Welcome to 2018; my first race of the new year, and one thing really still hasn’t changed…
I’ll still find ways to harm myself in the middle of the woods surrounded by darkness, death, and poor choices. Why change what works?
Prior to adventures in the mountains and summer heat; I…being ‘all-knowing’ decided to “warm up” by traveling to the Potawatomi Trail Runs (aka: “The Pot”) in Pekin, Illinois. That’s next to North Pekin, South Pekin, East Peoria, and Peoria. Practically speaking; throw a compass out on your dash, drive to the middle of complete hopeless isolation, leave Chicago, find the other spot of hopeless isolation and you have found Pekin, Illinois.
Driving into the region is quite phenomenal. Understand that Potawatomi takes joy in their elevation claim through each loop (1600 feet). However, if you take any route into the area all you see if flat, corn, flat, corn, Casey’s Convenient Store, flat, and corn.
Do not let your guard down.
Do not feel better about your choice.
Do not go gently into that good night.
You. Will. Suffer.
It. Is. A. Lie.
“The Pot” is an older race within the midwest region. Having existed for well over 10 years. Translated into ultra-years that is quite a duration of pain and suffering. It is a strange race. There are several distance choices; the 200, 150, 100, 50, 30, and 10 mile options for all runners. The course is a
simp…unique 10 mile loop through almost all single track and a few water crossings. 200 and 150 runners start Thursday, 10 mile runners at night on Friday, 100 and 50 Saturday morning, and 30 Saturday night. The only rule? Be done by 4:00 PM Sunday. That’s it. That’s all you have to do.
Originally, I was slated to run the 50 mile race. However, with a random string of random injuries I made my first smart choice of my running career, and dropped to the 30 mile race. That meant that I would be starting in the dark, running through the night, and whimpering into the morning hours. The race, being in April, should have been moderate weather for the time of year. However, Mother Nature couldn’t just get over herself for one split second, and so it snowed at “The Pot”.
By the time my time came to start, the air was cold, the sky was clear, and we were moving between 20 and 15 degrees. Please note those water crossings that were still in this realm of hell.
The beginning of the race is a lie, much like the hope that you have in your soul, you start flat. Really flat. In fact, so flat that I’m proud to report that my first mile was under 10:00 minutes (any experienced distance runner knows what that means for later…). I was cooking under the stars. The beginning is an open, flat prairie priming you for the rest of the night. At mile two, next to a power line, I saw my first omen; a fried, dead woodpecker. That was all it took for me to realize that the night was just getting started.
After witnessing the crispy rendition of Woody, the trail began to show its real teeth. Like a bad roller coaster, I was soon plunged into the eternal darkness, this time without that attractive girl sitting next to me, that I waited all through middle school for that one moment, at that one drop, so that I could place my hand in hers…and cry like a little baby for the next thirty seconds, and remain dateless through the rest of your school years. No? Just me. Continuing on…
The course turned into a single track that weaved through the night, like an elegant, borderline murderous prose from Poe. I was stepping through and dropping down the best I could. One slip, and the flash backs of Bryce Canyon came flooding back,
If I fall right here. I’ll be impaled and then my neck will be snapped by the rocks 200 feet below. This is really scary at 10:30 at night…
I had been warned, via Facebook, that there was a rope on the course to assist you up a hill. Now, even at home we have a rope for a hill, and it is used when the course is muddy, but it isn’t…that bad. Knowing that, in the back of my mind, I continued my trot through the woods of darkness, and eventually my trail ended.
Literally. Just stopped. There was no place to go, I thought I got lost, and then while pondering my next move I heard it. That noise that can be distinguished over all other noises in the woods: profanity. I heard the “F#*@!” above me, and looked up. Just like the scene from Men In Black where the guy sees the other guy plastered to the ceiling by bug juice, I looked up and found where the trail had gone.
In the middle of the night the trail goes up, and it isn’t an incline…it’s a real wall. That rope? It wasn’t a guiding rope. It was that rope that you failed to climb during gym class through elementary and middle school. That’s all there was, and you had to figure out how to get up the evil thing. People were positioned, like drunk mountain goats, along the wall, cursing, crying, and Facetiming their loved ones, knowing it would be their last moment on this planet. I eyeballed the rope, eyeballed my waistline (while inserting a disappointed “sigh”), and realized it wasn’t going to work for me. Instead, I used the trail to its advantage. In northern Illinois there are no rocks on the trails. It is merely dirt and tree roots; that’s all. The roots are really annoying, unless you have the ability to convert them into a ladder.
Yes, at mile 4, I used the roots as ladder to drag my sorry self up that trail in the middle of the night. After catching my breath, thanking God above, I began on the next leg of the journey.
Unfortunately, what goes up, must go down and in “The Pot” that means it goes down at the same rate of angle as it does up. I thought my toes were going to bust through my shoes, my knees were going to crack, and really my ankles felt like T-1000* felt when he was trying to walk after being frozen by the Terminator with liquid nitrogen. That, was the downhill.
The process repeated itself throughout the course. The water crossings were…well…cold, and there were even reports of people getting slush in their shoes while crossing. It was that cold**.
Now, one of the highlights of this unique race is if you are a short distance runner, you get to enjoy running next to the amazing 150 and 200 mile runners. Granted, you’ll be tempted to pat them on the back. However, you won’t for two reasons:
It was not worth the risk.
By mile 7, I had started to realize that this course was quiteawful, my nightmares were flooding my soul, and the screams in the woods were intoxicating to the fear within me. Make no mistake; it was a hard, hard route. You could get lost, you could drown (maybe), you could freeze to death…in fact…there were so many random pieces to it, it felt like I may have taken a wrong turn and wound up at a random, secluded, race in the mountains of Tennessee.
It was at the moment that I thought that ridiculous notion, that I came across an intersection, and sure enough, to my right, was it. Through the paltry light of my headlamp, almost as an attempt to add insult to my evening, was a locked…yellow…gate. Similar to cooked woodpecker, its omen was one of reminding me what I was doing, why I was doing it, and what I needed to do to get out.
Past another creek crossing, through the labyrinth of dirt, I made my way to the disk golf course. Less than half a mile from the finish line I am proud to say that I finally got lost in a race, for approximately one hundred feet. Past that, it was just a short, hobbled stretch into the start finish line.
One lap: Completed.***
Upon passing the start/finish line. I walked over to my wife, laughed a bit, and proceeded to drop from the race.
Yes, you read that correctly, I dropped after 10 miles, just one loop. Why? Because my foot hurt and this was not my goal race. I have had physical therapy, more needles than I can count, A.R.T, and x-rays over the past four months. It has been frustrating, but thankfully it has been progressive. If I had gone out for two more laps (20 miles) there was a high likelihood that I could have messed up my foot with a real injury, and sidelined myself from a 50K in June. It was not worth the risk. Mike, the race director, was humored enough that he took a plaque and with a Sharpee wrote, “10 Mile” and handed it to me. I laughed at the aid station walking out, and I cried in the car heading to our hotel. Dropping is hard, and the regret afterwards is even worse.
Granted, even with dropping, that just justifies my excuse to cut classes and go run this race again (highly, highly recommended).
*Truly, he was the real victim
**Shoutout to the ladies who pulled trash bags over their shoes prior to hopping into the creek, you are the real MVP
***For the math pros out there; that would mean you would run that same course 20 times for the 200 mile race