Exploring Oklahoma’s Gloss Mountain State Park

An overlook at Gloss Mountain State Park.

I love a good road trip. Pack up the car, drive long miles, see places you’ve never been and make some memories. Heck, I’ve written a book in which most of the settings came by way of road trips out west.

But sometimes you don’t have time for that. And in that case, a day trip will do.

Not quite six years ago I was driving west to go to Black Mesa, home of Oklahoma’s highest point in the far western Panhandle. On the way there, I ran into a surprise bit of scenery. Between the northern Oklahoma towns of Enid and Fairview is a group of mesas that have become known as the Gloss Mountains. They rise suddenly out of the otherwise flat northwestern Oklahoma prairie, and I found them so scenic that I had to pull over, whip out a camera and snap some pics before continuing my drive. I knew one day I’d need to come back for a closer look.

Another outcrop, with a commanding view of the northwestern Oklahoma prairie.Within this range is Gloss Mountain State Park. It’s a small unit of the state’s park system, built for day hikers and casual visitors to check out the unique formations of this area.

Let’s get into a little geological history. How did these things get here? This may surprise you, but the existence of the Gloss Mountains is connected to the Rocky Mountains much farther west.

A look at Lone Peak, as seen from Cathedral Mountain.

At one time, Oklahoma and much of what is now the American West was at the bottom of a prehistoric inland ocean. The continental collision that gave rise to the Rockies also caused the flat seabeds to the east to rise with it, giving birth the the Plains. What was once underwater is now dry land.

In parts of the sea bed, gypsum and selenite deposits settled in with the rest of the sediment. When the sea bed rose, time eroded softer soil and rock away, leaving behind sturdier rock formations that have better resisted the powers of natural erosion. The mesas of the Gloss Mountains are the result.

A better look at the scope of Cathedral Mountain, with Lone Peak in the distance.

The park itself is small, encompassing Lookout Mountain, Cathedral Mountain, the Sphinx and Lone Peak, the highest mesa in the range. There are more formations to the north and west, but those aren’t part of the park.

In the park is a parking area, a couple of shelters where you can grab lunch in some shade, and a small monument bearing the U.S. and Oklahoma flags. It’s easy enough to see where the park is by spotting the flags from the highway.

As seen from Cathedral Mountain, this pointy little spire is called the Sphinx.

A trail leads to the top of Cathedral Mountain. You have to climb about 150 steps to reach the top (it’s fairly steep), and then you have a small network of trails at the top, most with great overlooks of the range and the surrounding prairie. The total trail length, round trip, is about 1.2 miles. If you’re bringing children or dogs with you, mind the parts of the trail near the edges of the mountains; there are some dropoffs where care is needed.

U.S. and Oklahoma flags flying near the trailhead, with Cathedral Mountain in the background.

It’s not a huge hiking day, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I spotted people hauling camera equipment to the top, looking for just the right place to shoot. Others brought lawn chairs to find a quiet spot near the cliffs’ edges to hang out, enjoy a bite and maybe something cold to drink. Overall, it’s a chill place to hang out and enjoy some time outdoors without the huge commitment of other destinations.

One of the things I enjoy about Oklahoma is that within all that prairie are little surprises like the Gloss Mountains. And I’m fascinated by how this place is linked by a massive mountain range hundreds of miles away.

As a day trip, I dig it. Here’s to finding more fun spots like this in the future.

A thunderstorm blooms in the northwestern Oklahoma sky near Gloss Mountain State Park.

Bob Doucette

Rather than bail, go ahead and take that hike

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo., on an iffy weather day in 2015.

I got pretty stoked at last weekend’s forecast. It called for snow, which we rarely get anymore here in northeast Oklahoma, so my plan was to get my weekend chores out of the way, head to the trails and see what the woods looked like with a fresh blanket of snow on them.

I woke up to the snow ending, and just barely enough to pockmark the grass with dots of white. A dusting, and not the three inches I’d been expecting. It seems like the last few winters have merely been an extended fall that hurry themselves into spring earlier than I’d like. Part of that whole “hottest decade ever recorded” thing, I guess.

Anyway, I bailed on the hike and watched football instead.

But part of me wonders if I missed out, even without the scenery I expected. After all, some of the most memorable hikes I’ve done have come at times when the weather seemed to be saying “no.”

A few that come to mind…

In the summer of 2015, forecasts called for relentless morning and afternoon storms in the Rockies. I’d already been chased off Longs Peak earlier that week by bad weather and route conditions. But I desperately wanted some alpine time, so despite the ugly prediction I headed up to Loveland Pass to see what I could get.

