“You wanna finish holding hands? Or is that too cliche?”
Back to the place where it all began, 6 years ago. My first introduction to the world of trail and ultra running. Granted, back in 2011, I only did a 30k leg of the 100 mile relay, but that little foray into the world of ultra running would lead me back to the same spot on the same first weekend in June 6 years later for probably the best race that I’ve ever run.
After a soul-crushing, Falcons-in-Super-Bowl-LI DNF at last year’s Kettle and a slow, painful finish in 2015, I was sufficiently worried coming into this year’s race. Even though I was coming off a good finish at Hyner, my legs were feeling pretty fatigued, and on top of that, a lot can happen over 100 miles, especially when it’s over a course that I haven’t necessarily ran well on over the years. However, life goes on, and life finds a way.
This is a pretty long recap, so I’ll give a little TL;DR, analytical version at now before going into the nitty gritty summary of the day. All-in-all, it was an amazing race, and like I mentioned, probably the best race I’ve ever run, even considering Pine Creek 2015 and Midwest Conference 2014 steeplechase. It was truly a miserable day with torrential rains for about 2 hours in the morning, followed by slop and high temps with high humidity for the remainder of the day and night. Of the 250 starters of the race, only 101 finished, which is close to a factor of 2 lower finishing rate than Kettle normally has.
Quite the day (and quite the night) at the #Kettle100 – huge thank you to @amtaggart and @luc_denigro for crewing and @runanthym @hammernutrition and @swiftwicksocks for the support. Had to gut it out to a 19:51 finish, good enough to tie for third. Thunderstorms, lost contacts and ankle deep mud made things tough, but running in America's dairyland always makes things better #RunHappyValley #HammerNutrition #ChaseAdventure
In terms of my racing, I did everything that I needed to; I went out with a game plan and I stuck to it. The only thing that I did all day was walk the hills and run everything else, and coupling that with being smart at the aid stations, led to an amazing day. I probably ate less than I did in years past, but I think I made it much easier on myself by not really varying my pace all that much from the beginning to the end. I made sure to sit down at all the aid stations (thank you Tarahumara for teaching me that), and stuck to a very simplistic nutrition plan – nothing complex, nothing that I had to force down, nothing too extreme. And of course, it obviously helped that I had somebody to run with for the first 40 miles and another person for the last 40 miles.
Never in a million years could I have imaged this race going better. I told myself two years ago when I finished my first 100 that I needed two years to get good. After the disappointing DNF last year, I learned a lot about what it meant to be a good runner, and applied it all to this race and training. And it definitely helped a ton. It was obviously a long day and night, but man oh man, was it an incredible experience. About 4 or 5 years ago, when I told myself that I was going to run the whole 100 miles, I knew that my best chance of winning was going to be to have terrible conditions, and while I didn’t win, I needed every bit of those terrible conditions to get myself (tied) on that podium.
After a long drive (10+ hours) out to Wisconsin and a brief tour/meet and greet of Beloit and Beloit people with my crew (Allie and Luke) and Boggs, who was also running, I tried to get the best sleep that I could on Friday night. I was in bed around 10-ish and fell asleep pretty quickly. We had our alarms set for 4:00, so once it was about 2 or 2:30, I tossed and turned essentially until the alarms all went off. All in all, not a bad night’s sleep. I woke up feeling pretty rested, and after a water bottle of HEED, 2 homemade granola bars and a shower, we were off to the start line.
We ran through the normal check-in procedures (including going to the bathroom), and after a quick pic with the rest of the Beloit people (lots of relays and a few 100k and 50k runners), we were off. My most important goal for this race was to finish, and in order to finish, my idea was that I was going to run the first 50k somewhat in between what I did in 2015 and what I did last year; my idea was to run the first 50k somewhere around 5:30 and see where I felt. Granted, this was completely dependent on weather, which was supposed to be off-and-on thunderstorms an upper 80s (more on this later).
