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The drawback from that proximity, however, is the knowledge of the terrain. Those unfamiliar with the Flint Hills should know that Kansas is not all flat. In fact, this part of Kansas is known for its scenic beauty of sharp rolling hills. This year’s theme would be the weather. In my years past at Heartland (3 years actually, as my first year I began with the 50 mile race), heat has been a factor. While 70’s doesn’t seem like scorching heat, imagine that temperature in 10+ hours of sunlight. And again, those unfamiliar with the Flint Hills should know that there is barely a tree in sight, so no shade and absolutely nothing to block the wind (always plan on 30+ mph swirling winds out there). This year would be the opposite extreme. Forecasts throughout the week teetered between highs of the high 30’s to the low 50’s, and lows from the mid 30’s to the high 30’s (with wind chills forecasted at times as low as 22 degrees!). Several forecasts also called for rain and snow. While 70’s might bake you with hours of exposure, 30’s with drizzle can literally freeze you – the ability to self regulate body temperature after 20+ hours of running can be beyond difficult. Final forecasts as of 4:00 a.m. on the morning of the race called for highs in the mid 40’s with partly cloudy skies and light wind. . . . Could they have been more wrong? My training partner and friend Laura showed up to the race about 45 minutes before the 6:00 a.m. start. After a few minutes of stretching and a few more staying warm in the car, we headed to the start line. With racers snuggling themselves to keep warm, the race director sounded the “go.” All of the sudden, more than a hundred headlamps began bouncing up and down along the road. We were off. The first 7 miles or so are generally flat. And dark. This darkness can be your friend, at least to some extent. Without light (or at least any more than your headlamp will project), you
The bike had no chain. It’s how cyclists describe the days when they just feel on top of their game. No matter what mountain they climb or what other cyclists they are sprinting against, they can’t feel the resistance. On October 10, 2009, I ran the Heartland 100 for the third year in a row. And this year, my bike had no chain. For the past few weeks, I’ve been toying with the idea of “racing” a 100 mile run. Not just running, but really racing it. While I have run three previous 100 milers, I have never before tried to push myself to that ultimate level of both performance and exhaustion. Could I break my best time on the Heartland course? Maybe, although I’m proud to say that survived the two previous Heartland races in right at 22 ½ hours. Could I set a new personal best time? Maybe, although I’m proud to say that I survived another 100 miler in 21 ½ hours. Could I even break 20 hours? For me and probably 90%+ of the rest of the ultramarathon population, it would take that ultimate level of performance and exhaustion to find out. But that would be my ultimate goal, to break 20 hours and set a personal best. I eased myself into the racing mood with a relaxed training week, culminating in a nice relaxing evening at home. The beauty for me of the Heartland 100 is the proximity to my home in Wichita, Kansas – just roughly 45 minutes up the turnpike in the Flint Hills. This proximity takes out the stress and fatigue of travel, and provides a certain level of comfort in knowing
can’t see what you are up against. Slow rolling hills seems like nothing, as you simply take it one step at a time, without allowing yourself to get mentally defeated by the sight of the climb ahead. I tried to take advantage of the ability to run solid early in the race and clocked 8:00 – 8:30 minute/miles throughout. I was certainly off to a fast start, and it felt good. The next section includes a large downhill (around two hundred feet over the course of around a mile). This section flies on the way out, but can stop you in your tracks on the way back. I hung with a couple of other runners, all of which held a similar sub-20 hour goal. At this time of the day, the temperature was in the high 30’s, and the wind was a non-factor. This would quickly change. Miles 8-17 are what I describe as some of the toughest miles of the race (second only two miles 83-92, which is the same section reversed). These miles are progressively downhill (on the way out), but have many very steep climbs along the way. Think of the type of hills that bring your running to a screeching halt, forcing you to walk, and forcing your quads to burn. Then line up 4 or 5 of those in a row. I generally dread these miles, where my pace usually slows with equal bouts of walking and running. This year, however, was different. While my pace slowed, I still maintained 9:15 – 10:30 minute miles. Each time my watch clicked off to tell me the preceding lap time, I would continue in disbelief and the pace I was maintaining. I could only hope that even if my pace crashed and burned later in the race, that these early faster miles would pay off with a net overall faster pace. At mile 17 (Lapland Aid Station), I would see my crew for the first time. Thank you to Dave and Dale who took great care of me throughout. At this early stage, I took only a brief refill of my water bottles, Tylenol, a couple slices of orange, and a handful of pretzels. I was quickly
