Thursday, June 14, 2018

Kettle Moraine 100: Getting Crushed But Gaining Far More

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I like to think some of the best decisions are those that are made the spur of the moment, because, incidentally, that was me about a month ago before registering for the Kettle Moraine 100 in LaGrange, Wisconsin. After doing a group 20 mile run in the Cleveland National Forest (just outside of San Diego) with SURF, the local trail running community, I was left feeling like I needed to do another 100 miler, and soon before I started my new job at Classy. For some reason, I decided to head back to the Midwest and do another "easier" course. Hence, I registered for Kettle Moraine 100.

So, with 3 weeks leading up to the race,mnhb I knew that I didn't have much time to prepare for something that I clearly wasn't going to be getting into shape for. However, being the competitive person as I am, I wanted to do well. Although winning was the goal, that is what I stated to friends and family even though I knew that likely wasn't going to happen, especially racing guys who put in far more miles than me. Instead, I was depending on muscle memory and pure grit heading into this. Despite not feeling entirely prepared, I did know that KM100 isn't very hilly, nor is it technical, so I was even more curious to see how I could do with more road miles and less trail. This race also had about 260 people registered, which is a lot given the sport.

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So fast forward to race day. After just moving from Seattle to San Diego, I didn't have any of the gear as that is in shipping (ask personally how that is going), so I had to compromise my entire race strategy. Since all of my gear was in shipping and I didn't know I would be running 100 miles in between me moving and racing, I had to switch all of my tactics. Typically I go with Orange Mud's VP2 or VP1, but instead, I bought a handheld bottle and was dependent on that for the entire day. I knew that the furthest aid station was only about 5 miles away and it wasn't going to be super hot, so I thought I'd get away with the handheld. In addition, I didn't have any of my GU that I usually had and the race has Hammer, which is something my stomach just can't tolerate. Finally I had no dropbags. I was donated some at the checkin on Friday but then forget them when I left to head back to my campsite (classic Nick). Then Annie Wiess saved the day. She's a fellow runner for Orange Mud. Her and her husband Brian provided the garbage bags and I was good to go for the day.

So, with that buildup, more to the race. 6 am rolled around pretty quickly. I didn't really sleep too well and I was pretty stiff upon waking up. "How is this going to work?" was the first question I asked myself when I woke up. I remember my back cracking 20 different times and my shoulders crunching like I was eating a bag of potato chips. If they were malfunctioning that early, I knew running 100 miles would certainly add additional layers of stress.

Once I'm at the start, the RD's send us off. There were about 4 of us that took off at the beginning. One guy in the front who I never really spoke to, a guy with long hair who was initially leading (I internally named him Jesus and we were his disciples following him), and a guy named Brad who I mostly spoke with in that initial group. Brad had a look in his eyes that didn't show he was here for a good time but on a mission to destroy everyone, and boy did he eventually succeed at that. 4.8 miles in and we get to the first aid station. I let the other three go so I could fill up. I was really wanting to be intentional throughout the day stopping, as I didn't have crew or lots of water being a single bottle.

After leaving Tamarack, I ran and tried catching up to the others. They were running about 7:30 miles for the first 7 miles. Truthfully, I wanted to take an aggressive approach, but I knew I didn't have the mileage to run that fast for that long. Additionally the second half of the race tends to be my strong point. After taking off there I kept my cool for basically the next 30 miles. This is when the first accident happened.

After running through a prairie that was fairly exposed and after running out of GU's, I knew I had to get some calories. I was bonking on a flat at about 34 miles. I did take a tropical hammer at the last aid station as a last resort and a last resort it was. After taking the first swallow my stomach went into total rejection mode. As per previous situations with puking, the watery mouth got out of control and all of the contents came spewing out. This now marks more races of puking than those that I didn't. I tried compromising Hammer products before in that I always puked because I had lots of sugar throughout the day, but now I'm concluding that I just don't get along with Hammer products. The good news is it was pretty clear, which meant I had drank a lot of water and that everything else was being properly digested.

At this point, Ukraine and Russia passed me. This was a couple of friends that were running the 100k together. I called them that because the one had a yellow and blue tank top on, similar to the Ukraine. And the other guy had grey and red. Lame, I know, but you have to create some games to get the miles to pass! However, unlike Ukraine and Russia, they smiled and I never felt like they were going to go to war with me. Once I got to Emma Carlin for the second time, I saw Brandi. She was here supporting a friend, and, arguably me. She always seemed to give me a helping hand and provided words of encouragement. This is what is so spectacular about the sport. To have people assist you in situations when you don't ask and they get nothing in return. She was also infatuated with my Ink n' Burn hippy shirt (as was about every other runner and aid station person), so there is that as well. Either way, I was very appreciate of her support.

Once at Emma Carlin, I reloaded my strawberry banana GUs and headed back out. Again, I passed Ukraine and Russia and got another wind. After getting back to Nordic, I was again feeling a little depressed. I was over the halfway mark, but was kind of getting tired of this section. KM100 is a T. The part getting back to Nordic was my least favorite. It is a series of hills that go up and down. Although they were justifiable to climb, it didn't pair with basically bonking. However, the good news was that when I would get to Nordic would mark the 100k mark and confirm the close to the rest of the race. With this in mind, I powered on and saw that Jesus was starting to slow down as well as the guy directly in front of me. Brad was about 7 miles in front of me at that point and looking strong, so I knew I wasn't going to be catching him.