It wasn’t a huge hike, nor was Cupid a prestigious summit. But the summit views and the way the clouds weaved around and over the mountaintops was so worth it.

Huron Peak emerging from the clouds, as seen from the northwest ridge of Missouri Mountain in 2013.

Two years earlier, terrible rains were flooding the Front Range and northern Colorado when I was supposed to join a group for a climb of Capitol Peak. The trip was jettisoned, but here I was in Denver and having spent a bunch of time just driving there, I couldn’t let it go. I took a chance on the iffy forecast, headed to the Sawatch Mountains and car camped at the trailhead of Missouri Gulch Basin. The next morning, with things looking as dicey as ever, I started marching uphill toward Missouri Mountain.

The weather held off. I was treated to surreal scenery and solitude on what was probably the most memorable summit hike I’ve ever done. It wasn’t a particularly difficult mountain but doing it solo on a day like that made it special. I wouldn’t trade that day for anything.

Rewind three more years. One weekend I had some free time and decided to head to the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. I unintentionally ignored the forecast, but when I got there, it was apparent it was going to be a stormy day. Having driven more than two hours already, I said, “to hell with it” and marched down the trail.

A break in the weather going up a ridge in the Wichita Mountains in 2010.

I didn’t get to my objective that day (too stormy), but I did see some amazing things and got to know the range in a way that most of us never get to see: Enveloped in a historic squall, wearing the weather’s colors in a manner that was almost mythic. I’ll never forget that day.

I’ve had a few friends tell me that when it comes to big hikes and climbing mountains that you just need to go, even if the forecast sucks. It might turn out accurate, and you may have to bail. But you also might catch a window that allows you to have a memorable adventure. If you bagged it prematurely, you never know what you may have missed.

So, I suppose when I get my heart set on some snowy scenery and it doesn’t pan out, maybe I should go hike anyway. Something else might await that makes it worthwhile.

Bob Doucette

The trails were busy on Christmas, and that’s a good thing

I wasn’t alone on the trails on Christmas Day. This cyclist, a hiker in the background, and scores of others were there, too.

This has been a strange holiday season for me, mostly because I worked through both Christmas and New Year’s. It’s hard to get the holiday spirit when it’s just another workday.

But I did have time on Christmas Day to get on the trails. The weather was sunny and mild, and I had time to kill before my shift started. I figured most people would be at home with relatives, soaking in the holiday largesse, and maybe watching “Elf” or something.

I’d have the trails to myself!

Uh, wrong. I showed up to a mostly full overflow parking lot. People on mountain bikes, couples walking dogs, parents herding children… you get the idea. I’d be sharing the trails that day in a big way.

I dig the solitude of trail running. It’s a stark contrast to my city routes, where I’m dodging people, looking out for cars and otherwise surrounded by all the sights and sounds of a busy urban center. Don’t get me wrong, I like my city runs. But trail runs have their place, too. So, I might have been somewhat put off that my trail miles would have to be shared.

But as I thought about it, I changed my mind. As it turns out, the trail system I visited was working exactly as planned. And that’s a good thing.

When I moved to Tulsa in 2011, I’d heard a little about Turkey Mountain, but didn’t know much about it. I spent the next couple of years exploring its trails, and in terms of health, fitness, friendships and quality of life, I can say that the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness changed my life for the better. I’ve been advocating on its behalf for more than five years now.

Why it’s so important to my city has a lot to do with where Tulsa is, the health problems the community has, and the opportunity these trails provide. It’s a sorely needed venue for folks to get active. Oklahoma is smack in the middle of America’s Stroke Alley, so you understand the importance of things that help combat the increasingly sedentary nature of the society we live in.

When you think about it, the folks that set aside this land as a wild space decades ago were visionary. They saw the possibilities of what such a landscape could provide the city, other than being a tract for commercial or residential development. There is plenty of that to go around, but not much in the way of a true natural woodlands that people in the city could enjoy.

What’s encouraging is that many communities across the country are seeing the wisdom in setting aside land for human-powered recreation. I’ve seen it in the Denver metro area, and in a big state park south of Nashville. And so many more places. We need it, and folks are recognizing that fact – and acting on it.

So, what the heck. I didn’t get that solitary trail experience, but I got my run, nonetheless. And a bunch of people were out there with me, enjoying the woods, and getting some fresh air outside. I’ll call it a win.

Bob Doucette

A conservation win: How urban green spaces helped save a city from historic floods

The Arkansas River, well above flood stage.

Last month, I had an opportunity to sit in on a forum with the Oklahoma Conservation Leadership Academy, and while there I learned something crucial.

The academy is organized by The Nature Conservancy, a large organization that manages lands across the United States and in dozens of countries for the purpose of returning lands to their natural state and restoring plant and animal species that once flourished in these places before man-made influences became predominant.

