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Kettle Moraine 100 mile race review: Challenge accepted and achieved

The Kettle Moraine 100-miler is a challenging course, full of rolling hills and my Western States qualifier for 2024.

(Photo by Jenny Thorsen.)

By Henry Howard 


The magnetic draw just wouldn’t let go.


After missing twice in 2023 for a Western States qualifier, I initially thought that my primary running goal had fallen out of reach. But time not only heals all wounds, it lets us focus, contemplate and process.


That allowed me the time I needed to realign my priorities. I had vowed to not have any regrets and returned to the long path that hopefully in time will bring me to the track at Placer High School in Auburn, Calif., the coveted Western States finish line. To realize that goal, the next step would be recommitting myself to getting a qualifier, signing up for a challenging race and getting to work.


The Kettle Moraine 100 mile race in LaGrange, Wis., was my chosen comeback qualifier for Western States. It would be my most challenging 100-miler since my first (Rio del Lago in 2019) with significantly more elevation gain — 10,000 feet compared to 1,000 — than my two other finishes, both at the Hennepin Hundred. 


To get me through the race, I knew I would need an awesome crew and I was incredibly grateful for those on my team — the self-proclaimed “Three Musketeers of Handsome:” Brandon Seaver, Michael Drazer and Mark Vega. They never had to talk me off the ledge, and served me well at my aid station stops, during the final 38 miles of pacing and getting me home safely.


Why Kettle Moraine?


The road to the rolling hills of Kettle Moraine was a bumpy one. But after all, as ultra runners, we don't do things because they are easy, we do them because they are hard.


In 2023, I chose the Burning River 100 as a challenging race — and it was.


The Kettle Moraine 100 is mostly single track.

An unusually wet race day morning turned part of the trail into a swollen creek, while at the same time, my stomach decided to churn another way. From miles 34 to 50, I essentially walked it in after a great start on the first 25 miles. The race allows 100-milers to drop at 50 and accept an official 50-mile finish.


That's the fate I chose, knowing that I would be able to recover in time and take another crack at a Western States qualifier during the current qualification period. After much deliberation, I elected to go back to the Hennepin Hundred, where for the first time I would have just a one-man crew and no pacers.


My virgin crew person did awesome for the first 63ish miles and I was feeling good. Then a miscommunication led to me taking a DNF at mile 74.5.


That brings us to Kettle Moraine in June 2024, a challenging course that posed just what I needed. (Fun fact: the location is in a town named LaGrange, and I could not help reflecting back to my high school wrestling team as we ran out to ZZ Top’s “La Grange” before every varsity match.)


A summertime race in a state forest in Wisconsin could bring on any number of obstacles to a good race day. It could be potentially hot, humid and muggy. Or runners could face rain, lightning and thunderstorms. Or ravaging mosquitoes, black flies and other hungry creatures might infiltrate the course. While those elements were uncertain going into race day, one thing was a given — there would be plenty of climbing.


The race website estimated 8,800 feet while my watch recorded 9,700. Whatever the total amount was, it was a good test of my physical fitness and mental fortitude. And that’s just what I needed.


Me and the “Three Musketeers of Handsome,” from left, Michael Drazer, Mark Vega and Brandon Seaver.

Giving thanks


Kettle Moraine lived up to the challenge and served my purpose to redefine what’s possible. I crossed the finish line in 28:38:59, my slowest 100 by far. But this race was never about the finishing time. It was proving to myself that I do still have what it takes to finish a race of this distance, and rekindled the stoke, fire and belief that Western States is within reach.


I am incredibly grateful for the support I received, virtually and in real life. Among those who I could not have finished this race without include:


• My wife and other family members who are supportive of these endeavors through all the ups and downs of an ultra runner’s journey.


• The aforementioned “Three Musketeers of Handsome.” Brandon, who has been a crew chief and pacer several times, was instrumental in getting everything organized and functioning as a well-oiled machine; Michael, a fellow member of Team SWAP, guided me through the most challenging section of the race as I learned by doing with borrowed poles; and Mark, who will be rocking his first 100-miler in the near future, was incredibly helpful in his role as cheerleader, support person and chauffeur on the four-hour drive back to my house.


• My coach, David Roche. In a pre-race call, he told me exactly what I needed to hear, “You have a mission. Deliver a message, 100 miles, to the finish line.” Mission accomplished, coach.


• Race director Michele Hartwig and all of the Ornery Mule Racing volunteers who made this event truly special, as they do all of their races.


Grateful for the brands that support my running endeavors.

• My athletes who all wished me luck, followed my journey virtually and/or sent me kudos.


• The brands that I use and support me in my endeavors, including Honey Stinger (hands down the best gluten-free waffles), Gnarly Nutrition (I love their NSF sport certified products for before, during and after workouts), UltrAspire (once again their bottles, waist belt and light, and hat worked perfectly for me), Squirrel’s Nut Butter (100 miles, zero blisters) and InsideTracker (as a longtime customer, I’ve seen my health and fitness improve, thanks to their thorough analysis and personalized recommendations. Try InsideTracker for yourself and save 20% with this my code HENRYHOWARD at this link).


Throughout all the training for Kettle, I remained thankful for the opportunity to run, walk and hike the 100 miles. While that box has been checked, the buckle earned and qualifier secured, the ultimate goal remains out there.


Until I get the opportunity to gaze up with wonder from Olympic Valley toward the escarpment, there will be other, incremental goals. And it is within the overall process, where the growth as a runner, coach and human will be realized and the real victory will be found.


Enjoy the process. Keep showing up. And dream big.


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