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Carol's Fat Ass

Kettle Moraine 100

June 4, 2011

I have an ongoing dialogue with my priest, Emily Bloemker, about the spiritual side of ultrarunning. I believe it can serve much the same purpose as fasting: the voluntary denial of the physical opens one to the spiritual. Somewhere between eight and twelve hours into a long event, I get to a space where I'm simply receiving and not doing a lot of processing. Perception is actually heightened, but rather than trying to figure it out, my brain just takes it in. A lot of interesting observations can come from such a place. So, when I told her I was running the Kettle Moraine 100-mile, her response was, "Tell me if you have any revelations."

I spend the evening before in Madison with Tom Rickner, a teammate from college cycling who succeeded me as president of the Cycling Club. While we maintain some contact via Facebook, we haven't seen nearly enough of each other since school, so catching up with him is a great way to relax and keep my mind off the task ahead. At 4:30AM, I say goodbye (yes, he did get up that early) and head to La Grange.

I get there half an hour before the 6AM start, which is ample time to pick up my timing chip and put my lights and change of shoes in the drop area. There's obviously no point in warming up for an event where your race pace is slower than warmup speed. I do get a chance to say hi to most of my SLUG teammates in attendance. Paul Schoenlaub and Travis Liles are both serious contenders in the 100- mile, as is Jen Eichelberger on the women's side. John Cash and Stuart Johnson should do well in the 100-kilometer (which is simply the first out-and-back of the 100-mile, so we'll be running together).

I line up near the front, but when the first dozen runners lay down an 8-minute-mile pace off the line, I quickly decide that I'm not interested in staying with the lead. The opening seven miles is easy running on a grass ski trail, but it's still got enough little ups and downs that hammering it is the sort of thing one regrets later on. I settle into fairly even 10-minute miles. Stuart pulls up alongside me and we pass a few miles with some idle chat. At the first aid station (Tamarack, just before 5 miles), I focus on one of my goals for this race: don't waste time in aid stations. It takes about 30 seconds to refill my bottle and grab a bite to eat, which is better than the 1-2 minutes I was taking at Mother Road 100 last year. As there are 21 staffed aid stations along with 8 unmanned water drops, saving a minute at each one is significant.

Shortly after the Bluff aid station (7.5 miles), we go through "Confusion Point". This 6-way trail junction is well marked and there's really no trouble figuring out which path to take to get onto the Ice Age Trail, which is the route for most of the race. Unlike the ski trails, the Ice Age is true singletrack, albeit not particularly technical. There are more hills, rocks, and roots, but also more shade, which is nice as it's already pretty warm.

I keep my effort even, which means my pace slows just a bit. I cover the 8.3 miles to the Emma Carlin station (with a brief stop five miles in to refill water at the unmanned tank at Horseriders) in 87 minutes. There, I take a little time to make sure I get enough to drink for the upcoming trek through the meadows. Because there is very little shade offered, this next 8-mile section is considered the toughest on the course, particularly on the return trip in the afternoon. Leaving the aid station I pass Jen, who is getting some assistance from Tommy Doias. Tommy asks if I need anything and I tell him I'm good for now. I'm happy to pass Jen, not because I mind getting beat by a girl (I got over that a LONG time ago), but because she's leading the women and at most regional-level races, staying with the head of the women's field is an indication that I'm running a good race.

It's not even 9AM, but temps are already in the mid-80's. As the meadows are actually a mix of grassland and marsh, there's plenty of humidity too. Mitigating this is a pleasant breeze and, at least for the moment, the going isn't too bad. I'm feeling pretty good and figure I might as well keep the pace up so I get through before it gets really hot. On the way, I pass quite a few runners who are looking way too tired for this early in the race. Unmanned stations at Antique Lane and Wilton Road offer water refills. Near the end of the meadows, I find a discrete patch of trees and stop to pee so I can get a read on my hydration. It's certainly not clear, but it's light enough to give me confidence that I'm drinking enough. The trail returns to the woods shortly before the next manned station at Highway 67 (24 miles).

The next section is quite short, not even three miles to the entrance of the "Scuppernong Loop." It's moderately technical singletrack through the woods, noteworthy only in that it brings us past marathon distance. Beyond the aid station, the trail becomes very hilly, with most of the climbs so steep, the trail resorts to switchbacks. None of them are long, but it's a somewhat frustrating section because the ramps are just steep enough that running is feasible, but ill-advised in an event of this length. I content myself with walking through the switchbacks and jogging very easy on the ramps. After about a mile of that, we leave the Ice Age trail and get back on ski trails that will take us to the turnaround at 50Km. The running is much easier from that point on.

