Thursday, October 15, 2009

2009 Heartland 100 Mile Run

The Short Version:

Even by Kansas standards race day was unseasonably cold and windy with near gale force winds out of the north east and a high that barely reached 40 degrees. Thus wind chills were deep into the 30s all day long and remained about the same overnight as the wind eased somewhat but the temperatures plummeted to freezing. The race course is a 50 mile out and back and so most of the out bound leg was either directly or indirectly into the wind! Fighting the wind was extremely demoralizing and I could not wait to hit the turnaround. The return leg was much easier having mostly a strong tail wind to guide me home. I ran the first 25 miles , to the Teterville Road aid station, with my wife Kathy, who would end up going on to win the women’s race in the 50 mile event, in around 4 ½ hours. After Kathy turned around to finish up her race, I continued on and ran right around 4h 55m to get to half way (9h 25m for 50 miles). I had a slower go over the next 25 miles as night had fallen over one of the more difficult sections of the race course. It took me nearly 5h 35m to cover those 25 miles. However I began to “feel my oats” so to speak and sped up over the remaining 25 miles covering this ground in around 5h 22m to finish 11th of 61 starters and 41 finishers in 20 hours 21 minutes and 33 seconds.

The Longer Version (***warning it is long, read at your own peril!***):

Prelude:

Last February, after learning that Kathy (my wife) didn’t get selected into the 2009 Badwater 135 , we began to look around for another goal race for her to run. The trick was finding a 100 mile event that fit into our busy work and school schedule, didn’t involve competing at altitude or cost too much to travel to. We quickly settled on traveling out to Cassoday, Kansas in October for the Heartland 100 Mile Cross Country Run . So we went ahead and made all our travel arrangements (why not?) and went on with our lives. Then around April, Kathy was contacted by the Badwater 135 staff and offered entry into the event! How could she pass that up; this was a dream race for her! So then we decided, rather than cancel our Kansas travel plans, to both run the 50 mile option. Kathy and I are trying to collect an ultramarathon in every state so this would be perfect as we’d yet to run a race in Kansas. In July I dropped out of the Hardrock 100 and so, desperate for a little 100 mile redemption, I upgraded my Heartland 50 entry to the full 100. Big thank you to race director Randy Albrecht who put up with having to change our entries around for his race several times!

After recovering from that whirlwind week in July that encompassed travelling to both the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colorado then immediately out to Las Vegas, Nevada and beyond to support my wife at the Badwater 135, I began to train in earnest. On paper at least, the Heartland 100 would be the “easiest” 100 mile course I’ve ever attempted; sporting a mere 6,000 feet of climb and run entirely on dirt and gravel roads. Of course everybody knows there is nothing “easy” about running a 100 miles, anywhere!

When most people think of Kansas (including myself) they picture a very flat country side and perhaps a lot of wind blowing through the tall prairie grass. I can attest to the fact that, at least this part of Kansas, is NOT FLAT as the course winds its way all through the famed Flint Hills . I can also confirm that, yes, it is windy in Kansas and it is that element that really challenges runners. In fact, what makes this particular course tough is the amount of exposure. While having frequent panoramic views over the ocean of amber tall grass is truly awe inspiring and humbling the down side is that there is hardly a shade tree on the route which makes you very susceptible to whatever Mother Nature throws out you. In years past it has been extremely hot, with cloudless skies and intense sun coupled with convection oven like breezes. This year Mother Nature took a different tact and bombarded us with near gale force winds and day time temperatures not much above freezing! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kathy and I flew into Wichita a couple days before the race amid a huge storm system rolling through. Soaking rains and wind hammered the area as we drove to our hotel in El Dorado (the ‘a’ is pronounced, for some baffling reason, like the ‘a’ in ‘acorn’). Thank goodness we weren’t running the race today!

The next afternoon we drove out to Cassoday, site of the start and finish of the races on a perfect Fall day; blue skies, some large puffy clouds and temperatures in the mid 50s with just a light wind. Too bad the race didn’t start today all the runners agreed at the race packet pickup and briefing.

