The Kettle Moraine 100 is one of the country’s oldest 100 mile trail runs dating back a quarter of a century and is a qualifying race for the Western States 100 in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. 239 ultra marathoners registered to toe the start line this past weekend at the Nordic Trailhead in the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s Southern Unit. 65 miles of the course traverses the Ice Age National Scenic Trail with very hilly terrain accumulating an altitude gain of 9,500 feet while runners would take on many glacial landforms such as sinuous eskers, kames, deep kettles, bogs and tumbled moraines.
My 2020 races were cancelled during covid and I opted to have the Kettle 100 rolled over to June 12, 2021. Without having a race to train for during the pandemic, I did not maintain my endurance fitness levels and really needed a push to get moving. I reached out to fellow Team Apex Multisport teammate Kari Stuart of Stuart Coaching to see if she would be willing to coach me, and I am so grateful she obliged. With only 12 weeks to train until race day, Koach (Coach Kari) put a plan in place for me to build up my mileage and to prepare me for many unknowns. Up to that point in time, my furthest running distance was a marathon (26.2 miles) with the vast majority of all my lifetime races being on pavement, not trail. Despite being an Ironman, I knew I was stepping into a different world. From that day on I became a student of the trail doing predominately all of my training solo. I learned so much from listening. I listened to my coach, I listened to my body, the sounds of the trail and the advice from so many in the ultra community. I am extremely grateful to the numerous athletes who helped and inspired me along my journey.
My original goal for the Kettle 100 was to try to finish in less than 24 hours, but ultimately, to finish under the 30 hour cutoff. Having watched the forecast leading up to race day, I knew it was going to be upwards of 90 degrees and humid with a good chance of rain. After checking the weather on race day morning, the app showed that the humidity was 100% (no lie) and once I left the start line at Nordic , the sun made its presence known in short order.
Through the first few sections, I was moving faster than I planned to, but I was also just soaking it all in and letting my legs do their thing. By the time we climbed Bald Bluff it was already hot and the air was thick enough you could have cut it with a knife. It was a clear signal to me to keep a heightened focus on my nutrition.
In all of the FB training group chatter (all that I read and watched), Kettle veterans brought up the Prairie section of the race and how it could break you. The forest canopy covers the vast majority of the trail from direct sunlight. The Prairie section however, is exactly as it sounds; wide open with zero coverage, and when the sun is out in summer, it can quickly cook you. My first crewed stop was at mile 19.5 and from what I recalled, the prairies didn’t start until mile 22ish. As I got closer towards seeing my crew, I began running in a wide open section. I thought to myself, is this the prairie? I even asked other runners. No one was sure, but we all felt the direct sun overhead and just wanted to get back under the trees. It came and went and I had only hoped that was the Prairie section. I found my Dad, sister Katie and my niece Kennedy set up and waiting for me at the McMiller Trailhead aid station. They had my organized cart with gear, medical supplies and cooler ready. I took down some Tums, Tylenol, a McDonalds breakfast burrito (my request) and an ice cold Red Bull from the cooler. I added another layer of sunscreen, some tick spray and wiped my face with baby wipes to remove my sweat and their salt deposits. By this time in the day it was scorching out and as I started to pour the staged cold hydration formula into my vest flasks plumes of smoke (really steam) billowed out of my flask openings reaffirming what I felt in the “Prairies” just before. I was thankful they were behind me (or so I thought). I thanked my crew and told them I’d see them at mile 27 and headed out.
I emerged off the trail into a wide open clearing and the sun met me with beaming authority. I looked outward and realized quickly this had to be the prairie section! Oh crap! I kept running and told myself it would be over soon. From here, I slowly carved my way through the grassy inferno wishing clouds would appear or the forecasted rain would swoop in; but no such luck. Just then, a fly came and did one of those buzzing drive-bys near my ear drum, followed by a swift figure eight around my head. I had planned for the deer fly apocalypse and pinned a fly trap patch to the back of my hat before the race. The fly did another aerial assault dive bomb and the buzzing kept going directly behind me and then slowly faded away. I caught one on the trap! This would become a frequent occurrence for me, especially in this section of the course.
