The natural progression of any new ultra runner seems to be further and further distance. After completing a 50 and 43 miler my ego decided it was time to give 100 kilometers a try (that’s 62.13 miles to you blokes who have difficulty using a calculator). I chose Kettle Moraine as my battlefield, mostly because the dates worked out well for me and it was within a reasonable driving distance from home. It also sounded like quite a nice run with a lot of history (2008 marked the 13th year for the race).
The race is run mostly on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail (http://www.nps.gov/iatr/), the first four or five miles from the start and finish are run on the Nordic Trails, which are cross-country skiing trails. The Nordic Trails are very well maintained and very easy to run on (especially at night, when you’re two miles from the finish and don’t have a headlamp and can’t see the ground, not that I would have any experience with that or anything). The Ice Age Trail is all single-track rocky, root-covered generally-fun-to-run-on-trail-as-long-as-it’s-flat-and-you-can-feel-your-toes. The flat part only applied about 2% of the time.
From the race bulletin:
You will find the trail to be about 80% wooded terrain; with the rest meandering through gentle prairie or marsh areas. Part of the course will be a roller coaster of hills, with small rocks and roots scattered about. Other sections will be gently rolling with relatively smooth running surfaces. The pine sections give you that soft bed of pine needles that so many of us like to run on. Though the hills are not long and/or especially steep, they can take a tremendous toll on you if you attempt to run them. They are many and scattered throughout the course. "Silent Killers" is what one local runner calls them.
Sounds so pleasant, eh? Oh, if only. I’ll get to that later.
I left Kansas City on Friday the 5th of June fairly early in the morning. I went on an easy run before leaving as I think I tapered my training a bit too much the week before the race and was feeling generally sore and lethargic. I wanted to give my legs a gentile reminder of what they were supposed to do the next day.
The drive up to La Grange, Wisconsin was pretty uneventful. Well, uneventful save for the fact I averaged 34.1 miles to the gallon in my 8 year old Acura! Rock on! I’m still totally stoked about that. It was tough to force myself to eat during the entire drive and to drink enough water to keep myself hydrated as I was being so sedentary. In the future, when I drive to a race, I’ll probably try to head up an extra day before just so I don’t have to deal with that.
I got to packet pick-up in La Grange (a town which seems to consist of just a general store and a few houses) around 4pm, got everything for the race, and headed to my hotel in Whitewater. I checked into the world’s biggest dump motel and got stuck on the second floor by someone at the front desk who didn’t really care how much of a challenge stairs were going to be for me the next day. Sigh.
Whitewater was a beautiful college town (except for my hotel, and the Wal-Mart). I headed to the downtown area, found the most hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant I could, and got two orders spaghetti. This place was so hole-in-the-wall that they didn’t even have tables, it was only carry-out or delivery and dear God was it amazing. This was seriously the best spaghetti I’ve ever eaten. I’m half tempted just to drive back there right now for dinner it was that good. I ate half of it on the curb outside the restaurant like a bum and took the rest back to my hotel. (I’d like to note that the restaurant was across the street from a bar, from which the bartender was brining pitchers of something over for the staff to drink, presumably in return for some of their crack-like-food. Perhaps whatever was in those pitchers was making it into the food, I don’t know and don’t care.)
I watched a few episodes of Scrubs, got my stuff laid out for the race and fell asleep as early as I could.
I had my alarm set for 4:15 am. I woke up at 4:13 on my own. Figure that one out. The drive to the start didn’t take long so I got there at 5am, earlier than I probably should have. Whatever. I chilled out by my car and did several second-degree black belt sudoku puzzles (yeah, I’m that good) while pounding water and powerade.
At 5:50 the race director gave us some last-minute instructions which mostly consisted of “here’s where you’ll get lost, try not to” pointers and “please don’t litter”. I alway figure the “please don’t litter” one is pretty obvious but I still saw some trash on the trail, dammit. I also made two pretty monumental bad decisions at this point. I decided to run with two water bottles instead of my camelback and I decided to run with a hat on. I’ll explain this more later but the hat was probably the dumber of the two dumb ideas.
