Potawatomi: The Hidden Gem of a Trail Run Has Hills

I signed up for the 2015 Potawatomi Trail Runs 50 miler as a training run for my A-race – the Kettle 100 in the Kettle Moraine forest held in June near La Grange, Wisconsin. My strategy was to get a solid 50 miler accomplished prior to the race. What I didn’t realize was that Pota would challenge me like no other race has and become a favorite experience that I will recall with great fondness and pride for years to come.

When I arrived on Friday at the race course near Pekin in central Illinois, the temps were hovering in the 50s and the sun was shining on damp trails that had absorbed much of the rain that had poured over the area in the days leading up to the race. Weather is iffy in the Midwest in April so race staff and participants were excited about the clearing weather. I just arrived but the race had already started. Well not my race. There were three other races beside the 50 miler – the 30 and 100 mile races would start the next morning with the 50s, but the 150 and 200 milers started the day before.

I spent much of Friday watching runners enter and exit the start-finish as I checked race updates scrawled on a whiteboard sitting on a one of several picnic tables lined alongside the aid station area. The chart held racer names — Dalgety, Dexter, Trapp and so on — with times for each loop completed etched in the table at right. They were names I never heard before that day but they held my full attention, awe and respect at that moment. I was training that year for my first 100-mile race, a life-changing feat for an athlete at any level, but here were athletes going after a challenge I never heard of or suspected was even possible until this weekend.

Runners coming into the start-finish were greeted by spectators and crew who had taken up temporary residence in tents lined along the grassy section of course. They made themselves at home sharing food, drink and conversation. More people continued to arrive at the park throughout the day finding camping sights just off the trail as course-side spots filled. I found a spot about 100 yards from the aid station, which would work well for me during my race the next day. After setting up and exploring the immediate area’s landscape of rolling hills dotted with giant bur oak tress yet to fill with spring foliage, I found a spot to sit along the course to watch runners just as they entered the camper city. Sitting there reading a book while waiting for runners to cheer on was about as peaceful a time as I could imagine. I thought to myself, these athletes had started running more than a full day before me and would likely still be running after I had finished my 50, packed up and left for home. Of the 10 200 milers who started Pota in 2015, five finished the 20 loops with times ranging from 51:23:28 to 63:12:54 – nearly three days (including nights that got quite cool) running through the woods. That’s amazing to me.

I brought sandwiches and other munchies to eat prior to the race, but the race coordinators also had a spaghetti dinner catered in for racers. It was a buffet style and I took full advantage eating my share of the spaghetti, meatballs and garlic sticks.

Sleeping was a little rough that night as temps crept into the upper 30s. I balled up in my sleeping bag the best I could with multiple layers. It didn’t take long to get warm enough to dose off. I woke up the next morning about two hours before the race start. I jumped in my car and started it up to get some heat while I ate breakfast – two bananas, two granola bars and a Cliff Bar. I chased it all with plenty of water as I anticipated my biggest enemy on the course that day would be dehydration.

It was a beautiful morning, still dark as I approached the start-finish but there was a powerful energy as runners huddled together talking, laughing and shuffling about as they swapped stories with new friends and caught up with old. They joined together as much to feed off ones and other’s warmth as they did the positive energy. Trail runners are by-and-large a positive bunch, a quality that I do not inherently hold but feel has rubbed off on me as I grow in the sport

I love being around these people probably more than most other, but I have found that I am unlike them in several ways – nerves being one. I get nervous and stressed about plenty of things in life, but when it comes to races – unlike what I hear from most other people preparing to toe the line at a big race – I don’t get the jitters. Maybe because I know I have no chance at podium or any great expectations beyond finishing, but I enter every race I have ever done with little on my mind. Although that laissez-faire approach in the run-up may be what costs me later in my races. As is my MO, I do very little preparation for races in the lead-up, so it was no surprise that I was unfamiliar with the terrain of the Pota course.

Why would I check it out? I thought. I mean there couldn’t be anything too technical. This was the Midwest flatlands of central Illinois after all. Yep, you guessed it, just like with the presidential election my instincts were wrong. Come to find out, Pota is one of the Midwest’s toughest ultras. There were several short but insanely steep climbs on the 10-mile loop that the race follows. The Potawatomi website explains the difficulty this way: “Easier than Barkley, cooler than Badwater, lower altitude than Leadville, warmer than Yukon Artic Ultras.” Another gauge to help put things in perspective, at least for us “flatlanders” in the Midwest, comes from Tim, an ultra runner I met through the Midwest Trail Runners Facebook page. Tim has run quite a few trail ultras and says Pota falls into the difficult category here (keeping in mind that there is no such thing as an easy ultra): Indiana 100< Pato < Zumbro. (Zumbro the hardest.). Minnesota’s Zumbro boast 18,500 feet of elevation gain with the Pota 100 coming in at a close second with 16,000 feet of gain. So that makes the 50 miler I did having 8,000 feet of elevation gain, which is plenty.

