As I contemplated my running goals for 2022 I knew that one thing I wanted was to attempt a race distance over 50 miles again. I hadn’t completed a race over 50 miles since my Savage 100 race in 2019 and it was about time I get back to some longer distances. As I was attempting the Tuscobia 80 on bike my wife was graciously signing me up for the Kettle 100K so that I didn’t end up on the waitlist. Overall, it sounded like a great plan. I hadn’t done a June ultra before and figured it would be nice to get the big race of the year out of the way early. With the winter months slipping by, it was time to get in some concerted training and start taking this seriously.
Overall, my training cycle fell into the category of “adequate”. I managed a few runs in the 18-21 mile range, and managed to stay mostly consistent with my training plan. I wasn’t knocking out any speed records, and I certainly missed some runs that I should have done, but overall it wasn’t terrible. I went into the race feeling pretty decent physically. A good solid taper before the race really helped give my body some needed rest, and when I lined up last Saturday, I felt physically ready (or at least as physically ready as a worn down 48 year old runner can feel).
The mental game was a different challenge. As I progressed through my training cycle I was incorporating a lot more biking, as well as general exploring and adventuring. I’m also coming off a very active 6 years in the trail running world and have been feeling a great deal of burn-out with the sport over the past 9 months. As race day got closer I wasn’t excited. I had fallen into a malaise about the entire thing and felt like I had obligated myself to something I really wasn’t that interested in doing anymore.
In the months leading up to the race I contemplated just dropping to the 50K distance and being happy with that. I had a really fun race at the Sugar Badger Half-Marathon a few weeks before and was still coming down off the high of that weekend. I felt like I was really losing my mojo for big, long, events, and my attitude was showing it. However, just like during an ultra, how you feel in the middle doesn’t always dictate how you’ll feel at the end. There are highs and lows, and I have enough experience in this sport to know I should just stick to the plan and do what I can with what I’ve set as my goals.
We packed up the camper and headed out for the 5 hour drive to the start line on Friday. We went right to packet pickup and while there ran into friends we knew, and just like that my mood started to change. Being around the people, and the race environment, did wonders to get my head back into a better place. I went to bed on Friday night feeling much better about everything and ready to do what I could the next day.
One of the biggest challenges at Kettle is the time cut-off. The 100 mile race has a strict 30 hour cut-off and I knew it was enforced hard. The website listed an 18 hour cut-off for the 100K, however, many results from previous years showed that people were finishing well after the 18 hour time. I assumed that since the 100 mile race was going on for another 11 hours (100K starts an hour later) that I wouldn’t be denied a finish, but I set my plan up specifically for a 17 hour and 45 minute finish time. I didn’t really want to find out what happens after 18 hours, but I knew it would be really close, given my usual speed at these distances.
The race has copious amounts of aid stations and crew spots, so I mentally broke the race up into different sections to keep myself on pace. I set some aggressive goals for pace times for the first 20 miles, and then backed it down at the end. Unfortunately, as we’ll recount below, things don’t always go precisely to plan.
Nordic Loop 1
The race begins with a journey though some beautiful double-wide ski trails that undulate through stunning pine forests. This section starts flat, but gets very hilly in the middle. I was feeling good so this wasn’t too big of a deal, but I knew I’d be facing this again on the way back. There’s one aid station part-way through, but since I was doing well I just grabbed a quick drink and some chips and kept moving. I arrived at the Bluff aid station ahead of schedule, feeling good. I saw my friends Jodee and Craig volunteering and they gave me encouragement as I headed out into the next section.
Bluff to McMiller
Leaving the Bluff Aid Station you immediately realize why it’s called “bluff”. You meet up with the Ice Age Trail just past the station and start climbing up some technical and hilly singletrack to reach a beautiful overlook. You don’t stay up high for long through and soon I was descending down into the flatlands again.
The majority of the race is on the Ice Age Trail which is a long trail through Wisconsin. In this portion of the state the trail is pretty tame and easy to hike, with only occasional difficult sections. I knew that as soon as I got past some of the hills around Bluff I’d get more runnable terrain.
As I went through the Horseriders aid station I grabbed a few things to eat and downed some Coke. Since I don’t do caffeine this turned out to be rocket fuel for me and I hit the first prairie section with gusto. I found myself running well throughout the next few sections and kept myself going with positive thoughts about how I knew I could get this done.
