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Michele Hartwig's evolution as ultra runner, race director

By Henry Howard

When Michele Hartwig’s kids were young she would take them on bicycle rides on a nearby trail. A spark was lit when she saw runners enjoying the trail.

“I remember seeing runners on the trails and thinking that it would be really cool to see the trail at that pace,” she recalls. “They just made it look so easy, even though I thought there was no way in the world that I could ever do that. I had tried running before, and I could only make it 10 feet and I was out of breath and dying. For some reason, I decided I should try that.”

For motivation Hartwig signed up for the only race she was familiar with: the Chicago Marathon, which was a year away. “I was scared, which is a good place to be actually,” she admits. “I didn't want to fail. I just started trying to do it.”

She downloaded a Hal Higdon training plan and followed it precisely. It improved her fitness but not her confidence.

“I showed up on race day panicked that I wouldn't be able to finish,” she says. “I don't know what I thought was going to happen.”

Hartwig met up with friends from a health club, where she took spin classes and yoga. She ended up running with them, but was so well trained that she ended up waiting for them at times. Unfortunately, that was the year that the Chicago Marathon was canceled partway through due to the heat.

Since she was so well trained, she did the Indianapolis Monumental marathon a couple of weeks later. “It was just easy because I was trained and I realized that training worked. It was the first time I ran and actually found that I liked it.”

Thoughts of running an ultra

After crossing their first marathon finish line, many runners swear off long distances, at least temporarily. Not Hartwig.

“I crossed the finish line and said to my husband, ‘If I ran five more miles, it would be an ultra,’’ she recalls. “I really don't know where that came from, but that's immediately where my brain went.”

And that initial reaction would later turn out to be a catalyst that propelled Hartwig into an ultra runner, race director, podcast host and entrepreneur of Ornery Mule Racing.

Hartwig sought out the trails. A friend pointed out Veterans Acres, which is where she hosts a couple of races.

“I immediately thought, ‘Man, I need to do that,’” she recalls. “For whatever reason, I wanted to run through the woods and do something that was the hardest thing I ever did. I went out to Veterans Acres, and it was kind of scary because nobody was out there. But I learned my way around and learned to run trails, and then started signing up for trail races.”

Inspired by the trail, Hartwig carved out a niche for herself and started putting on races.

“I just really liked it and I wanted other people to get to do what I love to do,” she explains. “When I go on trips now and my husband doesn't get to go or my kids don't get to go, I think, ‘I have to go back because they have to get to do this.’”

The evolution of a race director

The first race she directed was the Earth Day trail race, which had 75 runners.

"Oh my gosh, I need to make sure 75 people are safe and take care of them all day long," she remembers thinking. "This is such a huge responsibility. But I was also super excited that they were going to get to enjoy the trail that I loved, and find out about ultra running.”

Earth Day, considered a very good first-timer race, now sells out and is capped at 475 entrants. The next race to be added to Hartwig’s portfolio is Midwest States.

"There's a Western States, there's an Eastern States,” she says. “I'm a proud Midwest runner and I love our trails that we have around here. We need a Midwest States. But it needed to be a course that was worthwhile to bring people in.”

Hartwig has laid out a course on the iconic Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin for Midwest States.

“The Ice Age Trail goes through Chequamegon National Forest and there's some really cool sections,” she says. “It's an underused part of the trail. It's a little bit of a drive to get there. And it's just seemed like a really intriguing, deep, dark woods course, and it's gorgeous.”

Part of Hartwig’s vision also includes reinvesting into the trail.

“I'm hoping that the race can help contribute to the trail being more usable. Right now, parts are just too wet and too rugged. It's just not well maintained. And it needs money invested in it. And so, I'm hoping that this race will be around for many, many years, and it will help develop that trail to even better than what it is.”

Runners at the first Midwest States will find a deep, dark forest with ferns, tall trees, a little lake, and maybe bears. “I find it super interesting that you might run across a bear. Until I run across a bear, I'm going to find that really interesting,” she says with a laugh.

Hartwig reached out to Western States 100 to get their feedback on her proposed name. “I did ask permission, or their blessing. I kind of knew legally, I didn't have to, but respectfully, that's what I felt like I needed to do.”

While the name has been set, the race debut is still up in the air due to COVID restrictions and permits. Given the uncertainty, Hartwig is targeting 2022 for the race.

“I want it to be awesome, and I just feel it should be next year when it can really be what I want it to be.”

Overcoming COVID

For Hartwig, launching a new event is just one of the hurdles she faces as a race director in the time of COVID.

She worked full-time as national sales manager for Squirrels Nut Butter until 2019 when she decided to quit and go all in as a race director. Part of what drove her decision was that she also took over the Kettle Moraine 100 in 2019.

“My job was pretty demanding,” she says. “I worked with all the running stores in all the Midwest and some of it was throughout the U.S., so I traveled a lot. I was running these races, I'm on my phone, on the side of the road, updating my website, and traveling three hours between stores. I think I did a good job, but I felt like the races deserved 100 percent of my attention because I knew I had more that I could give to make it really super fantastic. So I decided to give up a paycheck and go race directing.”

Hartwig removed all the race gear that inundated their house and put it all in storage. Then COVID hit and she was unemployed, paying for overhead and forced to cancel 10 races.