Twelve hours later we awoke to temperatures in the high 30s to low 40s with an increasing wind out of the north east. Still, we were optimistic that the weather would hold out and that the chance of rain later in the day wouldn’t pan out. Surely we can handle a little wind right? So in the pre-dawn darkness 105 bundled up runners (61 in the 100 mile and 44 in the 50 mile) embarked on their respective adventures; headlights and flashlights bobbing.

Pre-race I’d prepared two pace “guidelines” (I don’t like to use the word “schedule”): one for a sub 20 hour and the other for sub 24 hour finish time. The 20 hour guide basically was to hit half way in 9 hours and come back in 11 hours; the 24 hour had an out-bound split of 11 hours, in-bound in 13 hours. The presumed assumption, from past experience, is that I could expect a 2 hour slow down between the first and second 50 miles (works for me).

Cassoday to Teterville Road (Mile 0 to 25):

Starting out from Cassoday I was a bit anxious about what the day (and night) would hold as the weather was very unpredictable. I put those fears behind me though as it was great to finally be embarking on this adventure. As Kathy’s 50 mile goal pace was basically the same as my 20 hour guide, we decided to run the first 25 miles together to the turnaround aid-station at Teterville Road. I’m very happy that we chose to run together because I feared that I’d get out too fast and then really suffer on the return leg. Instead we passed the time largely running by ourselves. The beauty of a small race field is that it gets really spread out quickly and you end up on your own which is exactly what I love about ultra-running; the lack of crowds. So, by the time we reached the first manned aid-station at Battle Creek (8.2 miles) only a few runners were in sight both ahead and behind; and that is saying a lot as there are frequent places where one can see several miles ahead or behind on the course!

Somewhere in that first section we were treated to a very deep blood red sunrise; the sun was a gigantic, fat orb hidden behind low streaming clouds. With the sun came the wind and the gentle breeze soon ramped up to near gale force strength out of the north east. Unfortunately the general direction the out-bound leg takes is to the north east so runners would experience a wicked head wind throughout at least half of their races.

Kathy and I ran along, only walking some of the steeper sections of the hills. I worried that I was still getting out too fast as I was even well ahead of my 20 hour guide! We really couldn’t help it because we’d both under-dressed a bit for the conditions. We were able to stay just warm enough as long as we kept running and didn’t stop too long at the aid stations. I started out in my green Golite Wasatch Speed Goat Mountain Racing Team short sleeve shirt with my Moeben sleeves and my bright orange Golite team jacket over the top. I ran in my Patagonia shorts and wore Injinji socks inside my La Sportiva Skylite shoes. For the other extremities I wore my trusty pair of 180s gloves (the kind that have a one-way valve on the top that allow you to blow warm air into the glove; genius!), on my head my favorite khaki colored Patagonia trucker cap. So the jacket was just enough to block the wind, but I could have used a slightly warmer layer underneath as the temperatures were barely, if at all, above 40 degrees.

At any rate, that glowing orb, managed to peek out of the thick clouds for a short while which helped warm things up enough to be just comfortable. However, the wind was even more biting if that was possible, enough so that Kathy and I really couldn’t even talk to one another! Talking meant shouting and we just didn’t have the energy for it; so we plodded along, each in our own howling worlds yet just feet apart.

From Battle Creek to the Lapland aid station we were treated with one of the hillier sections of the entire course. Roller after roller greeted us, like an amusement park ride we’d slowly shuffle up one rise and then go roaring down the other side, on and on. We had to be careful to actually walk some as these early miles we felt pretty good and the running was fairly easy, even on the gradual uphills. As we ran along we caught frequent sites of cows and horses grazing, run down and derelict looking structures that ranged from abandoned homesteads to dilapidated barb wire fences and gates leading to nowhere. Often times I felt I was passing through a scene or two from a Stephen King novel. We were in the heart of the Wastelands for sure! An ominous sign and sure indication of my train of thought came just past the unmanned Thrall aid-station at around 21 miles when we ran right by a frayed noose hanging from the lonely remains of a ranch gate. The noose swayed in the wind like a ghostly hand beckoning us to come pay it a visit… Kathy and I looked at one another with looks of supreme surprise and sped on, that next mile was probably our fastest of the day!

