Monday, October 19, 2009
Ultra Marathons are often held in dramatic locations such as The Rocky Mountains, The Sierra Nevada, Death Valley (in July) and the Ididirod Trail (in February) In contrast there is a race held in Kansas that is unlike any other, as it is run entirely across historic tall grass prairie in a county where cattle outnumber people 40-1. The Heartland 100, held each October through the Flint Hills of Eastern Kansas, is what I once imagined all of Kansas would be like when I first moved here from Washington DC 15 years ago. The desolate nature of this land is hauntingly beautiful and it's weather... harsh.
For runners, EXPOSURE is the key word at Heartland, as there is no place to hide from the elements. Another key word here is SOLITUDE. Although you can see for miles in every direction, there is very little to look at other than the ever present tallgrass prairie, which is inevitably blowing in the wind.
Heartland is special to me. I ran my first 50 here in 2002 and my first 100 here in 2004, and although I have been at Heartland for each of the past seven years, four times running, and for the past three years, manning the Battle Creek Aid Station, this year would be different, as this year I was planning on doing both. My plan was to run the 50 Mile and then join Karen and the rest of the team at the Battle Creek A.S. and support the hundred milers on their way to Cassidy throughout Saturday night and Sunday morning. My hope was to gain the perspective of both runner and volunteer in the same race, in the same year.
Our weekend started Friday afternoon as Karen, the girls and I, along with good friends Bret and Theresa Deardorff, and their daughter Hannah, headed to Cassidy to grab "a meal like no other", at the pre race dinner, before heading out to Battle Creek to set up the aid station. The challenge with Battle Creek is that it is both the first and the last aid station runners encounter in both races. That means servicing runners from 7:00 AM on Saturday until 9:30 AM on Sunday. Once we had things ready to go for Saturday morning and spent some time star gazing, it was time for some sleep.
After a VERY COLD night in the back of the van, it was up at 4:00 for the 6:00 start. Bret was kind enough to shuttle me to the start before heading back to get the aid station ready for visitors. It was great to see so many good friends at the start, but especially exciting to see three friends from Topeka who were each about to start their first 50 miler. Then, right at six, with headlamps lighting the way, we were off.
From the very start I felt good. After all the the steep climbs and vertical descents of Superior, it felt good to run. My goal was to hit the turnaround somewhere near the 5 hour mark and then decide (based on how I was feeling) what to do on the way back. Fueled with little more than VESPA and PERPETUEM I hit the turnaround in about 4:45, and much to my surprise, felt pretty good... so, I decided to push it a little on the way back. With the unexpected, but much appreciated help from Dena Phillips and Christy Knowles, I was able to get through the first two aid stations quickly on my way back. Then shortly after my antique I pod (which had been serenading me with a little early 80's "new wave") went dead in the middle of an extended dance mix of DEVO's "Whip It", and just as I was getting tired, I arrived at Battle Creek to the cheers of family and friends. This was a huge emotional boost when I really needed it. Karen got me what I needed (800 mg of Ibuprofen) and back on my way, confident I had a legitimate shot at finishing in under 10 hours, something I had only done once before (at the 2004 Ice Age Trail 50 Mile). After power hiking up the last big climb, I knew it would be flat the final 6 miles into the finish, so I went into a run 8:00, walk 2:00 cadence. This worked well and actually helped me to pass the one runner I could see in front of me. At the 9:45 mark, as I neared the final turn about a quarter mile from the finish, I knew I was going to finish in under 10 hours, but now I realized I might actually get in under 9:50 (my previously fastest 50 miler). As I ran the final quarter mile and neared the finish I could see the clock and quickly realized I was going to make it in under 9:50. As I crossed the finish line to the most awesome sound in Ultra Running, Jim Davis' cowbell, I was taken aback, as a PR was not what I was expecting just four weeks after Superior. Unexpected, but fitting in a way that it was here, at Heartland, a race that has provide me with more than it's share of special moments had once again lifted my spirits at a time when I so badly needed it. Perhaps that's what they mean when they refer to this race as the
SPIRIT OF THE PRAIRIE.
