Friday, June 13, 2008

The Beauty and the Wrath of Mother Nature - 2008 Kettle Moraine 100K

"I don't know if I can, but I know why I want to try. I want to try because I don't know if I can."

That's what I wrote when I decided to sign up for this race back in November. Signing up for the Kettle Moraine 100K Endurance Run was my first step into the world of ultrarunning. Running 62 miles seemed impossibly far at the time. But, so far, each step I've taken on this journey has taught me that when the mind believes the body will follow. And my mind hasn't failed me yet.

Since we ran in the aftermath of an unseasonably late snow storm at the Chippewa Moraine 50K in April, and we had absolutely perfect running weather for the Ice Age Trail 50 Mile in May, it would only seem right that Mother Nature would slam us with the worst heat and humidity of the year for Kettle. The race started at 6 AM, and although it was only 64 degrees, the humidity was 94%! Over the first few miles on the Nordic Loop it was very clear we were in for a long and difficult ordeal. Even though I was taking it easy and going slow, my heart rate was a good 10 to 15 beats higher than normal for the pace.

I tossed my sub 12 hour time goal out the window. Today would be about surviving the elements, not conquering them. The early miles clicked by uneventfully. I made sure to keep my two handhelds topped off with fluids at every aid station and tried my best to keep up with the conditions. A couple miles past the Bluff aid station, I was surprised to find myself already atop the second highest point on the course, Bald Bluff. The climb up to it had seemed more daunting during training and Ice Age 50.

Between Horseriders (12.3 mi) and Emma Carlin (15.5 mi), I fell in line with a few folks running together and enjoyed their camaraderie for awhile even though the pace felt a little slow. I figured that probably meant I was going a little too fast, so I just settled in and enjoyed the ride.

I'd never been farther north than Emma Carlin on the Ice Age Trail, but I had heard there were several miles of open rolling meadows in this section. Sure enough, not far past Emma Carlin we hit the first open prairie section followed by more wooded trail to Antique Lane (18.7 mi). From Antique Lane to the Highway 67 aid station (23.9 miles), a significant proportion of the trail was open meadows. The temperature was now in the mid-70s, and the humidity was still over 80%. I was not looking forward to coming back through this section on the return trip of the out and back course as it would be mid-afternoon by then.

But, on the positive side, it was at Hwy 67 that Jenni and Derek arrived to cheer me on. I'd not been keeping track of my time since I knew my original goals were out the window, but I asked Jenni and she told me I was about 15 minutes behind schedule. Seeing Jenni and Derek is always a nice boost of energy for me, and I was glad to receive it as I was starting to drag a bit.

Hwy 67 is the lowest point on the course, and from there the trail heads back into the woods and offers up plenty of hills, more of them going up than down, as it climbs to the highest point on the course on the Scuppernong Trail just before the turnaround. Somewhere between the Hwy ZZ aid station (26.5 mi) and the turnaround, another runner, Kent Green, caught me and we ran together for awhile. Kent seemed to have more energy than I at the time, and it was good to have someone to talk with for awhile. He was attempting his first 100 miler, and I see now from the participants list that Kent was one of the two youngest runners on the course that day at just 21 years old. As that is almost half my age I don't feel so bad that Kent had more spring in his step at that point :-)

Kent and I pulled into the turnaround at Scuppernong (31.4 mi) at 6:04 on the race clock (12:04 PM). This was nearly 25 minutes behind my original pace plan, and I was already one tired puppy. I spent some extra time at the aid station resting, refueling, and cooling down. The temperature was now pushing into the lower 80s, and the humidity was still near 80%. Eventually, I pulled myself together and soldiered on.

As I returned back through the Scuppernong trail I was struck by the awesome beauty of the place. At one point I found myself down in a kettle bowl marveling at the lush green walls of the forest surrounding me. I heard the runner in front of me simply say, "Beautiful!", and I couldn't agree more. Despite my fatigue, at that moment I felt truly blessed to be able to do what I was doing, and to be doing it in such an amazing place.

When I returned again to the Hwy ZZ aid station (36.4 mi), expecting to be greeted by my loving cheering section, I instead encountered almost-4-year-old Derek, arms folded, lower lip pouting, making that "hmmf" sound. Clearly, he was pissed about something. Turns out, he'd found this really great stick and someone (he claims it was Mom, but she denies it) stepped on it and broke it. "It was the best stick. There aren't any other good sticks.", Derek pouted to me when I asked for the story. "Derek", I said, "You're in the middle of the forest. Surely you can find another good stick. A better one." But he was sure that was the last good stick in all the forest. What it was really all about was 'hot, humid, and past nap time', but it made for some nicely distracting entertainment for a couple minutes.

When I hit the Hwy 67 station (39 mi), I was happy to see that Derek had indeed found a new, better stick. This one was shaped like a Star Wars blaster, and of course I was cold-heartedly blasted by my little storm trooper upon arrival.

Around this point, we started hearing reports of some serious weather possibly headed our way. Besides that, what I had to look forward to was the miles of open meadows between me and Emma Carlin. Onward. One foot in front of the other.

The meadows lived up to their reputation. Exposed in the heat, the humidity even higher in the rolling fields of tall grasses, it sucked the energy right out of me. I got into a rhythm of running the exposed sections and walking in the shade of the sparsely scattered sections of trees to try and cool off. At one point, leaving one long meadow behind me, seeing another long exposed section in front of me, I sat down in a small grove of trees to recover. I've never sat down in the middle of a race anywhere other than at an aid station. (Well, there was that one time at Ironman Wisconsin 2005 which ended with an EMT helping me into an ambulance, but that story has already been told). But, as the saying goes in ultrarunning, "It never always gets worse." I think that quote needs to be followed with, "assuming you live to tell the tale", but that's just me.