The academy’s class is filled with bright people from across Oklahoma who asked intelligent and at times technical questions on the topic of urban conservation, which was the topic of the day. Most of these questions were directed at two panelist speakers, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and Tulsa Parks Director Anna America.

Both had a lot to say, but something stuck out to me. Both also had detailed stories about how the city’s urban green spaces saved the city truckloads of money and no small amount of grief when the Arkansas River flooded its banks last May.

First, a quick recap: 2019 has been an extraordinarily wet year in northeastern Oklahoma, and never more so than in the spring. Heavy winter and spring rains in Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma saturated the ground and caused the Arkansas River drainage basin to swell. And then May hit.

Day after day of rain-laden squall lines moved across the state, bringing inches of precipitation every day and tornado warnings almost nightly. As the Arkansas River swelled, so did reservoirs built to mitigate flood risks. Chief among those is Lake Keystone, and it held back floodwaters as long as it could. Ultimately, even Keystone Dam had its limits and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was forced to increase flows from the lake to near-record levels downstream. At its worst, the dam was releasing more than 287,000 cubic feet of water per second, some four times or more than normal. Such huge releases hadn’t been seen in more than three decades, and that event led to damaging – and deadly – floods in Tulsa and beyond.

As you might expect, it flooded again. Massively. Among the hardest hit places in Tulsa were its parks, particularly the River Parks along the Arkansas River’s banks, and Mohawk Park in Tulsa’s north side. Millions of dollars in damage was recorded, the cleanup and repairs were (and still are) extensive, and at one time, much of the parks were under water.

Floodwaters cover a bike path at Tulsa River Parks.

This would seem to be a sad story for the city, and in some ways, it was. But in truth, the parks did what they were supposed to do. And that helped the city avoid much bigger losses.

America, the parks director, noted that Mohawk Park functioned as designed, absorbing floodwaters that might otherwise have covered neighborhoods, commercial properties and other places where people live, do business, go to church and shop. Mayor Bynum said that the River Parks, being mostly absent of urban development, took the brunt of the flooding inside the city limits while shielding people’s neighborhoods and businesses from harm.

Few people know how vulnerable cities are to flooding just by nature of urban development. Impermeable surfaces like streets and parking lots allow water to flow freely and quickly wherever gravity and the current please. Storm drains in these areas become overwhelmed, and creeks end up flooding, covering roads, causing flash floods and damaging buildings and critical infrastructure like roads, bridges and the like. That’s what makes urban flooding so damaging and dangerous.

But permeable surfaces, where grasses, trees and shrubs grow, absorb and blunt the onslaught of flooding. The city of Tulsa consciously chose to be careful about how much any of the banks of the Arkansas River would be developed. It’s prime real estate that would be perfect for housing subdivisions, luxury apartments and an array of businesses that would make money for the city. But the banks of the Arkansas have a built-in setback of green spaces and are mostly devoid of such development. Spaces like Mohawk Park – a vast tract of parkland that is among the largest of its kind in the country – can serve as a basin to contain flooding before it seeps into populated areas. Both parklands are used almost exclusively for recreation, with minimal use of paved surfaces and other forms of development. But flood mitigation is also part of their purpose.

I live close to the river, and I remember going down to the riverbanks to watch the awesome and frightening power of the river at such an extreme flood stage. The flow of the river reminded me of video footage of what a large tsunami looks like, except in this case, the tsunami was a quarter mile wide and never receded. It just kept going, faster than a man can run or most cyclists can ride, a relentless surge of watery power. It’s remarkable that more damage wasn’t done, especially when you consider what happened to cities and towns downstream of Tulsa that weren’t so fortunate.

The takeaway is that urban green spaces have value well beyond recreation or propping up property values. Green spaces absorb pollution and help scour the air. They provide habitat to permanent and migratory species of all sorts of animals. Wetlands in these spaces act as water filters. And as we saw in the Spring 2019 floods in Tulsa, these green spaces can save communities untold grief when rivers overflow their banks. As climate change advances and more weather extremes like last spring’s rains unfold, these urban green spaces only grow in importance.

Cleaner air, cleaner water, outdoor recreation and flood protection. I can’t imagine a better case could be made for boosting cities with expanded urban green spaces. Not all conservation looks the same, but in the end, conservation works for all of us.

River Parks and Tulsa’s Mohawk Park sustained major damage, but much of the city did not despite historic flooding of the Arkansas River.

Bob Doucette

2019 Route 66 Marathon half: Not a victory, not a defeat, just a race that… went

Not my fastest, not my slowest. Somewhere in between.

