Lumbering, I came out of the woods that marked the trailhead, followed the tree line past the playground, then made a 90 degree right turn right to a table and a big digital clock. The clock read 5:32:52 and beside that clock was Danny Miller, the Hawk Hundred Race director. Danny asked me how I felt. I mumbled something about much better than the half on the same trails the week before and accepted the medal he handed me and moved on past him to the area to sit down. I know he said something else to me, but it didn’t register. I found a way to a bench seat, and there, alone, I was overcome with emotion. This was last year and this was my first marathon. It was difficult, and the path was difficult and it all caught up with me and I was a bit choked up holding the medal, marathon finisher, in my hand. That was a high point. Unfortunately, things went downhill from there.
Fast forward a year and it was time to toe the line again. I had rebounded from a bad year and was feeling ready to change my fortunes. I was running with my buddy Josh and we were going to treat it as a long training run for FlatRock 50k in 2 weeks. Beyond that, things were all falling into place. Training had gone well, the weather was impeccable, it was time to chase my mojo.
I set my alarm for 5AM that morning which, of course, means I woke up at like 440AM. I quickly and silently got ready (I thought I was silent, but I always seem to make more noise when I am trying to be quiet then when it doesn’t really matter). I snuck out the door into the unseasonably cool air. For Kansas, in September, 37 degrees is about as rare as a free lunch or fast moving DMV line. The crisp air that morning was very welcome, but the fog is what made the day. There was a dense patch hanging over the river valley on my way to Lawrence as well as a dense patch sitting over Lake Clinton. I knew then, things were going to be fun. I got there, got parked, got checked in and found my buddy. We grabbed some breakfast and stood by the fire waiting for the ultrarunners to depart. At 630 they lined up and took off, headlamps dancing in the pre-dawn darkness. From our vantage point in the shelter area we could then turn around and see those same headlamps, dancing like fireflies, in the fog below us. It was really going to be an amazing day.
We were up next so I got my pack and everything and got ready. Soon it was time to get lined up and we slid into the middle with the intense determination to not go fast. Nah, actually we were watching the sun come up, looking at the ginormous dog that would be towing his owner through the marathon, and generally just hoping to keep the pace slow and steady. And with Danny’s call, we were off. Up the road and through the nature path we went, across the open field and back down into the trailhead we went to add the 1.2 miles we needed to make a marathon out of the 25 mile loop. Along the way Josh hit his head on a low lying branch in what would become a theme throughout the course, well, low lying branches was the theme thankfully not hitting our head. After we dove into the trail we almost immediately headed to Saunders Mound where we were treated to some of the coolest views of the lake and the dam shrouded in fog. Up and down we went then back into the trail.
Kansas isn’t the most scenic of states, we don’t have oceans or mountains or vistas that belong on postcards. We do have some gems though. To me at least, and I am writing this so my opinion wins, the Red Trail at Clinton is one of those gems. When you catch it at the right time as we did, you could stop and just take in the scenery. It is a rocky outcropping that runs right on the lake beach, slap some layers of fog, some cranes in the water, sun rising, you have stuff that pictures are made of. Unfortunately I suck at taking pictures and was kind of in the middle of a race, so I left the photo ops to the pros (Mile90) and kept on going. It was already becoming a special day.
Onward we went, continuously trading places with dog, and his owner. We were moving well, but not too fast, consistent I guess. We were running most of the time, walking the larger uphills, and generally swearing at the point rocks as appropriate. The day was getting warm enough that gloves and long sleeves weren’t necessary anymore so we were waiting to shed them at the next aid station. Through the branch hut we went and were on our way to Bunker hill to hit the aid station. As a side note, I LOVE the branch hut. It’s so random, a hut made out of large branches right there on-trail that you run through for no other reason than be there and probably house terror-spiders when it is really warm out. Well, on second thought that is probably why it is there, people trap. Alas, we weren’t dinner today, but I digress. Into the aid station we got.
I love this aid station. It has the best volunteer ever. She takes care of everyone without flinching, hugs all us sweaty folks, isn’t afraid of sweaty packs and gnarly clothing. However, if you are not paying attention to your nutrition or are loitering, she will tell you to get a d!@# move on. She’s the best. Out of West Edge we go, on to Bunker Hill and another one of the majestic Kansas views. Bunker hill is, shockingly enough, a hill. Who knew? However it is out in the open, outside of the trail, run through grassy field. As you weave your way up and down up and down again there is an amazing view of the lake behind you and this morning was no different. Also, Bunker hill has a bunker, because why name a feature Bunker Hill if it has neither. As you come down the hill, you see it, just right there, a door, leading to who knows what? It’s probably Narnia. Anyways, back to West Edge and another refill and a few snacks and onward we go back into the trail.
We were still feeling pretty good but this trail is back loaded and the hills and more angry pointy rocks awaited us, as well as the ever present huge dog dragging and his running mate. This part of the trail has a lot less interesting bits and requires a bit more determination. We kept going and going and going and started slowing down. This is where we needed to remember that this was still training and not a race for us. We did, we walked when necessary, spirits were good, we passed stairs that we have to run up when we did North Shore last year (I hate those stairs to this day). We passed the spot where I fell last year (and had a conversation about no one being around to see falls and getting back up?). We starting ticking off locations that I knew were drawing us closer to finish line. It was here I started to A) hurt more and B) smile more, at least internally. We were getting close and this just made me happy.
About 3 miles out I started walking. I was definitely feeling it and didn’t really want to strain too much as this we still all about being ready for Flatrock, however, we took it in stride and kept on talking and being in generally good mood, how could we not be? We got passed by the big dog for the last time and a few others came by. We came up on the road that we skirt by and talked to the volunteers there for a second who loved the OrangeMud packs and loved our VP2 vest (shameless plug). We were a mile away or so at that point, getting closer to the end. We got passed by the big dog for the last time, which meant it was about time to run it in. We got moving again, and surprisingly a lot of my hurt had went away. I am not sure if it was just the walk or being so close to the end or what but it felt good to run again.
Lumbering, we came out of the woods, followed the tree line by the playground, took a right turn and ran right up to the table and digital clock. There, Danny was waiting, medals in hand, asking us how we felt. This time I said something about the wonderful weather, he remarked it was better than last year and I agreed. I moved past and eyed the food hungrily. This year it was not a teary moment, not a moment for self-reflection. It was… a victory. I finished, did what I needed to do, and got my mojo back. It felt amazing, but more so it felt like I was ready for more. I didn’t run the race any faster (or really any slower) than last year but I felt so much better. After a quick burger and some fruit it was time to go home and play with the kids. That was it, the most beautiful of training runs, it was an amazing day that will hopefully lead to another in Independence.
P.S. - The AMAZING photographers at Mile90 took all these awesome pics. Check them out, they are awesome people and take the best race pics in my opinion and experience.
P.P.S - Massive thanks to all the people who helped make the race awesome. The Lawrence Trail Hawks for being awesome hosts, all the phenomenal volunteers taking care of the sweaty folk coming through, Orange Mud for keeping me hydrated, Skora for keeping me moving forward, Injinji for keeping my toes happy, Tailwind for making hydration easy and tasty, Honey Stinger Waffles for being delicious, and BioSkin for the recovery.