Previously, on “Prairie Spirit 100″… Our unlikely hero has arrived in Ottawa in an effort to reach his goal of completing a 100 mile trail run. A fun filled evening of dinner and camaraderie with other ultrarunners is ended with a restless night of sleep. The morning greets our hero with overcast skies, cold temps, and the possibility of catastrophic weather conditions later in the day. Undeterred, our hero gears up and sets out. Having reached the Iola turnaround with his fearless companion Adam in less than 11 hours, Zach connects with pacer Lisa and dives headlong into a burgeoning blizzard – determined not to let his solid 50+ mile effort be in vain. Will the weather stop our determined friend and his companions? Will they finish the race in spite of the screaming winds and the falling snow? Will they be buried under ice waiting centuries to be thawed and reanimated? Stay tuned to “Prairie Spirit 100, Part III – Yetis in the Mist” to find out!!
So there I was, no bullshit… (every great story should begin with those words) getting ready to leave the Iola aid station restocked and ready to rock. Feeling good. Joking, laughing, taking some pictures, and just having an overall great time. I knew the weather was going downhill and that I had 51 or so miles to go, but I still had not for a single second entertained the idea that I might not be able to finish. At almost exactly 5:00 p.m. I stepped out from behind the Iola shelter and started a jog directly into the whipping north wind. I turned to Lisa and said, “HOLY F*&^#^g SHIT… IT’S GONNA BE A LONG NIGHT!” Having that wind at your back was one thing; looking forward to it blasting you in the damn face for the next 16 or more hours is something totally different. But we did what we do… we set our jaws and starting putting our left foot in front of our right foot.
I don’t know that many ways to keep describing the blowing wind and snow. I was cold, wet, windy and snowy. There were some places along the trail that offered some decent protection from the wind, and that became the goal. Instead of running to the next aid station, we decided we would run to the next wind break. Lisa talked to me while I just kept concentrating on keeping the fuel schedule right and kept moving as quickly as I could. A few hours passed and we made it to Colony in pretty decent time, probably between 3-4 hours before the cutoff. I was starting to get chilled from the wind and moisture but not bad as long as I was moving pretty good. Coming into Colony, my goal was to get in and out ASAP so I didn’t get cold. Adam had gotten out ahead of me and was already at Colony when I got there, heading to sit in the car with his wife and warm up some. He hadn’t packed nearly as many drop bags as I had or as much cold weather gear either. At Colony I busted open 4-5 hand warmers and shoved them in the fronts and backs of my gloves and in my balaclava on my face. I also grabbed another pair of bigger glove shells to wear and a big fleece hood with a drawstring around the face. It was dark by now and I had a light clipped to my hat with the hood over the top, drawstring cinched tight. I must have looked like Kenny from Southpark with a beam of light shooting from my head. It was quite comical I am sure. Lisa and I left Colony before Adam and wouldn’t see him again. 61 miles done. Next stop Welda.
Not much to say about the trip from Colony to Welda – except that about a mile out of Colony I lost my water bottle from its waist holster. Now I am taking Hammer Gels and Endurolytes every 30 minutes for the next 2-3 hours without water. If you don’t already know this – be aware- cold gels are hard as hell to swallow with water. Shit. Now I am starting to feel like I am royally screwed. I begin to get colder in my core, despite the fact that my hands and feet are still fairly comfortable. Lisa reassures me that we will find a new bottle at Welda, which reminds me that Travis will be there and I convince myself somebody will hook me up. We make it to Welda and Ben and the Trail Nerds contingent once again hook me up with that awesome broth. I end up just grabbing a half full Sam’s Club water bottle off the table that they said had been there for a while, filled it up and headed out. I did not want to linger, I could feel the cold really starting to set in. I grabbed some food, ate a gel, put on another layer of jackets (I think) and we took off again. Almost conciously feeling my body temperature dropping, I said, “C’mon, we gotta go.” to Lisa. So, after a less than 5 minute stop, we went. Sixty-nine miles down. Garnett, here we come.
