Kettle Moraine 100 Miler
Looking back, after a month, I feel that running 100 miles may be the greatest opportunity for honesty we as humans can achieve in a single event. But before I get there let me tell you about the path and the journey that brought me to La Grange, Wisconsin to earn the coveted miniature kettle.
I’ve been living a vegan lifestyle for 7 years now, it was spurred on by my daughter’s birth and visiting a cold dairy farm in Northern San Diego. It was cold turkey; I went from meat and potatoes to potatoes and potatoes, overnight. That immediate change of diet, clothing, vehicle type, and social interaction was (now that I look back at it) jarring. I had always been a bit of a loner, not out of desire but out of choices I had made, first to move away from home for school and baseball, than to be a pilot who flies around the globe, and now being vegan put me in an ever smaller social group. The veganism led me down this path of questioning almost everything I know, about spirituality, life, relationships, and literally what it meant to be a human. For several months I was obsessed with this idea that we as humans had eliminated wild cows, I would ponder it, think about how audacious we as a species where to just knowingly obliterate wild species and then turn them into a commodity. That thought process led me to the question of wild humans, and why we are at the top of the food chain, what made us so great, why are we different. I had remembered reading an article in Outside magazine about a running book that looked into our true human performance capabilities. I ordered the book on my Kindle, and finished Born to Run in a little less than a week. It answered so many questions for me and affirmed something I had been contemplating for a while, that we do have a unique trait, we do have a wild tendency, we did evolve in a specific way. We run, and not just a little, but a lot. To me it made perfect sense, I bought some Merrel trail gloves off eBay for $20 and hit the trails. I was living in La Mision Baja California at the time. My house was in a valley just a few miles from the beach and in between 5-600 foot cliffs. I began running everyday, just a few miles in the morning. There is no other way of putting it, it was a spiritual experience; the early morning, the lush trail, the ocean scent, it was incredible. What wasn’t incredible was my marriage and business essentially falling apart, I’m not going to get too deep into that but needless to say things were very bad for me outside of my 30 minutes of running in the morning.
Fast-forward now to La Grange, WI. The Kettle Moraine is in many ways a typical Midwestern Ultramarathon. There isn’t a ton of elevation, but it’s never really flat, pretty much ever. I signed up for KM100 to earn a Western States lottery ticket, I drove up from my home in St. Louis intending to sleep in my van at the race parking lot. When I get to the check in, it was made pretty clear parking after dark in the lot would be a no-no. Amazingly the RD suggested I just come park in his driveway about 15 minutes away. I pulled up just before sunset to watch the big clear sky turn to beautiful pinks and purples and then finally my favorite shade of blue that is impossible to describe or capture. I met up with my friend Jeff and his wife Gloria, who were crewing me, just as the evenings darkness took hold and we finalized all the last minute details on pace and support. I had made these sweet laminated sheets that showed aid stations, pace, times, drop bags etc. They went off to the hotel and I closed up the trunk and set two alarms for the morning, it was officially go time.
Moving to the Midwest was instigated by a job, a job I really needed at the time. After the interview I went back to the airport and cried, I was so happy that I had gotten the gig. This job meant and still does mean so much to me, it allowed me to consistently provide for my children. In SoCal, I had been living essentially week to week for seven years. I had been running my own company, the hours were super long, but the ability to see the fruits of your labor was genuinely satisfying. But as things became more complex in my personal life, I could not maintain the hours needed to be put in and the company’s performance suffered. It was really frustrating; I was taking care of two little ones and my company full time. I routinely got no more than 10 hours of sleep in an entire week. I couldn’t sustain it, and my children and I needed to leave. When I got to St. Louis it reminded me so much of home in Staten Island, the buildings, the people, the house we lived in. For the first time in a long time I knew a path to follow. I met a beautiful woman, made some new friends, and after a short while I found the trails. Don’t tell anyone but the trails in St. Louis are epic and numerous.
