At about 1:45 AM on Sunday, June 7, somewhere near mile 79 or 80, I refused to continue the Kettle Moraine 100. I turned around and hobbled back to the Highway 12 aid station, intent on returning the timing chip that had been strapped around my ankle for the last 20-or-so hours. This is the story of that decision.
At around 4ish PM the previous day – 10 hours and 49ish miles into the run – the switch that had kept me going for all of the morning and afternoon abruptly shut off. The outage came not long after I had left the Emma Carlin aid station inbound at 75K. The next section should have been a gentle 5K to the next aid, an unmanned table at Horse Camp – a nice 50.5 miles into the race – and another 2.5 miles to the next manned aid station at Bluff Road.
When I arrived at Emma Carlin, I had just come inbound through the meadow, a 7.5-mile-or-so section of wide grass trails which traversed rolling open prairie. Shade was sparse, and I had turned to tactics usually reserved for Afton 50K in July to keeping myself cool. I was dunking my hat at every aid station, using sponges with cool water to wipe down my arms and legs, and filled my hat with ice. Finally, I was also strategically alternating running and walking, four minutes run, one minute walk, in an effort to keep the overall exertion (read: heat production) down. I thought it was doing an excellent job, and when Bill Pomerenke volunteered to rub down my quads with ice at Emma Carlin, I thought it was unnecessary – my thighs weren't sore or beat up on the almost pancake-flat course and while I was sweating (or looking back, at least I thought I was), I was reasonably comfortable under the circumstances. I had been pounding down water, draining a 20-oz bottle between every aid station (about every 35 minutes), and my stomach was still accepting non-acidic food. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the assistance.
But a mile or mile-and-a-half after leaving aid, I shut down. I went into full-on, tunnel-vision, heat exhaustion and could do nothing but plod along, eat, and drink. I recognized that I was in a bad patch, and that I must keep moving. That I stayed aware of my condition was amazing enough.
Several minutes later, Matt Patten came up from behind me just before we hit Horse Camp. Patten saw that I was in a dark place and graciously gave me his bandanna, which his wife had folded in half and sewn 90 percent of the fold to create a pocket for ice cubes. Matt filled it, tied it around my neck, and then we went. He ran. I plodded.
I walked, head down, for what felt like time immemorial. Runners passed me, concerned for my well-being. And I marched on. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
And then I snapped out of it. The switch had turned back on. My core temp had returned to manageable, and I was back in the game.The change was as abrupt as the descent into my current state.
Except now my torso was now cold. And my shirt was soaked. And my shorts were soaked. The now-wet brief of my shorts had begun to chafe and cut into my inner thighs and undercarriage. I recognized the problem. I stopped, rid myself of the bandanna and its wet and icy contents, and channeling Hal Koerner's 2013 UTMB race experience, took an inside-out plastic bag, coated my chafed areas with Vaseline, and used the plastic bag – opening rolled over for protection – as a barrier between me and the cold, slicing shorts. I was proud of myself in the moment. I talked to myself, stating out loud that I had been presented with a problem, had devised a creative solution, was able to continue. I probably looked like a wreck.
At nearly every manned aid station after that, I re-filled the bag with Vaseline. Aid stations workers were generally confused why I was asking for a spoon and Vaseline at the same time. I thought you were going to eat it, one worker said. A large shiny grease-colored stain developed in the middle half my shorts. I was able to get back to the start/finish reasonably well, although I cursed the seven-and-a-half miles of wide, hard-packed ski trail that took me back to the 100K mark, and double cursed them when I power-walked them whilst traversing them a third time after heading out into the darkness. I had spent a good 20 minutes at the start/finish, and Lisa Messerer and Bill Pomerenke stuffed food, old coffee, and other goodies in me as I talked out the day and gathered strength to venture out. (I'd like to thank Ed Sandor for his list of things to think about when running a 100 miler - remember, a brisk walk will get you to the finish, I repeated over and over. Mantras work.)
Life got real when I turned off of the familiar path after leaving Bluff Road and ventured onto the second out-and-back section that was reserved for 100 milers and the persons competing in the 38-mile fun run. The course was now all single track and had a fair amount of roots and rocks, despite being more or less flat after an initial descent. It was Superior-lite.
