Monday, July 1, 2013

XTerra Turkey Track Trail Half Marathon Report

Several months ago, when it was still cold and cloudy here in the Ohio Valley, I logged on to search for a unique trail race for my summer travels. I eventually settled on the Turkey Track Trail Marathon near Pagosa Springs, CO. It seemed like a perfect fit for me, given that I planned to take a year off from summer mountain ultras.

The event offered both a half and a full marathon. Though I've become somewhat addicted to the half marathon distance, I decided on the full because it would allow me to spend more time running in the mountains. Then, within two weeks of the event, I scaled my run down to the half marathon due to the nerve injury in my neck.

With the nearby Wolf Creek Pass forest fire threatening to spill its blanket of smoke into the San Juan River Valley, race morning was ushered in by a typically sunny Pagosa Springs sky. That prompted me to join about 200 other runners exiting town for the event. I had already decided to abandon the event and move further west had the sky been full of smoke on race morning.

The event took place on the San Juan National Forest trail system about six miles northwest of town on a course that was primarily single track dirt trails which snaked up and down through arid meadows and forests. Those constantly winding dusty trails created blisters on the balls of my non-lubed feet within five miles. (Duh!) The forest of mostly Ponderosa pine, Engelmann Spruce, and Douglas fir presented just enough protection from the intense high altitude sun. With the exception of the occasional taste of cow manure in the dust kicked up by other runners, this was an absolutely incredible trail experience.

Of course, I had some personal issues. And some of them were physical and likely effected my performance. Like the fact that I had just been forced into a two week layoff due to the pinched nerve in my neck. And the fact that I was NOT acclimated to the approximate 8000 foot average elevation of the course. It was because of these factors that I chose to "take it easy." Right. Sure. You bet.

Less than one minute into the race, before the course left a gradual incline on the gravel road, I was in the midst of a minor anxiety attack due to a lack of oxygen. I looked down at my Polar RC3 GPS and saw that my pace was 6:27. Sigh. My arms were tingling and my vision was impaired by tiny white spots. Really? Here? So quickly? I'd been in that cumbersome state many times before while climbing steep grades with a 15-lb backpack on Colorado's 14ers, but I did not expect to be in so much distress so soon and on such a minimal incline.

After reaching the trail turnoff I was able to regain composure when the grade leveled off then descended for awhile. That pattern of lurching gaited "running" followed by short nauseated bouts of recovery continued throughout the loop course. My condition reached it lowest point approximately six miles into the run when I clung to another runner and didn't back down enough on the first long climb. Check out the first video below to see proof. The video was made by students who set up a camera a few miles into the race to capture the field as we came through. I appear at about 27 seconds in looking like I need medical attention. The funniest (saddest) part of this is that I was audaciously (stupidly) looking for room to pass him when I an incredibly strong urge to sleep came over me!

This second video is cool (love the song) and I look a smidgen better traveling on flatter terrain.

You can see from the data from my Polar RC3 (linked below) that I twice came to a stop near the midpoint of the run. Dazed and confused, I saw two pink flags and wasn't sure where to go. I paused before I chose right. Then, after another minute of not seeing flags I doubted my decision. So I stopped to retie a shoe that had been annoyingly loose - and to wait on the next runner. He arrived and we motored on for another minute before seeing a course marker. Whew! That was all on me. The course was well marked, but I may as well have drunk at that point.

Turkey Track Trail Run - CO 06.15.2013 09:00 AM

I soon pulled away from the other runner as the course turned downward and my head cleared. Then, around mile 10, came the steepest hills. The drunkenness returned for about 1.5 miles. After the course turned imperceptibly down a final time, which allowed me to sober up, I reached the gravel road that took me to the finish. While this was the toughest and slowest half marathon I've encountered, it certainly was the most gentle mountain trail race I've run. Anyone interested in more photos of the course can click on the links found on the GECKO site.

The after race awards party took place later in the day at the Pagosa Springs Brewery under a large tent outside the main structure. The beer was great, the food hit the spot, and the camaraderie of the other runners was exceptional as normal. Race swag included awards made by local students. The giveaways were so plentiful that everyone who attended the after race party left with something.

The Turkey Track trail run was one of the events put on by GECKO, a non-profit group whose name is an acronym for Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors. GECKO was created by Pagosa Springs resident Morgan Murri with the mission of raising money to provide scholarships to children in order for them to attend outdoor educational institutions like NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Morgan Murri onstage

I first met Morgan in 2007 when we ran together during a training weekend for the Leadville Trail 100. Soft spoken and extremely polite, Morgan made a lasting impression on me. Knowing that this exceptional endurance athlete lived in Pagosa Springs, I looked for him on the Turkey Track entry lists before learning that he was the guy in charge. After participating in this well supported and thoroughly organized event, I have even more respect for Morgan.

Sadly, I woke up the following morning in a thick cloud of smoke. I paused at Higher Grounds Coffee long enough to gather some advice and a well crafted mocha to aid me in the drive to Durango.  ST

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