Thursday, June 11, 2015

In Over My Head: Kettle Moraine 100

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ~ Haruki Murakami
On January 1st, 2015, I woke to a new year, headed to the computer, and registered for the Kettle Moraine 100 Miler, the thought of which caused both heart palpitations and 3 a.m. waking terrors, and smiles that caused my spine to tingle. What strange animals we are...

Fast forward...through April: Boston 2 Big Sur
May: Colfax Marathon

And suddenly it's taper time, and the reality sets in. Am I actually going to do this? Wait. I forgot to train for this! Shit. What was I thinking? I have no idea what exactly I have gotten myself into because this is all new to me. The 3 a.m. panicked wake ups become a nightly thing.
"If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?" ~T.S. Eliot
Sandra, Abbie and I pull into the parking lot at the start/finish area for packet pick up. It hits me square in the face that I have no business being here. I am not 'one of these ultrarunners'. For one thing, I have no tattoos ;)  (guess I should remedy that!).  The thought makes me feel a little sick. Anyone can click 'register' on a website. Who am I to think that I can do this?

I try to push these thoughts aside. From the start I've known that the ONLY thing I have going for me in all of this is my mind. I've known from the get-go that my body is not the thing to get me where I want to go. This is a mind thing. A spirit thing. Always has been. I need to want it, really really want it. I cannot let these thoughts seep in now. And yet they continue to worm into my mind and spirit. I can't seem to conjure up the positive things I've been repeating over the weeks - and those I recall sound stupid and false now. What am I thinking. I am nothing but a charlatan. I silence these thoughts as best I can...

...It's 6 a.m., June 6th, and I'm at the start, gazing off into the woods, down the path that will lead me to places I've never been before...

The Start
And we're off...

The first few miles tick along. I'm keeping the pace easy (probably not easy enough). The ups and downs are VERY steep. I walk the ups, and run the downs, trying to let gravity help and using as little muscle power as possible, but the truth is that these are so steep, with lots of loose rocks, that relaxing on the downhills is really not an option. These early downhills will prove to be my physical undoing in the all too soon future.

As I pound down one hill, a guy behind me says: "I'm just following you and watching your feet.", I respond, "Be careful who you follow."

And so it goes...mile after mile. The trails are much more technical than I anticipated. Colorado hubris, perhaps, has bitten me in the ass. It's Wisconsin. How bad can it be? Well, as a matter of fact, pretty freaking bad. 

I'm trotting along listening to all the conversations. It seems that I am the ONLY person out here who is running her first 100 AND, importantly, has only run one 50 miler, and an easy one to boot! I will not share my story of foolhardiness right now, but again the 'what do you think you're doing' thought rears it's ugly head. 

We make our way through the steep, narrow, rock-rooty section between Bluff and Emma Carlin, and people are falling all over the place. Luckily my legs and brain still feel fresh, so I manage to stay upright. 

Mile 15ish I hit the first crew station, and Sandra and Abbie are there waiting for me. 

Coming into Emma Carlin - Outgoing
At this point I'm not dilly-dallying too much. Sandra grabs my bottles and refills them with HEED while I hit the potty. Then a quick perusal of the buffet, fill a small sandwich bag with potatoes, dump some salt on them, and head back out. The next section is 9 miles of mostly steamy-hot, exposed open, rolling meadow. It's mowed to about 4-5 inches of tufted grasses and very uneven footing. My wimpy road shoe choice is starting to become an issue.

We pop into a section of forested, packed dirt trail between meadows, working through mile 20 and I'm not sure if it's the sudden darkness after the bright, hot sun, but I suddenly feel myself flying through the air. I land hard on my left knee, and my left calf goes into an immediate spastic, hard, locked up cramp. A couple runners stop to see if I'm okay, and I just feel like a dope. How could I fall here? This is just bad. I want to cry. But I get up and start running, assessing the possible damage as I proceed. More hot meadow follows...and my knee is throbbing. This is just not good.

I get to the Hwy ZZ aid station, feeling pretty ragged, blood dripping down my leg.

