Monday, March 25, 2013

EPIC--Prairie Spirit Endeavor

When my friend Eric Steele stretched his wings and stepped up the promotion of his already excellent race FlatRock and began talk of a 100 in Kansas on a Rails-to-Trails course, I was stoked. These courses are usually pretty easy, and having one within easy driving distance was bonus!

This new race, the first 100 put on by the newly founded EPIC ULTRAS was held on the Prairie Spirit Trail, a 51 mile jaunt from Ottawa to Iola Kansas. It's nearly pancake flat, although the gentle rises were just enough to satisfy my need for some calf stretching running.

A good group of my RunnersWorld peeps and TATURs made the trip, shared rides, motel rooms, etc--stuff fun weekends are made of, right? I also had a great time hanging with my new Nebraska friends, Ron and Bobbie Ruhs and their GOATZ crew, of which I have been made an honorary (or ornery) member.The 100 mile race started at 6:00 am, with the 50 miler starting a couple of hours later. There were LOTS of first time 100 and 50 mile runners, and what a great course this was for such an endeavor. Pictured above are Kathy and Paul, who I ran with for the first 30 miles or so.

But there was ONE POSSIBLE HICCUP: the weather forecast. We have had a fairly mild winter, and it seemed spring was gonna get after it early, but a pesky cold front and menacing threats of lots of snow polluted the long-range weather charts. Yeah, sure--it probably won't snow--and if it does, it can't be that bad. I tell stories to myself like that.

Despite predictions of snow on Thursday, the ground was damp but brown for the start of our race--no white stuff to be seen. Saturday afternoon, night, and Sunday morning showed 100% chances of lots of frozen precip--up to 8-12 inches in some cases.

My race strategy was to hit it hard, and put as many miles under me and as much time in the bank as I could, even if that meant blowing up and having a sucky last half of the race. I always slow down anyway, so why not try to beat as much of the snow as I could?

Rolling into Garnett, 25% of the way through, I was on pace for a great finishing time--maybe even a PR IF it did not snow much. A few stretches of the trail through Ottawa, Garnett, and Iola were paved, but over 90% of the route was soft crushed limestone with a wooden bridge over the creeks,. Beauty.

Kathy rolls along, feeling good. We had this race in the bag.

Somewhere right around Welda (mile 33.5), the snow started. It was light at first, but picked up in quick fashion, dropping large flakes and snowball puffs that actually could be heard when they plopped on the ground.

I put my head down and followed the footprints, which worked well for many miles.

The six aid stations on the course were great and well organized. They had the usual aid station fare--candy, chips, PBJs, and small sandwiches. Each had something unique as well--pulled pork, chicken and homemade noodle soup, meatballs, pizza, lentil soup, pbj tortillas, and if I missed anything, it was because I was always full. I always have my crew babe wife Dana handling me during my race, and everything I need is in the back of the jeep. I did eat and drink a lot that we brought, and we always share--but we could have gotten by nicely with the aid station stuff provided. And my most sincere thanks to the volunteers who came out and stayed out long taking care of the runners.

And it just kept getting worse. Running on the crushed limestone was nice--soft on the feet. Running on the snow was even nicer, but as it got over 3 inches deep, it slowed me down. I have a patented zombie-shuffle that gets me through these things, and my feet don't lift more than a half inch off the ground. That meant I kick a lot of snow around, and reports of a Sasquatch with a mangled right foot were probably no more than my footprints. The two above pics are from Fun Memories Photography.

This is swiped from the Trail Nerds Facebook page. Not sure who or where in the race they were, but by the depth of snow, I'd say it was late afternoon.

Nearing the turnaround in Iola, the snow almost stopped, and even the wind was calm, but that would change.

