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

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