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Heartland 100-Miler

by Thomas Okazaki Cassoday, KS October 14, 2006 My First Attempt at 100 Miles The clock on the wall at work reads 4 p.m.. It’s late Friday afternoon, I’m still stuck at my desk at my new job on my final day of training. I need to be in Cassoday, Kansas for a 6 a.m start to the Heartland 100, the next day and a six hour drive from Dallas, TX still awaited me. I was hoping to leave early, since it was Friday, but no such luck this time Amigo! To make matters worse, I was currently working 2 jobs and was now just winding up a 12 day stretch.. Not a great way to start off a first 100 miler attempt. But these were the cards, I was dealt with and I was still determined to play out my hand. Originally, I had thought it would be a nice challenge to do the Hotter ‘n” Hell Century Ride, The PrairieMan Half Ironman and the Heartland 100 Trail Run all in one year. I had managed to pull off the first two events. But things would change! It’s six p.m now and I’m finally zooming up Interstate 35 going toward Oklahoma City. I was thinking maybe it might have been better to fly this time, but I needed to save the extra cash to buy 2 very badly needed tires.for the car, not to mention some new running shoes. I have over 7 drop bags loaded in the vehicle, the most I have ever used at an ultra event. It was quite a chore deciding what to pack in each, especially the all important lights and extra clothing for running thru the night. This event had a 30 hour cutoff and weather conditions could change drastically within that short time period in unpredictable Kansas. Stopped off at a Braum’s in Edmonds, OK to rest up and top off the old gas tank. Received a cell phone call from my pal, Mr. Mark Sparks and his buddies doing the Columbus Marathon the same weekend. We wished each other good luck and I told him the weather was sunny and warm. Things would change! The seventh annual Heartland 100 mile cross country run takes a runner through some of the last remaining tallgrass prairie land in America. The Tallgrass prairie had once covered over 400, 000 square miles, stretching from Texas to Canada and from Ohio to the Rocky Mountains. Only one percent of this ecosystem remains, mostly in an area of Kansas, called the Flint Hills. Much of the Heartland 100 winds through this open range. It’s around midnight and I have finally arrived in Cassoday, Kansas, Pop. 99 and home of the Cassoday Prairie Chicken. At least that was what the sign said, after I had left the lone sole still awake in this town, at the toll booth along the highway. Already missed the pre race dinner and final instructions for the race. At least my good friend Mr. Mark Henderson had helped to make arrangements with the race director to have my race packet pulled for me. I had no clue where the start of the race was. The streets were totally deserted. I turned down one street and finally decided to park in front of a country post office to crash in my car for a short 4 hour nap. There was a railroad crossing only a half a block away, but how many trains would pass through this small little rural town in the middle of the night? Well looks can be deceiving! There must have been at least 3 different trains come roaring by, each time all 12 railroad crossing lights would go crazy all at once. Reminded me of those scenes from the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I kept peeking outside just in case I saw any flying saucers or Agents Mulder or Scully from the X-files, driving up. At 4 a.m. I had enough. I started to see some cars drive up the highway behind me down the main road. Ah, that must be where the Community Center was! I wanted to make sure I got all my drop bags delivered before the 5:30 a.m. deadline. The morning temperature was colder than the forecasted 42 F by about 5 degrees. No wonder my fingers were starting to get numb. My race packet at the start was where it was suppose to be. I missed Mr. Brian Tidmore at the start, but I did run into fellow North Texas Trail Runner, the charming Miss Karen Riddle. I wasn’t originally planning on running with anyone, but since it was going to be such a long event, why not enjoy someone’s company and share the experience. The first hour or so was in darkness. Fortunately I had another pair of lights and used them during the first part of the run. After the start, the runners spread out quickly, so after I left Miss Karen at the 50 mile mark, I was pretty much alone the rest of the time on the course. OK, I have finished the first 25 miles in really good shape. I had resisted the urge to go out too fast, as I had done at both the Grasslands 50 miler and the Bandera 100K. Time for a systems check; no blisters, stomach was feeling good and the weather was still sunny. Things would change. After I hugged and wished Miss Karen good luck on her return portion of her 50 miler, I set my sites on trying to catch the next runner not too far ahead wearing a white top. This should be easy right? Wrong! He was keeping up a good pace and the course was starting to get more hillier. