Two years ago, I was signed up for my first ultra, the Summer Buckeye Trail 50K, after recently being bit by the trail running bug. It was a humbling, difficult, yet fulfilling experience. Two short weeks later on the first weekend in August 2007, I volunteered at the finish line of the Inaugural Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run, northeast Ohio's first entry into the 100 mile race distance. I did so with two objectives in mind: 1) Support the local running community and those I knew participating and 2) To see people cross that finish line and thus witness their condition after covering 100 miles...to put the "nail in the coffin" of me ever considering such a crazy task. I left that finish line convinced that it wasn't for me. After a successful winter of running (I run best in the very cold temps), I ran the 100K distance all on asphalt at the Green Jewel 100K in the spring. After finishing and feeling like I had "more in the tank," I decided to give the '08 edition of Burning River a shot. (so much for that '07 BR100 finish line decision!) I trained the best way I knew how but ending up dropping out at Mile 55 after an ankle injury back at Mile 38 on the Carriage Trail. Immediately, I wanted revenge. However, I didn't want to wait 364 days to get it. I started the search for an earlier 100 miler in 2009 and with some "shopping around" and looking at the calendar, I came upon the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run, to be held on June 6/7, 2009. So that's how I got there. Don't ask me why I wanted to run 100 miles...I still have a hard time with that question. There is something addictive and incredibly powerful about pushing yourself beyond perceived limits and pushing through them...successfully.
Being that the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest is about 8.5 hours from my home in northeast Ohio, I decided to drive all day Thursday and then get out and see the course on Friday. I thought driving that long the day before wasn't wise and would create more anxiety. I arrived in southern Wisconsin (about 90min northwest of Chicago) on Thursday afternoon, checked into my hotel in Whitewater, WI, and took a short walk into town for some dinner. Whitewater is a short 10-15min drive from the race start/finish. Apparently, I was the only one arriving a day early because I didn't see another running soul anywhere. After a good night sleep, I spent Friday morning preparing drop bags, measuring out multi-hour portions of Perpetuem, and going through race strategy over and over again. Clearly, the anticipation was building. I ended up getting out and seeing nearly all of the course accessible by car. With a course that consists of a first out and back 100K (62.4mi), then another out and back of 38 miles on a different section and a course that constantly twists and turns, it didn't take long to see it all. More than just seeing the course, I wanted to see the location of the different aid stations so I could visualize them during the run. Breaking up the 100 mile distance into 3, 4, 5 mile chunks is much easier and being able to visualize where you are heading to next facilitates this. After seeing the course and conveniently running into Tim, one of the co-race directors, I headed back to the hotel before heading back out again for packet pickup at 4pm at the La Grange Country Store, located just down the road from the race start. I had planned to meet up with some others for dinner Friday night but I suddenly felt the need to be alone and focus mentally. The result was ordering a pizza then crashing for the night. My hotel had turned into a make-shift race headquarters by that time with nearly everyone with either their significant other or friends they were running with or being crewed by or paced. I packed everything up, loaded the drop bags in the car, and went to bed. Alarm was set for 3:45am.
The elephant sat squarely on my chest when I awoke on Saturday morning. Wow, NOW I feel the pressure, the anxiety, the anticipation of what's to come. I brewed a pot of espresso, had some cereal and a piece of fruit, took a shower (yea, this seems silly but it's tradition!), and was off to the start just after 5am for a 6am start. I often try to "set myself up" for multi-hour runs by listening to the type of music I want in my head during the run...on the way "to" the run. I never run with anything plugged in my ears and prefer to just immerse myself in the surroundings and be alone in my own thoughts. My choice for this day was Casting Crowns, a Christian contemporary band that is one of my favorites. Their music is incredibly worshipful, powerful, and so very selfless. As I listened to "Lifesong," a song that many love, the sun was cracking across the horizon issuing in the new day. I couldn't help but think I would see that sun cross the sky, set, and rise again before I slept again. Oh, what a journey is ahead!
