Ever since my dear friend Dennis Hanna and I finished the Ice Age 50 miler last year, we have talked about running the Kettle Moraine 100 mile endurance run. We ran the 38 mile fun run – the night portion of the Kettle Moraine, last year as our first step in preparing for the 100 mile challenge.
When first considering the 100 mile challenge, we asked a veteran 100 miler about preparation. We were told ‘oh – if you can run 50 miles, you can do 100.’ Now that I’ve done it, I completely disagree. I found running 100 miles to be at least 4 times harder than running 50 miles.
Stepping up from the marathon to the 50K (31 miles) was not a big deal. Rules for nutrition are about the same. Sports drink and energy gels will get you through it. Stepping up to the 50 miles was tougher. To finish 50 miles, you must consume calories during the event. Sugary things like energy gels and candy will work for under 35 miles, but for the caloric demand of more than 35 miles, too much sugary stuff without any starch, fat or protein will cause nausea, and make everything in your tummy race for the lower exit.
Stepping up to the 100 requires lots of research. Dennis took the lead on this. He read books, articles, blogs. I think he read anything ever written by anyone who has run 100 miles. The 3 most important things he stressed over and over and over were: We have to walk the uphills, we have to take electrolyte tablets, and we have to eat REAL food (sandwiches, bread, soup, cheese, chips, pretzels, etc – not Gu and candy). He pounded these notions into my head for weeks and weeks. He must have said these things to me 400 times. I am so grateful he did. He was absolutely right.
Our serious training began in January. We headed out to the trails in the Kettle Moraine Southern unit most every Saturday, and many Thursdays. Training included many runs over 30 miles, and we covered all sections of the Kettle Moraine course.
The Kettle Moraine course uses 7.5 miles of the Nordic hiking/ski trails, 31 miles of the Ice Age Trail, and about 4 miles of Scuppernong hiking/trails. All located within the Kettle Moraine State Forest – Southern Unit.
The terrain varies from flat marshy areas, meadows with small rolling hills, lots of short steep hills, and a few long moderate climbs. Though only about 200 feet between the highest point and lowest point, the accumulation of all the ‘ups’ totals 12,000 feet.
The trail surface varies from a wide trail blanketed gently with pine needles to rocky single track. Rocky single track is a narrow trough cut through an established forest. The trough is about a foot and a half wide, and 10 inches deep, bare packed dirt. On either side you’ll encounter well established ground cover, underbrush and trees. Rocks, ranging in size from softball to basketball, emerge from the floor of the trough. They stick up like bowling balls buried to their middles. The space between the rocks can vary from a few inches to several feet. Running on such terrain requires a delicate collaboration between eyes, brain and legs to land each step between the rocks when possible. When there isn’t enough space between the rocks for a foot to land, you must negotiate the best landing position for your foot on the rocks. There are about 20 ways your foot can come down on any given rock, and only 2 of them are not going to be uncomfortable. When you figure you are taking about 100 steps per minute, and each step must be carefully negotiated, you realize that running on this type of trail is not only physically demanding, it is mentally demanding as well. Now you know why trail runners fall so much. Take a tiny second to admire the pretty wildflowers, one bad foot placement, and splat – down you go.
In the week before the event, Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel asked me what my expectations were for our first 100 miler. See the full article here.
Here were our expectations:
We both expect this to be the hardest thing we have ever done.
We both expect to need just about all 30 hours allowed.
We both expect at least one of us will barf.
We expect to stay together for the whole thing.
I expect Dennis will try to make me eat more at the aid stations.
I expect Dennis will need to be reminded when to take his Tylenol.
We both expect to fall AT LEAST once. Dennis is expecting multiple falls.
We expect we will each feel at some point like we can’t go on. We plan to encourage each other through that. We hope it doesn’t happen to us both at the same time.
Neither of us expects we’ll finish with 20 toenails.
I expect that most stuff we put in our drop bags will not get used.
I expect there will be something we had wished we had put in our drop bags.
I expect no cooperation from Mother Nature. Dennis expects Mother nature will spank us good.
I expect that at some point, I will be so punchy, that absolutely everything will be funny. Dennis expects at some point absolutely everything will make him swear.
I expect to feel new pain. Dennis expects to feel intensity of pain he has never felt before.
I expect most people will think we are crazy.
I expect one way or another, at some point, I will shed some tears.
I expect to feel very humbled in the end.
We both expect it will be an unforgettable adventure.
All of our expectations were met except for one. We didn't barf.