So, about 200 of us lined up at the start, and at 6am we were off. The beginning of the race was pretty packed with people, as would be expected, and the ground was pretty wet, something I didn’t expect. I kept a good 9min/mile pace at the beginning, running most of the time and walking some of the hills. They weren’t too bad through this section (at least they weren’t too bad on the way out, coming back at the end they felt horrible). The scenery was nice, my legs felt good, it felt like it was going to be a good race.
We hit the first aid station around mile 5. I wasn’t tired and wasn’t low on fluids so I decided to keep running as the second aid station was only 2.3 miles from the first one. I think this was a bad idea. I was so caught up in just running I forgot to think eight hours ahead. I should have stopped and ate something, even if I didn’t feel like I needed to. This would have paid dividends in the meadow (saying the meadow makes me cringe, I’ll explain why in a bit).
It was during that segment between the first and second aid station that I started to notice the heat and humidity, and it was only 7am! I was sweating more than normal and breathing a little harder than normal. I refilled my bottles at the second aid station, grabbed a little food (note, I said a little) and headed on. Now, I was keeping one bottle full of water and the other full of whatever sports drink they had. My options were lemon-lime Heed and lemon-lime Heed. Not much of a choice. I hadn’t drank all my Powerade from the beginning of the race so I ended up with a bottle of half Heed half Powerade. Gross. Really gross.
It was about 5 miles to the next station, which was unmanned, therefore only water and Heed were available. My pace and strength to this point were still really good but I could really feel the heat and was regretting the hat decision. Now, you should really ask “why the heck didn’t you just toss the hat at an aid station?”. I know, I should have, but I didn’t. The hills really started to kick in during this stretch as well. While running in the woods was great since it provided shade from the sun the constant up and down was pretty taxing. I was looking forward to the meadow which was relatively flat compared to what we were running in.
Emma Carlin was the third manned (fourth total) aid station. This was the first time I really ate during the race. I downed two bananas, what probably added up to an entire orange, several chunks of potato, and some other random food. I was 15 miles into the race and was feeling pretty undernourished. This stop re-energized me and got me going with good spirits. I walked for five or so minutes after leaving this aid station, just to ensure I didn’t puke up everything I had just ate. Ah, the joys of ultra running.
Now, we’re getting to a part of the race that became pretty hazy for me. See, I wasn’t doing too well in the heat and humidity and even though I was hydrating well I felt pretty out of it mentally. The next two aid stations after Emma Carlin were unmanned. The first is just over 3 miles from Emma Carlin and I think I got there with no problems. Part of this run involved running through a pretty big open range, we all called it The Meadow.
The Meadow deserves some discussion. By later that afternoon even the support crews following the runners were uttering the words “The Meadow” with a trepidation usually reserved for conversations revolving around the uncle nobody talks about. The Meadow was the demoralizer of this race. It was an 8 mile span of the race with two unmanned aid stations, which was to be repeated on the way back to the finish. It wasn’t too hilly but it was wide-the-hell-open providing little to no shade from the mid-morning sun. Even the strong wind blowing in from the West didn’t help tame the furnace that The Meadow felt like.
At both of the unmanned aid stations in The Meadow I filled up the water, wished for food, and got moving again. I hit mile 20 during the jaunt through The Meadow and I started doing some mental math as to how far I had come. Now, I don’t want to brag, but I’m typically pretty good at mental math. So, while running, I did the math on how far I had come. 20 miles into a 60 mile race, I was 1/4 of the way done. I kept doing the math in my head and kept coming up with the same answer, a quarter of the way done. I did this for another couple of miles until I finally realized that 20/60 is 1/3, not 1/4. Dang. Adding that to the fact that I was seeing random stuff out of my peripheral vision I knew I was in bad shape. I kept seeing what looked like people off to either side of me, it’d usually end up being a bush moving in the wind or something dumb like that. So, I seriously considered dropping out of the race. I didn’t think I’d make it another 40 miles. I didn’t think it’d be safe to try to make it another 40 miles. I had to set a goal, and I decided that I’d make it to the halfway point at least, 31 miles. If I was going to drop that was as good of a place to do it as any.
