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Title:Kettle Moraine 100K
Date:Saturday June 7th, 2008
Author:Kirk Hilbelink
There’s a popular tiding shared by those who have completed a long ultra with those who are considering one: “You're never the same again”. If being reduced from a confident skyrunner to a blubbering mass of sweat and drool qualifies, then I suppose the message was received loud and clear. The disintegration took place at this year’s Kettle Moraine 100 in La Grange, WI. Several factors reinforced my decision to tackle such an extraordinary event: The race start was only a few miles from my childhood home with the race date coinciding closely with both my son’s first birthday and a memorial service for a loved one. Aspen and I decided to take some vacation time and spend it with family, while touring the scenic byways of NE, IA, MI and WI. This trip alone deserves its own post, but I’ll reserve that discourse for another time. Nevertheless, the events leading up to the race would resurface as I considered the miles ahead of me during some of the most dire mental and physical challenges I've ever faced in my forty years of life.

Our first destination was a small country church in Reading, MI to attend a memorial service for my nephew Rowan, who was born prematurely on February 17, 2008 and died the following day. The service was brief and subdued, and the weight of cradling my own healthy son while my sister and her family openly suffered over the loss of theirs once again brought forth a flood of mixed emotions.

We were able to spend some time with my family before moving on through MI, with Mom joining Nick in the backseat and providing limitless entertainment for the little guy at every waking moment. Our travels brought us to Holland, home of my alma mater, where we spent a couple days with my Auntie Ann and Uncle Gary and family, marking the last day of pleasant weather for the entire trip. Eventually, we made our way north along the Lake Michigan coast, into the Upper Peninsula and then south into WI to my hometown of Elkhorn, where my parents still reside.

On Friday afternoon, the day before the race, I was posting Kettle webcast info on my blog when I received a somewhat frantic cell call from last year’s 100-mile winner, Mark Tanaka. I had offered him a place to stay while seeking a repeat win, which he unexpectedly accepted. He was still at O’Hare Airport and itching get to WI and into race mode. Shortly after the call, the wail of a tornado alarm plastered the neighborhood. I hadn’t heard one of these since I was a kid!

Mark arrived around dinnertime, and immediately asked for a glass of water, then a refill. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this guy's really thirsty’. I soon learned about his version of heat training, which involved a 2-hour drive in a Jetta with the heat on, dressed in heavy sweat clothes. Given the recent work schedule he had posted on his popular blog, it appeared he was preparing for this race like a student cramming for a test. Items succumbing to Mark’s ensuing caloric free-for-all included a couple grilled Sheboygan brats and a hefty slice of ice cream pie. For a little guy, he had quite an appetite! I broke my ‘No Spicy Food before Race Day’ rule and enjoyed a brat, too. Oh, so fatty and wholesome. After the meal, Mark, my Dad and I drove up to the La Grange General Store to collect our race packets, where Mark was instantly transformed into a celebrity by Race Director Timo Yanacheck and several others involved in the registration process. It was great to view first-hand the positive impression he had made in the 2007 event and how warmly they received the reigning champion.

We made a brief visit to the Nordic Hiking and Ski Trail to survey the race start before the mosquitoes forced a hasty retreat to the car. Casing my last race involved sand, cacti, and exposed bedrock cliffs; this was chest-heaving humidity, poison ivy and skeeters. What a contrast, and an extreme I was willing to accept. Once home, the night ended quickly for us trailwarriors, I to my old bedroom, and Mark to one of my sisters’ bedrooms, since converted to a sewing niche. I hoped the dolls and frilly dresses didn’t overly threaten his masculinity.