off, with less than two minutes at this first aid station. I could feel the temperature starting to drop, and the wind to pick up. While the sun was up, so were the clouds. The next 8 miles before I would again seem my crew would be quite a challenge. Miles 17-21 include some strong rolling hills, most of which I usually walk to an average pace of around 12-13 min/miles. This year, my quicker pace held on. I was able to maintain a strong running pace, and even with some shorter walking breaks on the steeper parts of the climb, I was still able to maintain around 9:30 min/miles. My biggest surprise thus far was the ease at which I seemed to be getting over the hills. I continue with much disbelief as to my pace. Miles 21-25, while generally not very hilly, head due north. Unfortunately, the wind was out of the NNE, and brutal. Moving forward at a strong pace seemed to be the only way to keep my temperature up, so on I went. Mile 25 (Teterville Aid Station) came quite quickly, too quickly actually. Just under 4:00 after beginning, to be more precise, and I wasn’t supposed to be there for at least 15 more minutes. I was certainly on pace for a sub 20 hour race, if I could hold it, but with the temperatures so low I began to get very nervous about going out too hard and losing the ability to move quick enough later on to keep myself warm. 4 hours for nearly a marathon seems great, but that is over 45 minutes faster than I’ve ever run the first 25 of this race. Was I going way too fast? When would the wheels fall off? Miles 25-31 are generally non-descript. These miles are a bit hilly but pretty, and it is early enough in the race that the body and mind are usually in good shape. Today was different, but only in a good way. I felt amazing despite the conditions, despite the pace I had set out, and despite the miles I had already put in. I continued to tick off some strong miles, despite
the blistering cold that had set in as we continued to head in a northerly direction. Between the Mile 31 aid station (known as Texaco Hill) and the Mile 36 aid station (known as Ridge Line) is notoriously open. But with a slight turn to a westerly direction for this section, I had just a bit of reprieve from the wind. After grabbing a few bites to eat and some much needed refills of fluids (I had sort of forgot to drink enough through the first 25 miles, and that caught up to me with some serious thirst between 25 and 31), I was off. And still running at a pace faster than I ever started with in past years. By this point I began to realize that I was well ahead of schedule. While this generally doesn’t pose a problem in most races, with a crew (Dave and Dale, who were also helping to crew Laura running behind me) and pacers (more on that later), other people were counting on me not being somewhere before I said I would be. After arriving at the quarter-century mark in Teterville in less than 4 hours, and after continuing to hold that pace for the next 10+ miles, I knew I was running a significant risk of outrunning my crew. Luckily the aid stations are well stocked, so I would be relatively fine on food and drink, but the remainder of my supplies could miss me at the aid stations. As I arrived at the mile 36 aid station (Ridge Line), Dave and Dale were scrambling as they had just arrived only moments before. I was well over 30 minutes early, and still going strong. I grabbed a Ginger Ale, some Gu, and I was off in less than 2 minutes. As quickly as I rolled off the first 8 miles, I blazed miles 36-43. I continued to run with complete amazement with the ease at which I was able to run up the hills and the speed at which I was able to run the flats. I continued to clock 9:00 min/miles, with paces as fast as mid7:00 min/miles on the downhills.
The Matfield Green Aid Station at mile 43 appeared in no time. What was an hour of running since I last saw my crew felt like only minutes. My wife, Jennifer, finally caught up as well. She would be one of my pacers (someone who is permitted to run a section of the course with a participant to more or less keep them company), but she had showed up (on time) to Ridge Line Aid Station only to realize that I was already past. She commented: “Wait, that means he is on pace for an 18 hour race, tell him to slow down.” I grabbed a PB&J and a Sprite, some additional drink and supplies, and I was off.
