Written by Aneta Zeppettella
How does one run 200 miles? One mile at a time? One loop at a time? One step at a time? One day at a time?
I had this big dream to conquer the 200 miles for a while. I thought about races out west, but they didn’t work with my current life situation, as they required a significant time and financial investment. Then there was a race about a five-hour drive from where I live. Potawatomi 200 in Central Illinois. The race started on Thursday at 4 pm and ended on Sunday at 4 pm. 72 hours seem like a rather tight cutoff for an event like this, but logistics of getting there seemed easy. I also planned on going without a crew or pacer, so running 20 ten-mile loops with one point with drop bags seemed easy to manage.
Sometime in December I registered. Sometime in December I was also going through one of the lowest spots in my life. I have history of trauma and depression, and there are times, when the Band-Aid I carefully place over my wounds gets pulled off revealing all the ugly underneath. I do a lot of work, and many times in my live though I was “over” some things, only to find out that I probably never will be completely over. Throw in the pandemic and perimenopause. A dangerous cocktail. This year I started having extremely painful periods with insane cramping that Midol couldn’t even touch. Also, a very heavy cloud of depression has been hanging over my head. I was feeling like I screwed everything up: my life, my marriage, my relationship with my parents, raising my daughter. Yes, I tried to be grateful, to see that I really did have a good life, but it felt forced and it felt like a toxic positivity, like spraying Febreze over dirty laundry. I needed time to grieve, to go over it, to run less. Because running too felt like a chore, it felt meaningless.
Yet, at the same time I clicked that register button and signed up for my first 200-mile race.
My training leading to it was spears of high quality and spears of “I couldn’t care less”. I didn’t do any tune-up races, no exceptionally long runs. The winter came and went and brought heavy snow and cold temperatures. By March I knew I was in trouble. By March also I started to feel better. Less tired, more joyful, and profoundly grateful. I did three weeks of a high-quality training. I ran at Shawnee State Forest in torrential downpour and wrecked my car on the way back getting into flash flood. I also did two loops (78 miles) on this remote trail with my dear friend Carissa. 26 hours of running in the woods completely tired from the get-go (we got up on Friday at 5 am, went through life regular way, and started running at 10 pm that evening, and ran until Sunday at noon).
Was it enough? I truly had no clue what I was getting into. I talked to my friends Dave and Greg who ran Potawatomi 200 several times and tried to get as many tips as possible. I knew course was known for its infamous mud and heavy rains. I knew it had several steep hills. I also knew from my history that I could be awake for 48 hours, and that I could climb 30,000 feet. Everything else was a new territory.
It was also exciting. This is why I love running those long ultras: to see what I am truly made of. If everything is stripped away who really am I? How do I react to adversity? It is like reading a book, but you are also a character in it. You live through it. You don’t know how the book will end. You can influence the ending, but you don’t have a complete control over it. It is hard to explain, but I love this journey.
Going into Potawatomi I had plans A through J. I knew I was nowhere near my peak shape, and I knew I had a chance of finishing this race if I executed it very well.
I had no control over the weather, the training work was done (or in my case barely done, but too late to fix it), but how I handled the race: that was my opportunity to shine.
Initially my husband and teen daughter were going to go to Illinois with me, but Carla’s schedule changed. She had two big swim events that weekend and one outing with her friends. After being practically isolated most of the pandemic with lots of remote learning and limited contact with kids her age, she was going to have an almost normal, social teen weekend. There was no way I would take that away from her.
I drove to Central Illinois on Wednesday night, slept in, and drove to the park on Thursday after noon, hoping to get a parking spot close to the start/finish area. Since I was going without crew or pacer, I figured running my own aid station from my car (versus the tent like others were doing) was the easiest way to go. No set up and no tear down. And did I mention the heated car seats? My friend Ruth was registered for a 30-mile race at the same event and was coming on Saturday afternoon. By Saturday I would be 48 hours into the race. Ruth would bring my friend Carissa, who would help me finish and then drive my car back home on Sunday after the race, so I could be home that night. I didn’t anticipate needing Carissa to pace me much. Maybe one 10-mile loop? But I also was never awake for three days straight, so I didn’t know how the final day of the race would unfold.
Weather was going to play a factor too. I was aware of it. Initially the race forecast looked lovely, but as the day was coming closer more and more rain icons appeared in the weather app. 30% became 40% became 60%. Sunny Saturday turned into the rainy one.
I packed my gear in several tubs, attached lists, and giant duct tape labels, and organized everything in the trunk of my Subaru Outback with the back seats folded. If I got really tired, I wanted everything to be accessible and easy to drab and put away.
I brought four pairs of shoes, eight pairs of socks (two pairs of waterproof socks), five pairs of gloves, two pairs of waterproof mittens, four waterproof jackets, water proof shoe covers (for creek crossings), three warm long sleeve half zip tops, three pairs of shorts, three sport bras, three pairs of capris, two pairs of tights, waterproof pants, and several tank tops, short sleeve shirts, and long sleeve shirts. If you are reading it thinking I am a product junkie, you are absolutely right. I also had five light sources (three handlamps with spare batteries and two waist lights with spare batteries). I had Trail Toes for chafing and diaper rash cream, tape and various Band Aids for blisters, TUMs, Midol, Excedrin, coconut water, tart cherry juice, cans of coffee and yerba mate, various sweet and salty food, and a few flavors of Tailwind.
Right from the beginning, I decided that keeping my electronics charged would be too much of a hassle. I decided to use my watch until the battery died and put my phone in airplane mode to preserve battery and check it every other loop when I went through main aid station.
