I really have to step back and ask myself If I’ve gotten too much into running when I go to bed early, and sober the night my college basketball team, the Kansas Jayhawks, beat the one school I’ve been waiting four years for them to play, the North Carolina Tar Heels, in order to get up early the next morning and run 43-ish miles. Well, that’s exactly what I did. Brew to Brew was held on Sunday, April 6th, the day after we beat North Carolina to advance to the championship game and a day before we beat Memphis to win the whole thing.
Brew to Brew is billed as a 43 mile solo and relay race. About 3,000 people run at least some part of the race in teams of, usually, 4 or 5 - not everybody runs it completely sober either. About 40 - 50 people run the race solo. This year 52 folks finished race solo, I’m one of them. Although, the thing is, you never really run one of these things solo, you really run it with everybody there, and then some.
The course is broken up into 10 legs of varying length; generally about 4.5 miles each. This year was slightly different as we ran the “short course” version of the run due to construction on a bridge in downtown Kansas City. This actually means the entire race, this year, was ran in Kansas. Typically the race would start at the Boulevard Brewery in Kansas City, Missouri and finish at the Freestate Brewery in Lawrence, Kansas.
My day started around 4:30 am with my typical pre-race bagel with peanut butter, a banana, an orange, and several pints of water. I made it down to the brewery around 5:30 and found the place quite lively for that hour. People were taking photos, running a bit to warm up, stretching, etc. I even found the tasting room at the brewery open, although the only thing being drank at that hour was coffee. I grabbed a cup of coffee and proceeded to find a good place to stretch and get warmed up before the race.
At 6 am we boarded school busses for the ride to the start of the race. Generally we would start the race from the Boulevard Brewery but because of construction on Cesar Chavez bridge we had to be bussed to a parking lot just across the Kansas River from the American Royal. We got off the busses and barely had time to think before they started us off. This irritated me a bit. It would have been nice to have a couple of minutes to get a little stretching in before running, especially after sitting on that bus for fifteen minutes. Oh well. Officially, we started running at 6:15.
The beginning of the race was great. We ran along the top of the levy for about 5 miles. The run started on the north side of the river. The surface was all small gravel or dirt which was an excellent way for my feet to start the day. I cruised along at a way-faster-than-I-needed-to-be-running pace simply because of the ease of the run. Aid station number one came up pretty quickly, perhaps 2 miles, and I blew by it without really thinking. We moved over to the south side of the river once we hit Kansas Avenue, running up a fun loop-d-loop to get onto the bridge. Shortly thereafter we were back onto Kansas Avenue running to the north side of the river and to the second aid station.
This was the end of the fun of running with no traffic. The majority of the race from this point would be run on roads, except for the last leg, another jaunt along the levy in Lawrence. I passed aid station 2 without stopping, I had my camelback with all the food and water I needed for the time being. I didn’t feel like stopping, and actually hadn’t since I started running which was totally against my pre-race plan of run 20 minutes, walk 2 minutes. Glad I stuck to that, sigh.
The race has a neat stipulation since it crosses two train tracks; if you get stopped by a train you get to deduct the time you had to wait for the train from your final time. This is an excellent situation to be in if you run up to a railroad track just as a train is approaching since you basically just scored a free break. Well, that’s unless you’re me. See, the first such rail crossing is just after aid station number 2, on Kansas Avenue. So, I’m motorin’ along and I see a train approaching the crossing not far ahead. I’m thinking “that’s awesome, I get to wait for that train”. So, I kick it up a bit since I want to get there with enough time to pull some food out of my pack and do a little stretching. Well, either I completely suck at judging distance or that train was moving way faster than I thought as I got to the crossing just as the last car was passing. Dammit. So much for that break.
Just after the crossing we turn west-ish onto Kaw Drive for the longest stretch of the run, roughly 12 miles. The race to this point has been fairly flat, save climbing up and down the levy a few times to get around and onto bridges. The hills aren’t menacing yet, but they’re noticeable by this point. I didn’t walk them, although I probably should have. I did finally take my walking and eating break, two hours too late - I ate a Powerbar and some GU, did a little stretching and started running again. We reached the third aid station, or leg, just after passing under Interstate 435 and continued west onto Bonner Springs.
A really nice guy ran up along me just before going under 435. We chatted for a few minutes about running and the area, etc. I was pretty happy to have him there as he was running faster than I was and it gave me a good reason to pick up the pace a bit. That’s what I like about these long distance races, people talk to you and get to know you.
This was my second ultra-marathon, yet I already know one sure thing about ultra running - no matter what you do to prepare, something will go wrong during the race. My something introduced itself shortly before Bonner Springs in the form of a pain shooting up the left side of my leg from the top of my shin into the depths of the back of my leg. This was something new to me. It didn’t feel like a knee thing and it wasn’t completely a shin thing. The only thing that made me feel better was running on a flat surface instead of running on the slightly sloped shoulder of the road. I surmised (after-the-fact I believe correctly) that it had something to do with running for a really long time on a sloped surface. It wasn’t bad, I’d live.