Knowing the state everyone was in, including myself, I was going to be content striving for 5th unless another wind came. After snailing my way into the Nordic aid station (mile 63),  I was again greeted by Brandi and her bubbly personality. This inevitably led to a smile and people cheering, thinking that I was done with the 100k race. Dismay spread across the audience as they misclapped and I crushed their expectations of another finisher. However, once the information was disclosed that I had another 38 miles to go, everyone came to help. After thanking the volunteers, I took off again and noticed the guy in 6th was only about 1.5 miles behind. At this point I had been taking my time at the aid stations and allowed others to catch up that way. Usually when I'm in full race mode, I minimize as much time as possible when I get in.

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After again getting back to Tamarask, I got some soup and this is when the game changed. Soup has traditionally been a magic bullet and it again was the case for this race. Where sugar and Gu fail, soup strives in flying colors. After having some chicken noodle soup, everything changed. And for the better. If Campbell's is looking for athletes in the ultra world, I'd happily put my name beside them! Not only does soup solve the flu, but it cures an angry runner's stomach as well. At this aid station, I took two cups of soup and took off.

Despite feeling really good here, the 6th placer had caught up, and he was looking strong. I think when he saw me just 1.5 miles ahead and walking, he gained inspiration to try and catch me. His desire to do so was admirable, but it also reminded me that this was a race. Regardless if I was trained or not, I wasn't about to walk my way into a 5th place finish. I told a couple of people that if I was going to lose, I'd make it hurt. Excluding Brad who blew everyone away, I felt like I won this race. Although I didn't enter this race with lots of endurance to back me up, I did show up with a mindset that wasn't going to accept defeat unless it was so uncomfortably challenging I couldn't step up to the challenge. Defending this position and disclosing what happened next was an invaluable lesson that I have been learning, particularly lately. It is interesting how ultrarunning has so many parallels to daily life and how much more so for the recent move I had just made. Although much opposition came from close family and friends about the decision to press on, I did and have no regrets for doing so. Similar to this, I came in with ambitious goals knowing that I didn't necessarily have the skillset to pull off a win. Instead, this race was all about mental stamina.

So once he caught up we were heading to the other section of the T and Rice Lake. Adam was his name and he haled from Duluth, Minnesota, the same location as Superior 100, which I will be running this September. Adam has run it 6 times and said he was "tired of running." I totally could relate with what he was talking about. Because the course is so flat, there really is no excuse to walk, but you make them up with the smallest incline. However, when a substantial climb did come, I noticed that Adam was significantly stronger than me. However, the downhills and the flats were my specialty. Any gain he got on me there quickly turned when a flat came.

This is when I had the Clifbar Mocha. This is my other game changer. Not only does it have caffeine for the night section, but it went down like butter. For being a gel, I was shocked at how easily it went down for the mileage that I was at. However, I knew that I would need the caffeine and the calories as it had been a while since I had any calories. I don't want to think about the amount of calories I take in versus the amount I burn. With that bite of the clifbar is when the jets got turned on. I started to leave Adam and I caught up to the guy who had been leading all day. He was walking and not looking so good as we were getting closer to the mile 80 mark.

After getting into the aid station, everyone, myself included, were surprised at how good I felt and looked. After getting some more chicken noodle soup and thanking the staff, I headed back out. I knew that they were calling for rain between 8pm and 1 am. At this point it was just sprinkling and
not too intense. Usually I hate rain in races, but this was quite refreshing.

After powering on, Adam and I crossed paths again. He was heading to the direction of the aid station and was about 10 minutes behind, so I definitely put some distance on him. At this point I was in the 3rd position. The chicken noodle soup really started to kick in as well. I felt energy levels come back to me and I suffered no stomach issues. This next section was the worst in my opinion as it was about 9 miles to the next real aid station. About 4.5 miles in you hit an aid station with just water, but no food. One of these days I'll calculate the amount of calories I intake versus burn off. However, I think I'd be fearful to see the result of that. It is no secret that these races probably aren't good for you, but I'm also a firm believer that sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Regardless, I eventually got to the self man station. I passed a ton of runners that were going on the out section at this point. As nice as it was to see people, there seemed to be a lot. Although usually not an issue, because it was now the night time section, my foot placements and joints weren't exactly great, and I ran the risk of twisting an ankle on a rock or root every time I had to get off path for the runners coming the opposite direction of me. However, thankfully, we all seemed to take our time when we crossed paths and ensured that none of us got injured.

After getting through these sections, I finally made it back to Emma Carlin Aid Station. After getting some more chicken noodle soup and revitalizing what I needed, I took off again. I wasn't about to hang out here. Adam looked strong back there and I had a weird feeling that he wasn't letting off the pedal, and neither should I. After getting the essentials I took off again with only about 8 miles to go. This is where I passed the 2nd placer. He incidentally had taken a beating throughout the day and was now really feeling the consequences of doing so. He and his pacer were hardly walking. Certainly I have been there before and felt bad for him. I offered a few words of encouragement and made my way.

