Leaving the Nordic Aid Station was empowering. “Timo,” the co-race director first shouted “100 miler heading back out!” which stirred up some cheers from those standing around, mostly celebrating their 100K finishes, then a final “Good luck, Nick!!!” as I disappeared into the darkness. I let the darkness surround me then powered up those two CR123 batteries and lit up the path. I don’t know if the Starbucks DoubleShot had already kicked in or what, but I felt full of energy with only one goal in mind…to get back to this very point…38 miles later. One mile away as I passed the one mile marker, I see one headlamp following behind someone with a gazelle-like stride. The one with the headlamp was easily taller than me (I’m 6’2”) and the one he was following was much shorter and wearing a 100-mile race number. (100 milers were easily identified by green-background bibs) As they passed, the man with the headlamp (his pacer) whispered to his runner (but loud enough for me to hear) “99 miles down, 1 to go.” Yea…my jaw hit the ground, too. Not only did he look as fresh as could be, contain a perfect stride, but he was 1 mile away from crushing the course record by 40 minutes…a far 37 miles in front of me! I believe that’s sub-9 min pace for ONE HUNDRED miles. Unbelievable…heck, that unHUMAN! Luckily, that didn’t even barely take the wind from my sails as I knew he was the extreme rarity and me…well, I’m just your average mid-packer who loves to run…just to run.
I’m not sure what it was about the night, but I have a hunch. One thing I’ve learned in this mental game we play as ultra-runners is grappling with the human mind. It is a powerful organ and one that doesn’t like being talked back to. “Tricking it” or “convincing it” to be OK with a different path takes time, patience, training, and perseverance. The overwhelming majority of this event was like that for me. However, the night made it easier…here’s why: Let’s say it’s light out and I see a long winding hill ahead. Mentally, I’m not so excited about yet another climb so it works against me…that being the “knowledge” of that hill ahead. In darkness, while I may be wearing a headlamp, it only shines a few feet in front of me. I don’t see what’s far ahead thus removing much of that negative super-sub-conscious talk that happens when the eyes capture the obstacle in the distance. You combine all of the hills and obstacles you really don’t get an opportunity to worry or dread about and the night becomes “easier.” I may be way off, but it’s just a hunch.
Coming into Mile 67.9 at Tamarack (visit #3 to the Gorski’s “oasis” in the woods), those grilled cheese were gone! I was nearly salivating for them since I left Nordic. Oh well, I grabbed some fruit, another piece of sausage, filled my Heed bottle, and was on my way to Bluff. Arriving at Bluff 2.5 miles later, I once again had a bowl of chicken noodle soup along with a comfy seat under the tent. I wasn’t lounging, though…it was a very fast consumption of some very appreciated hot food. I knew good food needed to get in the stomach here because I’d go nearly 2 more hours until another fully manned aid station. The only thing between Bluff and the Highway 12 aid station at Mile 77 was an unmanned station containing water and nothing else. I finished off the soup with 4 more Endurolytes and was on my way. Immediately here, it’s a nice ½ mile climb to Confusion Point, named so because in the first 100K, we took a completely different turn here. By this time, that part of the course was empty and they had barricaded any option of going that way. Instead, we made a hairpin turn onto one of the narrowest trails I’d ever been on. Quickly, I was deep in the woods heading south towards Highway 12 and eventually Rice Lake, the 81 Mile turn-around.
It wasn’t long before runners were inbound and passing me heading back for the finish. One really great thing I started to learn from this point all the way to the finish is how kind we all were to one another. At this point, all of the 100K runners had gone home and the only ones left were us 100 milers and the 38 mile fun runners who started at 8pm. At this point, they were far ahead of me so the folks I was seeing now were nearing the end of their journey and mentally preparing for a sub-24 hour finish. Not a single runner ever passed by without a word of encouragement. “Good job!” Lookin’ good!” “Keep it up!” “Way to go!!” Of course, the courtesy was always returned with a similar comment. In addition, if someone was perceived to not be doing so well, be injured, or in need of more than just a word of encouragement, they were helped. Isn’t this all the coolest thing??? Raw, positive humanity shown towards each other in a time where most would justify crankiness, anger, frustration, or worse. That alone put smile after smile after smile on my face. If you were out there with me and are reading this, please accept my deepest “THANK YOU” for sharing the trail with me and passing on the encouragement as we passed in the night.
