How to Finish a 100-Mile Race Despite the Odds

Ultramarathon mindset coach Susan Donnelly finishes Kettle Moraine 100-mile race despite crazy odds

Two years ago, on the morning of the Kettle Moraine 100 in Wisconsin, I overslept.

I rolled up 20 minutes late. Not much in the scheme of a 100-mile race and I’d finished the year before with more than that to spare so I knew I could do it.

“Can I still start?” I asked.

“Yes,” they said, and a volunteer kindly guided me through the first mile where course changes were tough to follow.

The woods were quiet. I worked hard but it felt good to be running.

I passed the 4.8-mile Tamarack and the 7.6-mile Bluff aid stations without seeing another runner. Surely I would soon.

Finally, not a mile after Bluff, I caught sight of a runner less than a tenth of a mile ahead. 

Yes!! I lasered my sights on him. No matter how I was doing against clock time, I wanted the reassurance of being in the pack and moving up.


I was on the ground.

The trail lay wide and almost completely smooth but I missed something while watching the runner ahead.

The wave of discomfort washed through and I assessed the damage. 

Nothing permanent but a lot of energy expended and there was dust all over me, my water bottle and the camera in my hand. Darn it - dust in the camera was bad.

I picked myself up. Sure enough, the camera in my left hand was covered with an unhealthy layer of dust.

I started brushing it off but my hand felt odd. The problem? My left ring finger jutted, mid knuckle, at a bizarre right angle. 


The next thoughts came fast.

Dammit. I’m not going to not finish this race because of a stupid finger.”

“I’m not going to run back to the aid station for a medic who probably doesn’t exist. 

“No one’s going to fix this for me.”

“Running with it like this isn’t going to work either.”

“The only practical solution is to put it back in place myself.”

“I’ve got to do it NOW, before the pain sets in and before I can hesitate.” 

Somehow, I decided to pull it away from my knuckle while rotating it.  So I did and it stayed neatly in place on the first try. No agony. 

“Wow. I just I did that. I’m so proud of myself!”

I wanted to marvel a few moments but the episode cost me time I didn’t have, so I got going to catch the last runner all over again. Mind back on business.

I caught him. He was surprised to see another runner. We chatted briefly and I took off.

Finally on track! I built a little cushion of distance on him, breathed a sign of relief, and then remembered the ring on that finger.

"The finger will swell, the ring could cut off my circulation, and end my race. I’d better get it off fast."

So I stopped again and yanked on the ring. It fit snug on a good day so I had to work it bit by bit over the tender, puffy knuckle. That hurt.

I popped the ring in a pocket and started off, trying to make up time yet again.

Until 10 or 15 minutes down the trail when I realized I wasn’t in the right place. I’d taken a wrong turn at a known malfunction junction and had been running hard in the reverse direction. Backwards.

"Dammit, dammit, dammit. Nothing for it but to turn around and get the intersection right."

So I did and re-passed my surprised runner all over again.

I worked diligently the rest of the race to make time while enjoying it. In spite of everything - starting late, falling, dislocating my finger, and running in the reverse direction - I still finished with over two hours to spare.

The point of this story is the power of focusing on what you can do and on what you can control.

I didn’t bemoan my fate, wail about what I couldn’t do, or look for someone to blame. None of that gets you one step closer to the finish line.

Fighting against reality doesn’t work. Accepting it and deciding what to do next does.

Whatever your situation, there’s always something you CAN do, even if it’s adjusting your attitude, replacing a negative thought with a positive one, or finding the advantage in a situation.

Give that your attention and your energy and you’ll finish against the odds.

Until next week,

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