Saturday, April 6, 2013
Rockin’ K 50 Mile Ultra
50 Miles – Kanapolis State Park, KS

“Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
~Edmund Burke

I travelled to Kansas with my Colorado Mountain Ninja brethren, to see where my training progress is in regards to my Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run training plan. My training started back in October, where running 6 miles was quite a task, and I weighed a175 lbs. Since then, I’ve lost 20 lbs, and more closely followed my training plan then I ever have before. The Rockin’ K 50 Mile Run near Ellsworth, KS, was chosen to be my “shake out” run. A run where I’ll get a first hand look at what’s working, and what’s not working, with my ongoing training towards the Vermont 100. But over the last month of training, it started to turn into a bit more than that.

After a great performance at the Twin Mountain Trudge in February, and a great run with the High Line Canal 100K Fat Ass… I wanted to see what more I could do. For a race, I’d put down the cameras, put aside being social, and run. My fellow ninjas Mark Larson and Jerry Armstrong would also be running in the 50 mile run. Historically, Jerry and Mark are much faster runners than I. They are talented, fit, slim, fast.. they look like what people think runners look like. Mark has been traveling abroad for the winter months, a nomadic bum by nature. Jerry has focused a great deal of his training on elevation gain. Both of these guys, are two people who would take a “slow-day” when thinking of training with me. I guess part of me wanted to prove that I’m not the slow guy these days. That I can hang, that I can push and challenge as much as they. That it doesn’t matter if you run 100 miles in a week or 50, what matters is that your training is tact, on track, has meaning, and you want it. Afterall, 90 percent of this is mental.. right?

So, I’ll honestly say that my race goals were ideal given where I’ve been over the last 6 months. As always, it starts with the goal to finish. I knew that to be on track for Vermont, I’d need to finish this race in under 10 hours or so. If my day was to be stellar, I’d love a top 10 finish. I’d love a PR even more. But, ultimately, I just wanted to compete with my fellow ninja’s to prove myself in our dojo.

We camped out the night before in the state park that the race was being held in. I reserved a campsite in the section of the campground where the horses stay. Right adjacent to our site was a dozen horses. We spent the weekend hearing them, smelling them. It’s what I wanted. After all, the Vermont 100 is a horse race. You sleep near them, smell then, run with them. The same would be true for this weekends race in Kansas. After a sleepless night thanks to howling westerly winds, I rose from my tent, prepped for the race, and enjoyed a new kind of pre-race meal. Usually I’d have a carbo heavy meal of a bagel, eggs, bacon.. not today. Today it was oats, yogurt, chia, fruit. I sat in the back of Jeremy’s pick-up, out of the wind, and scarfed it down. I felt full, energized, and ready to run. It was time to see what I’ve got.

Courtesy: Jerry Armstrong
Into the Farmland

As the runners huddled up near the starting line, I plugged my headphones in so that all I could hear, was my music. Couldn’t hear myself think, anyone talk to me, nothing but music. It’s what I wanted. I need to concentrate. I wanted to drown everything else out and just focus on breathing, pace, running. Nothing less, nothing more. As the race started, I launched myself into the lead pack of 8-10 runners and decided to hang here as long as I could. Usually I would run conservatively, backing off, and easing into a rhythm. Not today. As we ran down the paved roads of the park, and ducked onto the first section of trail, I found myself right in the front pack of runners, distancing ourselves from the vast majority of those who had come out to run.

I looked down at my watch, 2 miles in, and saw that my average pace to this point was around 8:15 min/miles. I’m not sure I’ve ever run this fast in a 50 mile ultra before and start wondering how long I can hold onto it for. The elevation i s around 1500′ here, quite a bit lower than my home elevation of 5500′. My breathing is easy. I’m running with very little effort and have really settled in. Jerry and I run very close together, he points out a few guys wearing shirts that say “Beef”. Jerry, the vegan in our group, I ask him if he can eat that. A bit of an inside joke. After a chuckle and a smile, he heads out ahead. The first series of hills lay out before us and we both run them with ease as others take to walking. Compared to what we’ve been training on all of these months, they aren’t so bad. I figure that as long as my heart rate doesn’t spike, or my effort level, I’ll run these hills as long as I can.

