In 1923, a journalist for The New York Times asked George Mallory why he would attempt (for the third time) to be the first human to summit Mount Everest. At the time, the Englishman was in the United States fundraising for his expedition. Read: the original dirtbagger trying to finance his adventurous lifestyle.
He famously answered, “Because it’s there.”
The Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run gets its name from its geology. Kettles and moraines are features leftover from glaciers (kettles are the dips and divots where the glacier pushed earth out and moraines are the lumpy knobs shoveled up and deposited when the ice melted). Located in southern Wisconsin, the race is largely a single track horse trail that stitches small rolling hills together through a vegetative green woods. The course also features a long stretch of fertile prairie, two turnarounds, and unpredictable June weather.
My husband and I pulled into a podunk Wisconsin town late Friday afternoon to scope it out. The race starts and finishes at the Nordic ski trailhead in La Grange, not far from where I grew up.
With trepidation, I walked to the 100M table and spelled my last name. The volunteer handed me my bib without looking at me and threw a shirt in the bag. The paper bib weighed ten pounds. We walked a few hundred yards down the Ice Age Trail. It looked mighty fine.
My bag had safety pins and a coupon for the local general store, so we stopped by on our way to the hotel. It smelled exactly how every co-op smells. We picked up some homemade peanut butter balls, thanked the girls, and checked into our hotel.
My drop bags were sensible, neat, and portioned out (mistake number one: pack extra, a lot of extra). I consulted the weather for the tenth time; rain is a beautiful thing when you run. If you can embrace it, it is refreshing and cooling and sounds nice in the woods. When you are attempting your first hundo, it’s worrisome. Rain was in the forecast.
RAIN = wet =cold/chafing = blisters/MORE chafing = pain = torture = DNF
DNF = did not finish. Heat can be just as treacherous.
HEAT = salt loss = electrolyte imbalance = cramping/misery = GI issues = DNF
**When you are preparing for your first hundo, it sort of seems like all roads lead to DNF.
I brushed my teeth, tucked into bed early and fell asleep immediately. My mind was weirdly blank. Maybe because I didn’t have a mental schema for, “100 mile ultramarathon tomorrow, you idiot.”
My alarm bzzzed before daybreak. I got up and showered. Usually I’d be jumping on the bed whispering “Race day! Race day! Brent, RACE DAY.” But I didn’t feel excited. I felt eager. Deliberately and consciously, I pinned on my number, scooped oatmeal with blackberries into my mouth, and taped my big toes. On the way to the start, I sipped a fresh cup of french press (the first caffeine to touch my lips in a month) and looked out the window. I didn’t have much to say. The morning was calm, too.
We pulled into the Nordic ski trailhead, which is basically a parking lot and a tent. I looked around and saw familiar stickers, Subarus, running garb. Back with the trail family. I felt someone behind me. I turned around and found my friend Ben Bestland standing behind me. He shrugged and said that he came in last night to help crew me, as if it were just across town. It’s an eight hour drive. I barrel hugged him.
For KM100, you cannot have pacers until either mile 62 or 6:30pm, whichever comes first. I had two running friends (Rebs and Jillfriend) coming down later that day to keep me company through the night. I knew I had a good crew in my corner and a lot of love back home.
At 5:58am, Ben realized I never grabbed a timing chip. Just as I got the velcro to stick, I was ushered over the starting line in the herd. I didn’t even hear the countdown. The 100M, 100K, and 100M relay all start simultaneously. I was one of 242 runners attempting the full 100 mile solo.
I didn’t go there to win. I was there to cross the finish within the official cutoffs. I was there to run twice as far as I’d ever run before.
I had 30 hours.
I’d be lying if I said the first part wasn’t easy. It was. The trail was clean, hard dirt. I kicked back with a 14-minute pace and socialized with the folks around me. I met Tiffany who ran logistics in Iraq, Charlie who once finished a marathon in Dubai wearing jeans, Rick with the Chicago accent who was completing a marathon in every state, Joe who also hates it when you put oranges in Belgian beer. Trail people are good people.
