Heartland 100 Mile | Kansas | October 12, 2002
There’s No Place Like Home
By Gary Dudney
Late night out in the Great Plains, mid-continent, east central Kansas, I’m running through the Flint Hills on the tallgrass prairie in the heartland of America. No trees block the view, no canyon walls blot out the stars. There are no high ridges, no deep valleys, no rock formations, mountains, pine trees, or manmade structures between me and the great overarching sky. Clouds of glittering stars blanket the night and extend down to all horizons. There is Orion with the three perfectly aligned stars forming his belt and the stars of his sword clear and distinct. Just above the horizon in every direction there are scattered lights miles and miles away: the blinking red lights of a radio tower, a bright light bobbing up and down on an oil derrick, a pair of white lights marking a grain silo, and twenty miles away a feint dome of light over Emporia.
My flashlight beam lights up the gravel road beneath me and catches the ragged edge of switch, Indian, and bluestem grass that covers the prairie. Clumps of wildflowers grow in the center of the road, their shadows forming up into phantom wild animals that seem to leap at me as I pass by. From time to time a rabbit appears and regards me with curiosity. Surprisingly the dark grasslands around me are alive with a host of odd noises: whirrs, buzzes, muffled screeches, low screams, howls, hisses, clicks, and grinds. A coyote begins a plaintive howl at the half moon hanging over the horizon and there are seemingly a thousand voices yelping and yipping in return in an unearthly chorus that fills the night and raises goosebumps on my arms. I pray that the next howl does not come from nearby because I swear I’ll jump right out of my skin if I’m suddenly surrounded by yelping coyotes.
The day before, I pulled into Cassoday, Kansas, (population 93) the Prairie Chicken Capitol of the World and passed by the Cassoday Café, “Good Food and Good Gossip since 1873,” and a quaint wooden church where Laura Ingalls Wilder might have warmed a pew as a teenager. The empty streets and harsh sunlight pouring down on the motley collection of paint-starved wooden buildings and scattered homes gave the place a lonely, betwixt-and-between look, as forlorn as a train whistle in a heavy fog. And in fact freight trains from two lines do roar through town, not slowing a bit as they pass. Sitting in my car behind the lowered railroad barrier just feet from a passing train, I can imagine the massive thing sucking me forward onto the tracks as it hurtles past. Winters out here on the edge of the Flint Hills must be unbelievably harsh. A sign stuck on an inside door between the main hall and the bathrooms of the town’s little community center gives a hint, “Please leave door open so pipes won’t freeze.”
But soon enough the community center was scene to the familiar routine of ultrarunners weighing in, leaving drop bags, and trading war stories. I had imagined a primarily local race filled with runners from Kansas and the surrounding states. Amazingly of the 44 pre-registered runners for the 100 mile, exactly two were from Kansas. Texas and New Mexico were well represented, but then so were Canada and Washington and many other states. Luminaries such as Eric Clifton and Sue Johnston were there, and of course, the ubiquitous Monica Scholz, the two-time defending women’s champ. What was going on, I wondered, why had so many people come so far for this race? The race briefing held few clues to the mystery. Follow the white flour arrows, look for surveyor’s tape, glow sticks at night. There was a lot about how to handle cows and cattle guards that was unique to this race and some mumbo-jumbo about not focusing on things in the distance as they had a tendency to never get any closer. At the time I didn’t get it.
Race morning we gathered in a gravel parking lot just outside of town next to the abandoned and shuttered limestone Cassoday High School building that looked like it had seen its heyday in about 1920. Several derelict junk cars sat nearby to drive home the point. A persistent drizzle, filtering down through the light cast from bulbs stuck up on telephone poles, fell from a bank of low slung clouds as we lined up to start. We ran down the one stretch of black top in the whole race and then turned onto gravel and began stair stepping across the countryside beside dark fields and pastures between barbed wire fences. As the light slowly came up, we made our way into the Flint Hills proper and the road beneath us began to dip and roll gently up and down. None of the slopes were particularly steep or particularly long. The cadence of these climbs and descents seemed remarkably in tune with ultrarunning. Running down was an easy flow to the bottom. Walking up was calming and restful.
Not much good for farming, the Flint Hills have been left largely untouched since pioneer days except for grazing cattle and widely scattered oil rigs. It is a vast grassland of gently sloped hills formed by the uneven erosion of the minerals below the surface. Where the flint or chert dominates, the land wears away slowly. Where there is limestone or shale, the land erodes more quickly. Streams wind among the hills in boxlike channels cut down through the chert or in shallow valleys formed through strata of limestone.
In the hills, the miles rolled by. Sometimes the gravel was well crushed down and the road was smooth, but just as often, the road was like a dance floor covered with rocks the size you would pick up, hold in the crook of your finger, and fling at a tree trunk. The drizzle ended around noon just in time for the cutting edge of a front moving down from the north to confront us with a stiff headwind as we traveled up toward Matfield Green. This wind we battled until late evening especially up on the ridgelines and on Texaco Hill where the aid station volunteers had to huddle inside a tent held together with duct tape. Luckily the world’s best cookies could be found there. The corner of the course that held the Matfield Green aid station jutted out across I-35, so we followed dirt roads up to old concrete overpasses that spanned the highway. Suddenly the idyll of the gentle hills was broken by cars and trucks careening madly beneath us as we crossed. Leaving Matfield Green on the way back at 57 miles, a fiery orange sunset lit up the western sky as night approached. I picked up my pacer just in time for the two of us to see a pronghorn antelope leap up a slope in the fading light.
Then began the long hypnotizing run through the prairie night. Willa Cather’s character Antonia says when she first encounters the vastness of the prairie, “…there was nothing but land—slightly undulating…I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete doom of heaven, all there was of it…Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.” That captures the run that night, the way you became lost in yourself between aid stations, the way space stretched out all around you so it seemed you had left the world behind and entered some realm of the spirit, running along beyond limits, outside of normal experience, where what would be would be.
As the night stretched on in this dream state, I found my eyes working overtime to play tricks on me. I stopped beneath a hedgeapple tree for a moment and set my flashlight on the ground. When I looked up into the branches above me, the dark spaces quickly formed themselves into a cougar sprawled out in the crook of two branches. It was watching me. The longer I stared the more real the big cat became until I whipped up my flashlight and shined it directly at the branches. Nothing there. Later when I approached the Battle Creek aid station I thought at first I saw a whole group of people standing below the canopy until this resolved itself into just a man with the hood of his sweatshirt up over a baseball cap and a woman beside him in a green coat with her hands wrapped around a cup of steaming coffee. I said hello and went past them to sit in a chair next to the aid table. When I looked back up, only the man was there. “You all alone out here?” I ventured nonchalantly. “Got someone in the back of that truck asleep,” he said. “otherwise, yeah.” I let it drop, deciding to keep my visions to myself.
At last the night and my race came to an end at just about the same time. Volunteers greeted me at the finish with ringing cowbells and a whooping welcome. There was so much to praise about this race. The different soups at the aid stations were the best I’ve ever had, including the “three pellet” soup at Matfield Green where the cook would yell down the road, “Dinners on!” when a runner showed up. The Kansas Ultrarunner’s Society members deserve enormous credit for having the imagination to see what a great venue the Flint Hills would make for a 100 miler. No wonder the far-flung turnout as word leaks out about this unique run. This was truly a Kansas experience with the wind, the stars, the prairie, the cows, the barbed wire, the heart-breaking distances, and the pioneer spirit and hospitality.