Just after 5AM, Mark and I left the house for Nordic, the morning’s glow heavy with water vapor. The race was still an hour away, and I already felt as if I were breathing through a wet sock. Upon reaching the parking lot, the pre-race furor was in full swing. I emptied my race bag, slipping on my hydration vest and loading it with Shot Bloks, Vitalyte servings, and the BlackBerry. I had decided to spare the iPod and place all of my music on the BB, thus ridding myself of few more ounces of redundant weight. My Dad arrived in an RV shortly before 6AM, and I handed him what was left of my race supplies, including a printout showing my expected times of arrival at each of the crew-accessible aid stations. Just in case, I had also prepared two drop bags for the Emma Carlin (Miles 15.5 and 47.3) and Scuppernong (Mile 31.4) aid stations. Mom, Aspen and Nick were to arrive later at Emma Carlin.

The race kicked off amidst a chorus of cheers, and a mass of 100K and 100-mile runners made their way through a grassy area, slightly more treacherous than a local farmer’s back forty. I took a few minutes to find my stride, which was metered by a Podrunner mix that may have been too aggressive for these conditions. After a couple miles, the hills began to take on a more distinct shape, for which the acronym PUDs (pointless up and downs) proved to be an accurate descriptor. Pointless or not, I enjoyed this section since it culminated many miles of training in the foothills where I live. The downhills were carefree, and to the average flatlander I may have looked like a crazed lunatic, flailing down each hill as if trying to outrun a landslide.

This unfettered behavior would not pass without recourse, however. Around Mile 3, I felt a twinge of pain on the outside of my left knee, and I remembered having this same sensation a few days after Gateway. I had been tending to this other hotspot on the inside of the knee, which magically disappeared a couple days before the race, and I wondered if they were somehow related. Nevertheless, I ignored the issue and carried on.

(Note: Until the splits are posted on the race website, times are approximate)

I arrived at Tamarack (Mile 5.1) at 44:22, already 10 minutes ahead of schedule. A short while later I reached Bluff (7.4) with a few more minutes in the tank. My Dad was waiting on the back end of the aid station, along with another dozen or so spectators. ‘Sixth place!’ he shouted as I strode by.

Since I was carrying about fifty ounces of water in my pack, plus twenty more in a handheld, I didn’t spend much time at either Tamarack or Bluff, topping off my bottle at each oasis, including the unmanned Horseriders (12.3). From here to the next aid station, I passed a few more runners, including Charles Corfield from Boulder, who is known for his well-paced, intelligent racing style, and Dave Wakefield from Topeka, KS and Paul Schoenlaub from St. Joseph, MO, who appeared to be running together. Dave mentioned they were sponsored by Salomon, and we talked shop for a while. I was silently envious of their sponsorship since I run in Salomons but may no longer be able to afford them.

I cruised into Emma Carlin (15.5) at 2:24:30 (-15:00), and as I expected, I had arrived before any of my family. I was so distracted by their absence that I forgot about the drop bag waiting with fresh supplies, and I passed through the aid station without stopping. I must have triggered an exodus because four or five runners appeared behind me as I left the area. All of them had been somewhat rested and easily passed me, including brothers Joel and Mark Dziedzic, of West Bend, WI. As the others pulled ahead, Joel and I exchanged the usual pleasantries, before I felt I should back off of my pace. I watched as the 'peloton' assumed various incarnations for the next couple miles until it permanently disappeared into the foliage.

Around Mile 18.7 I entered the prairie. I had been warned about this section, that there’s no shade and the sun’s heat forces humidity into unbearable digits as it evaporates the headwaters of the Scuppernong River. It was painful to learn that the warnings were quite accurate. The humidity was so harsh that my cache of Shot Bloks began to ooze through the mesh pocket of my vest. The only redeeming qualities of this no-man’s land was its uniformity and views of the adjoining forest. Soon I began to recognize my surroundings and realized that I was now running on a section my Dad, Nick and I had snowshoed the previous Christmas. That day, the snow was heavy and wet, and we returned to the car thoroughly soaked. I was sopping wet on this second visit, too, but not in the manner I would have preferred.

