This fall, Scott Kummer is running three of the toughest 100-mile trail races in the country, all in a period of two months. A little more than a decade ago, Kummer was an overweight smoker who started running because of a dare from a co-worker. While he may have taken a roundabout path to the sport, the 43-year-old Kummer has certainly found his calling.
As a teenager, Kummer became addicted to drugs and alcohol. But he was able to clean up his life around age 21 and went on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later law school at DePaul. As a side effect of his sobriety Kummer gained a lot of weight.
“I was working at a law firm with an elite marathon runner in the office,” he recalls. “We cheered for him at his races and supported him and then he challenged us at one point to do a half marathon, as an office. That kind of catapulted me into the marathon world.”
He spent the next 10 years doing marathons, but he wouldn’t say he was your typical marathoner. “I was definitely a Clydesdale,” he says. “In fact, for the first five years that I did marathons, I was a pack-a-day, morbidly obese marathon runner. At some point I quit smoking and lost a little bit of weight, but I was always the Clydesdale, back-of-the-pack, fun guy. People like having the one big guy on their team. I was that guy.”
But after about a decade of road racing, Kummer gave it up.
“At some point, around when I got married, I lost touch with the marathon world,” he says. “I wasn’t getting any better and it wasn’t that motivating to me any more.”
But then he read a book, The Long Run by Mishka Shubaly, which inspired him to think about the sport again.
“It was about his discovery of getting sober through running ultra distances,” says Kummer. “Somewhere I got it into my head that maybe I could run 50 miles. I did a 50K in the middle of my marathon experiences but it was more of an anomaly than something I wanted to get into. I was always like, run a 50 miler? That just sounds stupid. Who the hell would want to do that? But that book kind of put the idea in my head and I trained toward that as my big goal,” he says.
Kummer started running again, increased his mileage and signed up for the North Country Run in Manistee, Michigan. On Aug. 25, 2012, he toed the starting line for his first ultra-distance trail run. “I had my family and crew there,” he says. “It seemed like the biggest, hardest, most complicated thing that I would ever do in my life at the time.”
Which is strange now looking back.
“A lot of people around me were doing 100-mile races and 24-hour races and I thought, if my feeling after I cross the finish line is ‘never again’ then forget it,” he recalls. “If I finish and feel okay then I’m going got take it to the next level and run 100 miles.”
“I crossed the finish line and thought, well, it was hard, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” he says. “I thought I’d have pain from head-to-toe and just want to die. I was more like just really, really tired. So I said to myself, "well, I guess I’ve got to go run 100 miles now.”
The experience launched Kummer’s commitment to ultrarunning. He continued running 50Ks and 50 milers, including the Ray Miller 50 Miler (which has since become the Sean O’Brien 50 Miler after a wildfire destroyed much of the original course) in southern California. “I knew that after running in real mountains that running hills in Illinois would feel like nothing,” he says. “That really helped as a training plan.”
His first 100-miler was the Potawatomi Trail Run in Pekin, Illinois, which went better than he expected. “Again, it was not quite as hard as I thought it would be,” he reports. “Don’t get me wrong, it was hard. But I finished it.”
Over the last two years, Kummer has participated in 15 ultras, including three 100-mile runs and six 50-milers. He participated in the Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa and the world’s longest turkey trot, which stretches 91.5 miles from Milwaukee to Chicago.
For Kummer, it’s his love of the outdoors that has brought him a better connection to the sport than road racing ever did. “I think for me I love being in the forest by myself,” he says. “I love running in the woods. That really attracted me to ultrarunning. And people have attracted me to ultrarunning—they’re a different kind of people.”
Pondering the trail running community, Kummer sees common links between runners.
“I think that culture is changing, but when I first got into ultrarunning, it just seemed like family,” he says. “It was a strange vibe. In road running there’s a lot of us-vs-them, the fast guys and the slow guys, the cool guys and the weird guys. In ultrarunning, we all accept each other and cheer for each other and I felt more like the people who were winning were part of my race experience than I did when I ran on the road.”
The natural setting is big part of the sport’s appeal. “I like the physical challenge of going through rivers and streams and mountains and mud,” he says. “Those are all the things that you have to deal with and overcome the adversity. There’s always a point [in a race] where you’re at the deepest, darkest bottom and if one more bad thing happens, you think you’re going to quit. And from there you go to crossing the finish line. That’s pretty awesome.”
To help train in the urban environs of Chicago (Kummer lives in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago), he helped organize the Flatlanders Ultrarunners, a club for his fellow long-distance trail runners who must make do with what the Chicago area has to offer.
“It’s not a real running group,” he reports. “It’s really just a Facebook page for people who want to run together. To be honest, when we started it, I thought it would be about 10 of us. And boom, it’s up to 350 people. It’s hard to believe there are 350 ultrarunners in Chicagoland. But yeah, it’s nice.”
They meet most weekends at the Palos Trail System southwest of the city and help each other crewing for races in the Midwest. Kummer, who grew up in West Allis, Wisconsin, also spends time in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, close to where he still has family. But still, living in Chicago isn’t the easiest thing for an ultrarunner who loves the mountains.
“If I go to a race that’s exceedingly cold, I may have an advantage because I’m used to it,” he says. “But other than that, it’s really, really hard. Which is part of what makes it so awesome. Part of my dream is to someday cross the finish line of the Hardrock 100, the toughest race in the country. People will be like, this guy from Chicago finished the Hardrock and look at what he had to deal with, training in the streets."