by Abigail Meadows
Heartland 100 2008 Report
We arrived at the community center for packet pick-up about an hour before the pre-race briefing was due to commence. Even though this was my first time at this race, I was immediately greeted by Randy, the co-RD, as if I had been a long lost friend with genuine warmth and welcome. Things were looking good already. One of the things I love most about ultras is the feeling of family that the runners, race directors, and volunteers seem to have among each other, even if you happen to be the new guy on the block. As it so happened there were several familiar faces. I also had the great pleasure of meeting a couple of people from the list that I only knew through e-mail or phone conversations. It was great to finally put faces to names.
After the pre-race briefing we were treated to a wonderful meal provided by the volunteers at the community center. Were my crew and I really considering not eating there, wow, we would have really missed out. Now it was time to pick up one of my bags that had been brought by a friend who drove to the race from San Antonio and go back to the hotel to distribute everything into my drop bags (this is the part of ultras that I really hate the most, I tend to over think and over analyze everything and then use nearly none of it). Living in south Texas, I was still used to running in nothing but shorts and jogbra both day and night and was not sure how my body would react to the lower temperatures so I vastly over packed. Once back to the hotel I made short work of throwing everything into my drop bags and turned in early hoping for a good night’s sleep. As it turned out I seemed to wake about every 15 minutes through the night, but somehow woke feeling rested and refreshed. Time to head back to the community center to drop off the bags and then make my way to the start line.
We left the hotel hoping to find a cup of coffee. No luck. However, when we arrived at the community center one of the volunteers (a true angel if there ever was one) had coffee ready. With coffee in hand we made our way to the start line. It was fully dark at the time for the race to start but I was a happy girl. I am one of those people that is a morning person and my favorite time of day is the hours between 0400 and about 0530. After a final trip to the porta-potty it is time to be on our way.
I am a very social person and love the social aspect of the beginning of ultras. For the first several miles I ran with various people and we talked about anything, everything and nothing, and it was wonderful. I had set a goal of 28 hours for my finish and was well within this when we reached the first manned aid station. In fact, I felt so good that I changed my goal and decided to see if I could run a little faster. I always start very conservatively and will adjust my goal after seeing what the body is feeling like on that particular day. As much as I like running long distances I do not like the beginning of runs and take what seems to be forever to get warmed up. Once warmed up I like to run alone, but am forever grateful to have someone share the first hour or two of a run with me. By this time the sun was up and it was turning into a beautiful day.
I reached the first crew access point and handed off my camel back to be refilled while I hit the porta-potty (I try to never pass one of those up, especially on a course where there are no trees to duck behind). One goal I had for this race was to minimize my time in aid stations unless I was doing something relevant to the run (eat, sleep if need be, change clothes or socks, etc.). My crew performed beautifully and I was back on the road very quickly. When leaving this aid station you pass through what seemed to be about the only part of the race in which there were signs of habitation by anything other than cattle. There is a little stream with a few fish and a few houses set near the road. Quite a pretty part of the course. Of course there was one stick on the road (possibly the only one on the entire course) and while I was just dreamily running along I managed to get it caught between my feet and scratch up both legs.
For the most part this race is set in what really is wide open prairie, which is beautiful in its own right, but vastly different from anywhere I had been before. The legs were feeling good and I was ready to run. Still feeling really cautious since I have heard many a tale about what can happen if you start too fast, not to mention seeing the results of taking off too hard early in the race only to have it come back and bite you later. It is often hard on this course to tell whether you should be running some of the less steep uphills. Next year I hope to return more prepared. This year was all about getting the first 100 mile finish under my belt (and the buckle on it!).
The stretch between the first two crew access points is much like the rest of the course. In fact nearly all of this course looks about the same. I was worried that I would become bored with this, but it never happened. I like my mountains and the challenge and change up that comes with running single track trails in the woods (favorite courses so far are Cascade Crest and the HURT). I was worried going into this race that it would feel like a death march due to the perceived terrain. (There was a death march like portion, but that will come later). However, I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the prairies. I proceeded along running stronger and faster than earlier, but ever cautious. The last thing I wanted was another DNF. Due to my surgeries last year and my body’s reaction to them I no longer trust my body to perform like it used to and it has made me very cautious (that and possibly some of the wisdom that comes with age and experience, one can only hope). I have taken it slow since I was allowed to start back running this past Christmas after more than two years off.
