I’ve lived just shy of 71 years, and for nearly 40 years I’ve been involved in the sport of ultrarunning. I’ve seen events come and go, as well as hundreds of runners find and leave the sport. There’s little I haven’t seen or experienced during this period of time, and I’d like to think that I have a pretty firm grip on what or what not to expect. But in the COVID-riddled world of 2020 where the kibosh seems to have been put on almost every aspect of what we’ve come to expect as a normal, the ultrarunning community has been affected like other facets of life.
Most ultrarunning racing events were either canceled or postponed, leaving runners with no place to showcase their training and abilities. I’ve known races in the past to be canceled or postponed because of fires, floods, race supplies being stolen or race directors absconding with the proceeds, but never the entire season as a whole, being more or less shut down. To add to this mix, I lost my favorite sister, Gwen, to complications of the dreaded COVID virus, so I wasn’t feeling at all good about 2020. Melancholy. It’s a hell of a word with a sound that is suspect and an even worse feeling if you happen to be beset with the state of being.
But a sense of melancholy is exactly what I was feeling when I finally decided to try and enter the Heartland 100 yet again this year. My home state of California, along with the states of Oregon and Washington, were ablaze and the air quality was atrocious. I’d only seen a handful of very personal friends all year long and was growing desperate for a change of mind, scenery and personal interaction. There were a few races that provided runners with an escape mechanism of sorts from all the sheltering in place and social distancing. The question begged, would those few events be safe or even held? The Heartland 100 was poised to be one of those bright spots. So, after some communication with the race director, I decided to load up a car and drive East. The challenge and magic of the Heartland 100 was to be a welcomed respite from all of the upheavals, and provide a weekend of freedom from one’s thoughts, other than on pandemic-related situations.
Let me start by saying how much I really like the race director, Elden Galano, his wife Karen, their dog Eddie, and their amazing core of volunteers. Before going a little more in depth about the event itself, let me also state for the record that this year’s pandemic rendering of the race was my third attempt at their 100-miler, and I DNF’d yet again. Zero for three, and I’m still enamored with the event. I attribute my attraction to the race, it’s host and supporters, the intimate old school feel, small size and their approach to race organization.
They have a distance for runners of every strife, and on the second weekend each October, this event takes flight. This year, along with the 100-miler, there was a marathon, 50-miler, 100k and 125-miler, with the 125-mile distance being new to the menu for those who didn’t think that 100 miles of rolling Kansas hills weren’t enough. The down-home, “aw shucks” attitude and feel of the race takes me back to my heyday in the sport of ultrarunning when events were few in availability and relatively small in the way of participants. Most were intimate enough that almost everyone could meet everyone else, if you were so inclined. It was a time when the volunteers working the aid station took care of you as though you were a family member or personal friend, encouraging and urging you, doing everything within their power to help. Knowing also when it was time to back off, shut up, get out of the way and leave the runner to their own designs, thoughts, wound-licking and pain-managing state of being.
And even though the scenery isn’t all that varied, the terrain is very runnable and there’s room to stretch out. For those of you directionally-challenged, meaning you can’t seem to follow course markings, it’s unlikely you’ll get lost on this course. If you do, you should be. Heartland isn’t Western States, Wasatch or the Bear 100 mountain courses, but there’s nothing flat about the Heartland events. There are more than enough rollers for any seasoned trail 100-miler to get his or her share of ups and downs. And for your correspondent, apparently too many hills to date.
For me, it was just another day. Though I did experience thigh chaffing—a new-found, stinging, unpleasant experience for me. After nearly 40 years of ultrarunning thinking I was impervious to anything except a suspect stomach, talk about walking and running in another man’s shoes. I hope that was a first and last experience. Anyway, if ever there was a year to finish, this was it. But I feel that way every year, at any event, until it’s not happening. Disappointedly, I succumbed to stomach issues 37 miles into the race, but I kept my head in the game and enjoyed all that I could.
There was social distancing and some mask wearing, but there was also selected hugging, fist-banging and elbow-bumping. Just enough of everything to give the feeling as if this were a race, held a year or so ago, but with the awful realization that this was COVID time, and precautions and safer measures needed to be exercised. So, I hope you found some magic of your own in this exhausting year of 2020, and I sincerely hope that 2021 offers better things to come for us all.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Caio, E. Rocket