Oddly I don’t remember exactly where aid station 4 was. I mean, I can look at a map and see it, but I don’t recall it. I do remember stopping and having a conversation with a very nice lady who told me I was nuts for running the whole thing solo. I’m pretty used to the conversation by this point:
her: I don’t think I could run that far.
me: Have you ever run a marathon?
me: Well, then you can run an ultra. It’s not a physical challenge past 26.2, it’s a mental challenge.
her: You’re nuts.
I grabbed some M&M’s and left.
After station 4 Kaw drive either turns into Loring or turns off and we end up on Loring, I don’t know which. I want to try to forget this part of the race. It felt like it was all uphill and the road had no paved shoulder. I had to alternate between running on the road and the dirt “shoulder” when cars would pass. That pain in my leg came back at this point, it wasn’t going away this time. I decided to deal with it like any true ultra-runner, with medication. Now, here’s my “kids, don’t try this at home” disclaimer: don’t ever try something during a race that you haven’t tried during training, mmmmkay? So, I pull an ibuprofen out of my pack along with a salt tablet and a GU packet. I down all of them. Now, I’ve never actually taken ibuprofen while running. I figure mile 20 of a 43 mile race is a good time to see how I’ll react to it.
Magically, after what felt like only a couple of minutes, that pain in my leg started to go away and I was back to my 9:30ish per mile pace. Rock on. I ran up to aid station 5 with a renewed spirit, grabbed some food and drink, and ran out as quick as I could since I was feeling so good. Then I started walking. See, after you leave aid station 5 you’re presented with this really, really, really big hill. The not-so-cool thing about this hill is it’s one of those that when you get to what you think is the top of the hill you come to find that it’s just a little stop on the way to the real top of the hill, which ends up being another stop on the way to the top of an even higher hill, rinse, repeat. I ran when it was flat, I walked and complained when it was not flat. Nobody listened.
Once you get to the top of that annoying hill it’s a pretty quick run to station 6. I hung out here for a bit too long. I re-filled my camelback (a 100oz one, if that’s any indication as to how much I was drinking), ate more food, and called my soon-to-be pacer, Jeremiah to let him know I was still alive and still wanted to actually complete the entire race. The plan was for him to meet me somewhere around 222nd street, about 9 or 10 miles from the finish. I was slipping a bit at this point and having a pacer was something I was really looking forward to.
The neat thing about the leg from station 6 to 7 is that you get to do the “optional” boat crossing at Stranger Creek. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to do the boat crossing. The not-so-neat thing about station 6 is that the first few miles of the run are boooring. You hit a stretch of Golden Rd where you can see a mile or so ahead of you, which means you get to think the entire time about how slow you’re actually moving relative to the amount of distance you have to cover. This is what goes through your head after running for as long as I’d been running.
I made to the creek crossing, my sanity not far behind, grabbed a life jacket and sat my butt down in the little raft. It was a welcome break from standing. The water was moving at a good clip and I jokingly asked if this was a float trip and where the beer was. The guy whose job it was to guide the raft along the rope across the creek wasn’t impressed by my humor. My fellow runners were. At the other side we climbed up a fairly steep embankment, aided by a rope, and were back to running. I pulled another Powerbar out and took a walking break.
Station 7 isn’t far from the creek crossing. The stop is in Linwood, Kansas and it seemed like everyone there was having a pretty good time. I saw several teams enjoying a beer and laughing. Oh, how good beer looked to me. Instead, I had a nice cup of Gatorade. I live an exciting life.
The race from stations 7 to 8 is basically one big rolling hill. This meant a lot of walking in my immediate future. About halfway between stations 7 and 8 two runners caught up to me and asked me if I was running the race solo. I said I was, they congratulated me, etc. Then they said they’d been chasing me the entire race. What? So, these two teams were running the race together, and someone had happened to notice me at each of the aid stations when they were switching runners. I guess they were sick of seeing me and wanted to get ahead of me in the race. I’m not sure if there’s a more flattering comment you can lay on someone running in an ultra-marathon.
Anyways, these folks ended up being really cool, they ran with me, even offering to run the rest of the race with me. See, these are the kind of folks you run into during ultra’s. The folks who are willing to stop and offer you some help when you look like you’re struggling. Or the folks who take the time to chat and find out something about you. I can’t think of another sport like this. It’s great and it’s what makes ultra running unique.
We passed 222nd street, at which point I called my pacer, Jeremiah to figure out where he was. He was a little behind and said he’d catch up to us at some point along the race. Not long after he came up behind us. We got to aid station 8 a few minutes later.
We didn’t waste much time at station 8 as I wanted to get this race over with. The two folks who had joined me for most of the 7-8 leg took off, leaving Jeremiah to deal with my somewhat grumpy, generally complaining, tired self. Those rolling hills I talked about between stations 7 and 8 continued. Jeremiah did a good job of keeping me going strong on the downhills and taking a few extra steps on those uphills before starting to walk. This ended up being a tough leg for me. I was really hurting. That sharp pain in my leg was gone, thanks to the ibuprofen, but my body in general was at that “what the hell are you doing to me” phase. It’s said that the human body is designed for long runs across the savannah in pursuit of food. My body had decided that if I hadn’t caught it by this point I might as well let it go. This is where ultras get hard. Not because they hurt physically, but because they hurt mentally.