Hwy ZZ - Outbound
I see Sandra and Abbie, "I went down. I just don't know." We move quickly, more food, more HEED, rinse off the blood, and I'm off again. The next 5 miles are tough, described as a 'seemingly endless series of ups and downs' it does not disappoint. As I head for Scuppernong (we've nicknamed it Scuttlebutt) at 50k, my quads are done. Just completely done. Shot to heck by those early downhills. Every step hurts now, and it's only 30 miles in.

I hobble into the aid station, change socks, rub some icy hot on my wasted quads, and look at Sandra and Abbie, and say "I can not see another 69 miles happening right now." Abbie and Sandra just dismisses what I've said (Yes. I notice) and one of them says, "Well, we'll see. Let's get going".

And the next 6...miles tick along. Wait. 6? It was only 5 between these stations. My GPS is now dying, but it's still with me as I discover what could be a runners worst nightmare. I've gotten lost and I've done a giant loop and am now BACK at the Scuppernong checkpoint. It actually takes me a while to figure out where I am. I first think I'm at the station past Hwy ZZ, and have to go back because I missed a turn. After about 20 minutes of sorting things out, the person in charge ascertains that I have run a giant loop. I am on the verge of tears realizing that I've not only run longer, but now need to go back out and run it all again. I refill my now empty bottles and ask if someone can radio to Sandra and Abbie at the next station so that they don't worry. But here's the thing. These two stations are literally 400 yards apart. Runners run a 5 mile loop between them, but you can see Hwy ZZ from Scuppernong. I am completely oblivious of this at the moment. The guy in charge puts his arm around me and says, "We aren't going to let you run that again. You've already run farther. Your story totally checks out." and they walk me over to Hwy ZZ, though Sandra and Abbie are curious as to why I'm coming from the wrong direction. (It turns out that several others also did what I did. We aren't sure if flags were removed, but the usual ground markings were not allowed this year, and clearly something happened.)

And so, I head out toward the meadow now baking in the heat of the 2 pm high sun. For the first time ever, I pull out the iPod and pop in the earbuds. A total life saver at this point. I can't take anymore thinking about how doomed I am. About how I have no business being here. About my aching knee and quads. About how I might let everyone down. About the next 60 miles to go...

Emma Carlin - inbound
I hit Emma Carlin at 47+ miles. My feet are killing me, I have a giant blister one my right heel, and I'm feeling a bit underfueled. I change shoes, switching to my Brooks Grits, deal with the blister, Sandra delivers a steady stream of PB&J sandwiches, I down an Excedrin...A guy heads out just ahead of me, his crew cheering him on as he hobbles, painfully. I follow shortly after, feeling the absurdity of this whole going on thing. I joke as I leave that I'll feel great once the Excedrin kicks in. I start a painful jog, and soon pass the hobbling guy. He's not looking any better...

I arrive at Bluff, mile 55+, not expecting to see anyone there, when I see Sandra and Abbie.
Sandra grabs my bottles (they now just do their thing. They have this down. And they have become a great team). Sandra informs me that "Abbie's going to run to Nordic with you." We grab head lamps, more eating, and we head out, 7+ miles to Nordic, the 100k point. And darkness moves in.

For many, the 100k point is the crux of the whole thing. If you stop here, you still have an official 100k finish. If you head back out for the final 38 mile out and back to Rice Lake then you are committed. If you DNF you end up with nothing. A lot of people end up finishing here. I have no intention of stopping. I didn't come here to run the 100k and I told Sandra weeks ago, "Unless I have organ failure, don't let me stop there."

But it's really not a debate. Abbie and I saunter in to find Sandra and now Jeni is here. I wasn't expecting to see her until Hwy 12, another 14 miles down the trail. I'm happy to see her. All around us I can hear runners urged to continue, or urged to stop. There are emergency vehicles lighting the night sky in red and blue, as the paramedics zoom down the trail on an ATV with a rescue sled in tow.

Fresh socks, more clothes, some soothing broth and noodles, more PB&Js,and Sandra and I are off.