The next section is fairly flat and only about 3 miles to Tamarack, the final aid station. At this point I was just ready to be done. I pressed on and got to the final aid station. The volunteers here were arguably my favorite. Most had done some pretty hard 100's, including Orcas Island in Washington State. It was fun to exchange quick stories and learn a bit about them. Besides the killer soup they made, I joked that I was dropping (not with them knowing I was kidding). All of their faces dropped as I pretty smiley at this point. No one seemed to know what to say. "You can't drop here" one of them told me. I laughed and told them I was kidding. "Leave it up to the hippy to do that!" the same aid station worker told me.

After switching my batteries out for the final section of the race, I took a cup of soup and headed out. Only 4.8 miles to go! This is when it started to rain. Not only rain, but a more of a torrential downpour. It was so intense you could hardly see in front of you. As I was passing people who were going the opposite direction, all I could feel was pity for the 30 miles they had left. With it being 58 and now soaking wet, things were great, but I was still moving so the rain likely impacted me significantly less than those who weren't moving as well. I continued powering through and finally got to the end in 18:28 as an official time. However, only 2 minutes behind was Adam, finishing in 18:30. He and I had both passed about 3 runners in the final 15 miles. Not bad!

This race was a giant learning lesson. First, controlling the mind is key. I certainly didn't enter this race as the most trained or in shape. In fact, I'd argue it was the opposite. The most I had run in any week leading up to this race was 75 miles. Adjusting my race strategy and putting mind over matter really worked out well for me. I knew that Brad (the person who eventually won) was significantly in better shape than I heading into this. Having realistic goals with a strong mental fortitude paid pretty dividends in this race for me. Although winning would have been nice and that was the goal I communicated to others, I'm very grateful for the performance and strategy I deployed on race day, especially given the situation.

A special shout out to David who hosted me in Chicago and allowed me to borrow his gear for the race. Brandi was awesome. She's the one that captured the shots and acted as my crew since I didn't have any. Lastly, thanks to Brian and Annie for the trash bags, and Brian for the words of encouragement throughout the day. It is awesome to see people come together for a unified purpose, to push yourself and see what the body is made of. I think if the lessons I learn in ultrarunning can be translated into human terms, I'm not sure what language it would be in, but this sport continues to impress me with the draw and mental intrigue that I'm hoping to continue this quest to complete a 100 in all of the US states. With 12 down and 38 to go, I think I'm making some good progress on this!

Thanks for all who read this. Hopefully this was entertaining to some degree.


-Nick K

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Hawk 100: Feeling Human

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If event planning was my occupation, I'd seriously have to consider a career change. My goal this was year was to run 3 100 mile races, ideally in geographically unique states, meaning not 2 Midwestern States in the same year. However, poor planning on my part means I ended up in both Illinois and Kansas in the same year. Perhaps now my biased "West coast is best coast vibe," I didn't honestly think that these two states would have much beauty to offer. Illinois surprised me earlier this year and now Kansas would do the same.

The Hawk 100 is a 4 loop, 25 mile course at Clinton State Park in eastern Kansas. The reason I selected this race is twofold. First, I failed to enter the lottery for the Superior 100 in Minnesota so I couldn't run that, and second I received sponsorship from Orange Mud for a free entry. As such, it was a no-brainer. This, in combination with the offer of my mom and sister to come out and support me ultimately led me to enter yet another race in the Midwest. Thankfully fellow OM ambassador Sherry Klover was the Race Director and had much beauty in store (which I didn't think was possible for Kansas). 

So fast forward to the race briefing Friday night. I had the chance to meet several other OM ambassadors including the man himself, Josh Sprague. After learning the course was only 4-5,000 total feet of climbing over the 100 miles, I actually think I laughed out loud. Coming into this race I was feeling nowhere near the fitness level I wanted to be. Sure I had put in a couple of 40+ mile runs around Mt. Hood, the Cascade Mountains, and the PCT, but they weren't fast miles, nor were they flat like this course was going to be. Unbeknownst to most, I had a goal that I could actually dip under 16 hours for this course (later to be learned this was far from happening). Knowing this and also knowing that Jeremy, last years champion, was back (who had run low 16's) I thought I had the perfect combination to reach the sub 16 mark. Really the only thing in question was how would my slow, mountain miles translate to almost flat and "runnable" trail?

At the start of the race, it was no surprise that the standard starting line nerves were running rampant among all of the runners. The 50 and 100 mile runners all started together which isn't exactly my desired state, as I didn't want to necessarily run with the faster people, but I secretly had some time goals that I wanted to hit. So, when we started, I naturally found myself among this group. Jeremy blasted to the front and left the rest of us together. This is when I joined Jeff Gregg (another OM ambassador running the 50 mile) and a guy from Arkansas named Daniel, also running the 50 miler. 

We started off and of course everything felt good. We hit the first part of the trail and I was a bit shocked how rocky it was. It reminded me of the Arkansas rock, where I went to school. Jeff, Daniel, and I were all running together and enjoying the trail together. We passed the first aid station and were all feeling pretty good. The reason I chose to run with them is they had time goals to be under 8 hours, but not a significant amount under 8 hours. That was something that I was also aiming for for the first 50 miles and thought that we could all support each other in reaching our goals. 