As I followed the runners ahead of me, I soon realized we were vacating the Prairies and entering into the IAT! We climbed a hilly section at Brady’s Rocks where boulders hugged the single track trail and towered above us making it hard to move through. Suddenly, one of the runners turned and started running towards me saying we took a wrong turn; we were off course! Sure enough, the yellow blazes (similar to a vertical dash mark) were nowhere to be seen on any nearby trees. Seeing yellow blazes meant you were on the Ice Age Trail. We backtracked our way out and eventually found where we went wrong. After going more than a half mile the wrong way and wasting some precious time, it was a relief to see both the yellow blazes and the yellow Ornery Mule flags flanking the right hand side of the trail.
I could hear the crowd from a distance and I knew I was close to the Highway 67 aid station which meant I was close to getting some relief from my crew. My Dad, sister Katie, niece Kennedy and my buddy Ben were there waiting for me. Once again, I took the same prescription: Tums, Tylenol, a McDonalds breakfast burrito, an ice cold Red Bull and applied sunscreen, some tick spray and wiped my face with baby wipes to remove my sweat and their salt deposits. The aid station had tubes of freezie pops which I consumed quick enough to give myself an ice cream headache. I took my hat off and did a double take at my deer fly collection that had grown over the last 8 miles. I poured cold water over my head, changed my shirt and put my hat back on. Ben had filled my hydration vest and gave me the next round of gels to take with me on my journey and I headed back out.
My core temperature finally felt cooler and I took to the trails refreshed. Out of left field a bug hit the back of my throat and I tried to clear it to no avail. Just then my gag reflex kicked in and a mild vomit dislodged the bug out of my mouth and onto the trail beside me. What a relief! I pushed onward for the next 5 miles through the Scuppernong loop ending at the trailhead where I met my next roster of crew all stars. My wife Kelsey Gonring, daughter Millie, Father in Law Tim, Mother in Law Vicki Weinberger my buddy Ben OK, my buddy Dustin Mayer and his girlfriend Denise Steele. My first official 50k was in the books and I celebrated with some much needed calories; a double butter burger with cheese from Culvers! I changed my shirt and switched to a bucket hat after painfully remembering that I had to hit the Prairies again on my way back in!
I was officially done with the outward portion and now I was on my way back. As the day grew longer my feet felt heavier and my quads took the brunt of the constant climbs. Descending a hill, I tripped on a rock and flew airborne lunging forward. I braced my fall with my hands to the ground but the momentum took me head over heels doing a front flip of sorts and landing on my back. The guy next to me helped me up and I sprung to my feet, slightly embarrassed over the fall and thankful to be ok, I kept trekking on.
By the time I hit the Prairies again, it was slightly cooler out and I was glad that I was wearing my bucket hat for optimal coverage. I embraced the suck and eventually made it out of there alive, eager to get to the next crew stop back at the McMiller Trailhead (mile 44). At this point my sister Amanda joined the crew party as she was set up to start pacing me from the Bluff at mile 56, but that meant I had a long 12 miles to go. It was great to see her and I really looked forward to her pacing me to the 100K mark. I ate some cold ramen noodles, refueled, changed my shirt, hat and buff and headed back out.
On my 12 mile journey back, I had few revelations. The first one was that I had assumed that I would be at the Bluff by 9pm, but if I didn’t make it there by then I would be in a tough spot because my headlamp and waist light were in my crew bin. Additionally, I realized that every mile I now ran became the furthest distance I had ever run and it was a great feeling when I hit mile 50. The sun slowly started to go down and that caused happiness and anxiety. I knew the cooler temps in the evening would soon be here, but I had to get to the Bluff before dark.
In the low level parts of the dense forest trail it seemed like the sun was already absent, but as I got closer to Bald Bluff, the lighter it became as I climbed higher and higher towards the sky. The familiar sound of the aid station generator and the cheers of people were getting closer. I pushed myself to the top of the Bluff and then rifled down it to the aid station where I met my crew just before 9pm. Amanda was ready to pace me with her gear good to go. I smashed a slice of Rocky Rococo’s pizza and chased it down with some chicken broth while Kelsey changed my socks. Ben and Amanda filled my hydration pack, stuffed my pockets with gels and off we went.
