Chicken soup for the ornery: battling highs and lows at the 2018 Kettle 100

Kettle100

Editor's Note: The language and content may be offensive to some so you have been warned.

How far is 100 miles anyway? What if I run from Chicago to Milwaukee? That’s 100, right? I wonder if they will have chicken soup this year? They had chicken soup last year, but not until later at night. I can’t stand those turkey sandwiches, Heed tastes like chalk and makes me want to puke and oranges only taste good for so long. I sure hope they bring out the soup earlier. And maybe they’ll have crackers to crumble in the soup. I sure could go for some crackers….

These are the things I think about while standing at the Nordic Trailhead on race day morning of the Kettle 100. Not pacing strategy, whether my drop bags have everything that they need (I didn’t bring drop bags this year) or whether I should go try to force out that poop that I thought was coming when I got up at 4 a.m. I think nonsense, and that’s because I have nothing else to do while waiting to begin this race. It’s not like I want to chat it up with anyone. If that was the case, I would be standing here with my crew, pacers, family and friends. Nope, none of that here. People stress me out, especially on race days. And that avoidance is mutual, as the permanent scowl on my face sends most on a wide berth of avoidance around me. So the solo foray into race day is a win-win.

I stand up on the porch just off the main cabin at the Nordic Trailhead and look at the crowd. I wonder if I know any of these people. I probably do, but I am horrible with faces so even if I ran with them several times, I probably would not recognize them. So I take a few photos with my phone and share one on Facebook to let everyone know that Crazy Joe is up to it again. “Third time’s a charm,” I write on the post and accompanying photo – a bevy of runners, runner supporters and onlookers milling about and talking in small groups as they enjoy the cool morning air.

"No one ever said ultra running was a clean sport, and the aid station buffet tables should always be approached with the same trepidation you would when deciding whether to take that after-lunch swim in a public pool filled to the rim with bladder-bloated toddlers."

The forecast was in our favor today – upper 60s and overcast, perfect for a day of running. And there is only a slight chance of thunderstorms overnight so we’re golden. Much better than the powerful thunderstorms that rocked us at last year's Kettle and soaked us to the point where many – to include me – were paralyzed with horrible groin chaffing. 

The pain was so bad that I dropped from the race at mile 82, literally crying - my second try at Kettle ended. Determined not to repeat my balls-out-DNF again, I brought plenty of nut butter and applied it thickly upon the suspect nether regions. I thought back to this moment of application every time I rolled into an aid station and stuck my hand into the bowl of chips. No one ever said ultra running was a clean sport, and the aid station buffet tables should always be approached with the same trepidation you would when deciding whether to take that after-lunch swim in a public pool filled to the rim with bladder-bloated toddlers. 

As we started out at 6 a.m. it was the typical conga line for the first few miles with the occasional jackass who felt the day was getting away from him, so he broke into his 10K-pace and bomb past everyone by going through the tall grass at the trail side. I know we were all thinking, I hope his foot catches a root and he goes face-first into a tree. Aah, maybe that was just me thinking that. I tend to get trail rage early on in races. This usually clears up when the rage turns to crying like a 2-year-old later on. Make no mistake, during an ultra I go through a whole host of emotions. 

Ultra running legend Ann Trason compares running 100 miles to living an entire life in a single day. I call it an opportunity to visit every stage of grief in a 24-hour period. It started out for me in those first few miles with a denial that anything would stand in the way of me and my sub-24-hour 100 miler. The day was cool and dry and I was well trained, rested and injury free. Nothing would go wrong, I thought. And for quite a while it didn’t. Once the conga line thinned out, I was running like a child – care free as I flew through the trails and bombed down the hills dodging myriad rocks and roots that spotted the trail from kettle to moraine. But I wasn’t totally ignorant. I had been to this dance before and I knew those tiny hills I was playfully bounding over were taking a bit of my endurance, dexterity and resilience in exchange for every step of joy they were giving me at that moment. I knew the more hills that I ran up the more I would pay and the less energy I would have later, so I slowed a little and started walking up the hills like I saw so many veterans around me doing. I watched as runners passed me and it was tough to watch them go, but like a wise runner once said ( I think it was me), “Let the idiots go and you will see them again soon when they’re limping along and decorating the trail with their breakfast.” 