On the way to Highway 12, the course was very much our like trails here in NE Ohio, that being full of roots, the occasional rocks, twisty, hilly, and fun! From time to time, I’d run through a section of sky-scraper pines and enjoy the soft bed of needles to run on. I also noticed as the night grew older, that the grey puffy clouds high above were beginning to give way to open sky and wouldn’t you know…a full moon! For those of you who have followed my blog over the past year and a half, you know what I was thinking. After passing by the Duffin Rd. unmanned aid station, some more climbs through the woods, eventually I got into some high grass areas totally out of the woods. I remember this section well as I could see headlamps rolling into and out of darkness up ahead. I knew I was getting close to Highway 12 as I could barely hear the generators running which were powering the lights that lit up the site. I was also starting to pass more and more runners as they were heading back. Coming into Highway 12, I grabbed my final drop bag, shed the jacket I’d been wearing since around Mile 50, had a quick cup of soup, grabbed some more Endurolytes, made up a new batch of Perpetuem, and hit the trail. This point I remember clear as anything. It was Mile 77 and “Mr. Moon” came out in all his glory. “Hello, Mr. Moon!!! Thanks for joining me!!!” (yea, I really said it) You want to talk about strapping on yet another set of jumper cables. I was still flyin’ high on that Starbucks Double Shot from nearly 3 hours ago and now I get a dose of Mr. Moon. “Dang, it doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought. Grinning from ear to ear, I crossed the busy Highway 12 and headed up into the rocks. This next section was the most dangerous of the entire course. It wasn’t due to drop-offs or anything like that, but instead because it was so dang rocky and technical in a time when it’s dark and not so easy to concentrate on lifting each footstep up high enough to clear the next rock and also planting that foot in a spot to propel yourself forward! I remember saying out loud a few times: “Pick up your feet!” I increased the brightness on my headlamp and focused hard on the trail. “No stinkin’ rock is going to keep me from reaching the finish line. Take it step by step by step. Run when you can. Walk when you must.” This section from Highway 12 to the Rice Lake 81 Mile turnaround is 4 miles. This rocky section lasted a little less than half of that then it turned back into the typical twisty trail I had become very used to with the occasional pine tree and grassy areas thrown in. As I passed 80 miles, my engines really fired up. All of a sudden, I was running and running fierce. I was passing people now that were also outbound to Rice Lake, greeting each one, of course. As I got close, I was once again thankful for driving here the day before….oh, I mean TWO days before (heehee!!)…I could visualize exactly where I was in the dark and how far I had to go. Just before Rice Lake, they had these green Christmas lights strung in the trees and when we crossed over a wood bridge, they had stuck landscape lights between the slats. It sorta felt like a cross between going to Tribal Council on Survivor and running into an island resort in the Caribbean….super cool! Arriving at Rice Lake at Mile 81, I proudly ran across the last timing mat knowing that time was being transmitted to cyberspace where hopefully someone was up just sitting on the edge of their seat waiting. Oh wait, it is the MIDDLE of the night…well, at least if someone checks, they’ll know I’m still alive out here! I grab some more soup, a few Endurolytes, douse myself with bug spray again, and head on out. In my head, I do my best attempt at some sci-fi mental telepathy: “Marjie. Wake up! Wake up and go check my status online. I’m OK! I’m in the final stretch of 19 miles!! I’m going to do it!!!!” I’d learn later she never did wake up in the middle of the night although both of my girls did crowd in with her that night creating a cozy evening for all. So much for my “Jedi-telepathy” during a hundred miler!
This is the part of my 100 mile journey that was the best. These 19 of 100 miles were the funnest and most adrenaline-filled of the entire trip. For the last 19, I am “guesstimating” that I passed between 20-30 people. Granted, many were pacers helping out their friends or family get to the finish line and many were actually 38 milers that I had caught up to. (I mean no disrespect to anyone who ran that night…it’s just my story and how it all played out for me…I loved having you all out there!) I just didn’t lose the “spunk!” My theory and strategy for sometime now was to run when at all possible and when my body said “Go!” but to walk when necessary, but when walking, to always “walk with a purpose” and forcefully. No “Sunday stroll walkin’ in the woods, Mister!” As I got through the rocks yet again, I was back at Highway 12 at Mile 85. This time in, I had a bowl of mashed potatoes with some mixed veggies and downed it all with Starbucks DoubleShot #2! I think that stuff was like pouring octane boost into my bloodstream. It all went down well and I was out of there. 15 to go! Heading back over some high grassy areas, I quickly entered the woods once again. By this time, I was calculating the time until daylight. I figured that by the time I got to the water station at Duffin Rd., I should be able to turn off my light. Sunrise was just after 5am so first light should be around 4:40am or so…dependent on how deep the woods were at the time. As I ran past 4am, the woods started to come alive, but ever so slowly. All night, all I really heard was that creaky sound made by an old tree being swayed around by the wind, like a creaky door in a scary movie. However, now the birds were awaking. Much like I hear on my 4:30am runs around home, the orchestra of birds in the woods grew and grew and grew. They knew…I knew…daylight was coming. Sure enough, about a mile before Duffin Rd. it was plenty light where the headlamp was shut off for good. Now that I could see a good distance in front of me, anytime I caught a glimpse of someone, I imagined a bulls-eye on their back. It was sorta like casting a line out to them and using it to reel myself towards them. (Remember, this is all a mental game…breaking up the race into itsy-bitsy tiny pieces without the focus on the ultimate prize…at least not for a few more miles!)