By now I was wearing both of my shirts, and had been since I left the 100K mark at the start/finish. My fluid intake had stayed reasonably constant, as I was still taking in a fair amount of calories from bars, blocks, and aid stations. My stomach had returned from the mid-afternoon heat, and it was accepting Clif blocks again. Under the circumstances, all felt right with the world. A brisk walk will get you there, I thought, despite knowing that I was slowing down.
And likely due to the constant and necessary fluid intake, the decreased air temperature and the long-set sun, my fluid output kicked up. With each emptying of my bladder, I had to adjust the Vaseline and bag. Each time, it hurt more and more to replace and reconfigure the bag, and then to get moving again while the bag re-adjusted to its surroundings. After I left Bluff Road for the third time, it was 2.5 miles to the next unmanned aid station, and 4.5 miles to the next manned aid. Seven miles is a little more than an 80 to 90 minutes on fresh legs, but I was moving somewhere in the 20 to 25-minutes per mile time frame. It was a good 50 minutes to that unmanned aid, and another 100 minutes to Highway 12 at mile 78. Woof.
The aid station at Highway 12 looked like a war zone. There were people sitting in chairs, wrapped in blankets. One younger woman was trying to coax one of these sitters, obviously a runner, to consume something. An older woman was doing her best to ask incoming runners what, if anything, they needed. But mostly she looked in shock by the suffering, and had an almost helpless look on her face. There were other aid workers handling what appeared to be organizational issues. Everyone appeared stationary, dazed by what lay before them.
I sat down, got some luke-warm broth and a Coke, and started to shiver. John Storkamp's voice came to me, and I recalled him talking about why runners collapse in races. They're spent. They don't get in calories. Their exhaustion incapacitates their ability to generate body heat. They are moving so slowly that what heat they do generate is insufficient. It's a vicious cycle. Etc.
His words lit a fire under me. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and did something about it. I put on my windshirt and pulled down the sleeves of my stretchy long sleeve shirt. I put my hood up, stood up, and ambled toward the food tables. You have to help yourself, I thought. Bill isn't here, he isn't your crew, you need to take care of yourself. No one is going to do it for you.
I ate peaches at first, and speared each with a plastic fork. No pickles this time, as there were only sweet varieties. Susan Donnelly had appeared, and awed at a (multi?) gallon-sized Tupperware container that was half full of blueberries. I hobbled out, dazed but knowing that only moving would carry me onward, upward, and out of this horrendous funk. I wandered slowly, a little off-step and off-balance, and a woman, likely an aid or rescue worker, asked me if I was OK and as I struggled toward her. I gave her an extremely blunt, truthful answer, and she let me go, realizing the depths of my suffering. I felt like Dean Karnazes when his father comes to him at Robie Point during his first go at Western States. I probably looked like I had been run over by a car, but at least I was on my feet and moving.
While I was sitting in aid, there was a sign for inbound runners that noted the cut off at the unmanned aid from which I had just come. It said 7:15 AM, a little less than six hours from now. Looking back now, there would no reason to list the outbound cutoff on a sign that was directed to inbound runners headed to the next aid station. The sign was likely in error, if it had even read what I thought it said. And then there may have been no one at that unmanned aid station to enforce the cut off.
But my mind couldn't process this. Math is hard during a race. Regardless of what the sign actually said, what I thought it said influenced my decision making process after I left aid.
I got about a half an hour out – it was maybe around 1:45 AM, likely later – and I had warmed up. My brain had cleared. And I started to do math. I figured I needed to go about a half-marathon – 13.1 miles, or so – from my current location to the turn around, to back to Highway 12, and then the 4.5 miles to the unmanned aid at Duffin Road – in about six hours. I figured I was now traveling somewhere near 25 to 30 minutes per mile, walking slowly, limping and dragging my right foot unintentionally in an effort to avoid the chaffing issues and resulting pain. Running had long since not been an option. I entered a clearing and started up the hill it crossed, and stopped. I put both hands on a nearby tree and leaned over, suffering, and realizing that I wasn't going to make what I thought was the cut off back at Duffin Road. I was only getting slower, the going was harder, and I was in more and more pain with each step. Resistance was futile, so to speak.
And then my mind quit, and I turned around and walked out at a slower pace than from which I came. Outbound runners congratulated me on my effort, reasonably assuming I was inbound and still participating. It was a weird feeling, and I didn't have the heart to correct any of them. Twice I asked runners how far the aid was, and got frustratingly vague answers on each occasion.
