unofficial bib Chihping Fu nicely made for me before this year's race, celebrating my win last year
Unlike last year, there was no planned weekend family getaway to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, so I was on my own for the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Race this year. I put out a message to the Kettle race email list about trying to get and share a nearby room, and Kirk Hilbelink, running his first 100 km race, invited me to stay at his parents' house in Elkhorn, even closer to the race than Lake Geneva. I was a little hesitant at first, but then accepted his offer. I would be running most of the 100 miles alone, so I welcomed a chance to be social, make friends, and avoid a hotel.
My wife's siblings did me the favor of lending me their cars. On Friday at 3 p.m., I was to drive in my brother-in-law's BMW from the west Chicago suburb of Elmhurst to a Harley Davidson dealership in north of Chicago, where my sister-in-law would drive her Jetta from work. I would take her older Jetta up to the race and she would drive the new fancy Beemer back to Elmhurst to hang out with her family, featuring of course her out of town sister, my wife whom I whisked away to California five years ago, and her nephews (our sons). My mother-in-law volunteered to drive up with me to the Harley lot so she could accompany her daughter on the drive back through rush hour traffic. (In retrospect I should've left earlier and just gone to my sister-in-law's workplace, but she had thought this plan was more convenient for me, and initially it made sense.)
Inevitably, my mother-in-law asks me about what I'm about to do, and I try my best to remember that running 100 miles is not considered normal activity, and that her initial impression about my ultrarunning was hearing that I was in an emergency room overnight after my first failed 50 mile race 5 years ago. The cultural gap is huge; conversation includes my trying to explain to her why no medical support crew will be driving back and forth in a van along the course to help fallen runners.
After waiting a half hour at the Harley (did you know the simpler new models start under $7,000?), my sister-in-law arrives and she and her mother wish me luck. I proceed north.
Having followed the weather forecast for the race all week, I am aware it would be hot and muggy (the race day temperature forecast kept going up a few degrees every day). I had been too busy playing with my older son and nephews to do as much heat acclimitazation as I'd like. So I decide to roll up all the windows, and I was wearing a thin black Merino wool Sugoi shirt. Although not terribly hot outside, the greenhouse effect leaves me sweating profusely for the 90 minute drive to the Kirk's parents' house in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. I quickly empty a half-filled half-size water bottle left in the car. After more than an hour in this moveable sauna, I can't stand it and use a gas station as an excuse to stop, figuring I should fill up her the tank now just in case I don't have time tomorrow. I decide that the heat acclimatization is stupid-- I probable won't have time tonight to replace the fluids and electrolytes I'm losing, and that the benefit does not match the cost this late.
I think I arrive at the Hilbelinks in Elkhorn after 5 pm. They instantly make me feel at home, and I sit a bit on their enclosed porch with his wife and son, his parents and 1 or 2 of his sisters, downing several glasses of water and helping myself to chips and salsa for the sodium, trying to remember everyone's name and hoping I'm not smelling too nasty.
Dinner is this great bratwurst from Sheboygan, which I convince Kirk is safe prerace food.
Kirk wants to check out the start finish area, so we drive up there and there are other people hanging out, including a relay team finishing a short warm-up run.
Before long co-RD Tim Yanacheck gives his pre-race speech, which for the 2nd year in a row, I hear much of in a port-a-let doing important last minute prep.
We get to the 2nd aid station, Bluff (mile 7.4), where Joe notes that we are 2 minutes ahead of last year. Despite consciously knowing that we went out too fast last year. Don't you love it? I feel like we're a bunch of lemmings...
