The Palo Duro trail run tests racers’ resistance to pain and their desire for euphoria.
Article by Brandon Weaver, photos by Russell A. Graves
It is pre-dawn in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and brief whiffs of moisture from a shower linger in the crisp October air. On the floor of the canyon, nearly 200 runners are bustling with nervous energy, preparing for the 18th annual Palo Duro Trail 50, a long-distance trail run that plays out on a rugged 12.5-mile loop through the park’s interior.
In the ultra marathon, youth is considered a hindrance. It takes years of training for the human body to run long distances efficiently.
As the racers congregate toward the starting line, a man in a kilt plays a haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes. An amplified voice booms from the darkness. “Racers line up!” We’re only minutes from its 7 a.m. start time.
When signing up for this event, runners choose from three distances: a 20-kilometer (12.5 miles) fun run/walk, a 50-kilometer (31-mile) run, or the big daddy, a 50-miler. Like most of the racers lined up this morning, I’m running the 50k, which is about five miles longer than a traditional marathon.
In the ultra marathon, (any running race longer than 26.2 miles), youth is considered a hindrance. It takes years of training for the human body to run long distances efficiently. At 30, I need a few years and many more miles before I hit my peak. In the 50k race the average age is in the mid-40s. The average age in the 50-mile race is 47.
Most of us are refugees from the mind-numbing urban marathon. Mile after mile of pounding the pavement through cities is hard on the knees, joints and, more importantly, the brain. Ultra marathons take place almost exclusively on trails in wilderness areas. Once a runner has experienced the rapture of striding along a dirt trail and consuming the nuances of the backcountry with each breath, a normal marathon has little appeal. Running through nature heightens the senses to the point that you assimilate into the scenery instead of just observing it. After this race, a part of Palo Duro Canyon will have entered my soul.
As I line up for the start, I’m a little anxious. Long-distance running hasn’t been good to me. While training for my first marathon in 1998, I encountered the bane of long-distance runners: iliotibial band syndrome. The IT band is a ligament that runs down the outside of the leg from the hip to the shin. It’s most vulnerable at its narrowest point along the outside of the knee. When the IT band flares up, it feels like someone injected hot glue into your knee. I’ve taken three years off from running distances longer than 20 miles to let the injury fully heal, so I’m hoping it won’t be a problem.
When the command to start is given, hundreds of tiny beeps erupt as the racers start their watches. We stampede from the grassy area of the starting line to the park road, then take a sharp right onto the Paseo Del Rio trail, where we’re engulfed by the dense cover of mesquite trees and darkness.
We sort ourselves out into single file. The etiquette of trail racing is civilized. “If you need to get around me, just let me know and I’ll move over,” says the man running in front of me. That’s the last thing I want. The trail is little more than a winding black shadow. I’m not carrying a light, and the sun will be below the horizon for another hour. “No that’s OK. I’m using your light,” I answer. Immediately behind me, another runner is bounding along the trail, carrying a small flashlight. Between the two light sources, the trail is well illuminated. I reluctantly make the same offer to move over for him.
I will get to know him later in the morning, but right now he is too preoccupied to worry about passing me. He’s annoyed about starting the race in the dark. The thought of stepping in a mud puddle and spending the next six hours with a wet shoe is all he can think about. He declines my offer.
After about a mile, the trail spits us onto the park road. When we hit the pavement, everyone’s pace quickens. We run across the park road’s second water crossing. The water is sloshing in the culverts below and laps at the edge of the concrete, threatening to engulf the road’s surface, but our shoes stay dry. The group heads into the Lighthouse trailhead parking lot and splits at the Two Moons Aid Station. The 50-milers go left. They’re doing four laps of the 12.5-mile loop. I go right with the other 50k runners. We’re cutting the first loop in half and running six miles. After that, we’ll complete two full 12.5-mile loops.
The split thins the group, and I find myself running through the darkness behind only one other person. We’re two strangers bound together by an 11-minute mile pace. “My name’s Matt,” he says, just barely turning his head.
Matt Crownover and I spend the next several minutes casually jogging and getting to know one another. Crownover, a 30-year-old chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, had been camped directly across the park road from the start/finish line at the Hackberry Campgrounds. He was still at his campsite, leisurely enjoying the early morning, when he realized he was about to miss the race. He grabbed his gear and rushed to the starting line just as we said amen to the morning prayer.
As we slow to walk up a long hill, we hear a voice with a British accent behind us. Sarah Brown, 33, is hustling, so we move over to let her by. Originally from England, the Fort Worth resident tends to start out too fast. She’s looking for a group to help her maintain a steady pace for the first loop. She informally joins forces with us. While all three of us have extensive endurance racing backgrounds, we discover this is our first ultra marathon. We spend the next hour running in the twilight and chatting about everything from the metric system to the majestic scenery.