For me, puking is just part of the experience. If I’m not puking I’m not working hard enough. Or maybe it’s that I’m dehydrated. It’s one of those two, I always forget which. Regardless, there is plenty of regurgitation that goes on in ultra running. In any street race if you saw someone at the side throwing up, you would see 10 to 15 people stopping to help and calling multiple ambulances to the scene to save the poor soul. If an ultra runner is seen at the trail-side puking they would be lucky to get a “Good Job” from fellow runners let alone someone stopping to help. It’s not that trail and ultra runners are not kind and compassionate people. That’s actually what defines them and why I am still baffled that I am allowed to participate in this sport. The reason you don’t see people stopping to help someone with GI distress is that it is a very normal part of the race for so many and just another challenge to work through. The fact is if someone stopped to help me, I would just threaten to vomit all over their shoes if they didn’t get away from me real quick. (Did I tell you I’m not that friendly?) 

But let’s get back to the denial. I was kicking ass that first 50 miles. Nothing was stopping me. I cruised my way up through to the first turnaround at Scuppernong (Mile 30.4) at 6 hours 15 minutes. 

I was feeling good here, grabbed some oranges and PBJ, a shot of Coke and started to look around for it but wasn’t seeing it. Where could it be? I mean it was noon. There should be soup somewhere and the oranges were getting on my nerves. I went up and asked one of the ladies behind the buffet if I could get some soup to which I received a blank stare and a “we have gummy bears!” A throat punch was out of the question here as throat punching a race volunteer I am sure carries some heavy consequences. I once saw a runner at a road marathon yell at a little kid because he wasn’t handing her a cup of water fast enough, so another runner proceeded to yell, chastise and harass her for the next two miles. (Did I tell you I was that harasser?) I hate people who hate on volunteers, so I feel justified in any harassment retribution in which I take part for extended periods. Rather than having to resort to inflicting that same harassment upon myself for assaulting the nice volunteer, I decided the better option was to smile (or my best version of one) and to give her a sincere thank you as I went to fill my bottle with what I thought was cold and refreshing water before trotting out of the aid station and back on the trail to enter my anger stage in earnest. 

I started the run back through the open prairie unable to appreciate the good fortune that cool temps and overcast skies brought to what could have been a very oppressive section. I was too preoccupied with whether or not chicken noodle would be available at the next aid station. “Why in the hell would they not have a hot and salty delicacy ready and waiting? Wait, what is that. I just felt something in my knee. I’m probably just imagining things. I just need a little diversion therapy. If I could just find a large pointy rock and bring the ball of my foot straight down on it hard, I will forget all about my knee. Oh good there it is nice and sharp, too." And just like that no more knee pain.  A second diversion from the knees came in the form of whatever fresh hell had entered my water bottle. 

“Fucking Heed,” I said taking another swig to confirm. I drew from the wrong water cooler. It’s like someone at the gym dumped the chalk box into the Gatorade. It’s a horribly disgusting excuse for an energy drink or whatever it is supposed to be, but on the bright side I wasn’t thinking about my knees any longer.

While there was some anger due to the water bottle refill mix-up and the lack of good wholesome chicken pieces bathed in a rich mix of salty, salt broth and mushy noodles, it wasn’t that much more anger than I normally carry. If there was anything that my dad taught me it was that rage well honed in on the right targets will get you places. It usually got him home from the bar in time to pass out in the chair and as far as I knew never in jail, so he had that going for him. But me – I like to keep my rage well spread so everyone can enjoy a little of it. On that day, it was pretty minimal, kept to a few “fuck me’s” and random scowls here and there, usually in response to overly enthusiastic pacers who had no business bringing their cheery asses out onto my trail. I understand they are just trying to put on a positive face to motivate their runners, but don’t expose me to that nonsense. 

Before I decided to start tripping every disingenuously jolly pacer who came by, I chose it better to first move from anger and into bargaining. My energy was being zapped bit by bit, and I was starting to feel the hills. I would get into an aid station every four or so miles and catch my breath while I got some fuel and would head back out feeling better. But that only lasted for so long before the energy started flagging and my pace slowed more and more. All of this and that pain in the knees was back and becoming more frequent. I was feeling it mostly on the downhills, so I made a deal with myself at that point to give up a chance at a sub-24-hour finish and allow myself to not only walk up the hills but walk down, too.

Most normal people would have been upset at the thought of having to give up their A-goal, but not me. At an early age I realized that if I didn’t take my goals all that seriously and fail to commit, I would never be disappointed. I am here to tell you today that a life of mediocrity and flying under the radar of high hopes and expectations can be moderately fulfilling and good enough. 

