Move aside Gilgamesh.
Part ways from us Achilles.
Yes, even you Dante have no place in this story:
Dearest reader, adjust your seat and take a deep breath; I’m going to attempt to encapsulate you in honor, glory, dignity, grit, and a story that makes legends of those who are in it.
This is my race recap of the Free State 13.1/26.2/40/100K race…
Free State is a strange race through its 11 years of running. Starting out at Clinton Lake, a borderline natural disaster in years past during the race influenced the race director to relocate it to its current location; Lake Perry, Kansas.
Unlike Clinton Lake; merely an earshot from Lawrence, Kansas; Lake Perry truly is a remote fishing lake out in the middle of Northeast Kansas. Are there towns? I’m guessing so, but I have only heard of them via rumor and not with my own eyes. Meaning, for a Trail Nerds sponsored race, this one is out in the sticks so-to-speak. The trails can easily be summed up with one word: technical. The course is beautiful, extremely well marked, and it runs along the shoreline of Lake Perry and back to the hospitable (and slightly questionable in a “The Hills Have Eyes” kind of way) Branded B Ranch. Realistically, it is really hard to screw up a race that is well organized, detailed, and smoothly ran.
Months ago, while building out a training schedule, I went ahead and placed a race in my schedule as a ‘training run’ just to break up the long runs over the weekends. I was limited in my options, knowing that anything along the lines of a marathon or more would kill me. Thankfully, I discovered the half-marathon option at Free State. I signed up back when the sun was going down before 6:00 PM at night. My mindset was simple; go out, have a good time, get in a good run, volunteer at the “Mud Babes” aid station, and call it a weekend.
However, a week prior to the race I started a fun dialogue on Facebook about the
event (the other bad place to be for poor choices outside of UltraSignup.com) with a 100K competitor. Their name was Brandy (cue legend, knight-like music), and they were looking for a pacer. Brandy asked me if I would be interested in pacing her on her final loop. Naturally I immediately declined because…logic, knowing that I had a half-marathon to run, I’m slow, and I would likely die if I was placed with another person competing in a 100K. God has a tendency to allow nature to take care of those who are inherently stupid in choice. I stared at the dialogue for a while, sent a few messages to Brandy, and without consulting a single smart soul out there I changed my mind and agreed.
At Free State I would run my half-marathon in the morning, and then later in the day I would pace Brandy in her final 20 mile loop. I spent the rest of the time nervously figuring out how to slow down my race, so that I would have the energy to keep up with this ultra-runner. 100K=62 miles, these are not people to mess around with. They are the main character in the stories, the hero’s, they are the ones that documentaries are made about, and stories are shared about around the campfire at future races. Brandy, in my mind, was already a legend.
Note; I had also never ran with her in my entire life.
The day of the race finally came to fruition; it started very similar to
Rocky Raccoon…Psycho Summer. Strangely warm for the morning hours. 8:00 AM hit, it was time for the 100K/40M runners to take off. I was sure to show up in the morning early to meet with Brandy, help with anything, and see her off, along with many other amazing friends. 8:01 AM there was still no airhorn; it was then that we discovered the race had been pushed back thirty minutes. This knowledge sent one of the runners into a new triggered fit as they had witnessed the same thing happen two weeks prior at a race called Rock’n K. The delay? Stupid people pulling flags from the course the night prior. The race started thirty minutes late at 8:30 AM; my race started an hour later at 9:30 AM. When I left for my jaunt through the woods the temperature was nearly 76 degrees and not showing signs of slowing down.
At mile three I noticed that I was already started to burn from the exposure of the sun and the reflection off the lake. The noticing of this was limited due to reality of the focus-game I got to play with the course. I waltzed like a ballerina (I just insulted two groups of people with that comparison), or as close as a 6’5 ogre could through the rocks. These small rocks are halfway buried meaning the risk isn’t the rocks sliding; it’s you busting your feet, toes, knees, face, soul against the cutthroat, jagged Saw like toys of nature almighty at every single mile. The truth was that you could never get the footing to stretch out on the course. Unlike myself, only the athletic were able to move quickly through the course. Except, as I neared mile 9, I started to realize that the actual athletes were beginning to suffer. The heat was now near 81 degrees in mid-April in northern Kansas. Very few, if any, runners were prepared for the heat and the humidity. Cramping, crying, and slamming of Ginger Ale was becoming frequent at nearly every aid station. I was merely trying to just finish so that I could rest for the day’s second round.
As I neared the end of my own, actually…rather calm, race I found the end point of the course. If you ever race at Lake Perry please be ready in your mind for the final 100 feet of the course. It is 100% exposed in the grass fields (where the photographers hide in the blades like a cracked-out cougar…animal cougar…taking shots of ‘art’…also known as suffering), and the final steps? A 60 foot switchback climb to the finish line. If you are not ready it truly will end your existence, at least spiritually.
