Thursday, October 18, 2012

First 50 Mile: Heartland 50 2012

“I hope it rains its ass off on you all night, and I hope you have to poop twice.” My husband had quite the way of sending his wife off into her first 50-mile race.
His well wishes were based on the two concerns that I voiced on the 2.5-hour drive to Cassoday, Kansas for the start of the Heartland 50. First, I worried about rain. Every few minutes I checked the radar on my phone. The 100-mile runners—who started 12 hours before the 50 milers at 6 a.m.—had been hammered by several waves of heavy downpours and lightning throughout the day. Now, one final wave formed south of Wichita and pushed its way up the Kansas Turnpike, taking precise aim on Cassoday.
My other concern was the night-race element of the Heartland 50. Because the 50- and 100-mile races are run on the same out-and-back course, the race organization made the decision in 2011 to start the 50-mile race in the evening. That way, the 100-mile runners would have more people on the course to keep them company, and both races would be hitting the finish line within the same window.
Starting a race at 6 p.m. brought with it a host of questions: How do I eat during the day? What will my body do when it’s time to go to bed but instead I’m four hours into a ten- or 12-hour run? And what if I got into the kind of situation that Rick had encountered in one of his night races, involving multiple trips off road to … well … poop?
Thus, Rick’s wishes were bestowed upon me as we approached Cassoday, Kansas, “Prairie Chicken Capital of the World”. So it has been said, so it shall be done.
Somewhere Under the Rainbow
At 5:20—forty minutes from go-time—race director Kyle Amos attempted to call the pre-race briefing to order in front of an ominous curtain of billowing clouds and blackened sky. But as the strong gust-front hit the huddled mass of runners and gumball-sized raindrops smacked each of us in the face, he waved his hand in the direction of the muddy parking lot. “Go. Run back to your cars.” We all scattered.
For the next 30 minutes I sat in the Jeep, covered in goose bumps, trying to remind myself that at six o’clock I would start running 50 miles. It didn’t feel like it was going to happen. As the torrential downpour gave way to a steady rain, runners reemerged from their vehicles and moved back toward the start/finish area. It was time.
Rain moves away from the start of the 50-mile race.
(Photo Joell Chockley)
After the short briefing, the rain tapered to sprinkles, golden sunlight broke through the clouds in the west, and a full rainbow arched over the course. Kyle stood in his quiet way beside the timing clock, waiting for it to turn over to 12:00. We waited in awkward silence for some kind of indication that we should start running, and finally Kyle simply shooed us off: “Okay, you’re done. Go. Go run.”
We ran a quarter-mile on pavement, then turned onto the mushy gravel roads that would become so familiar over the next 50.5 miles. It occurred to me that I hadn’t used the port-a-potty to empty my nervous bladder before the start of the race because of the rain, so when I spied a stand of cedar trees—an oasis in the middle of the open prairie—I jumped at the chance for concealment. “You have to pee already?” laughed someone. “Yup!” I replied. By the time I came out of the trees, the entire field had passed me and I was in last place.
Over the next couple miles, I focused on trying to catch back up to the mid-packers, where I could see the orange shirt of Justin Chockley. We both had the same finishing goals (10 hours for a really good race, 11 hours for an okay race, 12 hours at the very least) and Justin planned on running as close to me as possible. This was fine with me, though I know what a rare thing it is for two people to be able to run together for the whole distance of an ultra. Regardless, I cruised through the field, trying to keep myself from going too fast, until I finally caught up with the orange shirt.
Sprinkles of rain gave way to overcast skies with sunshine filtering through. I swiveled my head left and right, taking in the many tones of orange and brown in the short-grass prairie, set off by the oranges and yellows of the setting sun. A pack of coyotes sang in the distance. Sparrows flitted across the road ahead of us. The wind—so often brutal out here—was relatively light and at our backs.
I looked at my Garmin and discovered the first five miles were already gone. For a moment I thought the watch must be malfunctioning, but eventually accepted the blessing of having fallen into a happy trance for the first 10% of the race.
As the sepia tones around us faded to gray dusk, Justin and I chatted comfortably and did our best to rein in our pace to 9:30 min/mile, in spite of the downhill trend to the course. It was on one of the longest downhill sections that the constant jarring elicited my first need to head off-road for a bathroom break. I told Justin that I would catch up. Poop Number 1: half way to fulfilling Rick’s wish.
