September 2020

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Woltering Battles for the Ice Age FKT

By: Jeffrey Stern

Approaching the halfway point of last year’s Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF) the temperatures dropped into the high 30s and it started raining – hard. As the weather worsened and the winds picked up it, became bitterly cold. Then the rain started to freeze, and sleet and snow ensued; the worst-case scenario for even the most seasoned ultrarunning veteran. Justifiably so, the organizers stopped the race around mile 90 with just over 15 miles to go.

Conditions weren’t anything like racers thought they’d be. But ask ultrarunners from around the globe and they’ll say that’s part of the joy in racing from dusk to dawn at events that span each month of the calendar year. They just keep moving forward no matter what.

“I thought racing conditions could never get any worse than that day,” Coree Woltering said in a recent interview after setting the Ice Age Trail Fastest Known Time (FKT) in just over three weeks. “It was comical in the moment because that kind of stuff doesn’t seem like it should happen.” Regardless, he persevered and would have gutted it out to the finish if he was permitted to.

Fast forward 13 months later to rural northwest Wisconsin in the town of Saint Croix Falls. This is the location of the southern terminus of the 1,200-mile National Scenic Ice Age Trail and also the start of Woltering’s FKT attempt. This time, conditions were worse than the UTMF. Woltering was not only hit with tropical storm Cristobal traveling from the Gulf of Mexico, but hundreds of tiny bloodsucking parasites: ticks.

Obstacles From the Start

Despite being from the Midwest, he’d never experienced such an onslaught from the tiny arachnids. Day one of his Ice Age FKT attempt was off to a bad start, with what he estimates were dozens upon dozens of ticks crawling on him throughout the entire run. When he finally made it through the first day of running, ate and rehydrated, he put his head down to rest but the ticks still haunted him. That first night he didn’t sleep a wink feeling like he still had the microscopic creatures crawling up his legs, even though they were gone. Insomnia ensued. Going into day two of what was planned to be a less than three-week adventure, he felt as if he was already done despite the fact that he was supposed to be just getting started.

Day two proved to be even more miserable because of the pesky ticks, until a tip from a backpacker was just the solution he needed: duct tape around the ankles of his long pants and tall socks to keep them at bay, so he could clear his head and finally start to click off the miles.

Only a few days later after enduring the nightmarish tick hurdle, a crippling ankle sprain and the full onslaught of the tropical storm left him questioning his motives yet again.

“The FKT was not starting out the way I wanted it to,” he recounted. “Three weeks is still a long time to be doing the same thing every day and the chances of things really recovering were kind of low.” He decided to slow down and take things just one step at a time.

“There were some sections of that trail that were absolutely miserable. I mean, I’ve been in some pretty miserable situations racing before, but it just felt like certain sections seemed to be getting worse. Even the thought of doing one mile more seemed impossible, but I knew I could always do 10 more seconds.”

With that mantra in mind, he kept grinding away each day. Despite having to walk around 30 miles (off his targeted pace of 60 miles per day) for a few days straight, the strategy became invaluable as he never got discouraged, especially as additional and unexpected encouragement started to roll in.

Woltering, his crew (including his husband, Tom Aussem) and photographer Kevin Youngblood, were getting updates on social media from people who had been on the trail just ahead of them. This helped a lot with their planning each morning, so they could prepare the right gear for absurdly muddy conditions, or know which trail sections were currently closed and reroute onto road bypasses more seamlessly.

At around mid-morning on day seven of the FKT attempt, Woltering was sitting on the side of a road icing his ankle after a tough start. Two runners were supposed to be joining him that morning, but he knew based on the baseball-sized swelling that was devouring his right ankle, running was not in the cards for the day.

Although less than ideal, Woltering knew he could walk for 22 hours each day and still get the miles in he needed to stay on pace. “That was the big moment where I knew if the ticks didn’t stop me, then this ankle was not going to stop me either,” Woltering said emphatically. Low and behold, his pacing friends also got him an appointment that evening with a sports chiropractor in a nearby town, which more than likely saved the FKT attempt.

Overall, he ended up spending roughly four and half days just walking with a limp, but eventually the swelling subsided enough and he was able to run again by the end of week two. Now he just had to make up lost time as he was nearly 100 miles off the FKT pace.

