It starts in darkness as you head toward the park entrance. “Just follow the tail lights,” the race director says at the pre-race dinner. It’s good advice. No one else is up before 6 a.m. on the canyon road except people driving to the race. You get to the park entrance, take a short, cautious drive in blackness on a winding road, and then pass a road grade warning sign.
You start to descend into what looks like nothing at all. There is the feeling of dropping into a vastness, something that can’t be seen but is rising all around you. Your headlights catch glimpses of patterned rock walls, but there is no sense of elevation or scale – just a feeling that something very big is happening just past your car window.
Attendants waving light sticks and flashlights direct you into a dirt parking lot, and you get out of your car to the sound of bagpipes playing in the near distance. The sky is packed with stars. In the distance in every direction, you can now see, dimly, high cragged walls. As the sky slowly lightens and reveals the richly patterned streaks in those walls, you feel as if you were in the bottom of a giant, ruggedly fashioned bowl of exquisite Indian pottery. It is huge, yet somehow still intimate, a Grand Canyon on a more human scale. You’re in Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas. It’s the day of the Palo Duro Canyon trail race, and you’re lining up in the pre-dawn light and chill on a start path paved with Texas state flags, serenaded by a bagpipe player in full Scottish regalia, leading you into an awakening wilderness for 20 kilometers of rocky, twisty trail goodness around the spectacular rock formations of the canyon floor.
Years ago I ran the 50K race here twice and the 50 mile race once, but today I was here just for the 20K – what the 50K and 50 milers jokingly call the “fun run.” The question was, why? I hadn’t run a race in four years and had stated I would never run another. But for some reason this past spring, the canyon was calling. And really, for me, that was what this was about. It wasn’t about a return to racing, although I haven’t ruled out doing another. It was about answering the canyon’s strangely timed call. Spending one more morning in a place like no other I’ve ever seen.
And it didn’t disappoint. The weather was crystal clear and cool, the trail in excellent condition, and the scenery still as jaw-dropping as ever. I’m constantly torn between stopping to look at what I’m passing by and pushing on, just getting it done. It is a “race”, after all. But am I in serious contention to break any world records today? And is this really just something else to get done? How many things in life do we treat like they’re a list of boxes on an seemingly endless to-do list, until we get to the point where death is the only box left? And so I slow down, take time to walk a little, and drink in the sculpted wonders towering over me.
I pass a few people, a few people pass me. That old competitive urge is still there, tempered by something that might be wisdom but feels more like age. Perhaps, in some ways, they’re (hopefully) the same thing. But I find myself much more drawn to the canyon than who’s ahead or behind. I do notice the race has grown: rarely am I not in sight of someone.
The last four and a half miles are smoother, flatter, a reward for taking a fair amount of punishment during the first eight. But despite an almost continuous roller coaster of short, sharp up-and-down and one brief section that is more climb than run, the trail isn’t really that technical. Still, I take my eyes off of it at my own peril, as a couple of bad spills I witness remind me.
I finish in good shape, tired but not exhausted. I could have pushed harder, I suppose. I didn’t really want to. Hardly the first to finish, not the last. It’s okay. I cheer a few minutes for the runners still coming in, trudge up the hill to the parking lot, and say another goodbye to a place that had suddenly called to me from clear across the state – over four years and two grandchildren later. Grateful for the opportunity to answer, to run its trails with others once again, and watch darkness take shape into something wonderful.