Before we knew it 4 ½ hours had gone by and we’d arrived at the Teterville Road aid-station, 25 miles in. Kathy and I exchanged a hug and a kiss and then we went our respective ways. We’d only seen four runners coming back along the 50 mile course and no women as we approached Teterville Road. Kathy waved good bye and wished me luck. She’d go on to run a very negative split on the way back running the last 25 miles in just over 4 hours to finish in 8 hours 38 minutes and 38 seconds, 4th overall and 1st woman. As far as we can tell this was also a female course record by about 18 minutes!

Teterville Road to Lone Tree (Mile 25 to 50):

Alas I was truly on my own now. I left Teterville Road with just a couple other runners, a large pack Kathy and I had come in with were all 50 milers and they had all turned for home. I still had 25 more miles to go before I’d make my own turn for home! After a good mile of running out of the wind, sure enough, the course turned into the north once more right into the teeth of the wind! This section of road was also one in the worst condition of any other place on the course. The road looked as if it had gotten really soaked and muddy, then driven over by some heavy equipment. There were deep ruts and wash-outs and even a creek crossing of sorts where a rain swollen creek was flowing over a low concrete bridge.

Cattle guards. I can’t believe I forgot to talk about the cattle guards. I already alluded that the theme of the day was COLD and WIND and WASTELAND but I forgot to add CATTLE GUARDS. These ingenious inventions that are great at keeping cattle from escaping from their respective ranch lands, forced runners to pay close attention when crossing them. They were constructed from a variety of materials. There were basically three different types I came across. The first utilized several horizontally placed, parallel metal pipes; this was the most dangerous to cross because of the rounded surface and the sections of pipe were often spaced fairly wide apart. The second type was the easiest to cross, these were constructed with fully boxed metal beams and were most often placed close enough together that you didn’t even have to think about where you stepped and the surface was totally flat. The third type was the most ingenious as it used old and short sections of rail road track; some were more dangerous than others; it just depended on how widely spaced was each section of track. I lost track of how many cattle guards I crossed throughout that 100 mile run, I just know that it hardly seemed like one could run a mile without coming upon one. COLD, WIND, WASTELAND, CATTLE GUARDS.

So after crossing over that concrete bridge, and getting my feet thoroughly soaked I continued on that torn up ranch road. I began to ascend in earnest to reach what is known as the Ridgeline area. A true ridgeline it is as the next 10 miles are all along this winding gravel road that is one of the highest areas around and has full 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. If one knew where to look I’m sure the entire 100 mile course could be made out from here; thankfully I was blissfully unaware of where I was! Sometimes ignorance is bliss!

The route to Texaco Hill (50km), once the ridgeline was attained, was relatively flat and, thank fully, not directly into the wind. This was quite possibly my favorite section of the course with the sun peaking through the clouds, turning the tall prairie grass gold and rippling like waves in the ocean; the clouds streaming by. Wow this is a beautiful country! I arrived at Texaco Hill, grabbed some homemade cookies, refilled my lone bottle and continued on. Just up the road from the Texaco Hill aid-station was an ancient looking pumpjack a.k.a. “nodding donkey” that looked to be on its last leg; it made an awful grinding noise as I approached, passed and receded away from it.

To help get into a rhythm with my running, I started to employ a 10:2 run-walk strategy shortly after I left Teterville Road. As truly just about everything was runnable on this course, I needed to work in an effective walking strategy. So I had my watch set with two repeating count-down timers; I’d run for 10 minutes (regardless of terrain) my watch would chime and then I’d walk for 2 minutes and then my watch would chime again. This seemed to be a pretty good strategy for me in the past (Delano 12 hour) and so I hoped it would work well this time around. So I ran and walked a bit, ran and walked a bit, on and on. Finally the Ridgeline stretch was behind me as I pulled into THE Ridgeline aid-station (several cattle guards later I might add). I was now 36 ½ miles in and feeling great. For the first time I asked about my position and was told I was the 13th through this point. No worries, I was just on cruise control for this run. I refilled my bottle, grabbed some pretzels and boiled potatoes and kept trucking.