Back at aid, I peeled off my ankle strap, found the aid station captain, and dropped. He asked me why.
"It feels like my undercarriage went through a cheese grater," I said, or something similar.
"Can we use that on the official report?" he replied, seemingly amused and aghast at my blunt answer.
And with that, my Kettle experience was done.
Refusing to continue was a correct decision. It was not the correct decision.
I know because at the time I made the decision, I had a clear head on my shoulders and was not suffering from a malaise in brain function. I was not in a deep hole – the exact opposite was true. I had just pulled myself out of said state by getting out of an aid station where I had been shivering. I had put on my windshirt, ate, and got up, got moving, and got warm. To paraphrase Catch-22 – my favorite novel – the concern for one's self in the face of dangers that were real and immediate is the process of a rational mind. I had a rational mind when I decided to turn around.
I know because with the information I had – the pain, swelling, constant issues given my increased urine output, and incorrect cutoff signage (or not) – the cost of continuing would have been extreme. It would have likely ended with blood loss, etc. and long-term healing (think several weeks, if not longer) for the wounds to recover enough where putting on a pair of shorts wouldn't cut or damage scabbed-over skin.
Could I have done anything else? Likely. I could have taken the plastic bag, tore the side seams out (to make a flat layer of plastic) and put that in the brief of my shorts like a plastic, Vaseline-soaked maxi pad. Would it have worked? I have no idea. Maybe the inner seam would have been an issue, or the edges. I just don't know. But it was something I only came up with on Monday, and something I'll have in my toolkit in case life hits the fan in this manner again. (Tuesday, June 22 edit: while running this morning, I could have found away to dump the shorts and fashion some type of kilt/skirt, perhaps with a plastic bag or by sacrificing my short-sleeve shirt. Dunno - just a random thought that came to me at 5:45 AM.)
What else did I learn? Running a 100 miler sans crew or pacer is damn difficult. You must be self reliant, independent, and capable of dealing with issues on your own. (Conveniently, Outside tweeted about Jenn Shelton's ultrarunning tips, originally published May 1, 2015, shortly after my race as part of its continuous tweet-vomit of previously published articles – see tip number three.) I was helped at two aid stations by Bill and Lisa – once in small part at Emma Carlin inbound, at 75K – and once in a significant way at Nordic, at 100K. At Highway 12, mile 78 outbound, I remember looking around and almost calling out for Bill, but I knew a) he wasn't my crew; b) he wasn't there; and c) that I needed to put my big boy shorts on and get moving. That all said, no one gets through these races alone. Even taking out Bill and Lisa, I was still helped by runners I ran with, aid workers, and Matt Patten.
I also learned that I can be self-reliant, independent, and capable of dealing with issues on my own. I've run 50 milers solo before. Once I came out my heat exhaustion funk at about mile 52, I recognized I had an issue with chafing and devised a creative solution to address the problem. At other aid stations, I was generally able to fill my bottles, grab sustenance, and get help with items that needed assistance (i.e. soup broth). I needed help significantly at one aid station – 100K – and could have used it at one other aid – mile 78.
The race reminded me of how fickle 100 mile runs inherently are. No runner's finish is guaranteed. So much must go right to get a runner to the finish line, and very little needs to go wrong in order to torpedo the attempt.
I went out at an appropriate pace, although it was tough to gauge because the 100 milers were starting with faster 100K runners and also-faster 100 mile relate teams. How do I know? I was continually being passed by other runners – including other 100 milers – and I was not passing them. I did not start too fast. I also came into the 50K four minutes under my planned time. (I planned on being there between 5:45 and 6:15 into the race, and I got there at 5:41 and left four minutes later.)
Per my wife's suggestion, I will also be bringing a second pair of shorts to keep with my crew. A swap at Bluff Road, inbound at mile 55, likely would have prevented my issues. That said, I had never experience chafing issues with these shorts - now on my second pair - and thought I was sufficiently prepared with my tube of Vanilply. Being wrong hurts.
Would I run it again? Yes. The event well organized for such a large group of runners in numerous races. The tedium of an out-and-back course – I usually prefer point-to-point or loop courses – was mitigated by the sheer number of people around me at any given time. I rarely ran solo for more than a handful of miles at a time, even at night.