Upon crossing, getting the medal of
survival completion, I thanked my parents for humoring my stupidity. Kissed my wife as she left for her volunteer time at the aid station, and proceeded to go inside the main building. At this point I switched bibs, switching out my numbered race bib, for another one marked PACER with orange borders, almost as if it were a warning. Coco, assisting the race director, looked at me almost with eyes of pity, and simply asked through the tone of caution:
Are you sure you really want to do this?
I chuckled, smiled, and walked over to a vintage 1970’s couch, ate a few hotdogs, and went to sleep for a few hours. At 4:00 PM my wife was sending in texts, stating that our friends on the 100K course were struggling. The heat was now up to 86 degrees with 65% humidity in the Kansas woods. Runners were, in some cases, staggering through the finish line to completion. The drop list from 100K to 40M was growing, along with the insane amount of 26.2 to 13.1 drops from earlier in the day. At one point I saw 26.2 runners finishing behind the 40M runners. Make no mistake; the heat was that bad.
At 5:00 PM I was watching Eric, an aid station volunteer, play with a black rat snake he
had found, and was humoring the reality that an aid station worker was going to instead pace a 100K runner who needed the help later in the day. At 6:15 PM, with a 6:45 PM cut-off, the three pacers were standing over the prairie land finishing area watching for our runners. At 6:25, a camera crazed runner named Todd came through. The first pacer, Ashley, disappeared with him off into the woods for their final loop. At 6:20 PM one of the “Mud Babes” that has kept track of me forever came through; Carol. There she picked up Matt as her pacer, and disappeared into the woods. Finally, worrying about cutoff time ticking through, I saw two braids coming through the woods; Brandy made cutoff by 14 minutes.
Upon finding her, it became like an aid station stop,
“What do you need? Are you eating? What do you need to switch? Get your shirt off, switch with this. Don’t eat that! You can eat that though. Ready?”
Brandy had busted it through two 20 mile laps to make cutoff. She had completed 40 miles in 10 hours. That, in some ways, given the weather and course is a rather tight cutoff. She was not cramping, but she was tired, nauseous, and was not in the mood to eat. After about 10 minutes we got her out of the chair and her and I started down the road towards her final 20 mile loop. She was the second to last person to make cutoff. Several of our dear friends did not make it; primarily due to reactions with the heat.
This is where my race day started to get interesting. I started chatting with this borderline stranger on the road, hiking of course, and it went a little like this:
Me: So…I heard a rumor about you…
B: That I have a tendency to fall asleep in the middle of long races? Yes, that does happen. That will be the big thing to watch for. It is why I do not run 100M races.
Me: Have you ran a 100K before?
B: Nope. This is my first one.
Recap: My first time ever pacing someone resulted in being with someone who had never attempted a 100K, and due to physical reasons had a tendency to fall asleep during races…while running.
Best. Idea. Ever!
The nice thing about her making cutoff was that it really eased her time on her third
loop. Meaning, a lot of it was spent hiking. By mile 42 her appetite was back and she was eating. By mile 44 it was started to slowly cool off, and mile 45 we sadly started to turn on our headlamps due to the darkness. Mile 46 I screamed like a girl due to a spider (spiders), and neglected to tell Brandy about the Copperhead we nearly stepped on. At mile 50 we started to see a lot of insects and animals; interestingly enough that were all moving in the same direction: uphill.
The thought crossed my mind once, “You know, animals tend to know something humans don’t before we do learn about them. I wonder why the deer, snakes, and millipedes (SO MANY!) were all moving in the same direction?
At mile 47 we hit our first aid station; we didn’t stay long, but we did say our farewells to Matt and Carol; she was dropping due to severe stomach issues. As Brandy and I left we started to think about the women that were in the race; that was when we realized between her friends and mine, that she was the only female left on the course. Meaning, Brandy finishing was going to result in her not only completing the 100K, but also taking first overall female. We were calmly freaking out. Smiling, laughing, and occasionally jogging. We spent the next three miles talking about Jesus, life, and chemistry (seriously). Anything that kept her moving. At mile 50 we hit the next aid station. At this station we had a 5 mile total down-and-back, and a 5 mile jaunt to the finish line. I slammed down a can of Coca-Cola, and noted that for the first time while running, I was legitimately tired. I couldn’t tell Brandy, but sleep was messing with me (irony). As we left the aid station the wind dropped the temperatures, and suddenly our headlamps were overtaken by something much brighter…
Remember all that heat and humidity from earlier in the day? Rule in the Great Plains: if you have those same ingredients all day, it will storm at night. Tonight was no exception. Not even half a mile from the aid station it started to sprinkle and lightly rain. We laughed about it with the people behind us, the course sweeps, and then nearly a mile in to the down-and-back God pulled something that would even make Noah blush. It rained so hard that we could not see in front of us, even with our lamps on, the wind was blowing, and the lightning was incredible…and we were in the middle of woods.
