Last year was a disaster in terms of races. I had a string of three 100 mile DNFs, including the 2014 Kettle Moraine 100. In that race, I dropped out at 100k and earned what I dub "the belt buckle of shame". This year my goal was to finish the full distance.
I went into the race undertrained. Life (and a broken treadmill) had gotten in the way of quite a few key workouts. I also was confined to the car for an entire day just getting to the race. So saying I was a bit stiff at the starting line is an understatement. I managed to luck out and get a cheap motel room in Janesville, 30 minutes from the starting line. Looking for a large pre-race dinner, I spotted a Famous Dave's a few blocks away and thought "what the hell". One hour later, a Feast For One was in my stomach: Four ribs, a quarter chicken, a dollop of beef brisket, corn bread, corn on the cob, steak-cut fries, broccoli, and beans. I ate everything but the beans because I didn't want to be a pig.
Morning came before I knew it and I was at the starting line with 350 of my closest friends.
The Kettle Moraine 100 course consists of two out-and-back sections. The first out-and-back starts at the Nordic trailhead, makes a large half-circle on ski trails before exiting the ski area and follows the Ice Age trail east to the Scuppernong turnaround point to make up the first 100k. The second out-and-back follows the same large half-circle on ski trails but instead of turning east on the Ice Age trail, you turn west and continue until the Rice Lake turnaround point to make up the remainder of the distance. Each out-and-back has the first 7.5 miles in common, so we would be running the same section of trail for 30 miles by the end. It gets old fast.
I positioned myself near the front to be a bit of an asshole. Last year, I positioned myself close to the back, and ended up having to pass half the field after they slowed down 0.1 miles into the race. This time, I figured it's their turn to pass me. It's also much easier to let somebody else do the passing.
The nordic ski trails were much larger, steeper, and numerous than I remember. They would not be bad if skiers believed in switchbacks. But instead of taking a nice gentle line up the side of a hill, skiers prefer to go straight up and over. And over. And over. The Bluff aid station could not come soon enough, and not just because I disliked the hills. The Feast For One (FFO) was making its presence known early in the race. Maybe gorging on massive amounts of greasy food is not a good way to carbo-load.
After a quick pit stop at Bluff, the fun single-track began. Because of my strategic placing at the start, I wasn't stuck behind a large conga-line who believed in walking over every twig, leaf, and berry unless it was 100% flat. It was free running for me. This is my most favourite section of the course, as the hills are not excessively steep (though they can be quite large) and the shade the trees provide is simply magical. I made it to the Emma Carlin aid station just in time for FFO to come knocking again. 15 miles in and already two pit stops. Things were not looking good. I grabbed my second handheld water bottle here, because my next chance was going to be at Scuppernong and I wanted to have a second bottle for the section leading up to Scuppernong.
The next section was the dreaded "Meadows". Basically, instead of taking a meandering route through the trees to go around a large swamp with constant 100% humidity and sunshine (even at night, so I've heard), the makers of the trail opted to make a meandering route through the middle of it. Fortunately, the sunshine was mostly obscured by clouds and it was still fairly early in the morning. In the heat of the day, that 9 mile section becomes absolutely lethal.
I made it through the meadows in record time and arrived at the Highway ZZ aid station over an hour faster than last year. After my routine FFO pitstop, I began the long 5 mile section towards the Scuppernong turnaround. The first half of this section is fairly rocky, rooty, and hilly. Fortunately, there are switchbacks up the hills. The second half of the section is easy double track. I made up yet another 15 minutes over my time last year to complete the first 50k in 6:25:12. Seeing as how I DNFed last year for running a slower time, my confidence was shaky. Nevertheless, after a quick FFO and shoe exchange I was starting my return leg.
The Meadows had warmed up to their full potential by the time I got to them. My strategy was to use one water bottle for drinking, and the other for hosing myself down. I also put copious amounts of ice in my buff, and hung it around my neck. The slow melt of the ice and subsequent leaking of cold water helped a lot to keep me cool, but after 6 miles of baking I was done. I walked the last 3 miles to Emma Carlin.
The good news was that from Emma Carlin on, I would be running primarily in the shade. The bad news was that there would be no breeze in the trees. I kept up with my heat management strategy, and managed to get back to a respectable pace through to Bluff. For the first time all day, I didn't need a FFO stop. I did a little dance for joy and began the slog on the ski trail roller coasters.