The beautiful thing about my Pota race was the thing that I thought I would dislike about it – the loops. Before the start, I was dreading the thought of enduring the same landscape over and over every 10 miles. What it ended up being was an amazing trip through beautiful forest trails that distracted me from race pains. Creek crossings cooled my sore and tired feet, and the views never got old because there was always something new to see on every loop and there was something comforting about the giant rocks, trail bends and other landmarks that became familiar over time. It was also incredibly convenient to retreat to your tent at the start-finish to replenish nourishment and change clothes, if needed. As I said earlier, having my tent with jugs of Tailwind, power bars and plenty of PBJ sandwiches at the ready was an incredible advantage.

I always looked forward to these pit stops, but I never hesitated once to get back on the course and I even looked forward to those insane climbs. That’s not to say they weren’t excruciatingly tough, because they were to the point where I wanted to cry at times. One of the things that I enjoy about trail running, and I have heard this from other trail runners, is the transition from climbs to flatland to descents that allows you to vary your speed from a fast run along flats to a slow walk up hills. Every time I approached a climb, I would start to walk a good 50 to 100 yards before reaching the base of the climb. I knew the climb required plenty of extra muscle and cardio, so just like body builders allows time between sets to rest I allowed my body time to rest before a big climb.

One climb took us up the side of a hill about as high as a five-story building. Keep in mind that these are short, steep climbs so the effort level is intense for short bursts. This climb was unique in that it had this thick rope tied to a tree to help with the steepest part of the climb. The first two loops I ascended without the rope’s assistance. By the time I reached the third loop, I was giving the rope a serious look as I approached this hill that now seemed higher than I remembered. I made that third climb ropeless, but indulged in its aid for the fourth and fifth rounds. Once peaking this climb, you were rewarded with an amazing view of the forest floor. In early June, leaves and foliage have yet fill out so you could take in more of the bright green hue accentuated by the early summer sun. After running 300 yards of high ridge, the trail started a decent equal in steepness to the preceding climb. Prior to that, I thought that the climbs were the biggest challenge to the body and descents were that beautiful place where you made up for time lost while climbing. Again, I was wrong. Descending I would find from this race places incredible strains on your body. As runners go, I’m a pretty big guy (5’ 10” and 180 lbs) and that extra weight helped make for some rapid descents. What I did not realize until Poto was that all of that long-strided crashing down steep descents worked with my weight to crash on my knees and other joints. This action would play a role at my big race at Kettle later that year. But for now there were no pains. Other than the expected quad and foot pain and some gastrointestinal distress, I was in good shape throughout the race.

While I prepared well for the race with good training and nourishment through Tailwind and making a point to eat well and often at the aid stations, it was the support of the people who were out there spectating and volunteering their time that made this race great. This is a broken record thing about the trail running community, but trail runners are special people. The Ginger Runner says that no one outside of the sport understands what we do or why we do it. I agree completely. That’s why the only people you see at these races outside of the runners are other runners who come to support those running and the friends and family who come to watch their loved ones do this thing that they could only describe as insane.

Pota is put on by people with a passion for the sport. It has a kind of Barkley feel to it in that is isn’t widely known and a bit tough to enter once you do find out about it. Their website is hard to navigate (I understand they are getting a new website soon). And when you do get registered the race location itself is tough to find (at least for an out-of-towner like me). But these challenges are common with many great trail races and it’s okay because the people who do these races are not going to let something like challenging web navigation deter them. These are people who enjoy spending multiple hours that often stretch into days navigating, getting lost and eventually finding their way through tough terrain that challenges the body, mind and soul. So that makes it easy to understand why a difficult-to-navigate website is an unlikely deterrent for a trail runner ready to register for a race they are hellbent on entering.

Once you arrive at the race, you realize where Race Director Rich Skocaj and his crew put all of their efforts. The race experience, aid stations and course itself are very well thought out and marked with everything focused on the racers. This is because the guys running this race are runners themselves. Aid stations are strategically placed and they are managed by volunteers who know the course and what you will need for what’s coming up. Everything about the race sets you up for success.

As you will find out in my next blog post, my Kettle 100 experience had its challenges and while I call it a success I am still looking to reach the finish of my first 100 miler. I recently signed up for the Indiana 100 and am excited about my visit to northern Indiana in late April. A bonus is that this race is a Western States qualifier and I would at least like to have an opportunity to enter that lottery and say I did it. But we will see how it all shakes out in the coming year.

If you are looking for a great early spring race to kick off your 2017 season right, I highly suggest the Potawatomi Trail Runs. Until next time, keep it all on the trail.