My goals were to run the first 100 miles in about 29:30-30 hours and 150 miles in 48 hours. If weather was good, I was hoping to be done in 68 hours. If the weather turned bad the goal was sub 72. I wanted to have 6 hours for the final loop in case things start going really bad. I never wanted to run a loop faster than around 2:30. I put layers of Trail Toes on my feet, put on my regular socks and waterproof socks over. Until the rain moved in on Friday night I stopped before higher creek crossing to put waterproof boot covers to keep my feet dry. I changed my shoes and socks and mile 70 and then at 100. I felt great and just a little tired. I had no blisters or chafing. I was running easy, conversational pace and chatting with new friends. Everything was going according to plan.
Then the rain moved in. The trails were getting flooded. Second night came and I was getting really sleepy. I hallucinated pretty bad. At some point running across a meadow I talked to a person sitting inside a shoe box. I asked her where her pacer was. She told me she didn’t have a pacer, but her friend was coming on Saturday. Bizarre! Mine too! Then I realized I was pretty much sleep running and I was the person in the box. A few minutes later I saw racoons playing guitars but no trail marking. This was getting bad. I decided to stop for a short nap. I finished the loop, started my car, reclined my seat and set the alarm for 12 minutes. I was out the moment my head touched the seat. I woke up feeling rejuvenated.
I started my next loop, but before reaching first aid station things started going crazy. I saw the whole different world out there on the trail, Movie theaters, elevators going up, people dancing, animals standing on hind legs. But I had hard time seeing what was there: trail ribbons. And if I saw them, I had to touch them to make sure they were really there, to feel the plastic orange tape under my hands. I just didn’t trust my senses anymore. I took a seven-minute nap at Totem Pole Aid Station and that helped a lot. I was moving again, and the sunrise was near. I tried not to think about being on the trail for at least another 24 hours. I refused to look at the board to see where I was in relation to other runners. I just kept going. I closed up more, was unusually quiet, my entire energy consumed by the forward motion. I probably didn’t look too friendly. I was cold, my legs covered in mud that was growing exponentially.
At some point I ran into my friend Dave, 1000-mile Potawatomi buckle holder, who was running 100 miles that day. He asked if I wanted to run together. This was wonderful and brought the whole new energy. We talked and ran and tried to stay warm. I reached mile 150 and saw two ladies waving at me at the start/finish shelter. Clearly, they must be confusing me with someone. I don’t know many people here.
Those were my friends Carissa and Ruth who drove from Ohio and I didn’t recognize them. I forgot that they were coming on Saturday around 2 pm. I think that is when Ruth decided that instead of running her own 30-mile race with other runners she will start later and pace me through the night for 3 loops (30 miles). From that point on, I was never on the trail alone. Racoons playing guitars and deer sitting on he log drinking tea from mugs shaped like miniature human heads be dammed. I can do this.
10 minute power nap in Ruth’s van, and a cup of warm veggie soup did some magic as did warm clothes ( I decided not to change my shoes and socks and pants, as they were cakes with mud and I thought it was useless at this point, as they would get dirty and wet within a few minutes. My feet felt good, just a little tired and achy. I did however feel a lot of chafing over different parts of my body and strong menstrual cramps that Midol wasn’t solving).
It is what it is. I couldn’t change it. I felt I should be able to finish if I stuck to the plan and didn’t waste too much time. I knew I didn’t have time for sleeping. I knew I had to do something to ease my stomachache and nausea that was overwhelming me again. It was a strong bound of nausea, the one that makes you feel lightheaded and makes your head spin, makes you yawn, and sweat. Some tums, mashed potatoes with potato chips on top, some ginger, and coke, and I started to feel better. I knew that we were entering the survival stage now. Things were going to start falling apart. I will not be able to totally fix them, I will be able to patch them, turn the volume down, buy some time. My mouth was hurting like it head millions of paper cuts inside, my throat felt like it was closing (mucus buildup due to allergies), my legs were sliding from under me. I was just ridiculously uncoordinated. But nothing was screaming. There were no total disasters.
Coming into this race I had issues with my left leg and was scared it would swell and lock on me, but it amazingly was still cooperating. I expected my perimenopausal symptoms to go through the roof and for my body to betray me, but I was managing it too, breathing between cramps, pressing my hands against my stomach. Maybe I can pull it off after all? On my last loop I couldn’t run downhills anymore. Every time I turned my head or looked down the whole world was spinning. My legs sliding from under me, gravity pulling my head forward like it weighted 100 pounds. I was afraid I would fall and hit my head or break my legs as they were getting stuck under roots. So, I scooted down, put my hands under my bum, and kind of slid, reverse crawled down the hill. I was already ridiculously dirty. It didn’t make any difference.
Carissa was with me on the last loop and took a video of this awkward trail dance. Do what you can?
We got to the finish line in 70 hours and 37 minutes. I was absolutely caked with mud from head to toe. I was told that I was first (and only) female finisher that day and only second female to ever finish this race. I was deliriously happy, overwhelmingly tired, embarrassingly dirty. But above all I was grateful. I was grateful for my friends who drove down to help me and sacrificed their weekend to hang out with my mud-covered person. I was grateful for volunteers who spent countless hours helping us, some of them were there for 48 hours straight or more. They knew what I wanted, gave me my cup of coke and coffee, shouted my name. It was just wonderful and made me feel like a Rockstar.
When I got home, I opened my finisher jacket and for the first time realized that it had my name embroidered on it. It made me tear up. Sometime before I finished, when I was plugging through the mud, when I doubted my abilities and negotiated with my body another loop, few more miles, Race Director believed I would actually finish and had my name put on the finisher jacket.
It was 66F in Southwestern Ohio yesterday. You bet I wore that jacket. It will never be too warm to wear. This race was one of the hardest things I have ever done.