Kettle Moraine 100 June 3-4 2016
The Gnarly Bandit ultra series is put on by the Upper Midwest Trail Runners (UMTR). Four 100 mi and one 100 k race are required to finish the series. In the past eight years, the series has been completed 25 times. So it is certainly doable, yet far from reasonable. Heading into Kettle this year, 9 runners remained in the series.
So why do people do these things called ultra marathons? Many different reasons I suppose. Some of us just want to do big things. I feel that a year ago, I was running the schedule I did in part to try to break myself. But I didn’t break, maybe even am stronger now because of it. My outlook for running these things is different this year. I am striving toward self maintenance and preservation, learning to keep some distance from absolute limits. Hopefully this will help me to keep running through to the completion of the series.
While I say this in hindsight of Kettle, I failed at this approach in the season opening Zumbro 100. I was a hurting unit for some weeks following Zumbro. I tried to go right back to my daily life of beer packaging and delivering door to door flyers part time. I ended up working a long shift at the brewery Monday, which wasn’t ideal but was fine, then was only there a couple of days the rest of the week. So I tried to get going with some more flyers Wednesday through Friday, but it just wasn’t happening. I couldn’t go for more than about 2 hours before the knee pain was so severe that I had to sit down.
My flyer delivery career now over, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake this time, so I headed out easy, with no intention of time, focused purely on self preservation. The miles passed easily through the day. The course was in fine shape, the weather was beautiful. It was a bit warm and humid, but no more than one would expect for this time of year. There existed a nice cloud cover much of the day with a few spotty splashes of rain. My only irritation through the day Saturday was the number of people that seemed to line through the course. It is a larger than average field, with about 450 starters this day between the 100 mile and 100k races. Despite that, I still expected things to spread out faster than they did. I suppose I started a little slower than normal and so had a larger percentage of runners to negotiate as the race progressed. But the course just seemed busy nearly the entire way to the first turnaround at the 50k mark. After that things quieted and became more peaceful.
During that first 100k, I did get the chance to meet and visit with a number of other runners along the course, including fellow gnarly bandit competitors and gnarly hall of famers. Minnesota’s Robert Edman was the first of this year’s gnarly hopefuls to cross the finish line in a time of 25:16:16. Next came 25-year old Kevin Clark from Ocinomowoc, WI, the same hometown as 2013 gnarly finisher and now 10-time Kettle 100 finisher Angela Barbera. I met both Robert and Kevin at the pre-race picture, and we were able to give each other a few shouts of support as we crossed paths on the course. I met Angela on the Superior Hiking Trail during my first trail ultra at Wild Duluth in 2012. I have a feeling she may not have placed me when we briefly chatted on the trail today, but I could be wrong. And so on to another female phenom of the trail running community and current gnarly contender, Tennessean Susan Donnelly. Susan has finished more Superior 100s and Zumbro 100s than any other person. She is undoubtedly one of the favorites to complete the series this year. Rounding out the gnarly bandits would be myself, and then immediately after me, Jim Lemke of Fort Atkinson, WI. I believe I have yet to meet Jim, but it seems our paces are relative to one another. I have a feeling we’ll cross paths at Black Hills. This being a huge undertaking, there are those who do fall short. I spent a considerable amount of time Saturday sharing trail with Dale Nesbitt and Sreedharan Surendran, both Zumbro finishers whose gnarly dreams would be dashed by the sneaky Kettle. I enjoyed chatting with the both of them throughout the day. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them back in the mix soon. I must give special thanks to Sreedharan, for he saved me and another runner some unknown number of extra miles. I was running with my head down, rather blindly following the person 15 yards ahead of me down a very straight trail in the woods. We both ran right past the cones and markers directing us to turn. We were some 150 yards beyond the turn when it took about 10 seconds of Sreedharan yelling at the top of his lungs before I turned around and figured out what was going on. Other gnarly entrants who failed to post a finish this day were Terry Eldien and Rob Henderson, the latter deciding to pursue things other than the gnarly bandit after his impressive 2nd place finish earlier this spring at Zumbro.
Things were progressing nicely; I’d remained patient and stuck to my plan. “WWJTD?” It bothered me slightly having to cross paths with people on the turnaround who were way ahead of me who I figured I should be ahead of, but it wasn’t changing anything. I wasn’t going to catch them, I was going to run my race. I was now within about 5 miles from the 100k mark. Runners in the 38 mile fun run had begun coming out, and there who did I see, but 2-time gnarly bandit finisher Brian Woods and his friend Dan Cairns, both of the St. Cloud area contingent. Brian and I shared some smiles and laughs at Zumbro this spring. I first met Dan here on this very trail 3 years ago during my first successful 100 mile run. Dan and I were leapfrogging on the trail during the latter parts of the 2013 race. After stopping for a short visit today, we went on our separate ways. I would cross paths with each of them again on my way back out for the fun run.
I remember coming in to the Nordic Start/Finish aid station in 2013, the 100k mark in the race, where you are given the option to stop your day and collect a 100k finisher award, or continue on to complete the entire 100 miles. I was in rough shape. I had endured 4 loops equaling 67 miles in a failed effort at Zumbro less than 2 months earlier, thus crushing my dreams of gnarliness. I had been able to rebound with a successful marathon at the Lake Wobegon Trail a month later. My body wasn’t in the right shape to be at Kettle, but I’d paid my entry and I needed redemption. I needed to complete the distance. It was around midnight when I got there, I’d just spent about 2 hours running through slosh, as we got hit by an evening downpour. It was only about an hour in duration, but it was heavy. The single track turned into a violently flowing little river. Needless to say, my feet were soaked mush. Add to this the fact that I was wearing shoes that were wrong for me, ooh my poor feet. No chance I was quitting though. I got my drop bag and immediately got to work on my feet, getting fresh socks and shoes, and applying tape to a few trouble spots. And there was race director Timo giving personal attention to every runner. He asked me if I was going back out and wished me well. I gave some bland automatic response; I remember wishing I’d told him, “Of course I’m going back out, all that’s left is a fun run, right?”
