All race reports are written by Eric Buckley unless otherwise noted.
To find older reports, follow the links on the left.
Psycho Wyco Run Toto Run
February 11, 2012
Photos courtesy See KC Run and Mile 90
I'm not really a "bucket list" kind of guy. Sure, there are things I'd like to do and, having set a goal, I often
devote significant resources to achieving it. But, if it doesn't happen, I typically just move on to the next thing.
Last year, I missed "Mud Stud" status at Psycho Wyco, 50K trail race just west of Kansas City, by
16 seconds (finishing in 5:00:16). The designation is no small thing. Hundreds have tried but only a dozen
runners have managed to break five hours on this brutal course; three have done it twice. While such a near miss didn't really
get under my skin, it also seemed reasonable to give it another try. So, off I went to KC with fellow SLUG Suzanne Kenyon as a traveling companion.
Shortly after leaving St. Louis, the mixed precipitation gives way to clear skies. By the time we get to
number pickup in Kansas City, the temperature is in the low 20's and dropping quickly. Local runners
present believe we'll still see some mud on lap 3, but concede that the predicted single-digit low tonight
should have the trail in fast form tomorrow.
Trail conditions are always significant in an off-road race, but perhaps nowhere more so than at Psycho
Wyco. The bulk of the 10.3-mile loop is on a bridle trail that gets considerable use. Even in cold winters, it
doesn't usually stay frozen past the early morning hours. The passage of five hundred runners per lap
typically turns the fine Loess soil to a gooey quagmire. Times for the final lap of the 50K are often 20-30%
longer than the previous two. As such, I've usually taken this race out fairly hard in an attempt to get as
much mileage in as possible before the mud slows me down.
My strategy is different this year. In keeping with the general endurance sports guidance that it's better to
limit the bad than maximize the good, I plan to hold back a bit so I have fresher legs
to deal with the mess at the end. Since it's now reasonable to expect that the trail won't be that bad, I
modify that to target an even effort with the expectation that lap three will be slightly slower.
We're staying only a mile from the park but I'm an early riser so I'm up before dawn. The temperature is
10F with clear skies and a light breeze. I down the leftover pizza from last night (really good pizza, too,
from a place called Spin) and select my gear for the race. I know I'm going to want to shed layers, so I'm
careful not to overdress. If my base layer gets soaked with sweat, I may be required to waste time on a
full clothing change. I go with a base long sleeve shirt, my Carol's Team jersey and a wind shirt on top
with just lycra tights under polypro shorts on the bottom. I put socks over my lightweight gloves and select
a thin balaclava to go under my hat. Since the trails should be clear of ice, I go with my regular trail shoes
with screws in the heels for a little extra grip on the steep descents.
Prior to the start, I run about a mile out and back on the trail to confirm my choices and then hop back in
the car to try to stay warm. A few minutes before 8AM, I head over to the line, taking my place less than a
minute before Race Director "Bad Ben" Holmes sends us on our way.
The previous two times I've run, conditions have reduced the wide equestrian trail to a single good line.
Thus, I've always pushed the opening quarter mile across the field to be in the top ten at the trailhead.
With the path frozen solid and clear of snow, passing will be easy so I settle into my ultra pace right off
the line. About 25 runners lead me into the woods.
The going is quick, but it certainly isn't easy. The trail is completely rutted from foot and hoof prints during
the last two weeks (which saw temperatures as high as 70F). Nearly every foot plant requires some sort
of adjustment. I wonder if my stabilizing muscles are up to five hours of this. Fortunately, the really rough
stuff only lasts for a couple miles. Shortly after that we get onto the relatively smooth trail along the top of
the ridge leading to the first aid station.
Heading for the Triangle
I'm well aware of what follows: the infamous Wyco Triangle, a true singletrack trail that bounds all over
the side of the steep ridge with tight turns and downed logs coming every few steps. I'm running at the tail
end of a little pack of runners, one of which has a dog with him. I'd like to have a good view of where I'm stepping
and certainly don't want to trip on a leash, so I up my pace a bit and scoot by just before we leave the
main trail. I get through the section without incident and, as the group is still right behind me, I assume
they all did, too.
Not so much on the next section which is the biggest descent on the course. It is also a narrow trail
carved into the hillside with several switchbacks but this time there aren't nearly as many small trees to
grab onto for balance. About halfway down, I hear the distinct sound of a body hitting the ground. This is
immediately followed by enough cursing that I decide the casualty will likely survive without my stopping
to render assistance
At the bottom of the descent, we leave the woods for the ascent of "Dam Hill". There's a small culvert that
one has to jump across to get into the field and the runner in front of me pulls up short to gauge the
distance. I nearly run him over but manage to slide by with enough speed to clear the ditch. "Hey, is that
Eric?" he calls out. I turn around to see it's fellow St. Louis runner Mitch Faddis. I chuckle and say hi and
then get on with the real work of ascending the Wyandotte Lake dam. The wind is blowing a bit harder
and for the first time since the opening mile I feel cold again. In front of me are two runners in shorts and their
legs are bright pink. Really, guys?
