By Thomas “T.O.” Okazaki
Heartland: Oct. 13, 2007, Cassoday, KS
Palo Duro: Oct. 20, 2007, Palo Duro Canyon S.P., TX
“I’m a thousand miles from nowhere, time don’t matter to me, I’m a thousand miles from nowhere, there’s no place I rather be…..”Country Singing Star, Dwight Yoakam
The rolling hills of vast expanse, Kansas prairie grass stretched as far as the eyes could see. A thunderstorm rumbles in the distance, it’s menacing dark clouds slowly advancing over the skies above. Suddenly a lightning bolt strikes the ground about a mile to the south!
It’s mile 29 at the Heartland 50 miler and I’m digging as hard as I can down a lonely, crushed gravel country road to get back to the next aid station where I had left my rain jacket only an hour before. The weather can change quickly here. No trees in sight, so not much protection from lightning.
Suddenly I feel the heavy rain drench my tech shirts. I hear the loud crack of lightning above and immediately crouch as low as I can to the ground………welcome back in Kansas, T.O.!!!!
Not much has change in Cassoday, KS, pop. 99 and “home of the Cassoday Prairie Chicken” since I had ran here a year ago to attempt my first 100 miler. This time, I thought it would be fun to try running back-to-back 50 milers on consecutive weekends. The first would be here in Kansas and the next would be in Palo Duro Canyon, near Amarillo, TX.
I almost didn’t make it to the starting line. About a week before Heartland, I smashed my little toe badly against some furniture at home. Thought I had really broken or torn something in my foot this time, since it was healing so slowly.
After the pre race meal, I drove out about a mile onto the gravel course and tried on several different shoes to see what would work best for 50 miles. Much to my dismay, the toe still hurt too much to run in my regular Montrail Hardrock trail shoes. So I tried on my regular marathon road shoes instead and the Mizuno Wave Creations felt much better. I had never used road shoes to run in a trail race before. The only modification I made was to put on a pair of gaiters.
I camped in my car overnight at the starting line in a grassy field, which felt great to walk on with bare feet and waited for the 6 a.m. start.
The 50 miler is an out an back course that meanders thru the Flint Hills of Kansas, which is some of the last remaining tall grass prairie lands in the United States that once covered over 400,000 square miles of North America, stretching from Ohio to the Rocky Mountains and from Texas to Canada. Today less than one per cent remains and most of it is in this area.
Once great herds of Buffalo, up to one million heads roamed these hills until they were nearly hunted to extinction.
This is ideal event for anyone wanting to run their first 50 miler. The rolling course is mostly of crushed gravel road, well marked, and offers a very generous 14 hour cutoff time.
The run started in the dark and we ran for about an hour before sunrise. It had grown colder overnight, so I put on two Rockedge Rumble shirts for good luck. The manned aid stations were about 8 miles apart, with the unmanned ones filling in the 4 mile gaps in between.
It was mostly overcast that day, so that really help to keep the temperatures down. The rain from the noon thunderstorm made the roads softer and easier on my injured toe. I started out conservatively, and the even pacing paid off later. I was only passed by two other runners the entire race and finished up a little over 11 hours at the end of the day.
The winds always seem to be blowing here. Even at 60F I started to get the shakes as I am pumping gas at a rest stop on the way home, after the race. Perhaps still being dehydrated from the race, the body has difficulty regulating it’s core temperature.
Both of my feet swelled up the next several days after the race, but that was to be expected. Other than that, I was moving around surprisingly well.
The Palo Duro 50 Miler, takes place in the 2nd largest canyon in the United States, after the Grand Canyon, and would prove to be a more difficult challenge. Not only was the course a little more rugged and uneven, you only had 12 hours to complete the entire course and a 4:30 p.m. cutoff before heading out on the 4th 12.5 mile loop.
I was lucky both Marty and Tia Metzger had arrived early to reserve a campsite. It was a clear night, before the race, in the canyon. The stars filled the skies above, as numerous as the sands on the shores by the sea. The winds kept gusting thru the night though, popping the canvas of the tent. It was difficult to fall asleep for very long. Not a good way to rest up for a 2nd 50 miler!
The start of Palo Duro was changed, this year from the Hackberry to the Juniper Campsite, a further drive into the canyon. This only affected the 50K course. The 50 miler still ran the same four 12.5 mile loops around the canyon.
A heavy storm had created some flooding and muddy conditions on some parts of the course, but nothing too difficult to run around.
The first laps went very well, and I completed that section in 2 ½ hours, but I started to run into trouble on the second. The weather in the morning was pristine and almost perfect for running. But those running the shorter 20K course were long finished by the time the temperature started soaring into the low 90s by mid-afternoon.
The race had started at 7 a.m. and it was a little after 1 p.m.when I reached the halfway mark. I still had 3 ½ hours to make the 4:30 p.m. cutoff, but I wasn’t feeling good at all. This next loop would either make or break this run.
I decided to strip down as much as possible because of the heat and carry and an extra bottle of fluids. After slamming down several bottles of Mountain Dew, I was off again. Ran well for a couple of miles but started to feel bad again.
The winds in the canyon were picking up now. I was told the walls of the canyon radiate the heat so it becomes much hotter down inside. At 95F, some of the runners were deciding to drop out.
There seemed to be more mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders on the trails in the afternoon. Even saw my very first snake up close and personal, coiled up next to trail, along the way! These all helped to slow my progress even more, not that I was moving that fast at that point, anymore, anyway.
As I approached the Hackberry Aid Station at about mile 32, I saw an 80 year old man being helped off the trail by two volunteers. Apparently he had become dehydrated and had collapse twice, falling hard on the rocks and bloodied his face. I found out later, that this gentleman was the legendary Beachum Tollar, the oldest runner on the course this year!
I decided then, it was probably wiser to go ahead and call it a day. With less than 30 minutes left and 5.5 miles to go, I wouldn’t be able to make the 4:30 p.m. cut off anyway. There will be other races to run and I had felt I had gotten my money’s worth running over a 50K on one of the more spectacular trails in Texas. I was doing the Marine Corp Marathon the following weekend, so this made an interesting taper of a 50 miler, 50K and then a marathon. See you all on the trails!