Flatrock 101K Race Report: A Tale of “DNF”
I’ve run quite a few races in the past few years, and many of them have been what I considered to be rather difficult. They included varied terrain, elevation changes, and weather conditions, and they all managed to challenge me in different ways. I’ve tackled everything from a 5K up to 105 miles, but I managed to skip over the 100K distance. My plan was to rectify that fact as I drove down to Independence, Kansas with a good friend for the Flatrock 101K this past weekend. I’ve had a solid spring training season, and my legs and endurance were ready to tackle just about anything. However, I’m not sure that any amount of training in Iowa could have prepared me for the most difficult trail course I’ve hiked, let alone run. Thus, this is a tale of my very first race DNF, and I couldn’t be more happy to call it just that.
Randy and I headed out from Ames on Friday morning, and after a few directional “miscalculations”, found our way to our campsite in Independence. We were both eager to stretch our legs after 8 hours in the car, and we met up with Randy’s brother, Ryan, at the site. He made the trek down from Colorado Springs pulling a trailer, so I guess we couldn’t complain too much, right? The race was located along the Elk River Hiking Trail and our campsite was just down the road, which was incredibly convenient. We headed over the start/finish area to check in and pick up our packets. This was a small race (49 registered participants), so we made our way to the aid tent, picked up our packets, and sat down for a pasta dinner provided by the race staff. We had a chance to chat with some of the volunteers and other participants, and get a bit more information about the trail itself. Things were looking pretty dry, and there were no huge hills but we were warned about the small but repetitive elevation changes. Folks mentioned that it was fairly rocky, but still runable, and we left optimistic and looking forward to the challenge.
We relaxed after dinner, and prepared our packs and drop bags for an early wake-up call. I decided to wear my Salomon pack, including hydration bladder, and carry a handheld bottle that I could keep full of water with electrolytes so I could rotate between the two. The pack is perfect for distances up to around 100 miles, as long as there are some aid stations in between. I decided to leave a drop bag at the start/finish area with my Hokas, a change of clothes, and some extra nutrition. The course was a double out-and-back, with manned aid stations around miles 3, 10, and 15, and unmanned stations with water in between.
The alarm went off at 4:30AM after a stormy and windy night, and the darkness and cool temps definitely made getting out of bed more of a challenge. I was happy we had the trailer to sleep in though, because tent camping would not have been ideal! The three of us slowly and quietly went about the business of getting dressed and having some breakfast before heading down the road to the start. I decided to run in my Altra Lone Peaks for the first 50K and that proved to be an excellent choice. We got to the starting line a little before 6AM, with a scheduled 6:30AM start. It was cool, and not terribly windy in the morning, but the forecast was for a hot day with temps reaching close to 90 degrees and plenty of wind. The time before the start gave us a chance to wake up our legs a bit, and do our best not to psych ourselves out. Although I’d never tackled the 100K distance, I felt pretty confident, and was excited for the challenge.
Just before the start, we were joking about the anti-climactic start of most ultras as the gun goes over and everyone begins to slowly shuffle and try not to head out too fast. Sure enough, that scene played out a few minutes later, and the 40+ runners shuffled down an access road about a quarter of a mile to the trailhead, and we were off. I’ve struggled with going out to fast before, and I was determined not to make the same mistake today, so I took it pretty easy from the get go and tried to stick with the pack. As soon as we hit the trail, it was clear that the “rocky” description was quite accurate, and perhaps a bit of an understatement. We hadn’t rolled along the rocky trail more than a mile when we reached a drop-off that forced the pack to stop and slowly descend, one at a time. This was followed by even more rocks, both protruding from the ground and flowing along it like a stoney river hiding the age of the land. I reached the first manned aid station around mile 3, and I could already tell that this course was going to be more difficult than any trails I had encountered, and certainly more treacherous than anything I’d found in Iowa. You could have mistaken the trail for a dried up-stream bed through a rock quarry. Little did I know that I was still underestimating the journey ahead.
We weaved through cliffs and bluffs that had been carved out of the land over millions of years, and it was visually stunning to constantly disappear around a rocky corner and not know what to expect. The nearby lake followed us on the left, the sound of waves crashing on the shore faintly echoing along the trail as the wind whistled through the trees and rocks. I have no doubt that this was a visually stunning trail and there were a multitude of places to stop and enjoy the views. However, the technical nature of the constantly shifting rocks, tree roots, and stones hidden by leaves meant that my gaze was firmly directed at the ground, never more than a few feet in front of me.
It was a welcome relief to hit the next full aid station around mile 10, and as with every stop, the volunteers were absolutely fantastic! We had heard some talk of the trail becoming more “runable” after this aid station as we headed towards the turnaround point at mile 15.7 or so, and this upcoming leg of the trek boosted my spirits. The first two or three miles out of the second aid station proved to be just as rocky, hilly, and treacherous as the first 10, but things did open up at bit after that, and I was able to gain a bit of speed on some flatter and less rocky sections. Mind you, “flatter and less rocky” is quite relative, and even these sections were still quite technical. I rolled into the turnaround point (1/4 done) aid station in around 3:20, and was quite pleased with the time I made considering the terrain. I took a few minutes to fuel up, rehydrate, and pack some more nutrition for the road, and then turned back around.