As I caught my breath, I was greeted by John Knowles (a good customer, and local trail runner) who was running his first 50 Miler. I knew John had had a good race as I saw him running strong near the turnaround and received updates from his wife at the aid stations. He certainly did have a good day, and finished in ninth place for his 50 Mile debut in a time of 9:31:15. Congratulations John!
Oh, but the fun was just beginning!
I returned to the aid station with Bret a little before 5:00 PM, just as one of the last 50 Milers was coming through. He grabbed a Coors Light from his drop bag, drank it down, and was off (you gotta love ultra runners). On our way back we had the opportunity to run across Kyle Phillips, another friend from Topeka, who like John was running his first 50 Miler. When asked about the race on Thursday, Kyle had told me his plan was 6:00 to 6:00, but when we passed him about a half mile from the finish, although he was obviously in a lot of pain, it was only 4:15 PM. After a quick high five, Kyle pressed on and crossed the finish line in 10:23:10. A remarkable effort from a genuinely likable guy and strong runner. Way to go Kyle! As we continued down the road back to the aid station we came across Jenn Franklin, one of our GPRC team members. Like Kyle, Jenn was also talking about a 12 hour finish, but here she was, still going strong 48.5 miles into her first 50. Jenn would be the fifth woman across the finish line in a time of 10:42:51. A little further down the road we came across Ruth Fox from Manhattan, who volunteers and runs a number of our races and who went on to finish in a time of 12:08:36.
Of course their were many others, each with their own story, each pushing forward. In all, 43 of the 44 starters made it back to Cassidy, but none faster than 52 year old Phil Sheridan who finished in a time of 7:33:45, before, like me, heading off to an aid station to spend the night "working".
As always, the night provided it's share of excitement, as weary and very cold 100 milers came through our aid station situated just 9 miles from the finish. While it is always fun to see good friends such as Kyle Amos, Darin Schneidewind, Paul Schoenlaub, Gary Henry and Adam Monaghan roll through, two stories from this years Heartland 100 stand out.
Just after 11:00, Amy Palmiero-Winters of Hicksville, NY came through our aid station. Amy was the first woman through and was moving well. Little did we know that as she came through, she was on her way to a historic finish. You see, Amy had one of her legs amputated earlier in life and was about to become the first female amputee to run 100 miles. Her positive attitude and tenacious efficiency were sobering, her accomplishment, inspiring. Amy finished in a time of 18:54, eighth overall, she was the top women in the field.
Almost eleven hours later, Kevin Fredrickson of Lawrence, KS came visited our temporary home. I didn't realize until later the enormous mental challenge Kevin had to overcome and manage these past twenty seven hours. Anyone who has ever run an Ultra Marathon knows that a huge part of the game is mental, so you can imagine when you have car trouble and arrive an hour after everyone else has left, the mental aspect becomes even more complicated. Kevin, who was running his first 100 Miler, had to overcome several emotions including frustration I'm sure, not to mention holding back the temptation to go out too hard in an effort to "catch up". Somehow Kevin held it all together under circumstances that would have unraveled the best efforts of other runners, including myself. Kevin went on to finish his first hundred in a time of 28:52.
It is stories such as these that are the reward for volunteering at events such as this. While running an ultra can certainly bring personal satisfaction and perhaps other deeper self discoveries, volunteering at an ultra delivers a totally different experience, as you begin to experience the event through the eyes of others and are drawn into their struggles as well as their triumphs. I can't help but believe that at some level this makes us more sensitive, more compassionate and more aware of those around us. If we all lived out our lives and treated others with the same servant mentality "ultra" volunteers have treated us in the past, how much better of a world could this be? I would challenge anyone who has never had the opportunity to do so, make a point to volunteer at an Ultra in 2010. I promise you, you will never view an aid station the same way again.
Congratulations to Jim Davis and Randy Albrecht for another perfectly executed event under some trying circumstances. I believe I heard this was the coldest Heartland ever! Thanks also to Gary Henry and others for some great photos. See more at www.ultrastory.com.