The run back to Nordic was puzzling to me. The entire way back, this year's pace was between 30 minutes and an hour behind my 2017 pace. This was confusing to me because 2017 was the year of the torrential rain, thunder and lightening that turned the trails into mud-sucking, shoe eating monsters. There were places where the mud was nearly knee deep and each step on the hills required every bit of your concentration as the slick surface turned normally soft rolling dirt trails into an undulating game of who can run the farthest without their feet flying out from under them.

I’m not sure why I was running slower this year. Maybe my pacing mind was better trained and knew that I needed to go slower to sustain for the long-haul. Maybe I prepared with better training the year before and was able to maintain a stronger pace. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter because the dude that ran last year dropped at Rice Lake (Mile 81.5) and I was hell bent on finding out what the trail looked like beyond that aid station, not to mention very curious to see my first ever lakes filled with rice.

Speaking of rice, did I tell you that there was chicken soup at Bluff on the way back? Its straight-outta-the-can deliciousness is something only ultra runners and those at the end-stages of a 24-hour dry-heaving fully dehydrated stomach flu experience could truly appreciate and love. After begging the aid station volunteer for a second helping, my impulse to throat punch was repressed by moderately elevated sodium levels and I thanked him over and over for the food and for being out there to help me and everyone else that day. Have I mentioned how incredibly amazing the Kettle volunteers are? Keeping a cheery face for a day and a half is in my opinion more difficult that any 100-miler. And if there had been any doubt of the incredible work being done by these volunteers it was put to rest at Bluff when I turned to see a lady with a wide smile and a tray filled with SNOW CONES. I’ve never been a big snow cone fan. Even when we’re vacationing on Oahu and driving by Matsumoto’s, I never felt the desire to stop in and try one of their world-famous cones. But here on the trail in the Kettle-Moraine National Forest at the Bluff aid station things were different; life was different. I was well on my way to achieving an incredible life goal of running 100 miles. To now be presented with an opportunity to achieve two lifetime firsts in one day by enjoying my first-ever snow cone, well can you say, “mind blown?” The Cone Lady was very kind and from the looks of the photo at the top of this blog, I seemed less than appreciative (that’s just how I look), but I truly was thankful for the unique offering. With both salty and sweet satisfied, I started down the trail. Coming through Tamarack at mile 57.6, I was met by good music and an enthusiastic group of volunteers who were ready to greet and get you anything and everything you would need. This is a small yet fully equipped aid station a couple miles from Bluff and about 5 from Nordic. In my mind it was perfectly positioned and a great rest stop on the way to and from the start-finish. 

Once back to Nordic, I walked out to my truck and grabbed a fresh shirt and hat to replace those covered in 62 miles of trail sweat and grime. I pulled on a short-sleeve shirt for the night run. But as I stood there longer contemplating whether I wanted to eat one of the cans of soup I brought, I started to chill so I put on a second long-sleeve shirt over the first and put on a new ball cap. I remembered the temps were supposed to get into the 50s so it was smart to be well covered. I also grabbed two headlamps and was going to bring music, but I could not find the damn iPod. Taking a moment to yell at myself softly for my inability to ever be organized enough to develop a checklist for such events, I grabbed my backpack closed the doors and headed back to the course. Here we go into the night I thought as I shoved my hand down my shorts to apply a fresh layer of anti-chaffing butter while I am sure those not familiar with the community were clutching their children and covering their eyes to shelter them from this horrific sight. 

Night running has always been a strong point for me. I’m not great in the heat so once it cools down I speed up. The journey back through Tamarack and Bluff was mostly uneventful other than taking in some more of the delightful creation of Joseph A. Campbell and Abraham Anderson. 

Past Bluff, I came to Confusion Corner, which is just that, a confusing, twisted fork on the trail where it either splits off going north toward Scuppernong or south to Rice Lake. As I was running up to it a runner coming the other way from Rice Lake stopped me to ask if she was going the right way. After cussing her out in my head, jealous that she was just coming back on an out-and-back that I would be on from this point at about midnight until the sun came up, I told her that Bluff was a short ways away and gave her a good job as I carefully chose the right path onto the next segment of the race. 

It was just past midnight and I was feeling great. Normally I would be very tired at this point, being three hours past beddie-bye time and all. If any of you know me very well, beddie-bye time is a very serious topic at my house. My wife is military, so everything is done on a strict schedule, to include going to bed every evening sharply at 9 pm. But with Major Bammel at annual training, I was on my own. She had been at every race before, even last year she was going to come and pace me for the last 10 miles only to come and pick me up where I dropped at mile 81.5. Two years before a knee took me out at the 100K and we drove home from there. But this year she was in the field working so I was running on my own through the night with no pacer, no curfew and no ride home if I did decide to drop. No excuses and no easy outs. 

