And they wouldn’t have it any other way, Eric Steele said of those runners competing in his company’s inaugural Prairie Spirit 100-mile and 50-mile ultra runs. Seeking increasingly challenging events, ultra runners — those willing to surpass measly 26-mile marathons — are indeed a distinct variety of athlete, Steele, an avid runner himself, said.
But why would one voluntarily run a distance that many would find irksome to travel by car?
“You mean, what makes ultra runners a special breed of crazy?” Steele, founder of Epic Ultras, a company that organizes ultra runs throughout Kansas, said. “Our sport is more than just running. If you’re a seasoned ultra runner, you know it’s all about the way ultra running makes you feel — how it takes you, in a sense, from one reality into another.”
A Wichita native, Steele said the Prairie Spirit 100-mile race is a first for northeast Kansas and will span the entire length of the Prairie Spirit Trail — twice. Starting in Ottawa, the former railway line dips through Princeton, Richmond, Garnett and Iola and weaves through three counties. The 100-mile runners, who will return to Ottawa after reaching Iola, must complete the trail within 31 hours to be considered finishers. The 50-mile runners will have 29 hours to run south from Garnett toward Iola before heading north to the finish line in Ottawa. Both races’ finish line is located at the Don Woodward Community Center, 517 E. Third St., Ottawa. Steele said he plans to donate about $500 of the proceeds to the Kansas Chapter of Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, in addition to $250 to the Friends of the Prairie Spirit Trail.
After hearing the Prairie Spirit Trail would be extended to Iola, Steele began eyeing the locale for a race, he said, realizing it could lend itself to an ideal ultra running path. Made largely of crushed limestone, Steele said, the trail’s surface and relative flatness is a joy for runners. Although a daunting distance, he said, plenty of runners this weekend are hoping to break personal records for the 50- and 100-mile races.
“The trail is a dream — a nice, wide path and generally a pretty forgiving surface,” Steele said, noting that it’s also typical for ultra runners to implement a walk-run strategy to complete the trail. “And that’s the whole thing about this course that really appeals to the veterans. It should be great for the runners.”
While attracting plenty of veteran ultra runners, Steele said, many of those hoping to best the 100-mile track are either new to the distance or previously failed to complete it. Despite the inexperienced group, and a forecast calling for freezing temperatures with a chance of snow, Steele said he expects a good turnout for the race.
The races have lured 139 competitors from all corners of the continental U.S., including Maryland, California, Georgia and Washington, Steele said. And among those runners include a few who boast a remarkable combination of speed and endurance. Two of the athletes participating in the weekend’s race have run 100 miles in less than 19 hours, Steele said, averaging about 5.3 miles per hour.
While some athletes might be capable of completing a 100-mile race, Steele said, runners face a variety of challenges. Foremost of those, he said, are managing hydration, nourishment and chafing. After several hours of running, an energy bar no longer is up to snuff, Steele said. As such, the races’ aid stations, which are found about every five miles along the trail, provide runners with meals, including tacos, meatball subs, potatoes and other calorically dense foods.
“One of the biggest things is being able to manage your fueling, hydration and chafing,” Steele said. “As soon as you go over a marathon, and especially during a 100-mile event, you’ve got to manage your caloric intake in terms of what your stomach can handle. And then there’s the chafing issue. Believe it or not, bloody nipples at later stages of a race have put people out of a race. Physically, they’re trained and capable of finishing, but their feet are just so blistered — or they’re chafed raw — that they drop [from the race].”
In addition to physical demands, Steele said, athletes also face mental hurdles to accomplish an ultra run. Maintaining concentration can often become difficult, he said, but it’s vital to those hoping to succeed.
“It’s really critical to focus,” Steele said. “You’ve got to focus on just one step at a time.”
An 18-year ultra runner, Steele is the first Kansan to complete the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in California. Regarded as America’s toughest foot race, the event was the most difficult of the 50 ultra runs he’s completed. Most recently, Steele, who also founded the Kansas Ultra Runners Society in 1995, finished the Angel Fire 50-mile race in Angel Fire, N.M., with a time of 11 hours and 49 minutes, earning him fourth place.
After several years of ultra running, Steele said the sport’s allure is beyond competition for him. The people he encounters on the trail, Steele added, are why he chose to start a company that now aims to offer ultra runners a variety of quality events.
“Trail runners and ultra runners just tend to be more laid back and a lot cooler in general,” Steele said. “I fell in love with the sport not only because of these hard-core races, but because the people are just so cool. They’re a different breed.”