Miles 43 to 50 (the turnaround) are generally my least favorite miles on this course. In the first 4 miles or so, the race climbs 200 feet or so. That typically isn’t bad, but those miles are
typically into a strong headwind. And most years, the heat of the afternoon has set in and taken its toll. This year, however, these miles felt flat. The wind was dying down slightly (still strong), but I was fighting through. I was beginning to set my mind on time. While I hoped to hit the half-way mark in around 9 hours, I was well over thirty minutes ahead of pace. Could I hit the half-way point in 8:30 or even 8:00 hours? The thought of clocking two 4:00 “marathons” back-to-back sped up my pace. Into the 50 mile aid station (Lone Tree) is a steep downhill. For the past 5 miles or so, I had another runner in sight. As we descended into Lone Tree, I would finally catch him. And as the course is an “out-and-back” course, I was able to see that there weren’t more than a halfdozen or so people in front of me. This inability to count a precise position in the race seemed irrelevant at the time. I was in to the half-way point in 8 hours 10 minutes (4 hours and 13 minutes for my second 25 mile stretch), leaving 12 hours to make my way home under my 20 hour goal. Some quick snacks and fluids and I was again off. As I headed back into the Matfield Green Aid Station (Mile 57), my mind began to wonder. Was 20 hours really in reach? What about 19? What about 18? Reality also set in. I had almost 50 miles left to run, and things could go south, and fast. But I didn’t let my mind get negative. Even with 50 miles to go, I never let doubt of finishing come in to my mind, nor did I ever let doubt as to a 24 hour race come in to my mind. The race from there on out would be a battle of time, not a battle as to finishing. I can honestly say that I had never before experienced this confidence in finishing let alone in finishing strong. As I ultimately approached Matfield Green, I began to realize the magnitude of my fast pace: it was only shortly after 3:00 p.m. and I was well into my way back to the finish (now well over an hour ahead of even a 20 hour pace).
My friend and fellow Team-in-Training Running Coach Pam joined me as a pacer from Matfield Green back to Ridgeline (Miles 57-63). In past years, this section has proved the miles. After nearly 60 miles, I usually have tired to a minute of walking for every 3 or 4 minutes of running. And I have usually begun walking even the slightest inclines, categorizing them as mountains in my mind. This year, however, I found barely a hill that I couldn’t run. And on those that I opted for a conservative approach with a walk break, I kept my walking to 30 seconds at best. And in most surprise to me (and I think Pam) was the 8:00 – 9:00 min/mile pace that I was still running. As I approached Ridgeline, I realized that for the first time ever after 63 miles, I was really having fun. At mile 63 Pam dropped off (to later pace Laura) and I picked up Steve, who would run the next 12 miles with me. Most years, dusk has set in by the time I have reached mile 63, and I generally head off with a headlamp blazing. This year, however, it was barely 4:30, and darkness was well over 2 hours away. Would I really be able to make it 75 miles before nightfall? The thought leaving only 25 miles to go in the dark again lifted my spirits. Steve and I were off after grabbing some quick supplies and changing out sunglasses. As I have mentioned, the wind was generally out of the north. And miles 63-75 are generally
southeastward. To the extent anyone continues with a running pace, this combination can provide a fantastic push towards the Teterville aid station at mile 75. And push it did. Steve and I kept a very strong pace up for much of the time, and even managed to pass a runner along the way (who himself was still running strong). Much of my conversations with Steve focused on the oddity of running these miles during sunlight – something I’ve never done before. I continued with amazement that I was still running with great ease. I would finish the third 25 mile section with a split of 4 hours and 20 minutes.
The next 8 miles continued at (for me) an astonishing pace. Despite a few hills, my pace remained solid. I continued to see 9 and 10 minute miles. My spirit remained high. I continued to eat and drink (providing much needed energy for the still many miles ahead). And while I was beginning to slow a bit, I never tired to the point of mental or physical exhaustion. I felt great, and looked forward to the miles still ahead. I was able to pass yet another runner.
At mile 75, I realized my stars were aligned. The sun was still shinning (something I have never seen after 75 miles), my appetite was still strong (generally my system has began rejecting all forms of food and drink by this time), and my legs were still felt fresh. “Only a marathon to go,” I thought. And that thought not only didn’t scare me, it posed an exciting challenge. I was 25 miles from the finish, and more than 7 hours remained for a 20 hour finish, more than 6 hours remained for a 19 hour finish, and the possibility still existed for an 18 hour finish, if I could run the forth 25 mile section in less than 5 hours and 15 minutes. With Judi, my new pacer, on my side, we were off.
