So this weekend marked the 2nd Annual Praire Spirit Trail 50 and 100 Mile Ultra Races in Ottawa Kansas. It marked my 4th time toeing the line at a 100 mile footrace. My record stood as 1 total rookie failure, 1 cut short by a freak blizzard, and an 1 insanely perfect race resulting in a first finish PR breaking the 22 hour mark. As a 1 for 3 100 mile racer, I was hoping to even my record at 50% -while secretly harboring ambitions to break the 21, and even 20 hour mark. After all, this was an “easy” hundred course, right? We all know that a 100 mile race starts months before the actual start of the race, so that’s where I’ll start.
I finished the Pumpkin Holler 100 in late October 2013, getting that first buckle “under my belt” (pun intended) and amazed myself finishing more than 2 hours faster than my low-end goal of 24 hours. You can read all about it here. About a month after Pumpkin Holler, I ran the 12 hour KUS race in Wichita, logging 53ish miles and learned I wasn’t completely recovered. I took basically the month of December to rest and recover, planning on hitting it hard once January hit. I ran and worked out some, but not like I had been through the summer and fall. I ran WinterRock 25K – and had a blast as expected – but rolled my ankle pretty good in the process. That is always a possibility on that trail, but it is a little scary when you have a 100 mile race on your calendar no more than 3 months away. I ran a LOT in January and Febuary, totally more than 450 miles. Most of these were good quality, high effort runs and not just long slow grinders. I was feeling really solid other than the occasional twinge in my “WinterRock ankle”. My beautiful, wonderfully talented runner girlfriend Candi Paulin and I have a tendency to name our injuries on the races where we acquired them. She had been working through her FlatRock and Heartland knees while I whined about my Pumpkin Holler hip and WinterRock ankle. You get the idea… Aside from a few nagging aches and pains, things were going well. Rolling into what was going to be my peak mileage week I got a NASTY chest cold and was basically done training until the race. This turned my planned 2 and a half week taper into nearly 4 mileage free weeks. I will say, I noticed how worn out I was from training only once I slowed down and took some time off. My body was actually really ready for, and needing, a break.
I got to Ottawa early enough to get to help with early packet pickup. I love getting a chance to meet and talk to runners before the event actually starts. I really think runners miss out when they skip pre-race activities and just show up at the starting line. Lots of my now close friends became so as a direct result of hanging out before and after actual races themselves. I love it. To steal words from a buddy Mark Berry, “Pre-race dinner feels more like a family reunion” – and I might add – one filled with a family that is not as totally dysfunctional as most are. The dinner that Warren cooked up was way better than the caterer Epic Ultras had gotten the previous year, and it was awesome getting to catch up with my ultrarunning buddies. Next up was keynote speaker David Horton, old-shool ultrarunner and one of the founding fathers of ultrarunning. Not only did I get to watch his totally badass and inspiring presentation, I had the opportunity to talk to him quite a bit on the side. I was very impressed with his willingness to share his stories with me and how he sincerely wanted to hear MY story. He was a very inspiring guy who has done some CRAZY ASS SHIT including winning Hardrock a couple times and finishing the Barkley Marathons 100. Oh yeah, and he ran across the USA, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Total ultrarunning rockstar. I am thrilled I got the opportunity to meet David. He gave a few pieces of wisdom in his presentation that will become a theme later in this blog. 1 – This too shall pass. 2- It never always gets worse. 3 – Walk with a purpose. All three of these nuggets of wisdom played an important role in my race.