I was feeling good, but knees were still an issue. I kept the situation in check by continuing to promise myself not to run the hills, up or down. I was losing valuable time during these segments though, which was concerning. That’s why when I reached a nice soft and flat section of trail near Duffin Road, I took full advantage and started what felt like a sprint toward the Highway 12 aid station. It was one of those “runner’s high” moments where you felt like you could go forever. I felt like I was clicking off 6-minute miles, but in reality it was likely somewhere around 10 M/M. Regardless the speed, I was on top of the world, passing runners walking along the stretch and startling others I came upon along going the other way as no one was expecting anyone to be maintaining a sub-20-hour pace in this section at this time in the race. It was a great run, but I knew that it had to come to end and I knew that end would come when I least expected it. It was only a matter of time.

As I was cruising a straight stretch of clear-cut forest following the trail illuminated by my headlamp, all momentum came to a quick stop as I felt the front of my shoe catch, sending me airborne before taking a head-first dive into the trail. My shoe had caught what I suspect was a root jutting up from the trail (I didn’t investigate). I didn’t hit anything other than soft dirt so I got up and started walking. I covered two miles in less than 20 minutes which I was very happy with and I arrived at Highway 12 aid station (Mile 77) in good shape and attitude. That was until I looked around. Of course, the first thing I did was grab a cup of soup and sat down. As I sat there I remembered the year before at this same spot. By this time my groin was raw from miles upon miles of chaffing, so it was tough to appreciate the upbeat atmosphere with others who were there enjoying the experience with friends, family and crew. I was in full Happy Gilmore mode, ready to knock the nose off the laughing clown. This year was quite different – I was physically leaps-and-bounds ahead of where I was a year ago, but I couldn’t help feel the aloneness and depressed feelings come over me as I allowed my head to sink into my hands as I tried to work out the knots that were tied up in the back of my neck. 

As I picked up my head, I watched a guy walk over by me to get something from one of the drop bags laid out on a tarp. From the looks of things he was there crewing one of the runners. He looked at me and asked, “hey, are you alright?” My depressing, self-pitying state suddenly turned to bravado-driven indignation as I looked up at him with what I can only imagine was by far my best scowl face of the day and said, “yeah, I am great. How about you?” There was no way that I was going to admit vulnerability in any way shape or form. If there is anything that my Anglo-Saxon upbringing has taught me it is to repress all emotion, and if it by some chance does seep out and becomes evident to anyone, be sure to immediately grab it and jam it deep back inside you where it belongs, and put on a frantic smiley face as you tell the curiously concerned with an angrily defiant grin that things are fantastic, this is the best thing that has ever happened to me and I can’t wait to do it again next year. 

The run to Rice Lake wasn’t nearly as painful as last year and there were no multiple calls to Sarah this time crying that I was dropping. This section was definitely more enjoyable this year. It was still tough with all the hills and rocks and narrow trail sections. Much of it was walked as running this section at night in the rain (Did I tell you there were thunder storms at night?) made for a treacherous course, and I knew one misstep might hyperextend something that likely could not be unhyperextended. So I made another deal to take this slow and promised to make up the time after the sun came up. 

I rolled into Rice Lake aid station (Mile 81.5) about one hour and 30 minutes earlier than I did last year. I had gone from being 30 minutes behind my same time last year pretty much the entire day on Saturday to about 2 hours ahead by this point. It was still dark and after scarfing down some you know what, I was leaning against a picnic table – quite likely the same one I sat on crying after dropping the year before. Except this time I was stretching out my quads and listening to a guy next to me quiz me on what was to come next on the trail. I wanted to be a shithead and say, “dude, it’s an out-and-back there will be nothing new.” But he was really nice and even me, the king of trail shit talk, couldn’t bring myself to be that low. He started to describe that as I headed back down the trail from where I just came I would begin to see the sun peeking through the trees and even though it may have been a sight I have experienced thousands of times before in my life, this time would be unique. He was right.

The first glimpse was like an illusion. At first, I thought someone was having a camp fire nearby, but then it got bigger and every crack of sky visible through the forest took part in the gorgeous orange glow. The practical beauty of all of this came in the form of being able to see the trail in full 3D. At night, the headlamp worked well but failed to pick up the real depth of rocks and roots, so I was constantly tripping. Just as I did on the way out, I made fast work of that stretch of flat trail, this time without tripping even once. Coming back into a more technical and hilly stretch on the way back to Confusion Corner, I started following a couple of runners who had resorted to walking the last 12 or so miles. At that moment I felt that they were maintaining a fine pace, so I settled in with them while all the time trying to calculate what speed I needed to maintain to finish. If I continued with their 2 mph pace I would arrive very close to the 30-hour cutoff. My thought was I could walk with them back to Confusion and move back to a run after that. After another mile of walking I was getting anxious though and with a little guilt, feeling that I was abandoning a group I had only just joined, I thanked the two for allowing me to join them for a while and wished them luck as I slipped on by. 

