Saturday, April 30, 2011

Free State Trail Runs Ultra-Marathon: Hell or 100K

In my case, the 5th annual Free State Trail Race began the night following the 4th annual Free State Trail Race. I was staring at a moving ceiling in a hotel room, bleeding in places that I didn’t even know existed and feeling sicker than I ever had before. 100K, the next step on the way to running 100 mile races had turned into a wall and a setback.  I had dropped 10 ½ hours in. Although officially listed as a 40-mile finisher, it was my first Did Not Finish (DNF) for any distance. I went into the race with an upper respiratory infection and left so sick that I didn’t run again for nearly a month. Dejected and broken, I thought “maybe 50k is my distance”.  But, common to most ultra runners, time heals and we forget those types of thoughts…or we use them as fuel and try it again.

In the three months leading up to this year’s Free State; I had averaged 60 miles per week, had notched my first 50 mile race (Colleen’s Frozen Fat Ass), and had PR’d at the Psycho Wyco 50k. I was confident but still had Free State failures in the back of my mind. Trail Nerd founder and Race Director Ben Holmes along with Kyle Amos created the race in 2007 to serve as an in-between distance event as well as to show off the impressive Clinton Lake North Shore trails. A technical but mostly run-able course, the North Shore is an ideal local venue to step up in distance from 50k to 40 mile races to 100k and then on to 100’s.  But free state demons come in many forms over the last couple of years; getting off course, tornados, Kansas’ spring storms, hidden tree roots, and of course last years DNF.

While my nerves were a wreck the week of the race, I was surprisingly relaxed at 6am as I milled around the starting line chatting with friends and stretching. After a few words from Co-RD’s Ben and Sophia, we were off. Finally, nothing left to do but run…all day.

1st Loop (miles 1 to 20.7)
I went out nice and slow by necessity. The North Shore trails are “true” single track so passing isn’t easy. For the first mile I just tried to be content in the conga line. I’m notorious for going out too fast too early in races so the forced pacing was a good thing.  Around mile two I fell in with a runner who was slowly passing people while offering some good conversation so I matched his pace and stayed with him through Cactus Ridge finally letting him go as we hit the Swim Beach. I learned later this was Farhad Zarif, a really strong runner. He was cruising and when he said his goal was a 12-hour 100k, I knew I had to cool my jets.

I hit the rugged and rocky Shoreline Red Trail and ran pretty much the entire portion, “no way was this gonna happen on loops two and three”, I thought. Next was a short climb up to the Land’s End aid station where I caught up and passed with a large group of runners. My usual ultra-race strategy is to run self-supported which helps cut time (aid stations can eat up a clock!); still, it was a 100k so today I would use “every other” aid station. 

I made it out to the Corps of Engineers aid station feeling really good and ready for the nine miles or so back to the start/finish area on the more rugged “white trail”.  The course is sort of an out and back loop. Out on the blue and red trails and then back on white. Blue hugs the lake, tracing the shore while the white trail climbs up into the little valleys and outlets. White is typically higher above the lake level than blue and red so it’s got more elevation gain and loss. Red is a nearly un-runnable section covered in eroding shoreline and huge rocks and ankle twisting talus.

Somewhere between mile 14 and mile 16 a runner passed me who was wearing a red Marine Corps KC running club T-shirt. “Hey…I’ve got a couple of those”, I yelled. Turns out it was Gunny Robert Stewart! He hadn’t recognized me with the beard I had started growing after getting off active duty. He and 15 or so other Marines were running the Half-marathon. I ran with him for a while chatting about old times before he picked up the pace and moved on. I wanted to stay with him but since I still had 46 more miles to go I wished him luck on his race and watched him run off into the woods.

About that same time, Alec Barowka, a young runner from De Soto, Ks caught up to me and then matched my pace (after we leapfrogged for a couple miles). He was attempting his first 100k and this was also his first trail race. A few miles later we picked up Jarad Cruse, (a runner from Basehor, Ks). The three of us would run the next 20 miles together. Both guys were strong runners and we all kept each other moving. 

Mile 20.7, first loop in the books in 3hrs 55min, not bad for this trail (my best ever on this course in training was 3:45).

2nd Loop (miles 20.8 to 41.4)
Five minutes with the drop bag refilling Gatorade and Gels and I was ready to go. Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant Jeff Schertz hit the finish line of the half marathon so I stopped to congratulate him and then it was back on the trail!

OK, in order to make the cut-offs, a runner has to be leaving the main area for their third loop by 5:15 pm.  So, even though I was ahead of my schedule, I wanted to make sure not to slow down on the second loop too much. To that end I ran with an Ipod (in one ear only), which I never do. It worked. There’s nothing like some Enter Shikari to keep you running. Alec and Jarad we’re still with me and we hauled ass until we hit Cactus Ridge when we all decided to back off a little to keep from burning out.

The red shoreline..again. This time we hiked a good portion of it as our legs were starting to fatigue and my tendinitis suffering left Achilles was really aching.