The Kettle Moraine Endurance run starts and ends at the Nordic trailhead, on Highway H, just north of LaGrange, WI. It has 2 out and back legs. The first leg heads northeast to the Scuppernong trailhead parking lot. It’s 31.6 miles out and 31.6 miles back. Those doing the 100K get to stop at this point. Those doing the 100 mile head out for the second leg, southwest, to Rice Lake. 18.7 miles out, and 18.7 miles back. (If you are doing the math – its actually 100.6 miles). The 2 out and back legs share the first 8 miles. So the 100 milers get to be on one 8 mile stretch 4 times.
We arrive at about 5am to the starting area. We organized our drop bags which would go to 4 locations. Drop bags are bags that are dropped off, with your own personal items in them, taken to designated spots. Aid stations, located every 2 to 5 miles, will have water, sports drink, and quite an assortment of food including sandwiches, chips, cookies, potatoes, crackers, pretzels. Drop bags are for any personal items, or special food/drink not supplied at the aid stations. Dennis and I have packed dry clothes, dry shoes, bug spray, sunscreen, flashlights (which we won’t need for the first 50+ miles), Diet Coke, iced tea, crystallized ginger (to calm cranky tummies).
The weather forecast is decent. Steady temperatures in the 60s to low 70s, and 40% chance of rain. The steady temperature is a huge bonus, since this will require fewer changes of clothes throughout the next 30 hours.
We both carry a water bottle, and Dennis also carries Tylenol and Succeed (electrolyte tablets). I also have my watch. Dennis needs to take Tylenol for his ankles, every 3 hours, and it is my job to keep him on that schedule, so I set the repeating timer on my watch, and start it going at 5:30am when he takes his pre-race Tylenol. Expectation met.
At 6am, we start our 100 mile adventure. There are a record number of starters this year. 155 for the 100 mile event, and another 60 or so for the 100K. We head out on the Nordic ski trail. We spend the first mile settling into a pace and find our spot in the field among others going our same pace.
After about 11 or 12 minutes, we see mile marker 1. What? Really? Mile markers in marathons are great. During a marathon, I want to know exactly where I am, and exactly what my pace is. But I really don’t want to see 99 more of these signs. We are just focused on getting from aid station to aid station. I do not want to think about miles or hours, that is too daunting.
Within the first few miles, we encounter a guy carrying what sounds like a bottle of Tylenol. Here’s a little idea: For the sake of those around you, if you are going to carry a plastic bottle of tablets, PLEASE leave the frickin’ cotton ball in there so we don’t have to listen to ‘ksht ksht ksht’ of pills bouncing around for hours on end! He is running our same pace, and we just can’t seem to shake him. We heard that damn noise for a couple miles, and then fortunately, he had to answer nature’s call, and we lost him.
We saw mile markers 2, 3, and 4. Crap. Please, no more of these. Fortunately, 4 was the last one.
The first aid station is Tamarak, at mile 5. (Aid stations are named for either the road they are crossing (or near), or the trail system name.) Dennis has determined that we need one Succeed tablet at EVERY aid station. I have been running for 10 years, I have done 23 marathons, and 7 ultras. I have never used Succeed or any other electrolyte tablet. OK, I used a few during recent training runs with Dennis because he insisted. He has stressed for weeks and weeks and weeks that I WILL need Succeed and I WILL use Succeed during this 100 mile run. I trust him, so I agree. And let me tell you, at every single aid station, he got out the Succeed, and simply put it in my mouth. I am grateful he did. I know I needed them, and quite honestly, if he hadn’t kept doing that, I would not have taken them. I would not have remembered.
We arrive at the Emma Carlin aid station (mile 15.8), our first drop bag location. The sun has come out, the temperatures have risen, and the humidity is high. We take off our shirts, and leave them with our bag. Apply sunscreen and bug spray. The next section of the course will have lots of bugs, and lots of open areas with little shade.
We chat with various runners and find out where they are from. A guy from St Louis, a woman from Florida, another woman from Virginia. We talk quite a bit with Mark from Indianapolis. He is having a rough day. He forgot his allergy medicine, and is not feeling well, and is way behind his planned pace. He is not worried about meeting the cut-off times but he has another problem. He has put his flashlights in his drop bag at Nordic (mile 63.2), because he had planned to be there before dark. However, he is way off pace, and will not be able to get there before dark. Not sure what he’ll do. We hope he’ll be okay. If he is with us at that point, we can share some light with him. We both have 2 flashlights: headlamp and a hand held. Ours are in the Emma Carlin drop bag, which is mile 47.4 on our way back. We figure that at our pace, it will get dark for us around mile 57. No drop bags between 47 and 63, so we’ll have to carry our flashlights for a while before we need them.