Somewhere around mile 60, the snow really set in. When the trail was flanked by trees, the wind was not that bad, but in the several stretches when the train track was out in the open prairie, the north wind pounded on us. I meant to say earlier what I was wearing--An Icebreaker t-shirt, a Patagonia Caprilene long sleeve shirt, my RunnersWorld windbreaker vest, a Mountain Hardware Gortex jacket (4 layers on top), Brooks polyester tights (1 layer only except for spandex underbritches), Smartwool socks, and Hoka Stinson Evo trail shoes. I really was never cold while running except for a couple of fingers, which I'll explain later.

Darkness was setting in, and the snow was 6 inches or more, reducing me to a power-walk. Still, with my fast first half, I was on pace for a 24-25 hour finish--but I expected that pace to slip away and it was.

Nearing Welda, I was struggling. I was walking, trudging, slowing down even more--but still moving forward. I had put on a safari hat over my Mountain Hardware beanie to keep the snow from blowing down my back, but this presented another problem: my headlamp was warming the bill somewhat so snow was sticking, freezing, and then thawing and dripping off of the bill. Evidently, the bill was tilted slightly to the left because every 8th step, a drip would fall and every time it hit my glove. My thumb and forefinger was soaked and cold, but not a huge problem since I was swinging my arm. I thought I'd fix that by tipping the bill slightly to the other side. Now my right glove was getting soaked and this was worse since I carry my water bottle with my right hand and don't swing it as much. This HAD to be fixed. No thought of quitting though. When I got to Welds, I walked into the farthest deepest corner of the aid station tent and nestled down to a propane burner to warm up.

Dana was there, pushing Ensure, 5-hour, soup, Cheezits, and I don't remember what else. I just wanted dry gloves, which I got. She also insisted that I wear a light hooded parka over all the layers I already had on, and I thought that might not be a bad idea. Then, with the hood, I could lose the safari hat. I spent too much time stationary, and a shivering fit was coming over me and I knew I had to get going. Getting out into the wind was something I had to WILL myself to do, but a forced jog warmed me back up and I was on the way again.

This is a Fun Memories Photography pic, and when I came through here, I could barely see the bridge the snow was so heavy.

The last mile before Garnett was really tough. The wind was pounding down hard, stinging the eyes if you looked up. I kept my head down and followed the footprints. I had cinched the hood of my parka around my neck under my chin with an elastic strap that I did not even know was there. I was still warm and toasty.

When I walked up to the old train depot where the aid station was set up inside, my heart sunk. The building was dark! Had they picked up shop and left??? Then Dana stepped out and asked if I wanted to come in to get warm. Oh Yeah! I walked on in, and she walked on out. Turns out, she did not know it was me since I was so bundled up. (I think it's because the elastic strap gave me a chin lift.)

The building was dark because the snowstorm had knocked the power out. The aid station workers were operating with headlamps, and heavenly propane bottles with convection heating elements. They felt so good. I had a crew of friends waiting and warming up here. Bill Ford and Michelle McGrew, were ready to continue on, and Russell Bennett was going to pace me. Great times! We took off, and briefly started out on a road instead of the railroad trail. With the snow, it was hard to tell.

The snow got heavier yet, and the wind was whipping. I don't think we ran a single step from here on out, although I was making a concerted effort to walk with a purpose. I had wore my Garmin for the race, but left it off until the halfway point so I could gauge my distance between aid stations on the way back. I thought the next manned aid station as six miles away, and after 4 miles, I was really needing it. The deeper snow (8-12 inches) was making even high-steeping walking hard, and my slowing pace meant a slower heartrate, which lead to my body core cooling, and sleepiness was moving in on me. I struggle with this in 100s, but in 30° temps and 50 mph winds, this could get bad. I needed the next aid stop soon, and I needed caffeine, coffee, 5-hour energy, or something! And I needed it now. We finally saw a faint glow of a street light maybe in a town. I was relieved to be at the aid stop (Richmond), but we never saw the aid station! Russell said it was just ahead, but after passing the last house, I knew we had missed it! Had they packed up and went home?!?!? I suppose they could have though it was so bad that they had to leave--I knew all the aid station peeps must have froze out there. But I was worried--what about Dana? Was she not able to get to this point?? Had she ran off into a ditch? Yes, a 4WD Jeep can get stuck in snow like this. And the biggest worry was that it was another nine miles to the next manned aid stop. Well, these worries woke me up big-time, and I was marching. I knew as long as I kept my wits about me, I could punch through this.