I got to the next manned aid station alive and somewhat sane. I took extra time here, eating a lot and drinking a lot. I got some ice and stuck it under my hat. I felt better almost immediately after getting some food in me, but not totally. The drop idea was still in my head. I was only 23.9 miles in. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
It was only 3 miles to the next aid station and those were a sweet 3 miles. It was in the woods. I didn’t give a frick that it was hilly, I was just glad to be out of that dammed meadow. I crossed an important threshold during this leg, I passed the 26.2 mile mark, I had ran a marathon. That always helps me mentally.
So, I got to the aid station before the turnaround quite demoralized, exhausted, hot, doubting myself and ready to quit. I ate a lot here, re-filled my water bottles and headed down the trail. Before I left I had grabbed a handful of saltines and three potato chunks. I had my two water bottles in my left hand, the crackers in-between my fingers of my right hand and three chunks of potato in the palm of my right hand. I was walking along and went to put one of the potato chunks in my mouth. Well, the little suckers were cold and slippery and I squeezed too hard or something and all three ended up in the air in front of me. Now, for the life of me I have no idea how I did this but I caught all three. All three were not together either, this required some quick movement to get all three, one-handed, in the same hand. I stood there for a second completely dumbfounded at what I had just done. Then I got that endorphin rush in my brain and knew that I’d finish the race, no matter what. I didn’t care if I had to walk the last half of it, I didn’t care if I had to crawl, I was going to finish it, all because of those dumb potatoes.
The 5 miles to the turn around was a nice wide trail that a lot of families were out hiking on. They’d seen tons of runners and I imagine they gave all of them the same look they gave me: “you’re insane”. It was great. I knew I’d finish. The hills here weren’t that bad, I had energy, and I was about to change shoes. Life was good.
I got to the turnaround and there were tons of people there. Grabbed some food, found my drop bag, changed my shoes, and got out of there as quick as I could. I was ready for the trip back. I did the usual walk-until-you-don’t-feel-like-you’ll-puke after leaving the aid station. I swear I was counting down the steps to the finish already.
I can’t think of anything interesting that happened between the turnaround and the aid stations before The Meadow. I ate at both aid stations, drank a lot of water, did whatever I could to keep myself going. I was running slower at this point, walking all the hills, shuffling the downhills, loving the flat surfaces. Oh, I couldn’t feel my middle, ring, or pinky finger in my right hand anymore. Well, I could, but it was that my-arm-is-asleep feeling. I figured it was from holding the water bottle for eight hours but it wasn’t happening in my left hand so I’m not sure what was up with that. Whatever, they were still attached and moving, good enough.
Once I hit the highway 67 aid station (the last manned aid station before that 8 mile gauntlet that was The Meadow) I was already dreading what laid ahead. At the pace I was going it was going to take me almost 2 hours to get my rear across that meadow and I was not looking forward to one minute of it. I took my time at the aid station, which was probably dumb but whatever. I ate a ton and started talking to a guy I had run into a few times throughout the day. We both left at the same time with the same “I hate The Meadow” attitude. We ended up running (well, walking) about half of the distance together. Had good conversation, etc. Again, I keep saying it, that’s why I love ultras - the people you meet are great.
Here’s where the action starts kids. About halfway through The Meadow it starts sprinkling on us. I’m thinking “rock on! Rain!” Right? Wrong. See, I expected a nice little sprinkle to cool me off and keep me going. Forces beyond my control were conspiring otherwise against my chipper outlook. Off in the distance I could see that the sky wasn’t a color you like to see when you’re four miles from anything resembling shelter and only have your already throughly worn out legs to get you anywhere. A bad storm was coming, I could just tell.
About three miles from the next manned aid station it stopped sprinkling and started raining. Not too bad, I could deal. Right? Suuuure. A few minutes later it really opened up. Now, I’ve seen rain. This was more like what it looks like when someone pours a bucket of water in your face. This was the definition of torrential downpour. I swear I couldn’t see thirty feet in front of my face. It was that bad. I couldn’t believe it. So, here’s little old me, in the middle of this open meadow, in the middle of a torrential downpour and I’m thinking “I can deal with the rain, at least there’s no lighting”. Guess what happened then? Yeah, lighting. I bet you ten bucks I ran a seven minute mile to get off that meadow. I didn’t want to be the tallest thing out there. Screw the pain I felt, I was getting to the next aid station.