After dinner I went back to Celebration Hall and hung out and helped for the duration of late packet pickup. I had worked out a deal with Eric that if I helped with packet pickup and helped film David’s presentation, I could sleep inside of Celebration Hall instead of pitching a tent outside. I don’t really like camping in the cold that much, so this seemed like a great deal to me, since I was planning on getting there early Friday anyway. About 10:00 pm I decided it was time to get ready for bed and decided to set up my tent (yes inside) and get to bed. Got a bunch of teasing and shit talking from a few buddies who belong to the Epic Bridage that were still working to get ready for the race. They found it quite comical that I would be setting up a tent inside – including the rain cover. I saw it was like this; it would knock down some of the noise and light and maybe help me sleep – and maybe even give me a little protection from Micah LaPoint who was promising to climb into my sleeping bag to cuddle once I feel asleep. Yeah… I love these crazy assholes. Anyway, I got to go to bed on my air mattress in my inside tent (box fan and all) about midnight with George Myers guarding my door from his sleeping bag right outside my door where he was camped out. Turns out I am pretty wimpy compared to these dudes who sleep on the concrete with nothing but a blanket like the damn terminator. I slept like I usually do the night before a race… not much. Four in the morning arrived and I was relieved to finally get up and get going. The Epic boys were already hard at work. My tent was torn down and stowed away within minutes and before you can say “GO!” I had a hot shower and coffee in hand as other runners started showing up.
Just before 6 am we got our final pep-talk and a simple “Go!” from Mr. Epic himself, Race Director – and my brother from another mother – Eric Steele. I took off at a nice easy pace that was probably too fast for a 100 miler. I figured a fast mile or two wouldn’t hurt me and would likely burn off the remaining nervous energy. I started our running with my friend Farhad Zarif, a great runner from the Kansas City area with an infectious spirit and a quest for to earn his first 100 mile buckle. As we headed north to complete the short out and back, I fell in with Steve Baker. Steve is a pretty experienced ultrarunning, and has done several 100’s in his time. He is also one of the happiest and friendliest guys I have ever run with. We chatted for a while and eventually got out of town and were truly on the Prairie Spirit Trail. Steve and I fell in with Earl Blewett – a long time veteran ultrarunner. He was telling us of times long ago where ultras were few and far between and a guy had to travel hundreds of miles to find out that he was running with the same 50 lunatics he had at every race that year. He was also one of a handful of runners who had run the INAUGURAL FlatRock 50k – the oldest trail ultra in the state of Kansas. It was interesting and enjoyable. I ran with several other folks in route to Garnett and saw David Horton on the trail as well. I ran with a guy who played division 1 football at Tulsa (Chris I think) who had decided to run a marathon pretty much as soon as his playing days were over. He was a big guy and had shed a LOT of weight to get to the point of running 100 miles. His buddies were treating the job of crewing as a 30 hour tailgate. I chatted with another younger dude for a while who had decided to find a job and move out to Colorado – from Indiana I think – so he could pursue his dream of training and finishing the HardRock 100. I love ultrarunners. They are seriously badass… and not just because they can run for a long time. About this time we got to the first aid station at Princeton. I grabbed a Nutella burrito and rolled out. I was carrying Hammer Gels and Protein bars. I would fuel mostly from these since the real food on the course was 7-10 miles apart. I felt like I had been doing well trying to take in at least 250-300 calories per hour.
Eventually myself and the other runners got spread out so I put some music in my ears. I focused simply on eating, drinking, and running. Every so often I would lean against something and shake the tiny rocks out of my shoes. I was really running at a quicker pace than I had planned, but I felt good, so I kept it up. I got to Garnett and was in and out. My Garmin died right at 28 miles at just a hair under 5 hours. So yeah, I was going to fast for a 100 miler. I intentionally slowed my pace realizing that it was probably unsustainable to run at this speed. It had also warmed up quite a bit and I could tell I had gotten behind on water. The next section was about 9 miles to get to Welda. About 2 miles before getting to the aid station I got really thirsty but had already finished my bottle – which I had drained and filled at the unmanned water stop. I stripped a shirt and tied my jacket around my waist. The sun was surprisingly intense and I was wilting pretty good, but still moving well. Just before Welda, my right knee was getting a really sharp pain and my quads and calves both started cramping. I was slightly worried, but not terribly, since I was rolling into the Trail Nerds oasis. I filled and emptied my bottle here and picked up about 6 e-tabs. I had been using Fizz tabs for electrolytes but decided to ramp it up. I ate some real food and popped 2 S-Caps and took off. I wasn’t stopped long at all, but upon beginning to walk, my knee pain was even sharper. I was concerned that it was hurting so early on, but I also know how aches and pains come and go. I made like a choo choo and chugged off down the tracks.