The familiar terrain signaled that I was nearing the Highway 67 aid station (23.9). I caught up to Joel, who complained of feeling tired. I urged him on and then attempted a strong clip into the parking lot at 3:53:23 (-20:00). But the wind left my sails once I realized I had missed yet another family connection. I grew frustrated and almost angry at the time. I deeply needed their involvement, if only something as simple as an encouraging shout or familiar face.

I took some time at the County ZZ aid station (26.5, 4:20, -17:00), eating bananas and other fruit as a kind elderly gentleman filled my hydration bladder. Charles arrived shortly thereafter and spent little time at the sanctuary, wishing me well as he moved on. I turned to follow behind him when a sharp, searing sensation stopped me in my tracks. I could not bend my left leg. Then it became painfully clear, the twinge I felt at Mile 3 had morphed into something serious, only I hadn’t stopped long enough at any of the aid stations for it to take hold.

I decided to limp forward, every other step forcing me to grunt loudly and absorb incredible pain. Eventually, the debilitating feeling retreated to where I could manage a slight shuffle. However, the downhills were filled with more limping and grunting, and reaching the base of each hill felt like coming to the water’s surface after a turn on the high dive. It was exhilaration, not in a delightful way, but a twisted, panicked way.

Around Mile 28, the first of the relay runners came into view, looking strong. He had covered only about three miles, so it was to be expected. A couple more passed, and I cheered them on as my own form quietly unraveled. My pace had slowed in the heat, and the knee pain started to creep into other parts of my body. At Mile 29 I came to a complete stop. The throbbing was such that I didn’t know how I was going to make it to the next station, much less another 34 miles. Instead of getting customarily angry with myself, I broke down. As the tears began to collect and merge with the rest of the fluids that were rapidly leaving my pores, I once again forced the stricken leg forward to emulate some sort of walking motion. On a short straight section of the trail I turned to see Joel slowly approaching. When he came alongside me, I explained my predicament, and he offered up a couple ibuprofen tabs. I took them gracefully and thanked him in the most convincing manner I could muster. Little did he know that those two little pills literally carried me into the next aid station.

I arrived at Scuppernong (31.4) at 5:29, coincidentally close to my predicted split time of 5:30. My family was there, as were many others, cheering the incoming runners. Mom was sitting with Nick, who broke into a smile when he recognized that the raggedy-looking corpse kissing his forehead was his father. I tried my best to collect myself in view of so many strangers, although I was a bit disoriented and couldn’t convey to Aspen what I needed. She attempted to get me on a scale, and if it had been working properly I may have realized that I was severely dehydrated. I walked over to the aid station table shirtless, unaware that I was wearing a heart rate monitor that had been modified using a couple of my wife’s bra straps! Despite my incoherency I was able to scan the aid station table for anything that looked appetizing, settling on a handful of bite-sized PayDays, I inhaled these and grabbed some more, then returned for a third serving. (Note to self: PayDays). A lively aid station worker suggested putting ice in my pockets, and I thought, Why not? Into my pockets it went.

During this time, I could feel my composure returning, and the ibus continued to do their job. I slipped on a dry shirt and replaced and refilled all of my gear, including more Shot Bloks (in a Ziploc this time) and a new set of Vitalyte servings. As this course was an out-and-back, I had resolved to revisit the County ZZ aid station, where I would reevaluate my condition before deciding if I should drop out. Aspen asked ‘So where do you want us next?’ to which I blurted, ‘Every aid station you can get to. Please.’ I wasn't thinking clearly at this point, and I needed someone to carry a bit of my mental load.

I grabbed a handful of ibuprofens before I left, downing a few before staggering back into the woods. The mosquitoes were becoming an increasing nuisance, and I expect that they were always there, only I was now moving slow enough for them to catch me. About thirty minutes into my return trip, that first dose of drugs began to wear off, and the last tenuous layer of comfort would fall away. The miles were slowly tearing me down again and I felt I had nothing left to prevent the slide. Then, in a brief moment of clarity, I decided I was going to finish the race. I thought of my sister and her husband, the intense grief they were enduring, and I knew that my suffering was nothing compared to what they were going through. I could manage a few more hours of this and be able to celebrate at the end of the day, while their struggles would last a lifetime.

