First 100 miler

This afternoon, as I drifted in and out of consciousness on the massage table while Igor (yes, really, he’s Russian) tried to work the soreness out of my tired old body, I thought a lot about how truly blessed I am.  Yesterday morning at 10:28 am – 28 hours, 28 minutes, and some number of seconds after I had started – I had crossed the finish line of the Kettle Moraine 100 mile trail run. My training partner and best buddy, Jeff Wold, who planted the “ultra” seed in my mind back in 1995, was at my side, just as he had been since mile 62. My devoted crew, Anna Belu and Kathy Casale, were there waiting and cheering, just as they had been at every “crew accessible” aid station. Anna was taking pictures and writing down the numbers. Kathy had a tear in her eye – yeah, I saw that, Kathy. Race Director Tim Yanacheck came out with a big smile, shook my hand, and handed me my finisher’s award, the coolest little copper kettle. Another friend and occasional training partner, Scott Wagner smiled at me from the chair into which he had collapsed three minutes earlier. And yet another good buddy and training partner, Larry Pederson, who had paced Scott for those last 38 miles, beamed at me, grinning from ear to ear. Yeah, blessed.

Anna, Kathy and I had left the Twin Cities around 10 am on Friday.  During the six hours or so that it took to reach LaGrange, Wisconsin, we talked, listened to tunes, ate a hearty lunch, took turns driving, and had a lot of fun. By about 5:30, we had checked into the motel, the “girls” had changed into running clothes, and I was sitting at a picnic table at packet pickup, comparing braids with local speedster and 100K entrant Christine Crawford. Christine’s braid was judged (by Christine) to be a tad longer than mine, but mine was hands down grayer. The evening was rather warm, and the two of us confided to each other that we are NOT very good hot weather runners. We chatted more as other familiar faces came and went, and I realized that I felt very relaxed and ready for my first attempt at a 100 mile trail run. The heat concerned me a bit, but I felt confident that I was very well trained for every other aspect of the event.

I slept rather fitfully, evidently more apprehensive about things than I had realized. I woke a number of times, but the upside of that was that I knew I was well hydrated. The downside was that I probably only slept for about 4 or 5 hours, total. When the alarm went off at 4:25, I got up immediately to get dressed and get my breakfast down. I tried to be as quiet as possible, and let my crew get as much sleep as possible. As soon as I was dressed, I stepped outside to check the temperature, and also to check for Jeff, who had planned to arrive around 5 am, and tumble into one of the beds we would be abandoning and get a good day’s sleep before assuming pacing duties at the 100K mark. Jeff was there, as expected. Within a few minutes, my crew and I were headed for the start, and Jeff was asleep in the room.

The temperature at the bank in Whitewater was 56 as we passed by around 5:15. The sky was cloudless, and it was apparent that the day would heat up quickly. My stomach was feeling queasy already, probably a combination of too little sleep, too much breakfast, and nerves. I figured the feeling would pass once the RD set us in motion. At 6:00 sharp, 83 hundred milers, 29 hundred Kers, and a couple of 100 mile relay runners headed off into the woods.

I ran conservatively, drawing on my experience of 30 or so previous ultras, including four 24-hour races. As expected, the temperature rose quickly, and I drank steadily from my CamelBak. But unexpectedly, my stomach continued to feel somewhat upset. The smiling faces of Kathy and Anna at mile 7.5 gave me a huge lift, and the concern on Anna’s faceaf ter I spent about 5 minutes in the porta-potty at that aid station touched me. These two friends had each taken a vacation day, and devoted an entire weekend to support me in my quest for 100 miles, and another had driven through the night in order to be there to kick my butt when it would most need that treatment. There was no way I could let these people down. I ate some of the crystallized ginger that I had brought along for battling stomach upset, and headed out on the long stretch to the 31-mile turnaround.

The first 16 miles is well-shaded, and the ginger seemed to be doing its job. This part of the course is quite runnable, and I had to force myself to take walking breaks. The ginger had calmed my stomach pretty well, and I was running strong and on pace to easily finish under the 30-hour limit. Shortly after mile 16, however, there are some long stretches of unshaded meadows. The trails are very runnable, but very exposed to the sun. Knowing my usual vulnerability to heat, I became even more diligent about forcing myself to walk periodically, and made an extra effort to keep my water as cold as possible. At the next aid station, I filled my hat with ice, as Kathy and Anna swabbed me down with sponges drenched in cold water, and then slathered me with sunblock. Meanwhile, an aid station volunteer honored my request to put as much ice as he had to spare into my 70-ounce Omega bladder, and top it up with water. I hugged my crew, thanked the volunteers, and was off again into the oven that these meadows had become. I was staying hydrated, taking a Succeed! electrolyte capsule every hour, consuming Balance Bars and aid station fare, and keeping the stomach discomfort in the tolerable range. But about 30 minutes out of that aid station, I sucked on my bite valve, and nothing happened. I reached around back, and I realized that my pack is so well insulated that the ice had not melted. I had about 50 ounces of ice, melting at a pace slower than I needed it. Uh oh. Just suck it up and trust that all will work out in the end.

But remember, I am blessed. Before I got into any serious trouble, I was able to add some water to the bladder. The downside was that about 10 minutes later, I realized that while I was adding the water, I had dropped my bandana, which I use constantly during long events, for many different purposes. Again, I refused to let myself get too distracted by this little bump in the road, and at the next aid station, another runner’s crew had my bandana for me. Wow. My own crew, my two “babes,” as the usual suspects (you know who you are, Pat, Brad, et al) were calling them, continued with their wonderful support, greeting me with smiles, hugs, food, drink, sponges, and inspiring words.

