Wednesday, June 10, 2009

100 Miles, 1 Day - 2009 Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run

It was in November, 2007, that this all began. That was when I first got the idea in my head that
ultrarunning was a journey I wanted to take, and 100 miles was the destination. I took the first significant steps along the way in 2008, culminating in the most difficult challenge I had ever faced at the 2008 Kettle Moraine 100K. I'll never forget the last few miles of that 100K, running past 100-mile runners who were headed back out for their final 38 miles. I wrote it up in my report like this:
"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."
Well, I couldn't leave things at that, of course. Once time did its magic and the pain and misery were mostly forgotten (time is like anesthesia for endurance athletes), I clicked "submit" and entered myself into the 2009 Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run. I needed to figure out if I had whatever "those people" have. I put my trust in a truth that has held for me thus far in my endurance pursuits.

When the mind believes, the body will follow.

So there I found myself at the Kettle Moraine Nordic trail head, readying my drop bags in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 2009. I arrived with a body I knew to be not all so different from the body that carried me through a torturous 62 mile slog on these same trails one year prior. But I now had a mind that believed. Not a mind that believed I would finish. I couldn't bring myself to be so arrogantly presumptuous. There was just way too much uncharted territory to be confronted. The simple difference was that I now had a mind that fully believed I would take at least one more step beyond 62 miles. I trusted that would be followed by another, and another, and so on. My hope was that my final step would the one that carried me across the 100 mile finish line. Belief. Trust. Hope. Little words that can make a big difference.

The first 62 miles of the race would be a repeat of the same trails I covered during the 100K last year, starting with a 7.5 mile loop around the Nordic hiking and ski trails, then heading northeast on the Ice Age Trail to the Scuppernong trails and the turnaround at the 31 mile mark. From there you do a 180 and return to the start/finish area, where you find yourself with 62 miles on your battered legs, and just steps from your car. If you successfully suppress the urge to drop here, you head back out around the Nordic loop one more time, then head southwest on the Ice Age Trail down to the final turnaround at the 81.5 mile mark. From here, assuming you're still upright and mobile, you retrace your steps back to the finish at the Nordic trail head. The fun begins at 6am Saturday, and the cutoff time is noon Sunday, 30 hours.

Having to generate a pace chart so my family had some idea when I might be arriving at various checkpoints meant having to set a target time and pace. My goal was simply to finish, but I was hoping to be able to break 24 hours, so I put together an estimated pacing plan based on the average paces of runners who finished in the 22 to 24 hour time window last year. I told my wife, Jenni, that the margin of error in my estimated times could be significant. Jenni would be coming up later in the morning, toting almost-5 year old Derek and 9 month old Darcie, hoping to catch me somewhere around 25 to 30 miles into my journey. I signed her up for twittering the happenings of the day from my phone so some of my family and friends could keep tabs on how things were going. Jenni takes to new technology with, shall we say, reluctance. But once she figured out that tweeting was really very simple, I knew she would keep her thumbs busy, and my family entertained.

Besides Jenni and the kids, I was blessed to have my sister Vicki, niece Lexie, brother Dave, and nephew David all coming to support me sometime around the 45 to 55 mile mark, and they all planned to hang in there through the night until the finish. Dave was committed to running with me from mile 62 to the final turnaround at mile 81, which was pretty impressive of him considering this would be his first real trail running experience, and most of it in the dark of night!

Following some pre-race words from race director Timo, I gathered with the rest of the crazies behind the starting line awaiting the word. No air horn, no cannon, just Timo with a little, "Ready, set, go", and our journey was officially underway.

The first several miles of the Nordic trails involve a continuous series of little roller coaster ups and downs on relatively wide trails. As is the common wisdom for most ultrarunners setting off to cover 50 miles or more, I walked the uphills to save my legs for the many, many miles to come. Within the first mile I found myself running behind a guy and a girl who started chatting about her shirt. She'd written on the back of it, "Hey Jim! Blue Skies!", and the guy was asking her about it. She said Jim was a friend of hers who passed away in February. One of her favorite memories of Jim was the time he took her skydiving. Immediately my mind went to my dad. Dad passed away in October. Less than five months before he died, at the age of 70, he took a flying leap out of a perfectly good airplane.