At around Mile 34, I returned to the rolling singletrack section before the County ZZ aid station, complete with the only true switchbacks of the entire course. I began to experiment with the downhills by pointing my left toe outward and using the bad leg as a crutch. This seemed to alleviate the impact somewhat, although I was still clenching my teeth on every other footfall. The second helping of ibuprofen had yet to engage my nerve endings, and I concluded then that I would never use those generic orange ones again.

I arrived at ZZ (36.4) at 6:47 (+27:00), to the concerned smiles of Aspen and Dad. Aspen was starting to get the hang of this crewing thing and immediately took my pack and refilled the hydration bladder. I settled into a camping chair and drank a couple handhelds-worth of ice water, while chatting with a few of the race supporters. One of them was a man waiting for the pastor of his church to arrive. He said he was pacing him for the final 38 miles in the 100-mile event, and I wished him and the preacher well. What I would give for a pacer right now, I thought to myself. I handed Dad my Blackberry; the battery was about dead and the sweaty headphone cords were becoming a distraction. Easing out of the chair, I turned to Dad and showed him the names of my sister’s family I had written on my bib the night before. I could barely utter the words ‘I’m running for them', before my emotions forced me to turn away. Leaving the aid station, I passed the pastor’s pacer and asked him to pray for me, knowing he’d understand exactly where I was coming from and where I was headed unless things started to turn around.

A few minutes later I caught up to Laura Waldo from Ludington, MI, one of the cities we had just visited the week before. She joked that her hometown wasn’t much of a tourist attraction, and I struggled to recall anything remarkable about the area, possibly confusing it with Harbor Springs or Manistee. Regardless, it was a relief to have her company, and it distracted me from my other issues for a couple miles.

I rolled into the Hwy 67 aid station (39) at 7:26 (+31:00). Aspen was waiting with supplies, while Mom and Dad attended to Nick. I pulled off of the course and made my way to the aid table to research alternative fuels. As I collected a few chunks of fruit from one of the serving plates I told Aspen that if I had to eat one more Shot Blok, I was gonna barf! Mom and Dad showed up with Nick, and Dad remarked about how much better I looked than at the last aid station. Mentally, I was already at the finish line, accepting my kettle; physically, I was just a shell, hiding a temple that continued to crumble.

Exiting the Hwy 67 area forced me back into prairieland, and that’s when the incessant tune popped into my head. Over and over it played, and there was nothing I could do to ignore it. I tried singing another song out loud, hoping to cancel out the offending melody, only to stand by helplessly as the passage worked its way back into my psyche. I was missing the iPod terribly.

The open fields temporarily gave way to a short forested section, and a few spectators relaxing in lawn chairs started cheering as I passed by. I assumed I was at the Antique Lane station, with only three miles to Emma Carlin. I would be cruelly mistaken when I approached the real Antique Lane aid station (44.2) thirty minutes later. Defeated, I remembered that the previous station (Wilton Road, 41.5) had been added shortly before the race and after I had taped my splits to my handheld. Emma Carlin was still another three miles away.

I stopped to fill my bottle at one of the water containers. Bleccchhh. The water tasted terrible and smelled like a bayou. Were my other senses beginning to fail me now? Who spiked the punch bowl? A few more runners passed through briskly, and my surroundings began to take on a pleasant fuzzy white outline. I thought for a moment, ‘This is it. This is the best I can do’ and looked for a place to rest a while. There were no chairs and no shady spots in the grass, so I huddled under the table for a few minutes, contemplating my not-so-graceful exit. An SUV parked about a hundred feet down the road started and slowly drove away. In my altered state I assumed they were my last lifeline, and I would have to cover these next three miles on my own if I wanted to drop out of the race.

