Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Kettle Moraine 100 #2: A Tough(er) Row to Hoe

"Courage is the commitment to begin without any guarantee of success." ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The 2016 Kettle Moraine 100 miler marks my 30th marathon/ultra since the fall of 2009 when I began racing again after about a 16ish year hiatus.

When I was 30 I ran my first marathon, the Maine Marathon, in pouring rain and temps in the high 30s - on little training and just the desire to 'do one'. At the time I fancied myself a serious rock climber and marathon training just didn't fit in well with climbing hard and working full-time. Fast forward to 2009 - now 45 years old, still a serious rock climber but coming off a long running injury that could have spelled the end of my running days - I signed up for my second marathon, the Boulder Backroads Marathon. My training was still utter crap, I didn't believe in fueling on runs or in races (didn't need that crap in the 'old days') and on the cloudless, windy, 87+ degree day, along the shadeless dirt roads north of Boulder, I received a serious slap down. The last seven miles were a cramped death-march as sirens screamed through the air from all directions.

My second marathon sucked, and I swore to the heavens that it would be my last.

Of course it wasn't. But, thus far, it is without a doubt my 'worst' marathon experience, partially because it was harder than all the others - but WHY was it harder? I have since run marathons in far worse conditions, under much more challenging circumstances, and they have never sucked as much as #2. So why was my second so bad? Well, I have a theory on this and I've seen it many times over with a second: The second time is not a first. As such it brings with it 'baggage': Different and more challenging expectations. A first is special. It's 'big'. You don't know what you can do. You don't know what to expect. Can you even do this thing? If a first goes even moderately well then you are over the moon psyched because you explored uncharted territory and you did not die - or fail. How can you fail when you complete a first? However, a second is not so pure and innocent.
 “And once you are awake, you shall remain awake eternally. ” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
The nice thing about running is that there are always new challenges to pursue: Last year I ran my first 100 miler. Perhaps I rushed into this having only run one 50k and one 50 miler prior, but I'm no spring chicken. The sand is quickly flowing through my hourglass, so I went for it. It was hard. Harder than I could have imagined, but I got it done. My goals were modest. My eyes were wide with wonder as I embarked on a new adventure, and the post-race euphoria (pre-post-race-depression) lasted a little longer than normal.

Now: 100 miler #2, same race (because I had some unfinished business to settle with THIS race), but a vastly different experience: This was, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, a higher quality 'pleasure' but one that was and continues to be a much more difficult 'pleasure' to obtain. 

I can say without a doubt that my second 100 was harder, and continues to be harder, on all counts than the first. At this point in my 'ultralife' there is little comfort in the knowledge that you have done 'it' before. In fact, ignorance is a bit of a blessing at times. Being able to actually see, in my minds eye, what I would be facing during the race in the days leading up to the race was not particularly comforting even though I had survived. Last year I had my imagination. Last year I had the excitement of a new, unknown adventure about to reveal itself. Last year I had the encouragement of others: An overwhelming, energizing outpouring of encouragement and support one gets when you try something for the first time and the people who you care about actually care, and wonder if you can do it - and with that unknown hanging in the air, the support is tremendous. The second time is so, so, Ho-Hum...anti-climatic...same-old-same-old. I mean, you did it once. You'll do it again. Let's all move on to something interesting. But for the person doing the doing, it can be a strangely quiet, very personal, and sometimes lonely path. As you are freaking out, all those around you are waving off the anxiety as silliness.


And so the day arrives. I drive off, waving to my daughter and husband. I have a rib out of place, which happens one day ago, and a knee problem that has plagued me since November thanks to a non-running 'accident'.  Continual treatment has helped, but whether my knee can hold up for 100 miles is still an very big unknown weighing heavily on my mind and heart.

I actually sleep some the night before and the morning dawns warmer than I'd like, but everything goes smoothly.

Contemplating the chip :)

And so I stand at the start line with so many unknowns and too many knowns - feeling like the Sword Of Damocles menacingly hangs over my head. But once the gun goes off, it's down to the task at hand and all the lingering worries dissipate into the thick morning dew...

