Michele Hartwig: The head mule at Ornery Mule Racing
By Henry Howard
In late 2023 the UTMB-Ironman group instituted a coup to create a North American race, shoving aside beloved ultra runner and race director Gary Robbins and his Whistler Alpine Meadows race.
The North American ultra running community was justifiably outraged. There are various calls to boycott UTMB, elite athletes pursuing other races and other forms of protest being waged.
Throughout this year, I will highlight one North American race director who specializes in trail and ultra events as a way to highlight what makes this sport great. That is the people, the community and the events themselves.
To kick things off in January, I am highlighting Michele Hartwig, the mastermind behind Ornery Mule Racing. Her team holds seven events annually in and around Illinois and Wisconsin. I have interview Hartwig before about her journey as a runner, and met her a few times when I did the Hennepin Hundred.
If you have nominations for other race directors to highlight, feel free to contact me with your suggestions.
Michele Hartwig: Ornery Mule Race Director
Question: Why did you get into race directing?
Answer: I wanted to invite people to run and race on my local trails. Especially women since I did not see many women at trail and ultra races when I started. I designed race courses that I enjoyed running, in the distances that I enjoy.
Question: How did you get your start as an RD?
Answer: Earth Day 50K and Frozen Gnome 50K were the first two races I put on. I chose the date for Earth Day based on it being a good time frame to use the race as a training run for the Ice Age 50 mile race. Frozen Gnome is a winter race and I wanted a fun race that could help keep people motivated to train through the winter.
Question: What's the most interesting thing you've learned about yourself since you became a race director?
Answer: When I started as an RD, I was so socially introverted that I could barely talk to people. I had to learn to speak to people to put on a race. If I had not become an RD there is no way I would have ever broken through that barrier within myself. It has made my life better to be able to relax around people. I still can struggle, but I am 110% better than I ever dreamed I would be.
Question: What's your best piece of advice for someone who wants to become a race director?
Answer: Make a race that you would love to run yourself. Work hard, get organized and manage your time well.
Question: What's your favorite race to direct?
Answer: Whichever race I am putting on that week. Ha ha! I really feel that way. I get so excited to see everyone and create a beautiful event for them. Our crew is very excited about Midwest States 100/100K/50K trail race. The local community around the course has really embraced the race. A running group has formed at Lake Eleven Brewery and many folks from the area run and volunteer at the race. It feels like our home away from home there.
Question: What's your favorite race to run?
Answer: I have a tradition of running Javelina Jackass 31K with my kids. I look forward to that. Javelina Jundred 100K is a race I have run multiple times and was always a favorite.
Question: Tell me about a funny experience as an RD and what you learned from it.
Answer: One year at Hennepin Hundred my husband was driving the supply truck to stock the aid stations before the race starts. He does this overnight before the race. If we do it any earlier things are stolen. On the way to the first aid station he got a flat tire. He called me up only an hour after I went to sleep to tell me what happened. He needed me to go purchase locally everything we would need for that station and deliver in case he could not get tire service in time. I went to the local Casey's and spent $700 on water, coolers, snack bars, candy, bananas, cups, etc. ... It was pouring rain. I went and put coolers full of food and water at the first three aid stations to make sure they had things in case he did not make it. Then drove to the start of the race to arrive just in time to set up. My husband did make it to the aid stations on time, but it was quite interesting. There is not time during the race for me to sleep, so I drank a lot of coffee that weekend.
Question: If a runner can only do one of your races ever, it would be .... (and why):
Answer: That is very hard to choose. I feel like we have such a wide range of races. From 5 miles to 100 miles. I personally love our 100-mile race courses because distance is my favorite to train for. If forced to pick one I will pick Soul Crusher 5- and 100-miler because that is a distance that will appeal to any runner. The locally running club "MUDD" decorates the course with giant skeletons and signs. They work all night setting it up. It is an unbelievably cool set up. Jenny our photographer goes out there in the middle of the night and gets photos of them setting up. It is really special what a community that cares about their trails can accomplish.
Question: What exciting project do you have in the works?
Answer: We are scouting trails and have a few courses under consideration. I would not add a race to our schedule unless I felt it was fabulous. I have a passion for wanting runners to be the healthiest, smartest runners they can be. Right now we are working on ideas for coaching camps, and group coaching ideas to make coaching affordable for everyone. This is something that I am personally excited to be able to offer. I know when I hired a running coach it greatly improved my health.
Question: Where can runners find out more about your races?