I got to the halfway point of the first loop and everything was feeling fantastic. This lap was completed in 3:30! Basically a marathon in 3.5 hours...I had a hunch I wouldn't be able to continue this, but I did feel good. I learned that Jeremy is one of those runners that pushes himself so hard that he could potentially tank later. He's also not afraid to drop if things aren't going great. This was insight that I gathered from Jeff who has run with him in Nebraska and said that that is typically how he performs. With that said, Jeremy you'll find later is someone who's got much grit and doesn't lose very often. Unlike me, he is used to these flatter, faster courses being from Nebraska. My strategy then would be to hang behind him and let him destroy himself for the first half and then I'd make my move in the second 50 miles, which is typically how I race anyways. However this didn't really happen.

As Daniel and I went out to complete the West Road 2.5 mile loop, we were really cranking the miles out. Daniel reported that we had just run the last 2 miles in about a 7:30 pace...not exactly the smartest thing for me to do considering that the longer miles might make me pay for this. I think he realized how fast we were going and we both agreed that slowing down might not be a bad idea. We got back to the aid station. I collected my things from my mom and sister and immediately left. Back to the start we went. This section was very surpisingly rocky. Although there wasn't a ton of climbing, the rocks made it very difficult to navigate. I love technical terrain so this section wasn't horrible (at least for now) and we both moved very well, right back to the beginning of the start. 

At this point I learned that Jeremy was only a couple of minutes ahead of me. He too was moving really well. I also managed to catch back up to Daniel at this point. I had a few more Honey Stinger waffles and we were running and talking together. Daniel is for sure a competitive athlete as he kept mentioning winning the 50 miler, and to be honest, I knew he probably would as there didn't seem like anyone else who'd challenge him at the distance. I started to feel really good and when we got to the technical section along the lake, I passed Daniel and ran this solo. It was here also that I passed Jeremy and was heading to the 50k mark of the race. Not exactly my race strategy to be in the lead at the 50k, but why stop a good feeling? I continued to stuff my face with more waffles and water. The humidity was really starting to kick in and I could feel that it was getting stronger. I eventually made it back to the aid station and my mom and sister were happy to see me and provide some much coveted blueberries. 

I quickly went out and ran the 2.5 mile loop. After restocking it was back to the start and the halfway point. I could feel a little pain in my heel at this point, but was hoping it was nothing. I again continued to shove my face with more waffles and water. I was beginning to notice that this rocky section of the trail was getting a little harder. However, everything was still functioning fairly normal and the heel was beginning to feel better. Then, out of the blue, intense cramping in my calves began. This was right when I was coming in the 50 mile point in 7:38, which I would learn later would be the 2nd fastest time for a 50 miler on this course. This was my 3rd fastest 50 miler as well. Was this good or bad?  My calves were flexing fairly intensely and I was feeling slightly bloated, but I thought it was manageable. After making small chat with mom and Mikala, Daniel brought it home to win the actual 50 mile race in about 7:42. I was stoked that he reached his goal and pulled out a win. However, my celebration was about to end soon because I knew Jeremy was hot on my heels and I didn't want him to see me, so I made it as short of a visit as I could. Back out for the 3rd loop I went.

I headed to Sander's Mound and passed Jeremy on his way to the mound. I was walking up the slight hill at this point and he was bombing down the opposite way. I knew dang well that he could see a little pain in my eyes and he struck fear in me as he didn't even look like he too ran 50 miles. I was hoping that I would have gained a little more of a margin on him but that was far from the case. As I progressed, things only started to get worst. My calves were flexing uncontrollably. I was walking at this point. On flat ground. I knew Jeremy was going to come blasting up at any moment. The heat of the sun and the humidity was also starting to kick in. As with all flight or flight systems, my body began to implement security controls to get me to stop. With every step, both calves were convulsing relentlessly and refusing to relax. It was here that Jeremy passed me, at about the mile 54 mark. 

I came into that aid station and grabbed some salt tablets and more pickle juice and pop. The bloating was really starting to kick in. I started to walk from this aid station as my calves refused to relax. This section was the worst of the entire course to my recollection. I basically walked the next 6 miles. Aside from the convulsing calves, the bloating transformed into a GI monster. I swallowed the banana I picked up and this is when my body went in full retaliation. Since my body didn't win the first battle with the calves it resorted to a grosser and more disgusting game that it's played in the past. Puking. And boy, oh boy, was there puking. Since event planning isn't the direction I should probably go for an occupation, I should consider being a professional puker because I very quickly learned I'd excel at this.