I spent the next five miles running with a guy I met just as we were coming into the aid station turnaround. We had some fantastic conversations about various other ultras, and he became clear very quickly that he was much more experienced, both on this trail, and in ultra-running as a whole. He kept our pace brisk and I think I felt some energy return as we made our way back to the start. It was great to pick his brain about other races I’ve been thinking of taking on, and the conversation was the perfect example of why I love ultra-running so much. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known each other for years, or you just met. You become friends quickly, and everyone is so giving of their time and knowledge. I let him go on after we stopped at the next aid station (ok, he took off and I couldn’t keep up), and it became very clear that navigating the loose rocks was becoming more and more difficult. At around mile 20, I could feel myself hitting a wall, and I slowed down a bit to conserve more energy. As I was working my way around the bluffs, I tripped on a rock and cracked my right knee pretty hard. I was actually quite surprised it took me that long to fall, and I paused to shake off the pain and make sure I didn’t do any permanent damage. The remainder of the journey back to the start and 50K mark was a bit of a blur. As I rolled into the starting area, I couldn’t help but think that this would have been a great 50K race. Unfortunately, I still had another 50K to go!
Ryan rolled into the starting area a few minutes after me, and we exchanged an initial look that told us both everything we needed to know about how the other felt. The first 50K had been hellish, and there were already points where the only thought that comforted me was pretending that I was done. I spent about 20 minutes at the aid station, eating some more substantial food and getting some more fluids down. The first 50K had taken about 7:20, and the midday sun was now out in full force, along with the almost 90 degree heat. Ryan and I begrudgingly agreed to head back out for the second half and stick together to push each other. We were both really feeling it, but still left determined to finish.
The remaining 15+ miles were a combination of short running bursts and power-hiking through the ridiculous terrain. By this point, it was clear to me that calling this a trail run or race led to some pretty lofty assumptions about the ability to actually run. There was definitely more walking and power hiking happening by everyone at the race the brief conversations and passing glances made it clear that everyone was suffering just as much as I was by mid-afternoon. We got to the mile 10 aid station in pretty good spirits, but feeling extremely fatigued. My knees and ankles were throbbing, and I might as well have strapped sharp rocks to the soles of my feet by that point. We charged out of the aid station, and pushed each other into a few decent miles. Then the rigor of the day began to set in.
In any ultra, a run/walk combination is necessary for a majority of participants. Thus, walking is to be expected, and I’ve come to embrace it as a part of the sport and the experience. However, as we pushed onward, our walk breaks became longer and slower. We seemed to alternate discussing various levels of pain or localized discomfort, and cursing the course in about as many ways as we could. Then we started running the math on projected finishing times. The race had a very generous 24-hour cutoff, but that meant running through the night, obviously. We were still well ahead of the cut-off pace, and had plenty of time to get the race done. However, our legs became increasingly sore, and our knees screamed louder and louder. Most of all, we had already been out on the trail around 12 hours, and the sun would be setting soon. Based on generous calculations, this meant we had about 7 hours of hiking this trail in the dark to look forward to moving forward. This trail was dangerous in broad daylight. Even with a headlamp, the thought of navigating it at night didn’t sit well with me!
Around mile 46, the comments we were exchanging aligned and we made the decision to drop from the race. As we were crossing a barbed-wire fence via a set of metal step, I may have even uttered “next stop, the DNF station” without even realizing it (as opposed to “aid station”, of course!). We made it to the turnaround point, having completed 3/4 of the race, and let the volunteers know we would not be going on. They were nice about asking us several times before sending the official word, but I was definitely done. My legs had taken quite a beating, and the thought of going back out there in the dark brought no joy to my mind. Above all else, I run and race because I love to be out there. I love running and taking in the environment around me. I love sharing the experience with others when possible. I probably could have headed back out, and slogged through the 6 or 7 hours it would have taken me to finish, but it didn’t have that joy, that appeal, anymore.
Every ultra runner needs that first DNF feather in their cap, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I earned mine. I enjoyed (almost) all of my time out on the trail, made some new friends, and still managed almost 50 miles. When we arrived at that final aid station, that volunteers laughed that we were calling it quits out there, as most folks had apparently pulled the plug at the 50K mark. In all, only 22 of the 49 participants had finished the race, which was the ultimate testament to the difficult of the course and the day. I’m not going to lie and say that I haven’t had brief moments of regret for not changing my mind and suffering through the last chunk of the race. However, this was first DNF I feel like I can be proud of, and I’ve got plenty of other races coming up to keep my motivation high.
The “Flatrock 101K Trail Race” was anything but flat, ALL rock, and more power hike than race. The finishers buckle alluded me, but I walked away with some amazing memories and a great first-DNF story. Now, I can turn my focus to a busy month of races, including my next stab at the 100K distance at the end of May. Bring on the miles, and bring on the trails, but keep me out of Independence!