Watching the sun rise while running through the backcountry of Palo Duro Canyon is a rapturous experience. The sunlight filters over the canyon wall and stirs the sleeping terrain. The gentle knolls and grand mesas slowly rise from the curtain of night and begin their day. I want to live in this moment forever, but I know this euphoria is fleeting. At some point as the race progresses, this sensation will be nothing more than a taunting memory.
Running through nature heightens the senses to the point that you assimilate into the scenery instead of just observing it.
At the end of the first loop, Matt drops off to shed his jacket and flashlight. I stop briefly at the Two Moons Aid Station before I begin my first long loop. The aid station is stocked with energy-sustaining foods: boiled red potatoes, dishes of salt, fig bars, M&Ms, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, chips and Coke, water and Gatorade. Most racers wear a utility belt with a water bottle and pockets for food. I fill half of my bottle with water and the rest with Coke (human rocket fuel) and head out. Sarah drops back at the aid station, so I’m running solo.
A couple of miles into the second loop, a new running partner appears. Christian Poppeliers, 33, is sporting a tie-died shirt and nursing a nasty cold. Back home in Houston he’d been fighting a 102-degree fever all week. When he arrived in Amarillo on Friday, he’d convinced himself he was over it. Now at nine miles into the race, he realizes he’s made a grave mistake.
It’s been drizzling off and on for the last couple of hours. Slowly the weather breaks and a rainbow forms in the canyon from rim to rim. Red Spicer, the race director, takes a moment from his duties to enjoy the beautiful weather. He’s been organizing this event for 18 years, and he’s seen just how brutal the weather can be. One notable year the race-day temperature was 17 degrees. To keep the beverages at the aid stations from freezing, workers stashed them in their heated cars.
Accompanied by Christian’s wheezing, we knock out our second loop together without drama. At the last mile, Christian begins to fall back, and I assume he’s dropping out. I begin my last loop for the day and check my watch. I’m a little over 31⁄2 hours into the race. Things look good. Suddenly, I hear a familiar voice call my name. It’s Matt Crownover and he’s clicking along at a brisk pace. He passes me and disappears around the corner. He ultimately finishes at five hours and 45 minutes, for a ninth-place finish.
At mile 20, I feel the first tinges in my IT band. I try to put it out of my mind and slow down, hoping it’s just normal knee pain. From behind I hear Christian’s now-familiar heavy breaths. I’m amazed he’s still going. He eases past me and is gone. Once again, I’m alone. The onslaught of pain is slow and steady, traveling from my shin up into my lower back. With each mile that creeps by, my knee grows stiffer. Just before mile 25, I catch Christian again, and he’s in really bad shape. When I see his face, I know he’s done. At the next aid station, he pulls out. Later that night in his hotel room he vomits blood, and his cold develops into a full respiratory infection. It takes him a month to fully recover.
I walk the next six miles completely alone. The temperature has dropped, and the wind is cutting through the canyon. My whole body hurts and the cold weather amplifies my suffering. I check my watch. I’ve been at this for more than five hours. This morning’s euphoria is long gone. I hate this stupid canyon. I hate running. And all I want to do is get in a car, sit down, and leave this infernal place.
At around mile 28 my self-pity is interrupted. It’s Sarah. She passes by, giving me a breathless, “Hey!” Periodically her image pops up on the trail ahead of me. She finishes in six hours and 20 minutes and takes fourth place in the women’s division.
The last 11⁄2 miles is the longest of my life. Normally an IT band injury hurts only when you run. The problem is I’ve been walking on it for 11 miles and it hurts every moment I’m standing. The trail seems to sense this and taunts me, climbing and careening along the edge of the canyon wall, torturing me with each change in elevation. The trail winds its way through a field of hoodoos, circular pedestals of gray rock, and I encounter a woman sitting atop a large one. “Everybody that’s been through here looks pretty bad,” she says with a pleasant smile. “Just hang in there. You’re almost done.”
The finish line stretch is guarded by 11 rock steps descending 30 feet down a nearly vertical hill. The steps average about 12 inches in height. My right knee refuses to bend, and my left is protesting loudly, but through bursts of pain I scramble down the ledges and lurch the final 50 yards across the line with a time of six hours and 41 minutes. I’m done. No epiphanies. I just want to go home.
A month later, I return to Palo Duro with my mountain bike to ride the course. It’s Friday morning in mid-November and the park is virtually empty. I start out on the Paseo Del Rio trail. Memories of the race morning fill my head and I realize just how much I loved running here. I want that euphoric feeling from the race’s first hour back. I want that to be my lasting impression from the race, but it’s not. I decide then and there to come back and claim that glory, to finish this race on my own terms.
The aid station is stocked with energy-sustaining foods: boiled red potatoes, dishes of salt, fig bars, peanut butter sandwiches, chips and Coke, water and Gatorade.
Race Information Web site: www.palodurocanyon.com/
Race Director: Red Spicer (806) 353-3847