I am careful to go out much easier this year than last and to avoid thundering down the very steep downhills. Somewhere along the first stretch to Bluff I start talking with a woman from California. She's slightly behind me, so I don't even get a good look at her. All I really see is a flash of pink. The course is slightly different this year due to trail changes that would have made the 100 a 102 miles instead of it's usual 100.6 miles, so we get to Bluff much sooner then I expect but then turn off in the direction that the second 38 miles goes, up toward Confusion Point. Now, I'm pretty dang sure that we went straight out of Bluff last year so for about a mile or so I'm wondering if everyone took a wrong turn and I'm a damn fool for following - but just in the nick of time a sign points us down a different trail. The stretch between Bluff and Emma Carlin is narrow and moderately technical and trying to get around conga-line bottle necks without being a jerk takes patience. Again the California runner, whose name I learn is Keather, and I strike up a conversation as we weave through the forest. At about 12 miles, I'm already feeling some fatigue in my left quad, the leg with the compromised knee. The leg I've probably been favoring (and weakening) since November. My right leg feel great.

Just run.

We hear the hoots and hollers from Emma Carlin waft though the trees and I feel a spring in my step and a smile on my face. This is somewhere around mile 14 and the first chance I get to see Sandra.

Keather and me coming into Emma Carlin (outbound)
I'm in and out of Emma Carlin pretty fast - pee, replace my HEED filled hydropacks, stuff some potatoes into a baggie, grab a Hammer gel, hug Sandra and I'm off. One of my goals this year is to avoid dillying and dallying at aid stations. Sandra is timing these this time to keep things honest.

The skies at this point are staying pretty cloudy, moist, and thick, but as we head off into the open, rolling meadow for 9+ miles that is a Godsend.

I'm ticking along, running, eating, running, eating, etc, and a couple young dudes come up next to me. One strikes up a chirpy conversation immediately. We're all feeling pretty good at this point and ticking through the miles at a reasonable clip.

As we talk and run, the young man just behind me says, "I've met you before. I've run with you before."
I hear his voice and say "At Des Plaines. You and your friend"
"Yes. You wrote a race review. I read that"
"I did. And you were in it. You were getting ready for your first Hundred"
We talk about that race, about his hundred, about our goals today, and then he says, "Thank you so much for the advice about the 100. I just want to thank you."

At this point an unmanned aid station (Antique Lane) appears like an oasis, and they stop to refill bottles. I still have one full bottle so I keep going, wishing them well and assuring them that they will see me shortly. At about mile 23 the chirpy chap catches up with me. "I like the pace you're going." we settle in and chat a bit longer. We hit Hwy 67, and the skies are getting ominously dark. I head for Hwy ZZ, only a few miles away, but the trail is empty. I pass one young, healthy looking dude puking by the side of the trail about a 1/4 mile from the aid station  and then I do not see another person for a couple miles. This makes me nervous since I have a habit of getting effing lost, and I really do not know where I am. And now it's chucking down rain. Thunder rumbles through the dark forest. But then civilization reappears, with signs and arrows aid station. Hwy ZZ. Where I find Sandra, and now Jennifer with her amazingly resilient kids, in the rain.

I stop quickly, meet Ann who's volunteering and running the 38 mile 'Fun Run" that night, AND who has promised to pass along a baggie full of peanut-butter/chocolate espresso bean balls, and then I head off to Scuppernong.

30+ miles
Last year at this time I remember being completely trashed. This year I'm only moderately trashed. Good sign, maybe.

Scuppernong is a bustle of activity as the 50k waves are just starting. I'm in a bit of a rush, first because I don't want to dilly-dally and second, because I want to get out before the 50k masses are released.
Simultaneous sock and bottle change
As I head back out, the 50kers are just about to take off. I go but they quickly pass me, all full of energy and cheers. I must say that while I LOVE this race, this element is fairly annoying because the 50kers don't know who's already run 50k(!!!) when they come up behind you (since the only indication of which race you're running is your number). Since I'm not as nimble on my feet, at this point, the spry folks, and their eagerness to move at this, is a bit much through the single track section back up to Hwy ZZ. My dexterity is not equal to theirs.