The Natalie’s aid station came and went with lots of little kids to cheer me on. I hit a section I believe is called “The Meadow”, which is feared by most people who run Kettle. It’s open and exposed, and normally Kettle is HOT. However, this year we lucked out. It was overcast the entire day with a high temps in the low 70°F range. We even got a light rain shower in the afternoon. Needless to say, I was incredibly thankful at our weather luck this year.
After the meadow area there’s a turn to enter the McMiller Sporting Center area. Turns out one of the sports is shooting and the air was filled with the constant sounds of gunfire. It was insane how intense and constant the gunfire was. If you’re someone who is triggered by these sounds I’d recommend putting in your headphones after the meadow and cranking up the music.
The McMiller area is also another ski area and the undulating hills returned. I plodded through as best I could and arrived at the Ten Junk Miles aid station as I was reaching the end of my first mental high of the day. My crew of Mike B. and my wife (Lisa) met me there and took care of me, and got me back out on course quickly. I chatted with the TJM crew a bit, got some encouragement, and pushed ahead.
McMiller to ZZ
It was in this section that I experienced my first low of the day. After 20 miles of matching my pacing goals exactly I was starting to doubt that I could keep it up much longer. I knew I had programed in a fade later in the day, but it meant that I would need to push through the flat sections faster than I planned in order to make up for a deeper fade than anticipated.
I tried to put it all out of my mind and just keep moving and soon I hit the Wilton Road aid station. I was ready for pick-me-up so I drank some more Coke in hopes of another burst of energy. I headed back out into a mostly flat section again and tried to will the legs to move faster than they wanted.
At the Highway 67 aid station Mike came to meet me again and did a great job ensuring sure I got in and out as quickly as I could. By this point I was starting to deal with oncoming traffic from the racers ahead on their way back. It was fun to see friends on their homeward journey and I got to greet many of them with a smile. It was at 67 I also ran into Luke who was crewing for Andy and so we got to chat for a while and I was able to get an update on how he was doing.
The section between 67 and Hwy ZZ is only a couple miles but felt mostly uphill. I pushed forward as best I could and soon enough reached the ZZ aid station just a little behind schedule. There was some confusion about where I could meet crew around this area, and because of that I ended up doing the lollipop around Scuppernong before I got to see them again.
This lollipop at the end of the out-and-back was one of the delights of the course. It was also the hardest section. The first part of the loop transitions into gnarly singletrack that is rocky and rooted, reminding me strongly of the Superior Hiking Trail. There were massive hills and switchbacks to climb, and technical downhills that took me forever to navigate. But… it was beautiful and stunning. Being in this section lifted my spirits, despite the fact that I was losing time on my goal with every switchback.
About halfway through the loop the trail dumped out onto a nice wide state park style trail. This was our reward for the first section being so tough and I tried to take advantage of it as a best as I could. I did a bit of running, but was mostly just ready to meet my crew and eat the Subway sandwich I ordered. Eventually I arrived at the Scuppernong parking lot which was being used as a crew station for the race. Mike and Lisa met me there and Lisa helped clean my feet for a sock change while I scarfed down a 6” veggie sub.
I sat for too long and when I went to get up my body had already stiffened. I knew I couldn’t do that again. I grabbed my poles and starting trying to hike out the stiffness as quickly as I could. I passed back through the ZZ aid station, only stopping long enough to get something to drink and began the journey back to the finish.
ZZ to McMiller
As I hit the Ice Age Trail again my body began to loosen and I felt myself being able to run. I knew the section to Highway 67 would be downhill so I took advantage of it as best I could. I had left ZZ almost 30 minutes behind schedule and knew that I had to do whatever I could to make up that time in the upcoming flat sections.
I arrived at Highway 67 again and Mike helped me get situated. I had to take care of some bathroom and lube issues, but tried to be as efficient as possible with my time. Back on course I pushed as best I could to run. I took advantage of the flat terrain and knocked off some 14 minute miles before arriving back into the hilly trails of the McMiller area.
As I came into the aid station around mile 45 I was in another low. I had made up some lost time, but I knew it probably wasn’t going to be enough to beat 18 hours. My crew did their job to get me back out on course and I did my best to hide my mental struggles. I know that this is just a part of ultras. The highs and the lows all come and go and you can’t let your race be defined by how you feel in one specific moment.
I said goodbye to the TJM crew who gave me some encouraging words and I started the plod back to the Bluff aid station where Mike would be joining me to pace the final section.