Leaving Bluff there is a mildly technical stretch. Without deliberately trying to pull away, I find myself dropping everyone except maybe 1 or 2 relay runners ahead of me, and a 100k runner with a Euro accent who comes from behind and we run together for while until Emma Carlin (mile 15.5). I try extra hard to be careful, since here is where last year I inverted both of my ankles at least twice each, due to wearing road Mizunos, a light rain making the trail slippery and clouding up my glasses, and the misimpression that the course wasn't at all technical. This year I still manage to invert my left ankle once, but it's very minor.
mirage-hallucination of trail in more comfortably cool conditions
From County ZZ (mile 26.5), the 5 mile stretch to the Scuppernong turnaround (mile 31.5) is first single track, then wider trails, in which you seem to keep turning, as if you were going to the center of a huge spiral maze, and then turning the other way back out.
I grab my first drop bag here. It has an energy bar that I've never tried, but supposedly is good for long endurance activities since it has protein and other nutrients. I grab it, run into Kirk's wife Aspen, who is crewing for him, but asks me if I need anything. I give her the yellow plastic bag, asking her to bring it back. Even if I am trying to green, this is sort of crazy, and probably reveals my mild delirium.
Returning from the 50k turnaround finally allows me to see how much time I have on my pursuers. I see Zach a few minutes later, so a gap of 7-8 minutes. Joe calculates to about 15 minutes back. This is all guesswork, since my Garmin which I turned back on hasn't picked up a signal yet. (The official splits at Scuppernong I would see post-race are me at 4:40, Zach Gingerich at 4:47, Joe Kulak and 4:54 and Clark McLemore and Joel Eckberg at 4:56.)
The bar is a pain to unwrap. I bite into it and it's basically another version of those inedible original Power Bars. I swallow a bite and my stomach scolds me. I try to let the delayed next bite hang out in my mouth but it doesn't help my low grade nausea. I would end up carrying it in for the next rough 10+ miles before forgetting it at an unmanned aid station.
Entering the more technical part of the stretch, but really not that technical, I trip and fall forward, landing on my right knee and face. Luckily, not hard enough to hurt anything, but had a rock been sticking up right where my knee landed, it would've been the end. Or at least my small lead. At the time, I think this fall is something significant. Soon enough I would realize it actually wasn't-- just a early appetizer.
I almost wipe out again. Enough. I have to take is easy, and work on recovery. Obviously my body is missing enough of something that I'm losing balance in good visibility at midday, barely a third done. What was going to happen at mile 80 when I was running in the dark? I take it down a further notch, work on digesting the Heed sports drink and gels, and remembering to put ice under my cap at the aid stations.
By the time I reach Emma Carlin (mile 47.3), the worst of the heat is over, and the nausea is gone. Still, I'm tired. Much more than normal halfway through a 100 miler. It doesn't help that apparently everyone else is just as tired, since no one has caught up with me...yet.
Shortly before the water-only Horseriders aid station (mile 50.5, so about halfway through the race), I hear footsteps from behind. Zach? Joe? I turn around and don't recognize him. I initiate a brief conversation, during which I compliment his speed, find out his name ("Joel--you've probably never heard of me before....I'm relatively new to ultras.....this is my first 100 miler"), age (32), hometown (Chicago (actually a suburb)). Since he's looking good and has caught up with me as opposed to vice-versa, I suspected he really is FAST. "So, what's your marathon PR?" "2:33" "Dang, you're FAST" meaning it even more than when I gave Zach Gingerich the same line. He says, "Well, that was Chicago a few years ago...." (actually less than 3) "...I've lost a lot of speed since then."
Whatever, I'm thinking, your marathon PR is faster than that of Jon Olsen and even Scott Jurek, among other elite runners. "Well, no shame being passed, go for it." It would be nice to stay with him and chat, but it's clear our paces are too far apart. He cruises on ahead. I decide even had I been better rested than described in my last sandbagging blog post, it was unlikely I could run faster than he was on a day like today. Obviously he was talented, well-trained, and running a smart race. I feel little urge to kill myself trying to keep up with him. I contemplate that a plaque for placing in the master's age group will not present the space problem that another large copper kettle first-place overall award would. This is really, lucky, a true blessing, I think.
