Sometimes after hearing rumors for long enough, you have to go investigate and find out for yourself.
I suppose that’s what brought me to the starting line of the Rockin’ K Trail Marathon on Saturday at Kanopolis State Park in Marquette, Kansas.
For more than a year, friends and Rockin’ K veterans have raved about this race. They boasted of the course’s difficulty and beauty, but mostly they proclaimed the genuine care of the race organizers, Stacy and Phil Sheridan, and the wonderful volunteers.
The award for finishing is a horseshoe with an engraving affixed to it, but the greatest prize was the highly touted finish-line hugs from Stacy. There’s nothing better, other runners told me.
Only one way to find out …
I was anxious for most of the drive from the hotel in Salina to the park on Saturday morning. For one thing, it rained heavily for part of the drive. Would it be raining for the first part of the race? What effect would that have on the course?
The greater concern, however, was my energy. I felt good, and that was the case for the week leading up to the race, but in the nearly two months since running the 50K at WyCo I’d constantly battled low energy. Sometimes I could run 12 miles and feel fine. Other times, I’d feel my body power down after only two. I needed this to be a good day.
The rain cleared about an hour before race time, and the course conditions were perfect. My energy levels didn’t cooperate, however.
To be fair, at least some — of not all — of the reason why was my own doing.
I started too fast, and ultimately paid the price for it.
I planned to start with some of the 50-mile runners with the assumption that they’d run a more moderate pace since they had 24 extra miles to run. I was excited, and my legs felt good. As a result, some of the 50-mile folks I started with happened to be among the fastest in the race. I figured that out four or five miles in when I realized that Stu Johnson — an eventual top-five finisher — was next to me.
I tried to adjust my pace accordingly and slow down to a more reasonable pace, but it was too late. About five miles in, I felt my energy reserves drop. Despite taking two salt caplets per hour, eating fairly well, and hydrating at a rate that I thought was sufficient, the body never recovered.
I plodded through the next eight miles, up and down bluffs, through open fields and across creeks, and trotted into the manned aid station at Gate 6 (13.24 miles) in about 2:27. On a normal course, that pace might be fine. At Rockin’ K, it was irresponsible.
Shortly after departing Gate 6, my stomach began acting up. In addition, a bathroom break had to be delayed for at least a mile before the trail turned from open field into a somewhat wooded area.
The steepest bluff climbs followed soon after. That marked the last well-shaded spot for the final 10 miles. As fatigued and sore as my legs were from the fast start and wet shoes caused by the early water crossings, my love of photography only made matters worse. Aid station workers know to not let runners linger long or else their muscles will tighten up. The same is true when you stop to take too many photos on a scenic course. The legs are slow to respond when you head on down the trail.
About 50 percent of the second half of the race was a hike. My body simply wasn’t feeling it. I thought I’d hydrated well during the first half of the race, but the reality was that it wasn’t enough. My hunch is that the strong winds that kept my body feeling cool made my lowered hydration levels deceiving. I downed a full two liters of water from my hydrapack during the final 13 miles, but that wasn’t enough on a day where I’m running through the Kansas prairie and there’s not enough cloud protection in the sky.
The only bits of relief during the final eight miles are that there are a number of downhill and flat sections, as well as two river crossings to cool the legs before making the final push to the finish line.
Oh yes, the finish line. What a wonderful sight after 26-plus grueling miles. Not many runners who are signed up for the 50-mile race actually venture back out for their second loop. The belief is that the smorgasbord of food and cold beverages tempts runners to drop to the marathon distance and stick around instead of heading back out for more. I’m guessing the difficulty of the first loop also has something to do with it.
One thing I know for certain is that my legs didn’t want any more. My left calf repeatedly tried to cramp during the final mile. Finally, it reached the road and made the final quarter-mile slog first downhill and then back up to the finish line, which I crossed in 5:43.
My finisher’s horseshoe was waiting for me, and so was that famous Stacy Sheridan hug. It was worth every painful step, and honestly, if my body were sufficiently hydrated I probably would’ve cried. Everything hurt so bad, but it felt so good to be done.
I didn’t run a very smart race, and this was the first course ever — including high school cross country races — that beat me mentally. Still, I made it to the finish line and am mighty proud of that.
Also, I can’t wait to go back next year and do it all over again.