Race morning, I had left the windows open in the van to keep from heating up to much, for whatever reason everything up there smelled of fresh lilac, and so my first breathes of the day were met with sweet fragrance. I hopped out of the van to find temps were low, the sky clear, just like the night before. I quickly got my stuff on and pulled out of the driveway not thinking too much of the impending race, I really just wanted to focus on getting there with enough time to fill up my hydration vest with water and not have to rush. I pulled up to the Nordic trail head found that the place was buzzing with pre-race activity, I still managed to find a spot in the lot but it looked like the participants would begin to spill into the grass soon. I remember thinking how happy I was that I wouldn’t get my feet wet with the morning dew off the grass before the race. I pinned my bib to my shorts, threw my trail mix in the back pocket of my vest and headed over to the start line. The start line was made up of the usual accoutrement of ultra-enthusiasts, young guns, chiseled ladies, 50 year old moms that are about to run hours faster than me, and people who aren’t positive they know what they signed up for. There are three race distances that start at Nordic, the 100 mile solo, 100K, and 100 mile relay. After the gun goes off there is 3 to 4 miles of “what race are you doing” questions as people begin to think about their pace and their comfort for the day. I feel I’m running at a comfortable pace through the first 10k, my Garmin is already .2 off, I’m sure a result of the ultra-trac mode I set the GPS to. I look down at my pace card and confirm the times are good for my goal pace of 28 hours. All systems are go.
Eight weeks before the KM100, I was toeing the line for the Double Chubb 50K at my home trail here in High Ridge, MO. My wife and I moved to High Ridge, a small town outside of St. Louis County so the kids could play in the woods as they grow up, something that she and I both had in our youth. My little town is in between four state parks, all of them sporting significant trail mileage. Nearly every morning I run a 4-5 mile section of the Chubb trail before work. It has about 800 feet of gain and a plethora really great, gnarly Midwest trail. The Chubb 25/50K is a great race put on by my friend John Sheppard as part of the St. Louis Ultrarunners Group. I had been doing a lot of really great training going into the race, my mileage was right on track and this 50K was going to mark the beginning of the big month of miles before KM 100. This last year had been the most serious I’d ever been about training and because this was my normal trail I felt a 50K PR was well within reach. The course itself is two loops of the Chubb trail which connects West Tyson and Lone Elk Park. On the first out and back I felt incredible, smooth and in control, I ran the flats and the downs and power hiked the climbs. On the way back, at about mile 13 I stumbled, caught myself, and then fully fell. My toes on my left foot hurt really bad, I walked for about 10 minutes and continued on through some pain. The second loop was a lot slower but I still did manager a PR. I also realized two days later after an X-Ray I had managed to break my big toe. No running for six weeks. Brutal.
We are coming up on three hours into the KM 100 and the skies are beginning to look ominous. The overcast and cool temps are giving way to cumulus clouds, humidity, and distant thunder. The course thus far has been a mix of single track ups and downs followed by long swaths of cross country running through meadows. For some reason when I was reading about the race I thought the boardwalks that are mentioned are throughout the meadows, I can confirm they are not. And as the first drops of rain begin to fall, I find myself wishing they were. The rain seems to give the ground a wink and a nudge to become instantly muddy, its altogether more possible that the meadow is always muddy to an extent but I like the idea of the sky and ground conspiring against ultra-runners. I roll into the aid station Wilton Road (mile 21) and the sky unloads. I’m under the tent when the true deluge begins but there is no avoiding it, the race isn’t 21 miles, it is 100, I grab a fist full of olives and smash a potato into the salt and move into the rain. The next five miles is more muddy meadows, shoe sucking death march kind of mud, the type of mud that reminds you of civil war films where everyone gets gangrene. By the next aid station everything is beyond wet, it is saturated, the trail, my clothes, my body, everything. As I run into the forested hilly turn around area at 50K the rain begins to subside. The hills are slick with mud, and as the sun has peaked out again the forest radiates with that intense humid heat that one can only find in the woods after a storm. I fully admit at this point that I am in sufferville, my feet are not doing awesome and for the first time of the day my pace slips a bit. After the turn around I regroup at mile 38, I take my shoes off and literally duct tape moleskin to my heals, I normally don’t have issues with my heals but with the rain and all the slipping I can feel hot spots creeping up and the thought of doing 60 miles with blown out heels is not appealing. I lightly wrap the duct tape around my heels like it’s an ace bandage, change my shirt and hat, and dump about a pound of ice in my buff for the next 8 miles of fully exposed now super sunny meadows. I take 15 long minutes at the aid station and trot off.