Mark puts himself in 3rd place, chasing the fastest marathon runner out there. I ask Jerry, “Where do you think he’s going?” We both know that this is classic Mark. He’ll run strong for about 36 miles, no pacing plan, and blow-up. Jerry takes off running on a hill around mile 5 and I’d never see him again. I’d spend the rest of my day wondering where he was, chasing him down, trying to close a gap. Kurt, another ninja, is right behind me. He looks wide-eyed, chasing me down, smiling. I’m wondering what he’s thinking.. and I honestly thought in my mind that he was happy for me. He knows where I’ve come from, the road I’ve been down. I imagined he was excited that I was in front… chasing down our fellow ninja’s.


So we start running some very sandy trails. In some sections of the country you’d call it a beach. But in Kansas, you’re about as far away from a beach as you can get. It’s just sandy trail from eroded stone. It didn’t bother me much.  just kept running. We ran past a variety of rocky outcroppings, where the vultures were just waking from their own slumber. A preview of their afternoon meals I suppose. In the mix of it all are some early stream crossings. I know that later in the loop, we’ll have some deep and wide crossings to contend with. I want to keep my feet as dry as possible until then. I watch as Jerry and other runners just trudge right on through the water. Myself? I take the time to avoid the water entirely, keeping my feet dry. My heels are my wheels. It didn’t waste me much time to steer clear, so it was well worth the extra effort.

Six miles in I still found myself in the mix of fast 50 milers and the thrifty marathoners. Usually I would back off and let them set their own pace. Careful to not get sucked in to their race and mindful of my own. But not today. Today I decided to convince myself that I can do this. I can keep up. I’ve put in the work and today is my day. So, rather than backing off and letting the faster runners breeze on by. I kept my pace up. I continue to run everything. Every uphill and down, all the flats, everything. There was no quit in my step, no hesitation.

A huge part of today, I knew, would be the weather. The wind is still whipping out on the course. Easily at a steady 20 mph with gusts into the 30s. The kind of wind that stands you up and stops you in your tracks it’s so strong, even with your best effort to run through it. I hate the wind. Next to cold, this is the most annoying, bothersome, element to have to run through. It is soul and energy sucking and I knew it would suck both today. The other element of today’s race was the heat. Forecasts called for temps to reach near 80. We haven’t had that kind of heat in Colorado yet this year, and I also knew that Kansas has a bit of humidity in the air. With all of this being said, I knew that from step one, I needed to stay on task with both my hydration, food, and s-caps (Salt/potassium). Aside from my pace, my entire race plan for the day revolved around these topics, sticking to my plan, and executing regardless.

Anyone who thinks Kansas is totally flat is nuts. We would spend our entire day running up and down countless rolling hills. I can only think of one, 2 mile section, on the entire course that could be considered flat and it was along a river. There was no shade on the course, except in the small draws where cottonwoods lines the stream beds. These areas were the most fun to run in and my favorite places on the course. They had a magical quality. Incredibly windy on the top of every hill, terribly hot in each valley/draw, and little shade from cottonwoods. That was the scene for the day as we ran across America’s heartland.

Fill Me Up

I ran into the first aid station and saw Jeremy right away. He had come out to help crew me and would be pacing later. Right away he gave me that vote of confidence, letting me know that I was looking good. Jerry was 10 minutes ahead of me. I handed him my bottle of clip2, now empty, told him where he could find my drink mix and that I’d be back for it. I went to the aid table where I grabbed a handful of grapes and a piece of banana. I then filled my water bottle, and headed back out on this loop section of the course. My total time in the aid station was at most 2 minutes.

Courtesy: Kurt Hardester

This short 4 or 5 mile loop on the course is the toughest section out there. The steepest climbs on the entire course are found here. As we run along/above a large river, there is little shade. It’s hot now. The climbs are hands and knees scrambles. Short but numerous. They take your breath away as your heart rate spikes high. I do my best to tackle each one at a time. On this section of the course, I keep getting turned around. At one point I lost the course markings and was unsure if I was on track. So, I backtracked a bit and retraced my steps, only to find out that I was on course and the marker was 10 feet in front of me. With no shade, and a glaring sun, it’s freakin’ bright in Kansas. No wonder the road signs have a huge sun on them. The course is marked with white and red striped marking tape. But given the bright sun, I was having a hard time seeing them. I spent the rest of this loop trying to navigate my way around. Always searching for the next marker. Always feeling turned around, lost, unsure of myself.