Community Comes Through

As the attempt started to gain momentum and more media outlets, both locally and nationally, started to catch on, followers started asking, “What is Coree eating to fuel so many miles day after day, and what is he craving right now?” Two things came to mind for Woltering: lasagna and red velvet cupcakes.

At the next trailhead, a trail angel dropped off three dozen cupcakes (unfortunately, the bakery didn’t have red velvet). Another angel delivered 18 homemade cupcakes (these were red velvet) and a giant tub of chicken chili with all the fixings to yet another point along the trail.

Close to the end of that same day, with plenty of carbs, fat and sugar in his belly (and even more left over in the support van), there was another family that lived in close proximity to the Ice Age Trail who offered the whole crew a place to stay. They added, “By the way, we made a homemade lasagna for you.” The weary Woltering, Aussem and Youngblood gladly accepted the incredible hospitality from complete strangers.

Back on course the next day, a rejuvenated Woltering found signs with words of encouragement from his new-found friends in rural Wisconsin. Along the trail at various points, fans wrote on cardboard and tacked messages to trees like, Keep on rocking it Coree! which incited Woltering to think beyond himself and keep the journey moving onward. He continued to connect with more companions as he chipped away at the arduous task still ahead.

Just past the midway point, the current Ice Age Trail FKT holders, Jason Dorgan and Annie Weiss, who both live in Wisconsin, joined Woltering despite having never met in person. He was impressed by their kindness and commitment to help him. “Ultrarunning is one of the few sports where, when someone is trying to break a record, the person holding the record comes out and tries to support it,” said Woltering.

During the hours on the trail, they talked a lot about their attempts and bringing awareness to trails in the Midwest, since that part of the country typically gets overlooked for having decent trails and high level athletes, “It turned into just a big Midwest party,” Woltering recalls fondly. “That’s when the miles started to get easier and I started to get stronger.”

Mental Fortitude

Before June, the biggest training week Woltering had ever run was just two months prior during his Big Run for Small Business, where he ran Every Single Street (ESS) in his hometown of Ottawa, Illinois. In 12 days, Woltering raised just over $11,000 by running 204.5 miles. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his spring ESS ended up being the perfect training for the Ice Age Trail FKT attempt.

Rain or shine, starting everyday at 9 a.m., he ran for 12 days straight in April. The routine instilled in him during ESS helped lay the groundwork for his FKT plan. It helped build a strong foundation of endurance and gave him time to practice running on tired legs. “Your legs are going to be tired and this is how you’re going to feel,” he said. “Getting used to working through that during ESS, so when I got to the Ice Age I had run with overly tired legs before and it was no big deal.”

There were, however, stark differences between his Ottawa ESS and the Ice Age Trail FKT. “Instead of it being a couple of hours per day it was going to be quite a few hours each day,” he said. “At the end of the day, it still becomes about taking small chunks of the day and just getting it done.” And that’s precisely what he did, staying focused on the daily task at hand and taking it in minutes, if not seconds at a time; truly living in the moment.

As he moved over the technical sections, his plan remained flexible with a few non-negotiables after completing each day. First, he always ate protein once he was in the car, drank Gatorade to rehydrate and put on his compression socks to keep the ankle happy. Everything else was dependent on how close they were to the hotel and what was open to eat – a vital component of his FKT attempt.

Feeding Off Trail Love

Not long after ESS Ottawa, Woltering asked himself, “What is something that is going to make a bigger difference?” Ultrarunners eat a lot of food to fuel their miles and naturally, Woltering realized how fortunate he has been to never have to worry about food on his plate. He also knows that is not the case for millions of Americans each year. He chose to collect donations for Feeding America because there will likely be a food shortage by the end of this year, and he is a firm believer that no person should ever have to go to bed hungry. The FKT was then dubbed the “Big Run for Grub” and raised $30,565 (as of 7/21).

He didn’t want the end of his Ice Age Trail FKT to be the end of his involvement in feeding the hungry, and Woltering still has considerable plans for the future, “Big Run for whatever will become a thing,” he said.

