splits and was hitting them pretty well. I recall spending a little more time enjoying the views on this loop, particularly the section between the 2nd and 4th aid stations, which was just phenomenally beautiful (and completely exposed). Toward the end of the second loop it all of a sudden became hot. Not the kind of hot that immediately overheated the system, but definitely the kind of heat you couldn’t ignore. Back at the start-finish in just under 4:55 total, I quickly grabbed my iPod, downed an Ensure, snatched a few extra gels and headed out in just under 5:00 total elapsed time. It was absolutely clear to me that loop 3 would be the crucible. For any chance at finishing sub-11:00, I needed to cover this loop in no more than 2:45-2:50.

And things started okay. My legs were feeling the accumulated miles, and it was hot, but I was holding together. There were no acute problems. A little cry from the left Achilles every now and then was about it. Stomach was pretty solid, hydration and electrolytes were in order, no hot spots on the feet…. Not too bad. But it was getting much more difficult to run for long stretches. The little uphills were the first to go and I made the decision to begin walking most of them as an energy-conservation strategy. Figured I had at least enough cushion to do that, as long as I ran all the downs and most of the flats. Made it through the first aid station in okay shape timewise, but coming out of that aid station I found myself unable to run any of the gentle, long-ish uphill toward “The Lighthouse” formation. I soon caught up to Bobby Keough, an incredibly nice guy who has run about a million of these, and was content to follow his lead. Walked all of the ups, no matter how slight, ran all the downs, and mixed on the flats. For a little while, a high, thin layer of clouds took the edge off the heat and there was a nice breeze. Alas, that didn’t last and it soon became really hot. The water in my bottle quickly became nasty warm, and for the first time I could feel my system begin to overheat (sloshy stomach, too-quick exhaustion from even minor running efforts). At this point, there was little to do but mix in more walking and hope for some sort of miracle re-birth.

I recall pulling into the second aid station (Dos Loco Senoritas) a couple of minutes ahead of my top-end (i.e., slowest) splits and thinking I was still in the game. Grabbed some nice cold water, a little Coke (which all the aid stations had!), and moved out at a brisk walk while trying to force down a Gu (Chocolate Mint – not just for the holidays anymore). My thoughts were 100% on splits at this point and my mental outlook was still pretty positive. But this 2.5 mile stretch to the next aid station (which always seemed at least a mile longer than that) was both the most scenic and most exposed of the entire race. The sun was merciless and the heat radiated off the nearby canyon walls like a convection oven. It became increasingly difficult to move at a decent clip, and although I had only fallen behind my splits by about 10 minutes, by the time I finally made it into the next aid station, I was cooked and somewhat dispirited. Some cold water, some ice in my cap, and more Coke helped clarify my thinking a little (I was definitely getting a bit woozy), and as I walked into the only shady stretch of the entire course, I began running the numbers again. It was then that the reality hit: I was going to need a huge effort to finish this loop in 3 hours, an effort that - even if I had it in me – would likely leave me with nothing at all in the tank for the final loop (which I would have to do in exactly the same time, if not less than #3). I knew – I mean absolutely KNEW – that this wasn’t going to happen. And at that moment, in the blink of an eye, the little life I had left in me just drained out. My day was done. My only goal evaporated and with it all of my motivation. Made it back to the start / finish in about 8:30 elapsed time & told one of the race officials I was done (to his credit, he didn’t try to talk me out of it).

Where does that leave me? For a moment, I entertained the thought of entering Cactus Rose for one last try at sub-11. I’m feeling pretty good physically. With runs of 32 and 37.5 miles over the last 3 weeks, I’m trained up. But my chances of running a sub-11 at Cactus Rose would have been exceedingly slim given the finish times from last year (it would have taken a top-10 effort this year). I know that course fairly well, and for all its charms, it’s not built for speed. Anyway, I think it’s time to reassess what it is I want from running and where racing (particularly the ultra distances) fits, if at all. I love running. It is without question an important part of my life. But racing 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles? I’m not so sure anymore. So, for now, I think I’ll be content to keep running 40-45 miles a week, maybe focusing on regaining some long-lost leg speed, staying healthy. I’d like to go back to Bandera, because I love that race, but strictly for the 50K (leaving much quality beer-drinking time afterwards). We’ll see. Finally, for anyone looking for a great 50K or 50M race next fall, I can’t recommend Palo Duro enough. Just a terrific race in a magnificent setting.