On the weekend of Kettle, I died a few deaths. I lost a bit of sanity (but got it back, I think). I did not finish strong. I did not run with good strategy. I did not care about my time. But I finished the Kettle 100 mile endurance race. After failing to accomplish this goal in 2013, vindication is sweet.
364 days is a long time to live with a failure around my neck. My last attempt at the Kettle 100 ended in me feeling mentally broken and quitting at mile 63. I learned a lot in that race and applied it to the 2014 attempt. I also now understood, mentally, how I needed to be prepared for the rigors to follow. If you care to read about the 2013 attempt, check out the following links (Link1, Link2, Link3). But that is now old history. Here is my new story.
But before I start, I’d like to tell you a bit about the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run. Feel free to skip this section if you know this kinda stuff.
This endurance run, in its 19th edition, took place in early June, on the trails in the wonderful Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin, mostly on portions of the 1000-mile Ice Age Trail (IAT). Those trails vary from steep and rocky to flat and runnable, forest canopied to open prairie, narrow single-track to wide grassy ski trails. No mountains though. Or glaciers (not anymore anyway, and the penguins have long skedaddled).
The race started at the Nordic Ski Trails in La Grange, WI. We then headed west to the IAT, where we proceeded north to the Scuppernong trails near Dousman. This first section was about 31 miles and made for a perfect first 50k. We then turned around and headed back on these same trails returning to Nordic. Then out from Nordic again, back out onto the IAT, but this time heading south to Rice Lake, returning to Nordic via the same route. A double out-and-back.
The race was run by some fantastic and special people, with one of the best volunteer groups to be found in Midwest races. Absolutely first-rate.
Living in the Twin Cities, it is sometimes difficult to make it down to my favorite running trails in the Wisconsin Kettle Moraine. Therefore, I am very grateful that my parents live just miles from the forest and are always gracious and willing to host me for races. My wife and crew Beth, and the 2 younger of our 4 children headed down bright and early Friday morning so we could be at packet pickup on-time and spend some extra time scoping out some of the course we missed last year (Bluff to Uruguay, er Rice Lake).
Packet pickup and check-in was quick and easy; a cool black shirt in a big green bag. Following that, Beth and I took a drive through some beautiful Kettle Moraine terrain to find the Highway 12 station (easy) and the Rice Lake turnaround (not so easy). We were glad we did because finding aid stations in the dark can be difficult for someone not familiar with the local roads. Beth would absolutely hate it if she missed me at an aid station.
With the logistics complete, and a small meal in my tummy, our kids being spoiled by grandma and grandpa with popcorn, ice cream and a Godzilla movie, Beth and I were in bed by 8:30 with a bright-and-early 4:30 am alarm set; which went off all too soon. Everything, of course, was laid out the night before, so we got dressed, did some quick packing, and were out the door by 5:00. Yawn.
|The Lemon-drop of Power|
There seemed to be about 400 or so people at the Nordic starting area getting ready to support or run either the 100k or 100 mile races. It was a comfortable jumble of folks; some nervous, some extremely fit, and most both. I love the starts of ultras, so low-key and good-natured. Beth and I hung around the smiling crowd until the opening remarks, waiting for the starting gun to go off. “Anyone who does not have their timing chip, please come to the table and retrieve it, we have several yet to be picked up”. Whoops! I gave Beth a last kiss, ran over to collect my timing chip, and then we were off.
And then we were off, Nordic (1), mile 0.0
Down the rabbit hole. 250ish 100-mile, and 100ish 100k runners fed through the starting gate funnel and into the first section of the race. Because of the route design as a double out-and-back, the first seven miles of the race become pretty familiar because we will end up traversing it four times. It is usually pretty painful by the last trip due to the endless and pointless ups-and-downs (PUDS), but the first time through was a breeze. The temps were in the 60’s and I was feeling fine, cruising along in a crowd that lightened up after about 3 or 4 miles. Tamarack is the first station we met, where my sister Laurie was volunteering. I did stop to give her a hug, but then I was through and off to the Bluff station and onto the IAT.