My only goal through this section is not to get lost. Last year I cost myself big time due to missing a turn which this year is well marked. Success.

It's also here that my knee begins making some noise.

Back through ZZ, then Hwy 67, then back to the meadow, which is now in full, baking, humid sun. And it's about 2-3 pm. The second trip through the meadow is ugly. I can see the moisture steaming off the ground, rising into the air. It is also here that I learn a big big lesson! At Scuppernong I slathered my quads with Aspercreme to relax my quads. Unfortunately I used the 'cayenne' version. After all, it was damp and rainy then and the forecast was for more damp and rainy. But, in the baking sun of the meadow, with zero shade and temps quickly rising through the 80s, my legs are on FIRE. I mean, they are burning up! It feels like my skin is melting off my thighs. I curse my stupidity over and over again (lesson learned). The only thing that get me through the afternoon heat is the coolers full of ice at the unmanned aid stations. I load my running bra with ice as men look on longingly - Probably the first time they wished they had breasts!

This section is also where weird stuff starts happening on my left side: The meadow, while not at all technical, is very consistently uneven. Because we run through cut grass (which is not that short) footing and judging your footing is hard. The constant adjustments can really take a toll on your pelvis (both trips add up to 18 + miles of this stuff). So, about 5 miles from Emma Carlin, my knee pain starts spreading up my leg to my hip and a weird nervy way. I try to run and within 5-10 steps my leg feels like it will give out on me. My hip joint feels like it needs to be popped, but there's not much I can do. The next few miles are torture as I realize that this run is not going to happen today if this situation continues. I need to get to Emma Carlin tape and change shoes and see if that helps. I'm feeling pretty pessimistic at this point.

Coming into Emma Carlin (inbound) and the wheels are coming off!
I tell Sandra what's going on, tape, try to pop my hip which isn't happening, and change socks and shoes. If the run to Bluff isn't better (mile 55) then I will have to end this at the 100k.

Thankfully the nerve stuff is better. My knee still hurts, especially on the downhills, but I no longer feel like my leg will give out on me. I'm still not sure what's going on with my knee, and in fact it feels like it's below my knee not 'in' my knee. It also doesn't seem to be getting worse (another deal killer), but it makes running hard and painful. I'm so frustrated now because the rest of me feels good. Mentally I'm in a way better place than last year. I just want to run without this bloody pain.

I come into Bluff and Sandra is there with a worried expression. I add some tape which just keeps pealing off thanks to sweat and humidity, grab my headlamp and head for the steep rollers into Nordic: the start/finish/100k mark. What will it be for me today?

Some things I note along the way: It's not as dark as last year. This section last year I had Abbie pacing me. Now I'm alone and I'm okay with that. I get to the 100k which is a party scene. The thought of stopping isn't even there. Jeni has now joined Sandra. My team is here, and I feel that I need to keep going - they came here to run with me! I don't want to let them down.

100k - 38 miles to go
Sock change, more tape, calf sleeves, soup, lots of soup, PB&Js...and Sandra and I are off into the darkness.

As we come through the Tamarack at 68ish miles, I realize that I've just passed a woman in pink in the dark. In the light of the aid station I realize it's Keather. We all leave together and keep each other in a somewhat punchy-happy mood. Keather is having a hard time dealing with bad bad blisters on the bottom of her feet. I'm having a hard hard time with my knee pain. Sandra is upbeat as always. We start doing the math on making the cut-off (always depressing talk at this point!) and realize we have about 12 hours to do 50k. Keather and I console ourselves that we could probably do that crawling. But sh*t this is painful.