I can confirm six weeks of no running is a tough one when prepping for a 100 miler. I asked my doctor if there was anything that I could do to continue my cardio. My thought process was this, I had a marathon scheduled as my last long training run two weeks before KM100, if I could complete that marathon in a time close to my 100 marathon mile splits we would be good to go. This essentially meant the day that I would be cleared to run I would go do a trail marathon in the Mark Twain National Forest. My doctor said the only thing I could do was ride a stationary bike. No one on the face of the planet has ordered a kinetic bike trainer that fast. The trainer came two days later and for the next five weeks me and that trainer were best of friends. We ate snacks, we learned how to pronounce chamois, we stayed up late, we binge watched Game of Thrones together, it was the real deal. The only issue, I missed the woods, the bird songs, the movement, and truthfully I wasn’t convinced the bike was going to keep me at my previous fitness level. Truthfully I am incredibly grateful for that trainer, the Wednesday before my marathon I went to the doctor to confirm the big toe had healed, and he gave the thumbs up. I haven’t been on the trainer since, no hard feelings.
The sun in the meadows is relentless; the mud is also not helping. At around mile 44 the insole of my left shoe just decides to back out of my shoe entirely. For nearly four miles I’m cursing the slightly over grown trail and how the tall grass is rubbing against my feet in the opposite direction of my stride, I am being a baby, I know it, the grass knows it, and the war between my ears is beginning to rage. To hot, to muddy, to slow, the gang is all there. I pass by Bluff Aid station at mile 55, pick up my headlamp, and pretty much convince myself that stopping at 100K seems like an awesome idea, one of the best really. From the aid station I have 7 miles to the 100K turn around, I check my pace and I’m only 30 minutes behind my goal pace, my watch though is giving me really bad splits showing me running 20 minute miles. At this point I couldn’t reconcile the two in my mind, I assumed the splits are correct and mentally I’m finished. I know at that pace there is no way to finish under the cut offs. I turn my phone on for some music and get a small flurry of positive texts from friends and family. I call my crew and tell them I think I’m done. I call my wife to say the same, and either she didn’t hear me right or was ignoring my words of doubt cause all she says was “You got this.” This rallies me a bit for the last four miles but the Garmin splits are still showing way too slow. As I run under the start/banner I don’t even look at the clock, my legs are wobbly and I tell the stop/start line race officials I’m not sure if I’m going back out. I talk with Jeff, and I sit down. I do about 5 minutes of sitting and nothing, I get up to grab about a pound of watermelon, and while talking everything over with Jeff I look over to the clock. Something in my head realizes I’m still an hour and a half in front of the cutoff. That doesn’t reconcile with what my watch had been telling me at all. I sit back down, change my shirt and shoes, and I tell Jeff and Gloria there’s no way I’m leaving time on the clock. I head back on the course at 11:45 PM. I’d never run beyond 62 miles, it was time to do just that with the added bonus of it being the middle of the night.