I’m a firm believer when it comes to accountability. When you write about running, and particularly about how you’re training for a race, I think you owe it to folks to say how that race went. Even if it’s not filled with PRs and awesome, glorious race photos. So here goes.

In terms of training for half marathons, I’m not sure I’ve had a season go this well. A couple of years ago I was doing well but got sick two weeks before the race and didn’t fully recover by race day. As you might guess, the results left me wanting.

This year, I seemed to be on track to improve on last year’s performance. Everything was coming together. I dropped weight, nailed my workouts and really pushed the speed work. My times were coming down and I went into race day at the Route 66 Marathon half healthy and feeling dang good.

Maybe deceptively good.

The first three miles flew by. I was running ahead of my goal pace, but not feeling the strain. I had to stop at a Porta-John at that point but was in and out quickly and still under my goal pace. Six miles in, I’d run my third-fastest 10K, and considering the hilliness of that part of the course, I figured I was on my way to a good finish. All I had to do was relax in the flats, regain my breath and coast to the hardest part of the course, those hilly Miles 11 and 12.

There was only a slight southern breeze, in this case, a tailwind. The temps were cool, skies were blue. Miles 7-10 were mostly flat. No problem, right?

Wrong. I never recovered after those first six miles and found myself struggling with my cardio at Mile 10, something that didn’t let up until it was over. There would be no PR, and by the time I’d crossed, I’d broken a three-year streak of cutting my finish times. I clocked in at 2:15:11, not my slowest and not my fastest, just somewhere right in between.

Folks will tell me that it’s impressive enough to train for and finish that half marathon, a sentiment I’d echoed in the last blog post I wrote. But it didn’t feel that way to me. Instead, I was left wondering what went wrong, why the fitness I felt I’d gained abandoned me, and so forth. Well, I know why. Like a rookie runner, I came out too fast and it bit me.

But that’s OK. Live and learn. I know where I need to improve. In any case, I got to run on a ridiculously beautiful day, enjoy some seriously good finish line brews at the end and hang out with a fellow runner and friend who placed 50th overall in the half marathon. Yeah, he’s fast. And while the results on the clock didn’t move the meter for me, I did gain from what I did over the past three months. Now the goal is not to lose that hard-earned conditioning.

How do you deal with a race that didn’t go as planned? Gimme a shout and let me know. I’d love to hear your story.

The look of a guy who is just glad to be done. This was a race to learn from.

Bob Doucette

Running the Tulsa Run, and learning to trust the process

Me and a coworker, Corey Jones, after the Tulsa Run 15K. He’s a lot faster than me.

I’m eight weeks into the fall training season, and the thing I need to keep telling myself is this: Trust the process.

I say this a little less than a week after running the annual Tulsa Run 15K. There’s a lot to like about this race — its long history, its penchant for attracting costumed runners, and the fact that some really fast runners come out every year (it’s the host race for the USATF Masters 15K championships).

The race goes through cool neighborhoods, into scenic parks and finishes on a long, uphill stretch that goes right into the heart of downtown. Tulsa firefighters park ladder trucks on either side of Boston Avenue, the race’s final stretch, and hang a huge American flag that you run under just a few blocks from the finish. The city embraces this run as it has for more than four decades, Tulsa’s first “long” distance endurance event, the race that all other local races are built on.

While the Tulsa Run doesn’t hold the place it once did in terms of distance (there are numerous half marathon, marathon and ultramarathon-length races in town now), thousands still come out for it. For those of us running the half and full races at the Route 66 Marathon, it’s the last tune-up before November’s big show.

I came into this one with high hopes. I’ve been training hard, not only with the distances, but also with speed work. I’m lighter and faster than I was at this time last year.

That doesn’t mean I’m fast, but I really thought I had a shot at breaking my 15K PR, a 1:28 showing in 2013 when I was training for a full marathon.

Long story short, that didn’t happen. Not even close, really. I clocked in at 1:34.33. Just two years ago, I was three minutes better than that.

When it comes to running — or anything, really — unmet goals are a good time to reassess. What went right? What went wrong? What could be different? As far as I can tell, I went out to fast and underestimated the course. It could also be true that on my training days I’m not pushing hard enough. My speed days are plenty hard — more strenuous than any speed workouts I’ve ever done. But those other runs? Maybe I need to pick it up a little.

But as is usually the case, there are silver linings. For starters, this year’s Tulsa Run finish was almost a minute-and-a-half faster than last year’s. That’s a great sign, seeing that last year I snagged my second-fastest half marathon ever. I’m way ahead of the game, by that standard.