A few aid stations in, the race hadn’t started for me yet. I was going so slow. Ben and Brent met me at every access, ready with everything, but I didn’t need anything. I drank and took in calories, laughed and moved along. Ben joked with me about “the rollers” on your way into and out of the Nordic start/finish getting worse each time (you ultimately run them four times) and I half smirked.
Nearly 20 miles in, the air grew thick. I left the Emma Carlin aid station as pink lightning lit up the sky. Thunderheads and wind started rolling in. By 9:00am droplets were forming mid-air, too heavy to hang in the heat another second. Just as I entered “the meadows” (a nine mile stretch across hot open prairie) the sky cracked open. Within minutes we were soaked by a raging summer thunderstorm. Rivers of water ran at our feet and the black hard trails turned greasy and deep.
On the plus side, I absolutely loved the meadows. Besides a lingering fear of being struck down by lightning alone in the middle of a field (lightning strike = pain/death = DNF), the rain was a refreshing contrast to the stifling humidity. Those miles ticked my quickly, and I soon found myself at County ZZ, the final aid station before the 50k turnaround at Scuppernong. Scuppernong comes from the Ho Chunk language. It means “sweet-scented land.” I only learned that after the race; it makes me smile to myself because so many times during the race I commented on the sweet fragrance. Ask Charlie.
I wanted badly to clean my feet, but there was no point. The trails were trashed and still getting worse, even though the rain was now lightly falling instead of pounding down. I did, however, stop to change the tape on my big toes. I felt hot spots on both of them and it was too early for that. An incredibly generous family from California let me drip in their suburban so I could actually doctor myself up. I switched from sissy KT stretchy tape to hardware silver duct.
I squished through the final five miles only to hit the turnaround and repeat the same five miles. It was the first time I felt a little annoyed at the mud. Had I trained running through wet concrete, I might have felt differently.
The sky rained itself out but the air was stained with it. I quickly changed into dry clothes back at ZZ before my return trip through the meadows (still I kept my nasty shoes since the trail conditions were exactly the same). I left in high spirits. Maybe now that I’m on the first return to Nordic, my race will start, I thought to myself.
It didn’t. My crew hinted that I might be slowing, but my gut said to keep it steady. Mud is slow, not me. When I came to the opening after Highway 67, I came upon a white sign.
The sign read, “Welcome to Hell.”
Temperatures climbed high into the 80s and the trail refused to dry in the humidity. Every step sunk a few inches; pushing off to run simply dug your feet even deeper into a giant dirty glue stick. My shoes tried to stay behind in the muck. I joked with Charlie that when I closed my eyes Sunday night to sleep, all I would hear was the loud sucking noise of these footsteps on repeat. Who knew hell would be so muddy.
We did escape, although the pace was sluggish. Back at Emma, I was finally able to evaluate foot situation. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t great. Mud = wet = friction = blistering.
The first few yards on my freshly-lanced, blistery feet (big ones under my toes) stung. But my pack was full of ice water, I took a shot of espresso and more calories, for the first time in ten hours I was comfortable and dry (oh sh*# I forgot to lube up again!) and my pace picked up as the trails finally started to harden in peak heat.
Again I left with high spirits at all-day pace (I was still chatting with my new friend Charlie ticking the miles off). We occasionally passed others or were passed by the relay runners, but the course grew sparse. Early yellow, purple, and white summer wildflowers unfolded in the sunshine. One particularly magical part of the trail cut through a waist-high patch of lavender mother-of-the-evenings. Thousands of aromatic blossoms decorated the path. I even spotted a few yellow moccasins along the way. I was happiest on the Ice Age when the yellow blazes wove through the young forest and over roots.
My entire crew would be together at the next station and the temperature was possibly starting to dip. Possibly. When it’s 99% humidity, it’s hard to gauge. My legs still felt fresh and I was eager to see them and pick up my first pacer (plus, I had forgotten to grab my headlamp and my watch died, so I was additionally motivated).
I was still on track for a 30 hour finish, but I was slightly behind the schedule I had planned on. I had the same calm feeling about it as I had felt in the hotel room the night before; I wasn’t anxious, excitable, or stressed. In fact, I really didn’t think about it. I had made it past the halfway mark, and I finally allowed myself to start the race. Every step after the last was more than I’d ever run before.