A few miles later I came upon Kent again, walking and talking with Meghan Hicks. Meghan looked familiar but it took awhile for me to realize why. She also ran Chippewa Moraine back in April. None of us was having a particularly good time just then, so we walked a bit and ran a bit together. We had each been drained by the oppressive conditions. I ran with Kent and Meghan on and off for most of the rest of the race.

The rain drops started to fall just as I arrived at Emma Carlin (47.3 mi). Reports were that we were soon to be nailed by a strong storm. A little rain sounded good to me. A tornado, not so much. Keep moving forward.

Somewhere past Horseriders (50.5 mi) is when it happened. The sky opened. Flashes of lighting were followed sooner and sooner by violent crashes of thunder. The rain started coming down as hard as I've ever experienced. Quickly the trails turned into little raging rivers. Rocks on the hills created small waterfalls. Dips in the trail turned into shallow ponds. And the lightning got closer. Twice there were explosions of lighting so close it made me instinctively duck. I was just praying that my time was not up yet. Since I was on a section of trail going more uphill than down, heading toward the highest point in the area at Bald Bluff, I had thoughts of heading off-trail to lower ground to wait out the lightning. But seeing as I was surrounded by thousands of trees, I figured the lightning would much rather nail one of those giants than little me, so I slogged onward.

Between the pounding of the rain, the pounding of the miles, and the damage inflicted by the heat and humidity of the day, my legs and feet were in bad shape. Running uphill was impossible, and running downhill was too painful. Running the flats kind of sucked, too, but I tried. I was already beyond "the hardest thing I've ever done", and every new step was one step farther into the unknown for me.

By the time I reached the peak of Bald Bluff, the worst of the storm had passed, and a new problem presented itself. Mosquitoes. The pounding rain had washed off whatever insect repellent remained on my flesh, and the mosquitoes were swarming. They gave me incentive to keep running so I could reach Jenni, and a can of bug spray, at Bluff Road.

After finally reaching the Bluff Road station (55.5 mi), and applying a liberal coating of bug spray, I felt ready to finish this thing off. I ran and walked the first couple miles of the Nordic loop with Kent and Meghan, and then I tried to dial it up and run as strong as I could the rest of the way. I pulled into the final aid station at Tamarack (57.8 miles), and in my mind I was thinking the finish was less than 3 miles farther. I was informed it was another 5.1 miles (the course is a little longer than 100K, at 62.9 miles). The last few miles of this race are anything but easy. It's an endless series of roller coaster ups and downs, and I was hurting. With three miles to go I really couldn't run anymore. Usually I'm able to muster up some extra energy and extra resolve late in a race and finish strong. Not in this race. Not on this day. I was humbled by the course. Humbled by the conditions. Humbled by the distance.

And humbled does not even begin to describe what I was feeling about the runners headed the other direction. As I was coming into the finish of the 100K, thoroughly beaten, there were runners headed the other direction on their quest to finish 100 miles! When I signed up for the 100K, my thought was that if I could survive 100K I'd make an attempt at 100 miles next year. But with a couple miles to go in my 100K, all I could think was, "I will never ever do this again". How in the hell, after all of that, are these people continuing to run, knowing that they are setting off to cover another 38 miles, into the dark of night, with thunder beginning to rumble in the sky once again? How? How? I thought I was tough. I thought I was strong. That girl was, was...she was smiling! What the hell? Clearly, there is another level of tough that remains beyond my understanding.

All I could tell myself was that if I kept putting one foot in front of the other, this would eventually end. Finally I began to hear the sounds of the finish line. Finally, Jenni and Derek came into view, and Derek was ready to run. I handed Jenni my water bottles, and ran with Derek the final 100 yards to the finish line, crossing the line in 13 hours and 45 minutes.

Of course, Derek wanted to play then. He told me I didn't have to run, but sitting was no good. But, I had to sit. I was feeling pretty bad, knowing I had to eat, but not feeling one bit hungry. I eventually got myself into some dry clothes, found a place to sit near the food table, and tried to get some calories and fluids into my system. It took awhile, but I started to feel better. Not my legs. My legs were shot. But the rest of me finally began to recover from the trauma.

As it turns out, I wasn't the only one who suffered that day. Of the 70 runners who started the 100K, only 38 of us finished. I was 11th among them and 3rd in the 40-49 division. Of the 123 starters of the 100 mile run, just 37 finished the full distance. Many decided to call it a day at 100K. I'd venture to guess those are the lowest finishing percentages in this event's history.

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So, I said I'd never do that again. But as anyone who has participated in endurance events can tell you, time is a wonderful anesthetic. It quickly forces the mind to lose track of just how badly it hurt. I can't let go of the mental image of those runners headed back out there for the final leg of the 100 miles as I was limping in to the finish of the 100K. They have something that I don't have. Even those that didn't end up finishing the 100 miles. Just the fact that they had the strength and resolve to push onward, having been just steps from their car. They picked themselves up and pushed on, heading out into the night. How? Physically, mentally,...how? I don't understand it. It bothers me that this event was so hard for me. And, it bothers me more that the idea of running 100 miles feels no more clear to me now than it did before...maybe even less clear. Those people possess some character than I do not yet possess. Whatever it is, I want it.

When the mind believes, the body will follow.
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