And then there are the peripheral things that make it all worth it. There is satisfaction in doing hard things and seeing them through. Weekly bike rides — installed in the training program as cross-training — are a joy. Plus little things — running past parks as some dudes embark on a drum circle jam session, or a Mexican band throwing it down at a block party-style event, or spotting a bald eagle soaring above, searching the waters of the Arkansas River for a meal.

When you take up running, most people don’t quantify these as benefits, but they are.

And running has a way of making you laugh at its minor hardships. On Tuesday, I was set to pound out eight miles before work, but a cold front with scattered rain was in the mix. Fine mist fell on me most of the way, but for about a half hour on the back end of the run I got the indignity of running in the rain. A cold rain, mind you. By the time I got back to the house, I was soaked pretty good. I got a chuckle out of how much all my drenched clothes weighed once I stripped down. Part of the deal, I guess. A hot shower never felt so good.

Anyway, the end of Saturday’s race featured free beer and a massage, along with some conversation with a couple of coworkers who ran that day, too. Both faster than me, by the way.

But I guess we all run our own race, learn from it what we can, and move on to the next thing.

I’m in the heart of my training season, when the miles are piling up and the workouts are getting harder. The next thing, in three weeks, is that half marathon. Until then, it’s time to put in the work, enjoy the ride and see what happens on race day,

Bob Doucette

Some good and bad on my local trails

Hi Chi Trail, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa.

Summer is about kaput, so my attention has been focused on my local trails. There has been some good and some bad news on that front.

The bad news is this: Some people just don’t understand that you can’t arbitrarily cut down trees on public lands because you don’t like where they’ve been growing.

There is a section of trail on Turkey Mountain called Tree Hugger that gets its name from a skinny passage between two maturing trees that have grown by each other right on the side of the trail. In the past, I’ve likened them to the ski gates you see on slalom courses. It’s not a problem for runners or hikers, but if you’re on your bike, it’s a tight fit between the trees. If you’re not confident enough on your bike to slow it down for a more careful passage — or if you’re too prideful to get off your bike and walk it through — Tree Hugger’s namesake feature might seem like a bit of a hassle.

But you can’t blame the trees for growing where their seed landed, and in any trail user etiquette, it’s bad form to remove rocks, cut roots or hack down trees simply to make your journey a little easier. It’s unsporting, and more importantly, extremely bad ecology.

Well, some jackwagon decided to cut down one of the trees.

I’m not sure who took this photo, but it’s not the person who cut the tree. We also don’t know who felled the tree.

My guess is this person came in at night (or some other time when no one would be there) and cut the tree down, simply so bike passage would be easier.

I won’t mince words. This is the kind of person who rides trails when they’re waterlogged, paying no mind to the damage that causes. Probably the type who never goes to a cleanup day, or a trail work day. A rider of limited ability who is all about “freedom” but absent the concept of responsibility that freedom infers.

The tree is gone, and there’s no repairing the damage. So I’ll put this out there…

Only the landowner has the right to use power tools or cut down trees at Turkey Mountain, and that landowner is the River Parks Authority. Anyone else who wishes to do so needs RPA permission. Otherwise, it’s vandalism and punishable as a crime.

RUNNING WITH THE TOTS

On to the good. I took last week off work, but didn’t go anywhere. I stayed home, and got to do a lot of things I don’t normally get to do because I’m at work.

Something I used to do was run trails with a weekly run group on Tuesday nights. They’ve long been known as the TOTS (Training on Turkey). Well, I work nights. So I haven’t been able to run with this crew for years. I finally got that chance this week.

Well, sort of. I got there late, so I missed everyone hitting the trail. I ran my own route, then met up with the gang at the trailhead when it was over. Most of these folks are new to me — it’s been a few years, ya know. So I spent some time introducing myself to people.

This is what some Tulsa trail runners do for fun after a group run: Compete to see who can get the best crushed can. (Kia Shebert-Smith photo)

Back in the day, we all headed to a taco joint when it was over and shot the breeze. That tradition has changed. Now, it’s simpler — sharing beers at the trailhead. When it’s time to go, everyone crushes their cans, and a contest is held. The can that’s most perfectly crushed wins. The prize? Bragging rights, and a mention on a blog managed by a gal who has taken the responsibility for shepherding the run group.

It’s a fun, laid-back group with runners who are faster and more accomplished than me. I’m used to that. As it turns out, a few of these folks have a thing for hiking Colorado’s 14ers, One of those guys is headed to Colorado as I write this to take a stab at some of the giants in the Sawatch Range. Hey, anytime I get to talk mountains with people is a good time.

The group has changed, but some things stay the same. People gather because they love trail running. They dig Turkey Mountain. They enjoy exploring the Rockies. It may be awhile before I get to rejoin these runners again, but it’s good to know that there’s still a chill group of runners having some fun together while getting their miles.

