Heartland Spirit of the Prairie
October 8-9, 2022
The 2022 Heartland Race was a very special event for me for three big reasons: First, it was the 1-year anniversary for Runners’ Church as the 2021 Heartland was our inaugural event; second, this was my 10th running of the Heartland 100; and third (and maybe the BEST reason), it was my first opportunity to perform a wedding as Rene’ and Lisamarie said their vows after their attempt at the Heartland 125. What a wonderfully blessed event this was! Since it was my 10th running, I was hoping to do well at my race this year. However, I’d been in Texas for the benefit Run-to-the-Cross 5K at my home church, the Church on MastersRoad for over a month, so my training was sub-par. Cassoday offers free camping, so I got to Cassoday nearly two weeks before the run, and camped, planning to run parts of the course every day. I woke up my first morning to find that my left sandal—set carefully outside my tent door—had been hijacked. I looked all over the park, wondering what a four-footed critter would do with ONE sandal! Ugh. I was picking up trash—a little “give-it back” to the town of Cassoday—when I finally found it. Some critter had chewed the strap off! (I rescued both parts to get it repaired in Wichita later.) I got and loaded my Camelbak M.U.L.E. with 3L water, foods, salts, clothing and camera, and took off for as many miles as I could with the time I had. The weather was nice for running, but it was a little cold when I went to bathe in my tent! I went six days before I finally got to El Dorado to find the “Y” to buy a day-pass for a good, hot shower! Interestingly, I never saw anyone in the park for the entire duration, with one exception. One evening, I came out of my tent, dressed warm and cleaned up after a long day’s run and met two cyclists, one of whom was traversing the country by bike. His companion, who had just joined him for a week’s segment the day before, went into town to stay at a room that was under construction. Mark and I sat by the campfire and fellowshipped. He was an ardent believer and had quit his job in San Jose, CA to embark on this trek to impassion his relationship with Jesus. What a great conversation we shared! It was cut too short because he had to sleep to get rollin’ in the a.m. I joined him, his companion, and also two brothers from GA (cycling a long stretch of the Midwest before heading home) for breakfast that morning before saying goodbyes and heading out for my final long run. It was there I met Ken Walker, et al, who was remodeling the house for a B&B in Cassoday. He also attended the Cassoday Community Church which I’d also visited my first Sunday in Cassoday. Ken and friends are trying to build in some tourist-support facilities in Cassoday. He even told me they are renovating the park. Hopefully, they’ll offer showers at the end of Heartland 2023 as I told him folks would be willing to pay for a hot post-race shower in Cassoday, rather than having to travel so far to a hotel or wherever to get clean! Pre-race Friday came, and I set up my Runners’ Church table in the Civic Center to greet runners at packet pick-up. That was great ‘cuz I saw many old friends and met many new. That evening, cold, rainy, and windy, I had to set up the R.C. canopy near the start line by myself. Then I want back to camp to heat up my pre-run dinner I’d already prepared—just add heat. I ate, prayed, and went to sleep, sound and fast! 0-dark-thirty came way too early, as it always does for the night owl, but I made my coffee, paid an obligatory visit to the cold, dark, park outhouse, hopped in the ole ranch truck and headed for the start area. I hit the ground runnin’ as I went about folks prepping for their day telling them about the Runners’ Church service about to start. It was great to connect with folks I’d missed during packet pick-up who who accepted the opportunity to worship. As I got started, I impressed one attendee into the service of Runners’ Church to snap a couple photos. After opening in prayer, I spoke on …; it was a great service and I ended spot-on-time—which was really good, ‘cuz I had 15 minutes to take down the canopy and toss it in the truck and to hurry back to campsite to get my running gloves (which I’d somehow missed), and get back and park in time to start the race! Runners’ Church safed, truck parked, and hands reasonably warm in the pre-dawn cold, the race kicked off with a hoot, holla, and more than a few cowbells, and about a hundred phone lights taking pics and videos. I settled in to a brisk warm-up walk and started my journey to Lone Tree and back. God only knew what lie ahead for His servant—what fellowship, what ministry, what witnessing and sharing the Gospel, and what encouragement. I love adventure, not knowing what the immediate future holds, and having to put my trust fully in the Lord and not in my own strength. Amen! So, I started back of the pack as I feel called to do, and began working my way up the line, meeting folks, finding out where they’re from, encouraging them, talking about the Runners’ Church mission, etc. I met some of the folks who’d been at the service, so that was special. I met my brother, Rene’ Villalobos, and walked with him a spell. I just had a wonderful time all the way to the turnaround at Lone Tree, mile 50. Caught Gerry flying back, near Matfield Green; he was leading the pack of the 125-milers and just flying. Still, he took the time to stop and hug me before taking off with wings on his feet. I thought surely he’d bust the 125-mile CR. At Lone Tree, I sensed the volunteers could use a little diversionary humor. I don’t know why, but that’s just what I felt. Plus, I had a couple minutes to kill to quaff and entire pint of thick Perpetuem—my main source of calories for this entire run—so, I set it up, and then regaled them with the entire rendition of my cowboy poetry, “Talkin’ Sense”. I had ‘em laughin’ when I dropped the punchline, and headed out for the return leg. And who do I run into coming into the aid station as I’m headed out? Larry. Remember Larry from Heartland 2021? It was great to see him and I hoped we could spend some time together later. However, I had challenged myself to do something I’d never done before: Run every step of the entire 50-mile return. So off I went, hookin’ ‘em for the next aid station. Now I have to say, it was hurting pretty good when I got back to Matlock Green (~mi. 58), but I convinced