The Wild Canyon Ultra 25k was run on 4/23/22 at Caprock Canyon State Park. I run offroad a lot, but this was my first chip-timed, organized offroad run.
“Bison have the right-of-way, don’t fall off the cliff on the ascent, follow the damn trail markers, take enough water and you probably won’t die. My weekend is real busy, and I don’t need to deal with the damn Search and Rescue people again this year,” said the pre-race announcer. At least I think that is what he said, I might have mis-remembered a few bits.
The horn sounds and a few hundred of us slowly jog up a short hill, over a cattle guard, and down into the canyon for the start of the Wild Canyon Ultra at Caprock Canyon State Park in Texas.
After the long drive home, I unpacked. I take my shoes out of the bag and untie them with a puff of red dust. I pull out my finishers medal and put it into a drawer with dozens of others. That drawer is overflowing and I don’t look at it much.
The red burn lines on my arm where I missed with the sunscreen will fade in about three days.
My tight achilles and sore back will recover over the next few days. Likely I will walk normally within the week.
The race t-shirt will get washed and goes into my dresser. If it fits just right, I might wear it once in the next year.
The stinky running socks, shorts and shoes come out of the plastic bag I stored them in to get washed. They’ll go back on the shelf, ready for the next run.
The run pictures are posted. I got a few likes and that is cool. The pictures that I post and others with the bigger story will be in my personal album. I will look at them some day and reflect on what this day was like. I pray my memories do not fade, for today I truly enjoyed life.
Back at Eagle Point Trail
The race starts from the Lake Theo pavilion and I am on the Eagle Point Trail almost immediately. (see all the trails in the official Caprock canyon state park map) After the cattle guard, the trail heads mostly downhill. It is steeper than I expected. There are a lot of runners grouped up into the tight trail; the 5k, 10k and 25k races all started at the same time. The long-distance runners, 50k, 75k, and 100k, set out an hour before us.
I am a bit surprised by the slow pace. But then again, this is going to be a pretty long day. All the better to pace myself.
The descent into the bottom of the canyon is beautiful. There are red cliffs and interesting formations all around me. It is in the high 60s with a nice breeze and the sun feels gentle. I see a Bison in the far distance walking down from a ridgeline. Puffs of red dust come up from each of my footsteps. I smell fresh clean dirt and wild desert. The downhills continue, and I worry that I’ll have to come back up these hills near the end of the 25k. Two Japanese women slowly run past me and pull farther away on each uphill. No way can I keep up, and I don’t mind. I will run my own race.
After about two miles we exit the trail onto a park road and follow that downhill for a few hundred yards. More downhill distance that will have to be earned back on the return trip.
South Prong Trail
The markers leave the road and venture onto Lower South Prong trail with about four steep up-and-back-downs through steep gullies.
Then a bit more road, and onto the back stretch: Upper South Prong Trail. This trail is fairly wide and looks like is has been freshly graded. There are short trees in the valley here interspersed with washes that have just enough water in them to get my shoes muddy.
The views of the cliffs around the valley make me want to stop and just soak in the view for a few hours. A runner with maybe 10+ years on me and a knee brace keeps leapfrogging over me and I make a goal to keep up with him. I’ll be seeing a lot of him today, but in the end, he’ll pull to the finish a few minutes ahead of me.
“Various points along trails are steep and rugged” reads the park map for the next stretch, an ascent to the top of the canyon. I see runners strung out along the route up to the ridgeline ahead of me as I start up the first pitch.
I need to grab rocks with my hands in places to help pull me up the steep trail as it makes short switchbacks upward. Runners seem to either slow down or speed up on the ascent, like the trail is separating the strong from the week. I am in between those two marks, so I pass a few runners and a few runners pass me. My quads are screaming, but I keep going, step by step. I stop a few times to try to catch my breath, but get no respite and just feel dizzy. So, I keep making progress up.
At a scenic point 2/3 up the climb, a small group of us take turns taking each other’s pictures with the view.
Then back to the climb. At the top I see a woman taking a selfie and offer to get her picture. I see her later at the finish and we rehash the climb a bit.
After the climb, my legs feel like they are done for the day. There are 9 more miles to go. I ignore my legs and keep going. At the top of the ridge, a narrow winding trail appears. It runs through scrub and yucca that takes a bite at me every few yards. It feels so good to not be on the steep uphill. A cold breeze blows at me and I feel like I am flying through this stretch. The pain in my legs fades a bit.