Outbound from Nordic - My response to Jeni saying "Run as fast as you can."
Leaving Nordic is hard. I'm going away from where I want to be. This thought continues to vex my mind for the next 18 miles. We pass others running in. Some are finishing other races, or the 100 miler. Some are still coming in before the turn around. As we turn off toward Rice Lake, I look at those returning with envy. "Ugggg. I want to be them. I don't want to be me" I moan to Sandra. The miles are going so stinking slow. I check in from time to time on the mile count. At this point I'm counting down, not up and I need a 2- in front of the second number. I just need to get to 29. My energy goes up and down, and I work the ups and push painfully on during the downs. I don't trust myself to run much of this in the dark and I feel more hot spots on my feet.

I don't know what time it is when we roll into the Hwy 12 AS, but the robins are up and greeting the impending dawn.
Hwy 12 - outbound
I switch into my Pearl Izumi EMs a pair of shoes I've never worn before - stupid, maybe, but I have no alternative. If they suck I'll be back here in 9 miles and can switch back - and they're about a half size bigger to accommodate my now swollen feet.

Jeni and I leave for Rice Lake and the turn around I so desperately want to get to. Now we also know that we are racing some weather coming in. So we try to keep it moving but the next section is very technical. We pass a lot of people in worse shape than me and finally reach Rice Lake and the turn around. From here I am 'Inbound' for the last time. I have more broth, some coffee, pack my baggie with pretzels, and we head in the direction I want to be going. For the past 5 or so hours my stomach has been feeling a little uneven. I have to watch how much I eat and drink and nurse things slowly. Every sip of HEED now brings a slight queezy feeling. But I know I need to keep at it and so I do. Suck on a pretzel, sip of HEED, repeat...

At about 6 am the rain hits, about 2 hours earlier than predicted. The stone along the trail is limestone, and the soil is limestone soil, super slick and not at all absorbent or porous. The water pools on the hard dirt turning it into a glassy slickness waiting to take me down.

Push on...Push on.
We make it back to Hwy 12 where Abbie jumps in for the final 14+ miles. I force myself to eat. I stick with the Pearl Izumis which feel pretty good, but I'm out of socks. Sandra presents me with a couple 'fresh' pairs - having dried them with the car heater and beaten the dirt out of them.
Who wouldn't be thankful to see these smiling faces along the way?
Abbie and I take off in a steady, hard downpour. And the miles to Bluff crawl painfully as the mud gets thicker. But the sky is light now and I can jog a bit more. When we get to Bluff I stop only briefly, grab the last PB&J of the day, fill my bottles for the hundredth time, and off for the 7+ mile roller coaster ride that I've now run 4 times. There's no more HEED on the course, so I need to make due with what I have and gels.

I look at Abbie, "There's no way I can get there by noon."
We have not, until now, spoken about time or pace. This has all been about survival and getting there, and I'm kicking myself for thinking of this NOW. I've spent way too much time at all the crewed aid stations. I know that now. I should have realized this earlier. God. What a stupid, obvious, newby mistake to make. Those minutes added up. Trying to make up for it over the last 7 miles is a fools errand.
I have 2 hours. I can usually run 7 miles in a hour easily. Not now.
"I just want to pretend that I haven't been running and I'm just going out for a 7 miler. I just want to run a 7 miler."
Abbie looks at me "You can do that but it's just going to be frustrating."
"Do you want to know what you need to get there?"
We've miscalculated the distance because at this point we don't know that the course is .6 long, but she looks back at me, "Do you want me to maintain the pace you need?".
Without a word she strides off  - Note: this is an easy WALK for her. I'm 'running' and breathing hard.
We are completely silent. She looks back at me from time to time, but we say nothing except for my occasional "There's no way. There's just no way" and then I press on. All I can manage to do is focus on her shoes and press on with everything I have. It's so frustrating to be trapped in this stupid used up body right now. My god. I just want to run. I just want to be done.

The next 2 hours are plagued with mind games and thoughts I need to just keep pushing aside. I just feel, for the first time, that I really can't do this. And then I start thinking about all the people who believe in me. I think about Sandra and Abbie and Jeni who have been here for me, ME. Who haven't slept and walked through the night and the mud and the rain. Who have sacrificed for ME. There's nothing in it for them. They're here for me. I think about my daughter, about going home and telling her, "Well, Mommy didn't finish but she tried really hard". Fuck that. I won't do it. My god. I can't do that, not at this point.