It got me thinking about Dad. You have a lot of time to think when you're running 100 miles. I thought about how much pain and suffering my dad endured through the final years of his life, and it made me realize that the pain I was setting out to inflict upon myself today was nothing. Nothing. It made me think that the girl, the shirt, the words, the was all there in front of me for a reason. I got the sense that Dad was there with me, and we were going to work through the pain and suffering of this day together. Like Dad jumping out of a plane, my running 100 miles makes no sense at all to most. These are things crazy people do. But, the way I see it, "life is too short not to do cool shit". It doesn't have to make sense to anybody else. It only has to make sense to me. And so, we took our "leap", down the trail, together. Common sense be damned.

The early miles rolled along nicely uneventfully. I was enjoying the mercifully mild weather, a good 25 degrees cooler than the steamy, stormy conditions of 2008. Eventually as the runners spread out across the many miles of trails, I found myself alone with my thoughts and pulled out my iPod so I could listen to a new audio book I'd just bought - Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. I'd heard great things about this book from other ultrarunners, and they were right! Chris' book kept me entertained and inspired for hours, a perfect match for the day. This has actually become one of my favorite activities in life...running trails, listening to a new book, and just losing myself for awhile. If it weren't for running, I'm afraid I'd never find time to read a new book :-)

A little before 12:30pm I arrived at the Scuppernong aid station, the 31 mile mark, and the turnaround for the return trip back to Nordic. Jenni and the kids had arrived to greet me, which always gives me a huge lift. I loaded up at the aid station, eating whatever sounded good, told the family I'd see them in about 5 miles, and pressed on.

Soon after departing Scuppernong it started to rain lightly. The forecast had called for a pretty good chance of rain all day and night, so I was mentally prepared for a very soggy ordeal. But as it turned out, we got less than an hour of light rain in the early afternoon, and that was it. No significant rain, cool temperatures...ideal running weather!

As I was approaching the County Road ZZ aid station, mile 36.4, a girl running the other way said something to me about a cute little boy waiting on the trail just ahead. The cute little boy turned out to be Derek, waiting for me in the rain, about 50 yards up the trail from the aid station. Apparently Derek had been practicing his trail running while waiting for me to arrive. It makes me smile to see that Derek really enjoys getting out to these events. He doesn't even realize that what we were doing out there is considered crazy by most right-thinking folks. He's been around endurance events like this since before he can remember, so it all seems perfectly normal to him :-)

Somewhere between mile 40 and 45 I was running through the section of trail that is mostly grassy meadow, still enjoying listening to my book, putting one foot in front of the....WHAM!! I suddenly found myself sprawled out on the ground, trying to regather whatever wits were still functioning. My left foot had caught a small stump hiding in the weeds, intent on taking me down. I quickly assessed the situation, but happily discovered no significant damage. So I hauled myself back up and pressed on.

As I grew closer to the Emma Carlin aid station, mile 47.3, I started craving a pizza! My body wanted salt and fat, big time! Of course I knew there was no pizza at the aid station, so when I arrived at the food table I scanned the offerings trying to identify the next best alternative. I saw these tortilla rolls-ups with some meat and cheese inside, and started devouring them. Turns out, the roll-ups were turkey or ham, cheese, butter, and mayo! On any other occasion, I would have rejected these as being both disgusting and alarmingly unhealthy. But, in this particular circumstance, I was in heaven...not as good as a pizza, but it fit the bill. I must have downed half a dozen of those things!

The temperature had started to drop a bit, so I slipped on a long sleeve shirt from my drop bag. The rest of my family hadn't arrived yet, so I told Jenni I'd see her at the Bluff aid station 8 miles up the trail (the kids were napping at this point), and I got myself moving again. There's more uphill than down on this section of the course as you work your way past a huge granite erratic boulder know as the Stone Elephant, toward one of the highest points on the course, a hill known as Bald Bluff. I always get a refreshing sense of oneness with my surroundings whenever I find myself running on trails that were forged and traveled by native Americans hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Bald Bluff is thought to have been used by local tribes as a council grounds, a signal hill, and a place where ceremonial dances were held. And the Stone Elephant was thought to be a sacred place by the early Potawatomi Indians (Although, having stopped to look at the Stone Elephant during a training run one day, and finding no discernible resemblance to that of an elephant aside from perhaps color, it occurred to me, "How would native Americans know what an elephant looks like, anyway?")