When I reached the Teterville aid station I once again handed off my camelback to my crew to be refilled and hit the porta-potty before consuming some chow and heading back out. My crew commented that I had much improved my pace and was making good time. This both made me feel good and had me a little worried, but I was feeling great, the best I had felt so far that day. I was managing to stick to my abbreviated time goal in the aid stations and the legs felt strong. Next stop Texaco Hill.
From the time I left Rich “The Troubadour” earlier in the race I had run mostly alone. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a social creature by nature, but I truly love running alone with my thoughts and possibly an audio book or music. Except for a very few moments in the race, after this point I ran alone for the last 90 plus miles. When I run with someone else I constantly worry about whether I am messing with their pace which is one of the reasons I tend to run alone. Not to mention, in my life, my running is the only time I am really alone and don’t feel the need to beat myself up with guilt over the housework not getting done (not that the guilt gets it done, I am admittedly not the greatest housekeeper).
The rest of the run to the turnaround point went about the same as my running up to this point. I was feeling good and strong and everything seemed right. My Achilles Tendonitis combined with a couple of small tears and a bone spur in my heel hurt like crazy with every step up until around the 40 mile mark and then mysteriously disappeared. There was some pain at the very end of the race, but nothing like the constant pain that I had been enduring for a few months before the race. To this day it hasn’t come back like it was before the race and I suffered no pain for nearly two weeks after the finish. My theory is that it finally got tired of not being listened to and just quit whining. Sort of a battle of the wills and I won out. Absolutely no medical evidence to back up this theory, but it is my story and I am sticking to it.
I reached the turnaround point over an hour ahead of my previous 50 mile PR still feeling good and running strong. Still cautious though. I don’t know if I will ever trust my body like I used to. Time will tell. I decided to change socks and shorts at this point. While I did not feel any chafing or hot spots at this time, I did not want to take the chance of developing any issues if I could prevent it. I know it will sound crazy, but I had planned my next 100 miler only three weeks after Heartland. This is not the recommended amount of time one should put between their first 100 mile finish and their next attempt. However, the following 100 miler is very near home in a park that I run regularly, and take my kids to, and will be the first time the children will get a chance to come to one of my races. It would mean so much to me to have the children at a race to see mommy come across the finish line, but with five of them still too young to drive it is not feasible to take them to a race that requires travel. Both the expense and the exhaustion of traveling with them would not be a way to set myself up for success. This being said, they all excitedly talk about wanting to be my pacer one day and I hope to have my 14 year old pace me the last section of the upcoming race.
The way back was much like the way out for the first several miles. I was feeling good when I reached the Matfield Green aid station, but was trying to overcome some slight sleepiness so decided on a short nap since I had a crew vehicle there and could curl up in the backseat. I told my crew to please refill my camelback and add some of the snacks I had in my drop bag to the pockets and let me catch a little shut eye. I stated “please wake me in about 15 minutes” and I promptly took a nap. I have an ability of lying down and pretty much going to sleep on command (staying asleep for any period of time, however, is something I only fondly remember from my pre-menopausal days). This is something that I have worked on for some time and has served me well in my job in EMS. You never know when you will get the next nap and, at least for me, a cat nap can be really refreshing. This one worked wonders and when I woke all sleepiness was gone. Time to hit the porta-potty and head out again. I was still ahead of my goal and feeling relatively fresh when I awakened. I had been looking forward to running at night all day and was ready to go. I hoped that this would be the only nap required. Boy was I wrong there.
When I reached the Teterville aid station on the return it was time to have another cup of Prairie Power Pellets. I had been looking forward to another cup of these for quite some time now, but when offered the vegetarian option I went for it and was not disappointed. I made the decision to take another nap and requested to be awakened in about 15 minutes. This once again worked for me but it wasn’t nearly as easy to get up and get going this time. Once back on the road I felt refreshed and was still going strong. Only 25 miles to go. This section from Teterville to Lapland is only a little over 8 miles and I was still running well, but had added a little more walking to the mix. Still being conservative, but knowing that even if the legs started to fail me I had plenty of time to walk it in to the finish line if needed (my husband refers to my walking pace as being akin to the French Foreign Legion’s “march or die” rate). It wasn’t a problem and I was able to make smart decisions about when to run and when to walk and was still letting my decisions be governed by the terrain.