I left land’s end feeling strong and picked up the pace for a mile or so. I still felt decent as we hit the Corps of Engineers area and ran into Graham Fox. I picked up the pace a little after giving him a primal yell. It was Graham’s first 40-mile race and he was running strong.

Around mile 38 I felt really good and picked up the pace to finish the 2nd loop  8:59:00 into the race. My 40 mile goal going into the race was 9 to 9 ½ hours . I was feeling great mentally. Last year I hit 40 at 10 ½ hours and then dropped. The thought of dropping hadn’t even crossed my mind all day.

3rd Loop (miles 41.5 to 62)
Jarad and I moved consistently, if slower, towards cactus ridge. Alec had dropped at 40 due to a hip problem. He had hung in there with our pace and 40 miles for his first trail run was pretty damn impressive. I think he’s got a bright future in the sport.

At mile 43, I had to “mark some territory”, Jarad kept moving and I never saw him again. He found some wind and ended up finishing about 15 minutes ahead of me. He also ran a heck of a race, fighting through some knee pain due to ITB issues.

The rugged Red shore trail destroyed my legs and aggravated the Achilles. Things were starting to seize up! I took some S-Caps at Land’s End hoping to get the neurons firing again. At this point I just wasn’t moving very fast and my body was starting to disobey orders from my brain. The bonk was threatening to hit. This was supposed to be a trail run, not a trail hike.

Corps of Engineers, nine miles to go! I was in the midst of a “death march” and was starting to get “the lean” and for the first time that day, the negative thoughts were creeping in. As I left the aid station the enormity of what I was doing hit me and I started to not care about how strong I finished. I knew that I could finish but was just feeling awful. I could hike the whole nine miles…who cares!

At eight miles to go it suddenly became very clear. It became a choice. Sustain a death march over nine miles and then just be glad I was done or get my ass moving and earn a damn buckle. 

So after a mile worth of heated argument with myself, I decided to get my ass moving.  Of course, moving is a relative term (my pacing had to be 16 or 17 minute miles). It might have actually been faster to just hike but mentally, I had to run this one in!  I was going to finish in time for a buckle or they were going to have to drag my dead carcass off the course…hell or 100k!

The sun had also gone down about six or seven miles from the finish. This can be the toughest part of any ultra. You’ve already ran a boat load of miles and your body is starting to shut down, the temperature drops, and it gets really dark and lonely on a trail (not to mention the technical terrain gets difficult to run over).  This race was turning into the toughest physical thing I’d ever done.  Besides the obvious fatigue; my tendinitis was killing my left ankle, I had cuts on both Achilles from my shoes, chaffing in places I won’t even talk about, and I had lost the toenail off my right big toe.  I thought of all the training, all the people who’ve supported my running, how far I’d come since last year’s race, my family, my kids, and a million other things and was able to get my legs running again (somewhat!).

I got passed by a couple of runners in the last three miles whose “running” pace was a little faster than mine. This was strange for me, in the 50k’s I’ve ran, I’m the one making late surges in those final miles. But at that point I didn’t care, I was running and still in the fight.

The trail exit to the finish line surprised me and I made the final climb up the gravel road to see Ben, Sophia , Mark Van Nuland, and a couple other Trail Nerds cheering me in and just like that it was over. 15 hours and some change. Not a bad day’s work. A little bit of hell, but finally, a 100k finish.

Huge thanks to Ben Holmes and Sophia Wharton, who continue to be the Race Directing benchmark to which I compare all others! The things they’ve done for the KC trail scene are immeasurable and they’ve helped hundreds of runners push beyond boundaries unimaginable!
Eternal gratitude to the KC Trail Nerds and other volunteers who make these events happen and always seem to know what runners needs are before the runners even know!  Big time thanks to Dick Ross of for all of the pictures. I know he gets paid by the RD’s but I think he just goes above and beyond every time. How many races can you get unlimited free photos?!! Awesome! Big respect to Jarad and Alec, you guys ran strong and kept me moving fast, we crushed the cutoffs! Finally, much love my kids, Alyena and Ayden who sacrificed a good chunk of their Easter weekend so daddy could chase demons around Clinton Lake. And as always, love and thanks to my wife Jessica who continues to put up with the aftermath of the regular havoc I wreck on my body as well as all of the training miles and dietary obsessions that infiltrate our life.   

Some thoughts in retrospect:

I think I want to run another 100k before I take a stab at 100 miles. Just like my 50k and 40 miles distances; I know I can get faster and more efficient. 2012 will be my first 100 miler attempt. Got a number of candidates (Heartland, Rocky Racoon, Ozark Trail, Lean Horse, Javelina, hmmm). Gotta get faster!

Anyway, thanks for reading and we’ll see you out on the Trails!

                                              Feelin good at 40 miles!


  1. Great job! You really toughed it out.
    Larry Long

  2. Fantastic job Jay!! Congrats on conquering those demons and gutting it out!

  3. Great report Jay! Way to kick ass, great to see you out there, gave me a boost as well!

  4. Jay - congratulations on a great accomplishment! I'm still in awe - watching you and others coming out of the woods after a full day on the trail. Very cool - 100 miler here you come!!!!

    Mark Van Nuland