Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Marathons - Rockin’ K Trail Marathon

April 6th, 2013
Kanopolis State Park

It was the worst of marathons in that the Rockin’ K Marathon wrung me out. When I finished I can honestly say I left it all on the course. It was best of marathons though in that a day later I was less sore than I have ever been. The lack of pavement (and, I will confess, slower pace) had left me better set to run again than ever before. The course was also beautiful – and not just by the standard of I-70 through Kansas.

The pre-race dinner was a low-key affair. Kanopolis State Park is along a dammed-up section of Kanopolis Lake. The race “headquarters” were at a hard-stand shelter overlook the lake. There were about a hundred runners and their families there for the pasta dinner. Food was plentiful. Many of the people we talked to had done the race multiple times – which speaks well for a race that caps its field at 100 runners. We met the race founder Phil and his poodle Charlie. Charlies was a fit looking dog who probably has more trail miles than me. After dinner we got a quick pre-race talk about the trail marking and potential hazards.

We thought about camping at the park (there were ample sites), but I had camped in Kansas before and was worried that the wind would preclude a good night’s rest. So we drove to Salina and stayed in the Best Western.

On the morning of the race my wife and I arrived at 6:30, a half-hour before the start, and checked in. There was no real wait for the porta johns – a real perk of doing a race with only a hundred people. The start was tame as expected. We ran about a mile on pavement before turning left onto the trails. Around mile four I came to the first of many water crossings. The streams were not that high but I managed to find a rock under the mud. I banged my left shin which gave me a good goose egg to show for the rest of the race.

The first 7.5 miles to the unmanned aid station (Gate 2) was a good mix of terrain and a preview for the rest of the course. It had ankle-deep loose sand, prairies, hardwood draws; and, of course, the ever rolling terrain. This course was designed to quash any flat-jokes about the state.

The weather for this year’s race was ideal. There was the ever-present wind that I have always found in Kansas, but it was fairly mild for most of the race. The wind was even from the northwest which meant it was to our backs on the way in – when it was much appreciated.

After Gate 2 we went through open prairie lands. The trail got a little thinner at this point and we often seemed to be going across open prairie as we searched for the red and white checkered flagging that showed us the way. At this point I was in second behind a green shirted fellow (who eventually won) who had gone out at a good 7 min clip. I was trailed by one other fellow who would keep me company through most of the next 10 miles.

At mile 13 I came to the manned aid station. By this point I was starting to feel the effects of my lingering cold and spotty training. This also coincided with the Big Bluff Loop. I crossed a barbed wire fence that was laid over with a blanket and I found myself on the bluff overlooking the river. My racing friend and I then began the first of the steep climbs. Four times I looked up, laughed. . . and then walked to the top. As we bent back around to the manned aid station the trail became thin at spots. At one point my friend and I missed a hairpin turn and found ourselves deciding if we were meant to cross a river. Fortunately we found the last markers and regained the trail. A mile or so later we found some other runners who had gone completely the wrong way on the big bluff loop.

The Big Bluff loop then came back to the manned aid station at Gate 6 around mile 18. I filled up my water bottle, kissed my wife and went on to slog out the last eight-or-so miles. And it was a slog. I will not reveal my pace other than to hint that it was creeping ever upward. The open and rolling terrain were beautiful though and were much better solace than the hard pavement at the end of a road race. I was passed by two other runners who were looking much stronger.

At the end of mile 24 and the beginning of mile 25 I crossed two thigh deep streams. At this point in the race the cold water felt absolutely glorious. After the race another runner confessed to me that he had taken a 30-second pause. I considered doing such, but at this point I was ready to be done. With less than a quarter-mile to go I turned onto the pavement to the Corral Shelter. There were burgers, beers and other drinks. I would say they tasted great, but everything does at this point. The worst thing I can say about the race is that the beer selection (Bud light, Coors and Miller Ultra) was a little weak – we are indeed in Kansas, not Colorado. After recovering with food and drinks, Alita and I left the race and drove across the dam to Cottonwood Campgrounds where they had free showers.

On the way out we stopped at Mushroom State Park. We were a both tired, but when else were we going to see a rock formation shaped like a mushrooms? These amazing formations were well worth the stop. They were right by the road and they really did look like giant petrified mushrooms. We marveled for a while and then went on to Gella’s Dinner for a late lunch.

Gella’s Dinner in Hays, Kansas is a real gem – good food and good beer. I would have loved it even it I wasn’t starving and ready for a good microbrew. It’s right off I-70 in a in a beautiful brick building right in the middle of a quintessential plains town. The beer names are not that original (No. 24 Pale Ale, etc.), but the brewery (actually Lb. Brewing Co – even though it’s part of the restaurant) has five GABF medals in the last five years. We had stopped by for a sample on the way out (i.e. carbo-loading) and so we knew to go for the IPA and the stout. For food got the smothered bierock– try to imagine the child of a chicken-pot-pie and a philly cheesesteak. This is how to end a marathon trip.

13 states down. 37 to go.

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