Trail and ultra running club in the North Texas and greater Dallas / Ft. Worth areas

Heartland 50M

by Ryan Skains

October 13, 2012

It's 5:15PM and my training partner for the past few years and current crew, Andy Van Y and I are sitting in the Jeep Wrangler rental in the parking lot witnessing a torrential downpour. The weather has called for severe thunderstorms, potential hail and high winds for the first few hours of the race. Little did we know the worst was to come in the final hours of the race.

I'm nervous. I'm unsure of my training. I'm scared I won't finish this thing but we've come to far at this point. The timer reads 6:00PM and off we go. It's raining extremely hard and the wind is sustained at around 30mph at this point. Worst of all is the rain jacket. The temperature is around 73 degrees so the jacket is getting really hot even in the beginning. We turn slightly onto a highway for about 1/2 mile before reaching the trail on the left.

I settle into a good and comfortable pace and the course rolls gently through the prairie of Eastern Kansas. There are three distinct groups at this point but I have chosen to listen to some music and take on the run by myself for awhile. Even in the early miles of the race you automatically get the sense that the courses hills will begin to take a toll at some point.

Mile 8.6 and the Battle Creek aid station. Great group of individuals that were truly inspirational. I ate two PB&J's, refilled the reservoir and off I went. It is completely dark now, the rain has stopped and my first set of problems presented themselves very shortly after leaving Battle Creek.

The toughest section of the course are miles 8-12 outgoing and 38-42 incoming. And that's in good conditions. The massive amount of rain had coated the trail in a 1/2 inch layer of clay and gravel. The hilliest portion of the entire course had now a new challenge. Over the next 4 miles we not only had to battle 8-10 of the toughest climbs on the course but we'd also have to stop at several points to clear the clay and rocks from our shoe soles. I spent the same amount of time on this 4 mile section as I did on the previous 8.6.

The mud remained for another hour or so and the course returned to it's normal rolling hills manner. I ran with two gentlemen for about 30 minutes or so. Great guys, Clay from Ennis, TX and Caleb from Wichita, KS. We pulled into the Lapland aid station at mile 17 around 10:00PM.

At this point, my body felt great, my feet were in good shape and my confidence was growing. That did not last long. Around mile 20 something happened that I have never experienced personally but have heard about in a hundred different ultra stories. I had contracted a case of the running sleeps! I physically could not keep my eyes open! It was the second worst thing that I would have to contend with throughout the night. I can only explain it by comparing it to the feeling you have when you're on a long drive and can't stay awake. Nothing you can do but pull over. But in this case I wouldn't let myself. I was far too afraid that lying down for a few minutes on the side of the trail would turn into an hour long nap. So, I kept putting one foot in front of the other.

I make it through the "sleepies" and put in 2 more hours before I hit Teterville and the 25m turn around. It's 12:00AM. I've never been so happy to see Andy in my life. My hips and my right knee were already aching, my mental status was OK at best and I needed calories that my body did not want. Andy got me to the jeep where I changed shorts, shirt, socks and shoes. Andy got me fitted with a new head light as well. I drank a Coca Cola, a Red Bull, an Ensure Protein drink and ate a few more PB&J sandwiches. I was in and out of the turn around in about 15 minutes and back onto the trail.

The sky has cleared and I am fairly certain I've never seen more stars in the sky in my life. Even as a kid. Every single of one them looked close enough to touch. The temperature had dropped into the low to mid-60's and the wind had picked up to 30-35 mph. The course continued it's relentless up and down, rolling motion with no flat stretches that I can remeber over the entire course. I had no idea at this point that things were about to get much worse and much better all at the same point.

All night long you could see what looked like stars moving every so slowly across the horizon in front of you and behind you. The head lights of other runners were often the only things that you witnessed for hours on end. Up ahead, maybe 3-400 yards I saw one of those head lights weaving back and forth from one side of the trail to another. Roughly 10-15 minutes later I had caught up to the gentleman and he was not in such good shape. His name was Vincent Swendsen. He was sleep running at mile 79 of his 10th Heartland 100 Mile race. I asked him how he was and he quicly admitted that he wasn't doing so good. I was able to get him to eat a handful of chocolate covered espresso beans and get some additional fluids in him and off we went. We began chatting a little and the conversation helped both of us tremendously. For only the second time in the race, I took my ear buds out and draped them across the back of my neck. Little did I know they would never go back in.

The second trip through the Lapland aid station was not as easy as the first. It's 2:30AM and I've been running for 8hrs andn 30 mins which is an hour longer than I've ever run. My mind starts to play some tricks and I realize that I have over 17 miles yet to go. My feet are in really bad shape at this point. I made a huge mistake at Teterville by changing from Injinji socks over to Dry Max and my feet and toes had paid the price. The nurse at the aid station counts 7 blisters. We spend some time taking care of those, eating, drinking, resting and getting mentally prepared to finish the race.

I mentioned earlier that the sleepiness was the second worst thing that I would face. The wind was the worst. After Vinny and I left the aid station on our way to Battle Creek, the wind picked up yet again. Now sustained at 30-35mph wth gusts upwards of 50mph according to www.weatherchannel.com that we witnessed later. It was relentless. Vinny and I moved forward for the next 2 and 1/2 hours running a quarter mile as fast as we could and walking a quarter mile as fast as we could passing back throught the hilliest section of the course and pulling into Battle Creek at 4:30AM feeling like I was never going to make it. I did not want to leave that aid station. I did everything I could to battle my mind that was telling me to just lie down and go to sleep. I thought of everything I could think of. Andy in the IronMan Texas, Vinny who had 50 miles on top of what I had just done, documentaries about amazing feats of endurance and finally, my boys. Rory and Aidan are the most important things in my life. My wife Brandi and I tell them often that when they start something, they finish it. Plain and simple. End of story. And that is what I had to do. So, after lots of food and lots of drink, we left again into the darkness for the final push.

Vinny and I battled the wind, the mud, the hills and our minds over the next 8.5 miles. We didn't talk much other than to motivate, say when to run and say when to walk but we understood what each other was going through as clear as I've ever understood anything. We finished at 7:11AM on Sunday morning. Beaten. Hurting. Proud. Finishers.

Thank you Tony and Kyle for putting on one of the greatest races I've every been a part of. Top notch. First class around every detail.

I also can't thank Andy Van Y and Vinny Swendsen enough for the part that they played in this race. The volunteers at the aid stations were also unbeleivable throughout the night. Brandi, Rory and Aidan for understading the hours of training and time away that it took to even try it. It is the hardest thing I've ever done and I am proud to say that I accomplished this goal in my life.

Ryan Skains Ryan Skains Ryan Skains Ryan Skains

Updated: November 29, 2012 @ 15:46 EST