Berryman Campground, two week before KM100, I’d officially been cleared to run two days earlier. I ran 4 miles on Thursday and 2 on Friday. I drive out to Berryman campground the night before, getting in at about 10 pm. I love Berryman, the course is a 25 mile loop, the two races the SLUGS hold here every year are low key yet well done. It’s the perfect balance between a big freaking deal and just another Saturday long run. The course itself is very typical Midwestern gnarly. Nearly 100% single track with rocks, roots, creek crossings, the whole nine yards. As I settle into the back of the van, the rain and thunder come and provide a backdrop of soft rumbles and drips and drops perfect for getting a good night’s rest. I wake up once, around 3AM, to the sound of driving rain and heavy thunder. Flashes of lightning and the howling wind keep me up for around 30 minutes but I get back to it. Morning comes and I get up to see the 50 milers off. I meet up with Matt at the startline, he is running the 50 and is also coming back from an injury. After seeing Matt off I get some coffee and eat a bagel while putting my stuff together. At 7 am the race is off, my goal is to run sub six hours, nice and easy, nothing special but fast enough not to worry about the hundo in a few weeks. Through the first 10 miles I feel my goal is very reasonable, I’m easily running in the 10 minute range per mile and things are feeling ok. At about mile 15 my ankles are starting to feel it, it becomes pretty clear the stationary bike was great for cardio but it’s inherent low impactness has not prepared me for repeated impacts. Alas by mile 18, I am hating life. The mud, the wet, the rocks, the everything has me not enjoying myself. At mile 24 the sun comes back out and the dense forest essentially beats the hell out of me with humidity. I run through the marathon at 6:11. I ran the race a year before in 12 fewer minutes and find myself concerned for my ability to actually finish the 100 mile distance in just two weeks.
The last 28 miles of a hundred miler are probably never that fantastic, my experience agrees with that hypothesis. I had run the Nordic to Bluff portion twice already and I swear to you those rolling kettles increased in size and number for that third time out. The biggest positive of those first five miles after the 100k is that they are marked. I decide to use the markers to compare my Garmin time with actual time, trying to reconcile the differences. The difference is ridiculous, my Garmin is telling me I’m running nearly a full two minutes slower per mile than the results of dead reckoning. This pumps me up. For the first time in nearly 70 miles, I feel like I got this. I run through Bluff again at 70.7 ready for the next 25 hilly miles, my biggest mistake here was not taking the time to drink some coffee. I regret that after another 5 miles of running. On the hills leading up to Duffin Road I can tell I’m dozing off. I’ve never really experienced the desire to sleep while moving as much as I did on my way up to that aid station. Between sleep deprivation and having run 75 miles my pace is seriously lacking. I lost another 15 minutes on the first 4 miles of hills going to Duffin and its another 4.5 miles of hills to Rice Lake which is the turn around. At this point chaffing is becoming a real issue as well, I had switched shirts at the 100K, but for whatever reason what is normally a super soft tee hydration vest combination is now ripping my sides and back apart. At Rice Lake (mile 81.9) I’m an hour up on the cutoff time and feel confident I’m going to get to the end. Jeff takes a look at my back and says it’s pretty bad. For about 8 seconds I consider leaving without carrying any water just to rid myself of the hydration pack. I’m quickly convinced that is a bad idea and luckily Jeff has his vest and grabs it from the car. The bottom of his pack sits considerably higher than the one I have been wearing and it makes all the difference. Knowing I’m going to lose some more time on the hills going back (I estimate about 30 minutes) I strap everything back up and roll, committing myself to not stopping at any of the other aid stations for more than 2 minutes.