When I got to Colony I was still cramping, but maybe not as bad. The 7.75 miles to get there took me a long time. The warm temps and cramps had really slowed me down, to the point that I had to stop and stretch every few minutes just to loosen them up enough to keep a slow and steady shuffle. Although I had taken in as much water as my belly would hold and multiple E-Tabs, I just couldn’t kick the cramps in my legs. I was greeted by Kodi Panzer who cheered me up with her great laugh and a couple jokes about only working the aid station so she could find a boyfriend. She is a riot. It was a good pick-me-up at a low point for me. Only 41 miles into the race and I was struggling pretty hardcore. But I did what hundred mile runners do; buried my doubts, got up, and ran.
Ten miles. I have run this distance so many times I can no longer count. I have run it in heat, in cold, in ice, in snow, in wind. I have never run in such misery as I did during this race. The cramps worsened and I continued to overheat. I got into a bad spot mentally and daydreamed of getting to Iola ONLY so I could quit and be done. It was not fun. It was not Epic. It was torture. I felt sick, tired, lonely, bored, pissed off… you name it. I was in as low of a spot mentally as I have ever been in a race. At one point I saw Eric driving by on the highway – he is easy to spot with the Badwater sticker and “Be Epic” plates – and almost called him to turn around and pick me up. I didn’t, mostly because I figured he would tell me to suck it up and quit acting like a little bitch. I imagined how I would tell Daniel and Candi at Iola that I was finished, it wasn’t my day, and every other excuse I could think of for quitting. I daydreamed of going back to Topeka with Candi and sitting in the hot tub with a beer at the hotel and going to the state wrestling tournament instead of running all night. You get the picture. Bad times. FINALLY I came limp-shuffling into Iola. My co-worker and crew chief Daniel Droessler was standing near the aid station with a camera. He slowly lowered it and I could tell by the look on his face that he KNEW I was done. He just started running himself a couple months ago and was planning on pacing me a section. It was obvious to him that he was now off the hook. Something about this look kept me from telling anyone I was done. Maybe there was a little spark of life left…
I immediately went to see Warren at the aid station table and he asked me how he could fix me. I asked for food and he gave me some bbq pulled pork. Then I asked if maybe they had any pickle juice. I had decided that since it was only 4:50pm – almost 11 hours since the start of the race – I had plenty of time to get “fixed”. I took Jurek’s advice and took stock. I was hungry and behind on calories. I was cramping and dehydrated. I had a shit attitude and was pissed off that the last 15 miles sucked so bad. I was in bad shape, but it was all fixable – so I got to work. Unfortunately they didn’t have pickle juice, but they had plenty of water and e-tabs. I had run a short time with Brian Smith, a runner from near my hometown, and after he went ahead of me and gotten to Iola he had given his crew instructions to help me out if they could. Nathan Sicher, a blazin’ fast runner who also lives close to me gave me a Gatorade. To my amazement , Justin, one of the Epic Brigade shows up with a jar of pickles and says, “Will this work?” HELL YES. I drank 2 foam cups of pickle juice and chased it with Gatorade. Thanks guys. About this time, Candi shows up well ahead of schedule AND has a hot, salty order of Culver’s french fries!! I wasn’t planning on seeing her until Welda or Garnett inbound. What a sight for sore eyes! It raised my mental state back to where it needed to be if I had any chance of finishing this thing. Once she got there, I knew there would be no quitting, at least not here, not now. Another runner had heard me asking about pickle juice and brought me a “Pickle Shot”. I finished eating, drinking, and doctoring my feet (no blisters so far) and stood up to see how I was feeling. Amazingly, the cramps were gone. My legs felt new life. Someone suggested a change of shoes and I agreed. Dan asked if I wanted him to pace me the 10 miles back to Colony, I said, “Hell yeah!”, and I strapped my Hokas on. After spending half an hour recovering at Iola, I decided that I didn’t need to worry about making it to the finish, I just needed to focusing on how to make it to Colony. Off we went.