myself to just run to the next aid station. Our spiritual journeys are kinda like that: Jesus says to not worry about tomorrow, just to focus on today. I didn’t need to think about how I was gonna run 42 more miles, but just the next 6 or 7 to the next aid station, and to rely upon the Lord and the power of His might. That worked great until I ran out of Texaco Hill (~ mi. 68) and passed an unmarked road to the right; I went on to another unmarked road to the right. This time, I checked my map, eyes all blurry and bloodshot. Looked like I was on course, so I hammered, looking for markers, checking for a road to the left, again unmarked, but it looked like it matched up with the map on my bib number. After an hour of pickin’ ‘em up and puttin’ ‘em down, I ran through an oil field I knew was not there before, and I knew I should have already hit the 75-mi. aid station of Teterville Road. Ugh. NOT AGAIN!! Sooo, I begrudgingly did a 180 and began retracing my steps, mostly walking now, my warrior spirit broken, desperately hoping I’d see a headlamp soon. After some miles, I realized I should be nearing Texaco Hill, but finally saw a headlamp, seemingly fixed in place. When I got to him, I saw he was on the right path—a very UNMARKED turn one had to be heads-up looking for to see glowsticks up and off to the right. I made sure he was alright—he was pretty dazed, but not yet a medical emergency—and he said he only found the turn by using his GPS watch with the course map loaded. (Jeepers! Don’t get me started on gadgets.) A couple miles later, I hit Teterville, and told ‘em about “dazed and confused” dude back there. The HAM guy said there were a lot of people who'd gotten lost there tonight. One, “smiling Liz,” an attorney from Austin who I’d met on the outbound, had gotten lost there for quite a while and was no longer smiling. She’d just lost her will to journey on, and was sitting there with me at Teterville (mi. 75), but calling it quits. I felt bad for her. But I had to try to get re-going myself; I DID NOT WANT to be out there all night as I had a wedding to do after the race! Speaking of, I’d heard through the runner grapevine that Lisamarie had taken a really hard spill and split open her knee. Her and Rene’ had begun the 125-miler on Friday night, after I’d already gone to bed. Anyway, I heard that she had been forced to retire somewhere around Teterville after all attempts to patch her up failed. This weighed heavily on my heart as I was out there trying to shake off the cold, and keep moving, not knowing what to expect on Sunday. I prayed she was alright and in good spirits. I kept moving: Running hurt now, but walking made me cold and sleepy. It seemed a lose-lose game. The infamous Bataan death march, Kansas style. I met a young couple—Dillon Hostetler, 22 from Tunas, MO running the 125-miler with sister pacing—and tied-in with them, walk-running on a timer, four minutes run with one minute walk. It was both killing me and working for me. Then, I looked up and saw a figure ambling along beneath the pre-dawn sky. When I saw him from a distance, I just knew who it was: It was Larry! Again. Praise God!!! Same race course, one year later, and about the same place and time of night we’d spent a lot of time before in 2021. I was suddenly so fired up! I left my run-buddies who started having some problems and fell back. I ran up to Larry, and in the dark, behind him, I shouted, “JESUS MUST REALLY LOVE YOU, LARRY! HE SENT ME FOR YOU AGAIN!!!” And that’s how our conversation started. We shared our testimonies, and of course, I re-shared the gospel with him. The coolest thing about Larry—an avowed atheist—is we could have this great, civil conversation, but bare-knuckle, honest, raw and human without façade or pretense. I LOVED it! And I think Larry did, too. I started getting cold and falling asleep again, and decide to re-hook my horse to Dillon & sister who were by this time grabbing some steam and passing us by with only a couple miles to get to the barn. I stopped by my truck to change out of some of the gnarly clothes and put on something a little cleaner. I think Larry came right in behind me as I finally headed for the finish. Larry announced to everybody when he finished, “And this guy got lost again!” (pointing to me). I didn’t miss a beat, and hugged him while declaring back, “That’s because Jesus loves Larry so much, he sent me after him again, for the second year in a row!” Larry smiled. He’s a good egg. After getting something to eat, shooting a text to Lisamarie to see if she was alright, I went straight to camp and heated some water, put on the tent heater and prepared for a baby wipe and bowl-bath. It was hard, but I was soon clean and in my sleeping bag with four hand-warmers aglow. I slept for a good hour or two before getting up and trying to contact Lisamarie and Rene. Finally, I just got up and made some coffee, and headed up there in some clean clothes. Yay God! Rene & Lisamarie were at the finish in great spirits and running clothes, ready to tie the knot. Interestingly, “tying the knot” was the theme of the vows I had prepared some days before, based on—get this—Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other….” Remember? Lisamarie had taken a really nasty spill during their race and who was there to pick her up but Rene. Amen! We had a great ceremony, even if I was a little slow on the uptake after ~109 miles of rock-stompin’ and hardly any sleep the past 30 hours. And I think many people—in addition to Rene and Lisamarie—were blessed by the service. Afterwards, Larry came back to pick up his drop bags, only exclaim again, “And this guy—on his 10th running of the Heartland—got lost again!” To wit, I again responded with a loving hug, “That’s because God loves Larry so much, He had to get me lost again so He could send me after this guy a second year in a row!” I just LOVE how God works: Go ahead, big dawg, run it till ya drop…right on past the turn-off a few miles downrange so I can get you joined up with my son, Larry, for a few miles. As I wrote in the first ever Runners’ Church Event Report in 2021: “…Because God loves Larry, too.” Yes and Amen!
"Therefore, lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed."~Hebrews 12:12-13
Home sweet home for 2 weeks.
The long, long road.
An old, broken windmill; I thought it looked pretty cool
"The Old Rugged Cross" atop a hill just before Matfield Green aid station. Iconic.