(Skip next paragraph if food contents aren't your thing)

The ingredient list of what came up is something I envision a witch throwing in a boiling pot of stew as she's about to curse someone. The banana, pickle juice, waffles, salt tablets, and potato wedge I ate for the past 3 hours came out in a yellowish, half digested state of hard substances and liquid. Of course this puking section was done in front of 3 women I had passed. I didn't puke once, not even twice, it was more like 4 or 5 times in this one spot. I'd walk a little and more and more contents would spew out. The look on the women's faces is how I envision someone looking at someone else who had just dropped a baby. Abhorred disgust. The best part? Some of the contents ended up on the trail, the same one they were walking on. Similar to someone who had just dropped a baby, they were immediately quick to assist. Something that never ceases me in the ultra community. One offered a peppermint. Apparently these are good for stomach problems. However, it was probably to protect my breath. I agreed to it and thanked them. At this point, I was bonking hardcore, the heat of the day was settling in, and each step was done on fully convulsed calves. Things were very, very slow.. this is when I started to puke 2-3 more times. However, there was nothing to puke up. I was literally just dry heaving and puking nothing up. I took a swig of water and started to puke uncontrollably again. Not. Good. I had 0 energy, no water, no air conditioning system, and a non-functioning body. I started to feel incredibly light-headed and things were going black. "Just get to the aid station, Nick, just get to the aid station." This was all I could think. I've puked before but this was different. This was much, much different.

As I got to the next aid station, I could see my mom and sister. I asked for a chair and sat down. This is something I'd never done before in a 100 mile race. Ever. However, I knew that this is what I needed. I could barely stand at this point as I thought I was going to pass out. I asked for soup, but it wasn't being prepared yet. All sugar I couldn't keep down. In fact, I couldn't even keep water down. The aid station workers came over and asked what was wrong. I told them and they said that this happens to everyone. In full disclosure, I was slightly offended. I had run these before, and much much harder ones at that, and I can say this wasn't normal for me. I haven't felt like I was going to get a heat stroke before, nor have I been this dizzy. I've had low moments, but this was a "is something worst going to happen?" Dropping suddenly became an option. I was humbled insanely well as I had never even considered dropping in a 100 mile race, outside of my first 100, and it being in Kansas of all places! They put an ice towel around me and mom and Mikala were asking me questions. I probably sat there for 15 minutes, just pondering what to do. My mom and sister flew out and here I was practically dying in front of them at mile 60. Dropping after they came out to support me seemed like a bad idea, but I also didn't want them planning a funeral either. I seriously didn't know what do...

The worker said that he thinks I should do the 2.5 mile loop. At this point, it was smoldering out, I was completely dehydrated, couldn't keep food down still, still dizzy, and was on the edge of dropping, but I decided to go out. I asked Mikala if she could walk with me. Not surprisingly, she jumped right at the opportunity. My sister, being a nurse, has internal instincts of where and when help is needed. This was a clear situation of that. We started walking and I didn't feel good at all. She handed me a couple of pretzels and I could only get them down with water. Each swallow of a pretzel left me gagging. Thankfully nothing came up. She and I talked and I must say it was a nice pick me up. I thought I was going to start crying on her! Never have I felt so weak and not in control. Of all the races, this one brought a level of humanness out of me that I'm not sure I've experienced before. Here was my sister, handing me pretzels and helping me consider my options. Dropping would probably be the smartest thing, but we both agreed that sitting at the aid station for another 20-30 minutes wouldn't be a bad idea either.

We got back and that is what I did. Soup was starting to be made and I made sure I grabbed some. The ice came back over me and the sun was starting to weaken. I needed calories, water, and a mental boost. After sitting again for a while, the 3rd placer came into the aid station. How I haven't been passed at this point was beyond my understanding. Truly the entire world should have passed me. After much deliberation I decided to continue onward. My sister selflessly agreed to go the next 11 miles with me, much of which would be walking. We both headed out and suddenly a wave of power came over me. The three cups of soup I ate was able to stay down (something soup has always successfully done when I have major stomach issues). The pace was picking up drastically and talking with my sister was a huge mental boost. 

We both put our headlamps on and this is when Mikala yelled at me to leave her and she will walk back into the aid station. Since my goal of being under 16 hours was LONG gone, I thought I'd heed her advice and try to finish asap. I left her and made it back to the 75 mile mark, finally feeling strong again. This 25 miles had taken about the same amount of time to finish as the first 50 miles, not something that I'm proud of.

I got to the aid station and I think mom was surprised to see me looking so good. I quickly downed another 2 cups of soup, took one to go, and headed back out. I wanted to try to finish under 21 hours, which would mean I had to complete this lap into about 6 hours, something I knew I could do since I felt so good. At this point, I knew I could manage to secure a 2nd place finish if I continued to feel this good. I took off and ran into a shadow of an animal with an oddly white was indeed a skunk. I was so thankful that it didn't spray all over the place, although it may have made me smell better than I currently did...Things were really feeling not bad. I was managing to run, my calves were cooperating, and I was much cooler than I had been during the heat of the day. I got back to the halfway point of the loop, got what I needed and did the 2.5 mile loop. Mom and Mikala I could tell were relieved that I was feeling better. I downed another 2 cups of soup and took one to go. 

With this, I headed out and made it to the final aid station before finishing the race. They all congratulated me and I informed them that I would not be doing a 5th lap. Shortly thereafter, I came to a copperhead. It was in the middle of the trail and was just looking at me. Fantastic. I run 94 miles, survive a potential heat stroke, and then potentially get killed by a snake. We both had a moment of just looking at each other. Do I kick a rock at it? Do I try to walk in the plants to the side? Do I bring back my hurdling skills (which definitely didn't exist at this point of the race)? I decided to just have a stare down. Finally the snake slithered its way off the trail. Snakes really aren't my thing, but giant, poisonous snakes in the middle of the woods in a completely destroyed state definitely aren't my thing. 