We continue on to Scuppernong. The marshy area between Wilton Road and Highway 67 is not nearly as flooded as we thought it would be. The mud is barely ankle deep. The sun is hot, the humidity is high, but we are feeling strong.
There are aid stations at nearly every road crossing. Some are unmanned and have only water and olives. Fortunately, Dennis does not make me eat the olives. At every manned aid station, where real food is offered, we grab something to eat. Some, we just grab something small – like a few cheese-its and/or some animal crackers, but at the major ones, Dennis makes me eat at least a quarter of a sandwich. Expectation met. Choices are peanut butter and jelly, turkey, and ham. I try a different one each time. As some of you know, I hate jelly, but choke down a little PBnJ anyway. It isn’t horrible, but I know I need to do it. We are going to be eating a quarter or half of sandwich about 10 times during this ordeal, and ham and turkey are going to get really old if I don’t have something else too. And Dennis is right, we absolutely need the protein and fat.
We arrive at Scuppernong about 30 minutes ahead of our plan. We are feeling really good. Volunteers Kris Hinrichs and John Rodee give us small bags of ice to put under our hats, and it feels absolutely fantastic. Husband Bill and son Danny come to Scuppernong to wish us well, and take a couple pictures, offer encouragement and send us on our way. It was great to see them. At this point, I realize that we are closer to our house than we are to the start/finish line at Nordic.
We leave Scuppernong, and head back to Emma Carlin. Shortly after leaving the Highway 67 aid station, and after dousing our half naked sweaty bodies in bug spray, Dennis falls in a sandy spot. Expectation met. His back is covered in sand. I can’t brush it off, it will feel like he’s being rubbed with sand paper. I worry that when the temperature cools, he won’t be able to put a shirt back on, because it will chafe him too much. We arrive at an unmanned aid station, and realize there is a large bucket of water with some sponges in it. Now, you really can’t think about the fact that about a hundred people have visited this stop before you, and at least of few of them have needed a rinse. We both have a very practical ‘you gotta do what you gotta do’ attitude, and sponge each other’s backs. The cool water felt so good in the heat, and I was very glad to get the sand off Dennis’ back so that he’d be able to wear a shirt later.
About mile 37 we get a very pleasant drizzle. It’s perfect. Just enough to cool us off. After about 5 miles of drizzle, we’ve had our fill, and are ready for the rain to stop. Mother nature must have heard that, and thought we were being sassy. The rain increased. We start to get a little cold, and are plenty wet. We arrive back at Emma Carlin where we have fresh clothes and shoes. The rain is steady now, and we hope it will stop soon. We changed our shoes and socks, I got to put on a nice dry sports bra and a clean dry shirt. Ladies – you know how awful a wet sports bra can be. A fresh dry one felt really good, even though the color didn’t match my shorts very well. We picked up our flashlights, which we fortunately had in ziplock bags, and carried them on our way back to Nordic.
Shortly after Emma Carlin (mile 47), the rain turned into an all-out-skies-of-vengeance downpour. Expectation met. We were completely soaked. Our rocky single track trough trail turned into ankle deep muddy rushing rivers. Good luck seeing the bowling-ball rocks now. Any time we’d say ‘okay, this can stop now’ it would rain harder. When we thought it couldn’t possibly rain any harder, we were proven wrong. The air became filled with profanity. Expectation met. I pointed out the fact that the rain had really knocked down the bugs. Dennis responded colorfully, not comforted by that fact. Expectation met again.
Darkness came during the rain storm. We used the flashlights while keeping them in the zip lock bags. We started to get really cold. We wished one of us had thought to put a frickin’ rain poncho in one of our drop bags. Expectation met. How did we not think of this? We thought of everything else. We tried to figure out what to do. How far was it to the next aid station? Would they have garbage bag ponchos for us? Would we be able to call someone to get us some ponchos?
We arrived at the Bluff Road aid station (mile 55.7), and fellow Armelian Marathoner Jim (Neighbor Jim) Anderson is there. He’s got towels for us, and soup, and asks us what do we need. Oh my gosh, I was so happy to see him, I hugged him, told him I loved him, and damn near kissed him on the lips. I learned later that he had waited there an hour for us, in the pouring rain. He is a SAINT.