The first runner coming back the other way is course record holder Zach Gingerich. Estimating that I still have a bit over 20 minutes to the turn means I'm down by about 45 minutes. Given that his record (which is quite safe on a day this warm) is under 16 hours, I take that as another sign that my progress is, if anything, a touch on the quick side. I meet another 15 or so runners coming back the other way. Some are in the relay or 100km and I don't bother to try to sort out who's who as it's too early to be worried about places. I get to the turnaround station at Scuppernong at 11:24AM, almost exactly on the 11-hour pace I was hoping for the first 100Km. I've put out some effort, but am basically feeling fine. So far, the race couldn't be going better.

Paul starts back about 30 seconds ahead of me and seems to know everybody in the race. Runners coming toward us light up as they see him, greeting him by name, handshakes, and a few even stop to talk (making it easier for me to keep him in sight). I get the more generic "looking good" comments, but I can't really complain as this is the first time I've ever run an ultra in these parts.

While the temperature is now nearly 90, some clouds have moved in and the shaded trail through the woods is still comfortable running. I try to keep the pace going figuring that if I can get to the meadows while the clouds are still around, so much the better. Unfortunately, they break shortly before I get to the Highway 67 station. It's obvious that the next 8 miles will make or break the race. Given that, my next action could be best described as insane.

I've been doing really well at getting through aid stations quickly. I only need to fill one of my small bottles, which should have been a clue that I needed to drink more. Instead, I zip through the aid station, chugging two cups of Heed and grabbing some pretzels while the volunteers refill my bottle. I'm out in around 30 seconds, patting myself on the back for not dawdling. Half a mile later, I hit the meadows and the mistake is obvious. The heat hits me like a punch in the face and I immediately relent on the pace. My two little 8oz bottles suddenly seem woefully inadequate for getting through half an hour of this. Paul, who wisely spent a bit more time prepping for this section, pulls up beside me and asks how I'm doing. When I confess that I'm reeling from the heat, he encourages me to just take it really easy and wait for the evening to get back on the pace.

I take his advice and soldier on slowly as he disappears into the distance. John Cash comes up from behind, looking a bit haggard himself. We shuffle along together for a mile or so and then I tell him to go on as I'm going to need to walk a bit. At the next grove of trees, I take another pee status check. Things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse; it's dark and orange. Not what one wants to see when not even to mile 40. I stagger into the Wilton Road station (unmanned, water only) with my second bottle about to run dry. The last two miles of meadow have taken nearly half an hour. The sign at the station says the Emma Carlin station is nearly six miles away. I was sure there was another unmanned station in there. If I'm wrong about that, this could quickly go from being a rough race to a bona-fide survival situation. I drink as much as I can and chew on some ice from the cooler then head back out into the sun.

It's really baking now, and my pace is barely faster than walking. I try to conserve water, but half an hour into the leg my first bottle is dry. Ten minutes later, I'm halfway through the second when I spot with much relief the dirt road that leads the second unmanned station. It's still a ways off, but I'm confident I'll make it. At the station, I again drink as much as I can without making myself sick and chew on some more ice. I steel myself for the last 3.1 miles to Emma Carlin; I expect it to be the most difficult 5K of my life.

And it is. I alternate between slow jog and walking. I'm trying to keep the overheating under control, but I also want to get out of the sun as quickly as possible. My form is gone and I trip several times. One of the falls is particularly hard and opens a nasty gash in my palm. Fortunately, I've got a piece of gauze in my back pocket and I use it to stop the bleeding. I stumble into Emma Carlin, having covered the leg in 42 minutes. My legs are shot. My pace is gone. I'm overheated and dehydrated. And I'M NOT EVEN HALF WAY. It's one thing to bounce back from a low spot, but this is disaster in the making. My race is surely over.

Ultra aid station workers typically aren't your last minute off the street recruits that staff water stops at road races. Most have completed ultras themselves or at least share a house with someone who has. They've seen it all before and know that there are very few problems that can't be fixed with time. As I'm still fairly near the front of the field, I've got plenty of that. They take one look at me and spring into action. Within seconds I'm seated in a chair with ice on my head, a cup of Heed in my right hand while the cut on my left is being cleaned.

As I've pretty much decided I'm going to drop at 100Km, I take my time at the station. After about twenty minutes of eating and drinking, I feel like I'm ready to head back out. Such a long stop has resulted in a lot of stiffness, so I walk for about a mile until I feel loose enough to run again. I trip a couple more times, bashing my knee on the second and realize that I simply don't have the motor control to run even moderately technical singletrack right now. I find it's easier to plant my foot where I want going up, so I jog easily on the uphills and walk the downs. It's hard not to feel a bit retarded employing such a strategy, but it's the best I can make work right now.