Around Mile 45, I caught up to a man who was moving much slower than I. As is customary when I approach someone late in a race, I asked if he was OK, and he implied having some chest pains, wisely deciding to take it easy into Emma Carlin, where he was planning to drop. I asked if he’d mind if I walked with him, remembering the tragedy that had occurred at this year’s Collegiate Peaks. Not that I was in much better shape at the time, but I couldn’t leave him behind with good conscience. I learned that his name was Craig and that he had turned in a few strong 100-mile finishes in previous years, but today was just not his day. We conversed in typical trailspeak – jobs, kids, weather, etc. Weather. The clouds were beginning to muddy the skies in the direction we were walking. The occasional muffled thunderclaps countered our conversation, and behind them, an ominous dull rumble like the sound of an avalanche under a blanket. The murmur created this swirling, cows-flying-through-the-air image as I recalled yesterday’s tornado alarm.

Craig and I rolled into the parking area at Emma Carlin (47.3, 10:08:21, +1:43), where my cheering section had grown to include my sister Amy and two of her kids, Summer and Emma. I made my way to the aid station, where my split time could be recorded. ‘Do you want some meat?’ Aspen asked meekly as she held out a pre-packaged slab of sliced turkey. ‘Meat. Yes!’ She started rolling each slice into a cigar and I ate three or four of these like a wedding crasher mobbing a tray of hors d’oeuvres. I spent a few minutes chatting with my family before the impending storm began to tug at my attention, indicating it was time to go. I said my goodbyes and reaffirmed to Aspen that I needed her at the remaining accessible aid stations.

I returned to a wooded, singletrack trail on the heels of Drew Waddell from Arlington Heights, IL. After chatting a while we learned that we were both in the middle of a year’s worth of firsts: first trail marathon, first ultra, first 100K, and so on. I eventually backed off of his pace and forged my own. By now the rainfall was penetrating the canopy, and the thunder grew increasingly unmistakable. The rain should have provided relief but did nothing more than drench me even further, as initial precipitation simply released more heat from the ground. Eventually the temperature began to wane, and I could feel my core coming back to life. Only, the storm continued to build in intensity, gathering moisture from some giant atmospheric sink. Just when I thought the downpour had peaked, the valve was opened another turn. Lightning punctured the deluge, sporadically striking the earth only yards away, causing me to instinctively shield my head from the impending impact.

I reached Horseriders (50.5) just behind Drew, and by now the rainfall was cascading from the skies in unbelievable amounts (subsequent weather reports estimated an incredible 11 inches per hour!) I moved on past him and the unmanned aid station into more undulating singletrack, overtaking a couple more runners along the way. The downpour was making navigation quite difficult for one bespectacled gentleman, and I was grateful to be wearing contacts at the time. Runoff was assuming the route of least resistance – the trail. At first I tried to thread my way through the less impacted terrain along the path, but after a while even that became a futile effort.

The worst of the storm eventually moved on while I made my way toward the next aid station. I noticed at about Mile 53 that my Garmin was dead. I had outlasted yet another gadget. As I feared, once the showers subsided the mosquitoes returned with a vengence, and every walk break was spent defending my last untapped liquid. The trail would take my sweat, my tears, and eventually the contents of my stomach, but it would not get my blood.

Around 7PM I trickled into Bluff (55.5) with Aspen and Amy waiting for me. The aid station was now almost completely covered with a tarp, and as I lingered inside to escape the assault of the Wisconsin State Bird I sensed that my body temp was beginning to climb again. I stepped outside and asked one of the volunteers to hit me with some bug repellant. He sprayed a little bit here and there before I told him to just baste me like a turkey. (Note – Garmins do not like bug spray.) Drew arrived at the station shortly thereafter and moved through quickly, while Adam Blum from Los Gatos, California rested in a chair within the tent. I wasn’t feeling particularly competitive at the moment, only more determined to finish the race and get that little kettle in my sweaty grip. Aspen said ‘Only 8 more miles!’ ‘7.5 miles’ I corrected her. Mentally, I was not gonna give up that half mile.