“I needed to get super creative on how I would survive,” she says. “I cared about the community. My first gut instinct was that I felt sad for the people that had trained for Earth Day and for Kettle. And I had to tell them that they couldn't run the race. I'm very positive, and I wanted everybody to be happy and still enjoy what they're doing.”

But she did put on races, albeit virtual ones for both Earth Day and Kettle. People rallied, determined to keep Ornery Mule Racing viable.

Hartwig created a Facebook page, dedicated to healing and wellness.

The community responded again, creating a crew-like atmosphere, set to help each other toward the pandemic finish line. A book club was born. The podcast was improved. Weekly run challenges were held.

And her online sales increased.

“I was able to cover the cost of my rent, but really I was just being part of the community,” she says. “People realized that they wanted the races to come back, and they were trying to support me.”

Launching a podcast

Hartwig takes pride in being a hard worker, whether that is in her role as entrepreneur, runner or podcaster.

She launched the podcast as a way to communicate with and motivate the running community. In doing so, she placed herself in an uncomfortable position.

“I'm a high-anxiety person who was afraid to be around people. Running gave me the confidence to have friends that I just didn't have before. I just wanted that for everybody else. I felt the podcast was another way to reach out to people and help them feel comfortable in that. It's not something I'm at all necessarily comfortable with. I really don't like talking in front of people, and I was definitely really nervous on every single podcast.”

Hartwig went from a non-runner to discovering the joy of running to creating a business focused on the sport. Reflecting back, her entrepreneurial spirit began when she was a kindergartener.

She hatched many business ideas, admitting “they weren't always good.”

At one point, she had a cooked zucchini stand. Another idea was to buy a $600 pool from Sears and sell spots to swim in it. She figured out that she could buy a case of baseball cards at Walmart for $40 then sell them for more elsewhere.

“I'm not money motivated at all. I want nothing. I am not a materialistic person, but for some reason, it's just naturally, that's just the way I am.”

Hartwig also sold T-shirts.

“All of it totally sounds I'm like on my way to race directing, because I was selling sports cards, I was selling T-shirts, and I was catering food outside,” she says. “Now I sell T-shirts at a race that's a sports event, and feed people food from eight stations. It's just the way my brain works.”

Which is more exhausting and enjoyable — race directing or running a race?

“I really enjoy both of them; I work equally as hard at both of them,” she says.

“I am not good at juggling both of them at the same time, without a doubt, because I am all in whenever I'm doing anything. So if I'm working really hard at making my race great, that's 100% of my energy is going there. And when I'm training for a race, I'm the same way, 100% of my energy, I don't miss any workout. I definitely love both of them, and both for the same challenge.

“It's a total tie. I like both of them.”

Speed drill

Name: Michele Hartwig

Hometown: Crystal Lake, Ill., is where me, my husband and two children call home. We love it here because there is a lot of great trails, parks and open space. I grew up in Genoa, which is an amazing small town in Illinois.

Number of years running: 15 years

How many miles a week do you typically run: For years I was a 70 to 90 mile a week runner without any big injuries thanks to having a coach. Now I have slowed down a lot to work on my business and to find more time for my husband. He broke his leg a few years back which has caused him not to be able to run anymore. He does enjoy hiking trails so we do that together. We are also looking forward to some biking trips to this summer to expand his trail time. I average about 20 miles of running a week now.

Point of pride: As far as running accomplishments, I have had overall first female race finishes. That is always very exciting and I am very proud of them. Although, when I look back at all my races the ones I am most proud of are when I have followed my race plan and I know I performed the best that I could do. One race that things came together really well for me was Fans 12 hour race in Minnesota. I made a race day pace and nutrition plan. Even when everyone went out much faster than me, I stuck to the plan and was able to accomplish my race day mileage goal. I ran 63.25 miles in under 12 hours. I really wanted the T-shirt they gave out that said 100k under 12 hours. I love that shirt and was so happy to accomplish that goal. It was also fun that I did end up with 2nd overall female with that mileage.

I felt like I should answer my athletic pride, but truly what has made me the proudest is that I put on races that I am able to help others gain confidence, meet new friends, and reach their athletic goals. Running changed my life and I wanted to share that with others. I remember the first time I ran five miles I thought to myself, “If I can do this, I can do anything.”

I had childhood trauma that has haunted my entire life with paralyzing high anxiety. Before running, I don't remember a single day that I felt comfortable. Running gave me a confidence that allowed me to better deal with my anxiety and start to feel relaxed in the world. If I can do something to help someone overcome anxiety and quit hurting the way I remember hurting, that makes me happier than anything I could ever accomplish.

Favorite race distance: The high of finishing a 100-mile race is the best feeling in the world. I have never had a 100-mile race where everything came together perfectly, but I love trying to figure out how to improve and nail it the next time. It is relaxing to get lost in my mind and spend the race hours working towards perfect pacing, nutrition and race management.

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Watermelon or oranges during a race or run. After an ultra, I always want a hamburger.

Favorite piece of gear: I am a handheld water bottle gal. I also like a fun fanny pack.

Who inspires you: My Dad. He is kind to all people. My Dad sees the person that is often overlooked and recognizes what is special about them and becomes their friend. He loves everyone and makes sure every person he meets feels loved.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I love me some AC/DC

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I don't have a "natural talent" for running but have enjoyed trying to be competitive at races. I believe this quote as truth and have found it important during hard workouts and in crunch time of the race — “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.”

I have found that I am always happy with my race results when I gave 100% in training and on race day. It is just that simple.

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