I got to the next aid station without getting spited, Emma Carlin. There were two canopies setup with the food and drinks underneath them. Unfortunately there were also about as many runners as you could fit underneath the tents also. Yay for me, late to the party. I walk up to the aid station and grab whatever food I can. You know how when a tent is out in the rain some parts of it tend to collect water around the edges? You know how the bigger the tent the more water it collects? You know how there’s always that one helpful person walking around pushing the bottom up so the water gushes off in one glorious earth-soaking moment? Yeah, I’ve seen that. Well, I’m stuffing my face with cheese-its when, and I swear this happened, I get completely drenched because someone decided a good time to get the water off of the tent was when the guy who was trying to eat was standing half in and half out of the tent right under where all the water was going. I had soggy cheese-its.
I had a decision to make. I’d been standing at the aid station for about five minutes, eating, wondering if I should build an ark, and wondering if this weather was justification for calling it quits. I didn’t have a shirt on and I was getting soaked so I was getting really cold. I think I was about five seconds away from saying f-it and finding a nice car to enjoy the ride back to the start with when I saw this guy and girl take off into the woods headed in the direction my potato-catching butt was headed. I followed them. I figured it was the best chance I had of not dying if I did one of the things I was sure to do because of the rain which generally involved either slipping and sliding into a bottomless ravine or getting hypothermia. Neither sounded fun.
So, that’s how I met Clara and Dorn. Well, it was more like I totally intruded on their run for my own personal benefit (and safety, mind you). Whatever, they were nice people. I’m sure they didn’t mind.
The run at this point was more like running through a creek. No joke. The trail was the best drainage system in the forest, and the forest was taking advantage of it. Every step I took I prepared myself for the inevitable kicking of a hidden root or rock which would finally destroy either of my two already badly damaged big toenails. I was also shivering like a beach bum in Alaska. I knew if I kept running I’d warm up enough to where the cold rain wouldn’t bother me. Eventually I got to the point where I could carry on a decent conversation with my new bestest running buddies. I even began to really like the rain, after I knew it wouldn’t kill me, of course.
Now, the bad thing about the rain was that it was washing all the mosquito repellant I had so diligently applied off. While it was raining this wasn’t too bad. After the rain, this was bad. These mosquitos were similar in size and shape to flies. That’s no joke. Those suckers were big and mean and were out in force. I did a pretty good job of killing the ones that landed within swiping distance of my hands but the ones that got on my back pretty much got a free meal.
It was 3.2 miles to the next aid station, which was unmanned, and it rained most of the time. We got there without major incident, filled up the water bottles and headed on to the oh-so-important second to last aid station. Now, I feel a bit bad about this but I got ahead of Clara and Dorn right after we left that unmanned station so I just kind of kept going. I was low on energy and motivation and I wanted to get as far ahead of them as I could because I knew they’d catch me eventually. So, for about three of the five miles to the next aid station I ran alone.
They finally caught up to me once we got to the Bald Bluff Scenic Overlook. I stopped here to eat a GU and take a picture. It was actually nice once the rain stopped and the clouds broke up a bit. While I was stopped a really nice lady ran past me and asked me if I needed anything. See, that’s another of those ultra things, someone stopping to see if you need help. You can’t beat this sport.
The three of us ran down to Bluff aid station together, me amazed that I had made it this far. I ate what I could, including a hummus sandwich, and had my water bottles filled up. Now, late in a run it’s the little things that count, so, when asked what I wanted in my water bottles I said “water and Heed”. The guy said “well, do you want any Gatorade?” Did I want Gatorade? Hell yes! I’d take anything besides Heed at this point. It was like my own little slice of heaven.
I applied copious amounts of mosquito repellent and the three of us headed off to the last aid station. Only 7 miles to the finish.
We were about 13 hours into the run at this point. One thing that I didn’t plan on was taking that long to run the race. See, the sun goes down around 8:30 and it gets really dark around 9:15. I figured I’d be done with the race in 14 hours, tops. That’s 8:00. So, I didn’t bring a headlamp or flashlight with me. Bad idea. By the time we left Bluff it was getting a bit dark and I was wondering if we’d make it to the finish before it got dark. Dorn actually did plan ahead and had a flashlight. That made me feel better...until we got to about two miles left. I’ll get to that in a bit.