I had spent too much time standing in one place at Bluff and paid for it as I tried to exit. My left leg was almost incapacitated at this point. I yelped out loud during those first few hundred feet, then gradually focused that energy into a loping gait. It was only 2.5 miles to the next aid station, and by now the race had become a handful of bite-sized pieces. I entered another open grassy section and noticed a couple of the 100-milers making their way towards me. The second one was Mark, shirtless and running strong. I wasn’t expecting him on this part of the course and assumed he must have had some trouble. We exchanged a few encouraging words in passing, and Mark went on about the lightning storm. ‘I got kids, man! It’s not worth it!'

I reached Tamarack (57.8) around half-past 7, to the applause of a very friendly and able aid station crew. We traded some wit as one of them snapped a photo of me, my weathered form pacing back and forth in front of the aid table because I was afraid to stop. I downed a few banana pieces and proceeded along a tree-lined path, knowing the finish line was now within reach. ‘Five miles. I can do five miles’, I convinced myself aloud, over and over. ‘Four miles. I can do four miles.’

I struggled through the final PUD section, walking the downhills with my left leg straight as a kickstand. With two miles to go, the terrain began to soften, and I continued with my vocal self-encouragement. At this point, it felt almost natural to talk to myself. I had no music or companionship, only some rhythmic respiration and a few babbling words of support from my imaginary pacer. With about a half mile to go I instinctively turned around to find Adam closing in on me. I simply dropped my head and laughed. It was a fitting conclusion to a frustrating day. His fifth gear was spinning nicely, and he soon disappeared into the woods ahead of me.

I began to hear voices other than my own, hinting that I was closing in on the finish. I rounded the last corner to find Aspen standing there holding Nick, and I immediately burst into tears when the weight of what I had just accomplished struck me like a trunk. I crossed the line with virtually nothing left in the tank and struggled to maintain my poise in the face of unfathomable exhaustion. The man I had asked for prayer was there, congratulating me on finishing the race, and I thanked him for remembering me.

The skies slowly reopened to unleash a final watery onslaught, and I lay on my back in the grass, offering my remains to any moisture I could absorb while others sought shelter. I closed my eyes for a moment and sensed the ground beginning to spin. Aspen helped me to my feet, and I made my way to my parents' RV, where I sat on the steps in a stupor with a bag of ice on my head and a couple bottles of water to empty. Gradually my condition began to worsen, and my teeth and fingers started to tingle. Recognizing from past experience the impending signs of heat exhaustion, I asked Aspen to find someone to help me before things got out of hand. She returned with a registered nurse who introduced herself as Ann. I asked her last name and she said ‘Heaslett, I’m Timo’s wife.’ I replied in a grateful haze, ‘Ah, I know you; you’re a legend!’ She chuckled bashfully and proceeded to carry me through the aftermath by returning with a cot and a blanket. I lay there as wave after wave of heat trauma coursed through my body. On the peaks I was craving a fat slice of pizza; in the troughs I wanted to throw up. Eventually, Aspen had to leave to get Nick to bed, and Dad helped me into the RV, where I lay down on a foldout bed. Ann returned later to check on my recovery, and I related that I hadn’t yet received my kettle. She excused herself and returned moments later with Timo, who ceremoniously presented me with the distinctive award like a general bestowing a Purple Heart upon a dying soldier. I smiled incoherently, cupping my trophy like a magic lamp. I’m not sure what I said in response, unable to fully express my gratitude with dialogue, but I remember managing a few words about returning next year. Was I that delirious?

It was dark when we pulled out of the Nordic parking lot, and I hoped for as much straight road as possible. I lay there under a sleeping bag with the kettle in my hands, knowing I had squashed the voice that begged me to quit several times during the race. The triumph was not in this trinket-sized goblet of copper, but in finally confronting my weaknesses. Even in my battered state, I felt stronger than I had in years. I had received the kettle empty, but it was now full.
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Posted:June 26th, 2008 12:42 pm
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