If you have ever ran with me or look at my Strava you will notice nearly 95% of my runs start at 5:30 in the morning. Coming down from Rice Lake I am in my relative comfort zone with time and temperature. By the time I get to the highway 12 aid station (86.3) its seven o’clock, the sun has peeped above the trees and its clear it’s going to be nice and sunny. Call it fatigue or just hurrying up too much, I completely forget to pack my buff with ice as I had been doing the previous day. Regret quickly comes into my life as the next section of the course features exposed single track and a hot morning sun. Rolling into Duffin Road, I have never been happier to see a cooler of ice and jugs of water at the unmanned aid station, quickly I pour ice in my buff and top off the water bottles with ice and water. Noting the time on my watch, I notice I’m now only 30 minutes in front of the cutoff. Less than 10 miles, that’s all I need to finish now, less than 10 miles in just under 3 hours. On a day where one hasn’t run 90 miles already, 10 miles in 3 hours would be a joke. Not today, 10 miles seems like an eternity. For reasons I still cannot comprehend, the 2.5 miles from Duffin (90.5) to Bluff (93) never end, I keep looking for this hill I know I’m supposed to go up that leads you to the aid station and that hill never seems to show up. After almost an hour I finally arrive at Bluff, the station is still having fun but you can tell they’re packing up, it has been a longnight and the cutoffs are looming. I lost another 10 minutes to the cutoff on the last section. Ice, Water, Potatoes, I’m out of there. Seven miles to the end.
My mind goes to a different place, I question and accept everything simultaneously. Why am I here, what am I doing, who am I, is this worth it, all life’s favorite questions are rolling through my head. Now on the relatively flat terrain I try to run but my legs and feet will just not have it. I come up on Tamarack (95.8) and the aid station is closed up, having left watermelon and water for the final stragglers. At this point I’m 15 minutes above the cutoff. Five miles to go, I have an hour and a half. I begin to really focus on my breathing, I pull my hat down so I can see nothing but about 10 yards in front of me. I count to 8 repeatedly, I shortened it from 10 because I began to realize I was getting distracted somewhere in my breathing after 9. The pattern now is rhythmic, pole down, foot stride, 1, pole down, foot stride 2, and so on. In the end, this little exercise was the only way I was able to keep myself from giving up.
There is often much talk of mindfulness in ultrarunning, I don’t know if I really understood that concept until those last 5 miles. Running 100 miles, for me, required 107040 seconds, most of which I counted individually. That required me to be vigilant and present, not wrapped up in the future glory, or the past training (which could always be better). Counting those seconds forced thoughts of doubts out of my head so they would not fester, forced me to forget others expectations of me, forced me to forget my injury. Being present for those individual sections grounded me to actual experience, the actual step, the actual stride, the actual physicality of running. This focus on the physical allowed my brain to handle the complex set of emotions that appear in any ultra to come and go as if they were passing clouds in a blue bird sky. The anxiety of the miles to go, and the self-loathing of those miles taking so long went away as I began to realize that the only way to affect those distant concepts of distance over time was to take care of the present moment. It is such a bizarre concept at times, to realize the only means of control we have for the future is the individual moments of the present. How much of our races, training, or life is concerned with the future or the past, when the only actual control we have in on the present, in the now.
Climbing yet another kettle I see the smallest trail marker on the right hand side of the trail and it reads, 1. I have 30 minutes to go 1 mile. I’m going to do it. Even now I smile at that realization. I try so hard to at least shuffle, and shuffle I do. Even now at mile 99 I’m confused about the course, I hadn’t come this way during the daylight at all and I thought I remember the finish line being on a long, shallow slope downhill, but as I approach what I think is the end I’m going up again! Then there is a small left turn and I see it. The clock is reading 29:43, I pretty much immediately begin crying and hustle myself across the line and grab my miniature kettle.
Grateful is the word that often comes to mind now when I think of my race, grateful to have the opportunity to experience the outdoors so vividly in a relatively short period of time. I’m grateful to my family for supporting long runs and seemingly endless shoe purchases. I’m grateful to Missouri for showing me the beauty of the common and the unexpected. I’m grateful to my friends who gave me advice, crewed me, and helped me train. After running 100 miles, I have never been more grateful for running itself, if you are out there searching, for yourself, for some purpose, for some beauty, for health, for friends, grab some shoes and get out there. It doesn’t matter if the run is 10 feet or 10 miles, get out in the woods and be a human, be wild, and take the time to be in the moment. I’ll see you on the trails!