This is where my runner began to struggle. The rain chilled her to the bone; she had been in heat, sweat, and sun all day. Suddenly she was no longer talking, she was not moving her arms, and she was shaking. The moment was gone. We were now not just on the trail, we were needing to get to shelter and get to shelter quickly. Brandy started to walk off course, my phone (I HAD JUST BOUGHT A NEW PHONE AND CHOSE THE WATERPROOF MODEL!) was going off with my wife trying to find us (it was her aid station were heading towards), and the rain was falling even harder. It took us nearly three hours to get 2.5 miles. I was holding onto Brandy’s pack guiding her on the trail because she was losing it from the cold. The only thing I could say was, “We have to keep moving. We will get out the rain, but we have to keep moving.” 120 agonizing minutes later we found what was left of the aid station, it was 1:00 AM and all that was still up was the canopy. I ran in front of Brandy the final twenty feet and started grabbing for any dry material I could find. She came under the canopy and I wrapped her up in everything I found, sent the ATV out for rain gear, and just wrapped my arms around her. We had to get Brandy warm. At the same time I asked the aid station captain to radio the race director and find out the status of the race. Brandy and I had 7 miles left on the course. She was shaking uncontrollable, and I was trying my best to stay upbeat and at the same time alert.
Something clicked in me that this was it. If Brandy and I went back out, that would be 7 miles of hiking. That would be at least another 3-4 hours. She would have hypothermia at that time and require medical attention. I bent down, grabbed Brandy by the shoulders, and in one of the most painful things that I can remember doing I said…
You have to make me one promise. Look at me please. You have to make me one promise. If the RD calls the race, we have to abide by his ruling.
It wasn’t even 30 seconds after that, that the aid station captain came back to notify us that the race director had instructed all people to be removed from the course. The race was called. Brandy sat on a tree stump, sobbing, knowing that her race was done. The only thing I could do was hover over her and take the brunt of the rain so she would not be as wet. Minutes passed and the ATV came back. We placed Brandy on the ATV and she was taken back to the start/finish line. It was upon her leaving that I started to realize something; I was really tired, really wet, and really cold. I turned my lamp on and took off through the trail (now just standing water that was from ankle to knee in depth) to get out of the woods. Something snapped in me mentally; I was done with this race. I wanted off the trails, I wanted to know my runner was safe, and I wanted to sit down. While sloshing through the torrent, I noticed that I could not hear myself think, all I heard was rushing water. I looked forward and saw a four trail crossing that was quite literally a raging river; it was a classic flash flood. You know, the classic ones that kill idiots like me that try to cross without thinking about it.
I screamed at the water. Screamed at the trail. Screamed at the sky. Turned around and ran back to the aid station crew who were coming in behind me. I told them the issue, and slowly but surely they helped me across the area safely and out of the trail. By 1:30 AM I was sitting in a chair, covered in towels and dry shirts in the lodge of Branded B Ranch. Brandy sitting across from me was just devastated and there was not a single thing I could do to fix the problem. The worse feeling is feeling that you have no power to correct the problem.
Brandy left to go take a shower and go to bed (bunk house located on site). I asked my wife to go grab the car. She did not want to leave without someone else, so thankfully a friend of mine, Sheri, went with her. Twenty minutes passed and Sheri came back to me, placed a hand on my shoulder and calmly said…
Your car is in mud halfway up the wheels. You are not getting home tonight.
My wife, is now losing her mind in the car, in the dark, in the mud because we’re obviously not getting home. No one could come out until the morning to pull us out. I tried to sleep in the bunk house on a couch, across the hall from a dog, a few very tired guys, a wife who was sobbing while eating a cold hotdog, and Brandy. At 8:00 AM Sunday morning, now being at Lake Perry for over 24 hours, I called roadside assistance. They couldn’t get me out without charging around $250 because it was not located 50 feet from the road. I called the race director, he told me to call the owner of the property, he told me he would call his brother. At 9:00 AM a burly farmer attempted to pull my car out; nearly burying his diesel in the process.
At 10:00 AM I said farewell to Brandy, and my wife, our car covered in mud, and myself left for our home where we would sleep all day, eat way too much from Burger King, and try to purge our minds of a day so insane that the non-trail runner will never fully understand.
I wish I could have added more humor to this post. However, the forcing of humor takes away from the legacy. I watched a runner, grew to know them as a person, fight against God, Himself in order to finish a race. Sure, in the end there was no medal, no trucker hat, nothing. More then that though, was the fact that Brandy had unintentionally put herself in the volumes of my growing book of legends.
As for myself? It took me a solid 24 hours to fully recover from the whole day. Mentally I was ruined from the event. Even during my casual Monday night run I was trying not to cry because of how sad the ending results were from Free State.
It should be noted though; through the eyes of a runner that cares about safety. The whole Trail Nerds organization did everything by the book. The runners were protected, the event was safe, and at no point were lives inadvertently at risk. The result sucks, but knowing that everyone is safe does outweigh the final numbers.
If you are curious; only six runners ended up finishing the 100K. That is getting close to The Barkleys Marathon kind of statistic. I did wind up running an ultra-marathon; 13.4 miles in my race and then another 13.7 with Brandy; so 27.1 miles. A note about technical footwork; at Rocky Raccoon 50K I logged 33000 steps, at Free State half-marathon I logged 31000 steps.
I hope that one day I too could be a legend, like the one I saw created this weekend. Thank you Brandy, for being mine.