At the top of the dam is the second aid station which is also roughly halfway around the loop. All the water
cups are frozen, but I'm able to extract a little liquid from them. I also grab some food which I eat while
running the only paved section of the course: a road that ascends for another quarter mile to the trailhead
for Speed Demon Ridge which gives back all the elevation. With nobody in front of me and footing
excellent, I take the name literally and it feels good to be moving fast after the long grind. I do remember
to get on the brakes before the final drop, aptly named Nicely Done because Chris Nicely finished his
race there by breaking his leg on the slippery loose stones at the bottom of the descent.
Misery Ridge follows, but it's a hollow version of itself. The trail is so firm I don't even have to grab onto
trees, much less the supplied rope to get up the steepest part. With the biggest obstacles behind, I relax
back into my steady pace (or as steady a pace as one can maintain on such undulating terrain).
Shortly after the third and final aid station, I realize that I have made one potentially serious error
regarding equipment. I normally lace my shoes a bit loose for ultras because my feet swell during the run.
However, it's so cold that my feet aren't swelling at all. If anything it's been the opposite since the cold has
caused the cappilaries to constrict since I put my shoes on in the warm car. The result is that my right foot in particular
is moving around quite a bit in the shoe and the skin has been rubbed off my ankle. It's not particularly
painful yet, but it threatens to become so. I stop and re-lace the shoe as best I can with hands that are
quite clumsy from the cold. It doesn't' feel much tighter, but it's the best I can do.
I finish the lap in just under 92 minutes, which is my fastest lap ever on this trail even though the effort
has been quite measured. I spend less than a minute picking up a new water bottle from my cooler and
shedding my wind shirt, balaclava, and the socks over my gloves. As I hit the bridle trail for the second
time, I observe that it hasn't suffered at all from the herd of lap 1 runners. It's clear the sub-5 is going
to be a gift this year. While that's nice, it's also a little disappointing that I'll be joining the Mud Studs on a
year that when that accomplishment is less meaningful. I decide I won't be happy with it unless I run the
race to my potential. I resolve to not just break 5 hours; I want to break it by a lot.
The way to do that, obviously, is to simply repeat what I just did two more times. I don't lift the pace, but I
make a conscious effort to not let it slip, either. The result is that I pass a dozen or so runners during the next
few miles. I don't find this the least bit surprising. Taking a long race out too fast is a common
mistake on any day. Staying slow enough when it's this cold takes real discipline. Leaving the triangle, I
start to hit the back of the 10-mile field which started an hour after the 50K. It seems the slow end of the
pack moves about the same speed in all conditions. Last year, I didn't catsch them until after the second aid
station. No worries; unlike last year, it's easy to get by.
Singletrack on lap 2
The rest of the lap is noteworthy in its complete lack of noteworthiness. I cross the timing mats at 3:05, a
minute slower than lap 1, but that was just the extra time running around the shelter at the start/finish. I
grab another bottle and some snacks and get going on lap 3.
The sun is high and bright and temperatures have risen into the low 20's. The trail is showing little patches of
mud, but nothing to significantly impede progress. The effort is real now, with each of the steep ascents
inviting me to slow down. It's time to literally roll up my sleeves and get down to the serious business of
putting a strong finish on this run.
The only stream crossing on the loop was frozen solid on lap 1 and just a trickle on lap 2. It's now happily
gurgling. Seems silly to have to deal with cold, wet feet when I've kept them dry this far, so I take a few
seconds to pick out which stones to hop on and make it across with barely a drop inside my shoe. Both
the Triangle and the descent to the base of the dam are sketchy in spots, but my shoes are still providing
enough grip to run confidently.
At the middle aid station (reached in 47 minutes, still holding the pace) I finally break down and ask the
question that's been gnawing at me ever since I realized that the time goal was a gimmie this year: "Any idea
how many are ahead?" One of the volunteers replies that he thinks I'm in fourth. That's great news if it's
true, but I'm starting to lap the slower end of the 50K field now, so it's likely they missed some of the
leaders. Even an elite runner could be excused walking the last few steep steps of the steep climb to collect
themselves as they came into this aid station and could be easily confused with those on still on lap 2.