The pre-race briefing was held promptly at 5:40am by Tim with last minute instructions. I strapped my timing chip to my ankle, placed my drop bags besides the signs marking each drop bag location, made one last phone call home with a "Talk to you tomorrow! I love you!" and I was set to go. The first five miles are through the Nordic Trails and as the name implies, are perfect for skiing in the winter. Think of wide grassy, rolling areas with endless twists and turns. Nothing technical at all in this section and a nice wide area to allow the field of participants to spread out and thin a bit. A nice touch was mile markers for the first 4 miles. This was a good way to make sure that I wasn't starting out too fast. Little did I know how much I'd love these markers on Sunday morning. At Mile 5 was the first aid station, Tamarack, and the reputation preceded the race about this aid station. The Gorski's run this AS and the reputation is more about later in the race, specifically when it falls at Miles 57, 67, and 95. Feeling fine, I grabbed a piece of fruit, topped off my Heed bottle, and got moving. The next section continued the rolling and introduced many pines and pine needles to run on. 2.5 miles later, we arrived at Bluff Rd. This was also a major aid station that would come alive later in the day. It was important to get what I needed here because the next full aid station wouldn't be for another 8 miles at Emma Carlin, the first drop bag location. As I headed out of Bluff, the trail turned to a more technical, rocky terrain and was heavily covered by the forest. I ran with a few other runners off and on through here and in particular, one lady from New Jersey who ended up winning the women's race in just over 22 hours on Sunday morning. She ran Burning River last year, as well. While running with her, I pulled out my laminated card which on one side had a picture of my wife and girls and on the other side had my aid station spreadsheet breakdown. Well, I must have not stuffed that card very well into my front pocket on my Nathan vest because when I went to grab it around mile 16, it was gone. ARGH!!! That really stunk. Luckily, I had studied the course so well, the spreadsheet loss wasn't too big a deal. Not having my girls to call on for inspiration...well, I guess my memory would have to fill that role. Coming into Emma Carlin at Mile 15.5, I felt really good. I grabbed some potatoes which I had trained with and quickly found that canned potatoes and fresh red-skin potatoes are worlds apart in terms of taste. Potatoes worked magic for me during my training but today, I wasn't taking another bite...just an adjustment to my race plan to deal with and move forward. I got into my drop bag, ditched my disposable camera (I didn't want to deal with it anymore), mixed up a new batch of Perpetuem, re-filled my Heed bottle, grabbed some solid foods at the aid station, and got myself moving. Emma Carlin was the first place for a couple of things. For one, those with a crew had chairs set up for them and provided for all their needs...nutritionally, emotionally, physically...you name it. The other thing was that even though I was running my planned pace, did everything to the letter, I felt totally sapped of energy. WHAT?! 15 miles in with temps in the 50s and I feel like crud?! I had done multiple back-to-backs in my training with multiple 30-milers and felt fine at the end of them. Now, I'm tapered, fully carbed up, ready to go, and my wheels fall off at Mile 15?! "Deal with it...and get your tail moving...now." Instead of dwelling on the huge surprise, I figured it would only last 5 miles or so then times would turn so I just focused on forward movement. Unfortunately, the next section would turn out to be my least favorite. Thankfully, we didn't have hot/humid temperatures because if so, we would have baked out there. From Emma Carlin to Highway 67 Aid Station (about 7-8 miles), it's rolling wide open prairie land. The grasses were at time higher than my waist (I'm 6' 2") and this could be a treacherous area, especially on the return trip around 40 miles. Well, the funk didn't disappear and I just continued on pace to Highway 67. Tim, the race director, was there and immediately came up to me to ask how I was. "Hanging in there, Tim. Thanks." I gathered some salt tabs, some fruit, filled the Heed bottle, and got out of there. I could tell I was spending far less time at these aid stations than others with a crew. Getting pampered is all well and good but it definitely adds to the time not moving forward. For me personally, I didn't see a benefit to having one so far. I was doing fine by myself. The next section was back into gorgeous scenery and full of tall pines. Hilly, rocky for sure, and a nice break from the mundain open prairie land. In this section, I came upon a fellow runner who had just taken a nasty fall in front of me. A rock tripped him up and he broke the fall with his face on another rock. That was the first blood I had seen for