I was really looking forward to aid station 9. It was the Trail Nerds aid station and being a Trail Nerd I was sure to see some familiar and friendly faces there. The hills leading up to the station were killer. Even the walking was painful at this point. We kept going.
Eventually, as we got close to the aid station, we started hearing what sounded like gunshots. I was thinking “what the heck is that?”. Then I remembered Psycho Wyco, a race put on by the Trail Nerds, and the phrase “whiners will be shot”. I was thinking “wow, they’re shooting the winers”. It took me longer than I should have to laugh at this since in my mental state I half believed it was true. It ended up being some local kid and his dog throwing fireworks off of a bridge. What a letdown.
Station 9 sits just on the other side of the second set of railroad tracks you cross during the race. Remember the whole “free rest” thing? I sure did at that point. So, we’re running along and I hear that oh-so-satisfying sound of a train whistle. Score! Free break, here I come. We’re not far from the tracks so I’m sure I’ll get the break, right? Right? No. See, this train comes and it’s cruising. I’m running up to the tracks and the cars are going by in a whirl of colors. I make it to the tracks just as the gates go back up. Twice in one race. Dammit.
The Trail Nerds had a nice aid station setup with a good selection of food and other things to take care of what ails you. I wasn’t offered but I’m sure beer was available if desired. We got out of there pretty quick as it was the last leg and I wanted to get going. I wanted to break 8 hours.
The last leg of the race is along another levy. The surface is simply amazing. It’s all pea-gravel. Just beautiful to run along. The view is another story. See, it’s very flat, and it’s very open, so you can see basically the entire last leg. All 4.5 miles of it. It’s this massive horseshoe and I hated looking ahead of me because it was a constant reminder of the distance ahead of me. Jeremiah did a good job of keeping me going, only letting me walk twice during that last leg.
I got passed a lot on that last leg. I was running 11:30’s, maybe. I was hurting, every step was like someone hitting my legs with a bat. I started cramping really bad in my calves. I could feel the cramps working their way up and down the muscles in my legs. At one point my left calf tightened itself up into a nice little knot and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to let go. But I kept running. You have to by that point.
The finish was great. There was a couple hundred folks lined up on either side of the levy and you ran between them for the last hundred or so yards. Everyone cheered. It felt great.
The end of an ultra is weird to me. It’s just over. I grabbed a bag of chips, as much water as I could carry, and other various food items. I sat down on the nearest patch of grass I could find and just took it all in. I didn’t go through the range of emotions during the race like I did for my first ultra. The emotions hit me at the end of this one for some reason. I was ecstatic I finished, I beat my 8 hour goal, finishing in 7 hours and 36 minutes. I cried a few tears of, well, I don’t know what kind of tears they were.
I sat there, eating my chips, drinking water, trying not to move as I wasn’t sure what worked anymore and what didn’t. I end up talking to this cute girl, I’m not sure how, since I was pretty out of it, about the race and other random things. We talk for a while, me stuffing chips in my mouth the entire time, talking with my mouth full, being a real gentleman. Once she walked away I did something where I rubbed my face, which felt like 220 grit sandpaper. What the heck? I was covered in salt. Completely covered. I must have looked like I stuck my face in a bowl of salt. Smooth move Danny.
Jeremiah came back with the car and found me sitting in the grass. I wanted to get over to the Freestate brewery to get some more food in me and to relax a bit. He helped me up and I immediately found that my left leg was not working. Odd. It was not going to bend. If I tried to bend it I got hit with a ton of pain. I was just running twenty minutes ago and now I can’t move the leg at all. That’s pretty crazy. That’s the end result of the pain I started feeling way back before Bonner Springs. So, I walked to the car, right leg moving fine, left leg being swung around with each step. I got offered at least 5 beers between the levy and the car as “prescriptions” for my leg.
We ate at Freestate but didn’t hang out long, we both wanted to get going. I needed a shower and a horizontal surface to spend the rest of the day on. Jeremiah had stuff to do. He dropped me off at the Boulevard Brewery and I managed to make it home without hitting any parked cars or people. My room presented a bit of a problem to me. There’s three steps in my room, leading down into it. With a non-functioning left leg going in and out of my room was a challenge. I went to bed early, as I had class in the morning. In order to save myself a few trips to the bathroom that night, hence, trips up and down the three steps in my room, a couple of empty Gatorade bottles accompanied me to bed.
My leg didn’t really work the next day. It wasn’t until about two days later that I could finally walk normal and stairs didn’t involve stepping up and down each one with my right leg. I’m going to give it a few more days but I feel like it will heal pretty soon.
All-in-all I had a great time. The people during the race were great, I had a great pacer, and I finished the race under my goal time. I’m sure I’ll be back next year, running the “long course”.