Palo Duro Canyon, Texas
19 October 2013
37.5 miles finished in 9:02
This was my goal race for 2013 and I trained long and hard and traveled a long way to get to the starting line. Unfortunately, the finish line didn’t materialize for me. After running three 50k races in the past 18 months, I was anxious to step up to another distance and I chose the Palo Duro Trail Run for a couple of reasons. One, it felt nostalgic and comforting to try something big and new “at home.” Two, I have hiked hundreds of miles in the canyon and I wanted to run somewhere familiar for a change.
Packet pick up took place on the night before the run at WTAMU, my alma mater. We were treated to a pasta dinner and a course overview. There was also a man there known as “The Ancient Brit” who is 86 years old and a friend of the race founder. He came to give a speech of encouragement to the runners and to present a proclamation to the park service from his home city of Westminster, England. It was pretty cool to hear about his experiences and the dinner gave me time to hang out with local runner friends and meet some new people.
Race day started cold and dark. With a start time of 7:00 and sunrise at 7:40ish, we spent the first few miles running in the dark with headlamps and flashlights to guide us. The moonset/sunrise over the canyon walls was glorious! I’m sure that is every runner’s favorite part of the race.
The PDTR course consists of a 12.5-mile loop; the 50-mile runners are to complete four full laps. There is an aid station at the midway mark (you pass it every six miles), plus two others. For the 50-mile run, there is a hard cutoff of 4:00pm to continue to the fourth loop; there is a hard cutoff of 12 hours to finish. I was hoping to run each loop in about 2 1/2 hours, but I was slower than that. After the first two loops/25 miles, I had a deficit of 12-15 minutes. That was cutting it closer than I wanted, but I felt confident going into loop three that I could finish another 12.5 in about the same amount of time and easily make the 4:00pm cutoff time.
In fact, loop three began quite well. I felt stronger during the first few miles of that loop than I expected to and was enjoying myself and the run. But around mile 30 I felt something in the back of my left shoe. Thinking it was probably a piece of grass, I simply reached down and ran my finger around the inside of my sock to dislodge whatever it was. That worked for a hundred yards or so, then I felt it again. I reached down and ran my finger through my sock again. I repeated this several times and then it felt okay, so I ran on. However, about another mile further, I felt a sharp pain in the same spot. I was forced to stop and take off my shoe and sock. I found what appeared to be a small twig, about half an inch long, very smooth and very thin. It was kind of woven through the sock threads, so it took a minute to get it untangled and pull it out. I put my sock and shoe back on and continued on, only to feel the same pain again a short while later. I was forced to stop and take off the shoe and sock again, where I found a another very tiny piece of the twig embedded in the fabric.*
It took far too long to solve the sock problem—I knew I had used up most of my deficit—and I started to panic. I tried to make up the lost time over the next couple of miles, but only succeeded in wearing myself out to the point that I was having trouble running at all. My heart rate was skyrocketing (not helped by the 40-degree temperature change from 31 to 74) and my feet were beginning to hurt. I had to take a bathroom break at the last aid station and by that time I was reduced to shuffling along, running in only short spurts. A running friend who had agreed to pace me on the last loop found me on the trail at about mile 36. He pushed me and I pushed myself, but I arrived at the chute at 4:02…two minutes too late to be allowed to continue.
I didn’t cry. I wanted to, but I held it together. I called my husband and texted my mom and a couple of friends. The RD gave me something to drink and I rested for a little while before going to pick up my drop bag and heading for the car.
Time to regroup and try again.
What Went Wrong
I should have had some. I almost bought a pair before the race, but I thought of them at a time it would have been cutting it close to get them shipped. I did go to REI a couple of days before I left for Texas, but they only had the tall ones and not the short ones for running. I read a number of blogs about the PDTR and looked at every picture I could find from previous years and didn’t see gaiters very often. That led me to believe they probably weren’t needed. I also didn’t see many gaiters on runners at the race and having hiked in the canyon often, I’ve never had anything get into my shoes besides dirt. I brought extra socks thinking I could remedy the dirt problem by switching between loops. I should have worn gaiters and I will not make that mistake again.
Was it the dirt or the altitude or both? Yes! I had a great deal of trouble breathing throughout the race. I train at sea level and the race is about at 3000 feet. I thought three days of acclimation would be enough, but maybe not. Also, when I first switched on my headlamp, all I saw was dirt floating through the air. I was worried right away, but knew there was nothing to be done about it. I had to cough repeatedly during the run to clear my lungs and get a full breath. Altitude I can be mindful of in future races; dirt, maybe not so much.
Panic Due to Garmin Stoppage
I might have made the cutoff if I’d had a better idea of what overall pace I was running. Temperatures warmed considerably during loop one and I removed my arm sleeves before starting loop two. I wasn’t careful and didn’t check my Garmin, so it was awhile before I realized that my left sleeve had hit the stop button and I was no longer timing myself. I had an idea of how I was doing based on time of day, but I was fatigued and had difficulty doing the mental math to get a correct read on overall pace. Not knowing the average made it very hard to determine how fast/slow I needed to go to finish the third loop before the cutoff. After the shoe debacle, I could only tell that I had used up a lot of time, so panic set in and I sabotaged myself by pushing too hard.
I think with a better uphill strategy I might have actually completed each loop in 2 1/2 hours or less and not had to worry about time at all. I know it is accepted ultrarunning practice to walk up hills and then run the downs and flats; however, I think I am probably not walking uphill as fast or as effectively as I could be. I had this same thought a couple of months back on a particularly hilly course, but I didn’t improve much (I don’t think) between then and now. I think this will be an ongoing challenge and I plan to look for expertise from other runners.
What Went Right
The Tailwind really worked for me. I was a little dehydrated at the end of the third loop, but that was my fault for not drinking enough and not taking advantage of plain water at aid stations. I was getting plenty of calories, though. I never once felt hungry. My stomach was never sloshy or upset. I never felt like I was going to bonk at all. I had some Justin’s Nut Butter early in the run, as usual, but after a few hours I didn’t want anymore of that and I stuck to Tailwind only.
* I think the object in my shoe was a cactus needle of some sort that burrowed into my leg. When I finally got home and took my sock off for the last time, I found a large painful blister running alongside my achilles tendon. It was filled with white liquid and burst when I tried to wash it. The wound continued to get worse over two days and then began to heal.