With darkness upon us, a new excitement invigorated my body and mind. I was only 7.4 miles to the 100k checkpoint at Nordic and got to spend those miles catching up with my sister. In retrospect, after this moment forward, I completely lost any concept of time. She and I shared some laughs and just enjoyed the trail. I walked more than I probably should have in this stretch back, but there were some huge hills on this segment and I was getting acclimated to the dark. About a mile out from Nordic near the 100k point we passed a girl hunched over and puking her guts out. She dug deep and belted out her cadence loudly. Just a blunt reminder to myself that if I didn’t keep up with my nutrition that could easily be me.
I reached the Nordic Trailhead where I started the race nearly 18 hours earlier and crossed the finish line checkpoint at the 100K mark. At this point, 100 mile registered runners were giving an enticing option if desired, to bow out and drop down to a 100k finisher or they could make their way south to the Rice Lake Trailhead with an out and back accumulating some 37 additional miles to reach the 100 mile mark upon crossing the finish line back at Nordic. I joked a few times while getting ready to head back out that we should just go to the bar instead. Alas, I laced up my boots, grabbed my trekking poles and took off back through the Nordic start line. The race MC yelled, “Hundred Miler Going Out”, and the crowd cheered.
For the next 14 miles, my buddy Ben would be my pacer. He would take me through Tamarack, the Bluff, Duffin Road and finally to the Highway 12 Trailhead aid station. Ben and I met at WIBA (Wisconsin Brick Adventures) while training for Ironman Wisconsin back in 2017 and have kept in touch since. He has done many ultras previously so I was glad he agreed to help. Ben and I talked about endurance sports, our goals, our gear and what’s next. The Tamarack Aid Station was decked out with a Hawaiian theme and multi-colored glow sticks lined both sides of the trail. They were so welcoming, helpful and hospitable. By this time I couldn’t eat another gel so I opted for the Ritz’s Handi-Snack pack; a familiar thing of my youth, while Ben snagged a bag of Gardettos. The first 7 miles seemed to take forever and mainly because it was the same 7 I just did previously, but in reverse order. We made it to the Bluff and my sister and my next pacer Scott were there crewing and waiting.
I switched to my waist light and that made a considerable difference to the visibility of the trail. Ben and I climbed to the top of the Bluff, but this time we got to take a left instead of a right at “Confusion Corner” and head south towards the Rice Lake segment. The next 6 miles were somewhat of a blur as we ran through technical switchbacks and steady climbs in the middle of the night. When we reached the Duffin Road aid station, I was drastically behind on gels and nauseous to the thought of sliding another one down my throat. Between the electrolyte hydration fluids, dabs of base salt and countless gels, my mouth was desert dry and my tongue akin to jerky. The aid station volunteers sold me on a tortilla roll-up filled with strawberry jelly that I washed down with some ice cold ginger ale. I feverishly ate two orange quarters and jumped back into the dark meandering wooded path. At one point, we passed a group of runners and they said “Good Morning”. I thought to myself, good morning, what time is it? It was 4 AM already which meant the sun would be up in just 1.5 hours! We got closer to the highway 12 aid station and the stars began to disappear as the sun started to climb.
The Highway 12 aid station became my crew’s “war room” to strategize the finish. My buddy Scott, and my sister Amanda were there waiting and we did our routine fill and fuel up. The smell of breakfast was in the air as the volunteers were crisping up bacon with potatoes and had coffee at the ready for us zombie runners. Amanda grabbed me some breakfast, some more orange quarters and Ben fetched a grapefruit La Croix for me from his stage vehicle in the Highway 12 lot. I addressed my chaffing in multiple locations with aquaphor and Scott and I took off to Rice Lake just prior to daylight.