Bob Doucette

A break in the storms and some time on the trail

Look how green that is.

The weird weather cycles have kept me away from the trails of late. We get big storms, huge rain dumps, maybe a day of no action, and then it starts all over again. It’s been like this for a couple of months now.

It’s not that I’m shy about getting dirty. I’ve gone through plenty of mud. But a big part of me believes in giving the trails a chance to dry out before I beat them up with my boots. It’s been too long, though — too many rained-out weekends, too many tornado warnings, and too much flooding. I’ve put in enough road miles. My feet need more dirt and less pavement.

I finally caught a break this week. The rain backed off long enough for me to get out on the trails and at least hike a few miles. Man, I needed that.

All this went down around the same time another series of articles came out extolling the benefits of spending at least a couple of hours every week in nature. Not in a park, or in your yard, but in true natural settings like a forest. You don’t get the same sounds, smells and sights in man-made “natural” settings as you do in the woods.

What I noticed was the change of seasons. It’s summer now, and the forest has, indeed, moved on from spring.

Seen on the trail: things that grow.

First of all, the foliage has gone from that bright “new growth” green of spring to a more mature, deeper shade. It’s still dense — the heavy spring rains have guaranteed that. But the greens are darker, maybe even flatter, as trees, bushes and grasses maximize their ability to turn bright sunlight into sustenance.

The sounds are different, too. In the spring it was all birds, all the time. The birds are still there, but they’re quieter. Instead, you hear the bugs. The heat of summer seems to liven up the chirping, buzzing, screeching insects of the forest to the point of being loud. Summer songs of the woods are distinctly invertebrate.

Then there’s the heat and humidity. If you’re living anywhere in the Sunbelt, your attitude toward summer hiking has to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to get very sweaty, kinda smelly, and feeling a bit gross when it’s done. Maybe well before that. If you’re cool with that, you can enjoy yourself as long as you’re hydrated. If not, well, you’re going to end up waiting a good four months for the temperatures to come down.

I don’t plan on waiting. I’ll take the sweat and get my miles as long as the seemingly ceaseless train of storms doesn’t wash me out.

Summer in the woods.

Bob Doucette

Tulsa’s triathlon win: IRONMAN picks T-town for three-year deal, and here’s why

Cyclists race by as crowds cheer – and drink- at the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough on Cry Baby Hill. The success of events like Tulsa Tough is likely one of the reasons IRONMAN picked Tulsa to host its Midwestern race.

When I moved to Tulsa eight years ago, the city surprised me. I was more or less expecting all the stereotypes that go with a metropolitan area smack in the middle of stroke alley: it would be flat, hot, and not much going on in terms of fitness or outdoor recreation.

I was proven wrong. It’s not that my city or state is the healthiest place on the planet, but as it turns out, there’s an active cycling community here, a bunch of road and trail runners and loads of events catering to these crowds that have only grown over time.

So I found myself surprised, yet not that surprised, when the organizers of the IRONMAN triathlon series announced that Tulsa would be the site of its next three Midwestern races.

WHY TULSA

IRONMAN, if you don’t know, is the lead dog when it comes to triathlons. The race includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon road race. The two biggies include one race in Florida, and the premier triathlon event held annually in Kona, Hawaii. IRONMAN has sought to stage races elsewhere in the country and settled on Tulsa as that place.

I was surprised, mostly because of that whole stroke alley image Oklahoma has. We’re talking about one of the most high-profile endurance sports events anywhere is doing its thing right here in T-town. I’m not saying big stuff doesn’t happen here, but when it comes to endurance sports, this is big. Real big.

But why I’m not that surprised takes a little explaining.

As I said, Tulsa has some active endurance sports communities. Folks love their bikes. They love their mountain bikes, too. And both are used frequently inside our city limits and in nearby communities.

The city hosts Tulsa Tough, a three-day racing event that started out as a hopeful endeavor on the cycling circuit that has grown into a must-stop race for cyclists nationally. Upwards of 10,000 people show up to watch that last day’s race (and party a lot) every year now. That kind of support probably meant something to the IRONMAN crew.

In long-distance running, the Route 66 Marathon started out modestly and has grown into one of the finer marathon and half marathon events in the country. People from every state and several countries run in it every year, and it grows yearly. The Tulsa Run, the city’s venerable 15K road race, has been the USTAF Masters 15K championship race for a few years now. And the city hosts another marathon in the spring (Golden Driller) plus numerous other half marathon, marathon and ultramarathon races on both road and trail.