I came across a lot of runners headed the other way on this section. I thought I had been moving very well, but apparently they were moving even better. I then thought back to last year and how I had turned my headlamp on before the Bluff aid station, and was running in the dark on my second trip through the ski trails. This time I hadn't turned my head lamp on yet, and made it my goal to finish the first 100k without turning it on. It got rather dicey in the last mile as I couldn't see my feet, but I managed to complete the impromptu goal and turned my headlamp on as I crossed the start/finish line. 100k in the bank in 14:52:33.
I took my time at the start/finish line: Changed my shoes, had an FFO stop, ate some chili. At no point did the idea of stopping ever cross my mind. I had a singular purpose: to make it to the next aid station. Once there, I would do it all over again. Even though I detested the ski trails, I powered-walked through them. My headlamp did not cast good shadows on the ground. So even though I could see a lot with its wide beam, nothing had any definition and everything seemed "flat". Especially the dozens of rocks which my right big toe managed to repeatedly find.
The Highway 12 aid station took far longer to get to than I expected. I think time slows down at night and distances grow longer. It was starting to cool off at this point, so I made the stop quick (even the FFO stop was fast), and got out of there. The final section, the Rice Lake Turnaround section is some of the most technical of the entire course. Lots of rocks, roots, ups, and downs. It is so steep that in parts they had to install stairs to prevent erosion. And lucky me, I got to power-walk that in the dark. Twice. The elation I experienced entering the Rice Lake aid station (21:15:22) was muted by the sudden realization that I had to do the exact same section again, only in reverse. My right big toe did not enjoy that prospect and promised to fall off if I rammed it into one more rock. The aid stations workers were extremely jubilant and tried to be helpful. But by judging by the pile of empties in the corner of the tent, I figured it would be best if I self-served. I did the usual fill-up of water bottles, FFO stop, and began to head home.
The sun started to poke its head above the trees as I approached the Highway 12 aid station. It still wasn't quite bright enough to ditch my headlamp, so I kept it with me. At this point I could smell the barn. I grabbed minimal aid, and foregoed the FFO stop. The skies were beginning to grey over, and they promised to rain. It was at this point that I realized the section between Highway 12 and Bluff was actually quite runnable if you were able to correctly differentiate between rocks and air. I began to run. Over 86 miles into the race, and I was able to run again. I was on cloud nine.
I got to the unmanned Duffering aid station just as the rain started to come down. I noticed some other runners slowing down (not sure if because of the rain, or because of the accumulated distance), but got energized by the rain. I loved it. Nature was sweating for me. The rain really cooled the temperatures off, and I still had enough energy to keep my body warm by cranking up the pace. My excitement fed on itself. When I got to the Bluff aid station, I blew right through it without even stopping. Everybody was huddled under the tent, so there wouldn't have been enough room for me to manoeuvre even if I wanted to stop.
Then the ski trails began.
They were sucking the life out of me. By the time I got to the final Tamarack aid station, I was pretty spent. Unfortunately, they had pretty much "closed down" by that point. I'm not sure if it's because they couldn't cook in the rain, or had run out of food, or whatever. But I really wanted something warm in my stomach for the last 5 miles. All they had was coffee. That wasn't going to cut it. When a runner and her pacer came in and said that it was only 9-minute miles to be able to finish under 27 hours, I stood up and said "Challenge Accepted!". I took off down the trail at a pace I knew I could not sustain, but did not care. I only had to make it to the finish line. I figured that after I crossed the finish line, my lifeless corpse would be somebody else's problem.
I tried hard. I tried very hard. But the sub-27 was not going to happen. I ran every downhill (even the ridiculously steep ones), and power-hiked every uphill (even the ridiculously steep ones). But in the end, it was running on the flats that did me in. I just didn't have 9-minute speed left in my legs. My last-second goal wasn't going to pan out. But just as quickly as I was disappointed that I was going to miss the impromptu goal of running 100 miles in under 27 hours, I became excited because I realized that I was on the cusp of having run 100 miles.
I finished in 27:10:34. I did it. One hundred freaking miles. Done. Over. The monkey that was on my back from last year disappeared in a cloud of smoke. I was presented my ornamental copper kettle, introduced to a lawn chair, and fell asleep 6 inches past the finish line.