At mile 83, I didn’t know what to expect. Because my pace was much faster than it was supposed to be throughout the day, I was well ahead of schedule and had issues getting my pacers to make it out to the race earlier than scheduled. And then to top that off, because my pace after 83 miles would be much, much faster than expected (I had anticipated walking as much as running the next 17 miles), I knew I would have problems ensuring that my pacers
could maintain my quick pace of the remaining distances. Luckily, my crew had it all figured out. My wife, Jennifer, would take the next 8 miles, with my co-worker Brad taking the next 4, and leaving me the last 5 miles to burn on my own. After a quick cleanout of rocks from my shoes, Jennifer and I were off. As a bit of background, when I ran my first 100 miler in 2007, Jennifer paced me the final 17 miles, through some pretty hilly sections (described above). That year, Jennifer had no problem matching my pace. Jennifer is a strong runner. But I had not anticipated that my pace through the hills would remain in the 9:30-11:00 min/mile range. Jennifer hung right in there, but she made it very clear to me that I was going “stupidly fast.” And I still felt relatively fresh. Halfway to the Battle Creek Aid Station (mile 92), Jennifer and I passed yet another runner. Recall at the turnaround that I recognized that I had a half-dozen or so runners ahead of me, but that I didn’t have a precise count. As I had now passed at least 3 runners since the turnaround, I figured I had crept my way into 5th and maybe 4th place. And while that felt great, I was more encouraged by a sub-20 hour or even sub-19 hour finish. I continued on still running fairly well. At Battle Creek I would learn some interesting news. First, I knew that 20 hours was “in the bag” and that only a complete shutdown could take away a 19 hour finish, but a quick look at my watch reminded me that I still had plenty of time to make 18 hours, if I pushed ahead. The second piece of news was that I was in fact not in 5th place or even 4th, but I was in fact in 2nd place! I while I knew that I had a couple of minutes on the gentleman behind me, I knew he was still moving fast, and that I would really have to push to maintain my position. These facts I learned pushed me quickly out of the aid station, and up that dreaded 1 ½ mile climb out
of the valley. My friend and pacer Brad would provide me some encouraging words along the way. And while that first mile or two were slow going up hill, I knew I still had plenty of energy for a final push to the finish. Once we crested the hill, Brad and I were only 4 miles to go in no time. At mile 95, Steve rejoined me for a final pace into the finish. Despite the miles Steve had already put in on the day (with his own training run that morning plus his miles with me, he would top out on a marathon for the day), he was one of the fastest runners in my crew. Steve and I pushed on, often looking back to see the headlight of the running charging behind me. We desperately did not want to give up second place. We pushed on, often running from telephone pole to telephone pole before taking a short 10 second walk break. And once we hit a turn with about 2 miles to go, I gave the word for Steve to “kick my ass” into the finish line. And so he did, clicking off sub 10 minute miles, and taking only a few second long walk breaks after ½ mile pushes.
With less than ½ mile to go, we turned the final corner to see the lights of the finish line ahead. Steve and I charged ahead. There was no sight of the runner behind, and 2nd place would be mine for the taking.
The following morning I would attend the awards ceremony. I would receive my belt buckle . . .
I crossed the line to a screaming crew in 17:27:07, only 25 minutes behind the first place finisher and over 7 minutes faster than 3rd place. I had done it! . . . along with my prize (awarded to the First Placed Kansan).
After over 17 hours, I was finished. I had shattered my goal in a way that I never thought possible. I had run with an ease that I had never felt before. I know of no other way to describe it other than to say: the bike had no chain this day. A special thank-you to Dave, Dale, Jennifer, Travis, Pam, Dawne, Judi, Steve, Amanda and Brad for making this possible. Your crewing and pacing made this an unforgettable experience. And a very special thank-you to Laura for the early hours of training, which made this possible.
I would later learn that I completed the race in the 7th fastest time in the 10-year history of the race.