Pitch-black. The complete absence of light. That was one of the competitors’ challenges during the 11th annual Prairie Spirit Trail Ultra. Runners were trekking along the well-used linear Rails-to-Trails strip of hard-packed crushed limestone between Ottawa and Iola.
Fifty miles south. Fifty miles back. For most of the first 25 miles, thick trees canopied the trail. As the 47 runners entered in the 100-mile test of physical and mental endurance dashed from the starting line at 6:00 a.m. on March 25, groups quickly settled into their chosen pace. Headlamps bobbed with every stride providing enough illumination to carry them along ahead of sunrise at 7:17.
However, the run through those same trees working their way back north to the finish line meant darkness for the remaining four hours of the winner’s journey. The woman who finished 32nd ran through the entire night and saw two sunrises to finish inside the 30-hour cutoff.
With clouds blocking the illuminated 17% of the moon’s Waxing Crescent, a trot through the tree-covered trail meant complete sensory deprivation. The narrow headlamp beam cast light about 10 yards ahead, the only relief from the utter darkness. Runners could only keep putting one foot in front of another.
This is where the word “insane” is added in conversations by those not into such pursuits. Ah, but they would be wrong, according to an expert. Michelle Leduc is a 47-year-old Ultra veteran from Ottawa. Sorry, not Ottawa, Kansas, but Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Last Saturday’s 100-miler would be the first for her in five years. Injuries and Canada’s strict COVID restrictions kept her away. Leduc was the first of 13 women to finish and second overall in a time of 18:35:59.
“I loved the beautiful sunset. I knew what was coming,” Leduc said about the darkness. “It really doesn’t bother me.”
In the early darkness, she happily noted the sounds of coyotes in the woods. She revealed that she listened to music for the first time in her career, including victories in the most challenging races in Canada and the northeast United States, and held the Canadian 100-mile road record at one time.
Since she retraced the same route, “I was able to let everything go and cruise along on autopilot.”
Leduc proved it takes a unique array of skills to participate in one of the races, as did the others in the 100-kilometer, 50-mile and 50-kilometer races. One hundred and fifty-seven runners from twenty different states and two from Canada began the four races, and only 22 failed to complete their distance due to injury or missing the 30-hour cutoff.
“I love the challenge, the planning and all the logistics with food and clothing,” Leduc noted.
The Ultra organizers understood all that and provided a warm, well-equipped building to prepare for the races. Competitors filled water bladders and packed food into pockets and vests. The “Timer Guys” set up a comprehensive system of chip-enhanced race numbers that triggered at every checkpoint and even as runners neared the finish. That allowed staff, volunteers and families to run out and cheer each runner home.
Along the route, checkpoints/aid stations crewed by caring volunteers in Princeton, Garnett, Colony and the 100-mile turnaround in Iola offered an array of cold and warm foods, soups, Cokes, electrolytes and salty snacks. In addition, runners could change clothing based on the changing weather of the long day and night with marked bags delivered to each station as requested by the runners.
While the races began with temperatures in the upper 30s, they quickly rose to 60 under the sun-filled sky with light winds before dropping back to the 30s by midnight with periods of rain. The stocking caps, gloves and tights that came off at one of the earlier checkpoints were eventually put back on during the return trip. Clearly, the runners appreciated all the support.
“I love the environment,” Leduc said. “It is much more family-like, different from the big marathons with so many runners. It is fun to talk to others and run together for a while.”
However, Leduc understands that with every race, “it’s never 100%.”
The monotony of the straight, flat straight course led to soreness in her feet from a lack of real elevation change. At the turnaround in Iola, she expressed her concerns to her biggest fan and supporter, her husband, Sean. Fortunately, she noticed a runner she felt was closing on her during her return trip. Refocused by the challenger, which was only close due to the earlier turnaround for a shorter race, Leduc worked through her rough patch and eventually crossed the finish line with a big smile.
During the long day, many runners passed as Laura and I moved from one country cross road to another to capture as much as possible. Every time we saw a runner that looked to be having their “never 100%” moment, we couldn’t help but notice the smiles on their faces. They were working their way through those tough stretches.
As we waited for the top male runner, Walter Handloser, and the top female, Leduc, another runner crossed the finish line. Lena Cowell was the 43rd and last competitor to finish the 50-mile run in tears, and she did not stop. Instead, she ran straight into her father’s arms and wailed. Soon in her mother’s arms, the tears continued to flow as she gushed.
“Mom, I did it. I can’t believe I did it. I did it. I am so happy. I’m so happy,” she screamed over and over. Her finishing time did not matter. These were genuine tears of joy and accomplishment.
Now that was an Ultra moment.
About Jeff Jacobsen
Jeff Jacobsen has photographed practically every big event the sports world has to offer during a professional career that spans over 54 years. Jacobsen has seen things up close that only a diehard sports fan could in their dreams. His work for the Topeka Capital-Journal, Arizona Republic, Kansas Athletics, Inc., many national publications and now Action Images Photography, Inc., cemented his reputation as one of the nation’s finest sports photographers.