This past fall, I ran two 50K trail races: FlatRock 50K and Sanders Saunter 50K. In September, it has become our family tradition to run FlatRock 50K on the beautiful Elk River Hiking Trail near Independence, Kansas. It is a deceptively hard 50K for the Midwest because of the relentless rocky terrain.
If one finishes ten consecutive FlatRock 50Ks, one is knighted into the Hall of Pain, earning a personal cloth bib and lifetime free entries into the race. Our son Aaron finished his eighth consecutive race last fall and I finished my sixth. Since we both have completed FlatRock 101K which counts for one year in the Hall of Pain quest, Aaron has nine finishes under his belt and I have seven. We are looking forward to Aaron’s knighting this fall!
September 24, the Saturday of the race, dawned hot and sunny. Record-breaking high temperatures were forecasted. All I could think was, “Not again! I am so sick of record-breaking high temperatures at every race I run this year!” I have run this course in rain with mud-pudding trails and I have run it in the heat, but just when I thought FlatRock could not get any tougher, we got to run it in record-breaking heat with humidity levels to match. The heat index reached over 100 degrees.
I was still chasing my elusive PR at FlatRock of 7 hours 28 minutes which I set in 2012. I was on a mission to prove to myself that I was not getting old and slow yet. I felt physically stronger than ever before coming off of my 100-miler training (weight training and lots of miles) and thought this might be the year for a new PR, but I knew right away the heat was going to be an issue. I wore my trusty ice bandana, which was my indispensable racing tool during the hot year of 2016, and hoped for the best.
The first quarter mile of the race is on the road and slightly uphill. I don’t like the start, because I feel best beginning very easy and easing into my race pace, but if you do that at FlatRock, you end up behind a long, slow train of runners once you hit the single track trail. It is tough to pass for the first few miles, because they are rugged with a lot of technical climb (For a Midwest race. This is no mountain race report!).
It seems like I always run the road section faster than I feel is optimal and end up pushing the first three miles faster than I probably should and this time was no exception. I still ended up behind quite a few slower runners. I love blasting the technical downhills and chafe being behind runners who don’t. I started passing on the descents, as usual. Once I had passed several runners, I succumbed to the usual pressure to run fast enough stay in front of them.
I felt okay starting out, but way too soon my legs felt dead and my plaguing digestive system issues flared up. I had no energy in my legs, but I forced myself to run anyway. It is disconcerting to be less than five miles into a 50K and have legs that feel done. I knew it could get better and pushed on, hoping to it would.
I wore my Salomon vest with two 20-ounce Amphipod bottles in the front pockets—one Tailwind and one water. I was sipping on Tailwind frequently, but when my GI tract became unhappy, I went to plain water and S-caps.
The temperature and humidity continued to rise. My effort level seemed too high for my pace. My digestive tract status was up and down, but fortunately I had no full-blown nausea. At every aid station, I filled my bandana with ice. I didn’t even take it off, just pulled the opening to the front and had them dump in as much ice as possible while still being able to velcro it shut. I put ice in my hat, too. When the ice in my bandana melted, I was sweltering, and all I could think about was getting to the next aid station for more ice!
As a side note, I had sewn five of these ice bandana. I used one. I gave one to my husband and one to each of our sons. I also gave one to our friend Mindy (who was also running FlatRock and was the female winner!). So there were three of us on the 50K course that day with our red, white, and blue ice bandanas. When asked the volunteers at aid stations to fill it with ice, they said, “We know the routine. These flag bandanas sure are popular!”
The middle section of the course is the “easier” miles, and by mile 7 or 8, my digestive system seemed to settle down a bit. I started drinking half strength Tailwind, knowing I needed some fuel. I always struggle getting down calories in the heat.
One week out from the race, I had written my three goals in my training log:
A-goal: PR time of less than 7:28 (My dream goal, if everything went perfectly.)
B-goal: About 7:30 or 7:40 (This seemed attainable.)
C-goal: At least less than 8 hours!
