Prairie Spirit Trail 100 Mile | Kansas | March 29, 2014
My Own Private Epic
By Gary Dudney
The first running of the Prairie Spirit Trail 100 and 50 mile race in 2013 ran headlong into an epic snowstorm that forced the closing of the course 24 hours into the 100 mile event, so there was a lot of buzz about what 2014 would bring. Would a clean running of the race create as much of an epic adventure as the snowstorm had wrought?
Eric Steele, founder of Epic Ultras, the company putting on the race, had certainly promised an epic experience. A barrage of emails, including an 18 page information booklet and attached brochure from the Prairie Spirit Trail State Park where the race was to be staged, exuded enthusiasm, mentioned that the organizers were “super-excited,” and implored us to “in all ways, Be Epic.”
But enthusiasm aside, I wondered how well a flat as a pancake, straight as an arrow, out and back rails-to-trails course in rural Eastern Kansas was going to rise to the hype. In short, it did!
The pre-race meal of roast beef, chicken breasts, scalloped potatoes and rice pilaf kicked things into gear with Honorary Guest Speaker David Horton crowning the evening. Horton, as they say, is a hoot. He energetically dispenses advice based on a resume of endurance accomplishments that are preposterously drop dead awesome, including a finish at the Barkley Marathons, multiple wins at Hardrock, transcontinental runs, transcontinental bike rides, the Appalachian Trail speed record, the Pacific Crest Trail speed record. His standard build and unremarkable physique disguise a pit bull’s tenacity and a lion’s heart.
Horton runs down a list of 20 hard won lessons from his years on the trail, such as, “This too shall pass,” “Run don’t think,” and “It never always gets worse.” But paramount is his assertion that the experiences he has gathered through his endurance sports are more precious than gold. Everyone is inspired, on fire to get out on the course and be pit bulls. The 64-year-old Horton is at the start the next morning bike helmet in hand, ready to ride up and down the trail all day encouraging the runners, dispensing advice, cutting through any gloom and doom a tired runner might feel. He goes by me on this flattest of all courses and yells, “How about those hills?”
The trail managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism is a little over fifty miles stretching from Ottawa in the north, running through Garnett, and ending in Iola in the south. The 50 milers turn around in Garmett and the 100 milers go the distance to Iola and then return to Ottawa. The terms “flat” and “straight” hardly do it justice. The whole trail follows an abandoned rail line dating back to 1867. The land in eastern Kansas rolls slightly, but the train bed doesn’t. Where the land sinks, the path has been built up and when the land rises, the path comes back to even with the landscape. The surface is smooth, crushed limestone, virtually free of ruts and faults, with some asphalt through the small towns.
The nature of the trail dictated that every stride one took for the entire 100 miles was exactly like the stride before and the stride to come, and therein, lay the unique challenge of Prairie Spirit. Not ten miles had gone by before I had tired the muscles I was using ceaselessly, blown away my race plan by going out way too fast, and hit the panic button realizing that if I didn’t work out a run-walk strategy soon, I would be totally spent by the 30 mile mark. Accustomed to letting a hilly trail dictate my pace and effort, and used to having my mind diverted by an ever shifting panorama of mountains, alpine valleys, redwood forests, and twisting canyons, I had to forget everything I knew about running a hundred miles and construct a new system. Plus I had to zen out on the straight and endless tunnel I saw before me where a runner three miles ahead was still in view. During one of Horton’s flybys, I remarked how tough I was finding the relentless, unbroken running. “You just have to accept it,” he said.
Accept it, I did and ended up working out a pace that landed me much higher on the finishers’ list than I’d been in a hundred mile race for years. That was epic, as was just the raw experience of a trail that demanded such special strategizing.
Rural Kansas also offered a subtle but very profound beauty if you were open to her charms. Sunset over grazing cattle, rolls of hay, empty dirt roads leading to the horizon, tall grass bent over in waves across a field, brown steams meandering below wooden bridges, a tangle of stark tree branches, a robin, a meadowlark, a bobcat, farmyards, corrugated outbuildings, a massive tractor, three big dogs barking through a fence, and the tall grain silos on the edge of the small towns. In Garnett, a glimpse of main street with its old-fashioned brick facades and a stately courthouse. It reminded me of my grandmother in her nineties telling me, “If you want to live a good life, move to a small town.” Epic.
And epic too was the support provided with elaborate aid stations in each town and unmanned water stations between towns to break up longer stretches. Steele’s volunteers were wonderful, fetching drop bags, filling water packs, cooking up a storm, attentive, earnest, and thoroughly upbeat and helpful. There were choices of soup, sandwiches, and wraps, and in Garnett, late at night I heard the magic question as I pawed through my drop bag, “Who’d like some bacon?”
In fact Garnett on the way home at about 77 miles was where the race blew out the awesomeness scale for me personally. The aid station was situated in a newly renovated, quaint little train station with the drop bags in the baggage area. There was a central waiting area where padded benches lined the walls and runners could sit down. The aid tables occupied a third room where the thick slabs of bacon were being produced. Through some glitch, the lights were out so everyone was on flashlights and headlamps; the atmosphere was subdued, quiet, mysterious befitting the late hour. I’d decided on a few minutes of rest so I finished up what I was eating, had my hydration pack all reloaded for the trail, and got rid of my drop bag. Then, I settled back to enjoy the respite from relentless forward motion, savor the progress I’d made, and dream about the finish.
Then it struck me that many, many years before in 1938, almost eighty years ago, the little passenger railway that passed by just outside would have been the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe. A young woman would have been on the train going from her home in Oswego up to Baldwin to start her sophomore year at Baker University, her head full of sorority stuff and thoughts of young men more so than academic work. She would have looked out the window as the train pulled into Garnett and seen the freshly built Santa Fe Depot, just two years old then, with its red bricks and white limestone accenting the window and door frames. She would have registered what a nice little depot it was and watched to see if any of her sorority sisters were waiting on the platform to board the train.
She would not have guessed that 76 years later the railroad would be gone but her son would be sitting inside the depot dreaming of finishing the Prairie Spirit Trail 100. Epic!