At the Bluff aid station I met Beth for the first time. I doffed some cool-weather clothes and slid on a light mesh shirt. I took my first bottle of UCAN, 1/2-strength, and I was off. Totally coherent and having fun. It was a beautiful morning for a run.
At last year’s race, one of the things that brought me down was a broken upper body. This year was to be different. I did core exercises all through the winter, and I worked on keeping my upper body loose throughout the race. Coming into Bluff, I stretched my arms and core. No problems this race.
North onto the IAT, Bluff (1), mile 7.5
The wide open and hilly ski trails at Nordic then fed into a rocky, single-track ascent onto the IAT. Now this is real running; fresh legs, gnarly trails, steady footfalls, and wonderful views. After the first climb to the top of a bluff (with a fantastic vista), the trail took us into the woods, along the rugged remains of the last glacier. We cruised up and down eskers and kettles, through sun-dappled woods. This was a great part of the race (on the way out) and very much worth the price of admission. I caught in with a train of like-minded runners and we just cruised easily through the forest hills.
Following an unmanned water-stop at Horseriders we were spit out of our forested womb, birthed into an ultra party that is the Emma Carlin aid station. Woohoo! Beth was here to get me some more UCAN, and to ice me up. We knew what was coming, and heat preparation was key to surviving the next miles and hours.
Onto the prairie, Emma Carlin (1), mile 15.8
When it is cool out, this section of the IAT is one of my favorites. Where else can you go to find prairie as far as your eye can see, wildflowers and native plants with nary an unnatural sound (except for airplanes of course). But it was starting to get warm, and we were out in the open now. The terrain, thankfully, was even and smooth, so these miles went easy. So far so good! But we would be seeing this section on the way back; when it would be warmer, and my legs would be more trashed.
After two more unmanned water-stops at Antique Lane and Wilton we were into the Highway 67 aid station. This aid station marks the end of the prairie and back into the woods and hills.
|Coming into Highway 67 Aid Station|
Back into the woods and hills, Hwy 67 (1), mile 24.1
At this point of the race, I was still feeling fine. I could feel the temps increasing and the humidity rising, but these were problems for the future. The here and now was just fine. This next section tended to be mostly tree-covered and hilly, with some technical footing thrown in, and some actual switchbacks. Nice.
The highway ZZ aid station is thrown in the middle of this section, but I just cruised right through. The last portion of this section wound through a campground and was pretty easy, so no problems here. And before we knew it, the first 50k of the race was history.
At the Scuppernong 50k turnaround it was a quick bottle change (still UCAN) with Beth, and then back out onto the trails. My legs were still is good shape, but I knew the heat would become a problem soon. It was now well into the 80’s I think. I was sweating pretty heavily.
After the second Hwy 67 aid station is where the fun started. The prairies opened up to upper-80’s heat and very little tree cover. Even with the ice and a good water dousing at the aid station, I was overheating and I knew it. My smooth, even pace turned into a shuffle, while my mind started to lose focus. I was in good enough condition to know that I was not in danger; I was still lucid and sweating. Taking in calories was out of the question when it was this hot though. I would just get nauseous; no water available for digestion. Dang it was hot, but I knew relief was soon to come.
Relief, Emma Carlin (2), mile 47.4
I stumbled into Emma Carlin looking for Beth; I knew she would know what to do. When we found each other, I sat on the ground and proceeded to try to get my respiration under control while Beth stuffed ice everywhere; down my back, in my hat, up my shorts (that brought me back to life). I may have whined a bit at this point, but we’re not sure. When on the ground, I looked up to see a woman staring at me in concern. She was obviously waiting for her runner to come in, and if I was in this bad shape now, what would her runner look like? I realized then how I looked, so I smiled at her, got up, slammed water and a bit of UCAN, I was gratefully back into the woods and nearing the halfway point.