The next couple miles were very hard for me. I was starting to shake really badly right out of the aid station and had to start fighting the urge to go back and call it a day. The weather was getting worse by the second. Stronger winds, colder temps, heavier snow, and less tree cover all combined with my dropping core temperature were giving me serious doubts. These doubts served to anger me, and I just kept telling myself, “Move and get warm or stop and freeze.” Over and over I kept telling myself this. Eventually I did get a bit warmer and maybe 6 miles from Garnett, I was moving pretty good again. It was so hard to even see the trail at this point, much less find footprints to follow. Judging speed and distance was downright impossible. The snow was getting deeper and was starting to take its toll on my feet. Every step was just getting tougher and shuffling wasn’t much of an option with how much deeper it got. Once again I slowed to the point that I quickly started to get really cold. The best I could manage was a swift walk. This was not enough to keep my temperature up, and unfortunately, about an hour away from Garnett I was shivering uncontrollably. My thoughts started to get cloudy and I was getting disoriented. Once I thought I had gotten turned around because Lisa got a bit ahead of me and I contemplated turning around. Then I realized the footsteps I were going to follow were mine. Honestly, it was getting pretty scary. Getting close to Garnett, I could see the glow of a town in the distance and this gave me some renewed hope. The Garnett train station was warm. All I had to do was put on some warm, dry clothes, warm up for a while, and then I could go on. At this moment, I realized I wasn’t shivering anymore and that my lips felt “asleep” – like your foot when you sit cross-legged too long. Yeah, this is not good. Exclusively walking at this point, it took about 30 more minutes to get to the train station. We got there really close to 12:30 am. 77.5 miles done. Less than a marathon to go.
The cutoff for Garnett was now 4 a.m. so I feel like I have plenty of time to eat and get warm before going back. I sit down and grab some ham sandwiches and start eating. I really had a hunger for real food. While I was eating, something strange happened. As I warmed up I began to violently shiver. I mean VIOLENTLY. It was like the warmer I got, the colder I felt. This was the beginning of the end for me. People were dropping like flies at Garnett. It is getting worse and worse by the second. Then, without warning, the power goes out. Of course there is no problem with light, as all the runners have headlamps, but it is dark. The ranger in charge of the trail shows up and offers to get a radiant propane heater. I overhear talk that roads are being closed and people are getting stuck. Power is out all over town. I see RD Eric Steele talking to him and although I didn’t hear the words, I feel like they are discussing when to pull the plug. After an hour I am colder than when we were outside, and upon trying to stand up to go to the bathroom, I realize my legs are locked up. After shuffling to the bathroom I go outside and the snow is blowing from EVERYWHERE. I think to myself, “Well. I’m done.”
That was it. I told Lisa I was done, and she almost looked relieved that she didn’t have to go back out. She called her sister who would come from Ottawa to get us…. assuming she could. We eventually made it back to the hotel and I think I found a bed somewhere around 4:30 a.m. I was upset but would find out that even if I had gone on after Garnett that the race was officially stopped around 5 a.m., and that I would have likely pulled at Richmond. Adam gave it up a mile out of Welda, calling his wife and declaring that enough was enough. All said and done, there were 5 official finishers in the 100 mile race. FIVE. Congrats to those five insane bastards. I know there are others who would have finished had the race not been stopped, so cheers to them as well!
The logistical concerns of 100 & 50 mile races with nearly 150 combined participants are immense under even the greatest of weather conditions. Race Director, Eric Steele, was facing weather conditions which could only be described as horrendous. As a race director he was forced to walk the edge of a razor and ultimately make the decision at which point it was no longer safe enough to let his 100 mile runners continue. Caught in the middle of an all out shootout between loved ones SCREAMING to shut it down and ultrarunners hell bent on finishing AT ALL COSTS, Eric ultimately had to make the decision. As a hardcore ultarunner himself, he knows what it means to give it everything you have to achieve your goals, and well understood the heartbreak it would cause to stop a runner that physically could continue. I did not envy his situation in the slightest. Ultimately, it came down to a question of life and death, so when the Park Rangers informed him Sunday morning, shortly after 5 am, that they could no longer access the trail, he knew it was done and had to pull the plug per his agreement with them. If a rescue was needed and could not be made, a runner could die. I appreciate that Eric kept the 100 mile race going as long as was possible given the circumstances, and I truly feel that if there was any possibly way to even somewhat safely let the runners keep going he would have. I applaud his efforts and those of his Epic Ultra Brigade. And if you are one of those who was screaming at him, smacking his car windows, or possibly threatening him over it – for EITHER stopping or not stopping the race – then I say, why don’t you pull your head out of your ass, quit acting like a thumbdick, and shit and fall back into it…just my two cents.
What an adventure! It was only in the following few days that I was really able to pull the entire event into perspective. Amazing is the only way to describe it. Everyone involved contributed so much to make this event what it was… Epic. That is the only word I have to describe this race. EPIC!
Final thought. I would have finished this race. I know under any other weather, that this is true. You can guarantee that I will be back for redemption. Until then, I will content myself with a ‘little’ 100K down at the Flatrock 101K next weekend. Join me, who knows, maybe it will be even more EPIC!!! If you have any thoughts, questions, or comments I would love to hear them.