I blast down Speed Demon Ridge a final time. At Nicely Done, a woman is picking her way through the
rocks and calls out, "This is crazy!" She should have seen it 2 years ago when all those rocks were
covered in several inches of mud. She gasps audibly as I vault off the ledge and scamper down through
the stones. But, if she was impressed by that, she's truly dazzled just moments later and lets out another
yelp of excitement. I look back to see a runner right behind me coming hard. Dang! I had no idea I was
getting caught from behind.
Time to get serious
I pump hard up the first part of misery ridge. Once through the switchback where the grade lessens, I look
back to see if the effort has had any impact. It appears it has; the gap has widened considerably.
Perhaps he's just really good at descents. There are still four miles to go so a single surge isn't going to
do it and I press on. I'm actually happy to have the push. Battling with other runners in the early stages of an ultra is
suicide but, at this point, it's useful to have some external motivation.
About this time I also notice that my left hand is covered in peanut butter. I had grabbed a peanut butter
rollup at the last aid station and completely forgotten that I was still holding it. It was frozen when I picked
it up, but now it's a big goopy mess. It's the sort of mindless oversight that I am frequently correcting in
Yaya. Well, if she does it after running a marathon, I'll be more understanding.
In the next mile, I catch another runner. Unlike the predator behind me, he makes no attempt to lift as I go
by. "The wheels are coming off," he concedes. "Hang in there; you've got sub-5 in the bag," I reply. No
harm in offering some encouragement to a competitor who is just trying to haul it in. Soon, I spot yet
another runner who appears to be moving too quickly to be lapped. He's going fine on the ups, but seems
to be struggling on the downhills; probably a victim of blown quads. Just as I am about to pass him, we hit
the little rise to the final aid station and he shoots ahead.
He stops to get supplies and I decide to blow through. I'm pretty sure I can hammer in the final twenty
minutes without sustenance. If not, I can always lick the peanut butter off my left glove. I hope to
sneak by unnoticed as one should never underestimate the power of pissed. Getting caught can break
a runner's spirit, but it just as often snaps them out of a funk. After all, it was a threat from behind that
really got me rolling these last few miles.
No such luck. As I hit the next climb, I see him coming up behind. He's less than 30 seconds behind and
he's moving mighty fast. I decide that if I can just stay ahead over the climb, I'll take some chances going
down the other side to try to get out of sight. At the top of the climb, I open it up. It's the fastest I've run on
technical trail in quite some time and it is very much pushing the limits of what my increasingly wobbly
legs can handle, but it works. With one mile to go I hit the climb that was my undoing last year. Rather
than sprint it this time, I settle into a firm pace so I'll have some motor control for the descent. At the
top, I appear to be safely clear, so I just keep the pace firm without taking anymore undue risks.
One more small climb and descent and then it's in to the finish with a time of 4:37:20. Ben is there and he
is happy to inform me that, in addition to joining the Mud Studs, I've pulled off the 3-peat master's win
(finishing fourth overall). I'm also surprised to learn that the third-place runner finished only 16 seconds
ahead of me; I never saw him until I reached the finish chute. He's a young kid (just out of college, where he ran
cross country), so he probably would have blown me away in a sprint anyway. As expected, there are quite a few
others who also break five hours (twelve in all) including Kaci Lickteig in 4:46:19, the first woman ever to do it.
While it would have been nice to join the Hall of Fame group while it was still very small, I console myself that
I was the sixteenth person to do it, even if another eight followed almost immediately. And, good trail or
not, it was the 8th fastest time in the 8-year history of the race so I make no apologies for a little bragging
over what is clearly one of the best races I've ever run.
After some quite excellent finish line chili, I clean up (significantly easier than the past two years) and then
head out (by car, I'm done running for a few days) to keep the aid station workers company and cheer in
Suzanne. I find the volunteers in remarkably good spirits given how long they've been standing around in
the cold. Likewise, the runners still on course appear to be deriving at least as much satisfaction from
their runs as I did from mine. The ultra community never ceases to amaze me. On the surface, the activity
is just crazy in the extreme, but the people involved are some of the most content individuals on the
planet. Surely there's a lesson in there somewhere.
As for me, I'm stuck with a quite different dilemma. It's almost unfathomable that I would improve on this
performance. The conditions were as good as they could be, my pacing was nearly perfect (the final
circuit was another 93-minute lap), and I surely can't expect my fitness to be improve much at this age.
My inclination is to walk away on a high note and find some other winter ultra. Still, I only missed the
podium by the same 16 seconds that kept me out of the Mud Studs last year. Part of the Mud Stud prize
is a free entry into next year's race. To not return would leave things unfini