Only, there was not much relief in the woods. With the high temps came humidity, which did not go away with the tree cover. In fact, all the trees did was block any breeze that tried to cool us off. This meant more slow going. My spirits were OK though, at least I was on my way back to the Nordic turnaround. This section of trail saw my pace slow considerably due to the heat, but I was still in pretty good spirits. I don’t remember much of the sun-dappled woods that I saw on the way out, at this point it was all about getting back to Nordic.
It was at this point, I think, where my mind slipped just a bit; where I started playing mental games with myself. Kinda like Gollum. “Should I quit at Nordic again this year? Maybe 100k is my distance, and I’m just not a 100-miler. No, I have to do better than last year, just turn around at Nordic and quit at the next aid station, then this year would be an improvement, and thus a success. Right? There’s just no way I’m running 100 miles though, just ain't my day. Beth is going to be pissed, I’ll have to work on my speech.” Pulling into Bluff at mile 55.7, I told Beth nothing. I was still not eating, but I was moving OK. After getting re-iced, and a few whimpers, I was back on the trail returning to Nordic.
Actually, Beth tells me that, at this point, I told her this would be my last attempt at this distance. She just replied, "uhuh, right."
The 100k turnaround, Nordic (2), mile 63.2
My mental state coming into Nordic had degraded substantially. I could not think a positive thought, even though I knew this was what I needed to be doing. I just could not reference anything happy. My patronus would have been pretty pathetic at this point. Once at Nordic, I sat on the ground thinking I did not want to go further, but that shifted part of me knew I really would. It was at this point where my psyche really seemed to split. I didn’t really know it at the time, but I separated the wimpy part of me who wanted to quit from my pragmatic self; the part of me who knew I would continue; and one was keeping secrets from the other. More on this bit of weirdness later.
Back on the ground, Beth re-iced me and forced water into my gullet. My sister Laurie was telling me I needed to get up, and give me a banana or something. Marty, a friend who started with an injury, with a planned DNF at the 50k mark, knelt down to my level, eye-to-eye (man-to-man), and told me “you know what you need to do, so get back up and moving on the trail again.” Darn-it, the man card. My pragmatic self knew he was right, so up I got and out I went. Just for giggles I took an espresso gel with me to see if I could start taking in calories again. I took my headlamp too, it was getting dark. Plus, now it was raining and I was getting cold.
Back on the trail, cooling off in the rain, I started feeling better. After the espresso gel, I felt 100-grams-of-caffiene better. I wouldn’t call my state “good”, but at least I was serviceable. I was moving. Plus the temps were thankfully dropping. By my return to Bluff, the rain had stopped, and I was actually considering taking one more leg before quitting. I was curious what lay south of Bluff. How bad could it be?
Heading South, Bluff (3), mile 70.7
I took on water and 2 gels at Bluff, plus a Red Bull, got a few “keep moving” words from Beth, and entered uncharted territory. It was dark by now, and my headlamp was doing its best to illuminate the forested trail ahead. Heading south on the IAT, the trail now took a big drop in elevation. I kept eating and drinking, and dropping, until I reached a sort-of valley. A very frog-infested-croaky valley. The trail here was pretty flat and I actually started making good time. My mind was still definitely split. My wimpy side was planning on quitting at Highway 12, while my pragmatic self knew I would, at least, be going to Rice Lake. It kept telling the wimp what it needed to hear. Actually, Mr. Pragmatic, at this point, made a deal with the wimp. If you finish this race, you will never be asked to do another. Hmmm. Sounds reasonable. Let me think about that.
Mr. Pragmatic was lying.
Running in the dark, with my world boundaries the size of a headlamp beam, is some kind of awesome and surreal. Hours of focusing only on the trail ahead. It was Zen, or something very like that. Steady pace and breathing, adjusting footfalls for the rocks and roots 5 feet ahead; nothing existed outside my headlamp beam. Well, the frogs existed. Lordy they’re loud at night. Croaking and barking, they kept me company throughout this section. My world slowly changed from one of light and bustling excitement, to darkness, rocks and root, and frogs.
