Race Preview: The Heartland 100
Location: Cassoday, Kansas (East Central Kansas)
Cutoff: 30 hours
Imagine yourself late at night out on the Great Plains running through the Flint Hills of Kansas in the best preserved remnants of tallgrass prairie in America. No trees block your 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 you and the great overarching sky. Clouds of glittering stars blanket the night and extend down to all horizons. Orion stands out with 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.
Your flashlight beam lights up a ragged edge of switch, Indian, and bluestem grass that lines the gravel road you’re traveling. The shadows of wildflowers growing in the road leap around your feet. From time to time a rabbit appears and regards you with curiosity. The dark grasslands all around are alive with 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 a chorus of yelping and yipping voices join in. You feel the goosebumps rise on your arms. Your flashlight beam suddenly catches the broad, placid face of a cow. Fifty of them are strung across the road here where there are no fences. You come to a walk and slowly pick your way through the herd. The cows move aside slowly protesting with gentle moos.
The Heartland 100, Spirit of the Prairie, is truly a bucket list event, not to be missed. The Flint Hills offer a unique setting for the race, so open, so vast, so evocative of the pioneer days and spirit. There are no forests, no mountains, no pockets of civilization to distract you. Your running here is elemental, pure and solemn. As the race website notes, William Least Heat-Moon in his book Prairy Erth writes, “Whatever else prairie is – grass, sky, wind – it is most of all a paradigm of infinity.” And when this “paradigm of infinity” is married with a hundred mile race, something awesome and profound results, an ultra experience that takes you deep within yourself.
Willa Cather’s character Antonia in My 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.” Antonia’s impressions are so much like what happens in ultrarunning. You are taken “outside of man’s jurisdiction,” that is, outside the confines of everyday life, and brought to a place where what will be will be. Run Heartland and discover what will be will be for you.
Travel: The nearest airport is in Wichita about an hour’s drive from Cassoday north on I-35. Less convenient is Kansas City International, a good three hour’s drive away, but you will see more of the Kansas countryside on the drive south and get a good look at the Flint Hills as you pass through on your way to Cassoday.
Where to Stay: There is the usual assortment of motels, nothing fancy, in the nearby towns of Emporia and El Dorado. Cassoday itself, population 99, has a single hotel with few rooms. If you have any extra time to spend in the area, you should take advantage of the greater choices of accommodations in Wichita where you can go from economy to upscale with your room and dining choices. Wichita is actually one of the nation’s leading test market locations for restaurant chains, so you can go hog wild when it’s time to chow down.
Area Attractions: In Wichita, the Old Cowtown Museum, a cluster of authentic homes and buildings from the 1870s, is worth a visit. The tiny, well-appointed Victorian homes, the saloon, rail depot, general store, and newspaper office evoke the 1870s along with the historical enactors who roam the dirt streets and give you the town’s inside skinny. The Wichita Art Museum is nearby, as well as botanical gardens and a world class science museum, “Exploration Place,” full of interactive exhibits all located in sprawling Riverside Park where the Little and Big Arkansas rivers meet near downtown.
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. The race is 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 all in abundance.