the day. I wished him the best of luck and kept on moving. At about mile 26, I arrived at Highway ZZ Aid Station. It's actually only steps away (through the woods) to the 31.2/50K turn-around at Scuppernong, but instead of taking the short way, the course is another 5 miles through the toughest section of the whole course (in my opinion). Technical, rocky, "Buckeye Trail-like," hilly...actually, just my cup-o-tea!!! Arriving at 50K in 6hrs, 20min, I was ready to make some changes...quick. First off, get the Nathan vest the heck off my back. I had trained extensively in this vest and never had an issue with shoulder/back pain or soreness. It carries 1.5L of water and provides storage for the Shot Bloks I was carrying. I also had my North Face jacket stuffed in the back expecting the predicted thunderstorms. Well, this pack was giving me those pains that I never had before. This made no sense! I trained with it!!! Off it went and I took the jacket out, wrapped it around my waist, and used the pocket in the jacket for storage along with my zippered pocket on my Mizuno shorts for my Shot Bloks. I also changed into a new, fresh VR Training tech tee, and hit the trail. I also doused myself with bug spray before leaving and also witnessed more crews pampering runners and also some very long hugs...definitely made me miss home. Heading out, I was praying for rain. "Lord, please...just pour down some rain!" I didn't care about getting soaked, mud, or anything that the rain would bring. I love running in the mud and getting wet. To me, it's like running in air conditioning and it keeps me cool. Well, guess what...it rained for the next 7 miles! Thank you! The way back, I started feeling a little better, although not fully myself...still wondering when the funk would fully disappear. I continued taking my Shot Bloks every 45 minutes to ensure a steady flow of electrolytes into my system. I didn't wear my Garmin GPS at all because it's battery would never last the entire race and I also didn't want to know my pace or exact distance. Instead, I wore my old, 11 year old Nike Triax watch and set the timer to go off every 45min to remind me to take a Blok. I went between Black Cherry (caffiene-infused) and Margarita (added sodium). Basically, I took the high sodium ones when it had been awhile since I had any salt tabs. I kept on truckin' and time started to pass a little faster and before I knew it, I was in the prairie lands again heading towards Emma Carlin at mile 47.3. Arriving there, I did the traditional re-fuel and got moving. On the way out, I clinged onto two 100K runners and stuck with them. When they walked, I walked. When they ran, I ran. Good conversation, too. I hung with them for about 8 miles or so but as my bathroom breaks increased (a very good sign during a 100 miler), I lost them. Not to worry, though. My funk was drifting way...finally. Arriving back at Bluff Rd, hot chicken noodle soup was at the ready so I took a cup, a seat, and enjoyed every last bite and sip of it. Wow, now THAT hit the spot. I wolfed it down knowing I had to get moving. At about this point, I saw the leaders of the race...they were heading out on the 38 mile out-n-back...at about mile 70 for them, and mile 55 for me. They had pacers, looked effortless, and were cruising. I continued on another 2.5 miles to Tamarack and true to rumors, they had come alive! I quickly asked: "Who's Ian?!" Ian told me via e-mail to ask for the Brit when I came through. He sprung to life, introduced himself, and showed me the spread of food they had prepared. Some of the offerings: burritos, baked beans, grilled cheese, soup, lots of salty snacks, fruits, M&Ms, little sausage links, coke, mountain dew...oh so good. I chose to partake in the sausage link (a bit spicy) and took a burrito for my trip out. The idea was to grab what I needed and get moving. No need to sit and chat when I could be covering more distance. That burrito was SO good! By far, the best food on the course hands down. After filling my nutritional needs, I headed back onto the Nordic Trails for the last 5 miles into the Start/Finish area. At 8pm, the 38 mile fun run started so a swarm of runners passed me heading out into the night. I didn't get into the 100K aid station until around 8:40pm so I missed that start. Arriving back at Nordic, finish line observers and the race directors were either shouting "100K finisher!!!!" or "100 miler heading back out!!!!" accompanied with cheers. Tim, again, was very gracious and encouraging to me. Night was falling all around me at this point. I pulled over my drop bag, changed into my long-sleeve Akron Marathon black tech tee, and cracked open a can of Starbucks Doubleshot. I hadn't trained with this before but I assumed I'd need some pick-me-up at this point. I had another cup of soup as well, donned my Princeton Tec headlamp and headed into the night at 8:52pm. All of a sudden, I felt alive and ready to rock out the last 38 miles. Nocturnal, you think? Only the night will tell...