Dusk hit as I came into the Bluff station. It was still hot and muggy, and I doubled up on my electrolytes for the sixth time that afternoon. I had been hot for twelve hours. I drank more Tailwind on Saturday than I have in my life (combined, probably). Without wasting extra time, we refilled, refueled, and returned toward the Nordic trailhead.
Kettle has a crux, and it’s a mental one: you have to return to the start of the race and then go back out again. The race is two out-and-back stretches (thankfully on different parts of the Ice Age so it’s not too redundant). Back at Nordic, you are allowed to drop and be credited with the 100k finish. It’s also pitch dark and about the time the first stabs of fatigue start clawing at your quads. The ski hills seem a little steeper, a little bigger this time.
I heard some muffled complaining in between my ears but I ignored it. Rebs and I were having too much fun swapping stories. Besides, I had just started the race I came here to run. Who cares if I felt a little tired or a little sore. It’d be foolish not to. We saw mile markers counting us into Nordic 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. There was a welcoming party at the end.
The mud had made even the fastest runners hours slower. I didn’t worry about the math. We had a routine now; I went to the bathroom and they filled my pack, we swapped quick encouraging words, and I was back at it. I had to say goodbye to Ben. (He had to quick speed home to get on a plane to fly to South Korea to bring home his newly adopted son. Selfish git.)
“100 miler going out!” the announcer called.
I felt my heart swell. I was that 100 miler.
We went back over the rollers again, and this time we turned left at the aptly named “Confusion Point.” I just needed to run 17 miles out, 17 miles back to the finish.
It sounds so simple.
The night was still hot. It was supposed to drop into the 60s but I could hardly tell in my tank and shorts. I still drank a ton and sweated more. It was harder to take in calories but I fought that war, too, and kept shoving buttered ham sandwich quarters down my gullet at the stations. The occasional GU (still don’t like ’em), a pickle, S caps, Ensure, pressed fruit bar, a nutter butter. If it sounded remotely edible, I tried to eat at least a little of it. Once you lose the calorie battle, the crash is terrible.
The night wore on. That’s the best way I can put it. Rebs dropped me with Jill at Bluff and we got into some really neat trail. Unfortunately, my vision began to slide a little. Things seemed alive that definitely weren’t (stumps, sticks, glittery grass). I felt like maybe some mushrooms were in those nutter butters. I had to pee a lot and I didn’t know if that was good or bad. Another lesson learned: do not underestimate sleep deprivation.
It became hard for me to keep up my usual chatter. I had no more humor. In fact, everything became hard. My personality tends to be giving and outward oriented. I felt like a black hole sucking everything in. I hated it. My pace fell to 20 minutes miles. As we slowly made our way to the Highway 12 aid station, my heart started to falter.
I felt like I failed. No, I didn’t quit, but I was barely able to run. “I don’t want to make you feel bad,” Jill said, “but even when you are running I can easily keep up with you walking.” My heart sank further. My legs had gone as far as they could go, and it was only 75 miles. That’s a marathon short. The aid station was so far away. They all were.
I tried several times to pick up the pace and faded quickly. Every uphill, no matter how pathetically gradual, became a power hike. Then a hike. Then a walk. I interrogated myself. What I was doing out there? Why was I doing this? All I could think of was Mallory. Because it’s there. Because 100 milers exist. You can do this. We finally saw the lights of the station and my shoulders started shaking. Wordlessly, I went straight to Brent and held myself against his flannel shirt. I started to cry.
“I failed,” I told him.
He chuckled a little and held me out from him. “I am not running right now. I can’t run anymore. Even if I don’t quit and keep hiking,” I reasoned, “I signed up for this race to run it. I don’t want to walk to the finish. I don’t want to give up my bib. It’s mine. It has my name on it… but I can’t run anymore.”
I’m not sure he heard that (he probably heard a lot of wet mumbling) but that’s what I said. My trail friend Angela was volunteering at the station and I hugged her too. The comfort made me cry harder. I wanted to sleep so much. I have never been more tired in my life.