Boggs and I started running Nordic faster than I had run two years ago, but walking the hills like I did last year. I knew that there was no way that I was going to run a good race by running almost the entire first 50k – there were lots of hills, and I was going to take advantage of them by walking. As we meandered together through the Nordic section, we had lots of people pass us on both the uphills and the downhills, but since both of us were running with the ‘A’ goal to finish rather than to place, we were fine with letting them go. Again, a lot can happen in 100 miles, and most of the time, it’s bad things.
We came through the first aid station at Bluff (7.6) feeling pretty good, but still took our time to recuperate. I grabbed some HEED (I had water in my bottle and a couple gels in the pocket), Mountain Dew, and 2 PB&J quarters (wasn’t really feeling the candy vibe). The crew wasn’t there yet since they were enjoying their only meal for the next 24+ hours at Main Street Family Restaurant, the best (only?) brunch place around). Once we moved through the aid station, we hit some of the more rolling sections on the course with a good amount of single track. Again, we stuck to our game plan of walking the hills and running everything else.
At this point in the race, it was obviously too early to tell how things would feel later on, but I would by lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous. I couldn’t tell if the little twinge in my legs was nervousness or fatigue from overtraining during the spring season. I obviously didn’t tell anybody so that my fears would never be vocalized, but it was a nagging thought in the back of my head. But, we kept on running, and before we knew it, we were at Emma Carlin (15.7 miles). It was our first time seeing our crew, which is always nice, and I was able to make my annual pit stop in the bathrooms, and after grabbing some HEED, PB&J squares and refilling my water (obviously after using some hand sanitizer), we were out of Emma Carlin into the Meadows, the perennial wonkiest section of the course. This year would be no different.
The things that make the Meadows so weird is that they are wide open and flat. Period. When it’s hot, it’s hot, and when there’s adverse weather, this section seems to feel it worse than all the other parts of the course. So when we started to see bolts of lightning less than a mile into our sojourn into the Meadows, we knew it was going to be an interesting excursion. While we got rain last year, it wasn’t too much, but this year was apparently going to be different with AccuWeather calling for “drenching thunderstorms” (their words, not mine). So, when the overcast skies turned into a drizzle and then into a drenching rain, my worst fears came to fruition. We could hear the howling winds blow through the open Meadows and see lightning bolts and flashes around us while the rain made us more and more soaked without cooling anything off.
So I actually misspoke when I just said that “our worst fears came to fruition.” About a week ago, I had a stress dream that I forgot my contacts for Kettle and everything was blurry during the race, and then I woke up in a cold sweat. So naturally, in the middle of the hardest part of the thunderstorm, I had an itch in my eye, so I reached up to kind of massage it out, and then… uh-oh. I felt my contact come loose.
I stopped in the middle of the trail and blinked until the contact came out of my eye completely. The contact was from my right eye, and I was holding it up with my right index finger. Now, on a normal day, without being able to use a mirror, I would give myself a 50-50 shot of being able to put this contact back in. But today, in the middle of 100 miles and in the middle of a “drenching” thunderstorm, I did not have a lot of hope that I was going to be able to put this sucker back in. But after about 2 minute of struggling to not being to get my upper eyelid out of the way so that I could get my contact in, I told Boggs, “okay, one last try.” I picked up my upper eyelid in between my pointer and middle finger of my right hand and shoved my contact into my eye before the eyelid could slip. And amazingly, BOOM! My contact was in and we were running again.
We got into the Highway 67 aid station (24.8) still feeling pretty good (although pretty soaked). After grabbing some PB&J sandwiches, HEED, and Mountain Dew, we continued on through the pouring rain. In between Highway 67 and Scuppernog, we had about half dirt single-track and half Jeep double-track. While it was raining hard, it hadn’t been raining that long, so the trails weren’t that bad at this point. And to help us a little more, we were probably the first 30 or so people to come through, so there wan’t that much foot traffic to disintegrate the trail. We hit the Scuppernog turnaround (31.6) at 5:09, pretty much right on what I wanted to be at. It stopped raining and looked like the weather may turn up, so we were in good spirits. After grabbing the usual (and requesting the a chair be brought for the remainder of the aid stations), we were back off from where we came.