We got under the tent, dried off a bit, and volunteers donned us with garbage bag ponchos. We were shivering uncontrollably like frightened puppies. I was so overwhelmed, I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted or needed. I think I drank some chicken noodle soup. I was losing my appetite, and nothing looked good. A volunteer custom made a half a peanut butter sandwich for me without jelly. I could barely eat, and had to nibble on it, so we decided to take it ‘to go’.
We headed on our way in the rain, nibbling a peanut butter sans jelly sandwich. And if I wasn’t hungry before, as this thing gets wetter and wetter, it does not get more appealing. I couldn’t get it down. I commented that I sure wish they had grilled cheese sandwiches, as I knew I’d be able to get that down.
We arrive at the Tamarack aid station (mile 58.2). You would not believe what they had. Grilled cheese sandwiches. I was in heaven. You would have thought I’d won the lottery. They had a griddle there, and were making beloved grilled cheese on white bread. I selected a perfect half sandwich from the tray. I think I yelled ‘this is the best grilled cheese sandwich on the planet’. About this time, the rain also stopped. I was punchy and happy and became giddy. I was super chatty, and absolutely everything was making me laugh. Expectation met. I don’t have any idea what we talked about, but I just remember being very silly.
We continued on back to Nordic. The rains left behind soggy trails and enormous unavoidable puddles. It was completely dark by this time. We were still running strong and feeling pretty good. We arrived at Nordic (mile 63.2) around 10:15pm. We got dry clothes again, but unfortunately, no more dry shoes or socks for us. We were still almost 30 minutes ahead of plan.
Side note: Our plan has us finishing in 29 hours and 10 minutes. 50 minutes short of the 30 hour limit. I figured a 15:30 pace before dark, and 20 minute per mile pace after dark.
We took a little longer getting out of the Nordic aid station. Dennis texted his family on our progress, and we walked a bit longer than expected. We lost some of our banked 30 minutes, leaving us still 15 minutes ahead of schedule. We still felt good and headed out for the second leg. Only 37.4 miles to go.
The first 8 miles of the second leg are the same as the first 8 miles of the first leg. Except now they are dark, soggy, muddy, and mildly flooded in many spots. We stopped for a moment to appreciate the darkness and turned off the flashlights. Unlike last year with clear skies and a nearly full moon, it was completely 100% dark without our lights. There is no way a person could have gone anywhere without a flashlight.
Some call them hallucinations, others call it ‘eyes playing tricks’. Either way, I saw animals darting in front of us that weren’t there. The first one really startled me, because I was sure that a large fox or small wolf had run past us next to Dennis. He told me it was just a branch that I saw out of the corner of my eye as his flashlight swept across it. When I saw the second one, I was pretty sure it wasn’t there either.
Shortly after leaving the Bluff Road aid station for the third time, while on the trail that connects the Nordic ski trails and the Ice Age trail, for some unknown reason, we sang Simon and Garfunkel’s Cecelia. Loudly. And probably not very well. Well Dennis can sing pretty well. That makes one of us.
When we get to the section where the second leg diverges from the first leg, we are on a rocky single track section of the Ice Age Trail. Things got tough. We still felt reasonably good. We were tired, but still doing well. However, the trail was wet, and very narrow, and the brush that flanked the trail was overgrown. We had to fight through leaves and branches which overlapped the trail obscuring our view. It was too difficult to see the footing, and though we had the energy to run, we were forced to walk.
I started seeing snakes. I actually knew they weren’t there, and they didn’t startle or scare me. And they were small. My eyes played more tricks. At one point, I looked up, and Dennis was a huge football player, pads, uniform and helmet. For those who do not know Dennis, he’s 5 foot 5 and 130 lbs when wet.
Though we’ve run this section of the course a few times, and I know several landmarks, I could not get my bearings, and could not recognize anything. I had no concept of how far we were from the next aid station. I kept looking for something familiar to comfort me, but it was too dark, and too overgrown.
By the time we got to the Highway 12 aid station (mile 77.5) we were starting to crash. I had lost my appetite completely, and I could feel serious blisters on the bottoms of my feet. Dennis’ ankles were throbbing, and he was feeling blisters as well. I drank one of my 7 oz Diet Cokes that was in the drop bag, and tried to eat something. I think I ate a small piece of potato. I seriously doubted I’d be able to finish. Expectation met. When Dennis asked me how I was feeling, I just shook my head, and held back tears. Dennis simply said “we can do this.” Expectation met.
