Please welcome the twenty second American Trail Running Association (ATRA) Trail Ambassador presented by CamelBak, and the tenth in 2018. Michele Hartwig, 51, is a lifelong resident of Illinois. She is a trail runner, race director, volunteer, and trail steward.
Wrote nominator Krystal Hardy, “When you think about trail or ultra-running, you might not think about the Midwest. But go ahead and look up Ornery Mule Racing and you’ll find that the Midwest has a lot of really good races directed by Michele Hartwig, who puts her heart and soul into everything she does. Her main goal is to make sure every runner that runs her races feels important, loved, supported, and safe. Michele puts 110% into her races, as well as the trail community.
“’We Treat Our Runners Like Family,’ that’s her motto,” continued Hardy. “And if you’ve ever spent any time with Michele, you really will feel like family! She is very welcoming to runners of every ability, and the sense of community you feel at her races is second to none. Her love of trails is what drives her to be better, do better, and constantly give back to the trail community. Michele is always working hard to make sure her races and the communities she’s involved with are taken care of.
“She is my friend and one of my favorite people,” said Hardy. “I’m newer to ultra running and she has welcomed me with open arms into her races and always takes time to make sure I’m ok. Her active role in trail running and her community has really made Midwest trail running better.”
For the past 18 years, Hartwig has called Lakewood, Illinois home. Her family includes Royal, her husband of 23 years, and two children, son Royal and daughter Tasha. Of her husband Hartwig said, “He is an amazing supporter of anything I dream of. He believes in me, so it makes any dream possible.”
Part of that dream includes her business, Ornery Mule Racing, a trail and ultra marathon company she started eight years ago. Through her company she directs five events to include Kettle Moraine 100, The Hennepin Hundred, Frozen Gnome 50k/10k, Earth Day 50k/15 mile/5 mile, and Galena Sky Trail Races.
“I started my company truly from my passion for the trails,” said Hartwig. “When I started running there were not many people running trails in Chicago-land. At the trail and Ultra races I competed in there were never any runners that lived in my community. I had a beautiful single track trail system in Crystal Lake to run on, and I rarely saw anyone else out there. I felt a need to help bring people to it. So I decided to put on a trail race.
“My first race was Earth Day Trail race at Veteran Acres Park in Crystal Lake, IL,” said Hartwig. “I wanted it to be a beginner-friendly course to encouraged first-time ultra runners and feature a variety of single track. The first year we had 75 runners, and it has grown into a cap of 475 runners that sells out every year. That race grew into two races, then three, and now five. I love many different kinds of trails, and styles of racing. Every race represents a kind of running that I personally enjoy doing.
“Ornery Mule Racing has a strong yet simple mission,” continued Hartwig. “In every decision we make we follow these acts: kindness, community, giving back, and ordinary people doing epic things.”
In addition to her company, Hartwig works in sales for Squirrel’s Nut Butter and ATRA member Tailwind Nutrition covering multiple state territories where she works with running stores and businesses to grow the brands.
Hartwig started running when her kids were young. “My hobby of biking on the Prairie Path lead to running,” she said. “While biking, I would see runners and think how great it would be to be enjoying the pretty views at a run pace. So, I started running instead. Soon I learned about single track trails which sounded kind of scary, yet exciting. I tried them and fell in love. Running trails is such an amazing feeling to think about every step, root, rock, animals, flowers, the changes in terrain.”
Since her transition into running, she has raced quite a few ultra marathons and trail races with her favorite distance being 100 miles or 100 kilometers. “In those distances it becomes more than your training, you need to think and stay mentally strong,” said Hartwig. “It is crucial to make good choices to have the results you worked for. I love the challenge of staying focused for so many hours working towards a goal I had trained the last year for. Race day is the gift, after months of dedicated training.”
She has a special place in her heart for the Kettle Moraine Endurance race. “When I was racing a lot, Kettle Moraine was always my ‘A’ race,” said Hartwig. “Much of the course is on the Ice Age Trail, and it sits perfectly well in my mind. The variety of terrain is so fun. Overall the course is very runnable with sweet single track, rolling meadows, interesting climbs, and some fairly technical downhills. A great variety to keep you interested all day long.
“This race had the best race directors in the business – Tim Yanacheck and Jason Dorgan,” said Hartwig. “They were two of the first people that welcomed me in the trail community and took away some of the intimidation I felt by these ultra races. They retired this year, and I am beyond excited they chose me to carry on as race director of this 24-year-old ultra.”
As long as Hartwig has been involved in the sport, she has volunteered at races. “I have hosted aid stations, helped with timing, and cleaned up after an event,” said Hartwig. “It takes so many people to make a race successful, so I am game for any position the race organizers need.
“I feel an obligation to give back whenever I can,” continued Hartwig. “I don’t mind, I love volunteering. I have been blessed to run many races and I feel like it is my time to give back and help others reach their goals. Helping others learn they can do this is calming and rewarding to me.”
The best part about volunteering for Hartwig is the close bond she has formed with people. But, there are other benefits as well. “It will make you a better more thoughtful runner,” said Hartwig. “You learn a lot while watching others push. You also gain an appreciation of all the work it takes to put on a race.”
Hartwig is also a huge believer in giving back to the trails you run on. “I give back in both hands-on work, and donations,” she said. “I have a deep desire to do my part in leaving earth a better place for the generations that follow us. I have seen we can make big accomplishments when we work together to nurture the things we care about. I care about trails and outdoor space.”
One of her pet projects is working on her home town trail, which is part of Crystal Lake Park District (CLPD). She is on the CLPD board as a volunteer and has participated in many trail projects there. She is also on the Friends of the Hennepin Canal board.
“The Hennepin Canal trail is Illinois’s longest trail, and it is full of history with many bridges built in early 1900s,” said Hartwig. “Ronald Reagan grew up by the canal and used to horseback ride the trail and swim in the canal. You can see historical remnants from when this was a working canal. Over the years, this rustic trail has gotten into disrepair and needs care to continue on for many more generations to enjoy, which is why a group of us are advocates for the trail. We made a connection with Senator Chuck Weaver and found he genuinely wants to help, and will call me at home with ideas he thinks of while he is out on the trail. We have shown him a voice for those that love this trail.
“Senator Weaver is a decision maker, politician and it is important to get them involved,” said Hartwig. “When decision makers see people caring, and working to make trails better, I have found they will help you. You just have to ask and show you are willing to do your part.”
Through trail running, Hartwig has learned her life passion and has grown as a person. “I was a very shy, insecure person,” admitted Hartwig. “I did not really feel comfortable with people or have many friends. Trail running helped me gain confidence and find worth in myself which lead to making many great friends. I learned that the most calming thing I can do for myself is help others.”
Her best advice to someone considering getting into trail running or racing is, “to run and have fun!” She also adds, “Do not worry about your pace and respect the trails.”
Goals for Hartwig include running more in 2019 as well as a few plans that, “Scare the heck out of me and have a high risk of failure, but I am looking forward to trying.”
One such plan is to run with friends over the same 150-mile route Daniel Boone ran in 1778. “Boone had been captured by the Shawnee Warriors and the Indians were planning to attack Daniel’s hometown of Boonesborough, so he escaped and ran 150 miles to warn the town,” said Hartwig. “They were able to fend them off when the Indians attacked. So far, Denise Sauriol, Scott Kummer, Krystal Hardy, Lauren Wills, and I are doing this so far, but we would welcome others to join us.”
Hartwig is also registered for Badwater Salton Sea with teammates Irene Koch and Michele Schueler. “I am so excited to run with these amazing ladies,” said Hartwig. “This will be the most challenging thing I have ever done.”