My next destination was Matfield Green at mile 42 ½. In this stretch I had my closest encounter with cattle thus far. Just a couple miles out from the Ridgeline aid-station I crossed yet another cattle guard and sitting right next to the road were several large black cows; behind them were a few dozen or more idly grazing. They all stopped and stared at me, chewing their cud, as I rolled by; how cool! Just past the lounging cows I saw some ranch hands loading some horses into a trailer. As I got closer I realized that that they were all women! Cowgirls don’t cry! More on them later. I kept going, cycling endlessly through my run-walk cycles until finally I could hear the cars on the near-by toll road. I knew I was getting close to Matfield Green now. I passed by another dilapidated old ranch house, though this one’s grassy yard looked like it had been recently freshly cut; so perhaps it is still looked over somewhat? A bit further and I could now see the toll road and the concrete overpass ahead. Ever wonder about those overpasses you see when you’re driving way out from any nearby city? This was one of those places! There wasn’t a toll exit anywhere close to here! Over the concrete bridge, cars zipping by without a clue, and I was into the aid-station. However I wasn’t alone. I’d just grabbed some noodles to go, and refilled my bottle when another runner came bounding into the aid-station. Where had they, uhh she come from? I’d been looking forward and backward frequently, not out of any care about my position, but just to see if I could see anybody? She’d come up on me pretty quick!

I walked on out of Matfield Green, trying to let all the food I’d just stuffed down settle. Next stop was the 50 mile turnaround point at the Lone Tree aid-station. Susan Lance, the runner who’d caught me, sped right on by as I groped in my waist pack for some vitamin I (Ibuprofen). I popped a couple Ibuprofen and settled back into my run-walk cycle. It is hard to describe, you kind of have to experience it to understand, but it was very comforting to have this 10-2 cycle to stick to. A hundred miles is so far that it can fry your brain if you start to think about how far you have left to go. It is much better to just worry about the next 10 minutes of running or 2 minutes of walking and let the rest of it go. You’ve got to break up a race this long somehow and this is one of the ways I can cope with it. It is a monster.

Cruising out to the turnaround at Lone Tree, the route passes right by a couple of really tall electronic towers (cellular? T.V. ?). The funny thing is that, like every distant object in this land, they appear to be a lot closer than they really are. Perspective and distance are all messed up when you have so much line of sight. Anyhow I just focused on my run-walk strategy and found that, for this section at least, Susan was doing roughly the same thing as after her initial surge by me we largely kept the same distance apart. As we closed in on the towers I expected to see the 100 mile race leaders come back by us anytime. Sure enough with just about a mile to go before the towers (about 3 ½ miles out from the turnaround) I saw some black dots coming down the very straight road. Wow it was still anybody’s race as the top three were all within ten minutes of each other! Passing the towers I topped off my water bottle at an unmanned aid-station i.e. a couple of water containers and a box of various food items, and kept going. Down the last section to the turnaround, more runners on the in-bound leg passed by me. Most motivational was the lead woman, Amy Palmiero-Winters, who is a below the knee amputee! She would go on to win this race in 18 hours 54 minutes and 13 seconds, a record for an amputee and the 2nd fastest women’s time on this course! Amazing, truly amazing! I counted a total of twelve before I could finally spot the Lone Tree aid station, so I really was 14th (Susan was just ahead of me). At the aid station I arrived in around 9 hours and 25 minutes (about 4 hours and 55 minutes for this 25 mile section). I was 25 minutes over my 20 hour guideline, but I felt that was pretty good considering the wind tunnel I had to run through to get to this point! Susan introduced herself as one of my friend Janice Anderson’s friends; part of that G.U.T.S. group (Georgia Ultrarunning & Trailrunning Society). I thought I’d heard her name before. With that she launched back up the hill we’d run down to get to Lone Tree. I hammered down another Boost and retrieved my Patagonia cool-weather top from my drop-bag and tied it around my waist. And with that I was now an in-bound runner as I bounded back up the road and into a wonderful tail-wind!

