Last Saturday, I was one of 37 people who thought it would be pretty fun to run the famously technical FlatRock 50k course, after an entire day and night of rain, and then run it again. The Elk River Hiking Trail runs along the north side of Elk City Reservoir, near Independence, Kansas. It is 15 miles long plus a short paved section to get to the start/finish line. We would be running out and back twice, for a total of 62.7 miles, give or take. At the starting line, I marveled at all the spectacularly fit people gathered around me. Over the next 22 hours and 43 minutes, I would discover that I was one of them.
Pre-race briefing and spaghetti feed the night before. The people in this picture felt like long-time friends the moment I met them.
Thousands of runners knew this race would be happening. These are the ones who showed up.
Elk City Reservoir on a rainy morning.
Approaching a cool waterfall feature at about mile 13.
I ran with this group for about the first 20 miles when the mud was the worst. It was tough keeping up, but thanks to them, I hit my first two splits exactly on plan. They really made my race!
This is pretty much what the whole course was like: Descend muddy, rocky slope. Wash shoes in creek. Climb muddy, rocky slope. Repeat. The creeks fell out a little bit as the rain stopped, but I was in ankle-deep water as late as three o'clock in the morning. It was wonderful!
Don't eat the manure! It's poison!
Feeling strong coming into the half-way point aid station. I arrived in nine hours exactly as planned. I knew at this point I could power walk the rest and finish in around 22 hours, so I went into total energy conservation mode and quit running completely, even though I had lots of running left in me. That would prove to be a very good decision some hours later.
I changed socks three times, which was time well spent. I finished with zero blisters.
Here I am celebrating prematurely at the second turnaround, about mile 47, with my first burger in two months. Actually, not counting the few bites I'd stolen from my wife's plate every now and then, it was my first meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, or fish in two months, but that's a subject for a different blog post. The burger hit the spot!
Counting the long pit stop at the half-way point, I had still power walked a 6:01 split to the turnaround. I left out just as fast and was feeling great, but that would not last.
I had done everything right. I went in with a realistic plan, given my level of preparedness, and I had executed it flawlessly. But at about mile 55, after doing so much more than I had ever asked them to do before, my legs simply gave up. I could still climb, but I had to descend backwards with my hands on the ground, gently lowering myself down each large step. The rest I could do at a slow walk.
I had purposely not taken the jacket from my drop bag during my last trip through the Oak Ridge aid station, a few miles earlier, because I wanted to experience the night the way it really was, and the night was cold. I was cold. I was also having the time of my life. I was glad I blew up because blowing up added to the experience. It told me just how far I had pushed myself. I was also glad I had done the hard work early. I still had a ton of time left to finish within the 24-hour cutoff. The last few miles, when I knew I had it, I even sat down a few times, turned off my headlamp, and just enjoyed the night. I had earned it.
Finally, after zig-zagging through the last limestone fracture, after sliding down the last muddy slope, there was no more trail to walk on, only a paved road leading to the base of the dam. I could see a glow ahead in the mist and expected to find a finish line there. I did not expect to see--and hear--this!
I can't help feeling a little bit sad for the fast finishers who had to cross this finish line in the daylight. Hitting it at 4:43 in the morning was visually and sonically the most bad-ass finish line experience you could ever imagine!
Get some hand, baby! Get some hand!
I think the smile says it all!
It's taken me a week to write this race report. What I did last Saturday was so much harder than anything else I have ever done that I simply haven't yet developed the lexicon to describe it. Running this race has not in any way diminished all the other amazing running experiences I have had since December 6th, 2010, when I ran two miles at Fayetteville Lake and then puked in the grass. What it has done is change the scale by which I measure all my future running adventures. That's okay, though, because it has also changed my concept of what is possible. It was an indescribable experience.
I won't name any particular volunteers who made this race happen because all of them made it happen. They marked trail, they cooked, they dug trenches to divert runoff from aid stations, they filled water bottles, they dug in pockets for headlamps, they asked if you needed this or needed that as you stared glassy-eyed into your drop bag not understanding what you were seeing. They stood in cold mud for 24 hours so we could go out and play, and it means the world to me. Great job Epic Ultras! I'll be helping out at the War Eagle Trail Races next month at Hobbs so come on down and I'll attempt to return the favor. It's the least I can do!
I was the only rookie in the race. God and everyone could go to UltraSignup.com and see that I had run exactly one ultra previous to this one. Never once, though, did I feel like I was out of my league. Meeting and chatting with the other participants at the spaghetti dinner and at the starting line, and at every step on the trail, I was made to feel like I belonged. I was in the same league. I was in the league of runners who thought it would be pretty fun to run the FlatRock 50k course, after an entire day and night of rain, and then run it again. That was the only qualification. I am so grateful for the friendships I made on this sloppy day in April. Everyone get some hand!
Thanks to Epic Ultras photographers Greg Highberger and Harrison Steele for the excellent photos and thanks especially to Eric Steele for giving me the opportunity to "kick my own ass and BE EPIC!" You and your amazing crew "co-created the experience of a lifetime!" just as you promised. I'll be back!