Everything changed as I was coming into Lapland. I had not been able to eat as much as I wanted during this part of the race. On my best day I do not have a sweettooth and as a race progresses the taste of anything even remotely sweet starts to upset my stomach. As I neared Lapland the nausea I was beginning to feel seemed to sweep over me with a feeling like the worst morning sickness or food poisoning I had ever encountered (and, trust me, I have suffered with both to the point of requiring iv fluids on more than one occasion). When I reached my crew I once again handed off my camelback and requested water, snacks, and another cup of coffee. I also stated that I was going to have to lay down for a few minutes again. I think I requested about 20 minutes here, but it ended up being much longer. I thought if I just curled up in the fetal position for a few minutes I would get past the nausea. Not happening, I ended up with my head hanging out one side of the car vomiting so hard I was sure my toes would be found somewhere about the instep of my feet turned inside out. Once all the brackish looking liquid had left my stomach I dry heaved for what seemed like an eternity. Luckily I had my head towards the field side of the car and no one was in my way when I began vomiting or I would not have had the energy to turn the other way. It was while this was going on that my crew noticed a flat tire from the famous flint that the flint hills are named from and while they changed a tire on one side of the car I was busy vomiting out the backseat door on the other side. After vomiting I curled back into the fetal position and hoped to start feeling better. Wasn’t happening. I finally became so frustrated that I sat up and asked for coffee with a packet of hot cocoa mixed in in hopes that it would stay down. I figured that it would either stay down and make me feel better, or it would come up, and I was pretty sure that I couldn’t feel any worse. To my surprise it stayed down and while not feeling much better I was determined to set off again and see what happened.
I knew that I had plenty of time to walk to the finish line if necessary. I started out walking and was able to begin running soon thereafter. The sugar in the cocoa and the caffeine in the coffee were doing their jobs and the legs felt good so I was able to run for awhile. This was however not long lived. I just had no fuel for the machine. Walking was still possible and I was able to keep up a good pace, but not able to eat much so I made the decision to walk it in to the Battle Creek aid station and try refueling with some more coffee and cocoa. I kept thinking I had managed to walk past the unmanned aid station without noticing it. There were chem lights marking the way and they were visible from in incredible distance, probably more so since I was not using a light source of any type. I was able to make out the road from the light of the moon and stars and was very comfortable running in the dark (in fact the only time I turned on my light during the entire race was inside of the porta-pottys). The chem lights seemed so bright that I kept thinking they had to be an aid station and the light was the dome of the tent. I was wrong. The only time I became really frustrated during the race and sort of lost my cool was when I had seen this chem light (aid station in my expectation) from a distance and knew I was closing in on it and then I crested a hill and it was only a chem light hung under a tree. I made an impolite hand gesture and grumbled a phrase not suitable for mixed company as I walked by without so much as a pause in step (fearing I would not be able to make myself begin moving again if I so much as paused) and then fanaticized about tearing it into little pieces and flinging the liquid center into the ditch line for a few minutes as I continued to walk. Here is where the promised death march reference comes in to play. Finally I reached the unmanned aid station.
It was at some point after the unmanned aid station that the nausea came back with a vengeance. I stopped in the road and began to vomit. I was doubled over and supporting myself with one hand so as not to topple over and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back, on top of my camelback nonetheless, looking up at the sky and it was full daylight. The last I remembered the sky was dark except for stars and there was no hint as to which area of the horizon would produce the sun. I had no idea how long I had been laying there. I stood up and tried to remember which direction I was going (here is where it would have been nice to have a pacer since they would know which direction I should head out in). Not a clue which way to go, so I pulled out the map, still no clue, so I decided to just pick a direction and started walking with a few running steps thrown in here and there. The legs felt good except for the fact that I just felt empty of energy. Once again, no fuel for the machine. I was able to continue taking in water in sips and did not feel that I had allowed myself to become dehydrated. Nothing to do but make my way to the next aid station and the finish line.
I was sure that I had to be nearing the aid station, had to be. This was not the case. I crested one of the hills and there were a couple of people coming in my direction. It was Yen and her husband/pacer Peter. I was never so happy to see anyone. It didn’t even occur to me that they were heading towards me, that we weren’t going in same direction. Peter very calmly and matter of factly (as best as I can remember, but keep in mind, here I was not even concerned that we were heading in different directions at this point in time) that if I was heading toward the finish line I might want to turn around and head in the other direction. Yeah, this sounded like a good idea and I took his advice. We walked and talked for a little bit (I told Peter that I had taken a nap and become disoriented so that he would not worry about me) and then I felt that I could run yet again and took off (more probably ambled off). I don’t think it was so much that I had energy at this point as the fact that I just wanted to reach the finish line and I really needed to pee and knew that a porta-potty was somewhere on the horizon. It still took about 45 minutes to reach the place where I had passed out, but how much farther could the aid station be? The rest of the time to the Battle Creek aid station was unremarkable and I was able to run and walk and run a little more. A bathroom can be quite a motivator.