After saying goodbye to the snake I knew that I was going to make my desired time of sub 21 hours. I headed back to the trails and saw the beloved 1/4 mile to go sign. I was relieved. I continued onward and got to the finish.

To say I was relieved to have finished is an understatement. I thought I'd come into this race and blow away my fastest time of 17:04, but I was again reminded that these races don't always unravel how we plan or want them to. I am hugely relieved and blessed to have finished and finish second on a day that went anything but as planned. I later learned that Jeremy too had tanked and was 4 hours slower than the previous year. He put about 24 minutes on me. I think we both destroyed each other early on and we both paid our dues as the day went on. Overall I am pleased with my 20:40 finish. This year I managed to snag 2 firsts and 1 second, so I have no room to complain. Also, I think looking back, I'm not sure I would have been mad at myself for dropping, something that I didn't think I'd say. There truly is a fine line of pushing yourself and being unhealthily stupid about a decision. I was arguably the latter. 

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A huge thanks to Orange Mud for the opportunity to run this, Sherry and Ami for putting on a great event, all of the volunteers who selflessly gave of their time and of course my mom and sister who shock me with their willingness to help. This is for sure a selfish sport, but I have come to learn that the community of those on the trail and those behind the aid stations are there to support and encourage, something I think humans can get better at, myself included! I take these lessons with a grain of salt and try to incorporate them in my every day living. There is something gloriously wonderful about suffering and coming to a conclusion with loving, warm arms of people you care about. Although all of this pain is self-inflicted, there is much to be learned and I will continue learning more about myself and other humans through the dark valleys that this sport naturally produces.

Thank you all and hope this blog finds you well!


Monday, July 3, 2017

Black Hills 100: Tethering the Beast

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In my world of logic completing a 100 mile run in every state doesn't seem impossible, just highly idealistic. What this goal also means is picking up races and plane tickets to places most people most likely don't think about going. In this case that meant the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota. With this being the 10th undertaking of a 100 miler in my 10th state, I am still shocked that I knew people who lived in the area of the race and who could help out. I had graduated with Tori (then Zody) and ran track with her husband, Morgan Haudenschield. Being seven years since we've last connected I thought that I'd reach out to them. Not too surprising, they were more than emphatic to host and assist in my endeavor in tackling this beastly 100. Amazing. Now the logistics of getting to and from the airport were set, all while be in great company.

The Black Hills 100 was in its 7th annual running of the event. It isn't abnormal for this race to be over 90 degrees during the day. Hence, the finisher rate at this exposed, hot race typically ranges in just over 30% completion. The heat isn't even taking into consideration the rocky and technical terrain of the Centennial Trail that we would be on for the entire duration. This is an out and back race of 50 miles. This excited me as I have never done an out and back before. I was approaching this race from the angle that the first 50 miles would be strictly exploratory and the second half would be all business.The rest of the runners can thank me this year for bringing the Seattle weather with me. Conditions this year brought a high of 66 during the day and a low of 42 during the night. In full disclosure I wasn't too sad when I learned what the conditions were going to be like. Certainly I wasn't prepared to take on a 100 in that type of heat when I've had 0 heat training for the past 9 months. 

What was also unique with this race is that there were several other Orange Mud ambassadors running the race with me. I met Chad Hause who is part of OM's Dirt Unit and his family. Also at the start were Jeff, Sarah (who would be pacing), and Michael. Of course we had a group photo. At the start the nerves weren't necessarily going but with the 10 AM start, I knew that an all nighter was automatically going to happen. Thankfully the race directors had a sense of humor with the mascot of the race and had a goat all prepared and ready for the photo shoot. I was secretly hoping that finishers would get goat milk or meat (not milk in this case as it clearly was a male).

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After we all gathered and were ready at the start, the race directors let us go! Off we were! I started running with a group of five or six in the front. The first mile and a half was on pavement and allowed for the field to decide how they were going to run. Naturally I spoke with those in the pack with me. I came to find out that the only one who has run this was my fellow OM ambassador, Jeff. He made the recommendation that the first half is harder than the second half. Most of the climbing is done in the first half and the second half is more downhill. I continued to pick his brain and found out that he was certainly in shape and ready to take on this race. He had qualified for the Boston Marathon just 3 weeks ago by winning a marathon in Nebraska. His goals for this race were very lofty, 20 hours. However, given the conditions of the weather and his experience, I had no questions that he could get there. My goal going into this was of course to compete well, but most importantly, to finish. 

Jeff and I left the other 4 that were with us and made up our own ground. He and I were first and second, respectively.Of course, being mile 5 of the race, I wasn't too concerned with where I was currently at. One thing I've learned and learned well is that most 100 mile races don't start until the second half. It wasn't much later that he had to pull over and use the restroom. At this point I just left him. I didn't realize that I was going to be running solo for the next 95 miles. I came cruising into the first aid station at mile seven and felt really good. I refilled my bottles and quickly left before the rest of the field could get in.