It has grown cooler. By the time I reach Bluff (mile 55.5), it's obvious that the talk of a thunderstorm maybe brewing wasn't so maybe. I start hearing thunder, and thunder means lightning. Don't like that. I had followed the weather forecast daily the past week. It was always 3-4 days of scattered thunderstorms before and after, but never on race day.
After leaving Tamarack (mile 57.8), five miles to the start and finish area, the rain, lightning and thunder continues to grow more frequent and intense. I start counting the seconds between each flash and rumble to figure how many thousand feet away the lightning is. I start trying to sprint the open fields to minimize my time out in the open. Less than 2 miles from Nordic (mile 62.9, and end of 100 km race), I see Joel heading back out with a pacer. Distance-wise I'm not that far behind him, but I'm not even thinking about catching up, just staying alive. I mutter something like "This is f*&%$g crazy" as we cross in opposite directions. The light and sound gaps continue to shorten, as does my confidence.
A bit after I think I pass the 1-mile marker (I'm very unsure, as it's hard to see anything in the rain with my glasses), the sky lights up right ahead and a very loud crack of thunder almost immediately blows my ears out. I'm too soaked to know if I peed in my shorts, but I decide that nothing, even another win had I still been in first, is worth dying for. I retreat from another open clearing I was about to sprint and plant myself face down on the ground to the side of the trail. I have no idea how many people die or getting permanently disabled by lightning strikes each year, but I imagine that your risk of getting struck goes up considerably when you are outside in the middle of one. Then figuring I want to minimize my chances of being hit due to the metal in my eyeglasses and my handheld GPS device (which I had turned off since the battery only runs 10 hours), I take them and throw them away from me, as I wait through several more rounds of paired lightning and thunder.
Not in Calistoga for a spa treatment, but least these guys are still moving and can keep each other company...
After quite a time on my stomach, contemplating death, permanent disability, my failure to finish our estate planning, my family and how much I love them, how my wife would kill me if I died out here, hypothermia, how much I love running but not as much as my family, are there parasitic bugs crawling into my pants as I lie here, the thunder begins to sound relatively farther and I convince myself that I should get going again. As I push myself up to doggie position with my toes pointed, one of my calves goes into spasm, instinctively I roll onto my back, doing the breathing thing for a couple of minutes and evening out my mud basting.
After more carefully getting up I crouch for another while, stretching out my calves. Then I look around for my Garmin, which I find fairly quickly, but of course, I can't find my glasses. In case you haven't noticed, I'm very nearsighted, and the mud, clouds and trees don't make for the best visibility. I start to crawl around on all fours, like Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo, trying to find them, worried that I might crush them or push them into the mud. Well this is a new one. The absurdity and novelty of the situation is not lost on me as the search goes on for several minutes.
I finally find them, then I notice I've also lost my Julbo sunglasses I got as part of my Sportiva sponsorship package. I had strapped onto hat when it had become overcast. I really hope I can find them, since I can comfortably wear them over my regular glasses and not look like a geek. (If you haven't noticed, looking really cool when I run is really important to me. More than winning awards for placing, or communion with nature.) I spend half a minute looking around for them, until I realize they could be anywhere between here and Bluff. I figure I can look for them later, even if I drop at 100 km (yes, I'm contemplating dropping). I start jogging in and and am surprised at how close I had been to the 100 km point-- maybe just a quarter mile.
After getting into the aid station (officially at 11:08, 42 minutes after leader Joel Eckberg did), everyone's very encouraging and helpful as always. I'm freezing, and take off my yellow Sportiva jersey. I get the car key out of my drop bag, dump my shirt and put on a dry long-sleeved wool Sugoi jersey, the same one I was trying to wear the last 3 days in order to try to last-minute heat train. After dithering around, I confirm with Ann Heaslett that I don't get any trinkets if I drop at 100 km, just an official time, and she incredulous that I am considering dropping.