Back to Teterville Road:

The stretch back to Matfield Green seemed to just fly by. It was so good to not have the wind whipping across my ears any longer! I passed by many runners still on their out-bound legs including fellow Huntsvillian, Christie Scott who was tackling her first 100 mile race! Christie would have a late race melt-down but still rally and perceiver to finish the race in 29 hours 30 minutes and 39 seconds. Way to go Christie! Back into the out skirts of the Matfield Green aid-station I was shocked to see my wife Kathy! Yes! She told me about her amazing 50 mile finish and that since she had plenty of time to meet me out here she did! Thank you! As we walked into and out of the aid-station she quickly told me about her race. How motivating for me! So, with a kiss and a hug I chugged on, light hearted and feeling pretty good even with over 57 miles in my legs.

Susan was nowhere in sight, she was gone! I would learn later that she finished 2nd woman in 19 hours 17 minutes and 21 seconds; the next finisher ahead of me! Talk about a gap! Anyhow I soon passed another runner with his pacer not far out of Matfield Green so now I was back in the ominous 13th position. Running along the Prairie Creek Road I recognized the landmarks I’d passed only hours before. I was making pretty good time. Soon was I passing close to where I’d seen those cowgirls earlier in the day. Coming over a rise in the road I saw them drive a flat bed truck with a large hay bale into a field with 100s of cattle. As I ran towards the scene I heard them begin to blow a whistle and all of a sudden there was a sea of mooing black cows converging on the parked truck! What an awesome sight to behold! I soon passed behind a hillock and the scene disappeared behind me. I was now totally alone on the road, nobody ahead or behind in sight. I’d passed by the last of the out-bounders a while ago. Returning by the spot where the relaxing cows were by the road, the cows were nowhere to be seen. I kept going and soon I’d made the turn off that long Prairie Creek Road and ran up a short hill into the Ridgeline aid-station at mile 63.4. Kathy was there to greet me and as my water bottle was being refilled, I retrieved my dropbag and quickly downed two cans of Boost (this is great stuff!). I decided to that I’d had enough clothing to get me to Teterville (mile 75) as it was “only” about 12 miles away. I still felt fairly warm and had perhaps another hour or so of sunlight left. So I began to leave the aid-station only to cross a cattle guard and remember that I didn’t have my headlamp! Uff! As I turned quickly around to get back to the aid-station, I saw that Kathy had already started to turn the car around to head back down the road! I began to frantically wave my hands and yell, at the same time an aid-station worker began to do the same thing; at first independently of me, but when he noticed I was doing the same thing he re-doubled his efforts and ran to the car to stop her! Phew! It turns out that an out-bound runner had dropped out her and was awaiting a ride back to Cassoday. The aid-station worker had initially flagged down Kathy to see if she’d give him a ride, but seeing me in a frantic really stepped up his efforts! Thank you to that guy, he probably saved my race! As I sped over to her car to get my light, it seemed like I just got really cold all of a sudden as well! So while Kathy fished around for my light, I began to layer up top and put my wind pants on for good measure. Now, finally with my light and with plenty of warm clothes on I left the aid-station for the second time!

It took me a good mile of running to finally warm back up, but I did and was glad to have grabbed the extra layers when I did; it could have been ugly trying to get to Teterville had I not added more clothing! An hour later the sunlight faded and with the heavy cloud cover there was no spectacular sunset, just a gradual graying of the light into black. I managed to get to the Texaco Hill aid-station (mile 68.7) without needing my light. There was just enough contrast between the scraped dirt road and the surrounding prairie that it was very easy to stay on the road without a light. I knew I was close to Texaco Hill when I heard the laboring pumpjack grinding and groaning in the dark. Over on last hillock and I saw the lights of the Texaco Hill aid-station. I only stopped long enough to grab a hot cup of potato soup and I was out of there. I did manage to congratulate Phil Sheridan, who’d won the 50 mile event and was now out there manning that aid station all night! I remember running with Phil during 1998 at Old Dominion and Leadville when I was doing the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. He remembered my purple (red) hair at Old Dominion and green hair at Leadville. It’s funny that is how I’m remembered! Better than being forgotten I suppose!