We hit Bluff again, and stuff our faces. Keather sees the last of some small powered donuts. I'm not a donuts person, but those are good right now! Sandra and I leave as Keather is talking to her crew. At some point we are all back together, though the next sections out to hwy 12 and then out to Rice Lake have some of the more technical stuff. I almost fall several times since I'm basically operating with one good side. Any misstep makes it difficult to correct. We make it to Hwy 12 where Jeni takes over pacing.
Coming into hwy 12 (outbound)
Good points: I'm here much earlier than last year and my feet have only minor blisters. Last year I was dealing with HUGE blisters at this point. Shoe change, sock change, eat...and we're off. At this point it takes about a mile to work out the pain before I can even speed walk. This is the part of the run when it become increasingly depressing to still be heading AWAY from the finish. The Rice Lake turnaround is a huge emotional boost because after that you are heading inbound and no more outbound. As we leave Rice lake, I see Keather going into the aid station.

Last year the only hallucinations I experienced were seeing people standing along the side of the trail. People who were not actually there. This year I see things flying around my feet. They look like moths or small butterflies. I ask Jeni, "Are there moths flying around our feet?" She just says "Noooo." but I keep seeing them flitting about in my peripheral vision. It then occurs to me that this seems a lot like the faeries my daughter describes seeing. I decide that these are indeed faeries that she has sent me to help me move on.

Hwy 12 (Inbound)
We hit Hwy 12 and the sun is up, but I'm still ahead of last year. It's about 14 miles to go, but these are 14 of the toughest ever. I am already dreading the last 7 miles of steep rollers after Bluff as every bit of downhill takes its toll on my leg/knee. Mentally I hold it together and feel rather chipper...I joke with Jeni as we climb the long hill back up to confusion point - "Don't you folks in Wisconsin understand the concept of switchbacks?" The thing I've noticed this time around is that the trails generally go straight up a hill with no turns to even out the grade. This also causes rough footing since erosion is an issues with this approach to trail building (Note: The groups in this area are working to improve these trails and mitigate these issues). I can run up switchbacks 'til the cows come home, but at some point, these steep trails just get to you. Those who come from 'tougher' terrain for an 'easy' run learn fast that this ain't it.

Bluff (inbound). Mile 93+
Until I get through Bluff, inbound for the final time, facing those last, slow, painful 7+ miles that feel like an eternity. My mental state has gone, in an instant, from chipper to grim, cranky determination. For this last section you are allowed to have the rest of your crew join you to the finish, so Jeni and Sandra usher me home. But I am in no mood to talk. In fact hearing anything but my own grim thoughts is irritating. No one can really help me at this point. I can't be distracted any longer. I don't want to be distracted any longer.

Leaving Bluff and heading home
To any normal person, this is what the morning looked like. This is the calm before the hilly storm. From time to time I do look up and see, but for most of the, once we hit the hills, I could only look down and move forward. I am quiet. My watch dies about 4 miles from the end. I don't want to ask...I don't ask. Jeni and Sandra have been quietly 'discussing' distance left - Sandra's watch says one things. Jeni, who runs these trails often, maintains that the markers on the trees are reliable. There is some disagreement which I irritable shit the hell down. Yes. I'm having a rough time of it. Thank god they are good friends and understand! A trail runner trots by, just out for his Sunday morning run, sharing encouragement.  He says: "I've run this trail 100s of times. You are less than a mile from the finish." I try to push harder, but here are the last two big downhills, and now the pain in my leg makes me feel nauseous and dizzy by the time I get to the bottom of the hills. The trail weaves through the trees so I can't see the finish, though I can now hear something in the distance. We turn, then turn again, and again. Finally there is the last turn and I see where the trail leaves the trees though I still can't see the finish: I know it's there.

As I hit the opening exiting the trees and see the finish I hear the cheers and cowbells. There are many more people around this year than last. I put my head down and try to run with Sandra and Jeni by my side.

Eye on the finish
And I am done. 28:24:45. One hour and 48 minutes faster than last year.