I performed my own sort of ceremonial dance on my way down the rocky back side of Bald Bluff, trying not to fall or turn an ankle, and soon found myself passing through a trail intersection known as Confusion Corner on my way to the Bluff aid station, mile 55.5. I'd been running for nearly 12 hours now, and the miles were starting to wear on me. But, thankfully, the rest of my family had now arrived to support me. This was their first introduction to the world of ultrarunning, and I felt blessed to have them there, yet guilty at the same time. I felt guilty at the thought of them waiting around all night just to see me for a few minutes every couple of hours. But, they assured me they wanted to be there, and were in this thing for the long haul, so I just loaded up with some calories and kept moving.

The final few miles back around the Nordic trails took me through the roller coaster hills once again. As I passed runners headed the other direction to begin their final 38 mile out and back leg, I remembered back to one year ago as I was in the same place headed into the finish of my 100K. I was tired, but not nearly as trashed as I had been in this same place a year ago. I know the milder weather had a big part to play in that, but the bigger difference was mental. My brain had already prepared itself for at least a 24 hour ordeal, not a 13 hour one. My mind knew I was a long, long way from done. My body was just going along for the ride, tired, but not finished. Before long I found myself back where I had started - the start/finish area, and the 62.9 mile mark of my 100 mile adventure.

My family was there, helping me with whatever I needed. I took a seat in the grass to inspect my feet and change my socks. As I was checking for blisters, I started to feel lots of little pinches, like bug bites. I looked down and saw that I was covered in fire ants, hundreds of them! I had been sitting right on top of their nest, and apparently word got out and spread like...well, like fire! I jumped up and Jenni freaked as she saw my back was totally covered in the little bastards. They were under my shirt, under my shorts, between my two shirts, everywhere! Another ceremonial dance ensued as we worked to brush them all off. At least it perked me up!

Once the ant situation was taken care of, I got some more food, and readied my headlamp and handheld flashlights. Dave did the same as he prepared to pace me for the next 19 miles or more, depending on how he was feeling. I was a little concerned when I saw Dave's lights. He had three of these little clip-on LED lights, one on the bill of his hat, the other two each on the hand straps of his handheld bottles. I was concerned they may not be bright enough, but maybe having three of them might work out okay. I also knew I had more light than I really needed, so I figured we'd make it work. Dave said he was ready to go, and off we went, into "uncharted territory".

I chit-chatted about trail running tips for Dave, tried to describe the trails that lay in store for us, babbled about the book I'd been listening to, and just generally tried to keep my mind on anything but my aching legs and the many miles they still had to carry me. We went past a couple of fiends headed the other direction; Dorn Peddy who told me he was going to drop at 100K due to pain in his knee, and Dominic Guinta who was looking strong and determined to push on toward his first 100 miler. A few miles into the Nordic trails we came upon a rise with a beautiful view of a lush green valley to the west, and the ridge on the other side from which we had come. I was glad Dave got a least a bit of time to run the trails while there was still some daylight to appreciate the beauty of them. Not long after, the trails grew darker and we switched on our lights.

We found our way back to the Bluff aid station, mile 70.3, yucked it up with the family, and loaded up with enough food and drink to carry us the 7 miles to the next fully stocked aid station, and were on our way. Soon after we took the left turn at Confusion Corner it had gotten really dark and Dave was realizing his lights were not really bright enough. I had my headlamp plus two very bright handheld lights attached to my water bottles. I gave Dave one of my handhelds, which helped a lot, and left me still with plenty of light, so we were good to go for the night.

Then, things started to take a turn. The next few miles sucked the life out of me. A downward spiral was in the making.

It was somewhere between 11:30 and midnight when we finally arrived at the Highway 12 aid station, mile 77. I'd been running for nearly 18 hours, and I was growing worried. I knew I needed to eat, but I wasn't hungry. The 7 miles since the last manned aid station had taken their toll. I'd been stumbling in the dark, tripping over rocks and tree roots, over a section of trail that seemed much more uphill than down, and had grown dejected by the dramatic drop in pace. My spirits had darkened. I slumped into a chair, and worried about how hard it may be to extract myself from it again. Jenni's face revealed a look of concern. Negative thoughts began to dance in my head. First are the thoughts that come from that part of your brain whose job it is to keep you from destroying yourself. These are the thoughts that urge you to stop.