Running the out and back Rice Lake segment with Scott was exactly what I needed. He and I have worked together for the last 11 years and also trained for Ironman Wisconsin together and beyond. This stretch was very difficult with steep vertical climbs and rough terrain packed with large rocks and tall manmade wood beam steps. These objects made footing hard to come by and it also meant I had to lift my legs higher to clear at a time where they had already been in constant motion for 24 hours. The harder the challenges the trail gave us though, seemingly the more laughs Scott and I had. Before long, the familiar sound of a generator was off in the distance and I could see the sun illuminating a body of water that I concluded to be Rice Lake.
Amanda was there patiently waiting with my gear and cooler as we “checked the box” of the race’s furthest mile South. The Rice Lake aid station was stocked with food and a lady who was volunteering was crisping up some fresh grilled cheese sandwiches. She pulled one off the flat top and insisted that I eat it. I happily obliged and ate it with satisfaction alongside a few more orange quarters. Amanda loaded my fuel and nutrition needs and said just a heads up, “You have 18 miles to get back to Nordic and 6 hours until cut off”. My mind didn’t process what she said and math was a foreign language to my brain at that point in time.
Scott and I ventured back out the way we came in and you could feel the earth below us start to rekindle its embers from yesterday’s fire as the morning sun rays danced on the soil around us. I knew Sunday was supposed to be nearly the same temps as the day prior and the last thing I wanted to do was to get caught in it while I closed the gap on 100 miles. I tried to pick up the pace, but seemingly the opposite direction of the trail we just did was even more difficult. The downhills were cumbersome with the rough terrain halting any momentum from the quick footwork prior to. This meant walking the steep uphills and walking the downhills for safety sake. Towards the last mile of the leg I was able to find some true runnable stretches that took us straight to highway 12.
When I got there, Kelsey, Amanda and Ben had everything ready to go. Amanda told me that if I kept the pace I was going plus the time for aid stations I would miss the cut off by 15 minutes. I knew that on the way back to the Bluff, I would have to dig deep to close the gap and hopefully, bank roll some time. Ben paced me from mile 86 to 93 and I gave it everything I had. I dropped a 15:39 minute mile, then a 12:33, a 15:53, 15:07 and 17:01 with time spent at the Duffin Road aid station to refuel and finally a 17:11 as we ran down the Bluff to the aid station. Ben texted the crew what my needs were and they had everything ready to pick up and go! We made up some considerable time and Amanda was ready to take me home, back to Nordic where I started this journey 93 miles earlier.
I was gassed from emptying the tank the last 7 miles, but I knew I had to use everything I had left to carry me to the finish. It was already late morning and the sun was raging early. Even though this was technically my second time back to Nordic, everything looked different. It was light out now and I realized almost the whole stretch back was exposed to the sun. Nordic is used in the winter months for cross country skiing so the trail was really wide and mostly unobstructed. I had no choice but to sweat it out. The climbs were torturous and every time I made it to the top, I had to catch my breath. I attacked the downhills fast and furiously to try to save more time. When we reached the last aid station at Tamarack I guzzled down some iced ginger ale, put some ice down my buff and under my hat and took 2 cups of ice with me. The ladies at the aid station pumped me up. They said, “You are going to finish and get your 100 mile buckle on a very tough course on a super hot day. There aren’t many of you in this race that get to say that. You got this.”
We headed out and took the remaining 5.1 miles one at a time. Run, walk the hills, and run the flats and the downs; repeat. What seemed like an eternity, the finish became a reality; I heard the crowd at Nordic and I laid eyes on the finish.
Amanda and I stopped quickly so I could change my shirt. I put on my pink Under Armour tech tee for cancer awareness. I had worn that shirt 8 years previous at my first marathon that was dedicated to my mom who was in the throes of battling cancer at the time. She passed away a year and a half ago and it was important to me to cross the finish line wearing that shirt in memory of my mom.
My sister paced me to the bottom of my last hill and ducked out to join the crowd and I ran it home to finish what I had started. My family and crew were there waiting for me and the race director expressed her congratulations and handed me my buckle.
I became an ultra marathoner that day at the 50k mark, a 50 mile ultra runner, a 100k ultra runner and then finally a 100 mile finisher! I later learned that out of the 239 registered runners only 67 of us finished the 100 mile race in less than 30 hours!