Open water swimming may not be big here, but northeastern Oklahoma has no shortage of lakes, with a big one – Lake Keystone – conveniently within riding distance for all those IRONMAN competitors.

All of these things, plus the amenities the city offers visitors (I had one guy from Texas tell me that Tulsa is being talked about as “the next Austin”) provided just the right mix. In that vein, I can see what IRONMAN chose my city.

BIGGER PICTURE

One thing I’ve told people is that Tulsa is underrated in terms of outdoor recreation. The city’s road and dirt bike paths are plentiful, and we even have some local crags for bouldering enthusiasts. I joked that Outdoor Retailer should have given the city a look back when it was looking for a new home.

But on a more serious note, consider this: There is a nexus between endurance sports and outdoor recreation. Many runners, cyclists and triathletes are also people who enjoy other outdoor activities. Trail runners in particular end up crossing paths with hikers, backpackers and mountaineers. Killian Jornet comes to mind as the most famous of them, but beyond the elites, there are legions of people who, when they’re not racing or training, are making the most of their time outdoors.

The city and the state are in the midst of a big tourism push, focusing in things to do and places to see along Route 66 — the Mother Road of old that stretched from Chicago to California and winds its way through Oklahoma. It’s a good theme, and I’m sure a lot of cities and towns will be able to take advantage of this.

But what I’d say is don’t sleep on the state’s outdoor recreation potential. People are interested in this stuff. The cycling community is active statewide. Trail running is booming, and road running is strong. The same people who run in the Route 66 Marathon, ride in Tulsa Tough or await their shot at IRONMAN will be looking around the state for other ways to get their outdoor fix, which includes plenty of hiking, backpacking, water sports and climbing. The folks looking for such activities include people from outside the state.

IRONMAN gives the city and the state another opportunity to keep that outdoor recreation momentum moving. Frankly, it’s low-hanging fruit and an opportunity to help the region shed its stroke alley reputation. Tell your story. Go get it. If you do, don’t be surprised if the city and the state cash in on another big win.

Bob Doucette

Seen on the run: A city and a state suffer from historic floods

The Arkansas River, well above flood stage.

Over the years, I’ve written about what I see when I go run. If you’ve followed along, you’ll have read about wooded hills and rugged singletrack, urban skylines and gritty streets, and sometimes the more mundane parks and neighborhoods where I log a lot of miles. Eagles and armadillos have crossed my paths, as have hipsters and drug dealers. You get the drift.

Today’s entry is going to be a little different, mostly because the places I run have collided with the relentless forces of nature.

I haven’t run or hiked my local dirt trails in over a month. In May alone, we’ve received 18 inches of rain. I know trail runners pride themselves on not shying away from mud, but this is different. When the trails are this waterlogged, foot and bike traffic do damage. I’m trying to give those paths a break. So that’s left me pounding the pavement or riding my road bike.

The river is seen more than 23 feet above its normal levels, and right under the beams of this bridge.

Sadly, a lot of the running and biking paths I like are under water. Floods of historic proportions have plagued northeastern Oklahoma for more than a week, and eventually, those floodwaters from the Arkansas River topped their banks and swamped miles of paths that I use for many of my runs and almost all of my rides. Riverbank erosion guarantees that they will be out of commission for some time, as sinkholes and shoreline collapses have occurred. It will take many months, of not years, to repair the damage.

Over the past week, I’ve ridden my bike and run to the water’s edge to see how high the river was rising. Short answer: It looks bad. Real bad. Bad to the point where on one Saturday, I saw a guy in a lawn chair on the curb outside his home, fishing. Not in the river. But in the street.

And that was before the flooding really got going.

A RIVER’S WRATH

I don’t want you to think I’m crying about my loss of running and riding routes. Far from it. I can run and ride in a lot of places that are on higher ground, so I’m good. For that matter, where I live is also untouched by the flooding. Compared to many, I’m fortunate.

But the areas that are underwater are familiar to me, and seeing them slowly consumed by the murky, brown floodwaters of the Arkansas over the past week has given me perspective on this unfolding disaster.

From the top of Cry Baby Hill, looking down on a flooded Riverside Drive. To the right, paved park trails are covered by water.

Saturday was the day I went on my bike and saw the dude fishing in the street. By then, the water had blocked off about a block or so of Riverside Drive while also flooding the adjacent park trails. Nearby, a homeless man who had a camp under a bridge up the road was standing on a rock, filling a water bottle at a drinking fountain. I know where his camp is, and it was safe for the time being. Other camps across the river are washed out.

That was when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was releasing 256,000 cubic feet of water per second from the upstream Keystone Dam, the structure that basically keeps Tulsa and many downstream communities from flooding on a regular basis. But even Keystone can only do so much, and those big releases (it normally flows at a small fraction of what we’re seeing now) are the only way to keep upstream drainage from overtopping the dam, an event that would magnify the catastrophe.