But then some other part of my brain sparked. It was that part of my brain for which, "stop" is the sound of a blaring alarm. It shook off the fatigue, assessed the situation, and spoke to me.

"Steve, pull yourself together. This is what running 100 miles feels like. This, right here, right now...this is what it's all about. You can stop now, nobody else will care, but you'll always know. Pull your ass out of this chair and move!"

The whole experience would have almost been a disappointment if it hadn't brought me to this dark place. You see, it's
supposed to be hard. It wouldn't be worth doing if it wasn't. All the miles, all the hills, every step, all the pain, the falls, the stubbed toes, every rock and tree root, the entire cumulative experience of the 77 miles that led me to this place was all there for this very reason. It was all there to try to break me.

No. Not today. Not this time.

I picked myself up out of the chair, fueled my body, and we pressed onward.

And just like that, I gradually started feeling better. Sure, I was beat, I was tired, I was aching, and my progress was slow, but my confidence was making a comeback. By the time we pulled into the final turnaround at mile 81.5, Jenni couldn't believe I was the same person she'd seen just over 4 miles back. I told Dave he could pull out here, and I'd be fine. But he assured me he was still feeling good, and wanted to keep going. And so, keep going we did.

We made steady progress back toward Highway 12, buoyed by the fact the we were on the final push toward home. At the mile 86 aid station I once again told Dave I'd be fine if he'd had enough. I loved having the company out there, but I knew he was already well past his "commitment", and the next crew accessible aid station was another 7 miles. He thought about it awhile, but he once again assured me he was still feeling good. Keep moving forward.

All things considered, Dave and I made good time over the next section of trail. We ran where we could, and where we had to walk I forced myself to power walk. By the time we arrived back at the Bluff aid station, mile 92.8, the family was nowhere to be seen. As we busied ourselves eating and filling bottles, the crew arrived, surprised that we'd made better time than they expected. Dave finally decided to pull the plug here, having run farther than he'd ever run before, 30 miles. First real trail run, first night trail run, first ultra distance run! My brother went way above and beyond the call for me, and I can't thank him enough for helping me through!

My fuzzy brain had somehow already given up on the goal of 24 hours, convinced that I had an outside chance to make it at best. I couldn't do the math to figure out how fast I needed to go, and I didn't have the mental energy to care that much. But Vicki told me I could do it, so I pushed on. I knew the final 7 miles of trail had plenty of hills, but pretty reliable footing, and it would start getting light soon. So, I just pushed on, drawing on whatever energy I could still find.

Somewhere between 4:30 and 5am, it was like God flipped a switch. It seemed as if simultaneously every bird in the forest started to sing. Mother Nature was waking up. I drew some extra energy from that and pressed on. With a few miles to go the math became easier to figure and I could see that, barring some complete and
unexpected shutdown, I would break 24 hours by a comfortable margin. I looked forward to the final pass through the roller coaster of hills over the last 5 miles. As the sky grew lighter, I could begin to hear some voices through the trees from the finish line. Finally, the finish line banner came into sight a few hundred yards ahead. I could see Dave waving toward the parking lot, signalling to Jenni and the others that I was coming in.

The day before the race I had talked to Derek about the finish. Derek likes to run across finish lines with me whenever he can. I told him that he'd probably be asleep when I got to the finish line this time, and asked him if he wanted Mom to wake him up to finish with me. He said yes. I asked him a couple times to make sure, and "yes" was the clear answer. So, I figured that's what Jenni was doing now. There was no way I would go across that line without him. When I got about 30 or 40 yards from the finish, Timo the race director was there starting to cheer me in. I told him I had to wait because I promised my little boy he could finish with me. A couple minutes later, a sleepy-eyed Derek came jogging toward me. He was saying, "sorry, sorry", thinking I might be mad I had to wait for him. I assured him it was just fine, and I wouldn't have wanted to have it any other way. Derek and I joined hands and ran the final stretch across the line together.

100 miles. 1 day.


The day wouldn't have been the same, heck wouldn't have been possible, without the love and support of my family.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, to my wife Jenni, son Derek, baby daughter Darcie, sister Vicki, niece Lexie, brother and pacer Dave, and nephew David, for being there by my side. I know my Mom and sister Deb both also wanted to be there, too, so thanks for following along with Jenni's twitter updates. It made a difference just knowing you had me in your thoughts.