At the unmanned Horseriders stop (50.5 miles; finally past halfway), I drink a bunch and chew more ice. It's 5.2 miles to the next station at Bluff and I'm really wondering how I'll get through that with just 16 ounces of water. I decide my best bet is to take it slow figuring I can probably keep walking even if I run out of water. My first bottle is gone in less than 20 minutes and then, salvation! There's a 10-gallon jug of water sitting on the trail. I assume this impromptu water drop is a reaction by the race organizers to the death march that is taking place. Just in case I'm wrong about that, I do check to make sure it's potable; I don't want to add giardia to my troubles. I refill and take another pee check and note that, while it's still darker than I'd like, it's certainly improved from 90 minutes ago. I'm confident enough to jog the rest of the way to the Bluff station, switching to walk anytime the trail gets too uneven.

Tommy is at the Bluff station waiting for Jen to arrive. He's not interested in hearing that I plan to drop at 100Km. "You'll feel fine once the sun goes down." I don't doubt it, but figuring I'll have to walk almost the entire time at night to avoid more falls, I'm looking at another 15 hours to finish. That's still comfortably under the time limit, but a whole lot longer than I care to be out there. Tommy and the aid station workers pack ice on my head, down my back, in my armpits. Food and drink is provided instantly upon request. It's almost embarrassing to be doted on like this, but I'm still deep enough in the hole to accept the help without protest. It's another 20-minute stop and I again decide to walk for about 10 minutes to loosen up before returning to running.

And, it really is running. I had forgotten how easy the ski trails were between Bluff and the Start/Finish. While it's certainly not the morning's pace, it's a whole lot better than it has been for the last five hours. I stop only long enough to refill bottles at Tamarack. I see Paul heading out who encourages me, "the heat's breaking; you're going to be OK." A few minutes later, Travis comes along and offers a high five. As our hands connect, a lightning bolt shoots up my arm reminding me that I've got a fresh wound on my palm. I arrive at 100Km at 7:04PM. The trip back has taken two and a half hours longer than the way out, but I've made it. Kettle allows drop-downs, so I'm now an official finisher in the 100Km. It's far below expectations, but not a failure.

"How can you stop now?" asks Tommy. "You're running fine." Indeed, the legs do seem to have come back. And, of the remaining 38 miles, 15 are on the easy ski trails (the second out and back also goes through Bluff station). Further, while the heat has certainly knocked me off my game, the rest of the field isn't doing much better. I'm still in contention for an age group award. It seems silly to stop now, but I'm really worried about a bad fall at night. Tommy leaves me to stew about it so he can tend to Jen who has just come in. She's all business and gets a big send off from the Race Director as she heads back out, "There's your lead woman in the 100-mile!" and a hearty applause rises from the group.

"Why are you still here?" yells Tommy. Good question. I need to make a decision. If I go back out, it will be at significant risk of injury. Not likely serious, but it could mess up my summer plans. Except, I don't really have any summer plans. The next race I care about is the UROC in September. If I hammer the ski trails and power walk the singletrack, I can probably do the second out-and-back in less than 10 hours. Given the carnage that's taking place, that might be enough to move me into a top-3 Masters spot. While I have no particular need to prove I can run 100 miles (I wouldn't dignify this performance as "running" anyway), it's not like me to back down from competition. I don't feel like I've got myself back to a competitive state mentally, but it seems like I could. I pull my headlamp out of my drop bag and stare at it for a while.

"Hundred miler heading out!" yells the Race Director, and those in the area decide to give me some applause as well. The first order of business is getting to the Bluff aid station while there's still enough light to run the ski trails. My legs rise to the challenge without complaint and I cover the 7.5 miles in just over 80 minutes. I turn on my headlamp just half a mile before reaching the station. Tommy is there waiting for Jen and asks if I've seen her. "Yup, passed her at the Tamarack stop. She'll be here in a couple minutes." John has come along to assist having taken 8th in the 100Km (intentionally, not a drop-down). He rinses out a discarded soda bottle and fills it with water so I have extra for the next leg. It's only 2.6 miles to an unmanned tank, but I'm still thinking that I should err on the side of caution, especially after running continuously for the last hour and a half.

At Confusion Point, the excellent course markings point me back on the Ice Age trail, but in the opposite direction from the morning section. I'm happy to find that at least this first bit is quite runnable and I get to the unmanned water drop in just over half an hour. Halfway to the turnaround in two hours! Things are looking up. After the stop, the trail gets more technical and I have to walk more. Before long, I have quite a bit of company. The night fun run, which is just the second out-and-back, was started at 8:00PM, about 30 minutes after I got back on trail. The lead runners are now catching me. It's nice to know that if I do hurt myself there will be more people on trail to offer assistance, but it makes it very difficult to know if I'm losing places. The last mile or so into the Highway 12 aid station is quick going through a meadow and it feels good to run again.