I reached the Battle Creek aid station (mile 8.2) under the cover of complete darkness. Justin was still there. Phil Sheridan filled my water bottles with plain water, Stacy Sheridan gave me one of her patented hugs, and Justin and I headed back out into the night. Soon after leaving the aid station, the road lurched uphill and went from mushy mud to shoe-sucking mud. We pushed the hills at a power walk and ran the downhill sections. Unfortunately, those downhills got my gut rumbling again. I let Justin go for what would be the last time and headed into the ditch. Number two Number 2.
The Darkest Road
Alone. Fenced in by darkness. The wind picked up from the south and fluttered the top of my hat like Chinese water torture.
The course picked its way downhill from mile 10 to mile 16.8. I ran easily and tried to work through what was going wrong with my body while forever scanning the fences on either side of the road for an opening or a gate—anywhere I could get away from the road. Other runners were noticing my frequent trips off the road and I really didn’t want anyone keeping score. I was eating a Tri-Berry GU every 30 minutes. Taking an S-Cap about every 1.5 hours. Drinking plenty of water from my two handheld water bottles. So why was my stomach blowing up? I blamed the late hour. I blamed Rick for jinxing me. I blamed every single bit of food I had ingested in the last 48 hours.
The negativity built up until I wondered if I should even keep going when I reached the next aid station. I held that thought for a few seconds, turning it over in my mind to see how it felt.
Then I was powerwalking on a stretch of highway in Death Valley, my feet matching time with the determined steps of Tony Clark. One hundred and thirty-five miles through Death Valley with considerable intestinal distress, and he never complained.
And then I was standing in front of Rick Mayo at one of his many ultras, trying to be good crew and asking him questions and searching for the right food options and worrying about how he would keep going in spite of the discomfort he was experiencing. But Rick never stopped.
My conclusion, as I climbed over a pipe gate to contribute to the collection of cow pies: shit happens. This might slow me down, but as long as I kept eating and drinking, it wouldn’t stop me. Keep your baby wipes close and just keep going, I told myself. (Yes. Pun intended.)
Crew Logic
When I hit the Lapland aid station (mile 16.8), Rick and Justin’s wife, Joell, met me with quiet concern. Justin had relayed my situation when he came through a few minutes before. After my water bottles were filled at the aid station, we dug through my bag for ideas. Mostly the bag was filled with GU, with the exception of a couple Clif Shot Bloks and some Sport Beans.
“It’s the caffeine,” Rick decided. “It’s speeding everything up.” I was in a contrary mood, fairly determined that nothing was going to correct my situation and resigned to spending the rest of the race making regular trips off the road. But I accepted his diagnosis. Joell rushed back to the aid station to try to find some non-caffeinated gels.
“This is taking too long,” I said impatiently. Rick dropped a GU Brew tab into one of my bottles—the first time I’d had an electrolyte in my water during this race—and I left, apologizing for leaving before Joell could return.
Between Lapland and the 25-mile turnaround at the Teterville Road aid station, I made two more pit stops, but it began to feel like things were slowing down. I stopped eating the caffeinated GUs. The electrolytes in the GU Brew seemed to be helping, as well. Even though this 8-mile section runs mostly uphill, I was moving well and my mood was greatly improving. Now, front-pack 50-milers, along with 100-milers, were coming back toward me from the turnaround. Receiving and reciprocating encouragement created a welcome distraction.
Overhead, the clouds cleared away to reveal a vivid blanket of stars. The thunderstorm complex that had plagued the 100 milers all day continued to march north and east, pulsing with lightning on the horizon. For a short window, the wind dropped off and it went almost completely calm. Puffs of condensed breath billowed and hung in front of my face, harshly illuminated by my headlamp. The turnaround aid station pulled me in, and now I was actually smiling.
Fill-up at Teterville aid station
(Photo Rick Mayo)
At the Teterville aid station, Rick and Joell procured a handful of non-caffeinated GUs for me. Justin was just ten minutes ahead of me, so they were working together to crew us. “The hard part’s over,” Rick told me as I trotted away from the aid station.
Leaving Teterville, I was carried forward by adrenaline and a downhill section. Headlamps appeared on the road ahead, and through a combination of powerwalking and running, I would catch up and pass. Most of the people I caught up to were probably 100-milers well into the last quarter of their race, but it was still a great motivator.