We started to make our way back through Highway ZZ and into Highway 67 (38.4), and man-oh-man, were these trails completely different this time through. With the hundreds of people who came through after us, the trails had essentially turned into a giant, ankle-deep trough of mud. You had to essentially herringbone to get up the hills and ice skate down them. While the trails aren’t particularly technical, putting a few inches of rain and a few hundred people on the trails will make them pretty difficult.
Nevertheless, life found a way, and we got out of the single-track and into the Meadows with the sky still overcast and only two falls. Normally, at this part of the day (~1pm), the trails start getting pretty warm, but with the sky overcast, the most difficult part of this section was the flatness and monotony. We had to pick the few very slight uphills to walk to break up having to run for 10 miles straight and get our heart rate spiking too much. We moved through the Meadows pretty well until about mile 45, where Boggs began to fall back a little and he told me that he would catch up by the next aid station. This roughly corresponded to when the sun started to come out, baking the open Meadows to about 85+ degrees with who-knows how much humidity. Fearing that this was going to be the end of Boggs’ and my partnership, I kept walking the uphills and running the flats until I got to Emma Carlin (47.4).
Getting into Emma Carlin, I sat down in Luke’s hammock (would not recommend in the middle of the race), I was brought my food/drink (PB&J, Mountain Dew – HEED stopped making the cut at about this point) along with my first change of socks. Since it had stopped raining and the rest of the course was going to be drier, I felt like this was a good time to get some freshness on my feet/toes. Shortly after, I was off and making my way, alone, toward Bluff.
The last two years, this section really killed me; there’s a good amount of rolling hills, and it always feels like I’m alone. While I was definitely alone this year, the hills didn’t feel so bad – I was still walking the hills and running everything else. After a brief pit stop on the side of the trail (I’m not a good botanist, so I was unsure which leaves I could use, so I just gave myself a water bottle bidet [WBB] and kept going sans wipe), I was at Horseriders (unmanned, 49.8), and before I knew it, kept going through the halfway point to Bluff (55.6).
At Bluff, I sat down, got my PB&J and Mountain Dew (along with 2 snowcones!!! and ibuprofen), and then got up and kept going, picking people off one-by-one in front of me (in between the 50k and the 100k, I moved up from 17th to 7th). I made it through the rolling hills of the Nordic section alone until about mile 60 when I came up with Joe (more on him later) and another guy who seemed to be struggling. I had seen Joe off and on all day (we came into the 50k .8 seconds apart), but hadn’t run with him until we dropped the other dude and ran into Nordic (63.1) together.
Again, after sitting down and taking my PB&J with Mountain Dew, we turned off back through the rolling hills, obviously after the infamous “Hundred miler, going out!” shout from the RDs. While maintaining pretty constant conversation, we moved through Bluff again (70.7, again sitting, but this time only taking some Mountain Dew, ibuprofen and I guess something else that I forget, but my stomach couldn’t handle the PB&J) and got to the point where the back 60k split off from the front 100k. At this point, I felt so good that it didn’t even occur to me that I didn’t make it this deep into the race last year.
Joe and I held pretty constant conversation through Highway 12 (77.4), my favorite aid station on the course. Since my stomach still couldn’t handle anything complex, I got my usual Mountain Dew, along with my annual Skittles and canned peaches that they always have here (“You guys have Skittles, right?” “Uh yeah, we do…” “And canned peaches?” “Always!”). We picked up our headlamps and then kept on moving to some of the more technical parts of the course.