Tommy is at the station. He ran the night section pacing Jen last year and tells me that the last four miles to the turnaround at Rice Lake will likely be slow going. They sure are; twisty, technical singletrack with lots of rocks, roots, and steep climbs. Normally, I'd be all over it using it as a chance to make ground on rivals. Tonight I have to walk nearly the entire section and hope not too many people pass. Paul comes the other way looking good in second place. He stops for a minute to ask how I'm doing. When I tell him I feel fine, but have to walk because I keep tripping, he tells me that there are some more runnable sections coming up. Well, sort of. There is a short stretch of smooth trail, but it still takes nearly 90 minutes to arrive at the Rice Lake turnaround. The aid station would be a welcome sight simply because it symbolizes that, from here on, I'm heading towards the finish rather than away. However, the volunteers have gone to no small effort to make it an aesthetic treat as well. Blue lights strung along the edge of the trail leading from a quaint wooden bridge to the tents cast mystical reflections on the quite lake.

I remind myself that I am still racing and anybody who is running even a little is gaining significantly on me, so I resist the urge to stay. Tommy says he's going to pace Jen for a while and let John drive back. John asks if I might try running this section on the way back now that I've seen it. "No, I'm sticking with the plan. It's slow, but it's getting the job done." I leave the station at 12:15AM. Hold it together and I'm comfortably under 24 hours. That's a much bigger deal in the mountain 100's, but it's still considered the universal standard for saying you "raced" a 100-miler as opposed to merely finishing.

Almost immediately, I pass Jen heading into the turn. She's mixed in with some fun runners, so I don't recognize her until it's too late to say hi. She seems to be moving fine, though. I try to stay focused and remember to pump my arms to keep my walk as fast as possible. I get back to Route 12 in 85 minutes, beating my split on the way out. The meadow running after the stop feels great and it's with some reluctance that I stop running when I hit the rocks again. Although I actually get through the section a minute quicker, it seems like it takes forever to get to the unmanned tank at 90 miles. I'm starting to feel pretty psyched as I know the worst is behind me. I break into an easy jog on the flat trail and power up the steep hill to Confusion Point. Although I'm now back on the wide ski trail, I decide to walk down the steep descent to Bluff. I've come too far to mess this up with a stupid face plant so near the finish.

I shoot through the Bluff station, refilling just one bottle (it's quite comfortable now and I've been drinking plenty). Out of the station, I start running again. It's not pretty, but it's reasonably fast. At Tamarack (which I think was the best station on the course), I thank the volunteers and say, "I'd love to hang with ya, but it would be just my luck that another 40-year-old shows up and I have to duel him in." They cheer me on my way as I resume my awkward shuffle.

A mile later, I pass two runners. One doesn't have a number and the other is sporting bib 120. A hundred miler and a pacer! This is a pass for position! We're heading up one of the many little hills and he looks over and grunts, "Tough finish". "Everything about this one has been tough," I respond. Still, it's a place and I suddenly feel like racing so I hit the gas. I quicken my stride and find that the legs are quite OK with one last go. I pass the sign for two miles to go at 22:40:15 (4:40AM). Seems like a long shot, but if I can keep moving, I might be under 23 hours. One to go comes at 22:49:50. The last mile is pretty flat so I open my stride just a bit. Might as well cash in on all that marathon training this spring; I've spent the last four months practicing pushing when tired. I hit the line at 4:58:15. Ok, not exactly tempo pace, but running the final mile faster than any other in the race is somewhat satisfying, especially since it got me both a place and a better finish hour.

The place is somewhat significant; it moves me into 10th overall. On the Master's front, I nab the final prize; finishing 3rd. Paul and Travis have been done for over an hour, having finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively, Paul taking the Senior (50+) win. Jen finishes 13th to claim the Women's title. Pretty decent haul for the SLUGs on a day when two out of three starters didn't even head back out after 100Km.

"Aren't you glad you went back out?" asks the Race Director with a smile. Yes, I am, but probably not for the reasons he thinks. Scoring trophies is great but, viewed strictly in terms of performance, this one was something of a train wreck. However, long races, particularly ones that go bad, give you a look inside yourself that is hard to see in any other light. And, frankly, I liked what I saw. I gave it a good go and when it all went bad, I had the sense to back off and accept a disappointing run without simply giving up. It may just be that I'm finding a little balance in my running. Maybe, someday, I'll find some balance in my life. When I see her at church next week, Emily will be asking me what I learned from this. And I'll have an answer: "Running a hundred miles in the heat is really, friggin' hard."

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