As I get back to Confusion Point, I am pumped big time. Ever since I passed this point heading back to Nordic the first time (around Mile 54.5), I remembered thinking that when I turn this hairpin corner for the last time, I will be at Mile 92 with only 8 miles to go! I make the turn and I am definitely running more than I’m walking. I start doing the math and realize that I could actually break the 26 hour point. When I had left Rice Lake at Mile 81, I calculated that there was no way I could break 26 hours at current pace and stops at aid stations…figured it would be closer to 26hrs, 30min. But now, it appeared that if I maintained the pace I’d been doing all night long, I’d do it. Ahhhh…motivation! Along the way, however, I was stopping a lot, too. Forgive me to you non-trail running readers out there, but when we trail runners have to go, we go! (to the bathroom that is) I’d say that within the last 10 miles, I could go no more than 20-30 minutes without having to stop. I couldn’t believe it. I had gone the first 80 miles and probably didn’t go more than 10 times! One thing I know in this type of event is that it’s important to always be going to the bathroom. It’s an indicator that the kidneys have not shut down, as long as blood isn’t coming out. Well, I guess my kidneys were workin’ just fine! Back at Bluff Rd. at Mile 92.5, the aid stations are startled by me barreling down the hill into their station and commented how well I looked. I felt great…I really did. They offered a chair but I said “Not this time…gotta get going!” I slammed a few Endurolytes, chased them with some Heed, grabbed some oranges and bananas and I was gone. For these last two aid stations (Bluff and Tamarack), I wanted to wolf down as many bananas and oranges as I could because that would reduce the chance of me getting the 'motha-of-all-charlie-horses' at the finish line…they are natural anti-inflammatory pieces of fruit. (smart thinking, eh!?) I continue on running, walking as necessary, into Tamarack at Mile 95. I say my final goodbyes and thanks to Ian and the Gorski’s, grab some more fruit, one last piece of sausage, and I was out of there. T-5 miles to go. OK, I suppose now is an acceptable time to think about the whole 100 miles.
Remember those little wooden signs I mentioned long ago at Mile 1-4? They were like the 80s hit, the “Final Countdown!” as I targeted each one. You see, since I ran through here from miles 57 to 62 already, I could “imagine” all night long what it would be like to run through here again at miles 95 to 100. I decided I’d bend down and give a touch to each sign as I passed and would speak out loud the total mileage and the miles to go. “Where is that guy? Where is number 4? There it is!” I speed up and give it a tap. “Mile 96! 4 to go!” I keep on rolling and actually keep passing a few other fellow runners from time to time and shouting words of encouragement along the way. By this time, it’s past 6am and 7am back at home in Ohio. I’m secretly hoping Marjie saw my 81 mile split and figured that at about right now, I’d be in the home stretch and she was as excited (or at least in the ballpark!) as me. I keep speaking under my breath “where are you #3, where are you???” “There you are!” I charge up to #3 and give it a tap. “Mile 97! 3 to go!” Around this point, I pass a runner and he comments, “trying to break 26?” “Oh yea, I’m going to!”, I replied. I kept on charging, walking (with a purpose) as needed, and entered the very grassy, rolling, cross-country-skiing-favorable area of the Nordic Trail. I finally see the #2 mile marker. “Mile 98! 2 to go!” Oh geez…”Soak it in,” I thought to myself. “LIVE IN THIS MOMENT!” Well…let’s live while running…OK?! The 1 Mile marker was a big, BIG deal. I was contemplating what to do when I got there. Do I tap it? Hug it? Kiss it? Do all three? I kept on through the grassy rolls and there it was, laying all lonesome by itself, not realizing what it meant to me, so many who had gone before, and so many who were en route. I grab it, pull it up, and dare I say (and perhaps regret publicizing!), opt for the quick kiss. Hey! Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have chosen that option, too!!! When was the last time you passed the 99th Mile marker?!?!?!? “Mile 99. One to go!” At this point, I swear I felt like singing “Ding dong, the witch is dead” perhaps break into a skip along the yellow brick road, but no, my calves would’ve screamed many obscenities at me. Instead, I kept looking for that stretch of pines which was like a corridor to the finish. It was a turn into the pines, a short stretch, then…