I knew by the first five miles it was not going to be a PR year for me. But I still hoped to finish in 7:40 or so. Around 10 miles, I started trying to calculate my time to the turnaround. I had hoped to reach it in about 3 hours 25 minutes, or at least 3:30. My PR year, I had reached the turnaround in 3:27. You might think that meant I should have be able to finish under 7 hours, but FlatRock is not a course conducive to negative splits. The constant stepping up and down the rocks takes an unexpected toll on your legs and the race plan ends up being “run moderately on the outbound trip, and hang on the best you can on the way back.”
I kept looking at the time on my Garmin, and scouting for landmarks to help me judge how much further to the turnaround. Maybe I could make it in 3:40. Nope. Maybe 3:50? Nope. I finally arrived at the turnaround in about 4 hours, my slowest time ever. Maybe if my legs held up better than usual, I could still break the 8 hour mark I thought, still clinging unrealistically to hope. It is always such a mental boost to finally be headed back toward the finish.
One thing I love about an out-and-back race is the chance to see the other runners. It was a huge boost to see our son Aaron running strongly in second place. After I turned around, I was surprised to see how many runners were still behind me. As slow as I was moving, I though I must be near the tail end.
The heat was becoming intense. The section between the turnaround and the next aid station is long, rough, and steep. Because of a tornado the past April, it was even worse than usual, becoming a scramble over large rocks and around holes from uprooted trees. I wasn’t even close to the aid station when I ran out of ice in my bandana. It became a fine line between still being able to run and becoming overheated.
My stomach was starting to feel empty, but if I drank much Tailwind, I felt the brush of nausea creeping in. I resorted to running on very minimal calories, as I have in previous races when my digestive system is unhappy. I was drinking plenty of water, and I knew in the shorter distance of a 50K, I could slide by on this plan. It’s not optimal, but it’s better than being reduced to a walk with heavy nausea.
I was so hot! All I could think of was getting to the next aid station for ice. When I arrived, the volunteers informed me they had no ice. What? I wanted to lay down and cry! They didn’t even have cold water. I refilled my bottle with tepid water and trudged on, my pace slowing even more. My hope of finishing under 8 hours was gone. I just hoped to finish under my slow time the previous year of 8:23. Surely, I could at least do that.
As I neared the next aid station, all I could think was, “Please have ice! Please have ice!” What if they were out of ice, too? If they had no ice, I felt like I might not survive. Praise God! They had plenty of ice. Ice in my bandana, ice in my hat, ice in my bottles! What a relief! I could run again!
My legs held up better than I expected on the inbound trip. They felt fatigued, but never painful. The last few aid stations clicked by surprisingly fast (and they all had ice!). I still had enough leg muscle control to run the technical downhill in the last three killer miles. I was running sections I had never had strength to run in previous races. I passed a few people. This was encouraging, but as I watched the time, I knew it was going to be close to finish under 8:23. I pushed on as hard as I could.
I reached “The Crack,” a spot where you have to scramble up a narrow fissure in the bluffs. I knew it was one mile to the finish line from this point. The time wasn’t looking promising. I pressed on. Finally, I reached the road—the never-ending half-mile of road! It always seems like you are running on a treadmill going nowhere. You can see the turn to the finish, you can hear the cowbells and air horn, but you run and run and run and it never seems to get any closer. Of course, you do actually finally get there. (We run a quarter mile of road on the way out and a half mile of road on the way back because the start and finish are not the same spot.)
I was crying tears of frustration as neared the finish and saw my lowest C-goal slip away. I crossed the line in 8:24:19.
Post-race, I was ashamed that I allowed self-pity, disappointment, and tears to overcome me as I crossed the finish line. It was not the Christ-like attitude I want to carry. Honestly, I think some of the emotion I felt at that moment was deep-down residual frustration over the heat and nausea I dealt with at my hundred-miler.
It was easy to quickly dump the mantle of frustration when I learned that our son Aaron had won. This was his second win in a row at FlatRock 50K and that brought a big smile to my face. I might have whooped and hollered just a bit when I heard the news!
I felt a bit better about my own finish when I learned I was 6th place female and 27th finisher out of 50 (and I believe there were 90+ starters).
As I walked around loosening up my tight, hurting legs, I basked in the glow of our son’s win. And I started thinking of next September. Next September, I would attempt again to conquer this race I love to hate. Next September, I would finish with a smile, no matter what. And just maybe next September I could reach my goal on this eat-you-up, spit-you-out course. Maybe next September . . .