Although he has no idea what that next thing is going to be, it will piggyback on the foundation he’s already set up. One goal Woltering has is to get BIPOC kids into trail running, triathlon and adventure racing through his Team Onyx Adventure Racing Team and the Eco-Challenge. Although the team’s planned youth camps won’t happen this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, throughout the next few years their goal is to continue to grow and expand outdoor opportunities available for kids.

Woltering knows that others can learn from the ultra community. As a member of the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, and running through a predominately Caucasian part of Wisconsin, he felt incredibly welcomed. He said the interactions he had during the FKT “were a lesson in the Golden Rule. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Simple basic stuff you learn about as a kid,” he reminisced. “All I had were supportive and positive interactions. I know that is not necessarily always the case, but I could tell that people were watching and truly cared.”

He felt that he was doing something motivational for someone who might catch wind of his run. Multiple times over the course of the three weeks, he received messages from new people that earnestly wanted to know how to get involved in the sport. Some even lived within five minutes of the Ice Age Trail and didn’t even know it existed. “There are still a lot of great people out there. Even if someone doesn’t have the same political views as you, we can still all get along. It was nice to see that,” he said.

Woltering admits he didn’t even know what trail running was six years ago when he was a budding triathlete, yet he’s come so far in the sport while staying true to himself. “I’m sure there is a diverse group of great athletes out there that now know that people race 50k or 50 miles on the trails,” He’s proud to help bring a bigger spotlight to the sport while promoting the warmth and inclusion he’s felt. “Trail running is a really cool thing and people are now finally paying attention to it. I like getting the message out there and sharing stories that people of color can do this too.”

Racing For the Future

As the dark descended on June 22, Woltering rolled into the finish of the Ice Age Trail just north of the Potawatomi State Park in 21 days, 13 hours and 35 minutes – besting Annie Weiss’s time from 2018 by 4.5 hours – the very first FKT to his name.

He knows the three weeks he spent pursuing this goal only built upon an impregnable perseverance that already existed, but perhaps needed a little refinement. “I definitely had the confidence to go out and win some big races and perform well, but there’s also a mix of lack of experience with fully dialed training. Throughout this experience I learned you don’t have to have fully dialed training to go out and do this stuff. There were times on the trail when I was completely mentally off my game and felt broken.”

With four days left, he had nearly 300 miles to go and ended up running 160 miles in the final 38 hours. “There were times where I was thinking, ‘If I can do this for 10 seconds, then I can do it for 10 more seconds and then maybe my perspective will change.’”

Historically, he’s looked at 100-mile races as fun, but was unsure how to take his effort to another level. Now he feels like he can start to push himself at some of the more extreme tests when pinning on a bib number, like Badwater or Big’s Backyard. “We’re tapping into the potential that we knew was there. I just haven’t shown it in past races. I’m a lot stronger than I’ve given myself credit for.” Woltering ran an astounding 100 miles in under 24 hours on day 21.

"I want to come back to the 100-mile distance and see what I can do. I think it will be really fun. I’m excited to be able to know that I have the strength to race them and make them harder.” He knows he can improve upon his 100-mile time at the prestigious Western States.

Although the timing wasn’t planned, it’s clear Woltering’s run will prove to be a pivotal movement for his career and even ultrarunning as a whole, something that will trickle on forever. “I had no idea that this is what it would potentially become. It feels good to work really hard at something, accomplish the goal, but also get the recognition for it. It’s pretty awesome.”

Ultimately, he looks at his Ice Age Trail FKT as an extended race day experience. Similar to a race in that he started out fast with high hopes for the perfect day, and then naturally, encountered an obstacle (or two) which slowed him, before eventually rebounding and finishing fast.

“I’m really glad my crew didn’t let me quit,” Woltering said. “I usually keep a pretty level head, but I was so focused on this one tiny thing, I was ready to just give it all up.” Which reiterates the importance of a strong support network of friends, family and sometimes, complete strangers.

The next thing for Woltering is to get out into the community and share his love for ultrarunning. He experienced more than a life’s worth of events in just a few weeks and came out wiser, stronger and ready for whatever life throws his way in the future. This includes the chance to be influential in getting the next generation of all types of people out on the trails. “I’m trying to encourage people to get outdoors. I want to bring many more people into the sport.”