At some point on this loop, I kicked a yucca plant. Those who live in the west know what these things are and how much they hurt. I kicked one hard enough that it punctured my left big toe. I could feel my toe throbbing. I start to limp. I knew right away what I had done, and start to worry that it’ll affect my race. On the flat section of the course, I look across the river and up on the nearby hill and I can see Jerry running with someone. I know I’m still not far behind him. I turn the tunes up, head down, and keep running. I ran back into the aid station. Grabbed my bottle from Jeremy, refilled my other, grabbed more fruit, and was off again. A one minute turn around and now I’m heading for the start/finish again, still chasing ninjas.

As I’m heading back to the finish area, I run across what I found to be a truly enjoyable section of the course. Rolling grassy kills with gorgeous views of Kanapolis Lake and a nearby river. You can see for miles and miles around here and it truly was wonderful. As I climbed along a long cattle fence, you go through a gate, then head down the opposite side of the same fence. As I made the turn and came down the other side, I saw Kurt. I knew that Kurt was thinking, “There’s John, I’ll catch up and run it in with him.” So naturally I thought, “There’s Kurt, screw him, I’m pouring it on.” I ran down the hill, around the bend, and into the first river crossing. The river is frigidly cold and the water rises above my belly button. After running over a small hill, I do it again at a second river crossing. It’s refreshing given the increasing heat of the day. I climb the last few hills and check in at the 26 mile turn around a 4:26. Kurt, finishes the marathon in 5th place with a time of 4:30. He didn’t quite catch me, but he had a great time.

Courtesy: Kurt Hardester

I grabbed some food at the turn around, just gels, chews, fruit. Jeremy refills my bottles and is ready to go. He’s in his stunner outfit and wearing a red cap. It’s hard not to chuckle. I told him that all I wanted was his company. We took off after about 5 minutes total at the turn around, still poised to catch Mark and/or Jerry. We head down the main paved roads and soon, discover that we’re unsure of where the course goes. There are no course markings on the road, and we’re lost. So, we turn around and run back to where we last knew the course was. We ask two spectators there where to go, neither of them knew. So we guessed. Back and forth, wasting time, easily 10 minutes, trying to figure out where the hell the course goes. I see a jeep coming down the hill and I stop the motorist. I ask him if he knows where the course goes. His response, “Ya.. right there.. it’s the same as the first loop.” he quips with a bit of ‘tude. I respond, “Well, just because I followed 10 guys in the dark this morning, doesn’t mean I know where to go now.” Jeremy and I run to where he pointed, and were back on track.

So I put on my headphones and poured it on some more. I ran every downhill, every flat section (what few there were), and most of the ups. When not running uphill, I was plowing uphill at a pace that forced Jeremy to run just to keep up. I was moving, a man on a mission. On the top of every hill I glance across the landscape hoping to see someone ahead of me, anyone. It’s getting hotter and hotter. As the winds get the most annoying, they finally die down. Now the heat is simply blazing. When you’re annoyed with the wind and want it to go away, it finally does and all you want is for it to come back.

Jeremy checks in on my often while I run. I don’t say much of anything to him for the first 14 miles of the 24 mile loop. I’m focused on running, moving briskly. Drinking, eating, staying on top of my food and hydration. Everything was working to plan. I was totally in sync all day long. I couldn’t help but not smile and be euphoric. I kept looking at my watch, realizing that I was on PR pace, but hanging on just barely. Being lost a few times earlier were just epic wastes of time. I’m feeling lost again. I know that on the second loop, there is a cut-pff that is marked with green ribbon. Jeremy and I had run for so long that I thought we missed it. So, I start walking, wondering where it is. Searching for it. Almost turning around to backtrack to find it, while Jeremy assured me he never saw it. So we kept going and finally, there it was.