On the west bank, the flooding’s severity seemed more plain. In some spots, I could see park benches and water fountains that were nearly covered, indicating a floodwater rise of nearly two feet from just a few days prior. Ordinarily, these fixtures were at least ten feet above the water’s edge. In the middle of the river, an island is completely covered, with only a dozen or so green treetops poking out of the water letting you know it’s still there. The “new” shoreline of the river has slowly encroached on a riverside apartment complex, creeping up the banks. I’ve run and ridden by these apartments scores of times. Never in my life would I thought it possible that they’d be close to being flooded.

Another look at Riverside Drive.

By Monday, the problem had only worsened. Heavy rains upstream from the dam forced the Corps to increase Keystone’s outflow to 275,000 cfs, not far from the record set in 1986. That day, I went for a run in my neighborhood, but also to the bridges that span the river west of downtown.

As expected, the waters had risen. What was once a hundred yards of Riverside Drive under water had grown to several city blocks. The floating remains of uprooted trees zipped down the river close to its banks. Elsewhere in the city, evacuations were underway, streets and neighborhoods were inundated, and sewer drains were backing up.

But what grabbed my attention was the river itself.

When it reaches Oklahoma, the Arkansas River is a prairie waterway. In other words, it’s broad, slow and features plenty of sand bars. It’s wide enough southeast of Tulsa that it can be navigated by cargo barges (there’s a port north of Tulsa from a tributary river that empties into the Arkansas), but for much of the year it’s a sleepy, ponderous thing that meanders toward its final destination at the Mississippi.

Looking south from Tulsa’s 11th Street bridge. The current in the river is incredibly strong.

This week, its demeanor is far less benign. The current is fast. If you were to sprint along its banks, it’s doubtful you could outrun it. Where the river meets bridge supports, the roar is loud. The entire channel is full, churning and racing downstream at an urgent pace.

Observing it this week, the imagery looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then it hit me Sunday. The river doesn’t look like a river at all. It looks like a tsunami. A muddy, quarter-mile wide tsunami that never recedes, but keeps barreling southeast, and I wouldn’t want to be in its way.

THE WIDER PROBLEM

My own observations are fine, but I’ve escaped this flood unscathed. That’s not true for a lot of people. They lost more than a place to run or ride.

Several neighborhoods in low-lying neighborhoods in the city and its suburbs have been flooded. Towns like Blackwell, close to the Kansas border, all the way to Muskogee, Fort Gibson and Webbers Falls near Arkansas are partially or completely swamped. The town of Braggs is basically an island, accessible this week only by boat or rail. Farther east, in Arkansas, cities like Fort Smith and Little Rock are in full-on crisis.

It’s part of a trend this year. In the central and southern Rockies, massive snow dumps have left the mountains with snowpack so deep that it will take at least a month longer than normal to melt out. Earlier in the spring, communities in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas have suffered massive, sustained flooding. The Mississippi River valley is facing the same fate.

These Canada geese would ordinarily be puttering around in a nearby lagoon, but that lagoon has been swallowed by the river. So the birds are hanging out on higher ground, hunting for bugs and worms.

And let’s not forget the tornadoes. It seemed like we went several days straight where there were nightly tornado warnings. One tornado killed two people in the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno. Others ripped through numerous towns across the state, including here in Tulsa. Across the country, more than 200 tornadoes from the Great Plains to the Great Lakes touched down in the past 12 days. They even had a tornado warning in Staten Island, N.Y.

Earlier this week, someone on Twitter called out the local media for not reporting on this as an example of climate change. I’m not climate change denier. Far from it. But I know that weather is not the same as climate, so I’m slower to make the link.

However, scientists have told us that as climate change deepens, weather extremes will proliferate. Periods of severe drought will be followed by seasons of extreme flooding. Roasting hot temperatures can be followed by record cold. More intense hurricanes and thunderstorms will be more common. Longer and more severe fire seasons will come. You get the drift. Look at last year’s western fire season, or hurricanes named Harvey and Maria, and you could make an argument that the patterns are already emerging.

And if so, a lot more will be lost than a few running routes or bicycle paths.

In the meantime, I’m hoping the waters recede soon, and for the suffering to end. It’s been said that it will take years to come back from this, and I believe it. We’ll all have some adjusting to do for quite some time.

Tulsa’s River Parks have miles and miles of paved trails for runners, walkers and cyclists on both banks of the Arkansas River. But most of those paths are covered in water, and many are heavily damaged. It’ll be awhile before they’re repaired.

Bob Doucette