Now I was just a 10km away from Teterville, on some of the nastiest terrain of the course, in the dark no less. It really wasn’t so bad, I was still making fairly good progress and largely sticking to my 10-2 run-walk plan. If I had one low-point it was just after making the tricky 180 degree turn off the main dirt road and onto a much less frequently maintained side road. The first part of this side road is tucked between a few large hills and is one of the very few places where there is no wind. As I’d been dressed for the cold and wind I got very hot in this section and had to stop and strip off my wind pants and a layer up top. I was bursting with heat and felt sick! I’d made it another mile down this road when the wind returned with earnest and now the pendulum had swung back and I was freezing again! So I had stop once again and put all those layers back on! After that I had my first indication that my brain was getting a bit tired. Peering ahead of me I saw a green road sign fluoresce in my headlamp light. Getting closer to the sign I was stunned to watch as that supposed road sign transform in to a green glow-stick, attached to a holder and stuck horizontally in the ground! Woah! I was losing it just a bit! It is weird how your brain interprets things without enough information to fill in the pieces. It was just so dark out there that all you could see was the bit of dirt road ahead of you and just this pitch black nothingness all around. I was just in a bubble of light, surrounded by the night. Further on I passed a well lit ranch and then some signs of civilization (if you can call it that) as I could see my turn ahead onto the last bit of road into Teterville. The only way I could tell that was I could see some vehicular traffic (just points of light to me) heading perpendicular to my direction. Who else would be out here this late, but the dedicated crews? A glowing red point resolved into a stop sign ahead and soon I’d made the turn as arrived in Teterville after a short jog up one of the nicest surfaced dirt roads on this course. Kathy was there once again as I rolled in just a few minutes before 9:00 p.m., about 15 hours in and about 5 hours 35 minutes for this last 25 miles; not bad at all considering. It was pretty cold out so I didn’t stop long, just enough to eat some soup and refill my bottle. I hugged Kathy and left the aid-station. Just 25 miles to go!

The home stretch:

Leaving Teterville I was cold once again; you stop for even just a little bit and you get cold! With the sun down it was barely above freezing and the wind was still blowing, albeit a bit less strongly than it had been during the day. I ran the next mile a bit upbeat as it was largely downhill. I was finally warm again soon enough. Looking behind me I was stunned to see a headlamp bobbing down the road perhaps a quarter mile behind me! I hadn’t seen any other runner for hours now. Well, not that it really meant anything, but I refused to let this runner pass me. Besides, trying to hold this guy off would be something to do to pass the time over the remaining miles. So I began to pick up the pace more during my 10 minute running blocks. I passed by Thrall, some decrepit buildings and the ghostly noose and was past the unmanned aid-station. I cut my light off and tried to determine when the chasing runner made the hard turn to the right onto the road I was currently running down. He finally did and it appeared that I was still maintaining the same quarter mile gap. I cut my light back on, before I stumbled off the road trying to run with no light and looking back over my shoulder! This next section had some good rollers so I made good use of them running up all the hills and trying to hammer the downs as best I could. I didn’t skimp on my walk break, but often delayed it if it occurred mid downhill. It wasn’t long before I thought I could see the Lapland aid-station (mile 83.1), a glowing red light at this distance. It was impossible to tell how far away it was, it just looked like another point of light in the distance; like a star in the sky! I was onto a pretty sustained downhill and the red light vanished from in front of me. I knew I was close because I was running through a thin copse of woods, which was why the lights of the aid-station disappeared (I remembered this section from the way out). I really let my legs roll down this part and started a little when a black shape sped across the road not 20 feet ahead of me; a skunk! Luckily he was making a bee-line for the woods and had no interest in tangling with the head-lamped Cyclopes barreling out of the night! Out of the woods the red aid-station light was now a large tent covered with Christmas lights and before I knew it I was on the final gradual uphill pitch into the Lapland. Kathy was the only crew at the aid-station so I knew there must be a large gap ahead and behind me (except for the chaser of course). I grabbed some more soup and crackers and a few caffeinated gels and kept going. This was the last time I’d see Kathy until the finish so I told her to expect me in around 4 hours.

