Two weekends ago, I ran in the inaugural Flatrock 101k on the Elk River Hiking Trail in Independence, Kansas. This race was the brainchild of Epic Ultras founder, Eric Steele who has held the 50k version of the event in the fall with much success. The choice of this race was a win-win for me - not only did I get to run in a new state (in my quest to run in every state), it was well-timed as a build race in preparation for the Bryce 100 at the end of May. Despite my excitement, I went into the race with a good amount of doubt and uncertainty as this would be my highest mileage run to date and I just didn’t know how I’d fare.
I flew out to Tulsa, Oklahoma on Friday morning with a layover in Houston, all scheduled with plenty of time to spare. Things got off to a rocky start however as the FAA furloughs caused delay after delay leading to missed connections and increased nerves as I had checked my race gear and didn’t know if my running shoes would be in Tulsa to meet me upon arrival. (Tip from my friend, Elena: Never check your race gear if you can help it). Rather than a smooth arrival with time to lunch and lounge, I had to schedule a new connecting flight and rush from plane to rental car to race meeting. Luckily, I (and my gear) made it in time for the meeting, check-in and the pasta dinner! I was greeted at check-in (and at race day aid stations) as Grace from New Jersey (being the only NJ (or east coast) runner has its notoriety and perks).
Looking around the pre-race meeting, I saw that we’d be a small field as only 37 folks had signed up for the adventure. Eric Steele opened up the meeting with the characteristic exuberance and excitement that I’d seen in his videos (http://vimeo.com/51119180#at=0). The days leading up to the race had been overcast, rainy and gray and the trails were pretty soaked through. Runners chatted with each other and I heard several mentions of “mud”, “water crossings” and “slippery”. Water crossings? I didn’t remember mention of them so that got me curious. I later learned that there were LOTS of water crossings – streams, waterfalls, wet gullies and deep puddles that required a whole-hearted footy plunge at each pass. And, since the course was a 15 mile out-and-back trail, twice over, those crossings would become familiar from all sides. Oh, then Eric told us to avoid the barbed wire. What? Barbed wire? Was this a Tough Mudder run? Needless to say, I went back to my hotel and penned my emergency contact on the back of my race number, tout suite.
That night, I gathered up my race gear and thought through my nutrition. We had the option of drop bags at 3 different points, but having not run such a distance before, I didn’t want to over complicate things. I opted to carry my nutrition in 50k segments and eat off the course. In addition to it being a new distance and a new setting, I did what I’ve been told never to do – I tested out new gear on race day. My coach, Elizabeth had recommended using a handheld instead of a hydration pack so I reverted back to my Nathan handheld and tested out a new AK Ultimate Direction Vest to tote my odds and ends. In addition, I brought along a Black Diamond Sprinter headlamp for a first test run. Thankfully, the gear gods were smiling on me as both were comfortable and performed nicely.
At 6 a.m., 37 of us lined up for the run, headlamps cutting through the darkness. There was a light drizzle coming down and it was chillier than we had expected, but more than one runner promised that we’d warm up quickly once the race started. While waiting to start, I got to chatting with Candi, another runner who was tackling her first 100k distance. Little did I know we would be spending a good portion of the day together and cross the finish line hand-in-hand some 15 hours later.
The course started off with a short section of paved road which was a nice warm-up as we headed to the trailhead. Once on the trail the first 3-4 miles were the most technical with rocky scrambles and climbs. We all fell in line on the single track terrain and kept a comfortable pace in the morning dark.
Despite the drizzle, everyone was energized and in good spirits. Candi and I ran together mixing with other runners as we hopscotched with other groups along the way. For an hour or so on the way out, we managed to sidestep mud puddles and runoffs, thinking that we’d be able to keep our feet dry. That didn’t last long as we encountered our first significant water crossing that had us shin to knee deep in a stream. The shoe soak was liberating though and after that initial water baptism, we all seemed to tromp through the wet unfazed. At the Oak Ridge aid station just under mile 10, the volunteers informed us that we were the lead women. Lead women? I’m a solid middle-packer so this surprised me. This also gave Candi and I a bit of a competitive boost and we both found ourselves pushing to keep a lead. We got to the first turnaround at mile 15 together but on the way back to the start/finish line, Candi took the lead and held it well. I finished up the first loop in around 7 hours and headed back out for a second helping.
The second 50k was a trip down memory lane. I looked for familiar sights – trees, roots, rock galleries, the wonderful aid stations and volunteers, the dead armadillo at mile 10. Each passing landmark was a boost as it meant more miles in the bag. On the return trip I spotted Candi a few times with her good friend, Amber who was pacing her for the last 25k. Each time they seemed to be just out of reach so I resigned myself to second place. With about 5 miles to go though, I was able to catch up with Candi and Amber and we all settled into a rhythm. Candi and I decided then to finish together and though we were tired and achy, the last few miles running and hiking through the technical finish was one of the highlights of my day as the three of us kept each other’s spirits up. Nightfall came and with it came the sounds of coyotes and cricket chirps. Through that backdrop we ran, climbed, and scrambled our way to the end with a shared first place female finish and our first ultra buckles!
A big thank you to the folks at Epic Ultras, the wonderful volunteers, Candi, Amber and my MpFit / Campmor Teammates for their support. And last but not least, thanks to Elizabeth at Mountain Peak Fitness for her excellent coaching and for her endless encouragement and advice! Couldn’t have done it without you!