When you ask an ultra marathoner why a person would want to run 100-miles, the answer is a bit ineffable, but ultimately the challenge is in pursuit of finding, and pushing, the limits of human ability and coming to a closer understanding of one’s self. Humans run 100 miles or more because it is possible.
“It’s like the mountain, it’s because it's there,” describes Al Edwards who lives in Kentucky part time, and who finished ninth.
“It allows you to not take for granted the good things that you have,” explains Andrew Smola, from Wildwood, Missouri, who has finished 100-mile races in the past, but was not able to finish the War Hammer 100. “You go through a lot of suffering and it’s tough and I think you come out on the other side a better person.”
And as more people are getting into ultra running, we are finding that those limits are far more distant and attainable than we ever imagined, but not 100 percent of the time.
The inaugural War Hammer 100 is just one example of events helping people push their limits. Set along the Sheltowee Trace, the War Hammer 100 is a 101.7-mile route that works its way south from the scenic Red River Gorge to Wildcat Mountain near Livingston in southern Kentucky.
Runners were challenged June 2 with mud, rivers, dogs, upset stomachs, the extreme heat of the day, the cool pitch-blackness of night in the Daniel Boone National Forest, and hours upon hours of exhaustion compounded by sleep deprivation to try and complete the course in less than 32 hours.
Thirty-seven runners signed up for the event; only 13 completed the course. It is fitting that the inaugural War Hammer 100 was set along the Sheltowee Trace, named after the patron saint of Kentucky, Daniel Boone. He was given the name Sheltowee (meaning "big turtle") when he was adopted as the son of the Chief Blackfish of the Shawnee tribe because he frequently traveled vast distances with a pack on his back, giving him the look of a large turtle.
As the War Hammer 100 began, the Daniel Boone forest was filled with modern day Sheltowees.
To watch an ultra marathon is like watching life itself unfold, very rarely does one person always lead the pack. Those who you thought were sure winners drop out or drop behind and the most unassuming of runners can come out of nowhere to secure a win.
Early in the race a talented young runner, Dustin Mitchell, led the way. He looked spry, but Mitchell is a young, fast runner; a dangerous combination in the world of ultra-running. By the time Mitchell arrived at the aid station at mile 31.4, a veteran ultra marathoner, Will Rivera, part of the USA ultra marathoning team at the upcoming Spartathalon (a 152-mile race through Greece) was hot on his heals. Runners started reaching their 30-mile marks as the day became hot and humid.
Each station was speckled with waves of runners gulping down water and energy drinks, trying to eat as many calories as possible, stuffing clothing full of ice cubes, and pouring water over themselves to keep cool. After mile 31.4, but before the aid station at mile 58.4, Will Rivera made his move, taking full advantage of the heat and the lack of cover on the roads to gain an hour lead on the other runners.
By the time runners began reaching the 58.4 mile aid station, the sun was down and night running had begun. It is a common belief in ultra runner that the real race does not start until mile 50, when extreme fatigue, frustration and the most acute exhaustion start nipping at the heals of even the most experienced runners.
While a talented runner can often rely on physical training to get them through a race, ultra running must rely on their minds.
At 50-miles everyone is in pain. The difference between those who continue and those who drop out is often mind over matter. With near constant rain and thunderstorms in the days prior to the race, the excessive water on a runner’s feet can be painful and demoralizing. Blisters and lost toenails accompany the pale white toes and soles of sore feet and they were the reason that many competitors were forced to quite the race. In short, they could barely walk, let alone run.
“Something unique to trail running is that at some point (there will be a race) that we cannot finish,” explain Michael Whisman, the race director of the War Hammer 100 and co-owner of Next Opportunity Events that put on the race. While the normal drop out rate for ultra-marathons typically hovers around 20 percent, the drop out rate for the War Hammer 100 was considerably higher, with around two thirds of participants dropping out; a testament to just how tough the Kentucky wilderness can be.
As midnight approached the lead of the pack began coming into the aid station at mile-74.8. Will Rivera was in and out of the station quickly, followed by Adam Rood who spent the first part of the race near the upper middle of the pack, had no support crew and was easily one of the most unassuming runners of the day.
However, at mile-50 Rood slowly starting picking up speed to pick off racers one by one. At the 74.8 aid station, Rood had taken second place, politely asked for a banana and few other snacks, some gulps of water and was quickly back on the trail.
Rood, in the time between mile 30 and mile 75, had overtaken Matt Hoyes, a talented runner and cyclist who excels at the 50-mile ultra-marathoning distance. Mitchell, despite his impressive performance early in the race, soon dropped out of the race around mile 80.
The finish line was quiet as a handful of volunteers and race coordinators waited for the runners to cross. Around 6:30 a.m. Rivera crossed at 24:46:37. Less than 20 minutes later Adam Rood crossed at 25:03:22.
Rood looked like he could have run another 100-miles. “If there had only been a few more miles he would have caught me,” Rivera admits. After a chorus of praise a Rood’s race and his ability to pick off the completion one by one Rood humbly replies, “That’s just how I race.”
Slow and steady wins the race; the Sheltowee was never a more fitting title for Rood.
Rivera and Rood were soon followed by Michelle McLellan, the women’s first place finisher at 26:57:25.
Each finisher plopped into a canvas chair at the finish line. “We sit all the time,” Andrew Smola tells me, “but when you sit after completing 100 miles it is the greatest feeling in the world.”
The winners received a war hammer, short sword and battle ax as first, second, and third place trophies respectively, and all runners that completed the race received a War Hammer 100 belt buckle, which is a traditional prize in the ultra marathoning world.