McMiller to Bluff
These sections passed uneventfully, except for a brief moment of light rain. It was a welcome respite even though we hadn’t seen the sun all day long. The first section of flat passed by quickly and I tried to run as much as I could, but by body was getting more and more tired.
I told myself (and texted my crew) that I would try to power hike the section between Natalie’s aid station and Horseriders so as to save my strength for the final push to the finish with Mike. In retrospect, this probably was one of the few errors I made during the day. My stomach wasn’t wanting food at this point in the race and that wasn’t going to get better. Instead of resting my legs in this section I should have pushed a bit to take advantage of the flats while I still had energy in my system. My energy tank probably wasn’t going to be overflowing for the rest of the race.
I hit the Horseriders aid station just after dark and tried to eat a bit of food before tacking the bluff section again. At this point the combination of tired legs, darkness, and technical trail, meant I had some of my slowest miles of the race. I was well behind where I wanted to be, even with the pace fade I had calculated in. I just kept plugging along, put on a podcast, and did what I could.
It was in this section that I made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to make 18 hours. I had no assurance that I’d still get a buckle and an official time, but I had to be OK with this and complete the race as strong as I could.
Soon I hit the high point of the overlook and knew I wasn’t far from seeing my crew one more time.
Nordic Loop 2
At the Bluff aid station I ate what little I could and had a little Coke again to try and get one last pick-me-up. One of the volunteers told me I better get moving as I only had two hours left, and for a brief moment I felt very demoralized. I knew that given where I was at physically, two hours wasn’t going to happen in this section. I quickly put that out of my mind and focused on what I did have. I was going to finish the distance and get to spend a couple hours with my friend Mike, hiking in the woods on a beautiful evening.
I quickly made peace with the situation again and we headed out. I attempted a bit of running, but the legs were pretty much done. Mike was prepared to try and make a push for 18 hours, but I told him I’d rather just move strong and be content that it will be what it will be. I’d rather enjoy this last section then end up pushing too hard and truly fall apart. In fact after we headed out we got passed by another runner who was moving fast, but within a couple miles he had crashed and burned and we caught up to them. They were barely moving, and it was then that I knew I made the right call.
My watch started dying in this section and so my GPS tracking was way off. I think the constant tree cover through much of the race drained the battery faster than expected. Or it just crashed a bunch. Either way we had to rely on Mike’s watch to keep track of where we were. He showed that we were moving well, doing around 18 minute miles. I was in good spirits and we got to enjoy the evening.
As we approached the finish line I made one final attempt at a run and crossed in 18:30:43. The race director congratulated me and handed me my buckle, confirming that I was still an official finisher. I thanked her profusely for being accommodating, and then proceeded to take some pictures with my crew and my new piece of hardware.
Since it was 1:30am we didn’t hang out too long at the finish, but headed back to the camper. I wiped down as best I could but the post-race chills had set in so I quickly got myself under some covers and attempted to sleep. Rolling over in the night was difficult, but I managed a solid 5-6 hours of sleep before we packed up the camper and began the journey home.
I knew going into this race that 18 hours was going to be a stretch for me, based on past performances and the knowledge of my usual pace. Having never seen the course I made some educated guesses on a plan and tried to hold to it as best I could. In the end I was too aggressive for too long at the start of my plan, and secondly, I didn’t account for enough aid station time (especially with how many aid stations there are in this race). However, if I had actually accounted for all of that I would have seen that 18 hours was most likely not going to happen before I even started. That knowledge would have probably caused me to drop to the 50K race or just skip the race all together. I’m glad I didn’t.
I think there were a few places in the course I could have pushed a little harder, and a few aid stations I should have just marched right on through. But overall, that still wouldn’t have quite gotten me to my goal either. Despite not making 18 hours, I’m still happy with how everything turned out and I have no regrets. I executed my plan to the best of my ability and know that I did the best that I could for my first trip back to the 50+ mile distance.
It’s not worth my time to hyper-analyze and perseverate over what could have been. I had a great day out in the woods with great people and beautiful course. I got what I needed out of the event, and that’s all I can ask for.
Now it’s time for a bit of rest. Apart from a bike race over July 4th weekend, I’ll be taking it easy this summer and getting some long delayed things taken care of that will keep me laid up a bit. I might jump into something in the fall, but the next big thing on the calendar won’t be until Tuscobia 80, giving it yet another shot.