Next step was to Bulldog. I remember it was this section that we cross I-90 and then ran what seemed like infinite pastures. It seemed odd to me that the Centennial Trail is going through pastures and cattle. I guess that is unique to South Dakota. Thankfully I never encountered any full charging bison on the journey. Something tells me this would have ended differently...I soon got to Bulldog and could see how this course was challenging. It was a technical, rocky trail. However the real kicker was the terrain in some sections. It was incredibly rocky and I could see the night section being problematic as I was likely going to be stumbling and tripping on the rocks from exhaustion from the earlier miles.

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After Bulldog it was on to Eagle Creek. It was in this transition that I decided to reapply cortizone cream for chaffing. As stupid and funny as this sounds, I was most nervous about the shorts that I was wearing. Prior to this, I had run 8/9 100's in a single pair of Adidas shorts that were arguably worn out long ago. However, they were perfect for chaffing. This was only the 2nd 100 miler that I was running outside of that pair of shorts. Consequently, I made sure to pack the cream and apply at the first hint of chaffing. The first 100 I ran had such extreme chaffing that I wanted to scream in the shower (not to get too graphic). Up to this point, my morale was pretty good. Mechanically everything felt tremendous. There were 0 issues. I quickly got into the aid station and there were quite a few people there, cheering. I definitely don't think that I'm a smiley runner, so hopefully the audience wasn't too offended when I kept my head down and kept going. It was at this aid station also that I picked up Hammer Gel. This is arguably an early indication of what was going to happen in the later miles. 

The flavor was Apple Cinnamon. It sounds amazing, right? Wrong. I knew traditionally that my stomach and Hammer do not get along. At Oil Creek 2 years ago I had the tropical flavor and dry heaved. This was a similar experience. I opened the delightfully sounding apple cinnamon and the journey down the esophagus was the equivalent of how I envision someone eating raw intestines from Fear Factor. I gagged, but someone kept it down. I guess if I was on Fear Factor I would have made it to the final round with the tarantulas on my face. As far as sugar contents, my body can only handle Gu and Pro Bars. Outside of this I don't have much success. With that said, I continued onward and got to the next aid station. My recollection of Crooked Tree was two older guys who took a huge liking to me (not in a creepy way). As soon as I got in, they were quickly coming to my aid and wanting pictures. I was hugely flattered but also confused why they wanted to be beside a sweating, gross smelling person. However, you can't always stop the paparazzi, so I let them go on. 

After Crooked Tree was arguably the most scenic part of the course. I left and started to climb more technical terrain. I remember more climbing here than any other section. Thankfully my suicidal training runs at Mailbox Peak in Washington have prepared me for any degree of climb. It was here that I looked over and saw the Black Hills in all their splendor. Cliffs for miles and miles. They are termed the Black Hills for the numerous Ponderosa Pines that cover the hillsides (so I read on a historic marker, not from my doctorate degree in Geography). They are exposed and from afar give off a black color. Hence, the name of Black Hills. It's always nice to have these vistas while taking on an endeavor, especially since I was solo. 

I then reached Dalton Aid Station. Again, there were lots of people and it was another mental boost to hear many compliments. They said I looked strong (and for once I felt that way). I quickly left and started towards Nemo. This was not my favorite part. I had to cross ATV trails. I met a few of them on the way. Thankfully they saw me and stopped. They were probably more confused than anything, but I suppose most people are when you talk to them about running 100 miles through the wilderness.

After going through this section I found Nemo! Nemo to my surprise and most likely to others was not a fish. It was a small little town with a couple of aid station workers. I quickly got more bananas and potatoes with salt and headed out. The next section was more gnarly ATV trail as I headed towards Pilot Knob. All I remember about this section was hitting a bajillion rocks, but thankfully never falling.As soon as I came into Pilot, everyone was shocked to see me so early. They quickly catered to my needs and got what I needed.Next step was the halfway point to Silvery City.

I think this session was my favorite. It started very gradual through pasture grass. I remember crossing a couple of cattleguards and seeing a few bikers who were very respectful. They either pitied me or were just ultra gracious and got out of the way. Hopefully it was the latter. I then started to get to the steepest hill of the section. I then transitioned onto the Deerfield trail. There was one steep climb that I distinctly remember. However, I then went down, down, down. This reconnected with the pastures and the next thing I saw was what looked like a lighthouse. It was a fantastic sign. I came into the halfway point in 8:41, far ahead of course record pace. I felt tremendous for being halfway. However, I knew that this was when things would slow down as the second half always does.The best news is that I got here in the daylight and still had quite a bit of sun left. 

I then started towards Pilot Knob again. I was about halfway through this section where I passed Jeremy, who has won this twice and was third once. He looked strong. I then passed Gia (the women's champion). The next events that unfolded weren't great.  By mile 55, I experienced some major stomach issues. I tried eating my strawberry flavored pro bar and my stomach was PISSED. It quickly punished me for making such a sinful decision. That bite came up with the partial quesadilla and banana that I was able to get down just before it. This was all done in front of the eventual men's 3rd place finisher. I'm not sure he wanted to watch that show, but he wasn't going to get an option. He stopped and asked if I was ok. I said I was great and advised he go on. Not good. This basically meant that my entire died of sugar was over. Of all the 100's I've done, this was no doubt the soonest that my stomach had quit on me. Just as a dog returns to its vomit, I thought I'd try to down a couple of more probars. I dry heaved these up too. Yup, this was 100% confirmation that all sugar intake was absolutely out of the picture for the rest of the race.