Then, Russell said the aid station was just ahead. He thought he saw it. But it turns out it was just an underpass under the highway. We walked through this tunnel which had no snow, but wind that felt like 70 mph. Then, on the other side, we either stepped off the trail, or there was a three foot snow drift over the trail. We were waist deep in snow and no idea where the trail was. Russell kicked out one way, and he said he found the trail. I could barely hear him, and could not see him. He must have turned around toward me because I could see a faint glow of his headlamp but I could not see him--and he was six feet away! I was truly wondering how much trouble we were in at this point.

His eagle eyes located very faint footprints and we were back on track, and I figured we had another 8 miles or so to go, but we were gonna finish this thing. Then, we were passing a house or two, and a light on a pole and the aid station I thought we had missed. Elation! But only for a minute. A man came over to us and got my number and told us the race was being stopped. For a second, I was ready to argue, but I quickly accepted that this was the right call. My race was over at mile 86.5 at 5:35 am. Then, I thought of Danielle who was not far behind us--trying so hard for her first 100, and she had Christy pacing her. Both those girls put together don't make a tall chick, and that deep snowdrift I though would swallow them. I was told the park rangers were looking for them, and found out later that Christy's boyfriend Edward along with Russell were ready to go out after them, but Edward got a call that they were found and safe.

I climbed into the Jeep, and Dana threw a blanket around me. I told her about the trail conditions and she told me about not being able to even see the road. She had been told to stay put until the snow plows came, and we decided to not go anywhere until the sun came up. The above pic is what is left of the aid station at Richmond. They had heavy tarps wrapped around the picnic shelter, and the wind had shredded it, and deposited two feet of snow right in the middle of everything. Finally, at 9:30, we ventured out onto the highway, and with the help of 4WD, we made it back to Ottawa and our motel.

This pic was taken on the side road to the Richmond aid station. In the second day of spring, I have had more than my share of snow. I have seen deeper snow, but I have never been outside in a worse storm, let alone enduring it for hour upon hour at night. I am disappointed at being 15 miles from the finish line and having 7.5 hours to get there. (The race was actually 102.5 miles long with a 31 hour time limit.) Danielle was a little more than disappointed though--and I know she and I could have finished the race. Probably. We both really wanted the finish. We wanted that belt buckle. It kind of reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when they almost had the Holy Grail. In an ancient temple, the earth was quaking and the grail was falling into an abyss but dangling on a ledge. You could see it--could almost reach it! The ditsy blond fell into the pit trying, and then Indiana was stretching out, trying to grab it even though he was so near falling as well. His dad said, "Indy--let it go." I really wanted that buckle. I was so close! I could do it. Probably. But I could just as easily died.

Eric Steele did such a great job with this race, and he probably had Polly Choate do all the smart work, and Warren Bushey do all the hard work. They make a great team. Mommy Nature showed her bitchy side, but that's beyond our control. Made it an awesome--no, an EPIC experience. I know I'll never forget it.

There were several of our bunch who finished the 50 mile race, and they had snow to deal with near the end of their miles. Bobby Michaels notched his first 50 miler. Roman Broyles and Caroline Glen racked up another 50 miler each. Erin Dickerson and Joshua Bourbannais also ran the 50. I am sure there are others, but I cannot check the entrants list right now.

Six runners finished the 100 mile race. I do not know all the names, but I do know my friend Randy Ellis finished. I believe Randy has more 100 mile finishes than anyone in Oklahoma. My friend John Nobles finished his first 100, and had a brilliant crew who had his nutrition and pace dialed in and he ran flawlessly leaving it all out on the course. I think I have talked John into writing a race report which I'll publish here. (Fingers crossed.)

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