The road crossings were lit by green glow sticks. Very nice touch. It was then, with a line of glow sticks, that I entered the Highway 12 aid station. I handled the shocking transition between the Zen of the woods and headlamp, to the lights and sounds of the aid station, well; I was actually feeling pretty good. Now I knew I would make it to Rice Lake (where I could quit with my head held high, maybe). I did not tarry at the station, so after recharging my water bottle, and taking a couple of gels, I was back into the woods towards the Rice Lake turnaround. I wanted me more of that Zen.
Well, having not run these sections before, the trail into Highway 12 was actually very nice. I made great time and my pragmatic self actually started “knowing” that I would finish. Ha! I had no idea what lay ahead. The nice smooth trail of the previous section was replaced with washouts, stairs, steep ascents and descents, rocks and roots. In other words, technical “gnarly”. Oh boy. The steeps were relentless, and the downs were worse due to the rocky nasty nature of the washout hills. If I fell on one of those descents, well, I think it would have hurt. A lot. I had yet to fall in the race, so I was due.
So I took it slow through this section. I was eating and drinking well, but I would not consider myself moving very fast. More power-hiking really. All the nice smooth trail Zen was replaced with zombie running. I would love to hammer this section of trail some day, but not today. Not now. By the time I rolled into Rice Lake, I was in a sour mood. My pragmatic self was taking a logical beating from the wimp. Plus, the trail crossed a narrow footbridge without railings over water prior to Rice Lake. I did NOT want to fall in there.
The final turnaround, Rice Lake, mile 81.9
I don’t remember much from Rice Lake. All my good feelings were gone by now. Beth ministered to me with ice, gels and water. I also took on some real food as well; pretzels and a sandwich I think. And before the wimp could open his mouth, I was back out onto the trail, heading home.
I think Mr. Pragmatic had played a joke on me. It knew that once I started heading back towards the finish, my mental state would improve a bit; I would start to believe. This did not help my mental state through the last section of trail though. This was going to suck. And suck it did. Up, down, tiptoe through the rocks and roots, all in the world of a headlamp beam. And frogs, lots of frogs. Wait, were there frogs on this section? Maybe I hallucinated them.
I’m not sure how I dragged myself though this section. I do know that, to maintain a bit of sanity, that I stepped away from myself a bit, and became a bit of an automaton. I just kept moving, one foot in front of the lamp-lit other, to the next landmark. Just make it to the next road crossing, water stop, aid station, whatever. I knew my pragmatic self had already won, that I was going to finish, but my wimpy self still needed to be dealt with. We still had a lot work remaining.
Once I pulled back into Highway 12 for the last time, I sat down and let Beth nurse me back to life. I was more pissed than anything. These stupid trails were slowing me down from getting this beast of a distance over with. And I wanted to be done; just end this. BTW, the cheese and salami sandwiches at Highway 12 were delicious. I would never choose to eat such a thing in real life; but I was far from that.
After more water and real food, I was back out on the trail. I knew this section would be easier, and it was. I started moving like a runner again, though nothing anyone else would consider running. At least I wasn’t power hiking. It was still dark, but I knew the second sunrise would soon offer me an emotional pick-me-up (at least I read this happens). All through this last section of the IAT, headlamps were still coming towards me. Oh my. These poor souls had yet to traverse the crap that now lay behind me. They had hours to go. Poor souls. But really, they seemed stronger than I; they had a determination in their voices as we offered each other encouragement in passing. Tough souls. And before I knew it, the sky was starting to lighten, and I was off the IAT and into Bluff.
A note on staying up all night. I took some caffeine to help keep me awake, but not that much. I really didn’t ever feel like falling asleep; I felt as awake as when I started. Weird.
As good as done, Bluff (4), mile 93.1
I knew I was as good as done in Bluff; with the race that is. I just wanted to be done; to get this over. At Bluff, I did not sit down, and I did not whine. Beth filled me up with water and a gel, and I left post-haste, back to Nordic, just end this.