I remember passing Chad and then I was back at the aid station. Everyone was surprised to see that I was already there. I informed them I had bad stomach issues and went straight for the coke and broth. I downed two cups of broth and was on my way. The energy I derived was fantastic. I felt like superman for three miles and then the bonking came. Because I couldn't supplement the broth calories with sugar, I was strictly dependent on broth calories for 45 miles...considering everything mechanically was working flawlessly, I was very nervous that Jeremy was going to catch up as I literally wouldn't be able to produce any energy from food. I then got back to Nemo and turned the headlamp on. I ate two more cups of broth and was on my way. Again, the same story. I was good for three miles and then bonked terribly the next three. The beast of the Black Hills was tethering me in the most aggressive way, watching me fade step by step as my calories drained and I had nothing to sustain energy levels moving forward. My mind said yes, but my body said no with the caloric deficit.

I again passed more ATV's. At this point it was quite dark. They again stopped for me, but were probably more confused than the first go around. They were probably wondering what this person with a headlamp was doing in the early part of the night. I continued onward and noticed that the temperature was dropping substantially. By the time I got to Dalton Lake, it was an elderly couple manning it by themselves. They said that they were hoping to sleep but heard that I was likely coming in and didn't want to risk missing me. The mindset and willingness to help out from the volunteers will always impress me as long as I do this hobby. They sacrifice sleep to assist those who voluntarily punish themselves. They quickly got me my broth and I picked my OM long sleeve up. I took my broth and similar story, I was fine for the first 3 miles and then the bonking came back. The bad part is the bonking got worst and worst as I got to each aid station. Not surprising, as more miles were beginning to ad up. I sluggishly made my way to Crooked Tree.

The paparazzi never ceased to amazed me at this aid station. Despite being just 2 guys in the middle of the wilderness, they had a way to pick me up. They were taking bets on when I would come in. Unfortunately I disappointed both. One guessed I would arrive 30 minutes earlier than I did and the other was off by 15 minutes. I apologized that I failed them and then we all laughed. By this point it was midnight and I needed far more calories. I ate 3 cups this time and took one to go. It was the next section that was THE WORST. Getting to Eagle Creek was awful. The last half was all bonking and it was all uphill to the next aid station. All I could think of is how close the other racers must be coming. I felt like a hare all day but the wise tortoises were bound to catch me at any point as the tortoise typically wins.

I was drinking like a fish, but I was failing hardcore at eating like a horse. This is the general strategy to effectively get through an ultra (or so I hear). I guess I would make a good fish but a terrible horse. The bonking getting here was horrendous. Every step uphill felt like 75 pound weights on each leg as there was literally 0 energy propelling me upward. I desperately wished the first half was uphill when I had energy and the second half was downhill. I wasn't so lucky. I FINALLY made it to Eagle Creek and lost a ton of time to the course record. At this point I just wanted to sustain and get as close to it as I could.

Next step was Bulldog. This was mostly downhill, which was nice, but that didn't stop the bonking. I got around the bend and the aid station was there with no lights. I was two hours ahead of schedule so the lone worker was taking a nap on the truck bed. She shot straight up and made me broth. I ate 3 more cups and off I went. Next stop was to the first aid station. I remember that this is when the sun started to come up. I got there and she and her daughter got me more broth and encouraged me that it was only 7 more miles to the end. 

The sun coming up was a huge pick me up. It's amazing how sunlight pumps new energy into you despite pulling an all nighter. I remember regularly looking back to make sure I wasn't being chased. I kept the standard pace and was again bonking hardcore for the second half. It didn't matter much to me as I knew that I was so close to the end. I hit the pavement and continued that section for what seemed like forever. However, I could see the stadium with the Sturgis Mascot of a "Scooper" and couldn't be happier to have gotten there. Conveniently for me, they could scoop my energy deprived body off the ground as soon as I got to the end.

It was 5:20 am and the race directors were there to welcome me in. Ryan congratulated me and informed me that I ran the 3rd fastest time on the course in 19:20, just 22 minutes off the course record of 18:58. I later would find out that the 2nd place finisher would be the women's champion, Gia, who ran 22:16. The phantom telling me that I was closely being pursued isn't always a bad thing, it just isn't pleasant to live in a state of fear of being passed, especially late in the race. I won arguably the coolest award ever. It was a local bison head pained by local artists with a story talking about the tatanka (bison).

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This was alongside an awesome belt buckle.

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Overall, I am very pleased with the outcome. It was my 3rd best time on a 100 mile course. However, this course was more challenging than the other 2 100's where I ran faster. I need to learn the right sugars to eat during the day and figure out how to handle the stomach issues. If I can figure this out I think that I will perform even far better. 

A major THANK YOU to Morgan and Tori for taking care of all the logistics and providing fantastic company as I explored South Dakota. I'd rank this race as the 4th most difficult 100 I've done. It was an easier version of IMTUF in Idaho, but it had the technical terrain of HURT in some sections which made it challenging. Thank you to the race directors for putting on an amazing event and for having such memorable winner's awards. Lastly, thanks to OM and others that take the time to read this. Hopefully this was entertaining to some degree.


Nick Kopp