A volunteer manning a laptop computer tells me that the storm has passed. I'm unconvinced, so he brings up the weather radar website. In another time-killing Ultrailnakaman race first, I stand mesmerized watching the colored radar clouds repeatedly pass over Whitewater on the computer screen in fast motion several times, and it looks like he's right. In the back of my mind, I know that the passing of this storm does not preclude the future passage of more storms later, but, luckily, if "luckily" is the correct word, I suppress (zap?) this very logical thought and convince myself that it's time to finish this baby.
Nonetheless, my preoccupation with placing well or running real fast have long been washed away. If I'm going out for another 38 miles, all I want to do is finish. And if it might rain more, I don't want to freeze to death. I spend more time at the aid station, and literally go back and forth to my car at least 2 more times, including going there to put on a light jacket and then putting in back when everyone tells me I'm going to be WAY too hot.
Having done almost no running for about up to an hour, I'm able to jog a decent pace going out. I scan the trail hoping to find my Julbo sunglasses, and luckily see it right at the 1 mile marker, and strap it onto my cap, which is already holding a spare headlamp-- it feels a little funny, but now I am prepared for any lighting conditions! My gap on who I think is the next runner is maybe 15 minutes. Closer I see it's Joe Kulak and he tells me I'm looking good and I'm only 15 minutes behind Zach. Interesetingly the realization that Zach had passed me at the Nordic aid station produces little emotional reaction. Joe's tone almost hints that he might be done for the day, but I don't ask.
I see Ian Stevens and and the other volunteers at Tamarack (mile 67.9) and they tell me I'm less than 5 minutes behind Zach. Again, I still really give a hoot, but it's obvious since I just ran 4 miles about 10 minutes faster than he did, that I would probably catch up with him. This I do shortly before coming into Bluff (mile 70.3), "I told you you were fast," I say as I come up from behind.
Before Bluff, I cross paths with my new but long-lost friend Kirk, who gives me this surprised look, "You're just now coming out?" I tell him as we pass each other I was down on the ground for a while since I didn't want to die, mentioning my kids, since I figured he could relate with his 1-year old. I only find out later he's had to deal with a LOT more than I on the way to his first 100 km finish. (click for his very well written race report)
I also see Adam Blum around Bluff, who would summon a nice kick on the way to his first 100k finish.
Zach and I pace off each other for almost through the 8 miles through the next 2 aid stations. The first part is largely flat and not too technical. I remember I was cruising through this section last year, for a while deluded that I might be able to beat the course record. This year, though, I find the long flat sections painful, since I would rather use hills as a good excuse to walk. The 5 miles after the unaided Duffin (mile 72.8) is a bit more technical with lots of overgrowth. I find that being able to run through this section actually feels good since it was gotten warmer and the wet leaves feel refreshing. I comment to Zach that in California maybe 1/3 of green foliage jutting into a trail is poison oak.
Zach is feeling bad that his much slower than predicted time means his father, who has been crewing him, has to stay up that much longer. Plus he has teach Sunday School at 9am the next morning. Not as tight as Joe Kulak's 7 a.m. flight out of Chicago, but much earlier than my kids' 1 p.m. Baptism (which is why I couldn't greenly carpool with anyone coming from the Chicago area).
Are we too late with this? Is that lightning off in the distance?
It's nice pacing each other, but we're both too drained to keep up too much conversation, and Zach seems bummed. Eventually I leave him behind, and despite a fairly long stop at the Highway 12 aid station (mile 77.1), he doesn't catch up with me there.
Chicken soup from encouraging volunteers and my 1st real drop bag await me at the Highway 12. I pull out my iPod Nano and stick it in a side pocket, dump the sunglasses and the spare Tikka Plus headlamp, but keep the cap on. I get a different spare headlamp, a Black Diamond, and wrap it around my waist, being careful to loosen the strap all the way first, since I wasted a few minutes last year trying unsuccesfully to get it on and took a handheld flight instead, at the same aid station but 8 miles later. Since my left iliotibial band (ITB) has increasingly started bothering me, I pull out my ITB strap and wrap it right below my left knee. I restock on Hammer gels. After all these maneuvers, I'm ready, and start the path crossing the road and the climb up.