The next aid station, and the last for us, was the Tamarack aid station. This is the one I blew past so confidently in the morning. It was 4.1 miles to the finish from here but I wasn’t taking any chances with not eating enough. I stuffed my face and loved it. The three of us took off for the finish.
The last part of the race involved a lot of walking. My feet were just completely destroyed. I had strength in my legs but couldn’t do much because of my feet. Clara was feeling the same way. As it got darker we started to pass the final mile markers. It felt good to see them but it didn’t feel like they were coming fast enough. Halfway through that last part we played the alphabet game which, as I learned, was when you say “I went to the store to buy an aardvark”, then the next person says “I went to the store to buy an aardvark and a bingo game”. You have to keep repeating everything everyone said. Now, I figured there was zero chance of us getting any further than the letter D since we were all in pretty bad shape. Somehow though, we managed to finish it, A to Z. Amazing.
We got to the 2 mile marker and Dorn took off for the finish. I was kind of surprised. First off, he had the only flashlight between the three of us and it was totally dark and cloudy, so no moonlight to help us out, and secondly, he had come to pace Clara so I was kind of surprised he didn’t finish with her. I half figure he was tired of waiting for us to walk to wherever he had ran to.
So, Clara and I finished the last two miles in the dark. We really couldn’t see the ground so it was kind of like running through those creeks from the rain, you never knew what you’d kick. Luckily I only found one stick, and it didn’t do too much damage. We did try to play the alphabet game again, this time we’d do two items for each level, it increased the difficulty exponentially.
I think we were on the T’s when we saw the finish. I couldn’t believe it was going to be over. We managed to run to the finish line, which, of course, we couldn’t find since it was so dark and we didn’t have lights. Whatever. We were done.
Officially I finished in 15:33:13. That’s 15:03 per mile. That seems so slow to me now. But, thinking back to everything I went through in that race I’m just glad I finished.
First order of business was getting the shoes and socks off my feet and seeing how many toes I was going to lose. Surprisingly my feet did not appear to be in as bad of shape as they felt. My left big toenail was about 3 cm higher than it should have been due to swelling underneath it, but, besides that, everything seemed in order. I had a tiny blister on the bottom of my left foot also. My first blister! I don’t know why I don’t blister, I just don’t.
Next order of business was to eat as much as humanly possible. I found my way over to the building where all the food was. I surveyed the opportunities spread out in front of me and all I could decide on was a small cup of chili. Humph. To make it even better the only thing they had to eat it with was a fork. Double humph. I ate what I could with the fork and drank the rest.
Clara was there also, having not removed her camelback nor her shoes. I think she had to drive to Milwaukee or somewhere equally incredibly distant that night. I was not envious.
The race director gave me my coveted copper kettle for finishing. I thanked him, told him I thought it was a great race, which it was, and headed for the car. I was ready for a shower and bed.
Being that my room was on the second floor made the trip back to the hotel somewhat miserable. I made sure to walk by the front desk looking very frumpy on the way into the hotel hoping someone would feel sorry for me and offer me a, well, they didn’t have anything to offer me, so never mind. I should have left my shorts I had just worn on the counter as a thank you to the staff for accommodating my simple request.
I basically went straight from shower to bed. Two empty Powerade bottles joined me so I wouldn’t have to endure that treacherous 20 foot walk to the bathroom during the night. They got a lot of use.
I took my time leaving the next morning. Stopped by the general store in La Grange for breakfast and coffee, enjoyed the beautiful Wisconsin scenery, etc. The drive back to KC sucked. It rained most of the time (theme of the trip?). I got back and spent the rest of the evening on the couch, watching Scrubs and occasionally studying.
I also had to deal with the mosquito bites. My back looks like a topographical map. It's insane. I think I'm personally responsible for the nutrition of at least 100 mosquitoes. There's mosquito bites on my mosquito bites!
One last thing, my left toenail. I was sure it was a goner. It hurt like a SOB all day Sunday and today (Monday). A friend of mine suggested I stick a needle through the toenail to drain the puss out and get the swelling down. Uh, no, sounds painful, right? Well, it hurt, so I was willing to try. I got a 14 gauge needle and worked up the courage to take care of the problem like a man. So, I stuck the needle under the toenail, not through it, and puss immediately started pouring out. Wow. It felt better instantly. I think the toenail will survive.