The last seven miles of this course are the home stretch, no doubt. But they still hurt. Those endless hills that seemed so simple in the beginning of this adventure were relentless now. But they were nothing I couldn’t put behind me. So after a nice stretch through Tamarack, where I high-fived my sis for the last time, I was running to the finish. It hurt to run, but my pride would not allow for walking. I passed a few folks through these pointless hills (the whole thing is pointless really, not just the hills, but anyway), each person hurting more than I was, I endured until the mile markers started to count down from…
Five, still a good distance to go, don’t start thinking about the finish yet. Why is it taking soooo long for the next mile marker! This is the distance I run with my friends in Stillwater every Saturday morning. That’s a really long way! Too long! Until…
Four, ahhh, I’m making progress. Will these hills ever end? I think I missed the next mile marker. It has been forever since the last, oh wait there, up ahead is…
Three. I am actually going to finish this. At this point, my pragmatic self re-merged with the wimp, and both knew this was in the bag. I hurt. Everything hurt. And these hills were never ending. But I was moving forward. And these hills, did I mention these hills? My slow movement made each mile just draaag. But before I knew it, there was…
Two. Two miles. Holy cow, I thought I could hear the party at the end. I heard people for sure, and traffic. Keep running, just keep running. I so wanted to walk, but now I had no excuse worth listening to. And then the hills mercifully stopped. Run, just run Forrest. And enjoy this, no matter how much it hurt. And at long last, there it was…
One. One mile to go. Where is this energy coming from? Something my body was keeping in reserve I guess. At this point the whole race started to flash past me. The easy first miles, the dreadful heat that turned me into a drooling zombie, all the miles and miles of rocky hills seen through a headlamp. All that brought me to this point: one mile remaining in a 100 mile race. Actually, I passed 100 miles already, as the total distance in this race was 100.6. Whatever. Just run.
The finish line actually caught me by surprise. I rounded a corner and there was the mat. There was Beth waiting for me with a big smile on her face. I actually wished that that last 100 yards would take longer, just so I could savor this moment. But of course, like all appalling things, this race must come to an end. I crossed the finish line in 25 hrs 52 min.
I finished, Nordic (4), mile 100.6
I finished. Holy cow, I finished. What an amazing feeling; elated and destroyed at the same time. It was a good feeling. Like I stated in the beginning, today I died a few deaths. I lost a bit of sanity. I did not finish strong. I did not run with good strategy. But I finished. I imagined Nietzsche and Freud, kind of like Darth and Obe-wan at the end of Star Wars, smiling and nodding knowingly. I did not know how I did it, but I think they knew.
Beth was waiting for an embrace, and then prevented me from crumbling. My body, once it realized it was really done, went into shock a bit, I think. After feeling a bit light-headed, I started shaking uncontrollably. Forget food, I wanted a warm blanket and sleep. And thankfully, that came soon after; after a nice elevator ride. Elevators, what a nice invention.
The next day
Beth, God bless her, downed a Red Bull and a Coke, and safely drove us home Sunday afternoon. My body is now showing signs of recovery. I did sustain a sprained left ankle, or a strained left Achilles tendon; whatever. I am getting better though. I’ll be ready for Afton in 4 weeks.
Thank you to God for getting me to the point of being able to attempt something like this. Thank you to my parents for their support, grandchildren spoilage, and offer of domicile. My sister for her support along the route. Marty, for saying the right words to keep me moving. My friends and family back home following my progress via texts and offering their support. The great volunteers at the aid stations, without whom, this race could not be run. And, thank you Beth, without whom these pointless races would be just that, pointless. Thanks for giving this some meaning.
Am I doing this again next year? Heck yes! It would be the pragmatic thing to do.
251 hardy, optimistic folks singed up for the 100 mile race. I'm not sure how many toed the starting line, but the website RunRace.net lists 111 finishers, of which I was 44. Way to go, Kyle from TN (16:55) and Tracy from IN (19:16), the race winners.