I ran for many hours through this stretch with Phil Oelkers from Illinois, and we talked a lot and took turns pulling each other along. As we returned from the 31 mile turnaround, where we had made the first enforced cutoff by about an hour, we discussed our pace, and the dreaded open meadows that lay between us and the next enforced cutoff at mile 62, back at the start/finish area. Around mile 50, I think, after some clouds had mercifully helped us through those meadows, my stomach finally started to feel good, and I picked up the pace a bit. Anna and Kathy had my lights ready for me just when I needed them, and Anna, a scientist by vocation, let me know that I had even managed a pace that put me further ahead of the upcoming 62 mile cutoff. When I did get there, Jeff was all ready to begin his role as pacer, and guide me through those last 38 miles. I was 1:25 ahead of the cutoff – it was 10:30 pm.

Jeff and I have run probably a few thousand miles together since I moved to MN in 1995. Perhaps the only person with whom I have run more miles is my wife, Chris Markham. Chris teaches 9th grade science, and had stayed at home to wrap up end of school stuff, and to cheer for our younger son, Ari, who was competing in the 1600 meter race at Section Championships on Saturday. As Jeff and I headed out into the darkness, he told me that he had just spoken to Chris, and that Ari had run a 4:36, good for a 4th place medal in his event. Yeah, man, that was some great news, and got me ever more stoked. We cruised along, just as we have so many times before, sharing our love of running and the outdoors. We talked a little, but said so much more. Every once in awhile, we turned off our headlamps and enjoyed the silence and the dark of night. We listened wordlessly to the coyotes and frogs, and the other sounds of the night. Every so often, Jeff would tell me how strong I was running, and where we stood in relation to the cutoffs. And at every aid station, Kathy and Anna were there to make sure we were eating and drinking well, that we were staying warm, and to tell us how awesome we looked. It was very dark out there.

There was a lovely half to 3/4 moon that broke free of a cloud about 1:00 am. The temperature was now about 60, and I was finally very comfortable in my singlet. Virtually all the volunteers and crews, and many other runners, were now clad in jackets. But Jeff and I were moving very well, and were generating plenty of heat to keep ourselves warm. We were almost two full hours ahead of the cutoffs when we hit the four mile stretch to the 81-mile turnaround, and after stumbling over roots and rocks, decided that it was a good time to do a lot of walking. We power walked most of the way out and back, and still were 1:30 ahead of the final aid station cutoff “back” at mile 85. Our headlamps had been extinguished at 4:59 am, as we witnessed a lovely sunrise from some more of the open meadows that decorate the trail.

We had fifteen miles to go, and six and a quarter hours to get there. And we were still taking frequent running breaks from our awesome walking. All we had to do now was stay strong, and avoid doing anything stupid. Our excitement rose, as did Anna’s and Kathy’s. Their smiles got bigger at each aid station, and even in the daylight, they continued to tell us how good we looked. The volunteers at the last aid station, 5 miles from the finish, had promised pancakes upon our return when we had last seen them at mile 67. And they had then ready for us now! It was doubtless the longest aid station stop of the run for me, but I gobbled down a couple of pancakes with syrup, while Jeff more daringly devoured some breakfast sausage. We headed out of there well-fueled, and with plenty of time to walk it in if we had to.

My stomach problems had never completely gone away, however, so putting so much food in there all at once had a pretty quick effect on me. For the fourth time of the event, I had found a nice quiet spot to squat in the woods. Squatting after 95 miles has all sorts of interesting effects of the body. But I survived, and returned quickly to Jeff’s side, shaking the cramps out of my quads as we powered up and down the hilly cross-country ski trails that would take us home. The sun was up now, and the temperature had risen a bit, but it was still quite comfortable.  But I was finally starting to feel weary, and we were doing almost 100% walking. We were still about an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff pace, so it was just a matter of maintaining forward motion for another hour and a quarter or so. It was about this time that we encountered an elderly couple walking together on the trail. They asked if we were participating in the 100 mile race, and when Jeff replied that I was, and that he was pacing me, the woman asked me, “What do you do with your mind when you’re running a hundred miles?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Ignore it.” About 10 seconds later, Jeff turned to me, laughing like crazy, and said that he might have a new favorite ultra quotation.

We finished strong, running the last mile or so, but still managing to get passed by a resurrected Scott, who had nearly dropped at mile 62, and had looked like a “Night of the Living Dead” cast member at mile 81. Another runner also passed us, but I couldn’t have cared less. As we came into sight of the finish, people were hollering, Anna was snapping photos, Kathy was brushing away a tear, and I was pumping my fist. I had completed my first attempt at 100 miles on trails, and I was proud and grateful. Upon learning a few minutes ago that I was one of only 38 of the 83 starters to complete the 100 miles, I felt even more blessed.

I can’t say enough thanks to Jeff, Anna, and Kathy for their support out there. I don’t want to even think about what it would have been like without them out there, inspiring me and taking such good care of me. Thanks to Tim Yanacheck, Jason Dorgan, and their volunteers for putting on an awesome race. Thanks to all my training buddies for their patience and support along the way. Thanks to Christine Crawford for the cute little flower hair thingie that she gave me for luck as we gathered for the start – I wore it all day, and it is permanently attached now to my race bib. And finally, thanks to my wife and son for inspiring me to run as strong as they both do, and for sending me off with love and confidence.

On the website (http://www.kettle100.com/), my name is listed as a “100 mile solo” entrant. Not the way I see it.