Timo met us and talked with us for a few minutes at packet pickup this year, welcoming us and wishing us well. And once again, he was in full form through the night at Nordic, bellowing an announcement every time a 100 mile runner went out for the final leg, “Hundred mile runner going back out!” And the crowd cheers. Those moments and those steps feel pretty special when that runner is you. Timo would also be there to congratulate each runner at the finish. I want to say you won’t find many race directors who do what he does. On the other hand, most race directors I’ve had the fortune to know do seem to expend themselves in some equivalent manner.
One of the newly crowned bandits from last season, Jeffrey Lenard, was another notable whose presence I felt throughout the weekend. I saw Jeff several times throughout the first day, as he seemed to be at nearly every aid station offering enthusiastic words of support, and displaying his gnarly forearm ink. Turns out he was crewing for his wife, who was running her first 100 mile race. I met Jeff at the UMTR banquet last fall. He drove 6 hours from Illinois that evening to attend the banquet and collect his award for completing the series. As impressive as that sounds, I guess it’s maybe not all that much in comparison to running even one of these races. Still, that kind of commitment is admirable.
I met another special person that night at the banquet: my crew, pacer, and girlfriend, all rolled into one. What a dream! I was in no hurry. We were going to get this thing done, and skip away cheerily afterward. “You’re going back out?” I shook Timo’s hand and said, “Yes, sir!”. “Hundred mile runner going back out!” And we were off. It was going to be a good night…
“Those are ducks, right?”, I said. “No baby, those are frogs”, Kari replied. I wasn’t so sure. Frogs are one of my favorite animals, but I like the ribbity, crickety sounding frogs. These honky, croaky sounding things I wanted nothing to do with, and they seemed to be all around us. Slightly unsettling, I do say. The trail quieted and several minutes passed, then the awful noise returned. “Those are ducks, right?”, I asked, as if our previous discussion had never occurred. I started to answer my own question, “No those are fr-“, when a response came from one of the two men approaching us. “No, those are people”, he said. I wonder if he really thought I was hallucinating. Much of the rest of the morning felt carefree and fun. We laughed and joked as we proceeded down the trail, made fun of others and made fun of ourselves. I nearly burst a gut trying to figure out which way to go at confusion point.
After that it was the homestretch. Only another ~8 miles or so of rolling trail. And then came the hiker… It was light, and normal morning hours now, and this portion of trail began to fill up with some “regulars”. And here comes this hiker, a friendly stocky guy in his early fifties. He told us how he was doing preparation for a trip to hike Pike’s Peak. This guy was a good walker. He came upon us from behind. We matched pace for probably a mile or more before pushing on ahead of him. Later due to aid station and other pit stops, the hiker passed me and made a little distance on me. It ended up being a hilarious (to me) joke and game that I was not going to let this guy beat me to the finish. Eventually I did pull away and got comfortably ahead of him. But I was cruising pretty good at the end. I imagine I passed by a dozen other runners on that last 5 miles of trail, and I believe my hiker friend did about the same.
The finish seemed like it had to be soon, maybe just around the next bend of the trail. Well after about 8 more bends and another half dozen small hills, there it was, the final uphill stretch to the finish! Crossed the line in 28:32:08, I’ll take it! I was awarded my little copper kettle, then got to visit with those gathered at the finish. The ever present John Taylor was seated at a table next to Susan Donnelly. John, a 2-time finisher of the Gnarly Bandit series, was the trail runner who left the biggest imprint on me after my first run at Wild Duluth in 2012. I visited with him a couple of times when we met on the course today as well. I was following him closely for a brief time early in the day, watching his steps with careful attention. Over the past decade, John has amassed more 100 mile finishes than would seem humanly possible. The guy is teeming with bits of trail running wisdom. So any chance I get, I try to study his ways. Fellow Minnesotan Mark Smith and his crew, comprised of Joe, Matt, and Paul, were waiting at the finish as well, to congratulate the final gnarly finishers of the day. Mark ran his goal of sub-24 hours! It was pretty cool to feel all the support throughout the race right on through to the finish.
Two down, now I could clean up a little, grab some food and some drink. I had a little bit of my Lucy left, a kettle sour pale ale for the Kettle 100! Then while handing out a few Indeed cans to others, another runner named Lewis, got to talking with me, and shared a few beers brewed by his friend at Pigeon Hills Brewery in Muskegon, MI. And it was a good one: an oatmeal creme pie stout, which is their signature offering. Oatmeal Creme Pies were always my favorite kind of Little Debbie Treats growing up.
So why do we do these things called ultra marathons? Do we love the act of running, and the feelings that accompany it? Yes. Do we love seeing places of beauty in nature that are only accessible by foot? Yes. Do we strive for the feelings created by physical feats and personal accomplishment? Of course, but there is surely more to it than that. It is about the community and the connections. All of the people mentioned above and many others who weren’t mentioned impacted my day, my experience, and my life. As I attend to final preparations for the Black Hills 100, I try to keep this in mind. Seek those connections, explore them and cherish them, for what we get to do is amazing, but that we get to share it with others is what makes it truly special. Happy Trails!…