Yellow "Race Event" signs pockmark the ground at Wyandotte County Lake Park, a 1,500-acre expanse just a few minutes from The Legends megamall. The parking lot steadily fills with men and women pulling on mud-caked shoes. Dusk casts lazy shadows on the lake as runners fill out forms and pin numbers to their athletic shorts. At the edge of the crowd, a lanky woman tries to dress up her nervousness with casual humor. "My goal," she says, "is to not cry in the first half-mile."
This isn't a typical fun run. It's not the kind of charity jaunt that's held on a Saturday morning with groggy cops keeping watch over joggers as they meander through sleepy city streets.
No, this is Psycho Night.
These runners have the standard gear: the fancy Garmin watches, the tiny iPods. They carry water bottles with sleeves that attach to their hands. They wear gaiters that cover the tops of their running shoes to keep out pebbles and burrowing insects. And with headlamps wrapped around their foreheads, they look like Cyclopes that have found Buddhist enlightenment.
I'm feeling like the dorky kid at recess in the $10 athletic watch I've had since ninth grade. I'm embarrassed that I can't figure out how to tighten the straps on the crappy headlamp my younger sister used at summer camp.
A few minutes before 8 p.m., a woman remarks ominously about the creepy sounds she hears out here during solo night hikes. But before she can elaborate, Ben Holmes gets the crowd's attention. Holmes is one of the leaders of the Kansas City Trail Nerds, the group that puts on these races through the woods, in the dark and over any terrain. The third-annual Psycho Night race is six miles through the hilly forest — a navigable distance for newbies. So Holmes doesn't skimp on the instructions.
Yes, you're going to have to hurdle those two creeks in the first 50 meters, Holmes explains. But that will get you ready for obstacles you'll have to dodge on the trail. Run too close to the person ahead of you, and you'll be picking the dirt out of your teeth. And most important: Don't think the weak remnants of sunlight will guide your way, especially in the deep woods of WyCo Park.
"You do need a headlamp," Holmes warns. "Someone tried to go without last year, and they ended up coming back on the road. And they were scared to death on the road, too."
He warns of the ample poison ivy. "Remember: leaves of three, don't wipe with me," he says.
"And as for other wildlife and fauna endemic to this area," he continues, "we've got the WyCo mud snipe; flying monkeys; the deadly, pernicious snid; and you might see one or two jumping tree gators."
A racer in the crowd yells: "Are there plenty of shallow graves?"
"Oh, yeah," Holmes replies. "We've got a motto: All whiners will be buried in shallow, unmarked graves. So don't be a whiner. We do have a shovel at the aid station."
That motto is the root of the Kansas City Trail Nerds. Eight years ago, Holmes was running through snow and ice on a brutal winter night at Shawnee Mission Park and was shocked to encounter Kyle Amos gutting it out in the cold. Because they rarely met other athletes kicking up dirt after dark, Amos and Holmes started training together on the trails. Friends started to join them until the group swelled enough to need a name. They called themselves the Kansas City Trail Nerds. Their mud-spattered, insect-defying ranks continued to grow, and in 2004 the group put on its first "Pyscho" race — a 50-kilometer event that only 21 of the 43 entrants managed to finish.