Every up and every down hurts like nothing I've felt before. I'm very concerned about tripping at this point since that might mean the end of everything and I just can't stand the thought of that. About 2.5 miles out, Jeni and Sandra wait, whooting as we approach. They all stay ahead of me by about 20-30 feet, and we continue, but at this point I can't even jog any longer. Walking feels like a herculean effort. It's hot and swampy and I'm milking the last remnants of HEED. Sandra drops back for the last mile and I occasionally mumble some obscenity to her.

I've been suppressing the urge to cry, now, for several miles. I'm not even sure why I want to cry, but it keeps welling up in my throat. As we round a final turn, Sandra points out the finish, and I feel like I'm just going to breakdown, right there. As we are about to come out of the woods I say, "Okay. Let's run." And we do, well sort of...

And then I cry. And I'm glad Jeni stops the video there as I start gasping for air. I see people around, but nothing is really registering. The RD, who I've seen throughout the event (he kept saying "Good job kiddo." which I thought was cute ;) shakes my uncomprehending hand, and then a woman hands me my tiny copper kettle. I've honestly never cried after finishing a race.
Crying but happy and relieved beyond description
I walk around for a bit, not really knowing what to do with myself, afraid to sit down. But then I am assured that sitting would be a good idea and a gracious woman offers me her chair.

I fall into it and I'm handed a beer. All is well with world at that moment. I am so deeply exhausted, so done, so thankful - physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I feel so much love and gratitude for my crew - my friends. This was not just about me. Sure, I'm the one who ran 100 miles (actually the course was long, 100.6 miles, plus the extra for getting lost, so I'm giving myself full credit even though I got lost!), but this was so much more than that. I don't take help well. I rarely ask for help and I feel uncomfortable taking it when it's offered. But for some reason I never felt uneasy about this. I told them how I felt, gosh, weeks ago, but then it was gone - not because of me but because of them. Not once did they get frustrated with me or express anything but 100% support and belief. I might have been able to finish solo, but it would not have been the 'run' it was without them. This is about so much more than the miles. We did this together. We got through this together.
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” ~ C.S. Lewis

A few days later, I'm left with that gnawing feeling of disbelief, or, I don't know what it is, but it's this feeling that nothing big really happened over those 30 hours of my life. I know, intellectually, that that's not the case but just as it was hard to get my head around the idea of doing it, I now find myself unable to grasp the idea of having done it. Yes. People run 100 miles all the time. They run it a lot faster than me. So what's the big deal? This is not earth shaking stuff. But, we are all on our own personal journey in this life, and our challenges are ours only. This is my story. And my story matters. Yours does too.
"There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you." ~ Maya Angelou


  1. Great story Caolan!

  2. I loved reading this. Thank you for putting so much heart and soul into the words. Congrats on finishing!

  3. Wow...great run...that's the difference with road and trail/ultra runs. They are a community event. Thanks for sharing and great job on the race.

  4. Many many congratulations on taking on this challenge, pushing through and giving it everything you had! Both a solo effort and a team effort. Ultras are like that, I've heard (I have done a 50k and crewed a 24h, both awesome experiences).

  5. I loved your story! You have guts! Now I'm sure I need to do a 100 mile run

  6. Congratulations! This was a gripping race report to read!! So glad you made the cut-off. Just ran my first 100 at the end of May and thankfully and can't imagine how much harder it would be with the pressure of the cut-off! Nicely done. Love the video of you crossing the finish. Nicely done (you and your crew/pacers).

    1. The cut-off was actually 32 hours, so I wasn't in danger on that, but I wanted to go under 30. Had the cut-off been 30 I would have done things differently. I took a bit too much of a blasé attitude on this, until the last 7 miles, which was when I realized the situation. Too little too late, so, lessons learned!

  7. WOW! Awesome story and incredible race. The way you stuck it out is inspiring.

  8. And I love your story and I am touched by it!

  9. Excellent write-up! I enjoyed every part of it and appreciate your honesty in sharing the ups & downs with us!

  10. ...just read this again for the 2nd time. Well done!!

  11. This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for sharing this great article!


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