Heading down the road out of Lapland I could see that the chaser had closed to perhaps a couple hundred yards! I guess I delayed longer than I thought at the aid-station? Anyhow I didn’t let it bother me and instead focused on trying to finish strong. I was getting tired now and so shifted to a 9-3 run-walk plan. The caveat was that I’d really try to run strong during that 9 minute stretch but really try and relax on the 3 minute walk. I think this was a good strategy shift as this section to Battle Creek had a number of rolling hills which really allowed me to play to my hill climbing strengths. I quickly lost sight of the chaser in the roller-coaster like hills but would occasionally catch a glimpse of his headlamp from one of the peaks. It seemed like I was keeping a peak ahead so that was good, he wasn’t gaining on me anymore. Roller after roller I ran and walked, ran and walked until finally I pulled into the Battle Creek aid-station at mile 91.7 almost unexpectedly as this aid-station is buried in some woods and can only be seen from a short ways out. A couple of aid-station workers came running up the road to me. The grabbed my water bottle and sped back to the aid-station. They wanted to keep me going without stopping; now that is service! So I barely paused and was gone up a short but steep climb out of the little valley where the Battle Creek aid-station was hidden.

I was feeling very good; I was now onto the true home-stretch, some of the easiest running on the entire course. After the climb out of Battle Creek it was largely flat all the way back to Cassoday. Just a couple of miles out of Battle Creek, my headlamp began to blink! Uh Oh! That means my batteries were running low! Yikes, to lose my light this close to the finish! Fortunately my headlamp has different lighting levels so I shifted down to the minimal setting; didn’t really need much light on this last bit of well groomed dirt road. I also still had my backup light that I’d used in the opening miles of the race just in case. In the distance I thought I could see the lights from the turnpike toll station at the out skirts of Cassoday. That meant I was really getting close. All of a sudden I saw what looked like a Carnival cruise ship lit up for the night drifting by ahead of me! I could hear the grumbling of a diesel engine but couldn’t make out what the heck it was. Then it was passing me. It was a large diesel truck pulling two large horse trailers (all of which was lit up). Weird what your brain does without enough input? Just past a couple of well lit homesteads and I arrived at the last aid-station. This was an unmanned aid-station on the out-bound leg, but now there were a couple of bundled up folks there to check on the tired, finishing runners. I downed a cup of hot apple cider and kept going, just less than 5 miles to go! I couldn’t see the chaser behind me but kept tricking myself as I’d look behind me I kept thinking that lit up homestead was a runner’s headlamp just behind me! Freaky! I was getting tired and needed to finish thing before I really started hallucinating!

This last stretch was just a blur, after a few more miles I could see the lights of Cassoday ahead now and a bare shimmer on the unlit Cassoday water-tower. I also could hear the kennel dogs barking that I remembered hearing at the starting line. I was in shouting distance now! The finish area looked pretty dead. Unfortunately this section of the course is bisected from the town of Cassoday by a very active railway. Rather than risk tired runners from getting run over by trains in the middle of the night, the event staff wisely moved the start/finish area just past the railway crossing at an old school and site of the town’s water supply. It was this now resolved water-tower that I set my sights on as my feet emerged onto pavement, just a half mile to go! I tucked my head into the wind, one last insult by the weather gods, and ran for all I was worth for the finish. I was greeted at the finish, a chalk line drawn next to a folding chair, by race director Randy Albrecht, ringing a cow bell, and Kathy, clapping her mittened hands. After 20 hours 21 minutes and 33 seconds I was done! I’d finished 11th overall and put over an hour on the chaser in the process! This last 25 miles took me about 5 hours 21 minutes, so it was a bit faster than my 3rd 25 mile leg (and not my slowest leg at all). In the end I was only off my "ideal" schedule by 21 minutes; not too bad given the conditions!

Aftermath:

It was a great relief to be done, but I was getting cold, Kathy was cold. She’d tried to get some sleep in the car waiting for me, but kept getting too cold! We talked with the Randy for a few minutes, I enjoyed a large bowl of hot potato soap and then were back on the road to El Dorado (remember the ‘a’ is pronounced, for some baffling reason, like the ‘a’ in ‘acorn’) and our warm hotel room.

Big thanks to Randy and all the other volunteers that made the Heartland races possible. I really had an enjoyable time running in the Flint Hills of Kansas; a lot more than I thought I would. The course photos I came across before the race don’t do it justice. You really have to go and experience it for yourself; I promise you won’t be disappointed! What a truly a beautiful place to pass your day (and night). I'm already looking forward to returning to this special part of the U.S.A. one day.