Rockin’ K is a mean, nasty trail race. It’s Kansas at its cruelest.
Race it smart, and it’ll leave your legs feeling trashed. Race it dumb, and it’ll chew you up, spit you out, and leave you for the turkey buzzards to feast upon.
There’s no middle ground at this Kansas classic. The open, fully exposed prairie of the heartland’s Smoky Hills is absolutely unforgiving with its steep sandstone bluffs; frigid waist-deep water crossings; sharp, wild prairie brush that slices and stabs the skin; sand; constant exposure to sun; and a relentless headwind that seems to follow no matter which direction you’re headed.
Two years ago, I ran the Rockin’ K marathon for the first time. I ran it dumb, delivering self-inflicted damage from almost the moment I woke up on race day, forgetting to apply sunscreen, starting way too fast while neglecting to hydrate during the first hour, wearing Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes with OutDry – a GoreTex-type of waterproof coating that was designed to keep water out … but also didn’t allow water to drain from any of the dozen water crossings. The course broke me mentally in 2012, and by the time I finished the race I was sunburned to the point my skin had blistered, my calves were cramping, and I was angry with myself. It had been a long and miserable 5:43:39.
When I signed up for Rockin’ K this year I was determined to have a much different showing. I was determined to run it smart, knowing full well the consequences of doing otherwise.
On Saturday at Kanopolis State Park, I had my redemption run.
We were blessed with perfect weather on race day: morning temperatures around 32 degrees with an afternoon high in the low 60s; winds reaching only about 20 MPH (gentle by Rockin’ K standards); and a few of the early water crossings were dry.
I prepared appropriately with a good breakfast, an early application of sunscreen, and a small bottle of Pedialyte in my hydration pack to help support sustained hydration alongside a liter and a half of water with two Nuun tablets.
I started nice and easy during the first half-mile on pavement, intentionally holding myself back a bit until we bailed off the road and onto the trail. I maintained the easy pace, scooting around a few other runners, and worked my way up to where Larry Long and Sherrie Klover – my weekend long-run buddies (and Rockin’ K 50-milers) – were running together. I settled into a steady rhythm behind Sherrie, determined to stick to her disciplined pace and ignore my urge to go faster. There would be time to push it later – assuming my legs would allow it.
Larry, Sherrie and I ticked off the early miles with a comfortable 10:30 pace, chatting away and admiring the scenery as the run rose across the prairie. The lone glitch in my day came 8.3 miles into the race when, moments after spotting a few deer bounding down from a high bluff, my distracted eyes failed to spot a hole that I stepped in. I turned my right ankle hard, not enough for a sprain, but enough that pain shot through my foot. Whether running or hiking, I could feel it tightening up quickly. I had to get moving if the ankle was going to loosen out and let me finish, so I picked up the pace for three solo miles before catching up to 50-miler and Rockin’ K veteran Stu Johnson. We arrived at the Gate 6 aid station (mile 13.24) in about 2:27, right on pace where I’d been two years ago, but feeling much better this time. I slammed a cup of Coke, and then Stu and I headed out for the Big Bluff Loop, a nasty five-mile loop featuring two steep climbs, lots of sharp, prickly, blood-drawing brush, and a scamper across a beaver dam. We stuck together until around mile 15 when my legs were ready to take off. I zipped up and down the bluff a bit faster than I probably should have, and then popped back out into the open prairie and worked my way back to Gate 6 (approx. mile 18.6). Co-Race Director Elden Galano refilled my hydration pack while I refilled my Pedialyte from my drop bag. About three minutes later, I headed back out for the final 8 1/2 miles.
Less than a mile out of the aid station, the effects of the Big Bluff Loop set in on my legs. They felt like bricks. I thought my calves wanted to cramp. I considered hiking for a bit, but then opted against it. I downed some more Pedialyte, re-applied some sunscreen and decided to push the legs until they cramped, and then I’d hike it in to the finish line if necessary. We’d find out how long my legs would hold up.
Outside of brief hiking breaks on occasional hills, I ran the rest of the way. My legs constantly felt on the edge, but they let me settle into around an 11:20 pace and hold it. My back-to-back weekend long runs during training paid off. Each time I crested a hill or scaled another fence I had flashbacks to 2012 and where I’d been mentally at that point on the course. I found myself laughing at the difference two years and a little bit of early discipline had made.
The two ice-cold, waist-deep pond crossings numbed up the soreness in my toes and calves enough for me to make the final push to the finish line, and I was able to kick it up the hill to the finish line with a smile on my face.
My time of 5:12:16 in the 27.2-mile heavy marathon was good enough for 11th-place male (12th overall) and about 32 minutes faster than in 2012 as I collected my second Rockin’ K finisher’s horseshoe and another finish-line hug from race co-founder Stacy Sheridan.
Rockin’ K served as my final long training day to prepare for my longest race ever, the FlatRock 101K on April 26 in Independence, Kansas. My legs and right ankle are pretty beat-up from Rockin’ K – which was to be expected – so they’re getting an easy week for recovery before hitting the trail hard again.
I’m feeling optimistic about FlatRock for a number of reasons, among them being my encouraging run at Rockin’ K and the fact that Alex will be in town from Boston to look after me and run the second half of the race with me. After that, I’m looking forward to easing back on mileage a bit, pacing Alex at her 100-miler, and hitting some hiking trails in Colorado.