The Highway 12-Rice Lake-Highway 12 section is probably the most technical of the course. I say probably because it’s always run at night and probably at the lowest mental part of the day; you can’t quite see the end but you’ve already put 80-some miles on your legs. Even though it was tough with a good amount of walking and mud from earlier in the day (these were our slowest splits), it was during this section that Joe and I realized that barring anything catastrophic, we were going to finish the race; maybe not together, but at least finish it. So when we came back through Highway 12 inbound (86.3) and gathered ourselves together (along with a change of socks, we could feel how close we were.
Moving through some more technical stuff, we meandered towards Bluff inbound 2 (93), still amazed that we were still able to run on everything that wasn’t an uphill. Granted, our definition of what constituted an “uphill” probably changed a bit throughout the night, but we were still able to run at a pace fairly similar to what we started the day with. As we approached the bridle pass to get toward bluff, we passed another 100 miler who had half an hour on us at the Rice Lake turnaround walking down a downhill (this put us into third and fourth). Passing him probably boosted our moral going into Bluff as much as it (unfortunately) hurt his.
We came into Bluff wanting to quickly get out since we could smell a sub-20 finish coming on. I thought that I had a bunch of sand in my socks, so I changed them out really quickly (it turned out it was just a lot of blisters), grabbed some Mountain Dew and watermelon and left as quickly as we came in. Through the beginning of the Nordic section, we started to run a little harder down the hills and on the flats, although we didn’t quite start running the uphills. We wanted to hold a little bit in us just in case someone came up from behind, and we didn’t want to cash in too early or make a dumb mistake to ruin our whole day.
As the crew-inaccessible Tamarack aid station (~95.5), we just ran through it, shouting out our numbers as we trucked through. We moved through the couple larger climbs at about miles 96 and 97 (the RDs have started to name these climbs in recent years), and a this point, we were doing about 10 minute miles, including walking up the hills, meaning that we were running about 8s. Through some thunder and about 2 minutes of pouring rain, we started to push harder, running up a lot of the shallower hills. As we ticked off the miles, we started to run harder and harder, to the point where I was getting pretty nauseous with the lack of food in my stomach. A couple times, there were hills that Joe wanted to run that I just could not, so he slowed down and we walked them together.
While my eyes scream "psychotic" and @joelaue looks like he wants to be anywhere except holding my hand, I was 100% with it and 100% ecstatic to be tying for third with such an awesome dude. Joe, it was great running with you through the night, and maybe we won't hold hands next time, idk. Again, much thanks to @amtaggart for being there with that pink chair for all 100 miles. #RunHappyValley #HammerNutrition #ChaseAdventure
As we passed the single mile mark, we could literally hear the finish (the course turns a bit at the end). We pushed hard, still in some sort of disbelief that we were running. I remember that the course had some pinwheels at about half a mile out, so when we started seeing those, we pushed even harder. As we rounded the last turn and could hear the people at the finish, I turned to Joe and asked, “You wanna hold hands? Or would that be too cliche.” Joe, like the champ that he is, agreed to hold hands, so when we saw the finish banner, we locked hands, raised our hands, and crossed the line together.
As we immediately made our way to the nearest bench to sit down, the RD came over with a second and third place (age group) plaque for us, asking who wanted which. Since I knew that Joe could have probably passed me in the last mile, I told him to take the second place on; besides, I never thought in a million years that I would have gotten third (tied for third overall) on a day like that. (And technically, I lost to him by .8 seconds.) It was truly the perfect storm of bad stuff – rain, muddy trails, and high temperatures with humidity. The temps were still about 75 when we finished.
It was really like a magical experience. I never thought that I would be running so strong for so long, and a huge part of that has to do that I was able to latch on with Joe and we were able to move ourselves through the hardest part of the day/night. We were never alone, and we always had someone to keep each other honest. I told myself 2 years ago that I needed 2 years before I could run a good race, and apparently I was as prescient about that as I was about me losing my contacts.