I reached the Battle Creek aid station and was wonderfully taken care of by the aid station volunteers. I don’t think I could pick the angels that were there out of a line up if my life depended on it, but they are two (there could be more, but I remember a man and a woman) of my favorite people on the planet and I want them to know that if they ever need anything just contact me and I will be your huckleberry without hesitation or question. I think I was pretty dismissive in my behavior, but I was really zoning here, I even forgot to go to the potty (not such a bad thing in retrospect since it was quite the motivator for the rest of the race). There was a lounge chair in the center of the road with a blanket on it. I made a beeline for it and asked to be awakened in about 10 minutes. I accepted a cup of coffee, I may even have had them put cocoa in it, not sure, and lay down for a quick nap. When it was time to go they woke me and offered me pancakes or sausage. I quickly said “NO,” but then reconsidered and asked for one of each to take with me. This proved to be one of the best decisions I made during the entire race. I walked and munched and my energy began to come back. I was returning from the dead. I started walking a little faster and then to run longer and longer stretches. I began to see other runners in the distance and was able to close the gaps. Somewhere in the vicinity of the unmanned aid station I linked up with Sherry for a little and we chatted and laughed about scaring each other in the middle of the race when we both thought we were hallucinating each others presence. We passed what we thought was the last aid station and then saw a tent (mirage?). We asked each other if it was a tent, no it couldn’t be a tent, we were already past the last unmanned aid station and should be on the home stretch. Had I gone in the wrong direction yet again? We discussed the fact that it could belong to a farmer in the area, was that a generator we heard? Yes, it was a generator, and there was a tent and in the tent were people and food and coffee, blessed coffee. I asked for a cup of coffee and then noticed they had a can of cocoa (bless these people too). I had a cup of coffee with cocoa and was on my way. I started walking to let the liquid start getting into my system, then I was able to run. My pace picked up, I wanted the finish line and a bathroom. I knew that I had less than five miles to the finish (read bathroom).
The kind people at the aid station had pointed out to me that I could see the smoke stack that was directly over the finish line. I could see the finish line! I am on the home stretch! How far can it be now? Okay, it is a lot farther than it looks. You run and you see the smoke stack and it doesn’t seem to get any closer, sometimes it seems farther than it was before you crested the last hill. What is going on here? Surely my mind is playing tricks on me. The town must be littered with these things and I am sighting in on different ones each time I come up over a rise. Nope, it is the same one and it is getting closer, it just doesn’t appear that way. As you get closer you start to realize that you are now making 90 degree turns across a checkerboard towards this thing. It is only a few turns, but at the time it seems endless. I would excitedly begin running only to see the runners in the distance make a turn, then I would walk so as to be able to run across the finish line. I wanted to take the last corner and then run the remaining quarter of a mile or so (probably less, but I was not judging distance too well here).
Finally the last corner was turned and I was on the home stretch and I was running. I could see people at the finish line and they were ringing cow bells to call us home. It was a wonderful sight and sound. It was here, on that final straight stretch to the finish line, that I began to tear up and this overwhelming surge of emotion bloomed out of my chest and swept over me. I am not a person that cries easily or shows much emotion under most situations. I am very embarrassed to show emotion, I was (wrongly) raised with the misconception that tears and crying were signs of weakness, that emotions involving crying were not shown, and when I usually feel overly emotional my face becomes like a stone mask with jaw clenched and I quickly swallow the feeling and go cold and logical (much to the dismay of my wonderful husband). I quickly, out of habit, swallowed this emotion and made it to the finish line. In hindsight I really wish I had let myself continue to feel this emotion and revel in it. You only get one first 100 mile finish. Cry if you feel like it, laugh if you feel like it, do both loudly and proudly if you feel like it, and be proud of that accomplishment. I accepted my congratulations from the people around the finish line and greeted another runner that had come in from San Antonio to do the race then suddenly remembered the bathroom (must not have been that urgent after all if I could have forgotten about it so many times) and quickly made my way there.