I kept peering through the trees, not daring to walk a step, then I caught a glimpse of it. A bright, cherry red banner stretched across blue timing mats that read “Kettle Moraine 100 Start/Finish.” OK, freeze time for a second here. When I saw that, I had an overwhelming flood of emotion. Outwardly, I had the widest grin and two fat, chubby tears…one in each eye…instantaneously. My heart just fell. “I HAVE DONE IT!!!!” I picked up the pace (like any good runner will do when in sight of the finish line) and powered across the finish line. 25 hours, 39 minutes, and a few seconds. As always, there was “Timo” with his arm outstretched and offering lots of congratulations. I just stood there, arms on my hips, relishing the moment. “So where’s my kettle?!?”, I asked Tim jokingly. “I’m getting it!”, he replied. He presented me my kettle and thanked me and congratulated me for both running his race and finishing my first 100 miler. I returned the thanks and my compliments for a very well-executed event and especially for those cleverly-placed mile markers in the final 4 miles. I didn’t mention the kiss…he’ll find out with you when he reads this.
Overall, it’s a bit overwhelming. I cannot begin to adequately express my thankfulness for the ability to accomplish this goal. I have never been any special athlete. I didn’t play sports…I was the lead trumpet in the marching band. I don’t have a “runner’s body”…you runners know what I mean. What I did (and do) have was (is) the passion to go and never say quit.
Take-Away Points from my Experience at Kettle Moraine
- Many thanks to Jim Harris of NEO Trail, a highly accomplished 100 mile runner, for providing the inspiration to learn how to walk up hills powerfully. (he doesn't even know he did) That work I did to get strong on the hills translated into rapid hill ascents and when walking at other times, provided a very fast, powerful pace while resting the "running muscles." That was my biggest success in the whole race regarding training leading up to it.
- I don't regret not doing over-night runs in training. The night didn't give me any problems at all.
- Starbucks Doubleshots are the bomb!! I honestly never got tired and felt like I needed to just lay down and curl up on the trail (although those beds of pine needles looked mighty comfy!). I think part of my alertness came from the infusion of that caffiene at the perfect time.
- I do wish I had done one more thing in training. I wish I had done one run of at least 50 miles. I did plenty of 30+ milers to the point where they became easy. I should have recognized that and pushed further. Lesson learned for the future.
- While many consider a pacer crucial in the latter miles of the 100 miler, I don't believe it hurt me at all not having one. I don't discount the value in one at all and I would have loved the company, but I just felt great in the time when I was permitted to have one. The opposite could have happened and those last 38 could have been downright nasty but in this case, it all worked out for the better.
- I've got this foot thing down well. I type this 3 days after the Kettle and I have zero foot injuries. Yes, they've been swollen a bit, my right forefoot is still a bit tingly, but overall, no problems. I never changed shoes once in the entire event even though I had four pairs staged in drop bags along with lubricant-filled socks at the ready. No blisters or anything. I attribute part of that to putting cucumber cream on immediately after the event and also the next two days. If you didn't know, this stuff works miracles on your feet in very little time. It has very high healing properties.
- I could write lots and lots of bullet points where I could could tie different parts of this event into life events. In the end, the main point is this: You can do whatever you put your mind to. If you say you can't run 3 miles, then you're right...you can't. If you say you can..and will run 3 miles, then you can. I keep hearing so many say things like "I'm too old to run like that" but then I tell them at age 36, I'm one of the younger ones out there. MOST are older than me and more than just by a couple of years. As Yoda says: "Do or do not. There is no try." (sorry, I just couldn't resist!)
Thank you to the countless army of supporters out there! You came out in incredible force for me and had filled my e-mail inbox by the time I got to it after the event. THANK YOU! YOU were a major motivator out there. I didn't want to have to report back a failure to you all! Like I thought many times throughout my 25+ hours, I was only leaving Wisconsin one of two ways: across the finish line or on a stretcher!
Happy Trails, everyone!