Like I mentioned, Dan had only been running about 6 weeks, with his longest ever being 6 miles. I warned him that if he couldn’t keep up, I would run off and leave him. He was excited as this was going to be his distance PR and his first participation in an organized running event. I was excited because the sun was going down, it was cooling off, and I was feeling SO much better. We spent most of the miles doing 4/2 intervals. Four minutes jogging, 2 minutes powerwalking “with a purpose” just like Horton had prescribed. Most of the rest of the time I spent talking to him about running really long distance and giving him tips of the trade. Time passed quickly and I continued to feel great. Daniel did awesome, and we got into Colony in 1:54 minutes. The same stretch outbound had taken me nearly 3:15. Candi was there grinning ear to ear, happy that I was still feeling good and ready to pace me in the last 39 miles. I ate a good portion of solid food here, not wanting to repeat my earlier mistakes of rushing through the aid stations without getting enough food in me. I thanked Daniel for pacing me and crewing for us. We set out toward Welda. 61 miles down.
This stretch was pretty solid running with walk breaks here and there when needed. We didn’t really watch the clock much – just enjoyed each others company and talked. We have run a lot of our winter long training runs together and she is the perfect running partner for me. She makes it seem effortless, ignores any griping, and gives me a little push JUST when I need it. We got to Welda and we were both feeling awesome. Daniel had brought his kids out and they were looking around with huge eyes like they thought the whole thing was pretty awesome. To be honest Dan was pretty jacked himself and would have probably paced me if I needed him to! Right as we pulled into Welda, a woman grabbed me yelling, “Zach!! You look awesome!” I replied with something like, “Thanks, you should have seen me earlier… I’m back from the dead!” It was Reina Probert. Reina is another ultrarunning friend of Candi and I who was pacing the final 32 miles for a complete stranger – in the middle of the night. Yeah… ultrarunners ARE that awesome. I ate, Candi ate, we said bye to our friends and off we went. 69 miles down.
The next stretch takes you back into the old train depot at Garnett where Polly and Lauren Choate – Epic aid station veterans – were running the show. I think Candi and I got here about 11:15pm. Getting to Garnett was a long almost 9 mile mile stretch. I did some stretching along the way and was still running quite a bit, feeling mostly really good. My legs were tired, but never to the point where I was feeling exhausted or out of gas. When we got to Garnett, we found Daniel and Polly both excited to see us. Dan took off pretty quickly and was headed to get the kids to bed – his night was done. I could tell he had enjoyed every minute of it, and thanked him one final time. Polly was making tacos and another gentleman was making MAPLE BACON. OMFG… It smelled like greasy heaven. He was just pulling off strips so I sat on the bench and started eating sandwiches. Someone brought me over some bacon and I took it to poundtown. It was hit the spot and was as much mental fuel as it was physical. The reality suddenly hit me that although I had roughly 77.5 miles done, I still had almost 23 miles to go. Candi gave a the look that said let’s go, so we went.
This is where it started to get a little gnarly for me. Once we got out of Garnett and back on the dark trail, I got sleepy. Not your garden variety “yawn a few times” sleepy… I got to the point where I was barely doing more than shuffling with my eyes closed. I actually almost wandered off the trail a couple times, until Candi had me hold her hand when I would rest my eyes. As the miles dragged on, so did my eyelids. I was feeling ok, I just couldn’t fight the urge to sleep. Toiling along just at the edge of consciousness, I look up and see a wonderful sight. A big concrete… thing. Maybe it was a storm drain cover, maybe it was…. I don’t know what the hell it was – but to me it was a bed. I told Candi without even thinking, “Wake me up in 3 minutes. I’m taking a nap.” While she gave me a strange look, she didn’t argue. Candi is as sweet as they come, but she is just as tough. I knew 3 minutes was all I would get, and it was all I got. A simple, “Let’s go.” is all I got. As we got up to a run again, I noticed something. It helped. It REALLY helped! I was soon wide awake and running better than I had for a while. My amazing pacer was glad as she wasn’t sure what she could do to keep me from passing out. A few more times the rest of race I would find a bench or just a clear spot on the gravel and lay down, but the rule was always ONLY 3 minutes. Once we figured out this method to keep me awake, Candi kept pressing me on to run as much as I could. I was pretty happy when we rolled into Richmond. 86.5 miles down, roughly a half marathon to go.