We took the cut-off and it led us right to the aid station. We checked in, refilled out bottles, grabbed fruit, and asked where the next two runners were. Ten-minutes ahead and 40 seconds apart. We thought it had to be Jerry and Mark. We were off, on the hunt, playing Pac-man. I keep pushing as hard as I can, but in the late day heat, attrition starts taking it’s toll and I’m slowing down. I’m walking more but still at a fast clip. I’m running everything I can. I can feel my ham strings and quads starting to cramp. I’d been taking one s-cap an hour all day, but given the heat, I knew I had to switch to two an hour. I had to catch up, so I slow down a bit while I work through the pain and get back on track with my bodies balance.

Then, at mile 40, we come around a corner and see a glorious site. It’s Mark. Even though he is alone, my day is complete knowing I caught at least one of them. Jeremy and I agree that we want to sneak up on him. My plan was to run by him yelling “WOOOO!” just like he had done to me in June at the Big Horn 100. As we got to within 50 yards of him, he saw us, and that plan was gone. I was all smiles though as we checked in on him. He had blown up. A ball of leg cramps, Mark couldn’t run anymore. The poor kid is absolutely destroyed but.. is still moving forward. We offer him some support and encouragement and then take off running. Down near the river, I look across and up on that hill again, and see Jerry. We wave at each other, I kick it in, I want to catch him.

Jeremy and I dug deep and continued to push towards the finish line. Jerry was 20 minutes ahead of me according to the aid stations workers. I had 6 miles to close the gap. We worked as hard as we could and then, at mile 48… I got lost again. Off course, we travelled up a long hill, down the other side, and then realized what we had done. We had to back track. We turn around and go back up and over the extra rise. What the heck! The course markings on the way back were yellow and orange stripped. Not that far off of the solid orange that was out there marking a horse route, which we had just followed. I looked down at my watch and watched my 8:58 PR tick on by. The wind had just been taken from my sails.

Now I have a headache, my feet hurt, I’m nauseous, I don’t feel like eating or drinking anymore. Mentally, I finally feel like giving up. I have to rally. So I force more drink down my throat, eat more gels and chews, and decide to dig some more. We pass the 50 mile mark at 9:17 on my watch… the second fastest I’d ever run that distance in my life. The course though is longer now, since I’ve been lost so much. With my headphones off, I just enjoy Jeremy’s company and a race well run. Determined to let no one pass us.. we soldier on and into the finish line. I ran that last half mile up-hill as fast as I could. Incredibly proud of what I had accomplished. I ran 53 miles in 9 Hours and 54 Minutes. My third fastest 50 Mile Ultra Time ever. I finished 10 minutes behind Jerry, who was only 4 minutes behind 4th place. I finished 6th. My first top 10 finish in a 50 mile race, and met all of my goals.

Courtesy: Kurt Hardester

At the finish line Jerry is a mess from the heat. After sitting down and taking a load off, I’m not far off. The heat had really got to me and I had to throw up before I put anything in my mouth. I paced back and forth while I worked up the nerve to eat a few burgers at the finish line. 6th place, 9:54.. hard to not be pleased with my performance. Yet, I still found room for disappointment. Wondering where I would have finished if I had not been lost so much. Would I have caught Jerry, could I have been top 4? At the end of the day though, I laid everything I had on the line and ran a stellar race. I felt great and the road to Vermont doesn’t seem so long anymore.

Courtesy: Kurt Hardester

Mark finished in 11:06, dancing up the road, still unable to run. He was in 8th. He even picked up a stick microphone along the way to sing into. What a gutsy performance. Jerry is a machine. He trains more than anyone I know and I have a lot of respect for him. I only hope that I proved my worth to him some how. He is our sensei and all. Lastly.. I noticed on the final standings that the first place woman finished lap 1 behind me but lap 2 in front of me. Yet, she never passed me. The few times I was lost on the course, I was never out of sight of the correct route. No one ever passed me. So.. I’m curious, how after coming in after me on loop 1… she could have finished the race ahead. Hmmm… I think Rockin’ K needs to get it’s course marking under control a bit.. to alleviate any and all questions.

Courtesy: Jerry Armstrong