A few miles outside of the Lapland aid station, I caught up to a familiar face. This runner—whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch—chatted with me for a short distance when I left Lapland the first time, but I had to let him go when I took another one of my side trips into the prairie. Now I caught up to him and we fell into strong powerwalk / run intervals. It was good to hear a voice other than those in my head. While we were walking, I realized I hadn’t had an S-Cap for a while and the ones in my race vest had disintegrated. I asked if he could spare one, and instead he handed me a small Ziploc bag full of S-Caps, saying he had more at the aid station. At the bottom of the hill into Lapland he hit a rough patch and told me to go on. I didn’t see him for the rest of the race, but hope he had a good finish.
"The hard part's over."
(Photo by Rick Mayo)
I was in and out of Lapland with more non-caffeinated GU and some “real” food that Rick stuffed into my arm sleeves, as well. After leaving Lapland aid station, you follow a well-maintained gravel road before turning west onto a chunkier, two-track gravel road. As I approached the turn, two runners stood there. They appeared to be waving glow sticks at me. A dog was barking. I wondered if the dog was threatening them, or if a skunk or other nefarious creature was blocking their path. Before I could catch up to find out, they took the turn and continued up the hill away from me.
As I stared ahead at the two runners, I realized fatigue was setting in. At this point, it was 1 a.m.—long past my usual bedtime. The runners must have been a 100-miler and his pacer; one ran upright, the other seemed to have a slight lean or limp. The reflective strips on the back of his jacket flashed at me, and soon my wary consciousness turned the scene into some freakish, jerky, stop-motion animation, sped up, with frames missing. The runners in front of me became living crash-test dummies. My five-year-old daughter Adrian has had nightmares about such things, and for a moment it became my living nightmare.
At last, the zombies disappeared over a ridge, and I was left alone with my single spot of light in the center of the dark prairie.
The mileage clicked over to 34 miles, and I was now in the twilight zone of my training, running farther than I had ever run before. I played with timed intervals, but my running intervals didn’t last very long and I grew discouraged. I had to make one more trip to fertilize the ditch (though this proved to be the sixth and final of that kind of detour). Then I hit a stretch of road where I had to urinate every 10 minutes. The wind turned to the west—straight into my face—and picked up to more than 20 miles per hour. It was still a warm night, though (about 52°F), so as long as I kept moving, I never felt chilled.
Around mile 38, I’d had enough. I was in the middle of the first of two major climbs. The wind, the darkness, and the climbing all combined to make me reach a simple conclusion: “It’s time to finish this thing.” My legs ached, but they were not destroyed. My mind was tired, but not extinguished. I pulled the brim of my hat down low over my eyes, focused just a few feet in front of me, and shifted into a determined, shuffling jog.
Every now and then, I’d glance up and see a runner a long way in front of me. After what seemed like just a few moments, I’d look up and see the same runner just a few feet in front of me. “That was neat,” I thought the first time. So, I did it again. Soon I was working my way uphill through the shoe-sucking mud outside of the Battle Creek aid station. And then, I was at the aid station. After getting a bottle refill from Dennis Haig, he sent me off saying, “Have a good finish—because there’s no rides from here on out!”
Finish. Just finish. Just get there. I can run at an 11 or 12 minute pace. I can power walk at a 13 to 14 minute pace. I can sing a song. I can see the lights of Cassoday—but I cannot let them draw me in because I know they are still miles away. I can tell other runners “good job”. I can sing another song. Citizen Cope. Son’s Gonna Rise. Singing out loud, the wind carrying my words away.
“A son’s gonna rise in a mile. In a mile you’ll be feeling fine. In a mile you will see, after me, you’ll be out of the dark. Yeah, you’ll get your shot…”
The cedars where I peed. Getting close. Now pavement. Now. Finish.
I found a “sprint” on the pavement—an 8- or 9-minute mile. I veered off the pavement into grass, through the chute, across the timing mats. Ten hours. Thirty-eight minutes. Rick gathered me into his arms and I didn’t want to let him go. Justin was standing there, hands on his knees. After losing him at mile 10, we finished within a minute of each other. I leaned over to shake his hand and my own hands fell to my knees and we stood there, unwittingly mirroring each other: two spent runners, two first-time 50-mile finishers.
(Photo Joell Chockley)

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