Over to the backside of the ridge and there is a steep gully descending back toward the canyon floor. This is definitely a technical descent. Not from exposure, it is steep with some drops being 2-3 feet. I take my time and lower myself carefully down. This is not a good place to twist an ankle.
The trail crosses by the Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail, which is not the race course, but looks like it is. Luckily, I see a trail marker down the hill to my left and make the correct turn. I call out to a man that missed the turn and is 30 yards down the wrong trail, and he thanks me profusely.
North Prong Trail
At some point the gulley descent turns into a graded trail that is mostly flat with some long descents and ascents. The view on this side of Caprock Canyon State Park is just as good, and it is a real pleasure to be out here. The sun has risen a bit and I start to feel the heat burning into the canyon floor.
I am running with a loose group of four or five others. We seem to speed up and slow down at different times, so we keep leap frogging each other. I name them in my mind as we pass, “Marathon Maniac knee brace guy”, “dude running in sandals”, “20-year-old French girl”, “hip blue shirt dude”. We are probably at the 8 or 9 mile mark, but after that ascent and descent, it I feel like we should be at mile 12. I keep walking any uphills and running the downhills. “Older knee brace guy” comments that if anything even looks close to an uphill, he is walking it.
The trail eventually turns back onto the park road and I see the water station that also marks the turnaround for the 10k. A bit of quick math and a consult with my GPS: 5 miles to go.
Eagle Point and Canyon Rim Spur Trails
Other runners look at me questioningly as I skip the water station. I have a camel pack and brought enough water for the whole thing. I follow a single yellow arrow marker to start the return trip on Eagle Point Trail. I keep a steady walk then run pace. I am on the trail for about 10 minutes without seeing anyone. Did I take a wrong turn? I start to see the 50k runners heading past me, going back out on their second loop. Do they take the same course out as I am on? Am I on the correct trail? I keep going.
A few minutes later, Fairweather Steve emerges at a run from a bend in front of me. We exchange some quick fist bumps, take a few selfies. Then he runs back out on the trail yelling how the climb he is about to do for the second time is a “Real Climb”. He is running strong.
(Side note on Fairweather Steve: After finishing the 50k, he did not trust that his GPS gave him the full distance. After crossing the finish line and dropping his timing chip, he kept running for another 2 miles)
I see no one else going the same way as me for about a half hour, and I keep wondering if I am on the right trail. Then I see a guy in the distance about ¼ mile ahead, going the same direction I am. I breath a mental sight of relief and start to reel him in. When I switch from run to walk, I seem to walk faster than others do. So, I concentrate on keeping a steady fast walk, and running the downhills, and running a full minute at a time on the flats between walking.
I head up a final hill that leads to “The Flats” to the left for another 2 mile loop, and then the finish line to the right. A sight for sore eyes and body: my wife is stationed at the intersection taking my picture! I try my best to wipe the grimace off my face and run a few steps for a picture, but I am not sure if a succeed.
Onto the flats, and the wind is at my back, probably up to 20mph. “Marathon Maniac knee brace guy” appears in front of me, and I am keeping him in sight. But he is moving a bit faster than me. I find myself looking behind me to see if anyone is catching up. Then I realize it doesn’t really matter, so I stop wasting that energy.
At the far edge of the flats, I turn back into the head wind. My cap almost flies off, so I reverse it into the bad boy distance runner configuration. My right calf cramps. I stretch it out quickly and resume a fast walk.
I pass the intersection that leads to the finish, and start jogging as I pass the cattle guard. Down into the parking lot, I pick up the pace as cowbells ring, people clap and shout, and I pass under the finish line arch.
I am sore and tired. I ran into, up, over, and out of a beautiful canyon. My wife has a breakfast burrito waiting. This is a good day.
From my pictures and the online race result, I was able to identify a few fellow runners. I do not know them, but I’d like to say a sincere “Thank You” for being out there. Nick-names are totally in my own mind and have no relation to actual reality:
“Marathon Maniac knee brace guy”: Garret Vandenbelt. bib #167. Time: 3:43:26, M 60-69 #7. Overall #54
“Hip blue shirt dude”: Doug Wike. bib #198. Time: 3:43:41, M 50-59 #6. Overall #55.
“20-year-old French girl”: Jade Damoisaux-Delnoy. bib #193. Time: 3:46:18 F20-39 #1. Overall #58
Fellow runners: Y’all kept me running!!