I am pretty sure I talked to my buddy Sean Hamlin at this stop and he had a really warm tent – that as much as I wanted to curl up in the corner and sleep, I tried to avoid lingering. I think Paul Rejda was also here, although I am not exactly sure. Honestly the specific details at this point are pretty fuzzy. We cruised out of Richmond after only a couple minutes and realized we had about 4 hours to get in under 24 hours. That gave us 2 hours to get to Princeton and 2 hours to get to the finish – stretches of 6.5 and 7 miles. Aside from a very fast stop in Princeton to eat, refill, and say hi to George Myers, it was a seemingly never-ending cycle of shuffle, run, walk, eat, drink, and repeat. Candi kept me talking and moving, ensuring me that, “We are almost there!” the entire time. She was wonderful. I leapfrogged with Elden Galano and others. It was surprising how a pretty good size group of us was still close at this point. The only other noteworthy story at this point in the race was the horses fitted with headlights. After one of my short naps, I noticed headlights that seemed to be getting closer. Immediately, I asked Candi if we were going the wrong way! When they got closer, I asked Candi why there were horses with headlights on the trail… She laughed at me and said it was runners – probably 50 milers according to their larger bib numbers. I thought, there is no way any of the 50 milers that haven’t made it TO GARNETT in 20 hours!!! WTF! Anyway, we scratched our heads and ran on.
The last 3 miles was hard. I was tired, sore, and bored. I wanted to be done. Candi probably heard me say that at least 1000 times. I just want to be finished. I was in need of a short nap and found a wooden bridge to lay down on. As I did a big German Shepherd walks out of the woods, smelling of skunk, and starts licking my face. I passingly wondered if I was hallucinating about a foul smelling police dog licking my eyeball – I really didn’t care. That question was answered when he proceeded to tag along with us to the finish line, even helping himself to some snacks from the table. A couple miles out Candi called our friend Justin Chockley, who had been working for Eric all weekend as a gopher, to tell him we were getting close. He told us it was a mile from the finish once we hit the highway. At one point, with the visible highway in the distance, we caught up to a runner and his pacer who cordially let us know that it was a bunch of “goddamn bullshit” that the finish better damn well be close, cause his Garmin already reads 99.3 miles. He wanted to know, “How the hell do you measure an out-and-back course wrong?” We eventually got back into town, and unless I broke something or just passed out, it was looking like Candi was going to get me in under 24 hours. Repeatedly, when she was telling me to pick it up, I told her I didn’t care about sub-24. It didn’t matter. Knowing me too well, she just kept assuring me that I would. We saw Dennis Haig standing and cheering at the final turn. He pointed us left and we trotted to the finish line holding hands. This finish, while almost 2 hours slower than my last, was harder and even more meaningful. I had bounced back from almost quitting at the halfway point and still managed to finish under 24 hours. I gave Eric a hug at the finish and took my buckle. I hugged Candi and thanked her for getting me to the finish, and for being so wonderful while doing it. My official time was 23:39:12.
I hung around all morning, dozing, eating, resting, eating, and cheering runners in. Candi rested and snuggled with me for about 30 minutes before heading BACK to Topeka to watch her son’s first wrestling match. Yes, I told you, she is a total badass. I got to see so many happy people cross that finish line and earn a buckle. The final finishers crossed the line with about 30 minutes to spare and were ecstatic to finish. The energy at a 100 mile finish line is only equaled by the exhaustion. Thanks to everyone who made my 100 mile dreams come true for a second time. It truly is a group effort, and you will never find a better group than you will around an event like this.
Until next time…