Out of 253 runners registered, 133 finished within the 30 hour cut-off. My aim going into this (my 'B' goal) this year was between 24 and 28 hours. My 'A' goal was sub 24 and my 'C' goal was to finish and just get my WSER qualifier. But, by the 100k mark I adjusted my 'B' goal due to the issues I was having to sub-29. So, I guess I got that.

Timo puts his arm around me and congratulates me. Jason hands me my second copper kettle. I sit down for the first time in forever, and Sandra hands me a beer. It may only be half past 10 in the morning, but I eagerly accept it. 

Sitting. Ah, sitting

Best Crew in the world!
We hang out and cheer the rest in until the clock says 30:00 chatting with other runners and their support crews. Sharing beers and stories of our trials and tribulations. I'm in no hurry to have this part end...

But it does end. We make our way back to Illinois. I am in much better shape in some ways this year: Minimal blisters, slight foot/ankle swelling but not as bad as last time, and I'm feeling okay - except for my leg/knee and now my mid-back which is no doubt something resulting from compensation.

Sandra and I go kayaking the next day - yeah, stupid, but I am feeling good and want to do something fun. My logic goes like this: Well, I don't need to use my legs. But, as we battle fierce winds I am working my back hard. The next day as I travel back to Colorado, I feel an odd, crampy pain in my back. Perhaps kayaking was unwise!

I get home and life returns to normal. And it's like nothing really happened at all. Yes, I get some 'congrats' but I also get some snarky, cutting comments thanks to social media concerning my 'performance' and for some reason these eat at me. Of course those who like to put others down usually have NO experience with the things they feel qualified to comment on. But after running a hard and painful 100 miles, one is not emotionally stable. I usually don't let these few, mean-spirited things get to me, but I am weary. I am starting the question my achievement, or lack there of. And my post-race depression hits in a day, rather than the usual week. Add to that the fact that I now have an injured back, something I've never had before and which I did not feel at all during the run, and I sink into a very dark place. I am in constant, unrelenting pain, people I don't even know are being mean to me (yes, this seems to overshadow all the nice things people say), and I can't freaking run. 
“I won't tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world's voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one's own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!” ~Oscar Wilde

SO, I 'go away' for a bit. Turning off and tuning out others. And slowly I emerge from the murk. I'm still not there, but I'm getting there. 

In eightish weeks I am 'supposed' to run my 3rd 100 - Leadville. I now have not run for two and a half weeks. It will, no doubt be a bit longer though I am on the mend. Everything feels great, except my stupid back.  After days of fretting about this I am letting it go. I have no control over this right now. If I am able to start Leadville than I will, but I will stop if I need to. I have never DNFed, and right now I am feeling like I might need to get the DNF thing out of my system. Perhaps I should have stopped at the 100k at Kettle and called it good. But I weighed the pros and cons: 
Pros: Things aren't getting worse, damage is already done, I want my WSER qualifier
Cons: Might not be able to run.finish Leadville.
I fully accept my choices here. 

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where -' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
'- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation.
'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.” ~Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland


  1. Congratulations on even having the drive and courage to *start* another 100-miler. To better your time, to boot, should have felt like a huge boost. I'm sorry others marred the experience for you, in the end. I appreciate your well-thought recaps. And, best of luck at Leadville. I had a weird "need" to get a DNF out of my system, too, so I get the mentality. However, I see a Leadville finish in your future. :)

    1. We shall see what Leadville holds for me. I have a very different mental attitude about this one. I'm so thankful that I finished Kettle, a little faster, and secured my second ticket for next years WSER (this having to qualify every year thing might just kill be!) so I really feel much less pressure concerning LT100. I would like t get to the start. That's my goal now! Thanks for reading and commenting!!!

  2. I eagerly followed your progress and was so inspired in you making this journey a second time, which seems way harder in ultras since you know exactly how hard and painful and enduring it is. I was doing my second half marathon at the time, and as i reached my mental challenges, the thought of you doing 100 after so many other great races this year and Leadville on the horizon.....i guess inspiring would be a huge understatement

  3. Wow! It looks funny and interesting. Looking at the photos, i also want to join with everyone.


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