I sat on someone’s chair and tried to think straight. I’m not sure if I sat there for a minute or ten, but I knew in the back of my mind that my timer was still ticking down. I chugged a red bull and stood up. “Ok, but if I want to quit at the next station I don’t want to hear one word about it,” I announced aggressively. Everyone nodded. I got out Brent’s hiking poles and set off alone. My head was in the garbage, and I needed to retrieve it. But I thought I was done for. I would’ve been completely convinced, but I had this faint sparkle of hope that maybe, just maybe, if the sun came up I might feel better. It was worth one last try.
Something angry ignited in me in that moment. Anger in the sense of passion. I cycled rapidly from sadness to hardness. I suddenly took off at a slow jog. I jogged the next three miles in the blackness, listening to the cacophony of bullfrogs, until the first light filtered through the leaves. I caught up to a fellow hundred miler hiking with poles as the sun came up. Sunrises are peaceful and colorful. My hardness melted. I couldn’t help it. I hiked with Amon and chatted all the way to mile 82 at Rice Lake. The final turnaround.
18.6 miles to go.
My crew was drinking coffee and waiting for me. I watched relief pass through their faces when I broke into a smile and assured them that I was going to keep going. I still wasn’t confident I had running legs left, but I had plenty of time before the cutoffs and I couldn’t fathom handing my bib over. It was a new day. They passed the coffee.
The trail seemed new to me in the daylight. The second half of the course is a little rockier and more interesting, a little more like Minnesota. I even did a panicked double-take at the yellow blaze on a tree; I was lost. I should be following light blue blazes. Not on the SHT, Jules. Not supposed to be blue. Keep going. Rebs hiked with me back to Highway 12. My pace was still slow, but I was steady. 20-minute miles was the game. I wasn’t sick, cramping, or injured. I was tired.
Jill and I set off again for Bluff. I can’t stress enough the advantage that a good pacer offers. Something amazing happened. The trail leveled out and I started to run again. I ran and kept running. I still walked the uphills, but I could keep it going. “You’re shaving off so much time!” she called behind me. “You’re doing 14 minute miles!” I ran so much I couldn’t wait to get rid of my hiking poles. I was over 90 miles in.
Bluff Aid Station. 7.6 miles to the finish.
You are allowed up to five pacers between Bluff and the end, so Jill and Rebs both hopped on the trail. I filled my pack for the final time. I hugged Brent tight and promised I’d see him at the finish. Hell, even if I wanted to quit now they’d make me walk there anyway.
I didn’t have much time. We headed down the trail and I started doing math. I needed to keep my new pace or I wouldn’t finish within the allotted 30 hours. To come all this way, pushing my limit so hard, suffering, sweating, only to finish within a few minutes outside of an official time was unacceptable. I started to run.
I stopped talking again. Not because I was in a negative place, not whatsoever, but because I had no more energy. My throat hurt from breathing so hard for the last 27 hours. We passed the last unmanned aid station and I knew in my heart that the next stop was the finish. I showed no emotion, but my chest swelled.
I saw the small sign stuck in the ground that simply said 5. My legs started to feel painful. It was hard not to shuffle. A hundred times during those next five miles I reminded myself to pull my shoulders back and straighten up. Make a strong C-shape with my core, lengthen my stride. 4. I drank my water and made bad puns with what little speech I could muster. My breathing felt hard and audible.
I kept running.
I was on pace. I was going to make it. 3. The ski hills! No! Ben was on point 50 miles ago. Sharply up, and down, they raked through my quads. I fantasized looking down and seeing strips of muscle dangling off the bone they hurt so much. 2. The end was coming. The hills started to level out. I even ran the small inclines. I ran the hot sunny open parts. I kept running.
1. One mile left. Power mile. I started to cry again. This time, happy tears ran down my cheeks. I had walk a few times to catch my breath, but I put every bit of heart in it I had left.
On each of my drop bags I printed this quote:
This was true for me at Kettle. I crossed that line running.
I came into Nordic with a mere fifteen minutes to spare (29:45 was my official time). Only 100 runners finished that race (that’s a 59% dropout rate). Only 25 of those were women.
Running 100 miles is no joke. I have a new respect for the hundos. It’s a little like watching a friend stub a toe really hard; you wince and know it hurt them, but the next time you smash your own toe you remember just how badly it feels.
I can’t wait to go back.
I have to give a final heartfelt thank you to my crew and my trail friends.
Man, I love you guys.