Arriving at Bluff at just before 8 am, I found that there was still some soup left from the night before and there was word coming down (Or is it up?) the trail runner pipeline that breakfast burritos were being served two miles ahead at Tamarack. This was also the point in the race where I determined and had accepted that I was going to finish this damn race and move it into the books as one of the biggest accomplishments to date in my life. I asked one of the volunteers how much farther to Nordic. He said to my delight just under 7 miles. That’s when another volunteer looked at me and said, “It’s a good feeling isn’t it? Knowing you’re almost there?” “I looked at her, smiled and said, “yes it is.” That’s when I knew I was going to make it. All the hard running and walking the day before and through the night allowed me enough of a buffer that if I desired I could walk the remainder of the course. I have to admit that I did walk a good portion. The sun was climbing and while it still wasn’t a scorcher it was warm and that combined with the endless hills that covered the last seven miles were enough to suck my will to work toward anything remotely resembling a strong finish. 

About one-half mile from Tamarack, a wild Sammy Hagar looking gentleman emerged from the woods and introduced himself. I don’t recall his name (I told you about me and names). He told me that one of the services of the Tamarack aid station was an escort service where thankfully notwithstanding the traditional definition of said service he ran with me to the aid station as we chatted about various topics revolving around volunteering, running and of course Kettle. One thing I did learn from our short time was that the race up to that year had given kettle bells as trophies to all its 100 mile finishers, but this year they changed over to the more traditional belt buckle. He asked what I felt about this to which at first I said it didn’t matter to me. As long as I got something that said I finished what do I care. But as we walked and talked I thought about it a bit more and decided that I felt a little cheated that I would not be getting a kettle bell from the Kettle 100. Now angry with this newfound revelation, Sammy said his goodbyes and headed back down the trail to catch the next runner as I slipped into Tamarack one last time, grabbed one of the last few giant breakfast burritos and settled in for the final 4 miles. 

I said a few “fuck yous” to the endless stretch of rolling rocky hills that continued to pound my sore feet and legs. But fortunately for me there was something else happening below the waistline that would distract me from the foot/ankle/knee pain that was going on. That poop I failed to take before the beginning of the race was ready to go at a moment’s notice. As my mind often does, it started considering the worst-case scenarios. Would the excitement and emotion to ensue at the finish line as I crossed to cheering spectators trigger a crush of pent-up emotions in me and in doing so relieve attention from a tightly clenched sphincter, allowing for a foul and untimely bowel movement? But exhaustion trumped dignity at this point so my concern with such an event playing out was met with mostly indifference. I just wanted to get over the finish line, get that damn medal and be on my way to a hot shower, some solid food once my stomach could take it and hours of uninterrupted sleep. 

 I crossed the finish line at 10:34:48 am, about 28 hours and 30 minutes after I started. I always dreamed of finishing strong like Zach Miller at the 2016 North Face Endurance Challenge. Crossing the line and collapsing because that is what you do when you give everything on the trail. I imagine then standing up like he did and giving a long, loud and primal scream coming from the depths of his passionate soul. Then people would know what that day meant to me. The countless hours and miles of training that went on through sub-zero weather. The endless hill repeats trying in vain to mimic the relentless undulating landscape of Kettle. 

But my finish was less of a sprint and more of a shuffle. Race Co-director Timo Yanackeck greeted me at the finish and gave me my medal. I thanked him for putting together an amazing event. This is the last year he and race co-director Jason Dorgan will be at the helm of this popular and historic trail extravaganza. There is so much tradition with this race and these two have had a big part in that. While so many are sad to see their era end, there is also excitement to see who will take over and what’s to come beginning next year.

A week after the race as I am writing this I still don’t think what I have done has sunk in. I’ve never taken running to include ultra running all that seriously, which probably accounts in part for why it took me three times to finish. But maybe it’s okay to make light of tough things that involve suffering and pain. When we do feel sad, tired, alone or pained during a long and trying endurance event it is important to remember these emotions were all self-inflicted and the only person to thank for all of that is ourselves. So in other words, suck it up, you old fuck and be thankful God has given you the ability to endure.