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were entering the tough Flint Hills portion of the course. The next 5.3 miles had some tough rollers but were also incredibly scenic. Many of the runners were power walking this section. I tried really hard to gain ground, but my legs were feeling flat and lifeless today. I looked back behind me and could not see the next runner. I struggled to keep pace with the runner in the white top ahead, but much to my dismay was still loosing ground. As the hills rolled on, for seemingly forever, I spotted a few more runners just ahead in the horizon. To be quite honest, I haven’t been feeling right the past several weeks. I had just recently started a new job at Caremark. A great opportunity too good to pass up, but working days instead of evenings badly disrupted my regular eating, sleep patterns and workout routines. I feared this might happen and with time things will get corrected. But I knew when I accepted this job I may have hurt my chances for completing this 100 miler successfully. That being said, as much as I love running you still need to balance out the rest of your life, at home and at work. I had worked over 11 years at the Baylor Medical Center Pharmacy and really needed to make a change. No regrets, whatsoever. I always wondered why they named this particular aid station at 31.2, Texaco Hill, now I know. There was one of those grasshopper oil pumps located close by. Finding my drop bag here was easy. I asked for my red and black one to be brought here, the same colors as the Texaco gas stations. A very friendly volunteer here asked me how I was doing as I slammed down a bottle of chocolate flavor Boost Plus, a can of sprite, several cookies and half a turkey sandwich. He pointed out I was still doing well, one hour ahead of the cutoff time and not too far behind the last large pack of runners. I was now starting to see a few of the front runners returning, after leaving Ridge Line at mile 36.5. The great Mark Henderson from Houston was having an awesome run and leading the race. After that I started to see a steady stream of runners going in the opposite direction. This was a very welcome sight, considering how much alone I was during the previous 10 miles. It really began to concern me at this point that I couldn’t see anyone else trailing behind me. At this point, I was also starting to worry about the rolling cutoff times at each aid station. Much to my dismay, I had forgotten to take this into account when I started out slowly and now, with my struggling legs, I was in danger of being timed out. It was about 5:30 p.m. when I stumbled into the next aid station at Matfield Green at 42.5 miles. I had hoped to be at the Lone Tree aid station at mile 50 by now. I was only 30 minutes under the cut off at this point. I swiftly grabbed some cookies, chips and drank a coke and staggered up the road toward the course turn around at 7.5 miles away. There was an unmanned aid station next to a tall tower along the way. Distances can be deceiving. It seemed to take forever to get to that tall tower, with the blinking red hazard lights.. A lot of the back of the packers were running by now going in the opposite direction. I received a lot of extra encouragement from them as they went by. I finally lost the sun with about a mile to go to the turn around. My lights were located there, in a drop bag, so I desparately scanned the horizon for a campfire light. Surely, it shouldn’t be that much further! The last runner went by me about 5 minutes earlier. Was there truly no one else left behind me? Finally at Lone Tree, I sat down, and grabbed my lights and some hot food to eat. I know I was getting close to the cut off, so I didn’t linger around too long. I thanked the tired but friendly and still helpful volunteers and headed off into the darkness, again. I decided against putting on my wind pants because I was passing so much water. I wonder now if it was the very different tasting sports drink, called Conquest, some locals had personally mixed and donated for this race, to be provided at the aid stations.. Anyway, I would later regret not having them on. The weather started to change as I went back toward the aid station at Manfield Green. A pick up truck pulling a giant trailer pulled up besides me. It was one of the race directors, a really nice fellow, named Mr. Jim. He let me know what I feared was true, that I was the last runner on the course and that everyone behind me had dropped. He also explained though, in the pitch black darkness, at 8 p.m, at night, on that dirt, country road in Kansas, that he would follow me in the rest of the way, all 45 plus miles, if necessary, to the finish. His job was to be the sweeper and also pick up water and gatoraid containers as the aid stations closed behind me. Fair enough, I thought. The trick would be if I could keep at least a 10 minute per mile pace, the rest of the night. The fact that I would have some company, gave me a lift. I picked up my pace back to Matfield Green at mile 57.4. Mr. Jim would pass me and then head up the road a little ways and stop. All I would see was his red taillights as I struggled to keep up. There are some days when you try to run and you feel like you have no strength in your legs. Much to my dismay, it looks like I was having one of those bad days. I had felt this way, one time before, running the Chicago Marathon, after driving there for 2 days straight, with very little sleep. You still might be able to get away with it at marathon distance, but not on a 50 or 100 milers. No faking it here, Amigo! Your really need to be well trained and get your rest in before the big run. After leaving Matfield Green at mile 57.4, I was feeling a little better, again, but knew my run was in a lot of