We left Highway 12, and headed to Rice Lake. It’s about 3:30 am. This is the worst section of the course. The terrain is very rocky, the hills are very steep, there are lots of stairs that are very slippery when wet. It is the section we are both dreading.
Rice Lake would be a major milestone for us. We focused on what we could look forward to. Getting to Rice Lake would mean we had less than 20 miles to go, we’d be returning to the finish, and it would be getting light out.
We walked most of the way to Rice Lake (mile 81.9). Dennis wanted to not stop there at all, just turn around immediately without getting food or water. Our water bottles were full enough, we could eat when we returned to Highway 12 after the Rice Lake aid station, so our food intake would be fine. It was a good idea. Getting moving after stopping was getting harder and harder to do. Unfortunately, I had to visit the porta potty when we got there. Sorry, Dennis.
After a short potty break at Rice Lake, we headed back to Highway 12. We tried to run the down hills, but it was so painful. The blisters were taking their toll, forcing an awkward stride that would cause more pain. Walking was manageable. We were still on pace with our plan.
We arrived back at Highway 12 (mile 86.3). Only 14.3 miles to go. I keep looking at my watch. We are not worried about making the cut off, but have lost most of our banked time. We continue on, mostly walking. Still trying to run just the downhills. Our pace is about a 20 minute mile.
Within a mile or so of the Bluff Road aid station, there is a huge hill. We slowed even more. By the time we got to the Bluff Road aid station for the 4th and final time (mile 93.1), we can only walk. We simply hurt too much. I looked at my watch, and panicked a bit. We’ve slowed to about a 25 to 30 minute mile, and I now believe we are in jeopardy of missing the cut off. I insist we need to power walk. We have a couple relatively easy miles of the Nordic trail ahead of us, so we try to pick up the pace, and power walk/jog a bit. Our legs are completely shot. Our energy is gone. Everything hurts from our toes up. Expectation met.
We arrive at the Tamarack aid station (mile 95.6). Exactly 5 miles left. We decide not to stop for anything, except I had to grab 5 gummi bears on the fly, just to cheer me up. I look at my watch, and we have sped up to about a 15 to 20 minute pace again, and we are on pace to finish before the noon cut off. We also will start seeing the mile markers, and will be able to monitor our pace.
I keep looking at my watch, we power walk as best we can. We look for the mile markers. We get to mile marker 4 (4 miles out), and we’ve done a 13 minute mile. It’s a fairly flat mile. The next mile is a little hillier, and it takes about 17 minutes. We are now 3 miles out.
I started picturing the finish line, and got choke up, and shed a little tear. Expectation met.
The final 3 miles were excruciating. We have 2 miles of relentless steep hills. And somehow, even though we’ve been over them many many many times, and 3 of those times have been today/yesterday, they are much much much steeper and taller than ever before.
We continue on and I keep looking at my watch, and looking for the mile markers. Where are those things? Where the hell is mile marker 2? It took forever. 25 minutes for that mile. And 25 minutes for the next. As we approach mile marker 1, we see a familiar face in the distance. Fellow Armelian Marathoner Chuck Zinda is there to greet us and walk us in. Our final mile was about 20 to 25 minutes. We arrived at the finish to see family, friends, volunteers, and a few who had finished before us, cheering enthusiastically for us. It was a wonderful feeling. To be done, to be cheered, to have accomplished and incredible challenge. Expectation met.
We finished in 29 hours and 7 minutes. Expectation met.
I have gained a whole new respect for anyone who has completed this distance, especially those that have done it more than once. I also am so grateful for all the volunteers, who gave up their weekend, endured awful weather, and worked hours and hours, just to give support for all of us runners. I feel incredibly humbled. Expectation met.
Immediately after finishing, we sit down, take off our shoes, and hose off our feet. Upon initial inspection, we find a total of about 14 blisters. It also looks like we’ll be keeping about 13 toenails. Expectation met.
We gather our drop bags, which still have lots of fresh clothing in them. Expectation met.
We chatted, celebrated, told our family and friends some key points of our adventure. Our families remind us that most people think we are crazy. Expectation met.
For 29 hours, we were never more than 10 yards away from each other. Expectation met. Though many miles were traveled silently, we were comforted by the mere fact that the other one was near by. We accomplished this challenge as a team. I absolutely know I could not have done it without my dear dear friend Dennis. We shared an incredible journey together that I will never forget. Expectation met.
Of the 155 runners who started the 100 mile run, Dennis and I were among the 51 that completed the entire distance. It was the hardest thing we have ever done. Expectation met.