About a half mile up, I reach up to check my headlamp and notice there is none. I forgot my main headlamp! The Petzl MyoXP is as excellent as it is discontinued as it is useless sitting back in my dropbox. I guess my cap made me oblivious to the lack of lighting on my head. At this point, going back down was not an option. My primary worry was that I hadn't replaced the batteries on the Black Diamond spare. I run as far as I can without using the lamp. After a couple miles, I have to turn it on. Since it's attached to my waist, the beam keeps bouncing too much, so I move it to my head. The two settings give me a beam that is either too narrow or too weak. But what can I do? The 4 mile stretch between Highway 12 and the turnaround aid station at Rice Lake is probably the most technical of the whole course. I stub my big toe, for some reason mostly my right, against rocks, roots, and railroad ties about 15 times. Imagine a Homer Simpson "D'oh!" each toenail-blackening stubbing. I apologize to my big toenail and curse my lamp. The stretch between Highway 12 and the Rice Lake (mile 81.5) turnaround took me 51 minutes each way last year. This year, I only measure it going back and it takes 75 minutes, and I guess it took probably longer going out.
On the return from Rice Lake I see Joe Kulak putting up light sticks with co-RD Jason Dorgan, and then know for the first time that he dropped at 100k. The turnaround lets me calculate a gap of more than an hour over 3rd place, and each runner after him isn't too far behind. I see fellow Bay Area runner Rick Gaston and tell him I think he's in 6th.
It's clear that Zach Gingerich has also dropped, probably at the first visit to Highway 12.
I would be looking forward to improving trail conditions, except that I'm told that another storm is coming. My mouth utters nastiness. But I remain optimistic. I figure since there was a lot of tree cover during the next 8 miles that I should just go for it. Besides, what else am I going to do?
Lightning in the distance initially seems to be to the right, but as I try to run the open fields to get to the forest, it seems I'm heading right to where the meteorlogical action is. At least a constant stream of runners crosses my path, unlike my pathetically interrupted approach to the storm over by the start/finish at Nordic.
Lightning never seems to strike too close, but perhaps it's because it's soon pouring down so hard that I can't see anything, much less the trail, which quickly becomes an almost continuous stream of water and mud.
I slip several times trying to run, and eventually give up. I can barely see, my feet are partially numb from the constant soak, I'm getting cold, I wish I had a jacket, I probably want my mommy, but she and my dad didn't come this year (fortunately for them).
By the late time the rain lets up a bit, and I leave behind the more technical parts of the stretch, my ITB is sore enough that the only way I can run is to gallop, with my right leg slightly ahead of my left. The best I can do with this is a 13 minute mile per my Garmin. I find that power walking is more sparing of my IT band, and only 2-3 minutes per mile slower. Although I don't really care, I try to calculate the chances that any of the closely spread runners following me have to catching up before the finish, assuming they aren't walking as much.
After the rain stops, I take out my iPod Nano to listen to some tunes again, but it won't work, presumably because water got into it. Oh well, I have to listen to birds and the wind rustling through the trees, and the distant rumbling of thunder.
I say my 4th and final thanks to the volunteers at Bluff (mile 92.8), and also at Tamarack (mile 95.1), where I say bye to Ian Stevens, and wish Mary Gorski luck Badwater. (Good luck again!)
I hobble around the finish, grazing, soaked my legs in a basin filled with cold water (which someone comments is a little ironic) after hosing off the mud from myself, my clothes and my Sportiva Lynx, which held up quite well, then change, and get my finisher's award.
Not far after him is come a pair from Oregon. And they both look really fresh.
Darla Brader with her big English copper kettle for being the 1st female overall finisher, and Chris Askew, who finished together in 22:04:50.
With a 2 hour drive back in the morning, I decide to get a couple of hours sleep, which despite the tight accomodations, isn't hard.
Please let me know of others to add.