trouble. As I made the turn to head back east a stiff cold wind started to hammer me. It was pitch black now, only the lights from headlamp and flashlight illuminating that small patch of trail ahead of me. A heavy cloud cover blanketed the sky, hiding any friendly stars and the moon. It then started to sprinkle a bit. I regreted now leaving my wind pants at the 50 mile turn around. It really hit me like a ton of bricks then, this was the way it might be for the next 14 hours and 48 miles. T.O., you’re a long ways from home kemo sabe! I kept hearing strange sounds in the dark., through the wind. I point my light in that direction and see nothing. May have been some coyotes. I was told later, occasionally they run in large packs at night to hunt together. I was not interested in finding out in person, so I just kept pushing on harder. It’s a steady climb out of a valley to get to the next aid station at Ridge Line at mile 63.4. My quads were really trashed. Even the smaller hills were giving me problems at this point. How was I ever going to get over those huge rollers after Texaco Hill? Negotiating those cattle guards was really becoming an adventure. I felt like I was being tested for drunk driving or something everytime I tried to do a balancing act to cross one of those things in the dark. I really missed Miss Karen’s company. I wish now I would have recruited a pacer earlier. At least the race director, Mr. Jim was still out here with me. I caught up with Mr. Jim, one final time and he had some bad news to give me. I wasn ‘t going to make the next cut off time for the next aid station. I was both disappointed and glad at this point. I figure I would rather be pulled from the course by a volunteer rather than give up and throw in the towel myself. It was now around midnight, so my run ended at mile 62, eighteen hours after the start. Still a great workout and I was happy I got to see most of the course in daylight, for any future attempts at this event. The warm ramin soup was soooooo good. The wind was really picking up now outside the aid station tent at Ridgeline. Surely there must be a bad storm heading this way. Another runner joined me in the van. He was having stomach problems and had to drop. I had stiffened up badly and lost a lot of my core temperature sitting in the van on the trip back to the start. I was getting the shakes really bad and didn’t think I could make the short walk back to the car, after the friendly volunteer, first parked the van. Like the great guy that he was, he offered to give me a lift, the rest of the way. After thanking him, I staggered to the car, to finally give my battered body a rest. It’s 2 a.m. now and I fall into a deep sleep. During the night, some heavy thunderstorms rolled through these parts of Kansas. Many runners on the 100 miler course got caught in this bad weather, some on hilly portions of route. Some were lucky and were close to an aid station when it hit. Others would lie on the ground, in the mud, as lightning striked the ground around them. Mr Eusop Kim, a good friend of mine, took a wrong turn after the Texaco Hill aid station and went off course for about 10 miles around 2 a.m… This is a very dangerous situation to be in. He had little clothing to keep him warm and was running low on water and fluids. Fortunately a volunteer finally found him and brought him back to the finish. This is why it is so important to check in at each aid station, so the race volunteers can keep track of the runners during a long event like this out in rural, sparsely populated country. In the distance, the dwindling numbers of 100 miler finishers made the final turn a quarter of a mile down the two lane country road. One by one they staggered in, some moving more slowly than others. With the finish line in sight and the sounds of cowbells and cheers egging them on, one could notice a little more giddyup in their step. I could imagine the sense of elation, relief and outpouring of emotion that they must be experiencing. I find a set of cowbells to help motivate them on to the finish. For some the odyssey would last almost 29 hours. They have seen the sunrise on a new adventure, the sunset on a journey that carried them through the darkness and storminess of parts, deep in the night, and then rise again to a brand new day. I feel honored to have been at the finish to greet these brave and hardy souls. There is no such thing as an “easy” one hundred miler. This monster distance can chew up and spit out even the best, experienced, and strongest runners on any given day. A fellow veteran runner said it best when he stated a little bit of luck is also involved. One could easily step on a root or rock and sprain an ankle, lose the trail at night and get lost, suffer heat exhaustion, stomach ailment, etc. I have no regrets for not finishing. I will use this experience and learn from it to becoming an even better trail runner. Under the circumstances, it would have been easy not to have even showed up and toed the starting line, or even request to just do the fifty miler event. Life isn’t always fair. Again, I just try and play the hand I’m dealt with and make the most of it. I met and made a lot of new friends on this trip and had some fun exploring some new trails at the same time. That’s something all the money in the world can never buy and I appreciate that fact even more as I get older. Life is good!
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